Act 2

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At last, the interval is over, and we are back in the theatre for Act 2! So often in the theatre, the second act is more exciting than the first, and for me, this certainly was the case with the shows that I am about to describe. These shows, mostly in the West Midlands, in Birmingham, Coventry and Solihull, were a real treat. Different in so many ways, and a real extravaganza of theatrical productions.

One of my favourite Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals opens this second act. I first saw Sunset Boulevard shortly after it opened in the West End in 1993, with Patti Lupone playing the part of Norma Desmond, the former Hollywood star of the silent screen. Since then I have seen others, including Glenn Close, play that part, but in the latest touring production that I saw in Birmingham, Ria Jones takes the lead. She was superb; not only capturing the character of the delusional fantasist that is Norma Desmond, but also filling the theatre with her wonderful soprano voice. With One Look and As If We Never Said Goodbye, were sung with such clarity; here was a leading lady who owned the stage, ably supported by Danny Mac playing the part of Joe Gillis, the young Hollywood writer, and an enthusiastic cast and orchestra. The standing ovation, not always deserved in theatres, was in my opinion, rightly accorded to this cast and this production.

From one big musical to another, and for me, a first, as I have never before seen a live theatrical production streamed to a cinema. This was Follies, the Stephen Sondheim musical currently playing at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank. Unable to get tickets for that show in London, I was able to see it streamed live to a cinema here in Coventry. Sondheim’s musicals are never the easiest, and Follies, rarely performed because it is such a big show requiring such a large cast, has nevertheless been a triumph this year at the National Theatre. Again, I saw Follies at its last West End incarnation back in 1987, and really wanted to see it again. Live streaming is such a wonderful way to do this. Admittedly, there is not the same atmosphere as there would be at a live production in the theatre, but the sound quality, the close ups, and the camera angles more than make up for that. Two and a half hours, without an interval as Sondheim directs, is quite a feat, and takes a lot of concentration, but it was worth the effort!

The cinema is not somewhere I go often, as I prefer live theatre, but having read reviews in the newspapers and heard film critics speaking of this film, I felt compelled to see it. Call Me by Your Name is already well ahead in the race for this year’s Oscar nominations, and deservedly so. I read the novel by André Aciman, on which the film is based, in the week before seeing the film. It is a coming-of-age love story between a precocious Italian teenage boy and a slightly older American man. Beautifully filmed during an Italian summer in a cultured multi-lingual household, it deals with their difficult relationship, and their relationships with other local young women, without being seedy, sensational, or offensive. The atmosphere is one of culture, music, antiquities and lazy summer days, but beneath the surface there is the not-so-secret emotional and sexual turmoil. The chemistry between Timothée Chalamet as the young Italian boy Elio and Armie Hammer as the older American Oliver, is fantastic. The pain and the pleasure of first love is dealt with sensitively, but the climax is inevitable, the sadness is real, but above all, the tenderness of this film is its star quality.

A friend of mine is a member of a local amateur theatrical society, who this year were producing the well known musical Fiddler on the Roof. Set in Russia in 1905, it tells the story of Tevye, a father of five daughters, and his attempts to maintain his Jewish traditions in the face of outside influences, and his headstrong daughters who wish to marry for love and move away from their Jewish traditions, and all this at a time when an edict of the Tsar is evicting Jews from their village. We were treated to a very polished performance of this classic at a theatre in Solihull, as we heard the well known songs, Matchmaker, Matchmaker, If I Were a Rich Man, Sunrise, Sunset, Miracle of Miracles, Do You Love Me? and Anatevka, but perhaps the highlight of the show was the wonderfully directed scene of Tevye’s dream, but maybe I am biased as my friend was playing the part of Grandma Tzeitel, and I shall never see her in the same light again!

More years ago than I care to remember, when I was a fourteen year old at an all boys Grammar School, I was in the cast of the annual school play. That year it was Hobson’s Choice, Harold Brighouse’s play about a shoe shop proprietor with three headstrong daughters, set in Salford in 1880. Seeing the play advertised at The Crescent Theatre in Birmingham recently, I just knew that I had to see it, if for no other reason than to re-live my boyhood memories. Obviously the script had long since left my memory, but words and phrases came back to me, and it was wonderful to take myself back all those years ago and remember the days when I “trod the boards”.

