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Jun. 2nd, 2015

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Stand

Just past half-way through the Pulse Festival we were attending our fourth show. Stand had attracted my attention on three grounds: it's Oxford connection, the use of oral history, and the involvement of Chris Goode. I had never seen any of Goode's shows but I had read some of his texts and heard the enthusiasm of theatre buffs. The New Wolsey Studio was almost full as we slipped into seats just inside the entrance at the end of the front row. As the show began a cast of six entered from the auditorium and seated themselves on high stools beside each of which stood a lectern. Because each lecturn was stage left of the performer this formed a physical barrier between us and the actors. This might not have been a problem had the performances been more direct but it became apparent that most of the actors were reading most of their lines. This has to have been a directorial decision — an indicator of verbatim theatre; the show is not new; this would be at least its fourth run and some runs involved multiple performances. Reading scripts is a characteristic of works in progress but none of the promotional material or reviews of other runs mention such circumstances.

"It's not about me; it's about all the other people"* said Chris Goode in his opening line as a photographer who had been an early campaigner trying to save Castle Mill boatyard in Oxford's Jericho. I used that yard in the 1980s when we would moor a narrowboat in what was then Orchard Boatyard. None of this was made explicit in the performance (and it was not necessary to do so). On behalf of Oxford Playhouse, Goode had invited people to talk about a time in which they had stood up for something that they believed in. He chose six people whose stories particularly appealled to him and interviewed them in greater depth. I imagine that his interviews used the English oral history technique called 'life history' or 'whole life'. I can find no statement to support this but it is implicit in the inclusion of accounts of childhood with each story of adult activism.  Goode then selected highlights from these interviews and wove them into a show lasting just over an hour. Although none of the interviewees are identified by name, there is enough personal information remaining to be able to identify them with only limited research. This lends the accounts a powerful authenticity; this is a show about real people speaking in their own words. Was this why Goode chose the conceit of obvious reading? Did he wish to emphasise that this was actors reporting the speech of the subjects? In his own performance he varied between natural speech and sometimes hesitant reading with the occasional stumble. I still cannot tell whether this was cunning artifice or inadequate rehearsal although I favour the former explanation given his undoubted deep familiarity with the material.

My confusion was exacerbated in the variety of delivery styles by the cast. The most engaging performance was that of the woman playing the part of a co-founder of Oxford's bicycle repair co-op Broken Spoke, who had come to activism through fracking opposition and climate change awareness. Her stories were funny but, more importantly, she delivered her speeches naturally with no reference to the script. Similarly authentic was the performance of the young actor playing an actor who co-founded the Reclaim Shakespeare Company (whose rebranding as 'BP or not BP' makes clear it's opposition to BP's involvement in the arts) and for our benefit reprised their first anarcho-thespian demonstration against BP as an agent of climate change.

All six characters were telling stories that interested me. An 82-year-old animal activist described the spirituality that motivated his lifelong campaigning and his involvement in SPEAK, the group opposed to animal research at Oxford University. A middle-aged woman explained how she had moved from agnomic rebellion to local government and advocacy for refugees. The anomalous character among these avowed activists was a mother who had come to tell the story of an action by her adopted daughter but in so doing revealed the touching story of her adoption of this Russian orphan. This intimate story made the important point that effective action is not confined to campaigning; the very way that we lead our lives can improve the world.

Not all the stories had upbeat endings but their combined effect was affirming. The source material is heart-warming and my only criticism is that the staging of this well-crafted tapestry obscured its value. As we entered the auditorium for the next show, a man ahead of us asked wearily "Are we going to be read to again?" I had to sympathise.

*Or something very like this.
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That Is All You Need To Know

That Is All You Need To Know followed Bromance on the first night of Pulse Festival 2015. The Idle Motion Theatre Company have developed quite a reputation for using sophisticated projection technology to create an absorbing context in which to tell theatrical stories about people. I was eager to see what they would do to tell the stories of the wartime Enigma codebreakers and of the enthusiasts who later saved Bletchley Park as a monument and a museum to these remarkable people. I was a little sceptical because the play is subtitled 'The untold story of Bletchley Park'; I have about a dozen books on the subject so I wondered how untold could this story be. Perhaps, I thought, the writers had found new oral history in Milton Keynes' Living Archive or conducted fresh interviews themselves. If they did, it did not show. There were no new stories here but what they did present was told effectively.

