Wednesday 30 April 2008

Memories, stem cells and sphinxes

Strange, compelling creatures they are, recurring, fascinating down the ages. Lingering intrigued beside the sphinxes in the garden of Vienna's Belvedere Palace, I noticed I was not the only one. Many people stared boldly at their all-too-human smirking faces and pert breasts, then looked away discomfited from their animal haunches.

I found myself thinking of the item dominating the news when I'd left London a few days before, the new legislation to permit the fusion, for research, of human and animal embryos. Despite myself, I felt a flash of sympathy for the Catholic and Muslim clerics loudly protesting this. Despite myself, for surely I welcome the real hope in embryo and stem-cell research of understanding, tackling some common and devastating diseases? I feel divided, I suppose. How much is it good to mess with things? And yet if there was really hope for dear ones to live or see or walk when we thought they would not, would I say no?

There truly is hope, it seems. A boy is interviewed on the radio this week. An injection of genetic material into the back of his eyes appears to have halted loss of sight from retinitis pigmentosa. My heart lurches, as it always does when I hear of a young person losing their sight to this not uncommon genetic condition. Someone close to me when I was young was going through this, with devastating consequences to his life and lives around him. Will that contemporary of mine live to know his story has become a sad story from history - like that of common early death from TB? How strange, how miraculous, but also, for him and for others, how difficult that would be.

Monday 28 April 2008

Blue glass

behind blue windows
hidden worlds where blue people

go about their lives

Saturday 26 April 2008

Sunshine, yellow

It's warm, straight from shivery cold to very warm. Coats are off and a man on the bus is wearing a yellow sweatshirt. Extremely yellow. Yellow like the bus handrail, like a yellow highlighter pen layered on so thickly that the text beneath disappears. Fine on a canary, not on a person. All the way here it bothers me. Off the bus and walking away, ahead of me, through the crowds, bursts of glaring yellow are still visible into the distance. Tired, busy, crowded, yellow. Much too yellow.

Thursday 24 April 2008

Saturday 19 April 2008

Babel: living in our differences

"The ancient biblical image suggests that we live in our differences, emblematically linguistic, on top of one another - like Franck Lloyd Wright's dream of a mile-high apartment building. But common sense tells us our linguistic dispersion cannot be a tower. The geography of our dispersal into many languages is much more horizontal then vertical (or so it seems), with rivers and mountains and valleys, and oceans that lap around the land mass. To translate is to ferry, to bring across.

But maybe there is some truth in the image. A tower has many levels, and the many tenants of this tower are stacked one on top of another. If Babel is anything like other towers, the higher floors are the more coveted. Maybe certain languages occupy whole sections of the upper floors, the great rooms and commanding terraces. And other languages and their literary products are confined to lower floors, low ceilings, blocked views."

Susan Sontag brings new and striking resonances to the ancient image - particularly vivid for me as I'd recently seen Bruegel's astonishing painting in Vienna - in her essay, The World as India, delivered as the 2002 UK St Jerome Lecture on Literary Translation and published in the recent collection of her last speeches and essays, At The Same Time.
The book is a breathtaking, poignant tour of an intellect at its peak.
(this close to the painting)

Friday 18 April 2008


New design. I loved the elegant simplicity of the previous one, but it fatally lacked a sidebar - so no links, no blogroll. This here happened on the spur of the moment when I desperately needed to be engaged in doing other things, but you know how the brain gets hold of a frantic obsession sometimes and kind of goes off on its own... It suddenly seemed imperative to redesign my blog. I'll probably change it again, and obviously I haven't yet compiled the sidebar links. I need to get into the code and make the photos bigger - almost certainly beyond me. Anyway, comments welcome.


The other thing going slowly in these parts is Spring. After soft, warm days in Vienna, back to persistent cold and damp in London. Just the one snowstorm, a week or so ago - a white cover gone in one day, but chill winds, frost and hail, along with heavy rainstorms.
Jacques Réda, whose writing I'm just discovering with great enjoyment, calls these unfriendly between-seasons the 'badly tamed' months, when something gets into steel and concrete towers and stone statues and they bend and prowl under a wild sky like trees and beasts in the forest. There are more flowers and leaves every day, nonetheless, and louder birdsong, all of us shivering and waiting out the weather, turning our faces up to the brief bursts of sunshine.

