Apr 06

Architecture and Wine

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 612 views

In a region better known for its grapes, the owners of the wineries (or bodegas) of northern Spain have turned their attention to front-of-house impressions.

The Marquis de Riscal’s new bodega and hotel at Elciego in Rioja is perhaps the most daring. Designed by Frank Gehry, it resembles a gayer Guggenheim with pinkish fins and sparkling curves. It’s not finished yet and all the more interesting for it, allowing an eye into its construction.

In the Simpsons, Springfield erects a Gehry building; a conventional structure attacked by wrecking balls to knock out the angles. Not too far from the truth! Underneath the skirts lies the geometry; all girders and supports, a corset to hold it together.

On the road past the bodega, a car lay bashed in a ditch. The consequence of building an incongruous building by a busy bypass? After the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Los Angeles Concert Hall, Gehry is becoming a one-trick pony, but it’s still a decent trick.

Down the road in Laguardia lies Santiago Calatrava’s sparkling Ysios bodega. The building is glass-fronted with a choppy-waved roof and sits atop a bump in the landscape. Spring-blue skies bounced zig-zag shadows over the vines. A wedding erupted from inside. The entrance hall gave a more critical assessment, a reality of drips and buckets.

Architecture attracts architects. In Bilbao, Gehry built the museum, Norman Foster the metro (a first draft of Canary Wharf) and Calatrava added a bridge and an airport. Now everyone wants a go at a bodegas. Richard Rogers is next and, hot on his tail, Norman Foster has one too, both in Ribero del Duero.

Feb 06

Robbing Hitchcock*

Do You SeePost a comment • 323 views

I was in a ‘Discount Media Store’ recently. The kind of place where books are heaped everywhere and yet, incredibly, they’re all rubbish. And the shop smells like a big wet dog. Outdated travel guides, calendars, remaindered fiction, calendars and calendars. Having no need of a new calendar (I already own a fine Girls Aloud one), I perused the DVD box sets.

A Hitchcock box set for £6.99! Six films, all from the 1930’s. I was suspicious of the price, but the chav at the counter confirmed it. I asked why so cheap and she said, not unreasonably, this was a discount store and it sold discounted stuff.

This is why it was £6.99. The Lady Vanishes. So does the last twenty minutes. Jamaica Inn at least includes the whole film, but in the wrong order. The 39 Steps doesn’t get past the credits. The other three I’ve yet to try, but I expect they’re dubbed into Klingon.

The price made it worth a punt, but it ruined my rainy Sunday.

*Pun apologies

Nov 05

When Moomins were Trolls

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 1,052 views

Tove Jansson wrote the first Moomin adventure in 1945. Titled The Little Trolls and the Great Flood, it was a prototype for the Moominvalley books and has remained untranslated offline ever since. To celebrate the 60th anniversary, a Finish publisher has finally released an English language edition.

These are not fully-rounded Moomin characters, both figuratively and literally. The drawings are more angular and lack cuteness. It’s like watching early episodes of the Simpsons where Homer and Bart are tinged with green and jaggedly drawn. They don’t feel quite ‘right’, in retrospect.

The story concerns an adventurous search for Moominpapa, carelessly ferried away by a group of wanderlusting Hattifatteners. Mother and son set out to find him through a great forest full of watching eyes and unseen hostility and are hampered by a roaring flood that sends the forest population into the trees. There’s a taste of the fantastic among the supporting cast and the Moomins are joined for the journey by a creature looking suspiciously like Sniff. He tempers the harshness of the forest atmosphere by acting the role of selfish and frightened child. As Moomintroll builds confidence, so Sniff (if it is he) hides and cowers.

The most lovingly represented of the characters is Tulippa, drawn naked with obvious care. It’s tempting to question her in context outside the story but then Tulippa suddenly finds love with a red-haired boy and that’s the last we see of her (and the collapse of my theory). The scene pre-empts the happy reuniting of the Moomin family by a few pages.

The book is for sale here, at the Marylebone store. The shop also stocks Moomin houses, boats and the Arabia collection of crockery. Outside of Finland, it’s the best collection of Moominabilia I’ve come across (and have nine mugs in the kitchen to prove it).

Online Text of the story (without illustrations)

Sep 05

Mysterious Stuff – The Equator

Blog 71 comment • 1,758 views

I’m not a scientific guy. The physics questions on University Challenge make me feel nauseous and my continuing ignorance is only validated by the Oxfam models who answer them.

But, with the equator, I want to understand. One foot north of the equator, water empties anti-clockwise, one foot south it empties clockwise. Directly over, it goes straight down with nay a swirl in either direction. Standing on the equator, you can balance an egg on the end of a nail and you weigh considerably less.

The scientific cause of this is the Coriolis effect, which (as I understand it) is a deflection of air and is therefore potentially under the influence of local factors. I’ve tried it and seen both northern and southern hemispheres draining water the ‘wrong’ way. I’m also told that the equator is constantly on the move. In Ecuador, there is a town called Middle of the World which was built directly over the equator. The equator then left town.

