Gorges du Verdon

Someone posted a link to my FaceBook newsfeed today of an Irish Times amateur travel writing competition. I didn’t read the instructions too carefully, but figured “I can do that”, and went off and wrote a six hundred word piece – this is not a lot of space by the way – about a trip which I felt was likely to be appropriate to enter, and then I read the conditions in more detail. There was a fairly significant rights grab and while I might consider it if I won, I felt it was unfair to take ownership of all entries, even those which the Irish Times might not see fit to publish. The only problem is I’d already written the piece and while I thought about entering it, you know for the power and the glory, there were some comments about any photographs submitted as well. This didn’t really make me very happy. I mean, technically speaking, the text around the rights meant that even if I didn’t win, I couldn’t actually publish the piece anywhere else myself.

So I decided not to enter, bearing in mind I have several blogs of which this handy one is not listed by Google, or wasn’t the last time I checked. Plus, I did actually have some photographs which I had scanned some years ago as they were shot on film. Here then is a 600 word piece about travelling in Provence, written for the Irish Times, but not submitted but since the 600 word limit no longer applies I’m also editing it a bit.

Driving the Gorges du Verdon in France

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Pont de l’Artuby

The girl at the car hire place at Nice Airport was a bit lost when I said I didn’t want the upgrade. She wasn’t used to this. Usually people were dying for the free upgrade, for the getting something for nothing lark. She categorically could not give me a small little Peugeot and now I found myself with an allegedly small Mercedes, on a hill, attempting hill start number four, because the wretched thing had cut out on me in a rather inopportune place. Several times.

The road ahead was at least a 45 degree angle and climbing, the road behind me disappeared downwards around a corner in a usefully invisible manner, and I, I now knew what a cold sweat really felt like. Behind me, only trees sloping a long way down. The car had already made several attempts to roll backwards in that direction too. I was a less than relaxed little camper. The hill start in my driving test was nothing like so stressful on a slip road outside Mallow. I had visions of winding up in the wreckage of a silver Mercedes A-Class tumbling down the side of a friendly Alp. As a way to go, it wasn’t what I would have wanted, per se.

Angles is a tiny village in the south of France. It very much is a handy place to base yourself if you want to visit the Gorges du Verdon, a site which is very often described as Europe’s Grand Canyon, somewhat unfairly I feel. They may both be fairly noticeable gashes in the rock we live on, but they are truly different from one another in terms of colour and feeling.

One of the things which has haunted me for years is the glittering turquoise water of the lakes in the region. I saw a picture once as a child and it took me fifteen years to find out that it was the Lac de Sainte Croix, easily accessible by car from Nice Airport.

For all that ease of accessibility, Angles, however, is truly isolated. I imagine it would be a hard place to live in the winter sometimes.

I am staying with very nice people who loan me a map and show me the small, narrow roads with the spectacular views to drive around the Gorges du Verdon. The small, narrow roads, incidentally, which are not on the map of the south of France which I may have bought in a leading Irish bookseller in the days before Google Maps and Garmins gave us directions.

The roads around the gorges themselves can be challenging and damaged but the department of Alpes de Haute Provence has provided viewing platforms all over the place. Stopping to look is never anything other than awe-inspiring, even if the roads to get to them can be a bit terror-inspiring.

On the day I drove them, some brave and foolhardy soul took a Ferrari up there. And people climb up the cliffs, casting occasional looks over their shoulders to the view. I would love to be the kind of person who could do it, but deep down, I know I might never have the nerve.

Verdon_2

The River Verdon is a long way down, a mere flicker of turquoise in the distance.

The high point – in more ways than one – of the trip is the Pointe Sublime, a stunning area where the cliffs on either side of the river seem to reach across and try to kiss. It is an extraordinary view, and the rocks are an unusual creamy colour for a tourist from Ireland where the mountains are generally grey, regardless of the rain or not.
Verdon_1

To come home I have to navigate the narrow road back in Angles. It never occurs to me that a car can cut out so often, especially when you absolutely, totally and utterly need it not to cut out but reader, I made it on attempt number 5.

Rainy Saturday

It’s been raining.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. My garden, such as it is, could do with it.

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And I have been painting. Some lucky family members are going to get postcards in the future – dependent on when I have stamps sorted out.

