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Archive for September, 2012

This novel (published last year, but only recently obtained by me) is the sequel to 2010’s The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions; it’s own sequel, The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the Worlds comes out in a few weeks.

Only one character is reprised from that earlier story – Darwin the monkey butler – otherwise, the only thing they share is the setting: an extravagant fin de siècle steampunk universe where, in retaliation for the War of the Worlds, the British Empire has destroyed the Martian civilisation by sending sick people to Mars on back-engineered spaceships; where the three powers of the solar system are the British, the Venusians and the Jupiterians; where horse-drawn carts share the streets with electric vehicles powered by Tesla’s wireless transmission of electricity.

The story starts with quite an effective chapter with baroque descriptions of a London music hall, the Electric Alhambra, that, while cheery and full of doggerel, nonetheless have a sinister undertone. And then there’s a dramatic murder. The story – at least from the point of view of one of the main characters, Cameron Bell, a man with the mind of Sherlock Holmes and the appearance of Samuel Pickwick – begins there. Colonel Katterfelto, however, has been planning for years to put together a mechanical messiah based on the plans of the mysterious but knowledgeable Herr Döktor; for the time being he’s at the bottom of the nightly bill at the Electric Alhambra displaying a mechanical minstrel – which is really a monkey butler in a tin man suit. And Alice Lovell, Bell’s unrequitable love-interest – also performs – with her acrobatic (and quite violent) kiwi birds. Meanwhile, the villain of the piece is making himself powerful enough to start a Third Worlds War.

In retrospect, all these elements don’t really work all that well together and the story would seem to be a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster. Who is Herr Döktor and how did he get to have so much influence on the characters and events? How did the bad guy get to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Why is it only now that Colonel Katterfelto’s plans start to come together? What is the nature of Alice Lovell’s trippy guardian rabbit/kiwi bird? What happened to Aleister Crowley after Cameron shot him in the foot with a ray gun? Was the huge redding herring (the nature of which I will say nothing) really necessary to the plot?

Nevertheless, it all works quite well. In fact, this book and its predecessor represent a bit of change of style for Robert Rankin. The storytelling is a little more mature (while still being full of immature silliness), stylish and confident. I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again: his later work is not as laugh-out-loud funny as his earlier stuff, but it’s still a great pleasure to read.

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This is Salman Rushdie’s debut novel – from 1975 (making it slightly older than me) – and the second of his books that I’ve read – the other being The Satanic Verses, from which, despite the fact that I read it quite a few years ago, a few scenes have remained quite strongly in my memory.

Grimus is not an easy novel to categorise, as people so like to do with novels. I suppose you would say it’s magical realism – it has elements of fantasy and science fiction, contains themes from Middle Eastern and Western traditions, but is definitely literary fiction in general tone (although you can’t really pin it down as being especially British, as the main character is American).

This main character, Flapping Eagle, is, in fact, Native American, younger brother of the troubled Bird-Dog. (Avian imagery features greatly throughout the novel.) Bird-dog absconds with a mysterious man, leaving Flapping Eagle with two vials containing a liquid that will make the drinker immortal and one that will kill. Flapping Eagle drinks the immortality potion and spends hundreds of years looking for his elder sister. Eventually, he is washed up on an island – in another dimension – that is home to an ambivalent bunch of immortals who arrived there in much the same way, although much earlier. The island is governed by a kind of absentee king, Grimus; Flapping Eagle makes it his quest to challenge Grimus and find Bird-Dog.

One of The Satanic Verses‘s flaws was that there were too many disparate viewpoints, making it difficult to follow and maintain interest in the novel. Grimus‘s narritive is focused on Flapping Eagle throughout, with only the occasional diversion. Nevertheless, it’s bursting full of diverse ideas: there are anagram-loving, dimension travelling, super-intelligent frog-beings called Gorfs (they live on a planet called Thera that orbits a star called Nus), there is Sufi mysticism, philosophy, comedy, tragedy, coming-of-age, dualities and opposites, social criticism … and no doubt other stuff.