I’ve seen these experiments performed on two continents with a bunch of the most sceptical people you could ever meet. If it was manipulation, it certainly wasn’t obvious. How easy is it to drain water without a swirl when it is liberally poured on high? Have you ever tried balancing an egg on a nail? Why, when weighing yourself on the equator are you lighter than a foot in either direction? The cake fans of the party were unconcerned with the science.

Aug 05

Garrincha – Biography by Ruy Castro

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Garrincha – Biography by Ruy Castro

Alex Bellos’ book on Brazilian football (Futebol) contains a chapter on Garrincha (The Angel with Bent Legs). The source of the chapter lies in Ruy Castro’s biography, just issued in paperback and translated by Bellos himself.

Garrincha is no Pele. Where the latter had a business manager, a product endorsement programme and understanding of financial management, Garrincha stuffed the money he earned in his fruitbowl. When Pele and Garrincha played in the same Brazil team, they were never beaten. In Sweden 1958, on their way to world cup success, Garrincha also found the time to leave a little piece of himself in a local lady. Just one of an endless stream of illegitimate kids. He was married three times, put it about like a horny teenager and eventually drank himself to a shadow and died in poverty.

It’s frustrating to read about a South American footballer who played 40-50 years ago because the footage isn’t easy to dig out. I found a Brazil Legends DVD which contains some wonderful action of the man at the World Cup in Chile, four years later. He teases the defender, disguising the ball then sprinting down the wing without it. The defender gamely follows him, oblivious to the deception. Unsurprisingly Garrincha’s legs were well bruised. It must be tormenting for a defender, playing against a footballer who just loved beating him. Black and white showboating. Fortunately with first Pele and Vava, then Amarildo knocking the goals in, he could get away with it.

The amazing thing is this; he had one leg six centimetres shorter than the other and his legs were bent in an unnatural stance. He looks like he should topple over in the wind, but somehow he used it to his advantage and his balance and acceleration were everything that made him. It’s a brilliant 100 mph story and just when you think he’s kicked the booze and depression and is ready to get himself fit one last time, he kills his mother-in-law while drunk behind the wheel of his car.

Any recommendations for DVD footage or related articles most welcome.

Aug 05

Allianz Arena, Munich

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Grassroots football nut Dave Boyle wrote an introblog on the Allianz Arena earlier this year. I visited last week to check he wasn’t making it up. The hosts were TSV Munich 1860 and they were playing Premiership favourites West Ham to mark the 40th anniversary of the Hammers first (er, only) European trophy.

I thought the flight would be full of replica-shirted thugs with hooped earrings and that dubious intellectual grey area between nationalist pride and blunt racism. They were nowhere to be seen. Until ten minutes from plane-off. It transpired they were relaxing in the Wetherspoons at Stanstead and were now beered up and ready for lift-off. It was 6.30am.

I’ve not visited Munich before. The city is more multicultural than I remember from previous German trips. On the outskirts is the Englischer Park. It’s huge and the weather was summer boiling. By the river lay the locals, lying on the grass, eating picnics and throwing frisbees. It was like a scene in any country, except they were all naked. Neatly packed piles of clothes sat beside them. It made sense on a hot day, so I joined them, stripping my clothes off and giggling as I soaked up the sun in fresh places.

The stadium is sublime. Faultless sightlines, plenty of leg room, big screens, crackle-free PA. The walk from the metro station is reminiscent of Wembley Way. The stadium in the distance like a giant tyre. Its chameleon skin colouring the sky from red to blue and then to white. The seats were comfortable, even though my pants were full of grass.

Cash isn’t accepted in the arena. You find a steward, give them some Euros and the balance is transferred onto a card. You queue up, buy your beer or fried animal innards and swipe your card across a beeper. There is a reason for this process. There must be, but it wasn’t readily apparent to the travelling eastenders. “You’re ‘aving a giraffe pal!” was the untranslatable consensus.

The game ended in a draw, meandering in typical pre-season fashion, overshadowed by the arena. In the morning I had to apply Aftersun to areas unfamiliar with the sun’s rays.

Jun 05

The Incredible Science of Journey Planner

Proven By SciencePost a comment • 369 views

Dear Transport for London,

My travelling requirements are as follows:

Leave home (Upper Clapton, Hackney) around 6pm on Friday, arriving at Buckhurst Hill station as soon as possible. I have filtered out the tube / train as I only have a bus pass and don’t like travelling on the stinky things at the best of times. I’ve calculated the distance to be approximately five miles and can see from my A-Z that the A104 is a direct route between these two locations.

Mikey G


Jun 05

Cheese Rolling, Coopers Hill, Gloucs, May Bank Holiday

Blog 7Post a comment • 1,107 views

Subtitle: Great British Festivals where injuries are inevitable.

