Share It

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Star Men .. and Sheffield

I'm back from Sheffield, where we went for just one day to see Nick's film.  And, well!  In my mind Sheffield had been a place of blackened stone and brick, with a certain gloomy period atmosphere. But when I got out of the station - wow!  Where were the tatty car park and derelict old buildings I remembered? Instead, a reflective wall of water, glimmering with colours, sweeping in a great curve up the hill.

dwindling to a quarter of the size at the other end - an ingenious optical illusion.

 On the hillside beyond, the windows of once notorious, now partly renovated Park Hill Estate glittered with jewel like colours.

Now Sheffield Hallam University buildings surround the station.  Not all of them are very beautiful but - they have tried.  We climbed the hill into town, following a mysterious mosaic channel which I suppose was meant to be filled with water - wonder why it wasn't?

it had a very fine plughole 

The place was hung with film festival banners, and we passed an outdoor screening of interesting vintage documentaries. Incidentally, that wasn't the only building I saw with a face painted on the side. Quite surreal. Wonder who he is. Some vintage Sheffield celebrity? Do you know?

And on the wall of a large ugly block a poem welcoming visitors to Sheffield by the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. Great poem.  Click the link to read the text. 

I don't know what the rest of Sheffield is like,and secretly I would like to think that there is still a bit of grand, gloomy Victoriana somewhere, but I like a city that presents an artistic face to the world. There is a vibrancy, affluence and liveliness now that there certainly wasn't before.

So I'll come back and have a better look around, but, as I said yesterday, we were going to see a film featuring a relative,  Nick Woolf.  Nick is a retired astronomer, and fifty years ago, he took a road trip across the American southwest with some English friends, a couple of tents, a Union Jack and a wonderful old car.  That is him lurking on the left.

In those days, war-exhausted, impoverished Britain offered a great education but not much in the way of opportunities, and several of the young English astronomers on the road trip went on to have careers abroad, although a couple did become Cambridge professors. The others stayed in America, where the study of space was starting to take off in a big way.

In the documentatary Star Men, the survivors retraced their road-trip footsteps in a way both touching and quixotic, tackling alarming desert hikes and reflecting on how their work in  trying to unravel secrets of the infinite universe has shaped their views on the inner and outer life, what you know and what you'll never know.

I found the film a complete eye opener.  I'd really come to support Nick, but actually I have never been particularly excited by astronomy, so I'd probably never have seen this film if it hadn't been for him. Which would have been  my great loss, because I was absolutely gripped.  

Not only the stunning visual images -  in particular a time lapse sequence of countless stars whirling about remote Rainbow Bridge in wildest Utah  - go here for a mere still photograph  and then imagine it in motion.    I also loved the curious synchronised time-lapse swooping ballet as the elegant dishes of the Very Large Array at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory turned to invisible signals.  [credit]  Much of the film was set in an otherworldly desert landscape on the edge of human life. 

Most of all, the film's artistry helped me to see just what is so fascinating and compelling about the study of the stars. I feel I now have some understanding of why we do need to study them, consider them. To put ourselves in perspective, perhaps, to aspire to impossible tasks, to unravel enormous mysteries. 

All these thoughtful and intelligent men were full of ideas and curiosity, not least on the subject of death and endings, which, at their age, preoccupies them more and more. Even though they see themselves as mere specks in infinity, and even though they all have brains at least the size of Jupiter, I was interested to see that they hold very different views on religion.  

There was a discussion at the end of the film, Nick,(the tall one in the middle)  two of the other professors and the director, Alison Rose, went up before the audience for a  Q and A session.  Someone asked Nick what he thought of his portrayal in the film. "Well - it looks like me. It sounds like me," he said.  "And,actually - it is me."   What a tribute to Rose, I thought.   

I left the screening on a high, I appreciated the chance to see a documentary made with artistry,  passion, curiosity and respect for its subject.   No dumbing down, no flattery,and, if there were any pressures from politicians and bean-counters, Rose managed to keep them out of the film.  

Star Men will do various festivals and then come out on DVD.  I think its makers, Inigo Productions, are planning to offer it to the BBC.  The BBC is still the best place to try and show good work, so I hope it finds a home there.  And I have put in my diary to attend the Sheffield DocFest next year. Maybe I'll have the chance to see more of Sheffield then! 

Come to think of it, I would love to revisit the American southwest. I did quite a bit of work there in years gone by, and I miss those amazing landscapes. I envy those of you who can get out into them sometimes, to feel the desert wind and see the huge horizons.  

