New Zealand writer Peter Wells (died 18 Feb 2019) signed off with a book about his own death titled “Hello Darkness”. It follows the last year and 4 months of his life, after being diagnosed with prostate cancer in November 2017. The book broke new ground in that much of it was written on his own Facebook page and the writing was accompanied by his own photographs.
But that is typical Wells. He has always been a breaker of new ground, of being a leader and not a follower. He was one of New Zealand’s first openly gay writers and was writing about gay topics as far back as the 1980’s. In 1998 he was co-founder of the “Auckland Writers Festival” and also co-founded in 2016 “Samesame But Different” – New Zealand’s first LGBTQI Writers Festival. His goal was for the festival to be “an exciting event that makes people think about sexuality, difference and community, stretches their understanding, gives them a few laughs and creates a slightly magic space for two days in February.” This years festival finished on February 10th. It was Well’s 4th and last.
He was a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, but from the 1980’s onward also made films and documentaries predominantly about historical and/or gay themes.
His own blog site says this on his profile page…. “Peter Wells writes books and makes films. His films include idiosyncratic documentaries about conserving at-risk architecture like a flamboyant 1929 picture palace, or a shoe-obsessed gay man who tells his life story through women’s shoes (made with friend and fellow film-maker Garth Maxwell). He co-wrote and co-directed ‘Desperate Remedies’, a feature film described as ‘Jane Austen on acid’. His books include award winning short stories and novels. ‘Iridescence’, for example, about an Englishman with a secret hiding in Victorian Napier. His memoir Long Loop Home looked back at his New Zealand childhood with the wry glance of loss and affection.”
All of which brings me around to my reason for writing about him. Whilst he was without doubt a talented writer and film maker – my reason for writing about Wells is his connection to Hawke’s Bay – where I live. He lived for some time in a house on Napier Hill where he wrote what became known as his “Napier Trilogy” – comprising of his highly rated book “The Hungry Heart” – about William Colenso, the very knowledgeable clergyman/missionary who was also a printer, botanist, explorer and politician – but who was also a recluse, “Journey to a Hanging” which was a racially charged book about the horrific death of the Reverend Carl Sylvius Völkner in 1865…killed by Kereopa Te Rau, a Maori leader, who was found guilty of killing, beheading, eating the eyes and drinking the blood of Völkner and was subsequently hanged for the crime, and finally “Dear Oliver” – subtitled “Uncovering a Pakeha History” – which was a book written about his own family history, followed back in time in snippets of historical memories. It was hailed as a masterclass in writing history.
He was also partly responsible for the birth of the appreciation of Art Deco architecture in Napier and the start of what has become a phenomenally popular annual event “Napier Art Deco Festival” with his 1985 documentary film “Newest City on the Globe” which he wrote and directed and in doing so brought the architectural splendour of Art Deco Napier to the world. Shortly after this film was released, film crews from the USA visited Napier to record in this Art Deco jewel of the south pacific. After that Napier was no longer a secret tourist backwater.
The first Napier Art Deco Weekend Festival was in 1989 and with each passing year the event grows bigger and bigger and is celebrated by locals and tourists/art deco aficionado’s from all over the world.
For all this and more – Peter Wells – we salute you.
If you want to find out more about the man and his work, Links to Peter Wells blog, his Wikipedia page, the Auckland Writers Festival, the Samesame but Different site and the Napier Art Deco Trust web page are below.
I have been fortunate to live in “Free” countries. I was born in the UK and 30 years later moved to New Zealand in 1989 – a significant year in world events…but I’ll come back to that. Both countries have free and democratic elections and yet I have taken to the streets with thousands of others – in both the UK and NZ – to protest political policy – both domestic and foreign.
Although as a protester I came into conflict with the police – I was not arrested and was certainly not “disappeared” – a fate that befell many dissenters of political policy in other, less lenient, countries.
I have just finished reading Czech writer Ivan Klima’s biography titled My Crazy Century. On the cover of the book the C and the Z in the word Crazy are in red. A reference to the many years of communist rule in Czechoslovakia. I highly recommend that anyone and everyone reads this book.
The book gives us a clear insight into not only the conditions imposed on the Czech people under the Nazi’s……concentration camps and all….during the German occupation in world war 2, but also those enforced by their communist liberators – who in turn became their dictatorial masters during the post war era – right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist Block in 1989.
The people in power, both Nazi and Communist, feared the influence (on public opinion) of intellectuals, artists, writers, anyone who held political opinions other than theirs, so did all they could to silence them. This was done – in the extreme – by killing them, imprisoning them, exiling them or putting them under constant fear of their lives by harassing them day in, day out. Writers like Klima and his contemporaries who dared to have ideals other than those of the ruling party were banned from publication. Their previously published works were confiscated and burned and their scripts for plays etc were not allowed to be performed. They would be subject to sudden searches by the secret police who would ransack their homes and take away any written materials….and then they would be taken away to be “interviewed”….interrogated.
Under the control of Nazi Germany they suffered the horrors of not only living in an occupied country but also of being hauled off to concentration camps for extermination. Their jubilation of being “freed” by Russian troops at the end of the second world war was short lived as they came under the rule of the Czech Communist Party – who were little more than puppets, controlled by Stalinist Moscow. Anyone who didn’t fully accept the new regime and tow the line were punished. In the case of Klima it meant losing his job, being put on a list of banned writers, being constantly followed and harassed by the secret police and more. His father was also imprisoned for several years under the communists. Others were tortured, murdered or simply disappeared. Their fate unknown.
This treatment and further threats and mind games did not stop Klima and his circle of friends, meeting to discuss the political situation, writing essays, articles, novels and plays expressing ideologies in direct conflict with those of the ruling party – and smuggling these works out to be published in the UK, Germany, Holland and Switzerland.