Thursday 17 April 2008

Green wind, green branches

I learn from Dave that today is Poem in your Pocket Day. So here, quickly, is the one that lurks in the bottom of mine: the first poem, I think, that made an impression on me, aged 16 or 17. I could not recite it now, but every line of the Spanish has a familiar taste - something resonated in my gut, many years before I had the emotional or intellectual capacity to appreciate poetry.

Romance Sonambulo by Federico Garcia Lorca
Translated by William Logan (original Spanish below)

Green, how I want you green.

Green wind. Green branches.

The ship out on the sea

and the horse on the mountain.

With the shade around her waist

she dreams on her balcony,

green flesh, her hair green,

with eyes of cold silver.

Green, how I want you green.

Under the gypsy moon,

all things are watching her

and she cannot see them.

Green, how I want you green.

Big hoarfrost stars

come with the fish of shadow

that opens the road of dawn.

The fig tree rubs its wind

with the sandpaper of its branches,

and the forest, cunning cat,

bristles its brittle fibers.

But who will come? And from where?

She is still on her balcony

green flesh, her hair green,

dreaming in the bitter sea.

--My friend, I want to trade

my horse for her house,

my saddle for her mirror,

my knife for her blanket.

My friend, I come bleeding

from the gates of Cabra.

--If it were possible, my boy,

I'd help you fix that trade.

But now I am not I,

nor is my house now my house.

--My friend, I want to die

decently in my bed.

Of iron, if that's possible,

with blankets of fine chambray.

Don't you see the wound I have

from my chest up to my throat?

--Your white shirt has grown

thirsy dark brown roses.

Your blood oozes and flees a

round the corners of your sash.

But now I am not I,

nor is my house now my house.

--Let me climb up, at least,

up to the high balconies;

Let me climb up! Let me,

up to the green balconies.

Railings of the moon

through which the water rumbles.

Now the two friends climb up,

up to the high balconies.

Leaving a trail of blood.

Leaving a trail of teardrops.

Tin bell vines

were trembling on the roofs.

A thousand crystal tambourines

struck at the dawn light.

Green, how I want you green,

green wind, green branches.

The two friends climbed up.

The stiff wind left

in their mouths, a strange taste

of bile, of mint, and of basil

My friend, where is she--tell me--

where is your bitter girl?

How many times she waited for you!

How many times would she wait for you,

cool face, black hair,

on this green balcony!

Over the mouth of the cistern

the gypsy girl was swinging,

green flesh, her hair green,

with eyes of cold silver.

An icicle of moon

holds her up above the water.

The night became intimate

like a little plaza.

Drunken "Guardias Civiles"

were pounding on the door.

Green, how I want you green.

Green wind. Green branches.

The ship out on the sea.

And the horse on the mountain.


Verde que te quiero verde.

Verde viento. Verdes ramas.

El barco sobre la mar

y el caballo en la montaña.

Con la sombra en la cintura

ella sueña en sus baranda,

verde carne, pelo verde,

con ojos de fría plata.

Verde que te quiero verde.

Bajo la luna gitana,

las cosas la están mirando

y ella no puede mirarlas.

Verde que te quiero verde.

Grandes estrellas de escarcha,

vienen con el pez de sombra

que abre el camino del alba.

La higuera frota su viento

con la lija de sus ramas,

y el monte, gato garduño,

eriza sus pitas agrias.

¿Pero quién vendrá? ¿Y por dónde...?

Ella sigue en su baranda,

verde carne, pelo verde,

soñando en la mar amarga.

Compadre, quiero cambiar

mi caballo por su casa,

mi montura por su espejo,

mi cuchillo por su manta.

Compadre, vengo sangrando,

desde los puertos de Cabra.

Si yo pudiera, mocito,

este trato se cerraba.

Pero yo ya no soy yo,

Ni mi casa es ya mi casa.

Compadre, quiero morir

decentemente en mi cama.

