Tuesday, December 31, 2013

An account of my travels in Greece, Part 1: Athens

In September I went to Greece. I went there without flying, travelling to London by a strange combination of boat, car and train, then using the Eurostar and TGV to reach Milan, the Italian train system to reach Bari, and then a ferry boat to reach Patras in Greece. It was all very exciting. Milan was a nice place to spend a day but, as anyone who has visited there will say, the majesty of the Duomo cathedral always seems a bit oversold when you have the Milano Centrale railway station to compare it to. The latter is an astonishing piece of architecture, I think from the Mussolini era. It certainly establishes the notion that the State is big while you are small.

In Greece I was in Athens and some places on the Peloponnese (you know, the bit that is almost an island but is not). Athens was a bit of a pleasant surprise. Before I went there, people kept saying,"I hear Athens is a smelly polluted kip." But the city seemed to lack a polluted atmosphere or any kind of all pervasive pungent aroma. Instead it was a surprisingly pretty place, with lots of great things from antiquity to see. I crossed off a list of key things here - the Acropolis (with the Parthenon and Erechtheum); the ancient Agora, which is basically a park full of evocative bits of rubble but also a nice little temple to Hephaestus; the Temple of Olympian Zeus, one of those temples that was once enormous but is now just a number of huge pillars; the Theatre of Dionysos (Roman theatre built on the site of the theatre where the plays of Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus would have been first staged); etc.

I visited the Acropolis twice. The first time in the early afternoon was very busy, full of visitors wandering around, photographing each other, admiring the buildings and the view. I was fascinated by how people approached Acropolis photography, as they seemed to be mostly trying to take pictures of the buildings without other people in the background. To me that seemed like both a futile effort but also to be misrepresentation of what the crowded hill was actually like. My own pictures deliberately show the site with all its teeming humanity.

One other photographer I was intrigued by was this guy in a black vest who kept trying and failing to get a woman (most likely wife or equivalent) to photograph him just the way he wanted it. She was not attuned to his artistic vision, so I kept hearing him say things like "That's not the picture I want, I'll show you the picture I want". I found it hard not to think of him as a bit of dick, but there was a twinge of recognition for I was once that soldier. But I am older and wiser now and know that if you want to be in photographs you need to take them yourself.

I had quite a few people, members of couples or other groups, asking me to take photos for them. One nice Australian woman offered to return the favour. I declined, but I was reminded of Rob Newman in the Mary Whitehouse Experience, half yearning to go up to happy couples with my camera to say "Excuse me, would you mind taking a picture of me, on my own?"

My second visit to the Acropolis was in the evening of the night before I flew home. That was quieter in terms of visitor numbers, which lent it a different atmosphere. The sky was clearer and the low sun provided us with lengthened shadows. I took in more of the place's ambience and pondered how a flat hilltop with only two ruined buildings (not counting the cluster at the entrance) can feel so otherworldly. And then a bunch of Greek squaddies marched in to take down the flag on the Acropolis' Second World War memorial.

I also wandered around on the hills near the Acropolis, stumbling onto the Pnyx, the hillside where the citizens of Athens met and decided public business, bequeathing democracy to the world. I also found the cell where it is said that Socrates was held before his execution, though the attribution is somewhat fanciful, and a small shrine to Pan that is mentioned by Herodotus (he reports that it was built after a messenger to Sparta met the God on his journey, with Pan complaining to the runner that the people of Athens were not showing him proper respect; Herodotus' account suggests a certain scepticism). The hilly bit of Athens is a strange and oddly otherworldly place, probably the part of Greece where I most imagined I might stumble onto some fauns or maenads, for all that they lie in the heart of the city.

Click here for Part 2 of my account, in which I visit the Italianate town of Nafplio, the unbelievably ancient site of Mycenae, and the famous theatre at Epidauros.

More pictures:


The Acropolis of Athens

Classical Stuff in Athens

All my Greek pictures

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Monday, December 30, 2013

Secrets of the Cat Burglar Cats

Cats are well known for their habit of bringing little gifts for their owners - usually half-eaten mice or mangled birds. But an important report on the BBC News website concerns two cats somewhat more ambitious in their gifting. Theo, a Siamese cross from Ipswich, has previously presented his owners with stolen clothing items, phone chargers and cat toys. This year, however, he has got into the festive spirit by bringing home a variety of Christmas decorations believed to be filched from neighbours' Christmas trees.

