I have two great regrets in my life. One is eating a chicken sandwich in Varanasi, shortly before flying to Kathmandu. This gave me the worst food poisoning I have ever experienced, nearly killed me, and meant that I missed a unique opportunity to visit Lhasa before it was turned into a Chinese Disneyland. The other regret involves three Inter-rail trips that I made in 1979, 1980 and 1981. They were extraordinarily rich in sights and experiences. Stupidly, though, I did not keep a travel diary at that time, so all I have are vague, if important, memories of what I saw, thought and felt.
At least I was able to learn from these two huge blunders. Afterwards, I no longer ate chicken sandwiches in exotic lands, and I kept travel diaries for all my major trips. The latter took the form of black notebooks, bought from Ryman's, in two formats: one small enough to fit in a pocket, and another, slightly larger, that I kept in the travel bag I used for longer journeys.
I now have dozens of these notebooks sitting behind me, filled with my illegible scrawl. I have been meaning to turn them into digital texts for some years, and to bring them into the 21st century, but have never got around to it until now. I am not transcribing them in any set order, but will place links to them below, as they go online, ordered chronologically. There is no overall plan, no overall significance. They are just what they are: quick thoughts jotted down in black notebooks, captured moments of a specific time and place.
Heathrow airport, on board flight BA 175. Well, dull it isn't. After my burglary (my burglary? Well, more of that later on), a real, live (ha!) aborted take-off. I was dozing at the time, as is my increasing wont. We accelerated, then the brakes were slammed on – not hard, but hard enough. Later, the captain explained that strong winds were blowing us skew off the runway. We were already one hour late; now we are waiting for the brakes to cool. I bet the hijackers on board are annoyed…
Read my first Paul Auster; it begins to fall into place: the New Metaphysicals: too clever by three-quarters. Fun, but Auster rather empty. Unlike some on this plane, I am calm. I think the burglary taught me something: that I am essentially untouched by these events – because it does not matter. Nothing really does. If life is meaningless, so are delays and inconveniences. The robbery of my flat was also a delicious experience in serenity; my heart moved not a jot. Messy, perhaps, but interesting too: you need excrescences on the surface of life; a totally aerodynamic world is boring. I definitely need to get married and have kids – now there's excrescences…
Room 1502, Hotel Dorset. Amazing view from my room. AT&T Building to the right, and the strange light-haze from the nearby Citicorp. Flash room. $190/night. NYC ground to a halt because of the rain. Opposite me great chess boards of light. West 54th Street below, together with the dwarfed rooftops of the apartments. The hiss of tyres in the wet; aureoles of rain around the lights; car and truck horns. I really like New York.
9.11.89 New York
An interesting day. Up early (late body time), hashed beef breakfast – yum – then out to walk in the wet rush hour. I find a CD hoard, then to the Frick. A lady cab-driver tells me about her sushi-eating habits – but insists she is "not anal-retentive". I find the Frick familiar. Gob-smacked by the Bellini. Again. GreatVermeers (3), "Polish Rider" et al. To the Guggenheim – disappointing again. Lunch in the Met – where I see they have Canaletto….
To work. Back in a cab driven by an Albanian: World War III is imminent, Gorby is a cunning commie. He (the driver) escaped from Albania in '53, came to London to see an Albanian hit-man – killer of three KGB agents (?!). Totally paranoid, bent by his past.
Then to the Met, an orgy of Canaletto. Many early pix I've never seen. And so close up, the paint almost tactile. Bought the catalogue – and see that Constable is back in print - $260 – but I must get it. I still feel strangely free of material possessions, even in buying them. Writing now in MOMA – shades of Auckland, I don't think.
A bad, bad day. Walked out of Ziff meeting. Anyway. Back at Met after stroll through beautiful Central Park. Coffee and bread pudding in candle-lit cafe (K284 playing live) then – to the Canaletto, inevitably.
The Liechtenstein pix are a revelation. The light and colours radiate, yet the skies are so moody. Rio dei Mendicanti: contrast of white walls on the left, ragged, lived-in chaos to the right. Figures very vague. Physicality of brush-strokes in the sky. A boatyard to the right. Washing on roofs looks like festival pennants. No dogs. Is the building next to the church religious? If so, why the flower boxes? A tree in the centre.
The first, famous (to Walks with Lorenzetti) Piazza San Marco. It manages to be grand and provincial – a ragged Nowheresville that happens to be Venice. Birds (aargh). The stalls' shades like beach umbrellas. Dogs. Notice often greenery growing from buildings – desuetude. The crowds by the clock. Unlike Canaletto's later pix, these look even better further back – like the Impressionists. San Giacomo di Rialto – this and a later one remind me of Kathmandu – Durbar Square, or between it an Freak Street. The market. The strange pictures like huge playing cards.
