05 December 2014

Gramex, Rogers Hewland's shop of records and CDs in London

With Roger at 104 Lower Marsh, London
I am a music collector, and when I travel some of my first destination targets are the music shops I can find in various cities: mostly CDs and LPs, but also books about music and other paraphernalia. So it was a really amazing coincidence that when I moved to a city as big as London I should find one such shops, which turned out to be the best of its kind, just a few steps from my apartment.

As I walked inside, I was struck by the sight of a huge mass of CDs all over the place, but also LPs and 78rpm discs, and even cylinder recordings! The welcoming owner is Roger Hewland but the shop has been running non-stop, at different London locations, since 1906. "It's anarchy, not chaos" is one of the first things he told me. "Having all my music in random order makes you find what you did not know you wanted and trigger impulsive buying instincts in the collector. It makes perfect business sense." He also does not like shelves. Most items on sale are on tables and even boxes, but always displayed so you can see the cover. "No point showing a record spine, no one likes those, but collectors like covers." After a few months of frequenting the store, and several hundred CDs in my collection later, I agree.


On Christmas 1978 Gramex opened under its current name at Wardour Street. Roger was running a book shop then, but was in love with music as much or more than with books. When Gramex went bankrupt in 1981 Roger bought the name and started anew in York Road, just next to Waterloo station, where the shop stayed until 1990. He then moved to 84 Lower Marsh and remained there until 1993. The next move took him to number 25 in the same street, where he remained until April of 2014, and Gramex is now at 104 Lower Marsh. He has not had a holiday since he opened shop, and greets customers six days a week, 11am to 7pm, every week of the year. He said he will take Saturdays off when he turns 100, in about 18 years' time.


Roger Hewland's ancestors were Huguenots, protestants who fled persecution in France. Huguenots ended up in many places where protestants were accepted. I have met Huguenot descendants as far as South Africa, where they started that country's wine-making tradition. Roger's family crossed over to England in 1712. He has French, Spanish, Italian as well as English blood in his veins. He is a born and bred Londoner, you can certainly tell he is an Englishman from a mile away but he considers himself a member of the European nation. He hated the British Empire but loves the Commonwealth. He believes in the European Union and will vote accordingly when there is a referendum in a few years time. In his shop he accepts Euros as well as pound sterling.


Roger is a dealer, but first of all a collector. He bought his first record in 1948, on 20 October 1948 at 10:30 am to be precise.  It was a 78rpm version of the Butterfly. He had £200, spent it all on records, does not regret it a bit, and has not stopped since. He now has over 50,000 opera 78s/LP/CD/cassettes/cylinders etc in his personal collection at home. He owns 27 editions of Traviata, all those he could find. Boheme and Trovatore are his favorite operas however, though under pressure he would admit Beethoven's Fidelio, my favorite, is the greatest opera ever written.  One has to be a collector before one can be a dealer in music, he says.


He certainly is, and so are most of his clients. Originally the shop only dealt with classical music, but when he asked his customers whether they wanted to add jazz, 90% said yes. And so it is jazz and classical now. Joe, a jazz musician, helps with the jazz part of the business. Many of his customers have become friends, and I like to think of myself as belonging to this category. When he was in the hospital for an operation a few years ago they kept the shop open for him! 


It's more a club than a shop, Roger says. People are free to use the toilet and the kitchen, where coffee an tea are complimentary. Good English tea but coffe left a bit to be desired, so I gifted Gramex with a good Italian Moka machine! One more reason because of which, if you love music, you must visit Gramex when in London.




03 December 2014

Book review: River Town (2001), by Peter Hessler, *****

Synopsis

When Peter Hessler went to China as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1990s, he expected to spend a couple of peaceful years teaching English in the town of Fuling on the Yangtze River. But what he experienced -- the natural beauty, cultural tension, and complex process of understanding that takes place when one is thrust into a radically different society -- surpassed anything he could have imagined. Hessler observes firsthand how major events such as the death of Deng Xiaoping, the return of Hong Kong to the mainland, and the controversial construction of the Three Gorges Dam have affected even the people of a remote town like Fuling.