Monday, 8 June 2015

Thought Provoking???

I saw this huge oak tree the other evening in the grounds of an old country house in Suffolk, with late may-blossom in the background.

England can be so beautiful at this time of year.

I'm off to Sheffield to see a relative who is featured in a documentary film. (PS Here is the link, forgot to put it in before).  I'm told that it is quite thought provoking.  Not quite sure what to expect but it's years since I went to Sheffield, so at least I will be able to compare it as it is today with the way it was when I was a teenager in nearby Chesterfield.  I think it's fair to say that Shef will now be very different from the grimy yet characterful old place it was in those days!

As for the film, I will just have to wait and see..... "thought provoking" - what can that mean???

Tuesday, 26 May 2015


I appreciated all your comments on Palmyra.  Have you noticed that this amazing city has actually been written about quite a lot,  so it seems the eyes of the world are turned anxiously towards it, and its significance for all of us.  I'm just hoping, and also stopping myself from checking the news too much.

Over the last week I've been in Southern Spain, mostly away from the news,  thank goodness. It wasn't a travel writing assignment, because we were attending a big wedding.  That involved visiting an old, small but beautiful church in the mountains about Fuengirola, in Andalucia. Here's the view from the terrace outside the church, down to the sea.

Inside, the church had the kind of ornate golden altar that you often see in Spanish churches. Unusually  (I thought) the Virgin Mary was at the centre of the altar, not Jesus on the Cross - which is much more usual in Northern churches.

I wish I could post loads of photos about the wedding and people, and indeed the whole experience, but with so many people attending, there wasn't a hope of getting everyone's permission. So I am afraid I can't tell you about any of that - but I'll write about where we stayed because it was a very pleasant surprise. In fact, I liked it so much that we're dead set on returning later this year or next.

We were in the the town called Fuengirola, which is about 20 miles down the coast from Malaga by train, just past Torremolinos.  As many English people will know, this area, also known as the Costa Del Sol,  was for some years the centre of the package holiday business, and it became associated with the idea of tower block hotels and noisy bars.  I liked Malaga, but I'd never considered going down the coast.  So what a surprise it was to finally get there! And even more of one to find good restaurants, interesting shops,flowers, and a general air of brightness and cleanliness.

True, Fuengirola has a big beach, lots of bars and hotels, and quite a large expat community, too, so it is not the fishing village it was 50 years ago when our relatives' family bought their house there. But the apartment complex where we stayed was so pleasant and central, that I realised it would be a terrific place to go with a family and still be able to stay sane.  Kids would appreciate the little funfair on the beach and the various attractions, but it doesn't take long to drive out into the mountains beyond, the town itself is a good place to hang out and our apartment complex was just plain amazing.

It's probably nicer at this time of year than in high summer, not only because it's less busy but because so many of the streets are lined with jacaranda trees in full bloom. Their lilac-blue blossoms seem almost ethereal because the leaves of the trees mostly come out a bit after the blossoms, and you get this lavender colour as a sort of haze against the sky.

We stayed in a holiday complex very near the centre just to the right of the road above.  It's called Puebla Lucia, and is a mixture of apartments and houses, set around gardens which are obviously maintained by a perfectionist.
They were just immaculate. More meticulously cared for than even Kew Gardens, I'd say. They were divided into several different areas, with fountains and swimming pools.

I think the Pueblo Lucia complex has grown when the owners took over and converted existing apartment blocks, so there is a variety of flats, houses and studios, and we kept discovering new corners. There is also a bar and restaurant on site, although we didn't try them.

It's a few minutes walk from the train station and about another 10 minutes to the huge beach. That frankly is not my scene as it was already boiling hot and it's only May, and I just don't see the point of sitting in full sun for hours, even if the sea is nearby.  I wasn't that crazy on the children's funfair, family restaurants and all the other things English holidaymakers expect, either, although it was all clean and friendly enough.. 

Eating out is very cheap - in fact, everything seems ridiculously cheap from a British perspective (but then, we are not in the Euro).  We ate quite a bit in restaurants where there was very good fish of all kinds, as well as some unexpected dishes.  At first, we didn't quite know what to make of this, below, with the tomato in the middle. It's actually a fish pancake in a herb sauce. I was a bit dubious, but it turned out to be so delicious that everyone wanted one.  

We had breakfast each morning in the public market's cafe, where the twins (now almost toddling) were a star turn with the owners.   Then we'd buy fruit and veg for the day. I wish we could get great big  tomatoes like this in England.  Not that we can't get beefsteak tomatoes here, but after weeks of sitting in a chiller somewhere, they have usually lost all their taste by the time they get onto the supermarket shelves. 

