So far so good. What next?

Hi all. I am really enjoying my blogging experience, both from a writing perspective and also from reading other writers posts. As 2018 comes into it’s final days, it almost brings to an end my first 3 months of blogging.

It’s been difficult as a beginner to know what to write about. What do people want to read about? – was my first thought. Then I threw caution to the wind and I simply wrote about anything that came to mind, relating to my passions of writing, books, writers….anything book-ish or book related…travel and photography. Also there was a question of how often I should write? Should I write every day, or once a week – how often is too much and how often is not enough? That question sort of solved its self as I have other things to fit in between my writing….like living. It’s been an interesting first 3 months and this being my 33rd blog post means that I am averaging 11 posts per month or around 2.5 posts per week – which, due to other commitments is about as much as I can manage at this point, although I would love to dedicate more time to writing.

I probably need to rearrange my life to allow more writing time. Not only for my blog, but also for other writing and photography projects – present and future.

I started to write a book about how it was to be a child of the 1960’s, growing up in a Yorkshire village – with my younger brother and about some of the scrapes we used to get ourselves in. After school or in the school holidays we’d spend most of our time with our friends playing in the local woods. This was of course before child molesting became a national sport and the “stranger, danger” programme convinced most parents that the world is no longer a safe place for kids to play unsupervised. That, combined with the internet and virtual reality/on-line gaming is going to rob most kids in the future of the fun of playing in the woods and getting dirty, bruised and scratched – building tree houses, rope swings and just being out in the fresh air.

I had intended it to be more of a family history type book so my children and their children (if and when they have them) have some idea of where their ancestors came from, since we now live on the other side of the planet. BUT once I started writing and the words started to flow it soon became a more anecdotal collection of amusing (I like to think) stories of some of the crazy things we did and lived through as kids.

I hit the 40,000 word mark just before starting my WordPress blog in early October and the book has been put on the back burner for now. My New Year resolution will be to get back to it and finally get it finished.

Another project languishing on the back burner is a photo book of a six month backpacking trip around the UK and Europe undertaken during 2016. I was meant to be getting right onto it as soon as we returned home. Almost 2 years later…..it seems I am still the king of procrastination.

Yet another project is to combine some of my photographs with poetry. Again, this is something that is partly under way with about a dozen poems under my belt so far.

BUT the main purpose of this post was to look at which of my posts have been best received from readers/followers so far – in order to guide me in the direction that my blog needs to take in the future. It would appear that you folks tend to like my travel related posts the best. Of the posts to attract “likes” reaching into the double digits, my posts about Paris and Barcelona scored the highest, followed by a review of Richard Laymon books, closely followed by a piece about beat writer William S Burroughs and another piece about Christmas. The next best liked was a couple of attempts at poetry. So I guess that gives me some guidance of what I should concentrate on in the future.

I’d love to hear about your writing projects destined for 2019. Please feel free to comment below.

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Inspirational Photographers – their books on my shelf….

I was given my first camera before I reached my teens. It was a simple point and shoot Kodak film camera, but it was the start of my love affair with photography. For birthdays and Christmas presents I’d sometimes receive money and that would go straight in the money box to upgrade eventually to an SLR, but the only one in my price range was a Russian Zenith brand camera. I bought it anyway, despite it’s poor reviews in camera mags. More money came in and I added an extra lens and some filters. It just felt right….having the SLR and a big lens on shooting wildlife in the woods. The resulting photos were OK….better than I could get with the point and shoot so I was happy.

In my mid teens, after school and on weekends I worked at the local supermarket and eventually saved enough money to buy a “real” camera. I’d been awestruck by celebrity photographer of the day David Bailey, who didn’t just photograph the “jet set” – he was part of it. He was one of the biggest stars around and photographed anyone who was at the top of their profession. Movie stars, rock stars, top models, celebrities of all types, world leaders….all the movers and shakers were photographed by David Bailey. So, when I saw him on T.V. advertising the Olympus OM10 SLR I knew I had to have it.

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I wasn’t disappointed. It was a nice camera. Much lighter and better quality than the Zenith and a stylier look too. It came with a standard 50mm lens. I got my first zoom lens to go with it and then added a wide angle lens and I was all set up. Of course that was longer ago than I care to admit and over the years I moved with the times…..dabbled with Polaroid instant photos in addition to the OM10….had a go with a few other film cameras in various formats (including a twin lens reflex that produced square nagatives) and eventually when the quality of digital photography reached an acceptable level I made the switch to digital – DSLR’s. Firstly Fujifilm digital cameras – in fact I still occasionally use my Fuji HS10 which has a wonderful 24 – 720mm lens. The only real let down is the speed of focus (and the size of the sensor). It produces some nice clear and bright images.
At the moment I have a couple of Nikon bodies and lenses in my camera bag. BUT this article isn’t about me and my cameras it’s about the photographers I admire or who influenced me over the years. Yes Bailey was the first, so when I came across his book “Locations” in a local book store I bought it for old times sake. Turning over the pages I see again what attracted me to his style of photography – the glamour and the “beautiful people” – and yet it now seems somewhat tawdry (false, showy but cheap).

