As soon as I saw it was back for a seven week run I booked to go to see Spamalot, the musical ‘lovingly ripped’ from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

My best available seats from came in at row C in the stalls, very tidy.  I’ve not been to many theatres in London in truth, but the Harold Pinter Theatre seemed very small and intimate, like sitting in someone’s living room.  I had a look round while the jaunty Gordon’s gin advert played against the safety curtain until the show began.

All the best bits from the film are here, the swallow experts, Dennis the mud gatherer, the taunting French in the castle, the Black Knight (who had King Arthur, Marcus Brigstocke, laughing with some brilliant leg work after his arms had been cut off), Sir Robin’s minstrels and so on.  The Lady in the lake (Bonnie Langford) has a fantastically funny role, and also has some some of the best songs, including the wonderful ‘The Song That Goes Like This’ and the hilarious Diva’s Lament  (‘What Ever Happened to My Part’).
There are many other songs, including Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, sung by the put upon Pattsy (Todd Carty), He is Not Yet Dead and Find Your Grail, including a fantastic slow motion scene with everyone riding facing the front and Pattsy clopping his coconuts in slow motion alongside.

Inter sped between the classic film scenes there are some contemporary jokes, and on Saturday night (28th July) they included Boris Johnson riding across stage on a Boris bike and swipes at Mitt Romney, for his well thought out London Olympic quotes, and Paul McCartney from his seemingly embarrassing appearance in the Olympic opening ceremony the night before.

Even with all this the show compacts into just under two hours, but it was belly achingly funny from beginning to end and I’m quite tempted to join the knights of Camelot again..

“We’re knights of the round table…
We dance when we’re able..”


The Elephants Journey [Jose Saramago]

“No, I will not excuse you, I need your presence in the enclosure, But why, sir, if I  may be so bold as to ask, Because I lack the intelligence to know if what you termed a poetic act will take place or not, replied the king with a half-smile that gave his beard and moustache a mischievous, almost mesphistophelian look”

And so, hopeful that a poetic act would take place, Dom Joao III visits Soloman the elephant and his keeper Subhro before sending him on a Journey to Vienna, as a wedding gift to the Hapsburg Archduke, Maximilian.

Subhro the keeper takes the news stoically, wondering if the Archduke will already have a mahout, while on one knows what Soloman thinks, he is even more quiet than his reserved keeper.

The Elephants Journey is an obscure tale, narrated in delightful fashion as usual by Jose Saramago

“He went plof and vanished.  Onomatopoeia can be so very handy.   Imagine if we’d had to provide a detailed description of someone disappearing.  It would have taken us at least ten pages. Plof.”

As Elephant and Mahout travel to the Spanish border and war is almost started as the Portuguese and Austrian soldiers rigidly stick to Protocol and jostle for the upper hand.   On route the church prowls around the elephant requesting miracles, the calvalry face the problem of the speed of the oxen while at the same time discussing how much of a Christian Subhro is (more or less) and what to do about the wolves in the distance

“It was true.  The wolves, who, from the moment they arrived, had been sitting utterly motionless, silhouetted against the back drop of clouds, were now moving off, as if gliding rather than walking, until they disappeared, one by one”

As with all Saramago’s books the charm of the narration beguiles me in equal measure as the story itself.  Even though I often have to read the same conversation three or four times, it is always with a wry smile, sometimes it is the humour, at other times the sheer pleasure of the words on the page.   The Anecdotes and insights are a light touch on the characters and situations in the story itself, and I’m always fascinated that the narrator can at one point tell us what any particular character is thinking, bar the elephant, they will then admit that they don’t know what is said in a conversation because they don’t know the language.

“The audience applauded, thinking that, all things considered, the galician cow deserved the truth as much as she deserved the medal”

I didn’t start reading this until I had left Lisbon, as I would have tried to find the elephant house in Belem, but the sloping streets of Porto looking out onto the Rio Douro  were no less a fitting backdrop for me to one of Saramago’s lightest and enjoyable tales.