The production seems to have been based on two main sources: Gordon Welchman's 1982 book about Hut Six and the accounts of members of the Bletchley Park Trust. There was a passing mention of Frederick Winterbotham's 1974 book, which was the first public revelation of the wartime secrets, but the focus of the wartime story was on Welchman and his famous colleague Alan Turing. Interwoven with the story of the codebreaking was that of the saving of the manor house and the wartime huts from demolition and development as a housing estate. Telling two parallel stories on a monolithic set with no costume changes as actors switch between characters can be confusing but the script maintained the distinctions effectively even though there were few body language clues from the company.

Where there was confusion, however, was in the coherence of the form. Why, for example, was there a single dance interlude? At the end of BromancePaul Warwick (one of the China Plate directors who had programmed the festival) had encouraged members of the audience to stay on because Idle Motion's show also involved dynamic physical theatre. This one short scene was that dynamism; it was hugely overshadowed by the consummate mastery of Barely Methodical Troupe and it did not advance our understanding of Bletchley Park or its people.

The set was not, of course, entirely monolithic. There were a few small pieces of stage furniture and some elegant projection to indicate the changing use of the space over historical time. The appeal of the projection lay more in the ingenuity of the projection surfaces than in the projected imagery but the effect was consistently pleasing.

This all seems rather negative and I feel that I should clarify that I enjoyed the show; it held my interest for all of its eighty minutes and I was impressed by the quality of the acting. My companion, however, had some trouble with the plot at times; for her it was an untold story and without a stronger grasp of the history she was not always carried through the transitions. This is a good show that could be a great show with a few modifications: particularly stronger indicators of the temporal setting of each scene and a sharper focus on the main thrust of each narrative.

May. 29th, 2015

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Bromance

It was the beginning of the Pulse Festival 2015. The opening show was Bromance, which was billed as a trio of acrobatic circus performers. The three of them had filmed a parkour run from Ipswich station to the New Wolsey Theatre and put it on YouTube. The video went viral and the show sold out. Over a quarter of the audience were coming to the Wolsey for the first time. Expectations were high.

When we entered the auditorium the stage was set very simply: just three folding chairs at the back and a Cyr wheel lying on the floor. Named after circus acrobat Patrick Cyr, the wheel is a single, large metal hoop almost two metres across. Initially, the three fit young men of Barely Methodical Troupe used the wheel as nothing more than a prop; a way to bound the space in which they explored the latent complexities of that simple greeting: the handshake.

The opening was small and contained. Then handshakes became foundations for martial arts tricks and Bboying moves. Bboying is the insider name for breakdancing. Extreme dance and acrobatics are hard to differentiate and the distinction may not matter. One of the acrobatic styles used here is known as hand-to-hand, which seems hugely appropriate in this context. Hand-to-hand involves a pair of artistes; one balances and somersaults on the hands of the other. Any pairing excludes the third member of the trio and this exclusion of the third wheel was explored with the mischievous wit that we had seen in the handshake sequence.

Several people have described the show as 'blokey' and it is this reliance on stereotypical masculinity that gives the piece its power. Intimacy is not an obvious subject for a circus show but here it is explored more as a matter of gender than of sexuality. Much of the dangerous acrobatics rely on mutual trust in the skill and timing of the performers; the link between trust and friendship is part of the show and is just one of the many aspects of male bonding that are woven into a playfully profound expression of masculine relationships. Even the essentially solitary nature of the bravura performance inside the spinning aluminium wheel is exploited with ingenuity.