Being a writer – particularly one who does not tow the party line – as ridiculous as it seems in this day and age, was a very dangerous occupation. The fact that these writers persisted for so long in such restrictive and dangerous circumstances to continue to produce their work is admirable to say the least….and ultimately contributed to the overthrow of the Communist regime.
Only 3 months before he took over as president of the country, Vaclav Haval was still in prison, being persecuted for his political beliefs. It’s amazing how, after so many years of ruling with an iron fist, a dictatorial regime could be overthrown, so quickly and without bloodshed.
The whole “revolution” happened in a period of 6 weeks. It earned the name the Velvet Revolution due to the relative ease that the transition took place. It had been unthinkable that a former banned and imprisoned poet would become leader of the country – and yet….it happened. You should never under estimate the spirit of the people, the right action, at the right time, in the right place, by the right person/people, or the power of the written word.
Klima’s book spans six decades that include war, totalitarianism, censorship and the never ending fight for democracy. He looks at the way that “this crazy century” has led mankind astray and impacted not only Klima’s generation, but also today’s generations still struggling against totalitarian societies around the world.
Klima recounts first hand what it was like to be of Jewish heritage, confronting along with his family, the inhumanities of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, the treatment dealt out by the Nazi thugs….who were replaced by four decades of Communist thugs….and finally after years of harassment, persecution and censorship, the sweetness of the Velvet Revolution – when the time was right for such an ideal to thrive.
Personally for me, the events of this book are recent history – having been born in 1959, I recall many of the main points in the book, but I did not at the time realise the full horrors of what was going on “behind the iron curtain”. The official channels and the media only provided a sanitised version of the news….and to this day continue to do so. As the number of independent news organisations disappear and are swallowed up by larger conglomerates – the easier it is to control the news. When the TV news comes on in the evening and the presenter says “Here is the news”…..what they really should be saying is “Here is the news that we want you to know about…and this is OUR version of it”. We are being digitally lobotomized.
Although the so called “Free World” was not directly responsible for the suffering of the Czech people, we were guilty of complacency….of inaction….of doing nothing but raising “an official protest” in the United Nations at the time of such atrocities. As Klima and his fellow banned writers proved, when governments fail to act it’s up to writers – ALL of us – to get the word out there, no matter what the personal cost.
A visit to the library was called for after an on-line chat with an author friend of mine who lives in the Czech Republic. We’d been discussing the “Lost Generation” of writers – they include Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Stein etc. and he had asked me if I had read anything by Max Brod.
Brod (1884 – 1968) was a prolific writer in his own right, but is mostly remembered as the friend of Franz Kafka, who, when requested by Kafka to destroy all his writings at his death….refused to follow the writer’s instructions and had the works published instead. So it’s thanks to Brod that so much of Kafka’s writings saw the light of day.
Brod was a German speaking Czech Jew – who later moved to Israel to escape the Nazi take over of the then Czechoslovakia. He died in Tel Aviv in 1968. He was an author, journalist, translator and a composer of music. A very talented man. He first met Kafka, at Charles University in Prague where they both studied, in 1902. The rest as they say is history.
Naturally my friend’s insistence that I read Brod had me intrigued so I set off for my local city library feeling for sure that they would have at least one of Brod’s books. How wrong could I be? Not a single book written by Brod on their shelves. Deciding to check out on-line book sellers when I returned home, I set about searching the library’s catalogue of books for anything at all mentioning Brod.
The only book I found at the library with any mention of Brod, was a novel by Australian based writer Marija Pericic called The Lost Pages – which is a fictional story about the relationship between Kafka and Brod. I picked it up anyway and will have a read of it later. I also picked up 2 other books. One about New Zealand writers who – although not as famous as the main members of “the lost generation” of writers – were New Zealand expat writers living overseas during the same period of time – called “The Expatriate Myth”, by Helen Bones.
The other book – the one I decided to read first – is by another Czech Jewish writer who went through the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the short relief of the end of the second world war and the subsequent take over by the communists under Stalin – by the name of Ivan Klima. It’s his autobiography titled “My Crazy Century” – with the C and Z of the word Crazy highlighted in Red – giving you a red Cz – I assume symbolic of the many years that the Czech’s were under communist rule. I’m about a quarter of the way into this 534 page memoir – enjoying it, but horrified at how people were treat – first by the Nazi’s and then by the Communists. I will probably do a review of the book once I finish it.
Back at home I googled Bron’s books and was surprised at how few were available in English. It seems that the ones concerning the diaries of Kafka are available in English, but little else. The two main books of Bron’s that my writer friend recommended were only available in German. One called “Prager Kreis” (Prague Crisis or Prague Circle) printed in 1967 and the other “Streitbares Leben: Autobiographie, 1960” (literal translation being – Quarrelsome Life: Autobiography, 1960 – although there may be another meaning). I may try to get them anyway and struggle through with my basic schoolboy knowledge of the German language.
Whilst at the library, much to my wife’s dismay, I was perusing the discarded books on the “for sale” table. Four books caught my eye, so for the princely sum of $2, my own library has grown by 4…..even though – as my wife was quick to point out…..my shelves are already overflowing. Those books were – “Now and Forever” by Ray Bradbury which is a collection of 2 novellas – “Somewhere a band is playing” and “Leviathan ’99”. Bradbury is of course best known for the novel Fahrenheit 451. “Extreme Rambling” by Mark Thomas – a travelogue about hiking through troubled areas of the world. “New Scottish Writing” – which is a collection of short stories by writers from Scotland – printed in 1996, so not in actual fact all that “New”. The final book was “Afterlight” by Alex Scarrow which is a post apocalyptic/dystopian story – set in Britain in 2010…. after the oil ran out. I must say I do like a good dystopian novel….hopefully this one won’t disappoint.
