Thursday, 27 March 2008


Tane and I spent the Easter weekend in the beautiful city of Prague in the Czech Republic. As well as spending some fabulous times strolling around the old town and sampling Czech cuisine, we spent a day in and around the small town of Terezin, located near the German border. Terezin, or Theresienstadt as it was known in German, was a prominent Jewish ghetto during World War Two before most of its 100,000 odd residents were shipped to Auschwitz and the like. Not exactly a recipe for a fun day out as such, but a very, very interesting and memorable place to visit nonetheless.
The great Nazi lie: "Work Brings Freedom"

The first place that you see when coming into Terezin is a massive cemetery and a brick fort that just looks plain creepy. After a couple of hours of wandering around inside, we also discovered that the creepy feeling that the "small fort" as it's known gets worse rather than better. It's one of those places that you can't really describe without sounding corny as walking through dismal barracks, execution grounds and past a swimming pool made by forced labourers who were later killed in some way is a profoundly moving experience.
After visiting the small fortress we ventured into the town of Terezin to get some lunch and find the famous ghetto as well. While we were lucky on the lunch front, we couldn't find the ghetto. It wasn't until we visited the Terezin Ghetto Museum that we learned that we had been walking around it the whole time as not only was the entire town the ghetto, but the place we had eaten our lunch was a SS dining hall. This was a bit of a surprise as while the town had a strange feel to it, it was just a town where people live and go about their daily business. I would love to have talked to some residents about how they feel about their town's history, but that's not exactly something to bring up with someone serving your lunch or selling snacks.
A street in Terezin. The worst part of here for me was seeing in the museum all the pictures drawn by the children who were kept here before they were sent to Auschwitz.

After a day trip to Terezin, it was a real relief to return to Prague. It's worth seeing something a little emotionally challenging every now and then though, and I totally recommend it for anyone who is interested in history and wants a little more from a weekend in Prague than beer and pretty buildings.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Still rockin' in the free world

On Friday night one of my biggest dreams came true. No, not the one where I develop superpowers and save the world from alien invaders, but something even cooler. Neil Young. Live.

Apologies to all non-Neil Young fans. This is going to be a bit long and gushy.

That's one of the best things about London - everyone big comes here a lot more often than they make it to New Zealand. This show was at the Hammersmith Apollo (a huge and acoustically excellent theatre), which was packed mostly with middle aged fans, but with a healthy portion of twentysomethings like me. I can only call myself twentysomething for the next four months, so I'm going to take the chance to do so.

The stage looked like a hippy junkyard, filled with amps, drums, various stringed instruments, an orange piano painted in flowers, letters and numbers covered in light bulbs, a wooden Indian and lots of paintings. Some guy was adding to them, painting at the back of the stage during the show, often watched by a little boy. Random. Maybe it was Neil Young's son or grandson and that was his way of babysitting.

The opening act was Neil's wife Peggy, a lovely platinum blonde with a deep, sweet voice. She played a pleasant set of country songs that drew warm applause, but that was drizzle compared to the thunderstorm when Young came on stage.

Shaggy grey hair straggling away from a big bald patch, a tan suit for the acoustic set, a paint-splattered black one later. He sat in a circle of guitars, picked up one, strapped on a harmonica and played From Hank to Hendrix. After finishing that, and each other song, he'd get up and wander around, as if wondering which of his zillion classic tunes to play next. When some wag in the front row (there were more of a few in the audience) made a crack, he turned and told them to "f*ck off. You know, you're great. I'd go anywhere to see you," to general amusement. That aside, his banter was good-natured. Every now and then he chucked in a few reminisces - like the time he wrote Don't Let It Bring You Down after coming back from seeing Hendrix at the Isle of Wight festival.

Right. He's old.

Anyway, the acoustic set was superb, a mix of famous songs like After The Gold Rush and obscure ones like Ambulance Blues. My highlight was Cowgirl In The Sand.

In the second set, he brung the grunge.

The change between Young's mellow and manic modes is amazing. That thin, heartbroken voice grows razorblades and his guitar starts to drip venom. There's one word and a world of difference between Old Man and Dirty Old Man.

Like the Stones and Iggy Pop, Young is a fogey with the energy of a teenager, jumping around the stage, tearing out solos, snarling into the mike about Johnny Rotten and the powder and the finger. The long jam at the end of the new and rather mediocre closer of the set, No Hidden Path, was self indulgent, but the encore - Cinnamon Girl and a mesmerising version of Tonight's The Night - finished the show on a high.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl and historical accuracy

A couple of days ago, Tane and I went to see the movie The Other Boleyn Girl. I had read the Philippa Gregory novel about five years ago and had loved it. The true story of Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary has it all - intrigue, incest (or allegations of), a King with too much testosterone and not enough scruples, one sister who became his mistress and had his illegitimate son, and a second that became his wife and lost her head. The story of Henry VIII is so filled with scandal, death and bodice-ripping, if it wasn't such a well documented part of English history is would be very easy to dismiss as legend.

After having seen Henry VIII's armour at Greenwich last year I have little doubt that a man that would wear this might also be the sort of man that would create a new church in order that he could marry the sister of his mistress

Philippa Gregory is onto a winning formula with her series portraying the Tudors in a fictional context. While Gregory took liberties in the book based on Mary Boleyn's life insomuch as she gave the characters life, from what I have read it appears she is fairly historically accurate in her portrayal of events. There is the odd turn of phrase used that doesn't sound like something from the 1520s and 30s , but apart from that I thought it was an excellent book. Historical fiction is always a tricky genre to write in, and very few books get it right to the satisfaction of people who know the period written about, or at least flatter themselves that they do. This isn't unique to Gregory's books, even some Booker winners get it wrong: Schindler's Ark took great liberties when writing about Oskar Schindler, and Oscar and Lucinda talks about coat hangers before they were invented. Not that I really care in either case.