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The above pic shows a German Language version of the book. I have the English version. Actually, and not meaning to be unkind to the lady on the front of the book but, you wouldn’t know from the cover that he was a glamour photographer. He was famous for having affairs with a number of his models and even married two of them. In 1975 he married American fashion model and writer Marie Helvin; and in 1986 the model Catherine Dyer (born 20 July 1961), to whom he remains married. One of his most famous books featuring photos of Helvin in various stages of undress was “Trouble and Strife”.

These days I have a number of photographic heroes and heroines. The Heroines I already touched on in an earlier post, so I’ll talk about the male photographers and the books of theirs that grace my bookcases and coffee table.
My passions – other than writing – are photography and travel, so no surprise that one of my favourite photographers – probably my overall favourite – is Steve McCurry, who’s photo “Afghan Girl” shot him to stardom.

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Above “Afghan Girl” photo on left and McCurry on right. His photo of “the Afghan Girl” graced both the cover of National Geographic magazine and at least one (if not more) Nat Geo hard cover book “The Photographs”….which I also have on my bookshelf.

He tends to work in Asia a lot, particularly India where he makes the most of the vibrant colours. I don’t think that there is a photographer any better when it comes to colour photography. He has an eye for the right shot and will scope out a setting for a long time waiting for the right person wearing the right colours to walk by a particular scene. The brightly coloured saris and the pastel coloured buildings in India are perfect subjects for him to photograph. I have a number of his books including “The Path to Buddha”, “Untold – the stories behind the photographs” and a small format Phaidon book simply titled “Steve McCurry”.

 


The “Untold” book is a wonderful insight into a photographers world and gives the back story on how many of his popular photos came to be taken. I also have a thick, large format book “Magnum” – no not the TV show – about the Magnum Photo Agency – which features McCurry’s work and also have several hardcover National Geographic books which have several of his photos. I’d also love to own a copy of his book “Monsoon” – photographed in India naturally.
Talking of “Monsoon”….New Zealand photographer and fellow Magnum Photo Agency member Brian Brake has a book of the same name – shot in India which has a number of excellent photos, BUT without wanting to offend any Brian Brake fans out there, although he is a very good photographer, in my opinion, he comes second to McCurry.

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The above photo is both inside and on the cover of his book. The photo initially received rave reviews – until it came out that he had actually set up the shot. It seemed on the surface that it was a shot of a girl lifting her face to the rains of the monsoon – BUT he’d set it up with an assistant holding a hose on a ladder and having his model pose under the hose. Either way, it’s still a very nice shot. I have Brake’s “Monsoon” along side another of his books “Lens on the World” beside my Steve McCurry books, on my book case, in my office.

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“Lens on the World” covers a huge range of Brakes photos throughout his career.

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I have just the one book by Helmut Newton – “Polaroids”. I have been in awe of Newton’s statuesque nudes for years. He also photographs celebrities, rock stars etc. When I was in Paris in 2016 I saw an exhibition of his huge format photos at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie – located at n. 5, Rue de Fourcy. It was only when I saw these huge, larger than life prints up close – the clarity was amazing – that I realised what a good photographer he is… or I should say was. Although most of the prints at the exhibition were in black and white he also worked in colour. I suppose I’d have to put him in the same catagory as David Bailey – a glamour and glamorous photographer, who lived the lifestyle of the rich and the famous.

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Elliot Erwitt’s Paris“. I had to buy this book – by one of my favourite photographers – of photos of one of my favourite cities in the world.

Elliott Erwitt (yet another member of Magnum) – classed as an American photographer but born in France -for me is one of the finest photographers at “capturing the moment”. It’s a real skill out on the street to capture the right shot at the right time. One second too early or one second too late and the shot is meaningless. Hit the shot in the sweet spot and you have as Henri Cartier-Bresson’s coined it “captured the decisive moment”. He enjoys taking photos of the absurd….loves getting down to the level of dogs (he loves to photograph dogs and has an entire book of dog photos)…and really has fun with his camera. Which is why, now in his 90’s, he is still putting out books of his work. He has often said he has never worked a day in his life….taking photos is a joy not a job. Two examples of his work are below.