An essential part of the show's appeal is the way that these three men bring such personal differences into a winning combination. They differ in physique, height, and the technical disciplines from which they come but their immaculate timing and charming confidence caused the Wolsey audience to gasp with admiration. Such audible appreciation happens rarely in British art houses but it could be heard several times in this amazing hour. The promotional material had mentioned that this debut show had won a Total Theatre Award at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival but this had not prepared us for its sheer virtuosity. The skill of each performer is outstanding and their technique is astonishing.

The trio are Beren d’Amico, Louis Gift, and Charlie Wheeller, all of whom graduated recently from the National Centre for Circus Arts (more commonly known as The Circus Space) in Hoxton. The Circus Space awards Bachelor of Arts honours degrees in Circus Arts.

At 22, Charlie Wheeller is the youngest of the three. Born in Southampton, he took up Bboying as a teenager and studied A-level dance. Instead of going to university he attended The Circus Space, where he learned acrobatics and the Cyr wheel while he developed his dancing skills.

Louis (aged 24) comes from Holloway in North London and succeeded at various competitive sports before taking up parkour and freerunning. Although his father is Fine Young Cannibal Roland Gift, he did not discover musical theatre until he was 16 when he combined acting, dance, and acrobatics in college musicals. At The Circus Space he specialised as a hand to hand base while maintaining his other skills. He is the tallest of the trio with the greatest physical presence.

Beren's parents were circus people. He practiced Taekwondo in South London as a child and found that he preferred the performance aspect of tricking over competitive combat. He studied acting and stage combat at East 15 Drama School before entering the degree course at The Circus Space. While there he was paired with Louis in hand-to-hand. Like most acrobatic fliers his height is below average but he is the oldest member of the team and, arguably, his role is the most hazardous.

Individually they are remarkable. Collectively they are awe-inspiring. By the end I wanted to shake their hands or hug them but I settled for joining the well-deserved standing ovation.

May. 1st, 2015

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Births Deaths & Marriages

New Wolsey Young Associates have been touring their short play for months but we had yet to see it because of sundry diary clashes. Tonight it was being staged at the New Wolsey Studio as part of the Pulse Festival 2015. Four members of the young company worked with Rob Salmon (Associate Director of the New Wolsey Theatre) and three of their colleagues to create a funny moving exploration of decisions at the beginning of adulthood. This was another full house and we were lucky to get seats.

The full cast of three men and a woman, all aged about 21, were sitting in a row at the start of the show. A young man carrying a backpack stood, stepped to a microphone, and began a shouted conversation with unseen parents as he left the suburban Ipswich house projected on the big screen at the back of the stage. Unecessary shouting is my only serious criticism of the work of this company; in this case the shouting makes sense but why have a microphone if the lines are shouted? As the youth (played by Sam Rhodes) described his walk Ipswich landmarks were projected in sequence behind him but the setting is not Ipswich because that sequence is not compatible with the townscape and some features do not exist. Until the script mentioned a motorway this disjunction between text and landscape was a disorienting psychogeography; because the boundary between fact and fiction was unclear. It becomes clear that the youth is leaving home forever; he has no known destination and no firm motivation except a desire to get away.

A dishevelled besuited man (Jack Tricker) shouts abuse at him. A distressed woman (Gemma Raw) in a little black dress has a meltdown in the street as she carries very high silver pave heels. A tall man (Tom Chamberlain) accosts the walker with jocular menace. Then we learn the circumstances of each of these strangers. We see how the four people each face life-changing decisions about death, about marriage, and about birth. Each segment is counterpointed with projected images and texts that illustrate or comment upon the action and most of the action is described by inactive cast members in an unobtrusively integrated audio description that makes the show accessible to people with impaired vision. Despite its unashamedly theatrical form there is a realism to the shows delivery that lends it a powerful authenticity. Each character engaged the audience's sympathy even while we were laughing at the absurdity of their circumstances or their responses. And parts of the production were pure comedy: the use of projections to reveal a character's inner monologue and the use of karaoke to carry the narrative were particular triumphs.