Way back in the early days of my search for suitable paper, I picked up a set of watercolour postcards. I’ve played and failed with them over time. I wasn’t very good at painting, by which I mean, noticeably worse than I am now. But there were half a dozen postcards left and the only thing anyone gets in the post lately seems to be bills. Postcards were once a thing. Now it’s email and pinterest pins, and FaceBook posts.

What you see above is pretty much my painting painting kit (I have pencils as well, let’s not go there). The paintbox on the left, my mother bought for me. The one on the right I bought yesterday as a spill over. It came with 12 half pans of colour to, out of which I took 7 which I don’t use much, put in five commonly used colours as spares, and added a couple of new colours which I didn’t have a lot of success in mixing. The half pans are a mix of Cotman student half pans and two or three Winsor & Newton Artist Grade colour. I can’t get the Cotman half pans loose in Dublin (so far) and while I’m well aware that the W&N are technically “better”, I really can’t send too much money in their direction right now. But the blank spaces are for other colours I may feel the need to get in the future.

I like the little boxes because they are small and tidy – compared to my camera equipment, for example. I have looked at some of the enamel (otherwise known as “expensive” boxes) and while I strongly believe in getting the best tools you can go for, the truth is, I got into this whole thing not because I had visions of producing great art, but because the urban sketching movement appealed to me, the whole idea, I suppose not so much of location painting, because sometimes I just don’t have time and there’s a camera on my phone which I use to take snaps of things I may want to revisit with a sketchbook later, but recording the environment around me because it changes. Dublin has changed a lot in the last 20 years. Not doing the paintings on location, however, means that to some extent, a lot of my stuff can’t go on the urban sketcher feeds yet. However, for those days when I do hunker down and do some painting on location anywhere, I don’t want to be schlepping a whole art studio around. All that gear, excluding paper, fits into a pencil case.

Anyway.

The pictures aside, this is basically my art journal kit minus the paper. Two small paintboxes, a pencil, a fineliner, an eraser and a waterbrush. I have a set of actual brushes too, but one of the things that is handy about the waterbrush is that if I keep it filled, one thing I don’t need is a bottle of water. I had a vision of this all fitting into my handbag, which it did until I added the second paintbox (it doesn’t really matter that it doesn’t now because what also didn’t really fit was any thing like paper). I use Caran d’Ache water brushes, or that size in particular, because I like using them, they seem to survive longer than my Derwent ones and they behave better as well. I have one Pentel one as well. Like a lot of things in Ireland, the supply of some art materials can be difficult and the easiest water brushes to get now are Derwent ones; Easons had some yesterday and the Art and Hobby stores stock them as well. It was in an AnH store I got the Pentel one; it’s the only one I’ve ever seen here and therefore I’m somewhat sparing in my use of it. Kennedys have recently started stocking the Caran d’Ache ones so if you are in Dublin at least, that’s an option.

One of the things I have blogged about in some detail is the regrets I have about not keeping a travel art journal when I was travelling over the last 20 years. So when I sat down this evening, to the sound track of a fog horn (seriously), I sat down to paint places I have been. I’ve been to all three locations above. Two lighthouses, one in Ireland, and one in almost a direct line due south, in Spain. For people who know me, the lighthouses are probably not surprising. The other one is Sydney Opera House, and that’s round 4 of its sails in my life. They are getting better all the time. I do have the journal set aside to start revisiting places I have been and now I am starting to draw these places.

First impressions: Kusmi

Most people who know me are aware there’s a tea thing going on in my life, and if you know me at all well, you’ll know that the default choice if I have access to it is Marco Polo Noir from the Mariage Freres range. I can’t get it in Dublin.

Last week, one of my friends gave me some Kusmi tea, a sampler box if you like, of 24 teabags. Brown Thomas sell (or at least used to) sell some Kusmi tea and they are well known, apparently for detox teas.

I’m not going to review the tea right here, right now, as I only have one mug of tea beside me here (in a beautiful Dunoon china mug notable for the presence of at least one lighthouse painted on the exterior). I will say this though: the aroma on ripping off the crinkly transparent paper from the outside is utterly gorgeous. I am very happy with it.

Automated newsfeeds

One of the things I liked about Facebook over Google News (and in practical terms, there are few enough of those) is that I could set the newsfeed up to deliver me stuff from a lot of different language sources. Google assumes monolinguality; it’s constantly offering me tips for searching for English results only and for someone who is multilingual and interested in what’s happening in the communities of her other languages kens, it’s a bit frustrating.