Some just don't work – that of SS. Giovanni e Paolo. Rialto Bridge from the north: lovely light and shade: deep, dark colours, a slash of crimson. The thing about the Grand Canal is that often you get extreme compression, which with the windows articulates the surface. La Carità: something I've not seen before: a fire. Venice is so watery – the embodiment of this element, it seems antithetical, the fire.
To the copperplates – and the world is suddenly full of light – no dark scumbling. The clouds are thick. The lines in the windows etc. are ruled – adds to the sense of certainty of the pic. Sky not blue, but pale grey-blue. The figure pissing against the Rialto bridge. Very Levantine – the boats, the hats. In this context, the Stonemason's Yard looks even more extraordinary. The broken stones look out of place in this city of smoothness.
West end of Molo – very light in technique, like Guardi, lacks detail. Pic of Orologio – beautiful bustle – a very people-centred pic – at eye-level for a change. Scratching dog, lounging man. Very thick paint on buildings. Strange to see completely new pic – and viewpoint. For example, San Cristoforo, Michele and Murano. Square format – very thin paint – almost a sketch. Odd angles – impossible view. Mainland is disconcerting. Pentimenti on Queen's Entrance to the Grand Canal are like ghosts, hovering beneath the surface. Piazzetta looking north: brilliant red of figure; extreme perspective of loggia; very theatrical.
The pen and ink drawings are ecstasy close up – like intricate Bach chorale preludes. Studies are fierce – full of energy.
The Fonteghetto della Farina – a shock to see images no longer there. It is fun to see – and recognise – the Houston pix. The shops in Canaletto are also like Kathmandu: small caves, huddled away – San Geminiano is deeply disturbing in Piazza San Marco, disruptive. North-east corner of Piazza San Marco – big, bold treatment. Messy details – planks, dogs, stalls, shades, very urban. Shades look like bauta masks and hoods.
Beautiful peaceful capriccio of house, church, tower and bridge by the Lagoon, delicate washes, free brushwork. His Accademica pic is very theatrical, lovely diagonals, stage stairs, entrances and exits, unusual upward view – normally filled in by the sky. The late pic of the Rialto – very busy (like Kathmandu) – the greenery, pots and pans.
Perhaps the most surprising pic in the whole exhibition is Night Festival at San Pietro in Castello. Night?? In Canaletto??? Reminds me of my Night Movement II – lanterns at night. Here there are spots of light – especially intriguing inside the building. Beautiful clouds with moon behind. The confused bunches of people, the dark water, rich reds, the campanile. I suppose in part the effect is helped by my ignorance of the scene. Where are we? Is it realistic? Palladian facade. The cloaked figures – a chill in the air. The wooden bridge. The dog in the boat; the Punch and Judy show (you can see Mr Punch's stick). I have realised that I have regarded this as an island – not part of Venice…
Aha! - as I thought: it is an island – but also part of Venice – see map. Its orientation is completely unexpected – a typically Canaletto re-ordering.
Remembrance/Veteran's Day. I was roused by my early morning call at 5 – an attempt to return to GMT. A strange feeling for the day, rootless, almost. Glorious walking weather: 50°F, brilliant New York sunshine – reminded me of 5 years ago….
I sit now in The Saloon, opposite the Met (opera), nice bustly place – very Village Voice. Failing to achieve figs and prosciutto, I am forced to make do with medallions of tuna, followed by marinated duck in aubergine. A fairly strong Sauvignon accompanies the meal.
Yesterday at the Canaletto exhibition was really good. Looking very hard at these pix, close up, some of which I knew, some not, was like an intellectual/pictorial work-out. I kept on seeing more but forced myself to go yet deeper. A paradigm of all seeing – and understanding. I can see that Canaletto will be an obsession for the rest of my life – Walks with Lorenzetti has not exorcised him.
Down by the subway to Canal Street – partly after seeing an early Channel 13 (PBS) on Laurie Anderson – what a brilliant, spiky woman – who lives here. Then around Broadway, West Broadway, Tribeca, Soho, Greenwich Village. All vaguely familiar, but not exactly. I could see myself living here, very bustling, young (ish). Failed to eat at a Polish and Yugoslav restaurant – they took no credit cards, I was low on cash – thanks to my burglar (what fine word). Back to the hotel, then to here.
Already a day out – but at least this time I'm trying to catch Ireland – last year's Cork and Kerry has almost all been lost. A bad start: I slept barely at all Thursday night – real-live projectile vomiting whilst down at this years Ad Managers' conference. I attended the first session then drove blitzed out of my head to Heathrow – a miracle I didn't fall asleep.
More fun at Dublin – no hire cars at the airport. In to Dublin, to Hertz's south of the city depot. A brand new jamjar (17 miles on the clock.) Drove down the N11 to Bray, where I was meeting Sister Anne at the DART station. Everything so slow and relaxed, the cars old and small. Bray itself a bit like Brighton or some other cheap south-coast seaside resort. Lots of young bored people around. Not where one would want to stay – no character. The tourist office at the top of the High Street, upstairs in a Victorian building. At the back, a great metal plate "to weigh up to 10 tons".