Review

This is a superbly written account by one acute observer of one part of China while the country was undergoing tremendous change in the mid-1990s. One view by one person in one small part of this immense country does not allow a reader to draw more general conclusions. However, the many microstories we read here help a lot in understanding the new (then) China rising from the ashes of maoism. Hessler is curious, even a bit nosy, but always respectful. He learns Chinese and always tries to understand. He questions himself but does not fall into the trap of many travelers who always marvel at what they see and whom they meet, no matter what. He does criticize, with strong arguments, people and practices he meets along the way.

The Yangtse near the Three Gorges
Hessler walks on thinner ice when he addresses more academically charged historical, economic or political issues, but this is not meant to be an academic book. His perceptions of the reality around him, and of how he changes over the years while in China, is what makes this an invaluable read for anyone interested in how China changed during the post-Mao "Reform and Opening" period.


Read my other reviews of books on China here in this blog.



23 November 2014

Film review/recensione: A Walk in the Clouds (1995), by Alfonso Arau, ****

Italian text below

Synopsis

After returning home from the war, Sutton (Keanu Reeves) accepts that his wife has no interest in him or his plans for the future, and sets out in search of a new life on his own. He soon meets up with a vineyard owner's daughter (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), but she finds out she is pregnant and fears for her life when it comes to telling her father. Sutton then agrees to help her by pretending to be her new husband, a decision which will change both of their lives forever.

Review

A film about love: love for a family, a woman (you can see more men loving women, in their own way, than the other way around in this film) but especially love for the land and its wine. Catch the moment, life will offer unexpected treasures if one has the mental predisposition to catch them on the fly! Be ready to change what you planned, don't wait until you must.









Sinossi

Tornato dalla guerra, Paul Sutton, dopo aver riabbracciato la moglie Betty, che per la verità non sembra aver trepidato per lui, visto che non ha letto una sola delle molte lettere inviatele, riprende l'attività di rappresentante di cioccolatini. Una serie di contrattempi fa sì che si ritrovi a "fare" da marito ad una giovane di origine messicana, Victoria Aragon, figlia di un ricco viticoltore delle valle di Napa, che possiede il vigneto modello "Le Nuvole". La giovane, che frequenta l'università in città, aspetta un figlio illegittimo dal suo professore e teme che il padre, Alberto, la uccida.

Accettato il ruolo solo per breve tempo essendo deciso il giorno dopo ad andarsene con una lettera d'addio, Paul incontra subito l'aperta ostilità di Alberto, geloso della figlia e irritato per non essere stato avvertito, ma la simpatia della madre Marie José e soprattutto del nonno, Don Pedro, ritardano la sua partenza. Il rito della vendernmia poi, con il clima bacchico e solare della pigiatura dell'uva, fa perdere quasi la testa a Paul, che decide di rispettare Victoria, pur essendone attratto e ricambiato. Orfano, Paul trova nella famiglia della giovane un rifugio dagli orrori della guerra che ancora lo traumatizzano. Il fatto che i due non dormano insieme insospettisce Alberto che, colpito dalle manifestazioni d'affetto del finto genero per la figlia, decide di farli sposare con rito religioso.

A questo punto Victoria è costretta a dire la verità al padre, mentre Paul a malincuore si allontana per tornare dalla moglie che però, nel frattempo, ha provveduto ad annullare il matrimonio. Libero, il giovane fa ritorno al vigneto, ma trova Alberto ubriaco che si scaglia contro di lui e roteando una lampada a petrolio per colpirlo la lancia nel vigneto, incendiandolo. Vani sono i tentativi per domare le fiamme, poi Paul estirpa la radice, che ha resistito al fuoco, della pianta madre del vigneto, che rivivrà. Alberto fa pace con la figlia e Paul può sposarla accettando di essere un buon padre per il nascituro.