However, as an advantage, it really is waning and the reason for that is the famous Algorithm. Now, in simple terms, algorithm is just just a method for achieving some result. The result which Facebook allegedly wants is for me to have the most relevant material turning up in my feed as that enhances engagement, and engagement is a handy asset for getting money out of advertisers.

Whatever way it works, it’s serving me a lot of drivel I don’t want, particularly on the news front, to the extent that shortly, I’m going to unlike pretty much all the news sources. I’m sick of them. I get pages of Royal Weddings, pages of Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlyn Jenner, pages of entertainment rubbish that I really don’t care about, don’t want to see, and can’t switch off without switching off news altogether. Note to twitter: do not mess with the time driven method by which you serve me content.

Facebook is a time sink. Today, it’s been highly negative. There has been a preponderance of news stories that annoy me, and drivel that, if I’m truly honest, I don’t want to read, but still wind up reading. Much of it is repetitive with the same stories coming from several different sources, and the occasional marginal different angle. A lot of what turns up serves to make me feel inadequate too as there’s the stuff that tells you what you need to do to have a good career, what vegetables you should eat to get healthy sleep, the ten, fifteen or a million habits of Steve Jobs.

I loved computers and technology but I realised last night that possibly the two highest profile tech companies in the world, namely Facebook and Google, make money from advertising. You can spend all the money you like developing a better newsfeed selector but it’s not going to make the world much better. The tech industry often solves the wrong problems.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about the things that made me happy about the internet 20 odd years ago when my life got Netscape Navigator. It was the pretty things. The things that made me happy. The things that opened the world to me, and opened the possibilities.

It wasn’t a constant feed of news that I couldn’t directly influence myself. I haven’t worked out what to do to make FB give me politics not celebrity rubbish from the Guardian. And so, the news orgs are going to have to go and just maybe, FB will no longer become a pit of stuff that irritates me.

Loving pinterest and the search for search

If you read my tech blog at all, you’ll have seen me occasionally refer to issues with online search, mainly with Google because that’s my default search engine across all my devices. They don’t index this site for some  reason either.

I’m finding that the returns I get from Google really aren’t great lately, particularly in the area of image search so I’ve changed the default search on my machine to Bing (which is a really stupid name albeit better than Yahoo). Their image search is better. I also started thinking about search in general. Google has a monumental amount of the market in Europe and I wonder how much of that is linked to their localisation practices in the early days. But they aren’t fulfilling my needs lately.

The Bing image search, which I didn’t much play with until very recently, is far better for several reasons – in certain respects it works more effectively like the Pinterest search which is extremely good at drill down searches and associated search strings which might return useful information to you. The underlying AI for pinterest is very good, but then it is basically image focused and, I suspect, exploits both textual and associative data. Bing has a similar offering which I like very much and ultimately, this is a good thing. But it also handles pure web search as well.

Google revolutionised web search but it seems to me that search is ripe for disruption. I think disruption to image search will come through something like Pinterest. In the meantime, I don’t think that Google’s qualitative evaluation of its search returns is as good as it might be given that they have had years to scale it and are investing heavily in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Ultimately, search, which has been gamed by search engine optimisation, now needs to game search engine optimisation.

 

bleurgh

Another sketchbook tested and another sketchbook found wanting to my needs.

Note to self, so far, if I don’t want to pony up for the paying for the label lark that is Moleskine, some sort of reliable journal needs to be found.

the loss of CLerys

I read last night that Clerys had closed yesterday. I never saw that coming.

When I drilled down and thought about it more, I realised that, well, I hadn’t been in there in years. And if I wasn’t alone, well then, I should have seen it coming. Running a business in the centre of Dublin is a risky and high cost endeavour. Clerys was a big shop and it needed people to buy a lot of stuff in there to keep it going. RTE reckon about 400 people will have lost their jobs from this. In an economy which is theoretically growing again, that’s a lot when we measure changes in the jobless rate in the low thousands.

The problem is, even if I hadn’t thought about Clerys specifically, I had thought about the problems which probably have befallen it. Basically, it’s on O’Connell Street and this is, in fact, a major problem for Clerys. No one goes to O’Connell Street to do much shopping. The other two big stores on the street profit from proximity to Henry Street and the General Post Office. Otherwise, O’Connell Street is a bit tumbleweedish. Mostly when I get a bus into town now, it’s to run quickly to Henry Street and then, when I come back, the trip to the bus stop home doesn’t take me past Clerys. And why would it? There’s nothing much else there.