Picked up Anne, then drove down the N11. Outside Bray, the character of the countryside changed: great masses, green and wooded, reared up – not an Ireland I had seen before. Again, very peaceful. Passed tempting sign to Glendalough, but went on to Wicklow. Which turned out to be Bray with a dirty-looking harbour (shades of Isle of Man's Castletown). We phone the Royal Hotel at Glendalough and book two rooms.
The drive there rises to a plateau of rolling countryside. Tiny back roads, hedges – reminds me of Cornwall. The hotel lies in the valley down a dead-end road. It is a turn of the century building, long and fitted out sparsely. A nice two-star hotel feel to it. The staff are obliging but amateurish: it is very quiet – strangely so in this glorious weather, and so near to Dublin. And this the height of the season. Early to bed to try to sleep off what was systemic dysfunction the night before (Tippett piano sonatas hammering through my fevered brain.)
This morning up late-ish (breakfast at 8.30am) then out to view the antiquities hereabouts. First, the cathedral, behind the hotel. A wonderful setting: sloping gravestones lichen-covered, high grass, a few paths, all in a valley floor. A birch tree, leant against by the wind, with five trunks like five fingers. The cathedral decrepit, but its Romanesque character visible. Gravestones within – one to a man who died at 105 years – imagine the changes he spanned.
Then to the great Round Tower. Surprisingly straight and clean in its lines, its surface broken by the interstices of rocks. A celtic rocket. (Priest's house). St Kevin's Kitchen, an authentically dark and gloomy place with its little bell tower, leading to a bridge over a burbling brook. A flotilla of pond-skaters, a dragonfly and the intensest green; strange butterfly.
Across the river along a path amidst bracken (Finzi's/Hardy's song) to St Saviour's, a spaceship in a clearing. Flies everywhere – how I hate 'em. Then by car to the upper lake, where I write now. Wonderfully serene. The water clear to the gravel beneath, the high valley walls descending steeply. To the left, wooded slopes which remind me of Lake Phewa in Nepal; to the right, glorious pine trees, their branches picked out in rich browns and oranges. High up to the right a crag with strangely blasted trunks like telegraph poles. At the head of the valley, a waterfall, lots of scree.
From Glendalough we moved to the Wicklow Gap – spoilt by fir plantations, then up to Russborough House. First to Poulaphouca House for lunch. A strange place. The bar long and dark, with rows of small bottles, deer heads, deep-brown furniture and a TV playing Irish football high at one end. A clump of young middle-aged men drinking silently, watching. Through to the restaurant, empty except for us (when do these places even get busy?). The food surprisingly good – excellent home-made mushroom soup – shades of my last visit in Kerry. What made the place was the Ives-like music: Beethoven's Piano Concerti 1 and 2, Chaka Khan, and musique concrète from the kitchen. Wonderful.
Then to Russborough House. Beautiful lichened grey stone, classical Palladian design with two wings. The house looks out to the Wicklow mountains. Tour only, alas. Just a few rooms open to the public, but some considerable wealth therein. Good sequence of Murillos, Guardi, Constables, Vernet (Shades of Avignon), Ruisdael (Berechtsheim), Hobbema. Shame about the stolen Vermeer, still missing. A cosy feel, with furniture and ornaments chosen with care. Friendly library. Almost liveable in. Lafranchini bros. Plaster-work brilliant, especially on ceilings.
After tea in an old kitchen (?) - high roof, unadorned walls (à laKedleston) on to the Sally Gap. Beautiful sense of space and desolation, spoilt only by the encroaching firs. Stopped to admire Lough Tay, a strange industrial brown, glistening below. Then completing the circuit, to Laragh, through the Vale of Clara and Vale of Avoca – the latter very attractive. It was growing late so we hurried straight down to Wexford, staying at the Talbot Hotel, large but more character than White's, plus a better location.
That location gave us a brilliant early morning sun across the sea, glistening like white-hot gold. After a full breakfast – kippers and gooseberry jam – a walk out to the breakwater. High above, a huge mackerel sky like a lace shawl. The waterfront before us, very still and peaceful, like the fronts on the Liffey in Dublin.
Wexford itself tiny, not particularly distinguished, but heaps better than most other places – Ireland's towns are surprisingly ugly. I find the Opera Festival House with difficulty – it lies in the totally misnamed High Street – a tiny back road – and is almost invisible. I wonder what the Festival is like. Otherwise, little else of note here, the church and abbey ruins feeble. The harbour and sea the best things. I sit writing this in blazing sunshine at the end of Henrietta Street, a little semi-circular indent off the harbour. Oddly, there is a railway line along the quays – functional, without warning.