Spalding Grammar School Play “Hobson's Choice” 1961

(School Play production of Hobson’s Choice, 1963)

And so to the Grand Finale! Every year just before the Christmas Pantomime Season, the Birmingham Hippodrome, the city’s largest theatre, stages a production of The Nutcracker by its resident ballet company, The Birmingham Royal Ballet. This magical production, choreographed by Sir Peter Wright is set at a family party on Christmas Eve. A visiting magician brings gifts for the children including a Nutcracker Doll for the daughter Clara. When the guests have departed Clara creeps downstairs to look for the Nutcracker, but as the clock strikes midnight, the room seems to grow and giant rats attack Clara. The Nutcracker doll springs to life, and aided by the toy soldiers given as a gift to her brother, defends her. So we are transported to a land where the Nutcracker is turned into a handsome prince and dances with Clara as he takes her to the Land of Snow. In this fantastic world, the magician puts on a grand entertainment for Clara, where she joins in many of the dances and is finally transformed into the Sugar Plum Fairy, the ballerina of her dreams. The Nutcracker Prince dances with her and as the dancing reaches a climax, so the dream ends and Clara wakes up at the foot of the Christmas tree where she had gone at midnight to find her Nutcracker doll. This really was a beautiful production in every way, the dancing, the music, the costumes and the set, and for me a fitting climax to a few weeks of theatre and film of so many different kinds. Hopefully you have enjoyed your trip to the theatre with me as much as I have enjoyed being there, and telling you about it!

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Act 1

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There is a common saying that you can wait all day for a bus, and then three come along together! That saying has particular relevance to what I am writing about today for two reasons. First of all, regular readers of my blog will have noticed that nothing has appeared from me over the past three weeks. I apologise for that, and at the same time inform you that this is the first of two or maybe three blog posts on the same theme, which although not appearing together like the buses, will be ready for your perusal within the next seven days! The second reason that this saying about buses has relevance is that, having been in France for much of the summer, I have not be able to have my regular fixes of theatrical entertainment, but within the space of these three blog free weeks, I have been to the theatre eleven times! Just like the buses, I have waited all summer, and then eleven productions come along at once! So I want to share with you, some of my thoughts on these shows.

Witness for the Prosecution is a play adapted from an Agatha Christie short story first published in 1925 called Traitor Hands. It was in 1951 that the story was adapted as a play. It is currently been staged in London in the unique and most unusual setting of the Council Chamber of the former Greater London Council at County Hall, on the South Bank over the river from the Houses of Parliament. Whoever had the idea of staging it in this chamber certainly hit on a winner. The play itself is riveting, and without giving away the ending, there is a real twist in the tale, which my friends and I never expected, but it is the setting which gives the atmosphere, and for the courtroom scenes the legal dignitaries sit on high in the officials’ seats in the chamber, whereas the other scenes take place in the round on a stage built for this production in the centre of the chamber, around which we all sat in the former Councillors’ seats. The acting was superb, indeed at times it did not feel like a play that one was watching, but that one was actually sitting in a courtroom witnessing a real court case, and wondering how this is all going to end. This production runs until next March, and if you enjoy a good thriller, and can get a seat, this is a play not to be missed. I am so glad that I had the chance of seeing it here.

The following day, since we were staying in London, we went to a West End Show that I had wanted to see ever since it opened back in 2013. I had bought the CD some years ago, and love the music. Sadly, I was disappointed with the show. The Book of Mormon has been very successful on Broadway and in London, it has endeared many people to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the Church itself has mounted a huge campaign to promote itself on the back of this show, even buying advertising space on the sides of London buses and in the programme, but for me the mockery of someone else’s religion, however strange we may consider that religion to be, went just that bit too far. With modern day theatre, one is used to strong language, sex, nudity and all kinds of strange things happening on stage, and I would never want to go back to the days prior to 1968 in the United Kingdom, when the Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household had the power to censor any play wishing to be licensed for public performance, it is just personally that I did not like the mockery and the crude language. I am sure that I was in a minority that night in the theatre, as most of the audience were loving every minute of it, but it just did not do it for me! Well, you win some, you lose some!