So there we have it. The library failed to deliver on what I went for in the first place, but the books I chose – both to borrow and the ones I bought -should expand my knowledge and entertain me. I do love the library!
Please do make use of your own local libraries. In these days of belt tightening and reduced budgets, city councils will cut funding if they think the libraries are not being used by sufficient people. So please get out there and borrow some books. And I’d like to say a little thank you to all librarians and library volunteers who keep the libraries staffed and open. Well done, you are appreciated, and thank you very much.
I have a love/hate relationship with Hemingway. I have tried a number of times to read his novels. Every book of his has frustrated me and I’ve put them down unfinished. There’s just something about his style of writing that grates against me….like fingernails down a chalk-board.
It was therefore with some trepidation that I picked up “A Moveable Feast” in our local library, vowing to give Hemingway one last chance to redeem himself. I’m already half way through and to my surprise and delight I am actually enjoying it…..so what’s changed? Frankly I have no idea. The writing style is the same so perhaps it’s the subject matter….my beloved Paris.
Ah Paris! City of Lights, City of Love and Romance, City of Style and Fashion, City of Art and Literature. Home of many of the writing greats of the past and present…for some permanently for others a temporary home. And no doubt she…Paris…will continue to inspire writers and artists for years to come.
It should be noted that this particular book is not a novel….but more a collection of essays about Hemingway’s time spent in Paris. According to the all knowing oracle Wikipedia – “A Moveable Feast is a memoir by American author Ernest Hemingway about his years as a struggling young migrant journalist and writer in Paris in the 1920’s. The book, first published in 1964, describes the author’s apprenticeship as a young writer while he was married to his first wife, Hadley Richardson.” Possibly it is just my time to find enlightenment in Hemingway’s words. Unlike my wife who had to read Hemingway’s “The old man and the sea” at school and proclaimed it “possibly the most boring book in the world” – I only ever thought to pick up one of his books after seeing Woody Allen’s 2011 movie “Midnight in Paris” – which I have touched on in an earlier blog post.
In the movie Hemingway is seen rubbing shoulders with other literary and artistic greats such as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot (all members of the Lost Generation of writers), Pablo Picasso, Degas, Man Ray, Cole Porter and many others. I initially thought that it was simply Allen taking poetic licence in placing all these legendary people in the one place at the same time, but reading Hemingway’s book – it confirms that he knew and mixed with many of these people and more. He was also friends with Ezra Pound and James Joyce and politely suffered the company of Ford Madox Ford – who was, it seems, invariably – in later years – the worse for drink. Ford was a fellow writer and novelist, a champion of literature – established, new and experimental, and a publisher. He even published some of Hemingway’s work.
It must have been marvelous to have been in Paris back then. In the movie, Midnight in Paris, Gil Pender – played by Owen Wilson refers to 1920’s Paris as being the Golden Age – something refuted by another character Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard – who insisted that the Golden Age was during the Belle Epoque period, which of course ended in 1914 with the start of the first world war. It seems that everyone has their own individual ideal nostalgic period. In the movie, Gil Pender is transported magically back from present day Paris to 1920’s Paris. Here is a short YouTube trailer of the movie showing the scene where Pender meets Hemingway. And Hemingway speaks the way that he writes. No one else talks this way….no one!
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the cafes that they frequented. To listen to the literary discussions and friendly, often drunken banter
Hemingway’s early years in Paris were as a struggling writer and he and his wife would live in the cheapest part of town in an apartment which shared a bathroom on the landing with other apartments on that floor, would sometimes miss meals and rarely bought new clothes in order to afford the little luxuries of life. Money it seems would always find Hemingway just at the time that it was most needed. He professes to have had a fairly carefree…almost worry free existence, where finances were concerned. Something always turned up to save the day, whether it be an against the odds win on the horses, an overdue royalty payment from a magazine or publisher, or even simply being able to borrow books from Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company – rather than having to buy them.
I guess it’s a reminder that every writer has to start somewhere….and in a way it should give all of us “struggling writers” hope.
I’d love to hear from you….please tell me if you love or hate Hemingway….and if you love his writings, which book you consider to be his finest piece of literature.
Just as “Man” can be destructive to nature, so can nature show its destructive powers. Such an incident was the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake.
The 7.8 quake struck at 10.47am on 3rd February 1931. The epicentre was 15 kilometres (just over 9 miles) to the north of the city of Napier and occurred at a depth of 20 kilometres (about 12 miles). Many buildings in the central business district of both Napier and its sister city Hastings collapsed immediately. The brick built facades of others fell into the streets killing and injuring passers by. Railway lines and tram lines buckled and bent like plastic. A total of 256 lives were lost and thousands were injured – most loss of lives occurred in Napier, with about a 3rd in Hastings. Nerves of locals were shredded by over 500 aftershocks within two weeks of the initial quake. The last recorded aftershock attributed to the February 1931 quake occurred in April 1934 (over 3 years later!). At 5.6 on the Richter Scale it was still a nasty and powerful reminder of the earths destructive powers. It remains New Zealand’s worst natural disaster.
Timber buildings, of which there were many, survived the initial quake but fell victim to fires which broke out soon after, leaving both cities looking like war zones. In Hastings, fire crews managed to control the fires, but in Napier they were not so fortunate. Because water pipes had been ruptured by the quake there was no water pressure and so no way to fight the fires, which raged unchecked.
The destructive force of the quake was also a creative force – uplifting some forty square kilometres of sea bed to become dry land – draining the Ahuriri Lagoon. This is now where the Hawke’s Bay regional airport stands.
The New Zealand Listener Magazine in 1941 (ten years after the devastating earthquake) was quoted as saying that “Napier had risen from the ashes like a phoenix”. It quoted the 1931 principal of Napier Girls’ High School as saying “Napier today is a far lovelier city than it was before”.