24.7.89 Castletown House, Celbridge
I write this now in the coolest cellar imaginable; outside is blistering eternal sunshine. I have eaten a passable cream tea in the heart of this mansion. But back to yesterday. After Wexford, half in search of the mysterious Yola – another lost language of these islands (Cornish, Faroese, Manx…). Past the lovely Lady's Island Lake – a weird castle tower balanced on edge like a stunt double-decker bus – then down to Kilmore Quay. Anne wanted a trip out to the Saltees, which looked like huge, languorous whales in the sunshine, but no go.
The harbour charming: a huge poem of rusting cables and great hulks. The village was relatively unattractive. And the beach was simply too inviting. So we accepted its long shelving beach, and hard clear sand left by the retreating tide. There for two hours, a thin veil of could overhead like a huge piece of lace, nicely tempering the extreme heat.
From there, back through Wexford to Enniscorthy. Set surprisingly on a hill, it looked, at 3 on a hot Sunday afternoon like a deserted Spanish village during siesta. Everything shut, but the dynamics of the streets good. On then to Courtain – a total Butlin's – then up to Arklow. A cycling race impedes our progress by car. Parking and continuing on foot, we hear impro jazz bands everywhere. Down by the estuary, the place is a tip. Indeed, I am depressed by how many Irish towns are grey, ugly and featureless. Give me England anytime.
But it was getting late, we were hot and tired, and we passed The Bridge, an eighteenth-century inn on the bridge. Inside, slightly unprepossessing, but the landlord an honest-looking bloke and only £12/head the night for bed and breakfast. Out in the evening – after a go on the paddle boats for Anne. We encounter a big gig (100s) and Irish bands in every pub – of which there are many. The whole town is a-buzz with music, and hot but happy people. A surprisingly good Chinese meal (in Arklow?) - but no chopsticks. Standing on the bridge we saw two worlds: behind us, modern barbarism, squat shacks and storehouses; in front, a vision of georgic beauty, Wicklow hills in the distance.
Driving out this morning, after a hearty Irish breakfast, we took the coast road to Wicklow, which was stunning: peaceful and beautiful, reminding me of the South of France and Cornwall at once. Some nice villas too. Then via the N11 to Enniskerry and Powerscourt. Normally gardens do nothing for me – but these were different. The setting for the main Italianate garden was magnificent: terraces down to a huge pond shimmering between the dotting lily leaves. High trees everywhere, and in the far distance, the prospect of the Great Sugar Loaf, plus attendant hills. What a backdrop. Otherwise the usual paraphernalia of lichened urns, green dribbling statues and perfect lawns. Other features are a Japanese garden set in a formally boggy hollow – à la Golden Gate park – with chickweed-type(?) greenery everywhere.
Near the entrance, past strange mushroom-shaped trees, a path led through wildly-coloured flowers – including huge blue thistles – to a gate in an old brick wall. Thence to a magic realm: a dolphin fountain set in another shimmering pond. Magic.
The house itself – as so many seem to be in Ireland – was destroyed by fire, though only recently. As a result, the shell shows strange vegetable forms pressing against the lower room's windows – as if a conservatory had gone mad. Inside, the visible remains of old wallpaper are sad. The architecture itself looks unspecial, but apparently its contents were fine. From this idyll, to the Powerscourt waterfall, also in the house's grounds. Set in a lush hidden valley – lots of oaks – this comes cascading down a steeply slanting face of rock like a huge twisted silk scarf, or a Christo wrapping. A stream wends away with tawny water, oaks overhead adding to the Dutch effect. Driving away to Glencree, the retreating form of the Great Sugar Loaf. The road down to Tallaght – so near Dublin – surprisingly bracing. These must be some of the best-kept secrets in Ireland.
Now I leave the Castletown coffee room – a tour of OAP Yanks has arrived – why do the old travel? What profit can it bring them now? The long passageway is cool as only old houses can be. As you might expect, many curious rooms: a glimpse of an old kitchen; a wine cellar; a room with a hip bath and crude frescoes of a foxes' feast – leading to a narrow white scullery – wit: the picture above the foxes' feat is of a huntsman fallen in a ditch; a dark room full of randomly placed chains like a surrealist work of art – a cool, dank small. Locked, a nursery room with a huge crude doll's house, and furniture, a cradle and old suitcase; next to it an empty bedroom – bed, wardrobe, low chest of drawers, all very 1900s.
Inside the house – the entrance hall – a wonderful approximate cube – gleaming white. My eye is caught by a chamber organ, eighteenth century – four and half octaves. Ionic columns and half columns, simple design though complex ornamentation. In the office, I see an amazing piece of furniture – with pigeonholes, drawers et al. A leather chair – covered with a hood…? On the staircase – Lafranchini (?) plasterwork. A rather pleasant tour with a young lady who reminds me of my secretary Linda… Rather intelligent, by the sound of it…
The house quite interesting – but sad since so much had been sold off. The best room was the print room – prints applied on the walls as decoration. The facade is large but rather unimpressive – no focus, and the colonnades are rather short. The gardens are simply parkland, again, no grand focus. But a pleasant place, on an enjoyable day out.
