Sitting still

A good way of getting to know a city, without resorting to guide books, is to read a fictional novel that’s set there. Another way, is to find someone famous who was born there and then following their story. Banksy in Bristol is a good example of this. And in Košice recently, Sándor Márai  provided another ready-made treasure hunt.

Somewhat famous for being the first person to write reviews of Kafka’s work, Márai is probably better known for his 1948 novel, Embers, which published in English in 2000. It’s original Hungarian title is more fetching I think… A gyertyák csonkig égnek (candles burn until the end). It’s about an old general and his friend from the military academy who reunite over dinner after 41 years of not seeing each other.

In 2006, Jeremy Irons and Patrick Malahide played the stage version in the Duke of York in London. [Irons hadn’t been on stage in 18 years and his return was eagerly anticipated.] Its original run was extended by four weeks due to popular demand but the critics’ reviews were mixed.  Christopher Hampton’s stage adaptation of the novel was billed as one that explores ‘the eroticism of male friendship’. I’ve had the book on my shelf for years and have yet to open it.

IMG_4421 (800x600)IMG_4419 (800x600)Fascinating, isn’t it, how someone who has once found fame in their native language can, nearly half a century later, be famous all over again in another. And even more fascinating is the thought of all the books out there still to be translated into English. [I have my favourites of those that have been.]

IMG_4287 (800x600)IMG_4219 (800x600)IMG_4298 (800x600)IMG_4297 (800x590)IMG_4221 (800x600)Anyway, as I said, Márai’s years in his home town left a trail to follow and explore. From his birthplace on Bočná st to his studio in the old Thália Theatre, a lovely old frescoed building, to Maleter’s House whence he kidnapped his bride-to-be, the lovely Lola. Or the confectionary where he first met Lola during an ice-cream competition (am not sure if they were eating it or making it). Then there’s the Premonstratensians School he attended and the family home where the commemorative room is now housed.

I had to Google Premonstratensians. They’re known in Ireland as the White Canons (a new one on me) and are what’s called Canons Regular (another new one) – monks who live in the community under the order of St Augustine. Why didn’t I know that? But even more interestingly, they actually work for a living: they’ve created and operate small industrial activities such as printing (Averbode, Tongerlo, Berne), farming (Kinshasa, Ireland, Postel), cheese-making (Postel), running schools (Averbode, Berne, USA, Australia), agreements with breweries (Tongerlo, Postel, Park, Leffe, Grimbergen), retreat centres (nearly everywhere), astronomical observatories (Mira, Grimbergen), artistic bookbinding (Oosterhout), forestry (Schlägl, Geras, Slovakia) and pilgrimages (Conques). That’s a change.

And as we wandered looking for these landmarks, we saw the wealth of architecture the city has to offer. There IMG_4278 (800x600)really is a surprise around every corner. And the added attraction is that it’s all walkable.

What is a tad peculiar though, is the tram line on the main street. No longer in use, it creates a certain expectation that something might be coming at any IMG_4375 (800x600)IMG_4319 (800x600)minute. There’s a watchfulness about the place, a sense of anticipation, that feeling that just about anything could happen. Magical.

One of the many fanciful notions I have is that inside every statue is a real person, trapped for eternity in whatever position their maker has chosen for them. I’ve spent way too much time thinking about how I’d like to be immortalised in bronze. The idea of a full-sized me in a full-sized bed reading a full-sized book was high on my list for a while, but given that my IMG_4279 (600x800)back has been acting up lately, even that comfortable notion isn’t as attractive as it once was.

I quite like the relatively recent (2004) sculpture of Márai that is tucked away on a quiet square on the corner of Zbrojničná and Mäsiarska. It’s of him sitting on a chair, legs crossed, as if
in conversation with whomever chooses to sit in the empty chair opposite him.  It doesn’t look the most comfortable of poses, but think of the great conversations you could have with him, the best of listeners; thinkg of all the confessions he must have heard, a little like Jozef Attila in Budapest. Anyway, it’s been filed as an option. But first, I need to do something that will give the world reason to cast me in bronze and plonk me somewhere for eternity.

A slight change of perspective

I was at least a year in London before someone pointed out the divers to me, the gold statues on a rooftop near Picadilly, on Jermyn Street.  I’d never have noticed Antony Gormley’s naked man in Oxford had a crowd of tourists not been gazing skywards. And in Bristol a couple of weeks ago, in search of Banksy’s graffiti, I’d passed by one without even noticing so fixed was I on the road ahead.

I’ve never been a great one for planning ahead. The plan has always been to have no plan. It’s served me well so far and has even worked in my favour. Not limited by ambition or goals; not focused on specific, sought-after outcomes; not defined by where I want to be in five years time because I’m still figuring out where I am right now, I’ve had the freedom to react to opportunities that present themselves, unannounced. Admittedly, it’s not for everyone. And perhaps, were I to examine it a little closer, I’d find a subconscious plan of sorts. And perhaps you could argue that not having a plan is a plan in and of itself. Whatever.

We had a plan in Bristol – we were going to see the city using Banksy as our guide. Born in Bristol in 1974, Banksy’s road to fame and fortune began with a can of  spray paint. Today, he’s known the world over and his art has appeared on walls everywhere. There’s even a Banksy shop in Bethlehem. What I hadn’t realised though is that he’s done much more than paint.