This was primarily thanks to the efforts of government appointed commissioners John Barton and Lachlan Bain Campbell who were sent to Napier to assist the Napier City Council in the rebuild. A review of building standards was also commissioned which found that many of New Zealand’s buildings were totally inadequate. As a result, most building of the 30’s and 40’s were heavily reinforced. Of course those standards have been surpassed several times since then.
During this time Art Deco architecture was all the rage and because the old city had been completely flattened, Napier (and parts of Hastings) were built primarily in this style – along with Spanish Mission architecture.
The preservation of these Art Deco architectural wonders all in the one locale has earned Napier the title of Art Deco Jewel of the Southern Hemisphere, and attracts tourists and Art Deco enthusiasts from around the world. This is particularly noticeable during the annual Art Deco Weekend Celebrations – which take place on the 3rd weekend of February to mark the beginning of the rebuild and rebirth of this Art Deco jewel – when the streets are jam packed with revelers wearing their best 1920’s and 1930’s costumes, hundreds of vintage cars and party-goers dancing in front of the Sound Shell on Marine Parade to the sounds of big band jazz music.
There are hundreds of events taking place over the days leading up to the weekend and over the weekend – some are official – organised through the Art Deco Society and some are unofficial. These include fly pasts and aerobatic displays, steam train rides, a parade of vintage cars, marching bands, theatre, music, costume competitions, old movies at the cinemas, soap-box derby for the kids, dances, guided art deco tours, lots of feasting and partying and so much more. BUT if you’re planning on a visit….book early as accommodation can be scarce.
I’m on a roll……3 posts in 24 hours! Back with a bang.
Last weekend I went to a rock concert. Three bands were playing – Dragon (a New Zealand band from the 1970’s- most of the original band members are dead either through drugs or cancer, leaving Todd Hunter as the only original, but lead singer since 2006 Mark Williams can still belt out all the old hits), Jefferson Starship (who used to be known as Jefferson Airplane) and Toto (who hasn’t heard their biggest hit “Africa”?).
It was certainly a blast from the past for me – particularly seeing Toto and Jefferson Starship, two of my favourite bands from the 70’s/80’s. Yes they have aged….the voices aren’t quite as strong or evenly pitched as they used to be….but they were still damn good. New Zealand seems to be the place that old rockers come to die…..or at least to play their last hurrah. But lead singer/guitarist of Jefferson Starship – David Freiberg just keeps on a-rockin’. He’s now in his 80’s and frankly moves a lot better than I do. He has no plans to retire and as long as he can keep going and doing what he loves….why not?
Photo below is by Sandie Ward Photography
Freiberg started off singing in the coffee shops of San Francisco – that must seem like an eternity ago. San Francisco is still his home base.
It’s great to still be able to see the hero’s of my teen years up there on stage, but sad to realise that many of them are now in their 70’s and in Freiberg’s case 80’s so won’t be around for too much longer. I’m wondering who will replace the superstar bands of my youth? The bands of today don’t seem to have the legs to last the years. How many of today’s superstars will still be rocking at 80?
Meantime I’ll sit in my office, recline the chair, put an old vinyl 33 and a third on the turntable….Jefferson Starship’s “Freedom at Point Zero” maybe or Toto IV – close my eyes and let those years slide away. Long live Rock ‘n’ Roll and keep on keepin’ on!
If you haven’t seen the movie Green Book, I’d like to recommend that you do.
It’s been both lauded by the film critics and also panned for historical inaccuracies. However, I believe that it IS worth watching. It’s based on real life events…real people. I’ll put a link to the trailer at the end of this post.
It highlights the racial tension of the 1960’s in the southern states of the USA and follows the life of Donald Walbridge Shirley – born in Florida in 1927 to Jamaican immigrant parents. But Don is no ordinary black man. He is something that people particularly in the deep south don’t understand…..he is a musical genius AND more importantly a highly educated, intelligent and sophisticated black man. He held doctorates in music, psychology and liturgical arts and could speak 8 languages fluently as well as being an extraordinarily gifted pianist who started playing the piano at the age of 2 and was invited to study music theory at the Leningrad Conservatory of music at the age of 9. He was also a talented painter.
The movie begins with Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga – a New York nightclub bouncer applying for a job as a driver for Doctor Shirley. He is shocked to find out that Doctor Shirley is a negro and that he wants Tony to be not only his driver but also his protector for a tour of venues in the deep south of the USA, where the Don Shirley jazz trio will give a series of musical performances…….to rich white folks. There’s a scene early in the movie in Tony and his wife’s apartment where a couple of black work men are given a drink of water by Tony’s wife and Tony puts the glasses that the guys have used into the trash rather than washing them and using them again. He accepts the job because he needs the money and reluctantly sets off with Shirley armed with the “Green Book” which gives the movie it’s title.
The Green Book in question is a guide for blacks who travel in the south and lists motels and restaurants where they will be welcomed. There are not many…..and those that do accept blacks are shabby and run down.
The movie highlights the racial problem and also the differences between the northern united states and the south. The people of the south are willing to shake hands with this musical genius and are eager to be entertained by him, but don’t want him eating with them in the same restaurant – even though he is better dressed than most of them, better educated and better mannered. Nor do they want him using the same toilet as them.
It’s funny how blacks used to be employed by whites to prepare their meals and even look after their kids…..but they weren’t allowed to use the same bathroom. I forget who said it, but someone once said that you knew when the great depression really hit the white folks…..it was when they used to have to look after their own children.
The police in the south, just like those in the north, are meant to “serve and protect” and by the terms of the US Constitution – to treat everyone equally. “No State shall… abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” BUT it seems that in the deep south, “any person” doesn’t apply to blacks and we see Dr Shirley obstructed and abused by both the good old white folks and the police.
Racism is bred from ignorance and fear of the unfamiliar or unknown. In the movie we see Tony’s attitude toward Don Shirley change as he comes to know him better. It’s a life lesson.