Four days later, I was back in London to see another play. Many years ago, I had read Michael Campbell’s novel Lord Dismiss Us which is set in an English boys’ public school in the 1960s and which deals with the love affair between two boys, together with the internal politics of the school itself. Carleton, a sixth former loves Allen, a boy two years his junior. At the same time, the headmaster is trying to enforce a policy against such liaisons. When the book was written it was a contemporaneous work, now however, it depicts a school at a period in history because the book was published in the same year, 1967, that homosexuality between consenting adults was legalised in the United Kingdom. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of that legalisation, the novel has been dramatised and after a spell at the Edinburgh Festival, Lord Dismiss Us was playing in London for a short season. This is not a production aiming to shock or sensationalise the subject, but following the direction of the novel,  just seven actors tell the story very cleverly with pathos and humour, and present the characters in the school, both staff and boys, in both a realistic and yet tender manner. The Headmaster’s wife, played brilliantly by Julie Teal, strives to support her husband in his quest to enforce his policies throughout the school, and at the same time wanting to support the Chaplain, who has a rather different agenda. The Headmaster and the Chaplain, it should be said, never appear together on stage, and these two characters were played by the same actor, David Mullen, which really heightened the tension that one felt was present in the school. Two huge parts, but ones that he portrayed so differently and yet perfectly. Like the novel it is a play about power struggles, and who is in charge, the masters or the pupils? It is about bullying, falling in love, and being forced out because of what you are, and in all this the play succeeds. It was a wonderful evening of theatrical entertainment, but one that asked the audience serious questions.

The fourth show that I saw, was a local amateur group’s production of the musical Happy Days. This is a show based on the American television series of the same name which aired in the 1970s. The story of the musical is taken from the original sitcom, and concerns the kids’ plans to save Arnold’s malt shop (akin to an ice cream parlour), from demolition by hosting a dance contest and wrestling match. It is rather a silly story, but given the popularity of the original series and the making of the character Fonzie, or Arthur Fonzarelli, and the actor Henry Winkler into a big star, it is not surprising that it was turned into a stage musical. I can’t say that I really enjoyed this show, and I cannot remember one of the songs apart from the title song, but it was a brilliant choice for this company. Here in Coventry, we are very fortunate to have a flourishing amateur theatrical scene. One of the groups, which has produced a number of West End actors, singers and dancers, is the Coventry Youth Operetta Group, which puts on two major shows each year. In this production, the leads were strong, having worked their way up over the years, but what made this the ideal choice this year was the fifty strong younger members of the company who were all given roles and who quite obviously enjoyed what they were doing. If nothing else, the exuberance and the joy which this cast showed, was something that everyone will remember, and of which they can be really proud. If local amateur theatre is to continue and flourish, then this is something to be encouraged and supported.

From amateur theatre, to a West End musical on a UK tour, and the production of  Beautiful, The Carole King Musical at the Birmingham Hippodrome. In recent years there have been numerous musicals, which showcase the songs of various artists. Buddy, the story of Buddy Holly, opened in 1989, and was the first of these so-called ‘Jukebox Musicals’. I enjoyed Buddy back then, because it told the story of Buddy Holly and incorporated his songs into his life story. For me, others since, have just been an excuse to sing the songs of individuals or groups; some successful, others not. Beautiful, in my opinion, falls into the category of those that succeed. Before I went to this show, I had obviously heard of Carole King, but did I know much about her? No not really. Did I know which songs she wrote? Again, no not really. But I came away thinking, of course I knew those songs, I was brought up with many of them, and those well known songs were cleverly woven into the story of her life which was told on that stage. On Broadway, The Locomotion, You’ve lost that loving feeling, It might as well rain until September, Up on the roof, Take good care of my baby, You’ve got a friend and Oh! Carol, to name just some of the songs from the show. The night we went to Birmingham, the Hippodrome was packed, all one thousand eight hundred and fifty seats, as it was all week. So popular was it, that it is returning to Birmingham in February for another week.