IMG_0085 (600x800)His Paint Pot Angel is on display in the Bristol Museum. The title says it all. This is Banksy’s challenge to what we expect to see in museums and what value we put in art. Apparently back in 2009, he took on the Bristol Museum in an exhibition that was organised in secret and when it opened, people queued for as many as 5 hours. Over 350 000 people came in a month and the event was  rated one of the top 3 tourists events in the world that year. Bristol Council insisted on paying Banksy for the exhibition – he finally accepted £1 and donated the angel to the museum when it was all over.  I was quite taken with it – mainly because it was so not what I’d expect from the man. I had thought he had limited himself to stenciled art. How wrong I was. Just goes to show, eh.

And I didn’t know that his documentary  Exit Through the Gift Shop, billed as ‘the world’s first street art disaster movie‘, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010 and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011. Where was I was all that was happening?

IMG_0079 (600x800)On the side of a sexual health clinic on Frogmore Street, he did this little number, captioned ‘Well hung lover’. Interesting that the lover is starkers and the gal still has clothes on. Not quite the usual depiction and I’m left wondering what was going through his head when he thought this one up. And are the splotches of blue paint part of the deal or were they blaubed afterwards? Apparently for this one, he posed as a painter behind closed-off scaffolding, with permission from the then owners of the building, the band Massive Attack.

IMG_0098 (600x800)The famed ‘Girl with a pierced eardrum’ was splattered with paint soon after it appeared last year. If you remember this was also when rumours of his arrest (for vandalism – oops – there’s obviously a fine line between art and defamation) were on the go and the public thought that his identity would finally be revealed [his friends must know what he does and who he is surely. Is the world actually capable of keeping a secret?]

But no, and no. No arrest. No revealed identity.  His parody of the famous Vermeer painting sees the pearl earring replaced with an alarm box. It’s down on the docks, on the waterfront, tucked away between two buildings. And yet once you know it’s there, you wonder how you could have missed it.

IMG_0100 (800x600)The last one we saw this time was the Grim Reaper. This one has a story behind it. Originally painted on the side of the Thekla, a boat moored in Bristol harbour, it’s now been moved (how do they do this?) to the M Shed. And the story… apparently…

Banksy borrowed a friends boat and left some graffiti on the side of the Thekla depicting the letters of his name, ‘Banksy’. When the Harbourmaster saw the graffiti he came along and painted it over in black. This made the owner of the boat very angry -as he was a Banksy fan- and threatened the Harbourmaster with legal action for criminal damage. Hearing about the dispute and never one to hide from mischief, Banksy borrowed his friends boat again, leaving a stencil of the Grim Reaper in a boat and wondering of the Harbourmaster would act again.

And there are more – plenty more. We ran out of time. But as I’ve said before, Bristol has earned itself a place on my ‘have to revisit’ list. It’s a cracking city – with no shortage of things to do and sights to see. And it’s reminded me of the value of looking up. Oftentimes we’re just a tad too focused on what lies ahead to see what’s going on right beside us. And oftentimes, too, the wonders of the world are right there on our doorstep. All we need is a slight change of perspective.


A change of heart

You know the expression – to feel like a red-headed stepchild? That’s always amused me. I could be mistaken but as I understand it, the combination of being a red-head AND being a stepchild is not the best. That said, all the red-heads I know are gas craic, happy, well-adjusted people with just the right amount of crazy to make them special. And the stepchildren I know, be they red-headed or not, seem to be fine.

IMG_0078In the UK last week, the term was just to describe the relationship between the sibling cities of Bath and Bristol, with Bristol feeling a tad overshadowed. Certainly, Bath is beautiful, far more quaint, with lots of eco-stuff going on, and has far better buskers. And in truth, when I visit that part of the world, I rarely get further than the train station at Bristol Temple Meads as I, too, head for Bath.

IMG_0070 (800x600)IMG_0071 (800x600)This time though, I stayed put. In Bristol. And what an eye-opener that was. The city, once a major departure point for the slave trade and a less than glorious history, is lovely. There are plenty of green spaces and it has more than its far share of bombed-out churches that are still magnificent. My favourite is Temple Church. No question. A stunning 12th-century ruin in Temple Gardens that just begs quiet contemplation. I don’t think I could ever get tired of it.

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IMG_0090 (800x600)Bristol Marina has been majorly revamped with the Brunel’s SS Great Britain the main attraction. Time wasn’t on our side so we didn’t go in to see what all the hoo-ha was about but it’s on the list for the next visit. The colourful terraced houses that look down on the docks would be more my style than the lavish penthouses that line both sides of the river. Mind you, I wouldn’t turn up my nose at one of them either. There are myriad cafés, brew pubs, cider houses, and restaurants to choose from with boat taxis to ferry you every which way. Think Venice without the striped t-shirts. A lovely way to spend an afternoon.

Wills Memorial Tower

Wills Memorial Tower

The St Mary Redcliffe, billed as a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, has stood tall for over 800 years. Like many other buildings in the city, the ones that managed to dodge the bombs like the University’s Wills Memorial Tower, it, too, is gobsmackingly gorgeous.  Again, with time being at a premium, the tour of this tower has also made it to the list of things to do next time around.

IMG_0107 (800x600)IMG_0106 (600x800)And in sharp contrast to all this stylish splendour, Shaun the Sheep was everywhere. Seventy sheep have been scattered around the city as part of a fundraising campaign for the Children’s Hospital. And cleverly positioned near places of interest so that some little bit of cultural exposition might sneak past. It was my first time spending any time of note in the city and I liked it – a lot. I’d happily go back . Anytime. I won’t forget Bath, because she’s been good to me, but perhaps its time the red-headed stepchild got some more of my attention.