One of the main ideas is the specious attraction of creating an ideal society. The immortals who live on Calf Island (Grimus named it Kaf, after the Arabic letter, but it didn’t quite stick) come there after exhausting many lifetimes’ worth of experience on Earth, but they are an insular group. Not only is their community self-sustaining, static and sterile, but each is caught up in their own obsessions. Ultimately, Flapping Eagle’s arrival shakes things up in good ways and bad ways, but he also succumbs to the lure of the settled, comfortable lifestyle – at least until his actions catch up with him.

Although I had a big hiatus in the middle of reading this book (arriving at my sister’s and getting caught up with video games and stuff), I enjoyed it a lot. It’s not without its flaws – some of the characters are under-used or are near-superfluous (Nicholas Deggle – an ambiguous character whose presence in Flapping Eagle’s earlier life is never really explained – gets left in a hut with a madwoman for much of the latter part of the novel), and the Gorfs are definitely a weird, though minor, ingredient in the mélange. The use of quotation dashes instead of inverted commas is something I find a bit pretentious. And the protagonist is a little lacklustre – more of a foil to the interesting characters around him.

Nevertheless, Grimus is a readable read, full of ideas and intelligence and references that reward further research. My copy was also free, having been given it by my friend Lawrence.

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Having explored much of many of the sights of the historic city centre, I needed to take a day trip or two to see some important locations near Kraków. There were two main ones: the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which I ended up not going to, and Auschwitz Concentration Camp. I booked a tour with my hostel and waited to be picked up the following morning.

I saw a minibus drive by outside as I was walking down the stairs and worried that I’d missed it; twenty minutes or so later, I got picked up by a people carrier. I was the last one on. A young American guy in the passenger seat was talking to a couple of middle-aged Danish chaps on the middle seats next to me; there were two or three people in the back row.

The drive out took about an hour. Once we got there, we had some time to use the bathrooms and get some refreshments. As is often the case, no backpacks were allowed, so I left my water in the car. Eventually, everyone was gathered together into a large group consisting of people ferried in in various vehicles belonging to the same tour company. (So I may, indeed, have missed an earlier ride.)

Auschwitz and Birkenau are the German names for a pair of Polish towns, Oświęcim and Brzezinka. Our tour was given by a Polish woman; she had a microphone and everyone was given earphones so we could still hear the tour even if we weren’t close to her. She did a good job; she wasn’t overly charismatic, but she was pleasant to listen to. Her English was near-perfect, but she pronounced ‘prisoners’ like ‘prisoneers’.

Auschwitz was originally a Polish army base, so the barracks were built of brick and they have survived intact and in number where the wooden cabins of Sachsenhausen, for instance, have largely gone. The weather was bright and hot and there were lots of trees clothed in green foliage around the buildings. It had the incongruous seeming of an aspiring middle class housing estate.

We toured through various of the barracks buildings, seeing examples of paperwork, photographs, restored prisoner accommodation and so on. Gruesomely fascinating were the collections of items taken from incoming prisoners – suitcases, shoes, brushes, enamel bowls etc. The pile of children’s shoes and the huge mounds of hair shorn from inmates were especially moving. We went into the crematorium, looked up at the holes in the roof where tins of Cyclone B were poured in to gas the prisoners, and at the cremation equipment itself.

After a short break to look in the giftshops and whatnot, we were taken to Birkenau, a short distance away. Having been built of wood, there wasn’t as much left to see here. There was, of course, the iconic tower building, railway tracks, a train carriage and a row of barracks; the whole area was still surrounded by a forbidding barbed-wire fence punctuated with guard towers. A large group of Israeli students was there when we visited, walking up the rail tracks carrying flags.

The whole place had been built on marshy ground, so disease had been rife. Apparently, working in the barracks cleaning the toilet trough, up to your knees in shit and piss, was one of the better jobs because you weren’t supervised as closely by the guards.

The tour was a little briefer than the leaflets had led me to believe, but it was certainly worth doing. I don’t know how easy or expensive it would have been to have gone on public transport, but I’m pretty sure you could only enter as part of a tour group.