I’m not going to spoil it for you by giving away the whole plot, but it is worth watching just to see how the relationship between the two men – from totally different backgrounds – changes as the movie progresses.
Don Shirley is a misfit. He’s black…..but doesn’t fit in with black society because of his education and sophistication. BUT neither is he accepted into white society due to the colour of his skin. This feeling of isolation drives him to drink and he becomes an alcoholic. It is also insinuated that Dr Shirley is a homosexual which only adds to the tension and prejudice against him.
Here’s the official trailer of the movie to tempt you.
It’s a movie that both entertains and informs. Sad and frustrating in parts and funny and uplifting in others. It’s a relationship movie….a road trip movie…a lesson in life….it has action, great music, great actors and a good script (written partly by the real Tony Lip’s son……who incidentally also plays one of Tony’s family members in the movie). I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Forgive me father…it’s been 2 weeks since my last Blog post. The Chaos of Christmas and New Year are finally behind me and I can get back to some serious….and some not so serious blogging.
I’ve been reading a book called “Armageddon in Retrospect” by Kurt Vonnegut and it’s got me thinking about things. What sort of things? Well civilisation for one thing. Looking up the meaning of civilisation (I’m using the English spelling rather than the American) – I’m told it means the following:-
the stage of human social and cultural development and organization that is considered most advanced. Or the process by which a society or place reaches an advanced stage of social and cultural development and organization. OR the society, culture, and way of life of a particular area.
And of course is derived from the word Civil – meaning courteous and polite.
I’d like you to really think about those definitions and consider if it applies to how we treat our fellow human beings and how we are as a society today.
We in the western nations consider ourselves to be civilised and have in the past, and some would even today, claim that we are more civilised than the communists of Russia or China and certainly more civilised than those who ran Nazi Germany before and during WW2. By the way these days the word Nazi is taken to refer to those who express extreme racist or authoritarian views or behaviour. But are we actually any better? Have we learned anything during those 74 years since the end of WW2 to today? Are we a more civilised society…..can we even claim to be civilised at all in view of the various definitions above? Judging by the number of wars and armed conflicts that the western nations have been involved in in the last 74 years, I don’t think that we can.
Let’s take the USA for example – I don’t like to pick on one country when many are guilty, but the USA is a prime example of what is wrong with the world today. The USA was built around immigration. It’s not known as the “Alien nation” for nothing. The early settlers had a chance to live peacefully with the first nation peoples, but as more outsiders arrived land was taken by force and the original American people were pushed on to reservations and even today are still struggling to be heard by the all conquering uncle Sam. Now we have President Trump in charge (who going by the earlier definition of Nazi …… you finish the sentence, you know where I’m going with this…..) – who’s pledged to make America great by stopping immigrants (particularly Mexicans) from entering the country and kicking out all illegals. He knows that this doesn’t make any sense because it’s the illegals, doing all the low paid jobs, that white Americans don’t want or can’t be bothered to do, that keep the country running. Currently he’s not paying “unnecessary” government employees – this includes the likes of air traffic controllers – who among many others are hardly unnecessary (think about those pissed off air traffic controllers next time you fly somewhere in Air Force One Mr President) – and his actions are putting many families to the wall. There’s a standoff between the 2 major parties who’s leaders are trying to prove who can piss the farthest up the wall – the one that Trump wants to build presumably. BUT meantime, while others suffer and are expected to work unpaid, those making the decisions in Congress and the White House are still being paid. The powers that be are simply looking after number one and sod the rest of you. This is hardly civilised behaviour.
But I’m not here to bash Trump and his rich political buddies – there are plenty in line before me to do that. The USA still has the death penalty (is that civilised?) – does it work? No it doesn’t – how many of those executed by lethal drug injections last thoughts were “Well I guess that will teach me a lesson?” Probably none. Has the threat of the death penalty stopped people committing crimes that will mean that they will get the death penalty? Does a mugger worry about death row when he shoves a gun in your ribs, is prepared to pull the trigger, and demands your wallet? Nope. Is it civilised for one human to kill another by hiding behind “the law” to administer a lethal injection? Is it civilised to spend a trillion dollars on arms and armaments and go blowing up and destroying thousands of people in foreign lands each year just because they are the “wrong colour” or follow the “wrong god”? A civilised society would insist on that money being spent on things like health, education and welfare for its own people, who are in desperate need – instead of on war. But America, like the majority of western nations, is a capitalist country and will always put big business and profit for shareholders over the needs and well being of its own citizens. These are not signs of a civilised country. The USA still tortures prisoners of war and “suspected” terrorists – something banned by the Geneva Convention but being the strongest military might in the world, rules don’t apply to them. No proof of terrorism is needed, just suspicion. It’s a very slippery slope folks. Kind of reminiscent of the days of witch hunts and witch trials – suspicion of being a witch brought you the death penalty. Have we made any progress since the Salem witch trials? Don’t we know any better……really?
They – the USA – are backed up by the members of Nato and the United Nations. Surely all who support the acts of criminals are themselves as guilty as those committing the acts. Warfare is not something that civilised peoples subscribe to.
We as citizens of these countries, we who vote in the idiots who make the big decisions, could be deemed equally guilty of being uncivilised. But what can we do to stop the insanity? Sign a petition? Take to the streets and protest like “we the people” have done in the past – marching against war, marching for peace, marching for equality of race, gender or sexual orientation? I’ve done it all. Sometimes we make small gains, but mostly it’s like throwing custard pies at an advancing enemy armed with tanks…..(to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut when referencing the futility of protest marches against the Vietnam War). Peaceful protest seldom works, violent protest as with the Yellow Vests recently in Paris also doesn’t work. Hey we’re pissed off with the government – let’s burn some poor schmuck’s car or trash their shop – oh yeah that’ll work! The entire system as it stands doesn’t work.