Recensione

Un film sull'amore. Amore per propria famiglia, la propria donna ma soprattutto per la terra ed il vino. Carpe diem, la vita può offrire inaspettate opportunità a chi ha la disposizione mentale per cogliere l'attimo. Bisogna essere pronti a cambiare i programmi per i quali si è lavorato, anche per anni, quando cambiano le condizioni. Meglio non aspettare di essere obbligati a farlo!





15 November 2014

Film review: Fire (1996), by Deepa Mehta, *****

Synopsis

Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) runs a family business that sells takeout food and which also has a video rental store at the side. Ashok's extended family includes his wife Radha (Shabana Azmi), his brother Jatin (Javed Jaffrey), their ailing mother Biji (Kushal Rekhi) and their manservant Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry), all living under the same roof.

Jatin, at the insistence of Ashok and their mother, Biji, agrees to marry the beautiful Sita (Nandita Das) in an arranged marriage, although he is actually in love with Julie (Alice Poon), a Chinese-Indian.

At first glance, you see a happy middle-class family going through the normal paces of everyday life. However, as the layers are slowly peeled back, we find a simmering cauldron of discontent within the family, with almost every family member living a lie. Both marriages in the family turn out to be emotionally empty, without love or passion. While Ashok is an ascetic who has taken a vow of celibacy, Jatin is a handsome ladies' man who is still openly seeing Julie even after his marriage to Sita. Ashok has pledged his total devotion to a religious holy man, a swami, in order to purge his life of worldly desires and temptations. Radha, bound by her sense of duty to her husband, agrees to go along with his wishes.

As you can imagine, with both husbands ignoring their spouses' emotional and sexual needs (albeit with reasons that are totally opposite from each other), it is only a matter of time before Radha and Sita look to one another for comfort and to satisfy their own passions. In this environment, it is only natural that Sita and Radha become fast friends, and, in time, much more than that. But their love is not without its share of painful obstacles.

Major controversy led this movie by Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta  to be widely attacked and banned in India. The film's unprecedented lesbian themes led to riots outside cinemas in India and necessitated police protection for the director for over a year.



Review

A daring movie for India. For any country really, but especially for a country like India where the issue of female homosexuality was a big taboo in the mid-1990s and it still is. We learn a lot about an India which travelers hardly ever read of hear about, let alone see with their own eyes. It is an optimistic movie, in the end the right of the women to pursue their own path to happiness wins the day.

The pace of the movie is deliberate, with no rush and no slack, it is just right. We are taken into the home of a traditional Indian family where the modern lifestyle of one young husband contrasts with the stale tradition of another husband of a generation earlier. Both neglect their women and this brings the two ladies together more than they would ever have planned. It is ultimately a movie about freedom and love, not necessarily a movie about male chauvinism in India.

It is also a movie about changing India: millenary traditions crumble under the impact of modernity, and the movie suggests that this is a necessary transformation for the country.

This movie is one of three sometimes referred to as the "Elements Trilogy" by Mehta, including "Water" and "Earth".


See other films about India I reviewed on this blog.





03 November 2014

Book review: South Africa: A Traveller's History (2003), by David Mason *****

Travel to multi-colored South Africa
Synopsis

A Traveller's History of South Africa is intended as a comprehensive single volume survey of one of today's most popular and exciting destinations. Lifting the lid on this most multi-cultural of societies - and its chequered past - the book will begin by tracing the evolution of South Africa from prehistoric times, taking into account the most recent archaeological and anthropological findings. It will then chart the penetration of the region by European explorers and traders; the political, social and economic developments that follow on from this, and finally, the complicated descent into state repression of the majority black population after the Second World War. Bringing the story up to date, the book will also include practical information for the visitor, as well as a full compendium of historical facts and data.


Review

Well written brief history of South Africa, will be a friendly companion to travelers there and will help appreciate the country better than a guide book.

Racial issues of course are prominent in this book, and the white vs black juxtaposition is described in a wealth of details. But the history of South Africa is one of parallel struggles amongst the white colonizers, one the one hand, and among indigenous Africans, on the other. English and Dutch settles (less the French) fought each other as much as Zulu fought Xhosa.