I called this post Act 1, which means, of course, that there is more. So there now follows a short interval, after which I will be back with more shows in Act 2!

“Shut up and drink your gin!”

FFCA1C10-A45E-41C3-94A6-1FC400AB6E3ABack in the 1960s Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! premiered in London’s West End, and in 1968 the film of that stage show, which was based on Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, was released to great acclaim. It starred Ron Moody as Fagin and contains those memorable lines in Fagin’s den (which have lived with me to this day!) when one of the boys calls out, “‘Ere Fagin, these sausages are mouldy!” Fagin replies, “Shut up, and drink your gin!”

Very few people would give a child gin to drink in this day and age, but back in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, gin was a medicine, supposedly a cure for anything from gout to indigestion, and one of its attractions was that it was cheap. Very cheap in fact! It was the poor man’s drink sold by almost anyone from barbers to grocers, and in London alone there were more than seven thousand so called “dram shops” where gin was available. In the capital it is believed that ten million gallons of gin were sold annually, the average man or woman could not afford expensive French wines and brandy, or even strong beer, and so they drank the cheapest thing on offer. The government tax on beer was four shillings and nine pence a gallon, but on gin it was only tuppence (or two pence, if you’ve not heard that word before!) Not only was it cheap, but it was also very strong! It reportedly rendered men impotent, and women sterile, hence the phrase mother’s ruin!

The government had to act, and so raised the tax on gin. Unfortunately it pushed the sale of gin underground, people were still led to ruin, madness, suicide and even death, they would do anything to get their gin. There are stories of people selling their homes, their belongings to get their hands on it, there are even reports of a cattle drover selling his eleven-year-old daughter in order to buy a gallon of gin, and of a coachman who pawned his wife for a quart bottle! By the time of Dickens, gin was not the great problem that it had been in earlier years, but it was still a popular and common drink, available even to children!

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William Hogarth’s print Gin Lane (1751)

Gone are the days of the gin palaces, but gin is still a popular drink. If anything it has seen something of a revival in recent years.

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Scene in a London Gin Palace

That revival has seen the advent of many small artisan distilleries, and the interest in flavoured gins. For many years, I have enjoyed a glass of gin and tonic, with a slice and ice, and usually here in the United Kingdom there were perhaps two of three brands to choose from. Those days are gone, the choice today is enormous; not only are there different brands to choose from, but there are many flavours too; Pink, Rhubarb, Lime, Orange, Strawberry, different botanicals, and I’ve even seen Lavender gin, Marmalade gin, and gin with Charred Lemon, Rosemary and Coriander.

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My favourites, after the classic Gin and Tonic with a slice and ice, are Strawberry gin, which has a very subtle flavour, and can be served with a frozen strawberry instead of an ice cube, and Rhubarb gin, which is easily bought, but just as easily flavoured at home. All you need are a few sticks of young pink rhubarb cut into inch long pieces, tossed in sugar (or not, if you prefer it unsweetened). Leave it to steep for anything up to six weeks or until the gin has changed to a beautiful pink colour. We tried this with some cheap gin a few weeks ago, but became impatient after about four days and so drank it then! It was good, both the colour and the flavour were fine, and if you like ginger, a slice or two of root ginger gives added flavour to the gin and of course, goes well with the rhubarb.

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I would be interested to know if you like gin too, and what your favourite might be?

Factory Girls

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“Would you like some complimentary tickets for a show I’m producing which is going to the Warwick Arts Centre in Coventry? It’s by a Korean company.” This was the question asked of us by a friend who is the International Projects Producer at the Farnham Maltings Theatre in Surrey. Always happy to go to the theatre, and to experience something new and different, we said that we would love to have the tickets and would look forward to the performance.

The Farnham Maltings Theatre is currently involved in a year long exchange programme between the United Kingdom and South Korea, and this production is just one of a number of projects funded by the Arts Councils of the two countries, with the aim of encouraging “an exchange of practice, ideas and skills between the two countries with the ambition of creating long term, collaborative relationships between artists and communities around the world.”