I was at the Road to Rising event on Easter Sunday this year and for the duration of that, O’Connell Street was pedestrianised from Abbey Street North. The weather was stunning, and there was a lovely atmosphere. It really was wonderful. And unique. Most days, even when the weather is good, the atmosphere on O’Connell Street is one of people passing through. You’d hardly know it existed really.

But O’Connell Street is a beautiful wide street and if, dispassionately, we considered reconfiguring the city to pedestrianise it, and reconsidered the businesses which open there – very few of which are attractive businesses for footfall – and turned into into a genuine city centre plaza, we could do a lot to open up the heart of the city. It would be a huge job and the sad thing for Dublin is that they take huge jobs with a lot of reluctance. In some respects, I’m amazed Grafton and Henry Streets ever got pedestrianised. The idea that you’d shut down O’Connell Street to motorised traffic, including buses, is something that would cause heart attacks all across the way. A city with a bunch of lovely, well presented shops, and nice café (and not just the fast food chains and a few pharmacies) and terraces. Instead of making O’Connell Street a arterial thoroughfare, which is basically what it is now, we could make it into a central civic square that people go to for the same of going there, to meet friends, have coffee and do some shopping.

In that context, a store like Clerys might have a future, and the rest of the small shops around O’Connell Street might be more interesting shops. In many respects, it could probably draw more shopping around it because Henry Street is already a decent store.

But even if we started to do it today, it’s too late to save Clerys and it’s too early to draw someone like Brown Thomas or even Marks and Spencers to the Clerys building.

Most of O’Connell Street was built in the early 20th century because lots of it was levelled between the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence. A lot of the buildings, with some notable exceptions, are actually beautiful building. There is also some thought going into development around Parnell Square, another vaguely grimy part of town.

It seems to me sometimes, we have no vision for Dublin as a city. Dublin people seem to get very defensive about the idea that the city isn’t already perfect, which it isn’t, as anyone who navigates the public transport system would attest, and so discussions are often inconclusive.

Owen Keegan, the city manager, is looking at traffic and moving people around. I wish we would start the dialogue in terms of what we want the city to look like, rather than how to move people around. The second might come easier then. I just can’t see it happening.

 

Rare regrets

I told a man I used to work with a long time ago that I tried, as far as possible, not to have regrets about the decisions I made; that I tried to understand at the time why I made decisions I did. This doesn’t prevent regret of course, but it does provide understanding.

One of the things I did over the last 9 months was start drawing and sketching. I’m not entirely sure what enticed me to do it, apart from realising that a couple of my coloured pencils were watercolour pencils and that possibly, it might be within my scope to produce paintings without having some of the problems that I have painting. Drawing with pencils is somewhat easier to me. And I’d emphasise the “somewhat” there.

I’ve always taken photographs, and if you look to the right, you’ll see a selection of photographs I’ve taken over the last, I suppose, 10 years or so. One of the things I noticed over time is I was spending more time in system administration, taking photos off cameras, processing them, printing them, selecting them for print, for upload and a lot less time actually out taking photographs. Over time, I found that demoralising and started taking fewer and fewer photographs with my large photographic equipment.

Along the journey of looking at painting and watercolours – which you wind up doing if you’re interested in watercolour pencils because there tends not to be much useful about watercolour pencils – I came across travel journals. Beautifully illustrated watercolour travel journals which capture the essence of place; very often with a commentary. I’ve kept a personal journal for more than 20 years now and here and there, I’d have liked to be able to put drawings into them. I just never felt able to. I was never good at art, to be honest. I’ve written pieces about that before so I won’t go off on too much of a tangent on that front. Only that, I learned at a very early age that art was a talent and either you have it or you don’t. I’ve learned that this is a lie. In much the same way as either you’re good at maths, or you’re not, or you’re good at languages or you’re not. Somewhere along the line, art fell into the box of things I wasn’t good at. It’s not, I suppose, that it didn’t come easy to me, only that it didn’t really come easily to my teachers either. In truth, I should have known this is a lie. Most things depend more on effort than innate ability. Innate ability takes you nowhere if you don’t nurture it.

The problem for me, at this point in my life, is that I truly regret this. I’m not sure how to deal with it because in certain respects, it’s very easy to make a decision not to do something if, as a child, it’s been made clear to you that this is not where your talents lie. My talents actually lay everywhere else so no doubt, no one found it surprising that I wasn’t great at something and fortunately, that something wasn’t important.