 

 

Another master of Street Photography – another Frenchman – Robert Doisneau is another of my favourites. Probably his most famous photo is also his most infamous photo. Doisneau is renowned for his 1950 image Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville (Kiss by the Town Hall), a photograph of a couple kissing on a busy Parisian street.

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Initially hailed as a masterpiece of “catching the moment” – it was later revealed that it was posed specially for the photographer to get the shot. Posed or not, it’s still a great photo and graces the cover of the Taschen produced “Icons” (as in Icons of photography)book on my shelf. He, like Erwitt loved capturing comedic shots like the one below of a gendarme – captured at just the right moment.

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And to round things off I’ll just mention books I have of a couple of the pioneers of photography…Edward Weston – an American photographer who’s favoured photographic subjects were of nudes or of close up shots of peppers and shells although, in a career spanning 40 years, he also photographed a variety of still life, portraits and landscapes. He has been called one of the most influential and innovative of America’s photographers. Again, like Bailey his nude studies seemed to be of women he had relationships with, most famous of these was Tina Modetti – a stage and film actress who later became a photographer in her own right.

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His early photos were soft focus but as he progressed he became The Master of detailed photography producing incredibly clear images with what was at the time fairly primitive equipment.

…and finally no photographic library is complete without at least one book by Ansel Adams. Most famous for his photos of the Yosemite region of the USA – his photos of the great outdoors are legendary. He first visited Yosemite with his family back in 1916 when he was given his first camera, a box brownie, by his father. The rest, as they say, is history. As a professional photographer, working in large format he produced very clear detailed photos and like his fellow photographer Edward Weston was a founding member of the f/64 group of photographers. His work has been reproduced in books, magazines and calendars – and his images are still being used – even though he has been dead for over 30 years. True quality does not date.

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His book “400 photographs” is one of the books that I often look at for inspiration.

The above books are some of my favourite “go to” books when I need a photographic lift and are a small selection of my library of photographic books. I’m just testing the water here. If you’d like me to share more about my collection of photography books, please comment below.

Two Outstanding Women Photographers

While I don’t want to get into a discussion (argument) about male versus female roles in the job market. There are some jobs better suited to one gender than the other. There are jobs however that can be equally well performed by either gender and yet the oportunities for women in that field are sadly and wrongly lacking.

Photography was (hopefully is no longer) one of those professions. Fifty years ago there were not many women excelling in the photographic field. It was without a doubt a man’s domain.

However I just want to point you toward a couple of books that show that women were not only the equivalent of men as photographers – they could also outshine many of their male counterparts. And I write this as a male who is a keen photographer and have been since childhood.

The two women I want to bring to your attention – firstly Eve Arnold, who was involved with the world famous Magnum Photography Agency as early as 1951, becoming a full member in 1957.  Flicking through her book All About Eve – I realise that I have seen many of these iconic images before, but never knew they were taken by a female photographer, nor did I appreciate the effort and skill that went into capturing some of those images. Being a female photographer actually worked to her advantage particularly when dealing with other females who were to be the subjects of her photographs. She had a wonderful way about her – her patience and her caring nature – helped to put her “models” at ease. To quote Eve herself “If a photographer cares about the people before the lens and is compassionate, much is given. It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument”.

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She photographed all sorts of people – children, labourers, movie stars and heads of state. Her more famous subjects included the likes of Marilyn Monroe – with whom she had a special understanding and gained an amazing insight into her personal life, Paul Newman, Malcolm X, jazz entertainer Josephine Baker, the Eisenhowers etc. BUT she also photographed poverty and the down trodden. To quote from the book….“She produced picture assignments for magazines internationally, published books and exhibited worldwide. A blend of curiosity, discipline and moral courage would characterise her career which never settled for cliches or stereotypes”.

She was born in the USA and much of her early work takes place there, but after 1962 when she went to live in England, her photography was dominated by overseas projects particularly in China and she also photographed behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ in the USSR in the 1960`s.

The book was put together to celebrate Eve’s work on her 100th birthday. She died shortly after. (1912 – 2012).

The second photographer unlike Eve Arnold enjoyed no publicity of her work during her lifetime. In fact, very little is known of her life and yet she produced thousands of photographs.

In the book Vivian Maier – Street Photographer we are brought into Vivian`s world thanks to Historian, John Maloof who came into possession of several boxes of her prints, negatives and undeveloped film from an auction of stored property.

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All we get to know about Vivian is that she spent her life as a nanny to various children and part of her time was spent, camera in hand walking the streets and taking photos of anything that caught her eye…..sometimes with the children she was minding in tow.