The use of broad humour and the direct literalism of the projections do not detract from subtle complexities of the piece. Overtly this is an exploration of decisions and relationships; particularly family relationships. Implicitly, however, it is about the journey through any transition and this is quietly emphasised by the recurrent motif of modes of transport. Transportation or, more precisely, the places associated with transit are delineated with ingenious projections of destination boards; another example of the cleverness inherent to every aspect of the show.

Need I make my recommendation explicit? If you are in Edinburgh in August then do seek out this thoroughly pleasing show,

Apr. 30th, 2015

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Big South American adventure

We went to South America for three weeks at the start of April. Here is our story:

Day 1: Across the Atlantic to South America
Day 2: Across the River Plate to Uruguay
Day 3: Tastes of Colonia del Sacramento
Day 4: Colonial heritage and parillada
Day 5: Back to Buenos Aires
Day 6: Recoleta and Retiro
Day 7: San Antonio de Areco
Day 8: San Telmo and La Boca
Day 9: Across the Andes to Chile
Day 10: Easter Island! Easter Island!
Day 11: Diving and a museum
Day 12: Ahu, moai, and Rano Raraku
Day 13: Sunrise, diving, and sunset
Day 14: Ahu Tongariki, Rano Raraku, and Orongo
Day 15: Leaving Easter Island
Day 16: Santiago to Rio
Day 17: Copacabana Beach with sushi
Day 18: Churrascaria rodizio
Day 19: Ipanema
Day 20: Corcovado and Sugarloaf Mountain
Day 21: And home!

Apr. 21st, 2015

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World Factory: a theatrical game

Tonight I attended a performance of World Factory at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich. Or I participated in a running of it because this is not a show but a participatory experience. It is a moderated game of Fighting Fantasy set in the real world to explore the dynamics of running a clothing manufacturer in China. Wrapped around this are some presentations of oral histories of workers in the twentieth century clothing factories of England and China.

When we entered the theatre the stage was covered with 16 tables with four office chairs and a desk light at each. The tables were up against plywood boundaries that created a corridor that linked them all. At the back of the stage and above the unused banks of seating hung two cinema-sized screens facing each other. For this run about 45 people occupied the 64 spaces; we were a table of just two. Many of the attendees looked bewildered at first but a screech attracted our attention as an AV presentation started on the big screens. Four uniformed actors entered as catwalk models before starting to deliver quotes from free market advocates from the twentieth century. This sequed into reminiscences by workers from factories in Bradford and Hong Kong. Then, while the simple rules of the game were explained, the actors began to open the boundary walls to access shelving from which they withdrew red boxes and distributed one to each table. The rules explained that we had a file of cards representing individual workers, bank notes representing capital to the value of 100,000 groats, and sundry other components that would be used later. We were given a card with text on one side and one or two bar coded options on the other. Our first decision was whether to reduce already low wages or sack workers to manage the rising costs of operation. There was no other information. It felt a bit like some of the early fan versions of Fighting Fantasy: 'You come to two doors: Choose the red door and go to page 217; Choose the blue door and go to page 183.' Having made our choice we used a scanner on the appropriate barcode and handed the card to the actor who was running our game and three others. Sometimes we had to wait for the dealer's (or the 'GM' in rpg language) attention; sometimes the game's automated infrastructure enforced a wait; sometimes we handed over money or worker cards. The dealer would then draw the appropriate numbered card from the ordered deck arrayed on the shelves and hand this across with cash, workers, or real items of clothing that we had to hang on a rack nearby. The whole process was managed by an electronic system that instructed the dealers through a simple video interface and ensured that all games ran at the pace of the slowest team. There was a lot of downtime but there were also frequent variations in the play such as an interruption to choose a new name for the factory (which had no effect on the game) or to decide how much bonus to pay the workers (which appeared to have no effect on the game beyond removing cash from it). The individual cards felt rich and personalised; when a worker was named we received a photograph of that worker, which we chose to file with the matching worker card. The stories around the decision points felt authentic but we had no significant data upon which to make decisions and there was no reason to be strategic when the dealers occasionally thieved money or made unexplained apparently random additional payments.