Interesting to learn that the NNC (forerunner of the ANC) supported segregation because it saw it as a way to acquire power over African tribal rulers. Yet, as Mandela put it, segregation developed over time to become " the codification inone oppressive system that was monolithic, diabolical in detail, inescapable in reach and overwhelming it power".

See other books and films about South Africa I reviewed in this blog.





17 October 2014

Recensione film: Il Matrimonio di Tuya (2007) di Wang Quan'an, *****

Testo italiano di seguito

Synopsis

Tuya is a young woman in Inner Mongolia (part of China) who lives with her paralyzed husband Barter and their two children. They are semi-nomad shepards and live off their sheep. Tuya can't cope with the hardships of providing for her family alone and is persuaded to divorce Barter and re-marry, but on the condition that the new husband will have to care for barter as well.

Review


Tuya is a strong woman, realistically attached to her land and her family, and especially her husband. She works hard to feed them all. But she is also an idealist, because she thinks she can bypass love by marrying another man who could then provide for all of them barter included. She tries with two suitors, but it is clear that Barter can't accept being sidelined while his beloved Tuya belongs to another man.

It is a film on the absolute value of love, which can lead to self-denial and masochism, even suicide, but can't accept compromises.

An intersting film on life in Inner Mongolia, now part of the People's Republic of China, where pastoral traditions mix with the modernity that comes with integration into China. The movie is a Chinese production and the characters speak Chinese, not Mongol.

Testo italiano

Sinossi

Tuya è una giovane donna della Mongolia interna (parte della Cina) che vive con Barter (il marito paralizzato) e i due figli in una zona semidesertica. La loro fonte di sostentamento è la pastorizia. Tuya però non riesce più a reggere la fatica e le responsabilità. Accetta quindi di divorziare e risposarsi ma solo con un uomo che si prenda cura non solo dei suoi figli ma anche di Barter.

Recensione

Tuya è una donna forte, realisticamente attaccata alla sua terra e soprattutto alla sua famiglia, compreso il marito Bater, restato paralizzato in un incidente, ed i figli. Lavora sodo e porta da mangiare a casa per tutti.

Ma anche idealista, perché pensa di poter scavalcare l'amore per poter assicurare al marito semiparalizzato un futuro sposando un altro uomo che si prenda cura di loro. Ci provano in due pretendenti, ma per motivi diversi Bater non può accettare di stare dietro le quinte mentre la moglie crea una nuova famiglia con un altro uomo.

È un film sull'assolutezza dell'amore, che porta fino all'autolesionismo e persino al suicidio per non fare compromessi.

Anche un bel film sulla vita della Mongolia interiore, parte della Cina, dove la cultura pastorale tradizionale si mischia con la modernità portata dall'integrazione con la Repubblica Popolare Cinese. Persino la lingua mongola viene ormai parlata mischiata al cinese.


22 May 2014

Recensione: Il mappamondo con la Cina al centro (2007), di Margherita Redaelli, ****

Matteo Ricci in Cina
Sinossi

Confrontarsi con la Cina: una sfida dei nostri tempi? L'impresa non è nuova se già quattrocento anni fa Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), gesuita e missionario, vi riuscì con risultati sorprendenti, utilizzando tecniche di gestione della diversità culturale che hanno ancora oggi molto da insegnare.

Il libro analizza il contenuto di queste tecniche e la ragione del loro successo. Rintraccia le idee filosofiche e scientifiche della cultura occidentale che Ricci divulgò in Cina e mette a confronto per la prima volta i suoi scritti con i classici greci e latini ai quali faceva riferimento. Si fa chiaro, allora, che la cultura umanistica del Ricci, ricostruita qui attraverso nuove ricerche d'archivio, gli permise di farsi mediatore tra due grandi civiltà.