As Geoff Dyer says on the back of her book “Vivian Maier represents an extreme instance of posthumous discovery; of someone who exists entirely in terms of what she saw. Not only was she entirely unknown in the photographic world, hardly anyone seemed to know that she even took photographs“.

Her legacy is a remarkable record of life, not only in America, but in France and other countries she visited over a period of more than forty years. We probably wouldn’t even know what she looked like if it wasn’t for her penchant for taking her own portrait as a reflection in shop windows.

She used a Rolleiflex camera, shooting from chest level – looking down into the view-finder so most people failed to realise that they were being photographed. This made for some interesting candid photos.

As it says in the books foreward “A good street photographer must be possessed of many talents: an eye for detail, light and composition: impeccable timing: a populist or humanitarian outlook: and a tireless ability to shoot shoot shoot

Amazingly Vivian had all these qualities but was entirely self taught. It’s scary to think that this body of work only came to the public eye by chance…. AND we are richer for it.  I was very fortunate to see an exhibition of her photos when I was in France a couple of years ago.

Both these photographers produced an outstanding body of work and their books are worthy of a prominent place on anyone’s book case.

A Rhapsody in Old Bohemia.

According to the dictionary Rhapsody means –

  1. Music. an instrumental composition irregular in form and suggestive of improvisation
  2. An ecstatic expression of feeling or enthusiasm.
  3. An epic poem, or a part of such a poem, as a book of the Iliad, suitable for recitation at one time.

For this post I’m going for meaning number 2, as I do get ecstatic and enthused about Cesky Krumlov.

Czech Pilsner beer is the best in the world. Little wonder, it was the Czechs who invented it in the town that bears it’s name (Plzen) and it’s amazingly cheap to buy here. But there are lots of reasons for visiting the Czech Republic other than for their magnificent amber Pilsner…..although that alone is reason enough.

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Most tourists when visiting the Czech Republic make a bee line for Prague and understandably so. It is the capital after all and has so much history and a whole heap of tourist sights including the castle and the Charles Bridge….and a really good tram network.
But I want to talk about another town in the south west of the country….Cesky Krumlov in the heart of southern Bohemia. It has all the history (built in the 1200’s) and architecture of Prague, on a smaller scale (population a little over thirteen thousand)….and a fairytale castle high on a hill overlooking the old town below – wrapped in the protective embrace of the Vltava river, which almost encircles it. It is compact, scenic and very walkable. It’s a gorgeous place, has UNESCO World heritage protection and has a lively arts and literature scene, which is to be the focus of this post.
We were very fortunate to meet with and stay in the home of Chilean born – Czech resident – writer Jorge Zuniga Pavlov – author of “La Casa Blů: historias del bajomundo latinoamericano” (Blue House: stories of Latin American Underworld). And “Stěhování a jiné po(c)hyby” – (Moving and other stories) – A selection of stories (some autobiographical) about how Prague was moved by the affect of communism on Chilean emigrants escaping from the agony of Pinochet’s dictatorship. But also about Prague in the nineties. Stories from the environment of the Chilean community in Paris. Stories about returning to the ocean and returns to Prague, traveling, meeting and passing.

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Jorge is one of the most welcoming, helpful, generous and humanitarian people I have ever met. I’m very proud and privileged to be able to call him a friend. He’s also a champion of literature….he has been very active in the promotion of writers and their work. Since 2014 he has been opening his home (Litera Krumlov) as a venue for writers to visit and read excerpts of their work to an eager and appreciative audience. There’s a bit of a tradition where authors who perform at his home sign in on the wall of the main room with their name and date.

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Writers and artists are also accommodated in his “Writers Residence” – where we stayed for the week – a lovely airy room on the lower floor of his historic home – built in the 1500’s. In fact as I write this, he tells me that he has Two Czech poets staying in the Writers Residence at the moment. His home is built on a hillside above, and overlooking, a bend in the Vltava river. It has two floors rising up from street level and another two lower floors – down the slope toward the river. It’s a quirky, wonderful old house with it’s own cave-cellar and a bathroom with walls made of books and wine bottles. The exterior walls of the house are over two feet thick and keep the house warm in the harsh Czech winters and cool in the summer.
Jorge is not only a writer and promoter of literature, he’s also a wonderful baker of bread which he served us fresh, daily at breakfast time. Just one of many items of food on our overloaded breakfast table. Like I said before he is a very generous man.
Under Jorge’s guidance we explored the “Arts” side of Cesky Krumlov.