With that knowledge we went along to the Arts Centre, on the campus of the University of Warwick last night with four friends, not quite knowing what to expect from the performance. A leaflet handed out as we entered the small studio theatre, gave us a synopsis of the story, and some words from the director about the play and the author Chin-O Yu, who apart from having a literary career, taught constitutional law in Korea during the Japanese occupation of that country, and eventually drafted the Constitution of the Republic of Korea. He wrote Factory Girls in 1931, and it was originally serialised in a newspaper, but was censored by the Japanese authorities.

The play itself is set during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s, and follows a young eighteen year old girl from a working class family called Oksun, who has been working in a textile factory for three years, enduring hard work and oppression. The other girls are worried that their pay could be cut again even though they are working in these harsh conditions. One day Oksun is given a bonus, and ordered by the foreman to spy on her friends, whom they suspect of rallying the workers. Oksun discovers that the other girls are discussing poverty, recession and strikes. What she hears, and the events which follow make Oksun decide that the time has come to find her voice. Will she tell her Japanese boss?

What I have not told you so far is that all of this is spoken in Korean and Japanese! Happily for us, there were English surtitles, digitally displayed above the acting space. But this was a different kind of acting, it was not just dialogue, but also narrative description spoken by the actors, describing others, or even describing themselves, their actions and their feelings. The spoken word was combined with wonderful dance, almost balletic in nature, and very slow intricate movement. Added to this the sound effects of the factory, and the workers at their lunch breaks, the knocking on doors and so on, were all made by the actors. This was indeed a very different kind of theatre, but the combination of all of these elements brought Oksun’s story to life in a fascinating way.

I had assumed that the four actors were all female, and when they first appeared all wearing the same style dress and woollen socks, I thought no more of it. Slowly it dawned on me that in fact there was only one female actor, the rest were all young men. The female played the part of Oksun, but the men played the parts of the other girls in the factory, and the foreman and the Japanese boss.

The performance only lasted just over an hour, but that was long enough for the story to be told, and long enough to divide one’s attention between the action on stage and the surtitles above it. However, it was a fascinating evening, and although the story was harrowing at times, and did not end happily, the telling of the story was beautifully portrayed in these different ways. The actors were superb, especially the young lady who played Oksun, and we were delighted to have this unique opportunity of seeing this company’s first UK performance. To our friend Hannah, who gave us the tickets, we say “well done and thank you very much!” Photo on 12 Oct 2017 at 18_42_59

Every cloud has a silver lining!

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(The Castillet, the only remaining tower, housing one of the main gates to the former walled city of Perpignan. This building has become a symbol of the modern city)

Being back home in England after a summer spent in the south of France comes as a bit of a shock! Today the skies have been overcast, the wind has been blowing and the temperature is so different from what I was experiencing this time last week! Still, holidays cannot last for ever, nor can the summer, and I know that I am more fortunate than many in having been able to spend some sixteen weeks at our house in Canet-en-Roussillon this year.

Most summers spent down by the Mediterranean in the past have been long hot summers with the occasional storm, helping to clear the overpowering heat and bringing a little fresher air! Not so this summer. Don’t get me wrong, we have had some beautiful days in June, July and August, and one day in August the temperature reached 37 degrees Centigrade. However, September was a different story. One day sunny, another day wet, followed by wind and much lower temperatures. No two days were the same, until just before we came home, and then the weather settled!

So days lazing around the pool or going to the beach were limited, outdoor eating in the evenings was curtailed. We had to find other things to do, things that I have described in my recent posts, and you may have read them here. Certainly my days looking around museums, art galleries and photojournalism exhibitions in Perpignan when the Mediterranean sun was hidden by clouds meant that I discovered beautiful buildings and hidden parts of the city that I never knew existed. Yes, every cloud does indeed have a silver lining! So, as a last look at the south of France for this year, allow me to share some of those places with you.