De acero, si puede ser,

con las sábanas de holanda.

¿No ves la herida que tengo

desde el pecho a la garganta?

Trescientas rosas morenas

lleva tu pechera blanca.

Tu sangre rezuma y huele

alrededor de tu faja.

Pero yo ya no soy yo.

Ni mi casa es ya mi casa.

Dejadme subir al menos

hasta las altas barandas,

¡dejadme subir!, dejadme

hasta las verdes barandas.

Barandales de la luna

por donde retumba el agua.

Ya suben los dos compadres

hacia las altas barandas.

Dejando un rastro de sangre.

Dejando un rastro de lágrimas.

Temblaban en los tejados

farolillos de hojalata.

Mil panderos de cristal,

herían la madrugada.

Verde que te quiero verde,

verde viento, verdes ramas.

Los dos compadres subieron.

El largo viento, dejaba

en la boca un raro gusto

de hiel, de menta y de albahaca.

¡Compadre! ¿Dónde está, dime?

¿Dónde está tu niña amarga?

¡Cuántas veces te esperó!

¡Cuántas veces te esperara,

cara fresca, negro pelo,

en esta verde baranda!

Sobre el rostro del aljibe

se mecía la gitana.

Verde carne, pelo verde,

con ojos de fría plata.

Un carábano de luna

la sostiene sobre el agua.

La noche se puso íntima

como una pequeña plaza.

Guardias civiles borrachos

en la puerta golpeaban.

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Go slowly

Not a photograph from the 1920s,
but a painting by Juan de Flandes
in the Vienna
Künsthistorisches Museum
from about 1500.

It's taken me ten days to sort my photos from Vienna into an album - here. I don't deal well with a lot of anything: multiplicity floors me. Five or six hundred photos, more than I can view on-screen at one time - how do I sort those? I couldn't, it turned out, not in one go. I could only sort and ponder them bit by bit, draw out themes and slowly filter them down. And slowly does get there. In fact, it has huge advantages. I've not only sorted out my photos, but got my head around Vienna, put it in place and begun to walk away.

A favourite meditation teacher, Martine Batchelor, is much wont to say: "The more you have to do, the more slowly you need to do it." This may seem counter-intuitive, but it's not, if you think about it. Faced with tasks of potentially overwhelming magnitude, what you most need may well be calm and endurance.

This has also been my approach, therefore, to the many hundreds of emails, files and queries awaiting me on return from holiday, and it has worked quite well. I'm getting through it. It's hard, though. To slow down a mind that panics and zones out in the face of multiple demands is a challenge for a lifetime. A disastrous hare, perhaps I may aspire to be a viable, effective tortoise.

Tuesday 15 April 2008

Six word memoir

Um, can you tell that's me reflected in the Viennese Buddha?

Still here, amazed by own persistence

(meme passed on by Zhoen while I was away)

Monday 14 April 2008

Friday 11 April 2008


Well, nothing is appropriate to follow the last piece. But urban juxtapositions are rarely appropriate, they just are. What we did after looking at the memorial was take a tram to go and look at the Hundertwasserhaus. God, it's gorgeous: bright, riotous and life-enhancing. Why are we so churlish about using bright colours and pattern in ordinary buildings?

Thursday 10 April 2008


It's not a word I ever use, but fitting is the word that occurs to me in describing the memorial
to Austrian Jewish victims of the Shoah, in Judenplatz, commissioned by the City of Vienna from British artist Rachel Whiteread.

It's the size of a room, a library - a size to make itself felt, but not to dominate the square.
It has a definite and interesting form, enough to draw the attention, but not enough to overwhelm the meaning.

I liked this review from the time of it's unveiling in 2000.

The artist did well, I think. My friend M, whose father is among those commemorated, thinks so too - which must be the best measure.

Wednesday 9 April 2008

Feasting on food and art

And yet, and yes, it was a feast for all the senses. With time and energy limited, I tried to be discriminating, but still came away with the feeling I had gorged on food and wine and art and talk.

