Saturday, 7 March 2009

A Life Cut Short

I just couldn't let any more time go by without writing an entry about Franz Schubert's final chamber work; the magnificent, glorious String Quintet in C Major.

The quintet was written in 1828, just two months before his death. Contemporaneous with the wonderful last six piano sonatas and a number of songs, it is the 'Mt Everest' of his late works. Indeed, many consider it the high point of chamber music. Full stop. And I am in complete agreement.

Unprecedentally long (5 movements and almost an hour) and scored for the unusual combination of two 'cellos, a viola and two violins, there is not a moment that is less than thrilling.

Structured carefully and extremely lyrical, the quintet has found its way into the hearts and minds of many.

Artur Rubinstein requested the slow movement be played at his funeral. Alfredo Piatti, one of the most famous cellists of the 19th century, had the slow movement played at his bedside while he was dying. Another violinist even had the first seven bars of the slow movement inscribed on his tombstone.

The portamento slides on an old recording I have made by the 'Hollywood String Quartet' (a great name and a great quartet), are ravishing. But I prefer the newer recording that I have made by England's Raphael Ensemble. The slow movement is taken just a little bit slower and they seem to find just a little bit more spirit in the closing bars of the gypsy-style finalĂ©. 

The quintet is in some ways a summation of Schubert's cruelly short life. He left behind him a number of unfinished symphonies, a body of piano sonatas better than Beethoven's and more than 500 melodious songs. Yet his life was 'snuffed out' by syphilis just as his music was beginning to become better known.

Friday, 6 March 2009


I have been researching 20th C. '-isms' for an article. 
Perhaps most striking is 'absurdism.' 
Rationality, God and the search for meaning are thrown out. The result? A vacuum that still seems to be affecting western culture today.
See what you think.

'Absurdism had its roots int he notion that humans exist in a meaningless and ultimately irrational universe.
It contended that the search for meaning is essentially ridiculous.
The desolation of post World War I Europe provided the perfect social environment for such views to grow and the art movement known as 'Dadaism' followed closely behind.
In practical terms, the Dadaist movement translates to a hungry desire to reject the old, ultimately practical ideas and replace them with new, not necessarily functional ones. Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' is an expressionistic display of the agonies of the soul, the Dadaists saw the agony and decided that it doesn't really matter.
To the challenge of "Why?" the answer was a loud, if slightly demoralized, "Why not?" If the purpose of art was to be beautiful, the Dadaists wanted to shock. Where art was concerned with traditional aesthetics, Dadaism ignored aesthetics.
Absurdism had its roots in the notion that humans exist in a meaningless and ultimately irrational universe.'
Meaningless and ultimately irrational? Why then do I seem to find meaning in everything I see?

Sunday, 1 March 2009

40-ish, matey, balding?

Whoever invented the job interview has a lot to answer for.
It's like a byte sized photo shot, in ten or fifteen minutes you are expected to look good, appear intelligent, work out what the other person is thinking, work out what they want you to be thinking, think it, and say it without looking like an idiot!
I had my first ever telephone interview today. This form of interview is even more ludicrous because you have to make your voice sound like the image they want to have of you... and use all of your initiative to estimate what the person you're speaking to looks like, acts like, thinks like...
The image I created from Mr X on the telephone today was of an early 40-ish, matey, Brit., trying to make it seem like he had estimated what the world was like and was doing well in living in it. But I felt it was all a facade. Perhaps that's because of the stereotype I have of early 40-ish people living in the gulf, (see pic) or perhaps it's because emails he had sent me over the week contained spelling mistakes that a teacher wouldn't allow from a pupil. What on earth is a 'bushell'? Can I really go 'parallell' to something?
He seemed impressed, but not sure what to make of me. I obviously felt at home in Cairo, had done an awful lot with my life, and was a well-groomed, interesting person (at least, that's what I was trying to make my voice sound like).
If I don't get the job it's because of pre-conceptions he has about people who write for interior design magazines... not matey enough, mate!

Friday, 27 February 2009


Today I have literally been watching paint dry.

Devoid of all of the usual preoccupations as painters were in the house (TV, internet, space, stereo, food) I found myself living on my bed. It became extraordinarily frustrating that I couldn't leave and yet I couldn't stay.

The end result looks fantastic, however.

No pain, no gain!

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Cleaner Washes Mug in Toilet

If I were to describe my workplace in terms of 'upstairs downstairs' then the 'downstairs' would definitely contain the score of cleaners who come from all over Cairo each morning to brush, scrub, make tea, wash windows...

I rather admire these women, their good humour abounds and when they do have a tantrum they do it in spectacular style as only an Egyptian housewife can.

So today when I saw the cleaner of my floor sobbing by the gate I went to investigate. Poor Om Mohamed had been sacked over her cleaning, so I unthinkingly gave her a hefty tip and watched her disappear out of sight. It's the least I could do... right?

However, I soon regretted it. Apparently she had been washing the mugs (including MY mug) in the toilet. In the ACTUAL toilet. 

From malevolence? From lack of education? (She almost certainly wouldn't have running water in her area). Who knows, but it's the last time I tip a cleaner without doing my research. And that mug will have to go, too.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Yesterday's Explosion

Yesterday's explosion in the Khan el Khalili market killed at least one person and injured about twenty others. It is a tragic occurrence and one that is becoming increasingly common in this city.

The people behind this attack are hardly criminal masterminds. Evidence points to a small, home-made explosive device and they haven't identified themselves or their purposes.

On the other hand, if their goal was to cause panic they have been quite astute. The area where the bomb exploded is one of the only areas of Cairo where just about everybody in the city, rich and poor alike, have been at one time or another. 

The Khan el Khalili market is one of the oldest in the world. Long ago is was the shopping area servicing one of the cities most genteel neighbourhoods. Now dreadfully run down, the area is still full of very old, picturesque mansions and mosques. At least two million people now live in the immediate area. I suppose we shall never know who carried out this attack.

Sunday, 22 February 2009


The tale of Aladdin is a fairy tale set in a middle eastern context. Today I went to view a performance of it designed for children and they all seemed to be enjoying it. In fact, none of them mentioned the popular Disney version. High praise indeed!

There was, however, some dramas along the way. Half way through the performance the local council arrived to check that a performance wasn't going on. You see, it had been impossible for the woman in charge of both the show and the theatre to get a licence due to this country's rather weird laws. Like in 'The Sound of Music,' we all had to sit very quietly during the interval when the inspectors were outside. 

No, it would not have helped to sing about our favourite things.

If the inspectors knew that this wonderful, inspiring performance had been going on they would have closed the theatre down promptly. 

Instead, they probably went away with a fistful of money. Bribery, or suktum buktum (an Arabic play on words translating as 'see no evil, hear no evil) is very much a part of life here. And that doesn't seem like it is about to change.

I couldn't help feeling proud of the actors who held fast to that old adage, the show MUST go on!