As capitalists, as fully signed up members of the consumer economy, we endorse unlimited growth and to hell with the environment, to hell with the planet. We allow the corporate’s to lay waste to the planet, to destroy habitats of other species simply to provide more stuff for us greedy humans and to make money for company shareholders. Our support of this system is definitely not civilised.
But we also claim to be the most intelligent species here on earth – how can that possibly be true? We are the only species on the planet capable of wiping out of existence not only ourselves, but every other living thing on planet earth, thanks to our “superior intelligence” – and we’re the only species stupid enough to allow the people in charge to put us all in this position in the first place. The system is broken, it doesn’t work and we need a new plan.
Getting back to Vonnegut’s book – Armageddon in Retrospect.
It’s a book made up of selected essays/short stories all centred around war. Some of the stories are based on his own personal experience as an American soldier – prisoner of war in Germany. One of the stories concerns the bombing of Dresden toward the end of WW2. Although many other major German cities had been bombed by the US and British throughout the war, Dresden was not considered to be a target because it had no military, industrial or strategic purpose – did not manufacture steel or armaments. It was a city of universities, churches, hospitals, theatres, museums, libraries, the arts and beautiful architecture. It had become a haven for the weak and displaced. BUT someone high up in the US military decided that the rail-yards at Dresden needed to be bombed. It should be pointed out at this time that every able bodied male aged between his mid teens and late 40’s had already been conscripted into the German army and were fighting on the various “fronts”. The city of Dresden was populated by the very old, the very young, the infirm and women. In bombing the rail yards, what actually happened was that the entire city was flattened. Up to 200,000 ordinary people were murdered by the bombers during that time. And if the massive loss of life is not enough, so much history, art and heritage was also lost for ever. The rail yards however were repaired and up and running again in two days. Two days! Was it worth it? Was it the civilised thing to do?
Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners of war had the gruesome task of pulling the bodies of those dead children, wives, mothers and grandmothers out of the twisted wreckage of what had been the beautiful city of Dresden. This very much turned him against war and warfare. War should at best be an absolute last resort when everything else has been tried to keep the peace – not the first consideration, nor should it be a way to settle a political argument, or to simply prove who is strongest, or as a means to take what “we” want from other, weaker nations. The murder of innocents and the destruction of beautiful things is not what a civilised society condones.
Like I said earlier I am not bashing America in particular – just using it as an example, as did Vonnegut in his book. I know many Americans – even have some as family – and they are wonderful, warm, kind people…..but the decisions of those leading them….!! NOR am I bashing the military or those who serve or have served. Many of my own family have served in the military including my father, uncles, cousin and grandfathers. They were fighting for what they considered to be a just cause. It’s not usually the military who bring one country into armed conflict with another – they just have to go where they are told and do what they are told to do – it’s usually politics and political leaders who are at fault…..and those who provide finance to the political parties. Big business runs politics by financing political campaigns and therefore buy and own the politicians. It shouldn’t be allowed. As I said before, the system is broken and does not work – certainly not for the average Joe. The gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen. The system is rigged that way.
I don’t have the answers. I don’t know what the silver bullet is. But we could start by being kinder to one another. We can start by trying to reconnect with our neighbours, our community. We could start by simply smiling and giving a friendly greeting to a stranger. Welcome people instead of shooing them away. Offer the hand of friendship instead of holding up the fist of fury. We could bring back things like trust, integrity, understanding and peace. We could, and should, be civil and civilised. But do we want to be?
Kind of a weird title, but it will become clear as you read the post.
Travel, from my own experience, has always been a very positive experience. I have met some wonderful people from all around the world, seen some marvelous sights and had some very positive, at times life-changing moments. In all my years of international travel (I first travelled overseas when I was 14 so that’s 45 years of experience), I have only had the displeasure to experience either muggers or pick-pockets three times.
The first time was way back in the mid 1980’s in Harlem, New York City – partly my own fault as I was still a bit green and didn’t have much in the way of street smarts – when I encountered a couple of guys who wanted to relieve me of my bag – containing my camera, wallet and passport among other things. Fortunately I was young and fit and managed to turn heel and out run them….almost bowling over a railway security guard in my haste to get away.
The second and third times involved pick pockets or, I should say, attempted pick pockets. Once in Nice in the South of France and, yes you guessed it once in Barcelona and both within a month of one another….but we’ll get to that event later.
I had visited Barcelona very briefly over 40 years ago as a 16 year old and remember being propositioned by the prostitutes along the main street through the centre of Barcelona called las Ramblas. Other than that and the statue of Columbus at the sea shore end of las Ramblas along with the flower sellers stalls in the middle of the street, I can’t really remember much about it.
For our recent visit though I had a reason to be there, or two reasons to be exact – one being Pablo Picasso the world famous artist, and the other being Antoni Gaudi equally famous for his fantastic architecture…..or at least equally famous here in Barcelona.
I had bought a book “Gaudi – the Complete Works”- by Juan-Edwardo Cirlot, with photos by Pere Vivas and Ricard Pla – on arrival in Barcelona and flicked through the pages in awe of the genius of the man.
But first Picasso. Picasso was born in Malaga, southern Spain in 1881, but in 1895 moved to Barcelona where he thrived. He looked upon Barcelona as his true home and it was here that he was accepted into the School of Fine Arts at the tender age of 13. At 16 his father and uncle decided it would be best for him to go to Madrid and attend Spains foremost art school the Real Academia de Belles Artes de San Fernando. He hated the structured regime there and quit soon after enrolling. He remained in Madrid though for a time visiting the museums and galleries for inspiration.
In 1900 he made his first visit to Paris and it was love at first sight…..as it is for many of us. He then divided his time between living and working in Paris and Barcelona. However in later years he lived prodominantly in France, which became his new adopted home.