On to Dublin – sampling the delights of the one-way system. In fact, Dublin rush-hour looks pretty wild. I park in St. Stephen's Green, not far from the hotel I stayed in two years back (Powers). Then a walk. My feet gravitate towards Grafton Street – I am tempted by the bustle of Bewley's, but resist – then on to Trinity College Dublin. Perhaps the echoes of theTrinity make this place attractive. Then down to see the Project Art Gallery. A nice space, simple, with Satie gently playing. As I leave, someone cycles right in and out of another door. Interestingly, this whole area – quite decrepit when I visited before – is becoming quite lively, and looks to be a Soho or Greenwich Village in the making.
The same also goes – as far as restoration – to much of Dublin that I see this time. There are a lot of people around, and the atmosphere is more upbeat. However, the same seems not to be the case for the rest of Ireland I saw – still very backward, with black (Bakelite?) telephones, and punch-button adding machines. It makes you realise what England must have been like until recently to the visiting Yanks…
For supper, inevitably, I return to the Colony. Much as I remember it: right on, stand-offish, with studenty posters and studenty posers. Good angry music in the background. Just right. Then a turn round St Stephen's, on to the airport.
Oslo – why Oslo? I have been here before for a press trip – to Norsk Data – since plunged into the red, as predicted – probably because it took irrelevant journos like me on junkets. My vision of the city was a fleeting one. But pleasant. Going north to colder climes and dour people was attractive. I needed to get away for various reasons. As soon as I arrived at the airport, it felt right.
Oslo is so neat and civilised. There are fountains everywhere, attractive blonde women, long broad streets, a lack of tall buildings. Everything is on a human scale. Vastly exciting, it is not: the what's on guide is embarrassing in its paucity of offerings. I arrived at 11am, and went straight to my hotel – the Savoy (sic) on Universitetsgata. Then a wander down to the tourist office to pick up maps and info.
I am now in the café of the Grand Hotel, eating reindeer liver pate – very strong. The price of food is terrifying here. Across from me is the Stortinget, a Romanesque fantasy which reminds me of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Karl Johans Gate reminds me of Helsinki. Beautiful weather – hot sun, cool air. Good news: no smoking in public places; bad news: cyclists on the pavements.
In the Slottet grounds: two guardsmen in navy blue, with green epaulettes and feathered helmets, walk with a strange formal loping, left hand on their belt at the front, right hand swinging. Earlier, I saw a procession with brass band – for the changing of the guard? The palace is a rather modest affair, a miniature Buckingham Palace, two guards on duty, talking to passers-by. The creamy, yellow colour seems quite common here: most of the older buildings seem eighteenth, nineteenth century. They look like those in Leningrad.
After lunch, to the Nasjonalmuseet. A few good old masters – especially Delacroix, interesting Norwegians – the stunning scenery makes "landskips" a doddle – and the cream of the Munch. Strange pix for such an urbane-looking young man in his self-portrait. "The Sick Girl" is slashed by deep lines – a battle of a surface. "The Scream" is thin and almost a sketch. The door to the Nasjonalmuseet very heavy – as have been several others – I almost gave up. As in England, young mothers with kids everywhere.
9.45pm – out into the cold rain – and a surprise: it's light. I had forgotten this consequence of northward travel. Otherwise an evening watching French, Norwegian and Swedish TV – plus Sky and Super Channel – the last two dire.
A grey morning, but clearing. Out to the Munch Museet. The Oslo underground is new and ultra-clean. A wonderful smell. And expensive. Out to the suburbs, full of neat blocks of flats. The museum is a low squarish building, easy to miss. Rather fewer pix inside than I expected. But big rooms full of wild garish colours. I was pleased that most were familiar. Interesting that those in the Nasjonalmuseet are often duplicated here – "Skrik", "Pubertet", "The Sick Girl". New were the etchings. Best of these were eight of "The Sick Girl" in close up – obsessional reworkings, all the more effective for the cumulative impact of the eight versions. A very personal vision, but once again, I am glad I am not a painter.
Back on the T-banen, then to the harbour to take a boat out to Bygdøy. Glorious weather now, scudding clouds, stiff breeze. It is the first time I have looked out into the fjord. Low islands across the sparkling water. In the harbour a gleaming tall ship, three or four masts. A proud beauty. As we pull out, I see the castle which I must visit. Looks unimpressive compared to Brit stuff. Nice modern architecture along the harbour – why can't the Docklands get this? Mooring on Bygdøy, then I walk to the Folkemuseum. Very plush here: BMWs in quiet roads outside immaculate weatherboard houses, white in the sun.