Habiba and I had watched Triumph of the Spirit not long before. While the plot was somewhat lacking in energy – it was based on a true story – the details of life in Auschwitz seemed grimly realistic. Visiting the camp, I saw the same cramped bunks that were crammed full of prisoners, the same yards where people were executed as were depicted in the film.

On the way back, I chatted with the young American – he was quite interested in my experiences in India. I didn’t do much in my remaining time in Kraków – walked around more, took more pictures – especially of the Barbican in the ring of park that surrounded the ring of buildings that surrounded the main square. On my last night, I realised I hadn’t taken a picture of the little toy turtle my sister had given me, so I spent quite some trying to find a spot with enough light and enough shelter from the rain to make a decent photo; I eventually managed this sitting at a table in front of one of the many restaurants waiting for my order. It turned out to be agood opportunity to take some night shots of the illuminated sights (before it started raining, anyway).

I had to move back to a four-bed room for my last night and spoke to a Canadian fellow sharing the room. It turned out he was getting the same EasyJet flight to Gatwick the next day. We got the bus to the airport together and talked of this and that.

My trip home was quite well planned, I think. I would arrive at about one o’clock, get a coach up to Manchester a couple of hours later and arrive there just in time to get the last train to my sister’s village. I had a relaxing lunch at Costa at the airport and the coach left on time.

I hadn’t realised that the Olympic torch would be being run through London at the time, and, with a change at Victoria Coach Station, this would have a serious impact on my journey. The coach to Manchester arrived at Victoria half an hour or so later than it was due to leave. Then there was bad traffic in the capital. The driver called out to other drivers, ‘What’s the best way to the A4?’ on a couple of occasions. Once we were on the road, he took a detour to avoid an accident on the motorway.

So I was an hour or more late arriving in Manchester – too late for the train. I stayed in the coach station all night – leaving only to go to McDonalds for some food (or should that be ‘food’?). Coaches arrived and left several times during the night. The attendant on duty went round waking up people who put their head down to get some shut-eye. I plugged my laptop in to try to get on the internet or do some writing, but the power outlet was key-operated and my computer was low on juice. (This reminded me of a thought I’d had lately that, in the future, coffee shops would probably introduce coin-operated electrical sockets to make more money.)

I bought a ticket for the 6:50 train to Whaley Bridge – £8 or so – early the next morning. No inspector came through the train, though, so I needn’t have bothered. My sister welcomed me at the station with a hug and we walked back to hers. It was the first day of the Olympics and the last day of five months of travel that had started in Korea with Habiba and ended back home in Britain alone.

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The bus from Poprad took me generally north through or around the High Tatras, passing by lots of nice countryside, and to the southern Polish town of Zakopane. Entering the town, we passed a small parade of people in traditional dress and either on horses or in horse-drawn carriages. Once there, I changed some euros for złoty and bought a train ticket for Kraków. Most of the rest of the time, I sat in a café with a drink and my laptop.

I returned to the train station in plenty of time for my train and ate the food I’d brought with me. Earlier, there had been a couple in front of me in the queue at the station and they were asking the woman on the ticket counter if there wasn’t an earlier train. As I sat with my lunch, I saw that there was a train standing at the far platform. Once I’d done eating, I crossed the lines (something you can do in this part of the world) and found that the train was going to Kraków, even though the time was different from the one on my ticket. I got on and then got off again to ask a member of staff on the platform, and was told my ticket wasn’t valid as this was an express train. Express sounded good, so I went and changed my ticket – and got some change back.

In hindsight, the later train I’d originally got a ticket for must have been a super-express, no doubt arriving earlier, even though it left later (the train I took made some longish stops to change direction). Strange, however, that the woman on the ticket desk didn’t give anyone any option to get earlier, slower (and cheaper) trains.