A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe [Fernando Pessoa, edited and translated by Richard Zenith]

“I’ve divided all my humaness among the various authors whom I’ve served as literary executor…I subsist as a kind of medium of myself, but I’m less real than the others.  Less substantial, less personal, and easily influenced by them all.”

I was introduced to Fernando Pessoa in the excellent novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago.  Possibly the greatest Portuguese poet of the 20th Century, there is so much to be said about Pessoa, whose name means “Person” in Portuguese, and this seems to have affected the poet throughout his life.

“Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist” Alvaro de Campos

Alvaro de Campos was one of the “heteronyms” (alter egos with startingly different styles, points of view, and biographies) that Pessoa created and wrote under.  These included, other than Campos:

Alberto Caeiro
Ricardo Reis
Alexander Search – who wrote in English
Charles Robert Anon – who wrote in English
Jean Seul – who wrote in French

Pessoa wrote poems, articles, essays under all these names, including references to the other heternoyms, such as the quote from Alvaro de Campos above.

Richard Zenith puts together a rich introduction to Pessoa, his life and his poetry. So you are itching to get to the poems themselves, and when they arrive, they do not disappoint.  Split between his main Heteronyms and their works, the whole volume is an odyssey whose reward is the sheer delight in reading the pure, simple and evocative poems that Pessoa wrote.  I wanted to include some parts of some of the poems, but as I would quite happily reproduce the whole book (and I’m pretty sure there are laws against that) I have simply highlighted my favourites, although a great number of them don’t have names.

Alberto Caiero, The Master, as he is referred to, is by far my favourite of the heteronyms.  His poems come straight from nature, and paint the picture of a serene uncomplicated existence.  The following excerpts are from The Keeper of Sheep

…As if I’d lived my wh0le life
Peacefully, like the garden wall
Having ideas and feeling, the same way
A flower has scent and colour

…Almost happy like a man tired of being sad.

XLIX is a simply beautiful poem.

In his collection the Shepherd in Love, the poems become more scattered, like a storm of thoughts has interrupted his serene contemplation of nature.  The 2nd and 3rd poems of his uncollected works also deserve a special mention.

Ricardo Reis is the classicist, the lover of the Greeks whose poetry is slightly more formal, but no less enjoyable than the natural Caiero.

“…Let us also make our lives one day,
Consciously forgetting there’s night, Lydia,
Before and after
The little we endure”

“…Sunflowers forever
Beholding the Sun,
We will serenely
Depart from life,
Without even the regret
of having lived.”

“…Learn what your body
Your boundary, teachers you” 

Alvaro de Campos was originally going to compose five futuristic odes, and although three are in the book they have been partially cobbled together from the many verses de Campos wrote.  The Maritime ode particularly is a rambling, powerful ode, utterly compelling from start to finish, dedicated to the sea and it’s hold on those who travel on her.

“…Brushing against the ropes, descending the cramped stairways,
Smelling this greasy metallic and maritime mixture of all this-
Ships seen from up close are something else and are the same,
Stirring the same nostalgia and the same yearning in another way” 

His section also contains excerpts from two odes, the first one of which is some three pages of smooth prose dedicated to the night and the moon.

Pessoa himself is no less gifted than his creations, and everything from girls singing to shutting himself up in his house at night, everyday activities are described simply, purely and the whole volume is an absolute pleasure to read from start to finish.  A poem dated the 5th of April 1931 seems to particularly describe Pessoa

“…If people get tired
Of being in the same place,
Why shouldn’t they tire
Of having the same self?” 