After a little over an hour the simulation ended abruptly and the dealers packed everything away as we waited the next event. This was a few more oral histories before the actors ran behind a curtain and made small talk as voices off while they changed into costumes using the clothes from the racks that we had filled. Statistics from this performance wrre then recited. Interestingly, it was not simply who had made the most money or the most clothes; other figures included levels of factory improvements, working conditions, and raw material consumption. Finally each actor presented a short husting speech promoting a possible strategy for the clothing industry. The audience then voted by giving game cash to the actor whose stance they supported. If the counting accuracy of our nearest actor was any guide, the outcome was unreliable but as with the whole event, it was not the details that counted but the thoughts behind them.

The show was thought-provoking and, with better time management, it could be consistently interesting but it will never make a very good game.
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And home!

I awoke fresh but I was not hungry and only had the bright fresh fruit for breakfast. I even declined anything from the appealing basket of warm pastries that was offered. It had been a pleasant flight and our passage through immigration went smoothly. We had something of a wait for our luggage but we were soon repacked down to single bags and on our way to the Underground.

The tube train was quiet when we boarded but it soon filled up and I was concerned that I might have to give up my priority seat beside my bag but nobody had any special needs and I could sit all the way to Barons Court. We crossed the platform and as I boarded the District Line train my bag got stuck on the lip of the carriage. I struggled as the doors closed upon it. When they reopened a kind passenger helped me to free the bag and hoist it aboard. I had no such problems joining the Circle Line at Sloane Square but I as I heaved my luggage up the stairs at Liverpool Street I felt grateful that this was the last of our burdened ascents.

After my light breakfast I was beginning to feel hungry when we reached the station concourse and I thought that I would have to forego refreshments because a train was departing in less than ten minutes. W encouraged me to buy a swift pastie (an English empanada, as it were) before we walked the entire length of the busy train looking for available seats. Then, just when I was expecting to have to stand throughout the journey, we found a pair of seats together. The sun was shining on the English countryside as we sped out of London and through Essex fields. We were soon in Suffolk and through Stoke tunnel to Ipswich station where we revelled in the luxury of the lifts that were installed just four years ago.

Vera was waiting for us at the station entrance. We heaved our bags into a car for one final time and returned home after three amazing weeks.

Apr. 20th, 2015

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Corcovado and Sugarloaf Mountain

We were up, washed, packed and ready for Conceição’s 0745 visit to check us out and collect the keys. She was a sympathetic, slender, tanned woman dressed in skinny black trousers and golden sandals with sunglasses in her long dark hair; a typical Carioca.

I manoeuvred the bags down the stairs with much more ease than I had brought them up on our arrival. Rio Maximo was already open, even though we were early for our tour. There was some agitation by the two travel agents on duty because neither spoke English but we were able to communicate our plans and things got easier when Emma, the cashier, joined us. We put our bulky bags behind Emma’s desk. They impinged heavily upon her space but she was quick to assure us that this was no problem for her. Explaining that she wanted to practice her English, Emma engaged us in simple small talk before settling us in the bright customer seats near the door. A gregarious guide arrived and started a bright conversation before advising us that our own guide would be along soon.

Sure enough, Karla came to collect us soon after. She was a small vivacious woman in her fifties. The tour vehicle was a 15-seater minibus waiting on Avenida Atlantica. We were almost the last to join the party and slotted neatly into two single window seats by the side door. As W said, we had arrived at just the right time because we could not have had better views. Another couple was collected from a hotel and we added our names and ID numbers to a register that was passed to me as soon as I sat down. Most of our fellow tourists were Brazilians but there was also a Swiss couple so there were four of us enjoying the English commentary that was interwoven into the Portuguese. On the back seat sat a couple with a small child on mother’s lap. Beside us were a family of four with parents of our age and two adult children; the father made frequent droll comments (or at least those that I understood were droll; he may have been being very rude in more advanced Portuguese).