I am sitting in the famous Stave Church – thirteenth century, and one of the most remarkable buildings I have ever seen. Unlike most, it feels authentically old. Outside is like some hazy northern pagoda. Both the church and the other buildings have a strange and wonderful property: their spaces seem particularly real. That is, the space is won and constructed. Modern buildings are typically divorced entirely from the outside space: there is no relation between in and out. Here the two communicate, perhaps because the imperfections of the buildings never let you forget the act of construction. The assemblage of these old empty buildings is touching. As is the old ghost town which has been constructed.
It is starting to rain, so in to the Folkemuseum proper. [Parenthetically, in the Munch Museet, three glorious portraits: Ibsen, Strindberg and Nietzsche. It is strange how each seems defined by their facial hair.] I write this in the old assembly room, a northern, scaled-down version of Palladio's Teatro Olimpico. The museum is deserted. I am left only with the smell of old wood and leather, and the still gazes from beneath wigs and perukes. This place is thick with time. To the building opposite. A crazy exhibit of log chains. Glorious smell of pine.
To the Viking Ship Museum. Aptly enough, this is in the form of a church-like cross, three ships in three arms. And what ships. Black monsters, superbly preserved. Very shallow draught, and intricately ornamented on the prow and stern. And the carriages and sleds. It is hard to connect these fearsome Viking images with the civilised people here today. A nation which changed the face of England, France, Sicily, Russia and elsewhere.
Back on the boat to a sunny late Saturday afternoon in Oslo. Most of the shops were shut by 3 o'clock. I am now sitting down from the Stortinget, in an open air café – exorbitant but worth it. The rows of elms are a bright, young green; the horse chestnut is a mass of leaves. Behind the latter, more fountains susurrate. Everywhere there are pretty, attractive blonds. Blue skies. "Selig", as a poet once said.
Glorious weather: strong sun, refreshing breeze. Out to Frognerparken to see the Vigeland sculptures. Those on the bridge as less impressive than those around the column. The latter are more varied and inventive, and gain from their grouped setting. The rock is beautiful: it looks so sensuous. The carving is remarkable for its consistency. The column is artful: lower down the basic lines are flat; then a diagonal enters – a left corkscrew into the sky. At the top, verticals. But I can't help feeling more tapering would have helped. Aren't women's buttocks wonderful? From the column, you get a splendid view down the alley to the road. Hordes of tourists disembark like locusts. Alongside the simple strength of the granite figures, they look mean and tawdry.
The main fountain is impressive – even in this city of fountains. The bronze figures surrounding it are curious: they stand or crouch beneath trees; the trees look like alien flora from a Dan Dare comic strip.
Last night, walking home from dinner at Mona Rosa's, I passed a young woman sobbing violently as she sat in a doorway. What could I do? You can't comfort in a foreign tongue. I walked on, but felt sick at heart.
I am sitting in the chapel of the Akershus Fortress. An organist – typically attired in suit and organist glasses – has just entered and started playing a strongly modal piece on some softer stops. Outside the sun breaks through white and dark clouds, sending blurred images of the windows onto the blue carpet in front of me. This is a real Sunday. The sound and the occasional fluffs remind me of the short time I learnt the organ. I was still at secondary school, but I remember driving to a church for practice. I had to knock someone up for the key. I remember vividly the smell when the door opened, the fat man wiping a hand over his greasy mouth, chewing still. I had disturbed his dinner. The air was think with lower-class living; children squealed distantly. Once, upon obtaining the key, I went into the church to find a corpse laid out in its coffin. It was cold and the darkness seemed thick around the light on the organ. But it all seemed appropriate too.
Old glass in the church windows. Seven o'clock and still as warm as an English summer's afternoon – the sun as high. After the concert – before an audience of 12 – I have spent most of the afternoon near Stortinget, sitting in the sun, drinking coffee, watching the world – and young ladies – go by. Unfortunately these erstwhile Vikings are smokers.
Dinner: devastating avocado, prawns, roe and cream; then reindeer medallions followed by summer fruits in champagne. This lack of night is so disconcerting. I am sitting on the wharf side opposite Akershus Slott (Akers is Oslo's river), which is eerily illuminated in the gloaming by sodium glare. There is a very impressive waterside development here – far better than Docklands. One warehouse has been converted into shops and boîtes – very lively. But who are all these boys and girls in red/blue boiler suits? And what are they selling? To my left, the Rådhuset blocks stand out like blocks of patterned chocolate. Half moon tonight. The smell of sawdust in the air; new buildings behind.
Beautiful morning again. A walk round the deserted city – a holiday today. Then to the cathedral, the bells ringing clangorously with wonderful software discords of major seconds. Inside, and I am immediately back in Helsinki cathedral – a memory long lost. A Greek cross with a low crossing painted with a wild pointillist frieze. Gilt everywhere. I preferred Helsinki.