I arrived in the city in the early evening and, after searching around a while for the stop, took a tram to the vicinity of my hostel, Premium Hostel. The hostel’s directions said to get off at the fourth stop, but this was incorrect; I walked a little further to just beyond the fifth stop. The hostel was nice enough – the furnishings were all in pretty good condition and the kitchen was clean and spacious (although the functional bits were a bit limited – there was only one fridge and that was packed with guests’ food). There was a Swedish guy and his son in my four-bed dormitory, who I chatted to for a bit.

I went for a walk to the main square and Wawel Castle (the ‘w’s are pronounced like ‘v’s). All very impressive and beautiful. I came back, picked up some food at a small, 24-hour supermarket on the way, prepared and ate it in the kitchen and went to bed. It was pretty warm in the room – which can be a big barrier to me getting a good night’s sleep – and then another guy came in and started snoring (once he’d got into bed and fallen asleep) loudly and continuously.

I tried to put up with it, but eventually decided I couldn’t, so I got dressed and asked at reception if I could move into a private (well, twin) room. The girl contacted some superior at another branch and then gave me the go-ahead. I spent that and the next two nights in my own room, although I ended up packing all my stuff up before check-out time each morning because I was told I might need to move again – but I didn’t – until my penultimate day, when I transferred back to my original room. The private room was only about £20 a night.

On my first full day in Kraków, I did a lot of walking around. I headed straight for the main square, Rynek Główny (‘Main Square’). This is a pretty huge and beautiful square dominated by three features – the long Cloth Hall or Sukiennice and the Town Hall Tower in the centre, and St Mary’s Basilica on the east side. All around there are shaded tables and chairs belonging to the numerous cafés and restaurants lining the square; I ate at several of these places.

I went up the Town Hall Tower, which contains a kind of mini-museum-cum-gallery. The way up is through original winding stone passageways and staircases lit only by occasional lights and windows. At the foot of the tower is a sculpture of a massive head … or a massive sculpture of a head – not sure which. A nearby sign-pillar was topped with a musical goat.

After that, I had a look in St Mary’s Basilica and then walked towards the castle. On the way, I stopped at the Church of Sts Peter and Paul – which stood out for having a very good – and free – audio guide that directed you to various parts of the church before describing them. I don’t like donating to churches, but I left a złoty or two.

Wawel Castle stands on a promontory, Wawel Hill, overlooking the river, the Vistula and is surrounded by a big wall, grassy slopes and a few trees. I walked around the area, passing by a few souvenir stalls by the riverside and found a statue of the Wawel Dragon – a statue that actually breathed fire every few minutes.

 

I went into the grounds on another occasion. I didn’t get a ticket for whatever was in there that required a ticket for entry, but I went into the catchily entitled Cathedral Basilica of Sts Stanislaus and Wenceslaus and had a wander round the spacious, grassy courtyard. I didn’t explore it as much as I would have liked – something I’ll have to do if I ever go back to Kraków.

After walking by the dragon statue, I went on to have a look around the Kazimierz area, site of various churches and synagogues and a Jewish Cemetery. Then, back along the river, into the Augustinian Monastery and the adjoining Church of St Catherine and St Margaret.

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Banská Štiavnica is a picturesque town somewhere in the middle of Slovakia. Our drive there was punctuated by a stop in Kremnica and by inadvertant detours caused by the confusing road layout. Once there, Bo dropped me at my accommodation, Hostel 6 (when the young woman on duty opened the front door – which was at the back – I told her I had a reservation and she said, ‘I know’; then she was confused by the fact that there were two of us, but only I was staying) and we went for pizza and a look around. I thanked Botond for everything he’d done for me in the past fortnight and we said goodbye.

In the morning, I did a bit of shopping for breakfast – including getting some individual teabags for about six cents each because I’d left all my tea at So-young’s apartment – ate and then got on with some sightseeing.

The town itself is very pretty, at least in the centre, with lots of cobble stone streets that are pretty noisy when driven over, yellow-painted buildings and various churches.

The Old Castle was an interesting stop. You got a few laminated sheets to read as you went around and could visit all of the towers (one contained cells and torture chambers) and the church in the centre – although the walk up on the inner side of the walls was off-limits.