Karla was engaging and entertaining. To ensure that we were all paying attention she ran a pop quiz asking us questions about the material she had just told us. She used her register to ensure that she addressed everyone but being in the front seat she had no clue as to where her targets were sitting or who they were. When she questioned the toddler, the child’s jovial father answered for her in a silly high pitched voice.

Corcovado is about two miles from Copacabana but the winding road out of the city and up the mountain quadruples this. It took more than 40 minutes for us to reach our first stop: a viewpoint where a local woman sold chilled water at supermarket rates well below the prices asked within the park. Across the steep valley we could see the colourful buildings of a Cosme Velho favela piled up the mountainside. Later I would discover that I had knocked my camera lens to manual focus and my photographs of the scene were useless; my poor uncorrected eyesight often leads me to rely on autofocus.

The bus wound its way up a narrow forest road that was soon lined with parked cars left by earlier visitors to the site. It was not long after 0900 but it was clear that many people had set out long before us. Soon we were in a queue of vehicles waiting to deposit passengers at the ticket office. Once out of the bus we were in a plaza beside a derelict hotel that had been built in 1921 but was now roofless and neglected. Karla told us that it had been used by the Mexican football team for the 1950 World Cup. It was a picturesque edifice, however, and there were amazing views from its terrace. This is one of three places that one can buy tickets for the monument. Throughout the day, huge queues wait at Copacabana beach for a bus or one can wait several hours for the charming red rack train that climbs from Cosme Velho. As an accredited guide, Karla could jump the ticket queue but we still had to join the line for park buses that are the only vehicles allowed up the last leg of the mountain road. Karla led us through the shell of the old hotel holding her sign high and laughing with self-mocking pride at the tan on her underarms. We filled a bus and watched the trees as we were driven upwards by a driver who spends his entire working day driving up and down this mile of road.

We were dropped off at the train terminus by a small plaza with a little kiosk. Nearby was a flight of steps rising up to the vast iconic statue of Christ with his arms outstretched in Rio's greatest hug. The colossal figure faced away from us as Karla pointed out city sights from a terrace before leading us to a lift that took us right to the base of the big statue.

We have been told that the interior of the statue has a staircase rising twelve stories to Christ’s shoulder but this is only for maintenance and offers no tourist access. There has been a lot of maintenance recently because lightning strikes were beginning to cause lasting damage. Now there are metal spikes on the head and all along the upper surfaces of the huge arms leading to lightning conductors that should prevent any further loss of fingers such as happened last year. Even close up it is not apparent from the ground that the statue is entirely covered in mosaic tiles. Its reinforced concrete core was realised by architect Heitor da Silva Costa and engineer Albert Caquot from a design by artist Carlos Oswald, who was inspired by Leonado Da Vinci’s Etruvian Man to see Christ himself as the cross. Paul Landowski, a French-Polish sculptor, made the final design but the idea to cover the concrete in soapstone tiles came from da Silva Costa. Sadly, the constant replacement of damaged tiles has now exhausted the quarry from which the originals came and the closest matches are slightly darker. Nobody has yet agreed whether the statue should be allowed to grow slowly darker or if, after almost a century of weathering the whole surface should be replaced with darker tiles.

The queues of visitors became a heaving crowd around the monument. Jutting away from its front stretched a terrace with a low balustrade over which we could see the city stretching to Sugarloaf Mountain and beyond that across the ocean. I tried to get a photo of W in the classic position with her arms outstretched before the statue but there were just too many people for this to work. I thought that I might get an effective picture of her among the crowd by staying at the end of the terrace as she climbed the steps towards the statue. She faced me as she reached the top of the steps but a man behind her was shading his eyes with his hand in such a position that his white arm ruined the composition. I waited. He gazed. Just as W moved away he put his arm down but my shot was gone. W did not know that I was waiting for anything. The only reason she had stood there so long was that she was watching people adopt the pose and inadvertently hit others in the face. No-one seemed hurt but many were surprised.