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(The Castillet, on a brighter day, with the roofs of the old city, and the Cathedral bell tower, left of centre. I took this photo from the recently opened roof terrace café at the French department store, Galeries Lafayette)

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(Just inside the old city walls behind the Castillet, one of the many squares with Le Grand Café de la Poste. This ancient entry to the city is called La Porte Notre-Dame, and you can see the statue of Our Lady above the arch)

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(Another square in the old city – La Place de la Révolution Française. The steps on the left lead to the former Dominican Convent which housed part of the recent Photojournalism Festival, which was very busy on the day we visited, due in part to the bad weather)

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(The old city is full of narrow pedestrian streets. This is the rue des Cardeurs)

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(After a very heavy shower, the sun came out and shone on these lovely old apartments in La Place Hyacinth Rigaud, lighting up the early evening)

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(One of the beautifully restored salons inside L’Hôtel de Lazerme, which is now part of the city art gallery, and where Picasso stayed when he visited Perpignan)

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(The central atrium of the opulent Hôtel Pams, built by Pierre Bardou, one of the founders of the JOB cigarette paper company, and then transformed  in the 1890s into an elegant mansion by his son-in-law Jules Pams, who was a Senator – or member of the upper house of Parliament – for the Perpignan region. It now belongs to the city)

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(Believe it or not, this is the garden just off the first floor of the Hôtel Pams in what I think is now one of the less salubrious parts of the city. Stepping into this garden with its olive trees and a banana tree, is like stepping into another world)

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(The narrow city streets are often very dark, and behind some of the huge wooden doors you often find beautiful little courtyards. This one, in the rue de Mailly, housed an excellent coffee shop which we visited on more than one occasion)

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(This wonderful stairway took us up into the former Jewish quarter of the city, and to an area behind the cathedral and the Campo Santo, a fourteenth century cloister cemetery, and the massive Convent of the Minimes, which is now an exhibition space)

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(And so we leave the South of France, but we leave it on a sunny day with one of my favourite views of Perpignan – the illuminated fountains which play throughout the day and early evening between Cours Palmarole and Boulevard Wilson)

Au revoir Perpignan, et Canet-en-Roussillon. À bientôt!

Some words of wisdom from a table mat

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Eating in a restaurant is nearly always a pleasure. Sometimes it is better than others, because it is not just the quality and presentation of the food and wine that are important, but the ambiance and the service too. I like it when a restaurant gives you those extra little touches, and you come away feeling that the evening was really rather special. One of those special little touches is sometimes there right in front of you when you sit down at the table. For example, a year or so ago, we went to a restaurant in the neighbouring village of Sainte Marie La Mer, the restaurant was called Can Olivier, Can being a contraction of the Catalan word for the house of.  There were three of us eating that evening, and each of us had a different table mat, welcoming us to The house of Olivier. As you see above, one of us had a picture of the Castillet and the Railway Station in Perpignan, one a beach scene, and the third a picture of pleasure boats in the harbour. Immediately, we found ourselves talking about the mats and the views.

A similar thing happened on Sunday evening when we went with our friends from Ireland, to a restaurant called La Galiote in Canet Plage. Here the table mats did not have pictures, but sayings connected with food, appetite, gluttony and cooking! At the end of the evening, having expressed my delight with the table mat, the waitress very kindly gave me a clean one to bring away with me.

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The words are probably not too easy to read in the photograph, so let me type them out for you here.

L’appétit vient en mangeant, la soif disparait en buvant. – (François Rabelais)

Le Créateur, en obligeant l’homme à manger pour vivre, l’y invite par l’appétit et le récompense par le plaisir. – (Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin)

La gourmandise commence quand on n’a plus faim. – (Alphonse Daudet)

Si vous n’êtes pas capable d’un peu de sorcellerie, ce n’est pas la peine de vous mêler de cuisine. – (Colette)

Bien manger, c’est atteindre le ciel. – (Proverbe chinois)

“But…” I hear some of you say, “I am still no wiser!” Alright, I’ll translate for you!

Appetite comes with eating, and thirst departs with drinking.

The creator, in obliging man to eat in order to live, invited him there with appetite, and rewarded him with pleasure.

Gluttony begins when one is no longer hungry.

If you are not capable of a little magic, it’s not worth the trouble to interfere in the kitchen.

To eat well, is to reach the sky. – (Chinese proverb)

Words of wisdom indeed, especially as you look down at them staring up at you between courses. Thankfully they didn’t put me off my food!