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Firstly we’ll explore theatrical productions. Up the hill behind Jorge’s home is the castle garden. Formal gardens with fountains similar to those you’ll find in the grounds of most european stately homes, but uniquely here there is also an outdoor revolving theatre. Usually with revolving theatres it’s the stage that turns to reveal a new scene. Not here. In the castle gardens theatre it’s the audience who are seated on a giant turn-table. As each act unfolds, the audience are turned to face another part of the garden – another scene. It’s certainly a talking point and one to tick off anyones literary list. For more information about the theatre and the shows it puts on see link – https://www.otacivehlediste.cz/?&lang=en

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Speaking of theatres, there is also a Baroque theatre inside Krumlov Castle with a full set of scenery, props and costumes from the era. The decor inside the castle is a trip back in artistic time dating from the 1400’s in some parts and 16th, 18th and 19th century in others. It’s worth a visit.
https://www.zamek-ceskykrumlov.cz/en/about

The castle courtyard features a very ornate pink coloured tower.

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One of the claims to fame of the castle is that they have always kept bears in the castle moat….yes, bears. It’s a dry moat by the way…the bears aren’t swimming. It’s traditional and draws the tourists, but myself I’m not happy seeing animals in captivity. It was the only downside, for me, about the castle tour.

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On the plus side, just before entering the castle, from the gardens at the top end, there is a small cafe in a little courtyard which sells the cheapest glass of beer in Cesky Krumlov. It’s a locally brewed beer made in a brewery down by the river called Pivovar Eggenberg – which has been perfecting the craft, or should I say the art, of making beer since 1336. After wandering around the gardens on a hot summers day, it was just what the doctor ordered!
The old town its self is no less pretty than the castle. The main square is surrounded by pastel coloured buildings with a fountain in one corner.

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The narrow cobbled streets and alleys lead to an array of arty things to check out including sculptures, galleries and museums such as the one dedicated to artist Egon Schiele – Schiele Art Centrum. http://www.schieleartcentrum.cz/en/exhibitions/1/
Not only is this gallery dedicated to the art of Egon Schiele it is also a museum of his letters, furniture, business cards, photos and geneology of his family. As well as the permanent Schiele exhibits there are also revolving exhibitions of other historic and contemporary art….and naturally there’s the obligatory gallery shop which is well stocked with Schiele memorabilia and art books of all kinds… “please exit through the gift shop”. The reason that there is a Schiele gallery in Cesky Krumlov in the first place, is that his mother was born here, was resident here for many years and Schiele himself lived and worked here on and off. In fact…to connect the dots…. Jorge Pavlovs house features in one of Schiele’s works.

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Although Schiele is lauded here now, in his heyday he was once run out of town, by the equivalent of the town council, as they didn’t appreciate his desire to paint and draw the young girls of the town in the nude. He returned several times afterward as, he claimed, he simply loved the town and wanted to be here. As well as the gallery you can also visit Egon Schiele Atelier – the garden house where Schiele lived and worked. It is once again an artists residence and is leased out as an artists retreat.

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http://www.schieleartcentrum.cz/cs/zahradni-atelier/88/
If photography interests you, I’d definitely recommend a visit to Dum Fotografie (there’s nothing dumb about it ) http://www.dumfotografiekrumlov.cz/en/home/ which is a gallery dedicated to photography – primarily by Czech photographers. When we were there this included several rooms of photos by Jan Saudek who seems to specialise in theatrically staged nude and semi-nude works. https://www.saudek.com/ They also sell books, prints and posters, relating to the exhibits, in their little shop at the entrance of the gallery.
Another must for photographers is Museum Fotoatelier Seidel

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http://www.seidel.cz/cz/museum_fotoatelier_seidel_cesky_krumlov/  The tradition of photography was created in this unique building…which was both home and photo studio of the photographic Seidel family. It is like stepping back in time into a 19th century photo studio complete with all the equipment, vast quantities of unique period photographs, photo postcards and glass negatives. The museum/studio is open year round.

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The entire old town of Cesky Krumlov is a living monument to art, sculpture and architecture. You never know what you’ll find around the next corner.

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Down an alley into a small courtyard we came across some odd looking sculptures….one, a little like a steampunk version of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movie (but with breasts), sits perched half way up the wall of what turns out to be a quirky looking bar owned by local sculptor Miroslav Páral…. Looking at his work he seems to have a thing about digits – fingers and toes – and indeed about hands and feet in general…and other body parts too. This is reflected in the sculptures dotted around both outside and inside the bar and includes a bench seat held up by huge metal human-like feet at either end.