To the Rådhuset, which really is a beautiful building. The dark brickwork conceals a wealth of detail – diagonally set bricks, rose circles. It is, obviously, a very vertical building, emphasised by the tall vertical slots above the regularly placed windows. Also, the squat central building throws the two flanking towers into prominence. The astrological clock is a superb stroke: like an intricate jewel on a great flowing robe, it draws the eye in.
There are many races here: orientals, blacks, Arabs, other Europeans. It will be interesting to see if the melting pot melts.
The great bell of St. Peter strikes 9. A grey but bright morning; cold. I arrived here at 10pm last night, a mere one hour and a bit from London. This is almost a test-run: what is the viability of jumping across to Europe for the weekend. I am staying at the Hotel Florhof behind the Kunsthaus. Last night I watched TV in German, French and Italian.
Now I sit in the pleasant St Petershofstatt – very quiet everywhere. Zürich is full of pastels: lime greens, strawberry pinks, vanilla creams. The architecture is terribly circumspect, nothing is garish or untoward. Everything is very neat. Walking along the Limmatquai, things were only vaguely familiar. Driving in from the Hauptbahnhof last night I did recognise the high stone wall of Seilergraben. I think I stayed near here – the street Zähringerstrasse is marked on my old (1979) map. I remember only the shower of the old youth hostel (?) where I stayed. Zürich was pelting with rain, and I was freezing; it was one of the best showers of my life.
Zürich very quiet all morning until 10, when I go to the Oper. "Marriage of Figaro", sold out for tonight. Then to the Kunsthaus. 9 francs to get in – which includes the last day of an Egon Schiele show (£1 ~ 2.70 Fr). Round the museum – lots of dreck, especially modern. Few decent old ones – Canaletto, view of Molo with reception of ambassador. Good Chagalls and Munch. Lots of boring Schweizer and old German stuff. Few decent Impressionists. To the Schiele. Frightening stuff. But what a fiercely personal vision this boy – died when 28 – had. Lots of lacerating self-portraits, lots of nudes – the flesh beginning to turn like dead meat. Some of the landscapes were new to me – strange gleaming reds, like haunted houses – impressive.
Almost casually, I decide to visit the "Je suis un cahier" Picasso exhibition. I expect to be bored after the Tate show. It is miles better. The virtuosity which was hinted at there becomes explicit. The sheets from the sketch books are all dated: often there are ten from one day. Rarely is there a correction to them: just sure, swift lines. Many are masterpieces. But even more fascinating is to see how he worried at a theme, teased out nuances – and then changed completely. For example, he draws a baboon's head a few times, simplifies, then leaps to Shakespeare. Pure disjunction or inspired transition? Now in the Kunsthaus restaurant, I gaze at the familiar Zürich rain…
Grossmünster: typically Swiss – no ornaments inside, just clean, grey walls. It all looks too new: there is no sense of time passed. I wonder if I came here before? P.m., the rain holding off a little. A few more people around – about as busy as Bournemouth on a quiet winter's Saturday… To the Fraumünster Church – more churches – dull inside. But brilliant Chagall windows, five of them, long and thin. Jacob, Christ, David in the middle, blue, green and yellow. Wandering in the rain. Zürich is still quiet – definitely a one-day place.
Back to the hotel to watch 16 channels of TV. Several times I have tried to take coffee at the Café Bar Odeon – Lenin's old haunt, and one that I found very pleasant ten years ago. Today it is noisy and smoke-filled – hardly the haven of civilised quiet it once was. One thing I have noticed: there is a fad here for deeply unattractive glasses – huge square things, odd wing shapes – yuk. Also, it has to be said, there are not many attractive women here. They look Swiss and serious – no spark or flair. But then there is very little squalor either – I have seen only one tramp, and everyone else looks well-off.
I am now sitting amidst the guildic (?) splendours of das Zunfthaus zur Saffran. I received a very snooty welcome – no tie, unshaven, jeans, trainers: will he pay? They think. I hope they take Visa… This is a strange city. It looks like a film set – it is too neat and tidy, too perfect. I am on the first floor; as the trams go by, their metal conductors creep past the eighteenth-century windows like huge silent spiders.
9.45am Work done yesterday, I am free to wander. Writing is a slight problem though: I do not feel entirely happy about my back. I have therefore come to the Hyatt at Embarcadero, and sit amid the totally de trop splendours of its lobby.
For example, the glittering lifts descend like golden dew drops, smooth and fluid. Fountains plash, with the water pouring over the basin's edge in an unbroken sheet. From where I sit the lights catch it and make it look like some crude plastic sheet. The design of this place is curious. Two sides of the triangular shape are sheer, and have small plants every 18 inches or so, turning the face into a field on its side. The third side hangs out over the lobby at 45 degrees.
I walked over this morning to the Civic Center, down Taylor to Market Street – some of it pretty insalubrious. Many homeless on the streets, more blacks here than elsewhere. The UN Plaza full of homeless on the park benches. Despite its grandiose architecture – totally inappropriate really – the place looks squalid and grubby. The opera house and art gallery are simply dumped here: there is no sense of organic architecture.