Post script:

In a similar vein, I read some other sayings, this time not on a table mat, but believe it or not, painted on the toilet wall in another restaurant in Canet Plage a year or two back.

0624B117-A405-4A46-8D70-F543738752A8Unfortunately there is a letter “r” missing at the beginning of the last line here, but the translation of this saying is:

Do not seek the most beautiful woman in the world,

But seek the woman who will make your world more beautiful!

And the other saying on the same toilet wall was:

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To do what you love is happiness

To love what you do is freedom.

So there you have it, words of wisdom from two unexpected places in two different restaurants, a table mat, and a toilet wall!

The 29th International Festival of Photojournalism – Visa pour l’Image

9DE4957B-6A82-4C3C-A9AB-F969690904FDThe Collapse of the Caliphate, Development and Pollution in China, The Spread of Islam in Cuba, Juveniles in Prison, Human Trafficking – The Scourge of Nepal, Berbers in Morocco, resisting and defending their culture, Dreamers – Life on an Indian Reservation, Widowhood – what it means in Bosnia, India and Uganda, Italy Rent Asunder – after the earthquake, and The Battle of Mosul. These were just some of the titles of the exhibitions at The 29th International Festival of Photojournalism, which took place in Perpignan recently.

I have been coming to this part of France for some time, but this year was the first opportunity that I have had to visit this internationally renowned festival and exhibition which takes place in the first half of September every year. In ten different venues spread throughout the city, thousands of photographs are on display, the work of photojournalists from around the world. Add to this a further ninety smaller venues, where locals and others from around the world display their photographs in cafés, shop windows, bars, business offices, hotels, convents and hospitals, and you begin to see the scale of this event.

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(Perhaps the most impressive of the many venues, L’Église des Dominicans)

It was Salvador Dali who, when stepping out of the railway station at Perpignan and surveying the city, declared that he was standing at “the centre of the world”. I have always thought this a very strange statement, but over the past two weeks he would have been right; Perpignan was indeed at the centre of the world of photojournalism, and tens of thousands of people have visited its exhibitions and hopefully been inspired by the photo essays and stories that stir our consciences. For these photographs are not “breaking news”, these are photographs that tell in story-form man’s inhumanity to man, that tell of racism and fanaticism, that speak to us of some of the forgotten people of our planet, and pictorial essays about the damage we are doing to our world.

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(Berbers in Marocco, resisting and defending their culture, part of the exhibition of photographs by Ferhat Bouda)

The exhibition was a real eye-opener for me, and the friends who were with me. Had we heard before how Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were funding the spread of Islam in Cuba? Did we realise that between 1980 and 2000, women accounted for 20% of all deaths and disappearances during the period of terrorism in Peru? Did we know that they were murdered, or compelled to be part of subversive groups, or forced into unwanted marriages and sexually abused? Or did we know that in the USA, the richest country on earth, that the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is said to be the poorest place in America, with 85% unemployment, and the country’s worst life expectancy, 47 years for men, and 52 for women? I certainly had not realised that in parts of Bosnia, India, and Uganda, widowhood can mean social death for a woman, relegating her and her children to the fringes of society. Like everyone else, I have seen television images of the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, sanitised for public consumption; here they were realistic, personal, and horrifying.

It would be impossible to describe all of the exhibits, but one which had a profound impact on me, and the friends with me, was the outdoor display in front of the Palais des Congrès, entitled Night falls over Europe, which documented the plight of refugees fleeing for safety to Europe, only to be faced with the closing doors of our continent.

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(La Nuit tombe sur l’Europe, describing Europe’s shameful policies towards refugees)

This festival and exhibition is now a firmly fixed event in the life of the city of Perpignan, and one that is well worth a visit. There is so much to see, and so much to learn. I consider myself to be reasonably well informed on world events, mainly through reading a quality newspaper, and watching television news bulletins, but so much of what is happening in our world is not considered newsworthy by those who bring the news to us. This exhibition draws our attention to so much more than the mainstream media offer us. I shall certainly make sure that I am in this part of the world next September for the 30th International Festival of Photojournalism.

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(Photos from the exhibition, Crowds and Solitude in Africa, by Marco Longari who has been observing Africa for many years)