Sometimes I hate historical inaccuracy, sometimes I don't. There is no hard and fast rule about it - for me it often depends on how the inaccuracy is presented, and how good the rest of the book is. As a rule I find that I can overlook details, but not historically inaccurate ideas - especially books where the hero or heroine from days gone has modern ideas about gender, race and class when the bad guys don't. My other pet peeve is what I can only describe as Titanic syndrome - the way almost every single modern book written about either the USA or UK that touches 1912 has at least one character die on the Titanic. That's just me though, and I don't claim to be consistent or rational in what bugs me and what doesn't.
At Henry's palace Hampton Court earlier in the year. Hampton Court is fabulous, a maze of coridoors and badly lit rooms perfect for scandal and intrige.

Before going to the movie I had read a review of it in the Guardian by a man who had enjoyed the movie, but criticised it for being historically inaccurate. The only concrete pieces of "inaccuracy" he wrote about was Anne Boleyn's necklace looking like something from the 1980s and the fact that Eric Bana who plays Henry is not fat. The reviewer has obviously not seen Anne's portrait in the National Portrait Gallery wearing the necklace, nor done his research about what Henry looked like earlier in his life. Nevertheless, I did go to the movie wondering what it would be like.
According to an exhibit here on younger Henry, he may have looked like Eric Bana when he was young. That's certainly a much nicer mental image than this one ...

I liked the movie The Other Boleyn Girl in the end. While it was a bit cheesy in places and the dialogue a bit stilted, there were some great scenes in it and I was moved by the ending in spite of knowing that it was coming. And even if it was historically inaccurate in places, I didn't care as I was too busy enjoying the movie to notice. It wasn't as good as the book, but still did a pretty good job of putting Philippa Gregory's interpretation of events onto the big screen.

I wonder what other people think though - did you prefer the movie or the book? Does historical inaccuracy bug you in books? What about movies?

Interested in your thoughts....

Deer at Hampton Court. Apparently Henry liked to collect antlers as well as wives.

Monday, 10 March 2008

A city with a bit of everything

Last weekend, Tane and I joined some other couples for a fabulous weekend in Amsterdam. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and have decided that Amsterdam really is a city with a little bit of everything. From fine art to men dressed up as toilets, it really is a place where everyone seems catered for.

1. High brow culture
Amsterdam is the home of the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum. I especially loved the Rijksmuseum, it had a fabulous collection of art by famous Dutch painters such as Vermeer (also known as Colin Firth in "The Girl with the Pearl Earring") and the most amazing dolls houses I have ever seen.

2. Canals
Doing a canal cruise was one of the highlights of the weekend as we got to see the city from the water while learning interesting tidbits of information. Like, that Amsterdam has 2500 houseboats. Most of them seemed so small though I don't imagine you could live in them with more than three or four possessions.

3. The opposite to High brow culture
In the book 1001 Places to See Before You Die, Amsterdam's red light district is listed as one such place. And, while I won't be recommending that other people rush out and see it if they are at all prudish, it certainly is unlike anywhere I have ever seen. Women stand in shop windows beckoning at passers-by to buy them, brightly lit signs promise all kinds of r18 activities, and British men on stag parties prowl around in packs egging each other into the women's rooms. And, just to make the place even more surreal, large groups of elderly do walking tours of the district wearing facial expressions that are a mixture of disgust, fear and fascination.

A fabulous lolly shop near the Red Light District. Not that this has any real relevance, but I didn't want to use any dodgy photos!

5. More canals
According to one local we met, as a result tourist shenanigans in Amsterdam an amazing number of the bikes ridden by the locals find there way into the canals. Poor bikes.

6. Anne Frank's house
A highlight of the weekend was seeing Anne Frank's house, where she and her family hid from the Nazis for over two years. The house is a bit of a tourist mecca, but well worth visiting in any case. It's so cramped inside it makes the story of what happened all the more tragic, as I felt claustrophobic inside after only about 45 minutes and cannot even begin to comprehend how hiding in such a confined space for such a long period of time must feel.

So, Amsterdam really was grouse. It may be one of the most popular stag party destinations in Europe, but once you get used to the public urinals and Red Light District there really is some great stuff to see.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

A very civilised high tea

For the first time in years, I decided to have a civilised birthday celebration. And what could be more civilised than a high tea on a Saturday afternoon? Lucky it was also Stephen's birthday so we could have a joint afternoon tea celebration and he could supply the tea cups and pikelets. Oh, and the house, and the tea, and prepare the food. In fact, it was luckier still that Mum had sent me some hundreds and thousands biscuits from New Zealand so I could contribute something ...
The tea party itself was a very civilised affair. We talked about civilised things, drank tea with our pinkies out, and debated whether or not one is supposed to wear or remove gloves while drinking tea. I note that we "drank" tea rather than "taking" tea, as apparently during the Victorian area saying "take" was considered vulgar. It was a pity that the table was so crammed with goodies that we could not place the tea pot with the handle facing the pourer, which correct tea drinking etiquette also dictates. Naturally we remained very civilised throughout the evening and tea remained the strongest drink consumed all day (*cough*). The author of an etiquette book written in 1912 that I once read would have been proud.
Very civilised indeed

And, naturally, photographs like this that appeared on my camera from later in the evening were a result of drinking tea to excess and eating too many angel cakes.