The same article reports that Luton cat Denis typically brings home underwear, shoes and similar items, acquired in a less than legal manner. After Christmas, however, he impresses his owners by delivering piles of Christmas wrapping paper to them.

Both cats are apparently not very good at catching birds or small rodents.

Cat experts believe that behaviour like this is typical of felines who were not thought to hunt properly as kittens. When they grow up, they become fixated on cat toys and human objects and retrieve them instead of launching murderous campaigns against other animals.

More (BBC)

Denis Cat Burglar Newman (YouTube channel)

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Film: "The Wicker Man" (1973)

This was recently back in the cinema, celebrating 40 years since its original release. It is another of those films that everyone in the world has seen by now. Like The Manchurian Candidate, it is one of those films that it is easy to take for granted, but seeing it again brings home what a great piece of work it is. And as this was my first time seeing the film since I got the the soundtrack album, it was nice being able to delight the IFI audience with my joining in with all the songs.

It strikes me, oddly, that one great 20th century artist to whom this film owes a considerable debt is Franz Kafka. Like the protagonists of The Trial or, perhaps even more so, The Castle, Sgt Howie finds himself in a world where everyone else knows what is going on and no one is willing to help him. He is increasingly baffled by the opaque rules that surround him and his attempts to treat things as he would in a normal situation lead him deeper and deeper into the morass.

The version of the film being shown was supposedly based on some more complete print conveniently rediscovered just in time for the 40th anniversary re-release. Pre-publicity said that this would finally allow the film to be shown as originally intended or something. But it looked more or less identical to the long version of the film on the DVD I borrowed from Laser a few years ago. It has Howie in church on the mainland at the start and then he spends the full two nights on the island. Like the DVD release, you can see the film stock change where they switch to the scenes copied from an inferior print. And there were none of the extra episodes I have since read about (which is probably just as well as many of them sound completely superfluous). So does anyone know whether there is actually anything new in the version recently shown in the cinema?

See also:

website discussing various Wicker Man versions and extra scenes etc.

image source

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Film: "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) - a short note

Ages ago, in the run-up to the release of Only God Forgives, the IFI were trying to drum up some interest by showing some related films in a season called "Wanna Fight?" ( this being one of Gosling's few lines in the film). One of the films shown in that season was The Manchurian Candidate. I have of course seen this before, but not for some time. My main interest on this occasion was to address a niggling doubt I have had for a while about it - the fear that maybe, just maybe, once you get away from the stunning brainwashing scene the film might actually be a bit plodding and mechanical. The brainwashing scene, with its panning camera and seamless moves from a ladies club meeting in a hotel to a lecture theatre full of Chinese and Russian spooks is one of the great scenes of cinema. But could it be that this is the one flashy moment in an otherwise predictable tale of spies and sinister communist plots? Not having seen the film in a very long time, this disturbing theory was just about credible.

But of course, I was wrong. The rest of the film is great too, driven by an intriguing and multi-layered plot and great performances in complex roles from Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Carter. Even the sinister foreign villains have a bit more pizazz to them than you might expect from an example of the Red Menace / Yellow Peril genre.

I could say more, but what would be the point? Most people have already seen this classic and they do not need me telling them how good it is. And people who have not seen it should have the pleasure of watching it for the first time without preconceptions.

Only God Forgives

image source

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The sensual growl of the male Koala

Scientists have long been astonished by the low growl of the male koala. The marsupial bear emits this strange burping sound to let lady koalas know that he is in the area and ready to see to their sexual needs. What has confused scientists is how such a small animal has been able to make such a low pitched noise. Were their vocal tracts to be structured in the normal manner, koalas would apparently need to be the size of an elephant to make such strange rumbling tones.

But the vocal tracts of koalas are not like those of other animals. Scientists have discovered that, as well as their larynxes, koalas also have an extra set of vocal folds specially designed for male koalas to sing their sensual song.

It is unclear as to exactly what the male koala communicates with his low rumbling moan. Perhaps lady koalas can identify individual males from their calls and decide to stay away from that cad who gave them koala chlamydia last autumn. Or perhaps the quality of the growl is a signifier of the health and reproductive fitness of the male koala. Or perhaps, as the Guardian suggests, the purpose of the male koala’s growl can be understood with reference to certain human sexual behaviours.


Koalas bellow with unique voice organ (BBC) (image source)

Is it a snore? Is it a burp? It’s a male koala trying to attract a mate

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