I walked out to the Kalvária, a big procession of shrines and churches on the side of a hill outside the town, each representing a station of the cross. There were people, lots of youngsters, at work renovating it. The weather was bright and warm and it was pretty tiring. I rested for a while at the top and took pictures of butterflies. On the way back I went through the grounds of the Academy of Mining and Forestry (Banská Štiavnica was very important as a mining centre). It had lots of trees; not so many mines.

When I got to the New Castle at half past four or something, it was closed. There were quite a few people around the entrance; evidently they’d already been told it was closed, but they still hung around. I went back in the morning. It’s a square, white tower that looks a bit like a rocket and contains a modest museum with information about the wars with the Turks. Disappointingly, the only view from the top was through some small windows.

The previous evening, I’d wanted to walk to the railway station to see how far it was, but gave up part-way when a thunderstorm started. I went into a hotel for dinner – I was the only one dining (I had some not-very-spicy spicy chicken and pepper with rice and pancakes for dessert). After visiting the New Castle, I packed up an set off on the walk to the station; it was a fair distance – two kilometres – but it wasn’t too bad. The man at the station (a young guy with long hair and a beard – much like the two men who’d given me my tickets at each of the castles) wrote down all my connections to Poprad for me – of which there were three or four.

Everything went well until my final transfer, when I got on the train coming from Poprad to Bratislava along with the majority of the crowd of people who were waiting. It had arrived at about the right time, but left a couple of minutes early, so I should have known better. Even when the ticket inspector looked at my ticket, she didn’t say anything and I went after her to double-check. Of course, she didn’t speak any English, but she managed to communicate that I should get off at the next stop.

Having gone in the wrong direction for an hour and waited for the right train for another hour, I was about four hours late arriving in Poprad, which is in the north of Slovakia. On the train, I chatted briefly to an attractive, moderately pregnant (‘moderately pregnant’ being midway between ‘slightly pregnant’ and ‘heavily pregnant’) woman who was going home – to Poprad – to see her family. She told me she worked in the Gulf (UAE or Jordan or somewhere – I forget exactly) as a flight attendant for a private jet company.

Poprad Station is pretty big for what seems to moderately sized town (a ‘moderately sized town’ is midway between a ‘slightly sized’ one and a ‘heavily sized’ one). After orienting myself, I made my way to my hotel, Hotel Gerlach – which was just the other side of a park outside the station. Being in a proper hotel is always nice – for privacy if for nothing else. This one was cheap (I was in a twin room) and quite pleasant, considering.

In the morning I had a walk around the town; there’s not that much to see. After lots of toing and froing in one particular area, I located the tourist information centre and found out that getting a train the following day to Kraków would take all day; a bus to Zakopane just inside Poland would be better. I also got information on a couple of lakes in the area that Bo recommended I visit.

I headed back to the railway station and took a train up into the hills. Poprad is a popular tourist destination because it’s in a mountain range called the High Tatras (which sounds a bit like it should refer to the perky breasts of a tall woman). I didn’t many clear glimpses of them because the weather was cloudy most of the time I was there, but some of the peaks I saw were impressively jagged.

The lake at the end of the train journey was the tongue-tripping Štrbské Pleso. When I got there, the place was basically in the clouds, so there wasn’t much in the way of scenery to be seen. I walked around the lake – it was quite pleasant, but very wet – even more so when it started raining in earnest. It was quite touristy – there were lots of hotels and restaurants by the station – but, a short walk away, the small lake was surrounded by forest … I assume – it was impossible to see more than a few metres.

I had been planning on hiking up to the other lake, Popradské Pleso, but in view of the weather (and in view of the lack of a view), I just took the train back. Dinner was a nicely spicy pizza at a popular international restaurant on the main square.

In the morning, I got up early, checked out and headed over to the bus station. There weren’t too many people around, but there were a few. As I was waiting, an elderly woman came up to me and asked me something; I apologised and said I didn’t speak Slovak – but that didn’t stop her trying to tell me something for a minute. At the designated time, I got on the small bus and set off for Poland.

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