Category Archives: Places – Real and Imaginary

Memories of Pyongyang

North_korea_bannerIn the 1990’s, when the grandfather of the current Kim was North Korea’s Great Leader, I spent a week in Pyongyang working as an interpreter for the Italian delegation at a huge conference which was attended by most of the world’s nations. I have decided to note down what I remember now, before the place becomes a major tourist destination. (Not likely, I suppose, but more improbable things have happened recently.)

At the time, the only places from which you could fly to Pyongyang were Beijing, Moscow and Tirana. We got to Pyongyang via Beijing. There were so many more people travelling to Pyongyang than usual that Air Koryo, the North Korean airline was flying a shuttle service from Beijing to Pyongyang, which meant that all time-tables had been abolished. Whenever a plane arrived from Pyongyang, the people nearest the front of the huge huddle managed to leave.

The first thing I noticed on boarding the plane was that the stewardesses were stowing real crockery on the shelves in the kitchen area. This was very impressive. The second thing which became apparent was that some of the seats were stuck in a reclining position and several of the tray tables could not be folded back in place. The plane, however, promptly began to race down the runway and as it took off two loud sounds were heard. One was the crockery falling to the floor, and the second was a blast of muscular martial music streaming out of the loudspeakers. The music never let up, all the way to Pyongyang.

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Eastern Wisdom vs. Tennis

tennis_03When the British assembled their empire, they took their games and sports and moustaches with them, even to the hottest places. Some people were bemused, as in this anecdote, relayed by Jan Morris in her book Hong Kong, when discussing the early days of the colony.

An old tale tells of the Chinese gentleman who, watching a pair of Englishmen sweating away at a game of tennis, inquired why they did not hire coolies to play it for them.

We do not know whether they took heed of this pearl of Eastern wisdom, but it would certainly have been more reasonable to sit calmly in the shade or else, if they were really incapable of sitting still, to equip themselves with something like the following admirable device:

vigor

Perhaps this is Dr. Watson trying out the contraption. After all, he was just down the road at 221B Baker St.

The Horse-Action Saddle was also available for ladies:

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It is interesting to note that the saddle does not seem to have the same effect on gentlemen and ladies. Only in the case of ladies is it noted that the saddle provides a “complete cure for … HYSTERIA…”.

Also interesting, at the top of the ad, is the plug from the Countess of Aberdeen (who was never taught the difference between direct and reported speech):

Her Excellency the Countess of Aberdeen writes: “That the saddle has given her complete satisfaction.”

Arise! An imaginary film scene

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Recently, I came across an article published in 1945 in the New Yorker entitled “Return to Place Pigalle”, where Joseph Wechsberg, originally from Czechoslovakia,  describes returning to Paris as a US soldier and meeting the musicians he used to play with there in the 1920’s.
The musicians describe the experience of playing in  Nazi-occupied Paris and leds to a discussion  of a violinist-cellist called Maurice, who is remembered for the following:

After 2 A.M., by which hour many of the German customers, not having been brought up on Pommery and Verve Clicquot, were under the tables, Maurice’s favorite sport was to get up and announce in German that the orchestra would play “Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles.” (Maurice had been born in Alsace and spoke German fluently.) The plastered Germans would crawl out from under the tables, make an effort to stand at attention and fall flat on their faces. The French customers would start laughing, and in the end an S.S. man who wasn’t quite drunk would call in the nearest patrol and have the drunken Germans arrested.

I think that this would make a marvellous sequence in a film. In fact, it would be even better if the gag was repeated two or three times in a row. Of course, there is no need for the soldier to be Germans. I think that Russians would be a good alternative, simply on musical grounds, since the Russian anthem has a swaying quality to it which would well accompany the efforts of drunk soldiers to stand up straight. Even better perhaps, Chinese soldiers, once you know that the Chinese national anthem begins with the call qǐ lái (起来) –  Arise! or Stand Up!

 

Looking at the water

Point your camera at a reflection in a canal or a river, flip the image around and see what a liquid world looks like. Trees try to float up into the sky, lamp-posts become Chaplinesque, railings grope around corners, fish pass by windows and houses breathe in and out.

Around and up and also down

Some time ago I posted an article on my liking for random walks, in which I outlined an insanely complicated method to get to places you weren’t planning to see. Recently I found another way to go to randomly explore the world, without getting up from my chair.

A few days ago, as I was preparing to leave for Prague, I tried to find some information on the city’s railway station. I can’t remember why, I have been to so many places (at least virtually) since then. I happened on a page with a 360 degree spherical picture of Fantova kavárna or Fanta’s Café, originally the main hall of the station as it was built in 1871 by the architect Josef Fanta. The picture was on a website called 360cities.net which, I have discovered, is a wonderful tool for random travelling.

I soon ended up in other places in Prague, my favourites I think being the Bethlehem Chapel, a medieval crane and the wonderful Strahov library, where the picture is so detailed that I am quite confident that I will one day spot a bookworm about to take a bite out of one of the ancient volumes.  Read more…

Signs for Pause

I read a lot and when I don’t have a book, I find it hard to avoid reading any of the signs and labels in my vicinity. Sometimes I come across one which makes me pause.