I bought this to read while in Portugal for two weeks, along with The Elephants Journey by Jose Saramago (review to follow) and I ended up visiting the house where Pessoa spent 15 years of his life, now dedicated to him.  I’ll finish with some lines from Ricardo Reis, that I wrote on the first page of my notebook:

“Happy those who, placing their delight
In slight things, are never deprived
of each day’s natural fortune!” 

link to Casa Fernando Pessoa, Lisbon, here

Cidade Maravilhosa

So I’ve just got back from two weeks in Portugal and now have thousands of photos to sort and a whole notebook full of notes to make well as a couple of book reviews to complete.
I want to add a writing section to the blog so while I wade through all of the above, I thought I’d kick off with an exercise I did out of a guide to Travel Writing, about one of my favourite cities, Rio de Janeiro.

A writing exercise for travel writing (1).

If I say sun, sea and samba, there is only one country you will be thinking of.  But that is a vast, diverse country, with countless alluring destinations.   So to focus you I’ll throw out Copacabana, Sugarloaf and Ipanema.  We are in the Cidade Maravilhosa itself, Rio de Janeiro.
The third largest metropolitan area in South America, the former capital of Brazil is the most visited city in the Southern hemisphere.

It’s list of attractions is as long as it’s hot summer days, Sugarloaf Mountain, Cristo Redentor on Corcovado (Hunchback), the Maracana, once the worlds highest capacity football stadium, the botanical garden, the legendary carnival and thats not even mentioning the famous beaches, themselves easy enough to spend two weeks on, as I did the first time I was there.

To make the most of Rio though you should submerge yourself in it.  Take the buses, they are for the most part frequent, cheap and easy enough to use.  They all show their route and fixed price on the side.  Get on, pay the conductor, through the turnstile and pick your seat, and try not to look forward.  All the drivers seem to be infused with the spirit of the late, great, Ayrton Senna.
The chances are you will be staying in, and confining yourself to Zona Sul.  Despite the fact it’s much bigger, and home of most of the samba schools that form part of the carnival, the Zona Norte is less glamorous than it’s southern sister.  Maybe it’s the thousand or so favelas that deter visitors, but the only time you are likely to venture this way is to visit the Maracana, the tour is worthwhile, particularly if you are a football fan and I would recommend seeing a game, especially if Flamengo are playing, as they are the biggest supported team in Brazil, or more importantly if the mighty Botafogo are playing..

Back in Zona Sul you are surrounded by beautiful people in a beautiful location.  The beaches are hives of industry in their own right.  All you need is beach-wear (preferably as small as possible for men and women) and some money.  Once on the beach you can hire chairs and an umbrella, order and buy drinks and watch the hordes of people streaming past.  They will be selling sarongs, t-shirts, massages, grilled cheese, tattoos, drinks (Cerveza! Cerveza! Cerveza!), sun tan lotion, jewellery, prawns and will be advertising themselves by shouting.  A peaceful sunbathe it is not.
You can escape by taking  a swim, although beware the current as it can be strong, and at times the water can be freezing.  Despite my utter lack of Portguese I had a conversation with a fellow swimmer that involved a lot of gesticulating, probably swearing and the word frio!.  Along the back of the beach grab a beer at one of the beachside bars or tuck into a Churro, a hollow doughnut filled with chocolate or dulce de leite (Caramel to you and me) or both.  These can be slightly addictive.

In the evenings I’ve found Ipanema more lively than Copacabana, but that maybe because I didn’t know where to look.  I’ve had great nights in Melt in Leblon and caught a great funk band in Posto 9, likewise Lapa is great fun for a night out, and if you get there early, or don’t mind queueing, go to Scenarium, one of Rio’s great samba clubs.  Through a friend of a friend we went out with some Brazilians and despite my dismal attempts at samba, I was made an honourary Brazilian for the night.  At the end of the night however comes the only stain on Brazil’s otherwise spotless canvas.  The policy for most of the clbs in Rio, and Brazil, is to give you a card when you go in, on which all your drinks are marked.  Then at the end of the night you queue up and pay on exit.  Not only does this take ages, but you have no idea how much you have spent.  But i’s a minor gripe.  The next day I will be grabbing a Coxhina or two on my way to the beach, as I enjoy another day in the Marvellous City.