Although of course part of the attraction for us was in having other people around, we were really sorry to leave our apartment, and intend to return.  This was the last sight of Spain, baking in the sunshine. 

Next time I visit, I'll  buy some Spanish tiles, bring them home and tile the inside of our back balcony with them.  Because, even allowing for the weather, I am already yearning for a bit more Spanish brightness and colour around the place.


Saturday, 16 May 2015


I was haflway through another post when I heard that ISIS was on the verge of entering Palmyra. And I have been able to think about little else.  In case you don't know, Palmyra's is a UNESCO world heritage site in Syria, and the ISIS barbarians want to bulldoze it just like they bulldozed the Iraqi site of Nimrod.  If I had not been to the Middle East,  I can't say I would have been as bothered as I am, because to be honest, I'm not that knowledgable about most of the ancient sites I've seen;  but believe me, some of the Middle Eastern sites are in a totally different league from anything you will find in the West.

So although I don't usually do long posts, forgive all these pictures. I want to show you what it was like when we went to Palmyra in February 2011, when many people thought the Syrian tourist industry was on the verge of opening up to more people.  As it was, there were few independent travellers, and we had Palmyra almost entirely to ourselves.

We stayed in an old colonial hotel dating from the 1930s,-  the only hotel which is actually in the midst of the ruins.  You could imagine it featuring in an Agatha Christie novel.   The idea was to see Palmyra as the sun rose, and so we got up before dawn and crept through the deserted entrance lobby and outside.

The darkness was lifting and before long the sky had turned a soft rose and violet colour as the moon dropped towards the horizon and the sky began to brighten..

 Very quickly, the first fierce light of the sun appeared, the Roman columns silhouetted against its vivid glow.

... lighting the buildings up in an orange glow and casting long shadows....

It is a true city, and stretches a long way, and a lot of it has survived the last couple of thousand years. 

The sun came up very fast, and the camels woke up

Everything seemed to glow. 

Very quickly, though, the light became bright and white.  There was complete silence.

It was extraordinary having the place almost to ourselves.

Above the city were strange towers.  The barren looking hills on which they stood were covered in tiny transparent flowers which almost glittered in the sun, but I found them impossible to photograph. As we slogged up the hills we were glad it was winter, and still quite cold in the early mornings. 

I did think of the people who built these great towers.

Down on the plain, the sun was getting brighter

You could go inside some of the buildings

There were signs of repairs going on, although nobody was doing the work. 

There were a few places along the road to Palmyra offering refreshments. The owner of the one we chose spoke perfect English. He had lived in England for some years, but returned to Palmyra, his hometown, with the idea of creating an authentic desert restaurant for the tourist trade he hoped would materialise.  

In early 2011, life seemed to be improving in Syria.  Assad was becoming more liberal and, as in Libya, some of the extraordinary ancient ruins were becoming more accessible to individual travellers.  The owner didn't want to charge us for the tea because he wasn't yet officially open - typical of Syrian hospitality.

There's a small unpretentious settlement some way from the ruins with eating places and shops, catering for what tourists there were - nearly all groups.  This was the view from our cafe window. 

The camels I think were supposed to give tourists rides - although there were almost no tourists.  Horses are a good way of getting around the site, since there are no roads. 

By the late afternoon, a handful of other travellers had turned up, although the city was still almost empty. Many people like to climb the mountain to the east of  Palmyra as evening comes on, to view the sunset over the plain.

In the dusty light of evening, some parts of of the landscape looks almost unreal.   Here are those towers.

The sun drops quickly, the desert goes pink again. In the distance are the date plantations.

A telecom mast on the mountain adds a touch of modernity.  About a dozen people were on the mountain, plus many Bedouin, desperate to sell trinkets. The Bedouin, desert dwellers, were the only people who pestered us to buy during our stay in Palmyra.  They are very poor. 

And so the sun disappeared, and that rose glow entered the sky again as night came on

We had a car and drove away from Palmyra then, across the desert.

I spotted this single joker card tucked in among the rocks in Palmyra. For me it sums up the present situation, when anything could happen. Syrian forces are bombing IS to try and stop it from getting into the city.  I do hope that luck is on the side of Palmyra.

As for my political rantings last week, I am quite happy with the results of the election, because I am profoundly grateful to live in a true parliamentary democracy with a stable government.

Blog Archive