It’s here though, in Barcelona, where you will find the museum completely dedicated to Picasso – The Museu Picasso – which opened in 1963 and houses over 4,000 pieces of Picasso’s work. Although he’s most famous as an artist and was a leader of the cubist movement, he was also a sculptor, ceramicist, printmaker, collagist, stage designer, poet and playwrite. A busy and versatile man!
The museum is very much worth visiting to view the range of his work. It is housed in 5 adjoining medieval palaces in Barcelona’s La Ribera district – a haven for artists, artisans, designers, tradesmen and merchants – on Montcada Street. The museum is open 6 days a week (closed Mondays). For full details of opening times and ticket prices see their website. http://www.museupicasso.bcn.cat/en
Even though Picasso is an artist of world renown, who’s works sell for millions of dollars, he is not my main reason for being here in Barcelona. The focus of my trip is another artistic genius, Antoni Gaudi. The difference being that his artistic genius manifests itself in architecture – amazing, imaginative, magical and almost mythical architecture.
The buildings he designed were highly individualised one off designs – very much stand-out buildings and a feast for the eyes. Having visited a number of his buildings in Barcelona, as well as Park Guell – a public park composed of gardens and architectural pieces – I can confirm the genius of this man. The park and the buildings he designed in Barcelona have been given USESCO World Heritage status. His most famous building, mainly due to the size and difficulty of building it, is without a doubt the still unfinished, massive church known as the Sagrada Familia.
To view many of Gaudi’s buildings in Barcelona we went on a “Free” walking tour with Runner Bean Tours. The tour is, as it says, free of charge…..but you can make a donation at the end if you thought the guide and the tour itself was good value. Some people take the tour and give nothing. Others, myself included, chipped in around $10 per head as a thank you for the almost 3 hour tour. Well worth at least $10….probably $20 would not be out of place. They also do paid tours for groups and for individuals. Website link is: https://runnerbeantours.com/
Our guide was wonderful. Very clearly spoken, amusing, patient and knowledgeable. Our tour began at the meeting place just off las Ramblas, at the Placa Reial, by the water fountain. We were asked to look around the square and see if we could see anything that Gaudi may have designed. It was pretty obvious that the guide was referring to the ornate lamp posts – complete with serpents and winged helmets – so brightly coloured.
The tour took in several of Gaudi’s buildings – the first stop being Palau Guell – a building designed for The Guell family who were Gaudi’s primary patrons – very wealthy. As we were standing on the footpath opposite the building and our guide was giving us the spiel of all the facts and figures relating to the design and build of this amazing building, I noticed that 3 extra people who were not on our tour had tagged on to the back of the group. Two men and a woman. But, instead of looking at the building they seemed to be concentrating on the other people in the group. Naturally this was a signal to me that something wasn’t quite right.
I had a rather expensive camera with me, but other than that only had a few euro’s in a zipped cargo pocket down by my knee. Of course our three tag alongs had no way of knowing that. As the tour guide wound up his talk and motioned for the group to follow him to the next destination we turned into a narrow alleyway and it was here that they made their move. I had hung back, at the back of the group and as soon as I entered the alley, the bigger of the men cut in front of me and immediately bent down as if picking something up that he’d dropped. It was such a sudden movement that I couldn’t stop myself from bumping into him and coming to a halt. The instant I bumped into him, the other two – the man and woman – “accidentally” crashed into me and the guys hand went straight into my my pocket. Although this was obviously a practiced move of theirs it was clumsy. I grabbed his wrist, spun around and started yelling obsenities at him to attract attention and hopefully that someone in our group would hear and come to the rescue. Pick pocketing is so common in Barcelona that no one even blinked at the incident unfolding in front of them. Passers by just kept on their merry way, minding their own business. Three on one are not good odds and there was no way I could contain all three of them. As it turned out, once I had rumbled their plan they simply put up their hands in a “Woops OK you caught me” gesture, smiled and shrugged apologetically and turned and left in the other direction.
Once I had caught up with our tour leader I took him to one side to explain what had just happened and to suggest that maybe he should issue a warning to the rest of the group – just in case. During his warning speech that he gave at our next stop he commented that pick pocketing was so rife here in Barcelona that if it was to become an Olympic sport, Barcelona would become the undisputed Gold Medalists…..hence the title of this post. He also said that most pick pockets are not violent and unlike muggers will not resort to force…..and if caught are usually good natured and walk away.
Our tour continued taking in a number of Gaudi works and buildings of architectural merit of some of Gaudi’s competitors. All very interesting and beautiful to see unlike a lot of todays modern monstrosities which have cost as their primary concern. The building I was most interested in seeing though was Casa Batllo – with its dragonlike roof. It’s been called a number of names including “the fairytale in stone”, “the house of yawns” and even “the cat house”. You can see from the photos that follow how it got those names.
I was very keen to see inside this amazing building, but entry to the buildings is not included in the tour. Each Gaudi Building, being privately owned, cost pretty decent money to get in to do a tour of the interiors. My wife and I decided to come back the next day and pay whatever it cost to view the inside.
The tour concluded at the Sagrada Familia. Again only viewed from the outside. It’s amazing that when Gaudi died in 1926 the church was only about 15% to 25% completed. The building work began in 1882 and is not expected to finish until around 2026…..although the expected finish date has been pushed back several times already so don’t hold your breath.
If you’re wondering what the literary connection is in this post…..other than the Gaudi book I mentioned earlier – the Sagrada Familia was commissioned by a book seller named Josep Maria Bocabella, founder of Asociación Espiritual de Devotos de San José (Spiritual Association of Devotees of St. Joseph).