Tra i tanti contributi del gesuita alla società che lo ospitò, spicca quello geografico. Infatti Ricci produsse la prima carta geografica del mondo per l'imperatore Ming, ed in questa carta la Cina appariva, come è logico, al centro.

clicca qui pervedere il mappamondo in dimensione originale
Il mappamondo con la Cina al centro di Matteo Ricci
Recensione

Originalissimo libro di una studiosa italiana su uno dei più importanti contatti tra Europa e Cina al tempo della dinastia Ming. Ricci era un gesuita ma anche un uomo di scienza e come tale fu accolto ed apprezzato alla corte di Pechino. Curioso che, mentre Ricci insegnava geografia ed astronomia in Cina, a Roma Giordano Bruno veniva messo al rogo e Galileo obbligato a rinnegare la propria scienza.

La parte più interessante del libro è la seconda, che racconta del Ricci in Cina. La prima, forse troppo lunga (62 pagine) è sulla sua formazione in Italia.

Contributo centrale del Ricci è il metodo dell'inculturazione tramite il quale egli si integra culturalmente nelle alte sfere della civiltà cinese senza però cadere in trappole sincretistiche. Ricci non solo imparò il cinese, ma studiò il confucianesimo ed il buddismo per trovare punti di contatto tramite i quali perseguire l'opera di proselitismo.

Il libro contiene anche ricche appendici documentative. Quello che purtroppo manca è una descrizione più dettagliata della vita del Ricci in Cina, dei suoi problemi quotidiani, dei suoi contatti con la corte imperiale.




Trovi qui in questo blog la mia bibliografia sulla Cina.

You can read an English bio of matteo Ricci here.

05 May 2014

Book review: Journey to Yesterday (1950), by Silvia Baker, **

Muriel, by Silvia Baker
Synopsis


"One of the charms of travel" says Silvia Baker "is that you move in time as well as space. Weary of today, we can escape to half-mediaeval countries like Spain and Cyprus, or to enchanted islands in the Pacific or the Caribbean which are not spoilt as the tourists proclaime them to be."

Few are the fortunate people to whom the opportunity to sampre those charms is ever given. But to read about them is hardly, if at all, less satisfying, when the narrator is as observant, unconventional and witty as SIlvia Baker.

The two paragraphs above is what I read in the fron flap of the book's dust jacket while browsing the shelves of Daunt books, my favorite second hand travel book shop in London. I should have known better than trusting someone who can make such trite remarks but I decided to buy the book.


Polynesian girl drawn by the author
Review

Disappointing. She does provide lots of anecdotes about her trip to the Pacific, but her observations are mostly superficial and inconsequential. They are so disorganized that one is left with nothing in the end that helps understand those countries and peoples.

Anecdotes and personal experience of a writer are not interesting in and of themselves except perhaps to his mother, but they might be interesting to a broader public if they are placed in the right context and help understand the object of the narration. Well you won't understand much about the countries Ms. Baker visited by reading this book.

On p. 34 she writes that "Tahiti is a kind of convent. You escape appointments, situations, anxieties, panics. You relax." Then on p. 71 we are subjected to the tiring litany of "until ten years ago, Tahiti was an Earthly Paradise", as in ... it is no longer one now (she writes in 1940). Reminds me of Gauguin who about forty years earlier fled Tahiti for the Marquesas because he thought they were spoiled and overcrowded then. It was always better ten years ago, and even better twenty. Please give me a break!

We do learn a few tid bits of interesting in formation, such that in Tahiti when a woman has no children she can ask a friend or sister who has several to give her one, especially a daughter, as she can help with the house chores.

A few pretty drawings by the author complement this book.

Btw her name is spelled SIlvia in the book, not Sylvia.

My always growing list of books on Polynesia is in this blog.


Buy the book in the US here




In the UK buy it here

01 May 2014

Books about Music around the world

I am proposing here a list of books about the music of the world. I hope these books can help a traveler understand the countries concerned.


Zhu Xiaomei: The Secret Piano (2012). A harrowing story of music and love in China during the first decades following the 1949 Communist Revolution.

12 January 2014

Bibliography: books and films on South Africa

Books on South Africa

Mason, David, South AFrica, A Traveler's History (2003)


Films on South Africa

Invictus (2009), by Clint Eastwood. How a president used a rugby match to make a nation.

The Gods must be Crazy I and II (1988), by Jaimie Uys. A funny but serious rendering of the plight of the Bushmen.