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You can buy candles here in the shape of fingers. The bar is situated by the riverside and has a row of giant sized red metal chairs facing the river…again art work….and very hot to sit on on a sunny day.
Miroslav Paral (born 1955) is a very accomplished and highly respected sculptor who has exhibited his work all over the world and in 1993 received the Award for Culture of the town of Český Krumlov. http://www.ckrumlov.cz/uk/umelci/t_mirpar.htm and http://www.paral.cz/
This is only a snippet of what’s available in the historic town of Cesky Krumlov…..there is much, much more. Another theatre, live music, more writers retreats….And just one last thing before I finish…Behind the Schiele Art Centrum are a number of almost derelict buildings which are boarded up. Local artists have pasted works of art over the boarded up windows and doors….there’s also a bit of grafitti….it’s mostly interesting stuff and free to view!

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And I didn’t even mention any of the tourist activities such as rafting the river….or the churches, chapels and synagogue….food…drink and delicious icecreams….green solitude of the park

 

I hope you enjoy reading this. I enjoyed writing it as it combined my passions of writing, photography and travel. Until next post…..

My Top 10 – Travel Books.

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I mentioned in an earlier post that I am a big fan of travel books. Travel guides, travelogues and books relating to TV travel shows.

This is my Top 10 list of travelogues currently on my bookshelves. All have been read and some are starting to get pretty old, but remain favourites.

My absolute favourite of all time…..and I’m going to cheat a little on this one. Is Bill Bryson’s “The Complete Notes” – It’s actually two books in one, comprising Notes from a Small Island (about travel in the UK) and Notes from a Big Country (about re-visiting the land of his birth – the USA, after 17 years of living in the UK). I simply love Bryson’s style of writing. He’ll give a half a dozen rather dry facts about a place and then pitch in a one-liner that reduces me to fits of giggles. He’s the sort of person who can get lost anywhere and wears the mantle of the “confused traveler” extremely well.  His travel books are always informative….and humorous ( amusing, funny, entertaining, comic, comical, chucklesome, witty, jocular, light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek, wry, waggish, whimsical, playful – and other such synonyms). If you’ve never read Bryson – give him a go – you don’t know what you’re missing. BUT – word to the wise – stick with his travelogues, some of his other books, I feel, can be a little lacking.

I’m a huge fan of Michael Palin (former member of the Monty Python team) for his many TV travel series and accompanying travel books. Starting with “Around the World in 80 Days” – where he set off on a quest to replicate Phileas Fogg’s journey to travel right around the globe in only 80 days….not using planes. After that he went “Pole to Pole”  and “Full Circle”, before starting to specialize more in specific areas such as “Himalaya” and “Sahara”. The books of the series have all been worthy of space on my “Travel Bookcase”. Again, like Bryson, Palin delivers facts accompanied by wit. He writes well and is a really nice guy….coming from Sheffield (my place of birth) gains him extra points. The books are also well illustrated with beautiful photos – mostly taken by photographer Basil Pao. Actually Basil’s own book “Inside Sahara” is also well worth a look and has extra photos from Palin’s Sahara trip which were deemed worthy of their own book.

Next is a book given to me in 1986 when I backpacked coast to coast across the USA…and back again. Tina Winn who gave us a roof over our heads at Newport Beach, California, was the lady in question and she gave a book to me and a different one to my travel companion Chris. Mine was “Blue Highways” by William Least Heat-Moon, about a journey by van along the blue highways (back roads) that link up all the little towns and settlements across the USA. It was his curiousity to see “the Real America” that took him on the trip of a lifetime….where he meets and mostly brings out the best in people along the way. I don’t have the original copy given to me by Tina (I had to buy a new one) because I swapped it with Chris so I could read his book…..which comes in as my fourth pick.

John Steinbeck – “Travels with Charley” – subtitled “In Search of America”. At the age of sixty, John Steinbeck and his French Poodle “Charley” climbed in to a camper van and took off on a coast to coast and back again adventure. I have read some of Steinbecks novels, but this true story of his travels – giving not only details of the trip and what they saw and did, but also wry observations about what it is to be an American – I think is his best work. And having gone coast to coast and back myself I could relate to much of what’s in the book.

A purchase from a second hand book shop….Pete McCarthy’s hilarious “The Road To McCarthy” – should probably be higher on my list if I’m honest about it. This man is a very funny guy – or i should say WAS, as he died in 2004 after a struggle against cancer. The book takes Pete and us around the world in search of McCarthy – or to be more exact in search of quirky places around the world with odd links to Ireland, the Irish and the McCarthy name. It’s a follow up book to his highly successful “McCarthy’s Bar” – in which Pete McCarthy makes a simple rule – never pass a bar with your name on it. He was an incredibly talented writer and humorist and having only recently discovered his books I was devastated to learn that he’d died. Such a waste of talent – a sad loss……but great books.