The next day we visited the interior of the Casa Batllo – and marveled at it’s hand carved staircase that looked like a huge curved spine as if it was made from bones, were frankly amazed at the amount of thought that went into this building particularly when it came to bringing daylight into the various rooms on each floor. There was a sort of central courtyard….just a few metres across that went from roof level all the way down to the ground floor. The walls of this “courtyard” were tiled in blue and white tiles and topped by a glass roof allowing light to enter the interior. The top floor was closest to the light, so this section of the courtyard walls were tiled mainly in dark blue tiles as the top floors were well lit and didn’t need to receive a lot of reflected light from the courtyard walls. As we travel downwards toward lower floors, more light is needed so the next floor down has a mixture of both blue and white tiles on the courtyard walls….lower still you see more white and less blue. There was also a ventilation system bringing in air from the outside and carrying it throughout every room of the house. These things may seem straight forward now but remember this building was built back in the early 1900’s.
There really are too many features to mention here, except to say that Gaudi was not a fan of the straight line. In his own words “There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature, therefore there should be no straight lines or sharp corners in architecture”…and….”The straight line belongs to man, the curve belongs to god”. One feature that I will quickly mention – the roof – is said to be a nod by Gaudi to Catalonia’s saint, Saint George (also the saint of England). This is represented by the dragon-like roof and the turret with a cross on top. Said to represent the dragon killed by St. George – his sword being the cross on the turret. We don’t know for sure if this is correct as Gaudi refused to either confirm nor deny the speculation.
Our final place of interest in our search for everything Gaudi is Park Guell. Again commissioned initially by the wealthy Guell family. Actually Gaudi pretty much bankrupted them with his outlandish style and his habit of redoing work over and over again until it was absolutely perfect. Every job that Gaudi did, he blew the budget wide open. It is free to enter the park and to look at the gardens and architectural features created by Gaudi, but there is a small area that is reserved for paying customers. You can see into this area from the “free” area, but you don’t get the tactile experience of touching Gaudi’s creations or seeing them close up.
Words don’t really come close to describing the wonder of Gaudi’s creations so again I am putting here a gallery of photos to show the variety of his work within the Park Guell.
Just a couple of final observations. Within the park, officially you are not allowed to set up stalls and sell tourist merchandise – there are police patrols to enforce this. It doesn’t seem to stop dozens of entrepreneurs form laying out their wares on blankets along the pathways in the park. as soon as the police are in sight, they gather the corners of their blankets and disappear like smoke on the breeze – to return moments later when the police have gone by. It would seem also, by the grafitti on one of the picnic tables in the park that the locals are not 100% behind having tourists invade their space. See photo below.
We were in the great city of Barcelona for a week, so obviously saw more than the Picasso Museum and Gaudi’s buildings……so I may take another look at Barcelona in another post sometime along the way. Meantime, thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you liked it, please do click on the “Like” button and I have many more articles to share with you, so please feel free to also hit that “Follow” button. As usual any comments or constructive criticism are gratefully received. Adios for now.
Is it just a sign of the times, is it progress, or is it a tragedy?
What am I talking about? I’m talking about the closure and subsequent franchising of the Post Office – more specifically of NZ Post Shops here in New Zealand….which in a way could lead to the ultimate death of the hand written letter.
Back in 1880 New Zealand had 850 post offices dotted around the country, serving the needs of the community. The population of NZ at that time was less than half a million people. At its peak there were 880 post offices. Now however, in 2018 and with a total population of a tick under 5 million, NZ Post are in the process of closing down their final 79, stand alone, post offices – and turning what’s left of the business over to the likes of pharmacies and supermarkets to run – as a franchise operation along side their existing business functions. The Post Office began life as a public service, but these days of commercialism and profit and loss – not to mention shareholders waiting for their dividends – it’s all about the money. And if the money isn’t rolling in, the service has to go…..sold to the highest bidder! No matter how incompetently it will be run, even if it brings about it’s eventual destruction.
I know that we have to move with the times – I’m not a Luddite – but I question how well the service will be run by supermarkets in particular when it comes to sending a letter or parcel to some obscure overseas destination. I see delays at the counter and delays in the service. Already, home postal deliveries are reduced to only certain days of the week. Post boxes, on street corners, to mail your letters have been slowly and silently disappearing over the years (1300 have disappeared since 2008), in an obvious wind down of the postal service as a whole.
Part of the problem is that people don’t write letters these days, nor do they send as many greetings cards as they used to…..thanks to e-mail’s and e-cards. I am as much to blame – or possibly more to blame than most. More to blame? – you ask. Let me explain my reasoning for saying this.
Back in pre-internet days I was a prolific letter writer. I had pen-pals all over the world – 52 of them in 48 different countries, on every continent except Antarctica. Some would only write a few times each year, but with others, letters would travel back and forth across continents with eager regularity. As I have mentioned in a number of my posts, one of my passions is travel, and letters to pen-pals was a wonderful way to make not just contacts, but friends around the world and to learn about other countries, about other ways of life, other customs. I believe that if we all had a friend in every country and knew of their lives and customs we’d be less likely to allow our leaders to declare war, or put in place economic sanctions – just to win a political point. When you strip everything back, we are all human beings, regardless of colour, religion, customs and politics.
This was in the mid 1980’s though, and sadly I have lost touch with most of them since then, partly because I moved from the UK to New Zealand almost 30 years ago. BUT these days, even those I do still keep in touch with, that communication is done by electronic means – the internet and e-mails , or via social media.
My wife and I met thanks to letters. We were pen-friends from opposite sides of the world – me in the UK and she in New Zealand. We started writing to one another over 33 years ago, met 32 years ago and have been together ever since – the last 30 of those years as husband and wife. More important for me than getting a book published – my letters brought me my greatest possible literary prize – my wife. So for me particularly, the decline and slow and inevitable death of the Post Office and therefore the written letter, is a personal, sad event.
Did anyone else meet their significant other via the magic of the hand written letter?