Begin with
Wiener Schnitzel, melting and crispy, overflowing the plate, with creamy potato salad and the first of many light golden wines in a round glass with a thick green stem. Begin with Bruegel at the Künsthistorisches Museum, a whole room full of vivid colours, tender, monumental detail, unfaded messages from daily life. And then Van Eyck and all those grave, delicate faces by other painters of the Northern Renaissance that I love. A creamy-smooth mélange under gilded vaults, rolling and cradling the precious colour and texture of the paintings as I sip. White fleshy fish and more golden wine at a crowded sunny place in the market, and crossing the road to gaze upwards at the soft sprawling pink and green of the Majolikahaus. Early Spring seems the right time for Jungendstil - pure colours emerging from plain stone and steel.

Tender Turkish kebabs - now just as typically Viennese - and curly leering statues lurking on a corner fountain. Sour-cheese pastries, flaky and filling, as we contemplate the fortress tower of the Minoritenkirche, hard but gentled by a blue sky. A long evening wander in the MAK as dusk filters through the windows and musicians send up a cool electronic background from the foyer. Exquisite objects, exquisitely displayed: curvy-perfect bentwood chairs lit in silhouette behind a screen, a big marquetry cabinet with repeated Egyptian ladies - I want to touch, to touch; light pouring through glass vases in the same pink and green as the Majolikahaus and a perfect screen with grey cobwebby drawings by Margaret Macdonald when she came to Vienna; the small, beautifully crafted objects of the Wiener Werkstätte. Breathe it in, digest it along with the red veal goulash and just one more glass of perfect wine (hurrah, I can drink this with impunity - no headaches!). And talk, and talk - my unfeigned delight in the museum opening warmth and spontaneity between us after long absence.

Leave the best till last: rabbit on a skewer with buttery asparagus and then Marillen(apricot)schapps. Nah, too sweet! It's not sweet. Smell it. Taste it! Oh. Choke. Wow. Broad smile.

Leave the best till last: the Belvedere. The aching prettiness of Klimt and the aching ugliness of Schiele, and the keen pleasure of spotting in the Viennese paintings not only streets and landscapes, but faces, types I've been seeing around me all week. And right before leaving, having stayed miraculously off the cakes, a slice of Sachertorte, dry and semi-sweet with sharp jam and rich chocolate. Tasting it, tasting Vienna, all the way on the airport bus.

This is one dimension. My friends are Social-Democratic politicians, so, between the gourmandising and the art, be sure there was also endless talk of real life, of what else Vienna was and is.

Back home, I feel odd, as full of shadows as of pleasure. Vienna is a place. For good or ill, it exists in space and time. It made me feel my edges, whereas London is pure flux and habitually, within it, so am I. I feel my edges still. They hurt. Crushing, nauseating waves of heartache wake me in the night. Is all this about me, me, or also about the tragedies of Vienna? Who knows? We can feel our edges, but not exactly where they lie.

Tuesday 8 April 2008


More when I get around to it (back at work now - you can imagine what that's like after three weeks away!)

Monday 7 April 2008


I arrive feeling lonely - two weeks away from the consuming routines of work having repaired my physical exhaustion, but brought me hard up against what I use those routines to hide from: how alone and unanchored I am. I hope for a relationship with Vienna, want the city to fill me up.

Your compact centre curls in calm and elegant solidity, timeless trams circling between the regular bulk of your five- and six-storey buildings. Row on row of windows, outlined here by fine Baroque carving, here by the austere, repeated patterns of the Jugendstil, the former bursting every now and then into gold-leaf, extravagant gargoyles and fountains, the latter into lovely, subtly coloured flowers and angels. Vienna, after London, what a uniform, calm and orderly city you are, full of beauties large and small.

Congenial, gemütlich, you stroke my mood and senses, soothing, anchoring my heart in time and place, yet slowly plant unease. You preserve your dark history alongside your architectural heritage. Something in the sheer size and number of your gorgeous palaces affronts. And then, the wall-plaques and small museums: here and here and here the Jewish citizens were, and are gone.

Beneath your charm and beauty, a more complex, painful, bitter-sweet allure. My Viennese friends left and lived abroad, and have all returned.

Saturday 5 April 2008