Kevin McCloud’s “Grand Tour of Europe” – another book of a TV series (this one on the UK’s Channel 4). The Grand Tour was a rite of passage for the Nobles, minor nobility and upper class wealthy young men which began in the 17th and 18th century. These hedonists cut a swathe across europe, visiting all the fashionable great cities, ruins and architectural marvels…..and partaking in the delights offered by bath houses, bars and brothels along the way. It was an oportunity for these wealthy young men to educate themselves in the world of european art and literature…..and if they didn’t take precautions – to also contract syphilis. McCloud takes us along for the ride and shares snippets of knowledge with us – the audience and readership….some of it carnal – as we visit the culture and history of Europe.

Paul Theroux – “The GreatRailway Bazaar” is my next choice. Unfortunately I only have the Penguin paperback edition, I believe that there is also a large format hard cover book complete with accompanying photos…..quite magnificent photos I hasten to add…by Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. Having said that, Theroux’s text is extremely entertaining, amusing (in places) and informative. He takes us on a four month journey, on a series of trains from London, across Europe, the middle east and Asia, eloquently describing the people and places along the journey. It’s a well crafted book which as well as being a travelogue also discusses subjects such as poverty, ignorance, colonialism and (being an American writer) American Imperialism. It certainly inspires this reader to hop on board and “slow travel” across the continents.

Rolf Potts book “Vagabonding” is a book that I wished I had discovered years ago rather than more recently. It’s a “how to” guide to the art of long-term world travel. Most people, for some reason, see the idea of long-term travel to exotic out of the way lands as being either the thing of dreams, or as requiring oodles of money squirreled away in the bank. Potts shows us that neither of these are true. With common sense advice he walks us through the steps we need to take to make living the dream a reality. And it’s not rocket science!

Hap Cameron’s – “Hap Working the World” – is a book that show’s us just how far a simple thought can take us. In 2003 New Zealander Hap Cameron had an idea that he’d like to live and work on every continent before he turned thirty. Eight years later with all seven continents ticked off, he’s experienced more than most of us will in a lifetime  -including being locked in a jail cell in the USA and almost killed by gangsters in Africa. Of course it’s a “coming of age book” – a book that not only takes us on Hap’s journey of discovery of the seven continents, but also his journey of self discovery and of meeting the girl of his dreams. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and by the end I really did care what happened to Hap. It’s fun and it’s an adventure.

For my final choice – it’s more of a choice of writer rather than of a specific book. I’ve read a few of Christina Dodwell‘s books….starting with “An Explorer’s Handbook”. She is one impressive woman. I first came to know of her on a TV series called River Journeys where she tackled the white water of Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River….and allowed tribesmen to cut the diamond shaped pattern of the skin of the crocodile into her arm – to bring her good luck and protection. She puts the intrepid into Intrepid Explorer. She spent 3 years, traveling twenty thousand miles in Africa – by any means including horse, elephant and camel plus 7 weeks in a dug out canoe on the Congo river. Any of her books are a thrill to read. Maybe her first book “Travels with Fortune” about that African adventure would be the one to start with.

That complete’s my Top Ten. It was a difficult choice and I’ve tried to pick a cross section of the books that I hold dear. There were a few others that could easily have replaced others listed above…..like I said, it was a hard choice.

Just as a P.S. and because I feel bad about missing him off my list…..If you’re a Francophile, I recommend any of John Baxter’s books about Paris. Look him up on line.

Random Book review number two – Longitude by Dava Sobel.

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The second of the books on my Random Book pile is Longitude by Dava Sobel. Again this is not the sort of book I would usually select for my reading material and again I was surprised at how interesting it was.

Dava Sobel is an American writer who writes books primarily about science related subjects. Longitude was first published in 1995 and has since – in 1998 –  been made into a TV series. There has been at least two re-prints, the last one in 2005.

So, what is the book about?

We all know that there are lines of latitude and longitude on maps – this is the story of the race to acurately measure where ships were longitudinaly….before we had the luxury of satelite navigation systems.

Back in the day…..a phrase incidentally that makes me grind my teeth, but I’ll use it anyway….back in the day, ships crews navigated by the stars and used sextants along with a compass to ascertain their position on the map. This was all well and good when land was still in sight and on clear nights, but when the sky was overcast or ships were surrounded by fog, they had to use a best guess system of estimating their speed, the direction of the tide and approximate time travelled. They were sometimes hundreds of miles off course.

Many ships floundered on rocks and reefs and many lives were lost….not to mention precious cargo.