One characteristic feature of San Francisco is the cable cars. Not so much their quaint appearance, but in their absence the constant complaints of the cables which run beneath the streets. It sounds as if the trolls of Nibelung are working away. The often very steep hills – real Lake District up – transform the city, which is a grid system like New York, but looks nothing like it.
I took the BART – eventually. First, it took me ages to work out how to buy a ticket. Next, the station platform had no map telling me where I was going. The BART itself is a strange mixture: poor and plush. Thick carpets and comfy seats, but only lower socio-economic groups using it.
In the Cable Car Museum. There are large wheels – "sheaves" – which circulate the closed loop of steel. Cable cars grab this as they move. The museum is like a circle of hell: huge, antiquated pieces of equipment, thrumming steadily.
Back by Civic Center (alas), but the promise of Ethiopian food is too much. Not yet 7pm, and already busy. After beginning here, I then went to the bookstalls near Union Square, then back to the Museum of Modern Art. Pretty poor. Partly because the place is being renovated; but the exhibition of Chicago architecture very poor stuff. Lunch at the café – the same artsy and uncomfortable chairs as the Design Centre.
I look up from my books – and see clear blue sky. San Francisco is transformed. I rush out, and go to Telegraph Hill. The view is stunning, especially of the bay, stretching from the Golden Gate Bridge – a rather dull red colour – to Oakland Bay toll bridge. Hundreds of sailboats plus tankers et al. Berkeley and its campanile visible [Honey wine tastes like cough mixture]. The rolling hills of San Francisco with their buildings: it's hard to see them as hills. Sir Francis Drake must have felt pleased with himself claiming this bay: big and beautiful. Now, bridges everywhere.
I decide to ascend Coit Tower on the hill. It closes as I get there. I sit and look, almost deciding to go back down to Fisherman's Wharf. [The bread has the texture of cold foam rubber.] I stay on the Hill for about an hour and a half, then descend towards the cable car on Powell. No luck: full. I walk up the amazing incline. One bonus: the Cable Car museum (see supra).
I am totally knackered. I have been walking for hours all day. I woke early – clocks went back during the night – ate early, one of the big advantages here: you can eat anytime; then walked.
First up to Union Street, to see the Victorian houses. Up incredibly steep streets – there was a race today in the brilliant clear blue sky – to practically the top – past rather decaying versions then to the genteel part. Reminds me of Boston. Shops – clothes et al. - nicely done out, surprisingly posh. Everyone out for their papers – San Francisco Examiner, in about 15 sections, and weighing over a pound – and their breakfast. Everybody seems to eat this meal out. Parenthetically, John Dvorak has a Q&A in the San Francisco Examiner: rather feeble, I thought. I like the Examiner; nice typeface, good style. But they came out for Bush…
It is a picture: the neat wooden houses and shops, no two alike, the curving hills, the blue sky and radiant early morning sunshine. Then down to the shore. Foolishly, it being such a nice day, I decided to walk to the Golden Gate Bridge. All the joggers are out – hundreds of them. I am tempted to join in. Out at sea there is a race: Indian-type canoes – about ten crews.
Oakland is misty, but Alcatraz (= the pelican) is clear. The bridge looms ahead, bright red. I pass marinas chock full of boats. Rich people/lifestyle here. After about an hour (more?) I reach the bridge. I am surprised that it would be so easy to leap off – and am vaguely tempted by that self-destructive devil within. What is more frightening than looking down is looking up at the four cables every so often. I have this urge to shimmy up them.
Golden Gate Bridge is big. I walk less than halfway across and even that take me many minutes. I see the Pacific for the first time (is Bali in the Pacific? Probably.) Looking back downtown, the view is interesting: the skyscrapers, Coit Tower, the various hills. Sausalito looks close, but I am already pretty tired. In vain, I look for a taxi. Finally, I find one, and go to Golden Gate Park. It is much further than I think – thank god I didn't walk as I contemplated. To the de Young Museum – quite one of the plainest buildings I have ever seen. Lots of people milling around. More joggers. Lunch in the Museum. Sitting outside in the courtyard and, the sun streaming down… not bad at all. A quick tour. Quite good Yank stuff, a few good Brit pix – the rest dross. Everything seems so token and incomplete.
Outside to hear the Sunday brass band finish with a medley of tunes from "The Sound of Music". Then wandering around. The Arboretum, the Japanese Tea Garden, the hothouse, paying for most things. The park is very big, full of people.
Because of the hour, the sun on the way down now. Shadows lengthen. I walk east the length of the park. No bus, not taxis. Foolishly, again, I decided to walk through Haight-Ashbury, along Pine Street, to the Civic Center. It is a long, long way. It is noticeable how past the green exterior of the Golden Gate Park, the neighbourhood turns crummy. Am I too near the Western Addition? Well, I make it, exhausted, back to the hotel.