Here are a few examples

Dementia Bar


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Africa, slowly, from the sky

The April 19 issue of the New Yorker had an interesting article by Lauren Collins on the American photographer George Steinmetz. His speciality is taking pictures from a motorised paraglider which  he flies low and slow (27 mph is the one speed it has). With it he can get the angles which he wants, whereas “trying to get a pilot to put a plane exactly where you want it is like trying to get someone else to scratch an itch”.

The picture above is of a salt-making site at the village of Teguidda-n-Tessoumt in northern Niger. Read more…

The many ways a minaret might be

Minarets fabricT The other day I came across an article in Le Monde about the political situation in Vorarlberg, a region of Austria. Together with Carinthia, Vorarlberg has adopted a law to prevent buildings being erected which aren’t “ortsüblich“. The best way I have found to render ortsüblich in this case is “typically local”.

And the aim of the provision was to make sure no one thought of puncturing the local skies with a minaret. So far, this seems to be just another of the many depressing stories you hear about nowadays. But now comes the interesting part: in the Vorarlberg town of Hohenems there is a small Jewish museum. The director is  called Hanno Loewy and in response to the provision he organised not one but two conferences  on “How to build a typically local minaret” (September 2008 and June 2009).
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The Whole Country Dances – The North Korean Music Scene

KJuvMusic(This article was first posted in February 2008. I think it is time for people to be reminded of North Korean music. Nordkorea.info.de doesn’t seem to provide songs any longer, which is a great pity, but there is a good selection here. In particular, I would recommend Heroic Workers’ Factory, which has an English translation. It is a song you can try out at work yourselves. See if increases your output.) 

I was leafing through the Rough Guide to World Music one day, looking up countries I had visited in order to find out which melodies I had missed and remembered (but how could one forget) that one of the countries I have been to is North Korea. The book has a box on the musical scene in North Korea with a list of titles including the following:

 

Song of Bean Paste
My Country Full of Happiness
We Shall Hold Bayonets More Firmly
Our Life Is Precisely A Song
Song of Snipers
The Joy Of Bumper Harvest Overflows Amidst The Song of Mechanisation
Farming In This Year Is Great Bumper Crop
My Country Is Nice To Live In
Music Of Mass Rhythmic Gymnastics
I Like Both Morning And Evening
The Shoes My Brother Gave Me Fit Me Tight
The World Envies Us

These titles brought back many of the feelings one had while one was in North Korea. I was going to leave it at that, but I wanted to find a clearer picture for the cover of  Korean Juvenile Music (reproduced above) and in this search I stumbled across an excellent site which proclaimed

Herzlich willkommen auf Nordkorea-Info.de

and which has a substantial collection of North Korean CD’s for sale. You can even listen to some of the tracks in their Pochonboentirety. My favourite is My Country is the Best. We’ve Taken Grenades in Our Hands (also in the Korean Juvenile Music series) is excellent too, Glory to General Kim Jong Il is obviously excellent as well even though the Bavarian influence is a little strong for my tastes. But the real discovery was the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble who play with unequalled confidence and flair. If I had a record company I would not hesitate to sign them up. I think there is definitely a niche market which would go overboard for them. In fact, I have a feeling they would be particularly good at the Superbowl – the style is very similar. I watched a number of their videos, I think I counted eight keyboard players but there may be more. Here is an example of their multi-layered approach:

Someone has implied that the Mansudae Art Troupe are even better, but I can’t say I have been convinced, even though that is only on the strength of one track.

As I said, Herzlich willkommen auf Nordkorea-Info.de allows you to listen to a number of tracks in their entirety. It is a pity therefore that some of the more intriguing titles have no audio clip associated with them. I would really have liked to have heard O Persimmon Trees at a Coastal Guard Outpost. In any case, I have decided to put down here some of what I feel are the most memorable titles. I have found that arranging them in pairs conjures up a pretty accurate picture of the atmosphere one perceives in North Korea.

We Shall Live Forever to Defend Our Seas
Taehongdan Potato Good for Longevity

Oh, What Is a Party Member?
He Doesn’t Know Maybe

Fresh and Green Edible Aster on Mt. Ryongak
It Will Radiate with the General Sunshine

I Am a Blossom of the Fatherly General
I Also Raise Chickens.

We Are Honourable Infantrymen
Coming to Remove Weeds from the Sky

We’ve Taken Grenades in Our Hands
What Has Happened to the Thaebaeksan Hospital?

Let’s Sing of Paternal Affection
My Youngest Daughter, Pok Sun, Became a AA-machine gunner

Sea of Potato Blossoms in Taehongdan
Pleasant Snack Time

Nightingales Sing in Our Factory Compound
Song of Blood Transfusion

My Mind Remains Unchanged
I Like Rifle

and to end a couple of threesomes

Triple Rainbows
I Always See Them
Deep in Thought, the Nurse Ponders

Our Satellite Sings
Song of Automation Full of Happiness
The Whole Country Dances

Yes, now I remember

The Observation Car

Somewhere along the line

(Listen to the poem here)




The train for Kandy leaves Colombo Fort
just as the morning heat begins to swell.
Inside the observation car the rusty fans
begin to turn and tilt. We watch the platform
where we stood for one, two quarters
of an hour slide off our moving stage.
And now we’re ready for the world
to come by and perform for us.
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