The race was on to find a better way to find an exact position on the map and a cash prize was offered for the person who could determine longitude at sea within a very small margin of error.

What it came down to was a group of scientists and the science/mathematical based community in one corner and a lone clock maker from Yorkshire called John Harrison in the other.

I’ll not tell you who wins, but there are a series of twists and turns, deceit and rule changes along the way to the prize.

It`s actually a fascinating story about a subject that, these days, we barely even think about. The answer to the longitude problem was complex and quite a brilliant achievement – that took over 40 years of struggle and commitment to solve.

Originally written as a magazine article for Harvard Magazine, the publisher asked Dava to expand it into a book for which she was paid a mere $7000 advance, which barely covered the cost of the research she did on the book. The book however was an outstanding success and made the best seller lists, as well as winning British Book of the Year in 1997 -much to her own and her publishers surprise – and cemented Dava into her own unique genre.

Definitely worth a read and I’ll give it 3 out of 5.
Continue reading “Random Book review number two – Longitude by Dava Sobel.”

Getting myself out of a reading rut….

While there is nothing wrong at all in finding something you like to do and sticking to it, it does tend to narrow your options – and in turn narrow your mind…..or I should say it doesn’t help you to expand your mind.

I love to travel, love photography and love to read. So to become sort of addicted to travel writing…..travelogues and travel guides….or the pictorial splendor of glossy photography books was an easy trap to fall into. It’s what I like, so what’s wrong with that?

Spoken like a true addict right?

It’s funny sometimes how you stumble across something, apparently by chance, that just happens to provide another view – another option. And it seems to happen right at the time that you need it.

I’m not sure exactly how I came across “The Bookshop – Wigtown” – it may have been a YouTube suggested channel, I’m really not sure. But here was a guy – Shaun Bythell who ran a bookshop – the biggest second hand bookshop in Scotland. He was explaining how, when sales of books were at a low ebb and he had a glut of books of all types, he decided to start “the Random Book Club”.  Customers would sign up to receive one book every month, mailed to their door…..but it would be a book selected at random . It could be fact or fiction, poetry even. The Random Book Club has, against the odds, been a great success and he has been inundated with emails from people wanting to join. The on-line recruitment campaign was so successful that he’s now spending more time than he initially expected to, selecting and mailing out a hundred and fifty books each month. It was getting too popular so he decided to cap it at 150 members.

I didn’t sign up with the Random Book Club, but it did spark an idea.

I didn’t, and indeed still don’t, have much in the way of spare cash – or any cash if I’m completely honest – to spend on books, so decided to have a rummage around the charity shops/thrift shops/Op shops (depending on what you call them in your part of the world). I’d go into a shop and spying the books in a book case at the far end of the shop I’d pick 2 numbers…..say 3 and 8…..and I’d select the book which occupied the 8th space from the left, on the 3rd shelf – regardless of what it was. I repeated this on other book cases and in other stores, until I had amassed an interesting pile of a dozen or so books (for the grand total of less than ten dollars). OK I admit that one of them turned out to be a travel book…..but the rest were a mix of novels, biographies and other non-fiction that for the most part I wouldn’t usually read.

I’m slowly reading my way through them…..and will share my thoughts on each book in another post…or posts. The main thing is though – I have been entertained and I have learned things that I otherwise wouldn’t have done, had I stayed with my usual travel or photo books. AND it has made me more willing to deliberately browse the shelves of new and used books and to expand my library further – much to my wife’s displeasure.

I’m not sticking religiously to my random pile of books though. I am also reading other purchased books and library books in between including several books by the Australian writer (now residing in Paris) – John Baxter – who I will do an in depth post on later and I have recently finished Shaun Bythell’s book “The Diary of a Bookseller” and am half way through Jessica Fox’s book “Three Things You Need To Know About Rockets”. More on both these books in future posts.

My long suffering wife thinks that I already have too many books….and in all honesty I probably do. Although my taste in genres has changed over the years since I first became interested in books at primary school……as an adult, I’ve gone through detective and crime novels…..Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Richard Laymon, Shaun Hutson and other “supernatural” authors….my beloved travel writers, particularly Bill Bryson…..the classics…..art and photography….gardening and D.I.Y. etc etc. I rarely get rid of any of them. So they gather dust on any of my six book cases or languish, discarded, unloved and hoping to be rediscovered, in any number of banana boxes in my garage. I’ve even considered opening a “pop-up” second hand book store in a tent on my front lawn to off load a few books and give me a much needed cash-flow……to buy more books of course.

I could call it “Intent books – for books within tent“…..

Hmmmm. Certainly something to think about.

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Above – my dozen random books.