At this point, I’d like to list all the places I’ve been.

  • Ireland
  • Scotland
  • Wales
  • England – Sheffield/Manchester/London
  • France – Brittany and Provence/Paris
  • Spain – Barcelona/Tarifa/
  • Germany
  • Brazil
  • Western Sahara
  • Australia Queensland/Sydney
  • US – New York
  • Italy – Venice/Como/Rome/Milan
  • Germany – Munich/Frankfurt/Hanover/Berlin/Alpen areas
  • Belgium – Brussels/Ypres
  • Portugal
  • Netherlands
  • Austria

Some people have been to a lot of other places too but I don’t think that’s a bad haul. And I have photographs from a lot of them. The thing is, the way I take photographs is different, now, to the way I draw. In an ideal world – and I never made a decision not to do it for the simple reason that it never even occurred to me it was possible – I would have a library of journals, not unlike the written journals I have, with pictures from these places. I was in Berlin in 1992, for example. That’s a very short time after the wall came down. I haven’t been back since and don’t even ask me where the photographs of that trip are.

I could colour my life with the regret of missing out on drawing what the Sahara desert looks like. Or missing the opportunity to draw Sydney Harbour Bridge (although I did actually climb it at the time). Or I could move forward with doing it in the future. I have an art journal here beside me; the first one, and it has been under production since end February I think. It’s coming to a close as I’ve almost filled it. I have another one of a similar size, although different paper, lined up.

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This is an example of some sketches following a trip to Clonmacnoise, for example. I clearly have a lot to learn about what I am doing in terms of laying out these things, best tools and stuff. I haven’t really settled down on the best paper yet (this is an ongoing issue, sorry. I’ll shut up about it). And photographing them effectively.

But the point is, they open doors to a memory in an entirely different way to the way photographs do. So yes, I’m sorry I don’t have a collection of these from the last 20 years of travelling, to such an extent that I will probably put together a Memories of Travelling Journal based on whatever photographs I can find of these places. It’s cheating in a way. When I paint that coloured building in Nice, it won’t have been when I was there.

Mostly these days, I take reference pictures on my phone, unless I’ve time to sit down and sketch for a little while, in which case I’ll generally work off the sketch. Of course, 10 years ago, it would have been sketch or nothing.

I work in technology at the moment. I’ve a lot of opinions on that, not least the fact that nearly everyone I know who works in technology has a hobby that is about as artisan as they think they can get away with. Be it coffee, be it craft beer, be it wood turning, be it collecting old toys. I suspect that there is some deep rooted desire to do things a little less virtually. My guess is part of the painting came from how technologically driven photography became over time. I think that’s why I started looking at drawing.

I’ve learned a lot about art over the last 4 or 5 months; mostly that it offers serious options across the board in terms of techniques and tools. I always had a relatively narrow view of art, again, I suppose, linked to early schooling issues with paints. I now see that there are things I can do with coloured pencils which might never have occurred to me, things I can do with graphite pencils, and pens which never occurred to me. In a way, it’s a fabulous new world, full of opportunity.

Mind you, when I am dead, someone is going to have to decide what to do with these things.

 

 

review: Beautiful Goodbye/Richard Marx

So, somewhere amongst my possessions there are a few Richard Marx cassettes. I was a fan when I was 14 years old and of all the music I was listening to nearly 30 years ago, he’s one of the few I’m still listening to now.

Sometime last year, he put out another album – there haven’t been all that many of them in the grand scheme of things, for all he’s been plying his trade for more than 30 years now – which is probably more rnb than soft rock. I was never sure soft rock worked as a label for him. Not sure any label did to be honest.

Anyway, I like this a lot. I don’t know if I would have liked it when I was 14. It’s extremely glossy. You could work your way through any artist’s output if their career is long enough to get a feel for how production values in general have changed over time. But the voice hasn’t changed much since I was watching the video to Right Here Waiting on MTV. It’s a touch bass heavy and tending very much to what I always called adult contemporary until I discovered I had arrived in that demographic myself. I like the soundscapes of this (okay (I’ve been a bit distracted from the point of view of lyrics). They are like very expensive chocolate, probably because the string sections here and there, matched up with the very contemporary bass lines.

Highlights are obviously going to include the title track, and then also on regular play here are To My Senses and Have a Little Faith. It is the sort of music I like to sound track my life to. When I’m not listening to big orchestral stuff anyway.