What’s the origin? No-one really knows and so out come the traditional explanations like harvest festival and test of virility. Medieval Jackass in other words.

The gradient of the hill starts at 1:2 although further down it shoots vertical for a short stretch and the slope is uneven for most of the 200 yard ‘course’.

Vegans are up in arms. The pierced and shaven-headed food fascists want to substitute the cheese with a soya alternative. “It is unethical” they say but sympathy has more pressing assignments. Injuries happen every year; sprains and bruises, breaks and splinters. In 1997 a ‘competitor’ went to hospital with head injuries after the cheese cracked his skull.

I gave it a go a few years back. The first few steps are fine, but gathering momentum the hill rises up and physics demands stumble then tumble. The first to the bottom gets to keep the cheese. Those with double Gloucester in their sights have developed the ability to run and fall simultaneously and their acceleration is frightening. Bottom of the hill are private medical officers ready to stop and catch and load onto stretchers.

I don’t wish to be rude to the west country, but some of these folk were a bit Deliverance. Head-over-heeling down the hill I was more worried about some sister-fiddler landing on my head than naturally cracking my own bones. The calcium in the cheese should repair the bones shattered in its pursuit, I suppose. I got to the bottom grass-stained and intact but the cheese was long gone.

Jun 05

La Tomatina Festival, Bunol, Spain

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Rowland Rivron walks past in an Ealingly clean white suit. I point at him, “you’re going down Rivron.” “Not me” he pleads, “get Clarkson instead.”

But Jeremy is in a bad mood. He’s munching away on a piece of chicken (“donkey food”) and isn’t keen on the Spaniards (“lazy twats who sleep in the afternoon”). We make mental notes to hurt them.

La Tomatina is a tomato riot in a small Spanish town near the city of Valencia. It lasts for one hour for one day, every year in August. Its origins are blurry and its clean-up operation an endeavour of Forth Bridge proportions.

The day starts as all good days do, with a giant ham stuck atop a greasy pole. Local lads shin up, arse-over-tit down and eventually reach the ham. “Jamon Jamon” shouts the crowd, unwittingly marketing a tapas bar in Camden. This is the signal for part one of the pain to begin. Water hoses roar into the streets and drench everyone with powerful spray. T-shirts are removed, bunched up and thrown into a neighbour’s face. At noon, a klaxon sounds and a temporary truce is called. The lull before the storm.

You hear them first, heavy wheels trundling through the medieval streets. A cheer goes up and the tomato trucks roll into the central plazas to dump their loads. A free for all begins as the streets run with red juice and nowhere is a hiding place. It’s a fight for survival. Darwin with weapons of fruit. A mobile phone floats past in a knee-high stream of red floaty-bits. An Australian girl cries and a drunken couple snog and form a popular target.

A horn sounds after an hour. Hands are shaken, bruises compared and the town heads downhill to a row of communal showers. Clarkson walks past, still not reconciled to the Spanish way of life. “Fuckers” he mutters. The smell of tomatoes stains our nostrils forever more.

Jun 05

Cardiff Sketch – West Ham vs Preston North End Play-Off Final

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“The most expensive game of football in the world” shouted the hyperactive stadium announcer before kick off. Relax the players it did not. West Ham had to win this to sustain a recognisable team. The Guardian went one step further, “if West Ham lose, Matthew Etherington will be sacrificed.” Impending death spurred him down the wing and he crossed for Zamora to scuff the winner. Not much else happened, Nigel Reo-Coker was the best player on the pitch and Tomas Repka achieved a personal milestone by playing 90 minutes without a single act of violence. The game was very similar to last year’s final, but with Preston playing the stage fright role.

At the death, the fourth official held his screen toy up. Seven, it blinked dottily. Christian Dailly looked across and thought he was being substituted. Pardew waved him back. SEVEN MINUTES OF INJURY TIME! We groaned collectively, but Preston looked as if an equaliser was beyond them. Final whistle; pretty bubbles in the air, a whack round the head with an inflatable hammer and time to salute the sixth best team in the Championship.

We veered into a pub. Hammers fans wrapped in flags and drenched in beer were hanging out the window. The bouncer eyed us with disdain. “No smoking” he said. I had a pint of Brains and we loudly promoted the virtues of East London via the medium of song.

We moved on to an Italian restaurant. Some Preston fans sat scrunched around another table and graciously sent champagne across. We raised a glass to the glory of football. “Are you Burnley in disguise?” they sang, waving inflatable ‘cheer sticks’. They attempted to involve the waiter, “which team were you supporting?” “I’m Albanian,” he said, to silence. We bought them wine and said see you next season, without specifying a division.

We jumped in a taxi. The driver was an Iraqi. We apologised for the bombs and that, but he said it was alright. “I had that Charlotte Church in here the other day.” “What’s she like?” we asked. “Nice back,” he said, “but her mate’s really ugly.”