It was not going to get any quieter as the sun rose in the sky and we approached the time for our party to regroup. We spurned the lift and descended the steps past bars and souvenir shops in the shade of the statue and leafy trees. Another of the many buses took us back to the old hotel where Uelton, our driver, was waiting. Our bus took us back to the city between two favelas to Maracanã stadium.

The huge sweep of the great concrete oval of the stadium had been an impressive sight from the top of Corcovado and the curve of the roof pleased the eye as we approached it through the Mangue district. Sadly, this all evaporated when we reached the entrance plaza where the original 1950 colonnade flanking the main entrance obscured the body of the structure and looked forlornly deserted with just us, an ice cream cart, a water seller and a photographer. I imagine that it has all the rich excitement of any national stadium on match days but it was hard to imagine this.

In the middle of this essentially empty space stands a statue of Hilderado Bellini; captain of Brazil when they won the 1958 World Cup. His raising of the trophy to afford photographers a better view has become a standard gesture of victory throughout the football world. The trophy that he lifted was retained by Brazil after they won it for a third time in 1970. Sadly, it was stolen in 1983 and has never been recovered. It was probably melted down for the bullion value of the silver under its gold plate. At Bellini’s feet a man with a replica of the 1970 replacement offered to take our photos while holding it. “Sorry”, said W, “we don’t have good associations with that trophy”. “1966!” countered the photographer not recognising her point about England having never won the new trophy.

The interior of the huge 1950 stadium (which claimed a capacity of 200,000) has been refurbished at least twice since then with its current capacity being 87,000, which is about the same as Wembley and about twice that of Portman Road. Readers of a nervous disposition should look away now but one of the unsung stories of the latest redevelopment was that the structural pillars that support the stands were hugely corroded by the urine of decades of fans who relieved their bladders where they stood rather than miss a moment of play. I remember English terraces showing such use in my youth but the practice passed with the arrival of all-seater stadia.

Our morning was a celebration of concrete. Our next stop was the Sambadrome (known locally as the Sambódromo). Bleachers line both sides of a 700 metre stretch of urban roadway that is now permanently closed to traffic. Although samba schools use it all year round, its annual high is the four nights of Carnival when each samba school is given 92 minutes to strut their stuff the full length of the road. Designed by Oscar Niemeyer (the architect best known for the design of Brasilia) this complex has become another of Rio’s icons. We had been told that there was a samba museum on the site but it proved to be just a shop selling souvenirs and offering temporary costume hire for those who wanted portrait photographs taken on the famous white tarmac.

It was soon after noon when we left the Sambadrome for the short ride to the Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro, another concrete masterpiece. Edgar Fonseca’s conical design was inspired by Mayan pyramids but the inside was a marvellous moody Christian sanctuary with four huge stained glass panels dominating the tapering walls. Adjacent to the cone is a tall concrete lattice tower in which hang the bells that had rung a charming peal just ten minutes before our arrival. Similarly, the cathedral museum had closed at noon.

Back at Copacabana we bid goodbye to the Swiss couple and went for lunch at Churrascaria Estrela Dos Pampas, a por kilo buffet grill on Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana which we had walked past many times. As well as the pay-by-weight deal there is a fixed price all-you-can-eat rate and this was included in the tour price. At about £8 plus drinks and desserts this restaurant is seriously good value even though the food quality was not high. I enjoyed my meal, however, and we went back for more freshly grilled meat.

After lunch we collected a young Brazilian couple from an apartment near the beach and headed for Ipanema, where Karla sang to us and some of the party took photos wrapped around Tom Jobim’s statue. We then visited the inevitable souvenir shop that features in almost every public tour in the world. The shop was pleasant enough but we had seen all its stock in numerous other outlets and, after a brief glance at the shelves, I went out onto the street to watch people.

Sugar Loaf Mountain is about five miles from our part of Copacabana beach and we were there in about twenty minutes. It stands with a second peak on a peninsula that thrusts out into the Atlantic. The two mountains are reached by cable cars that start on the western side of the peninsula in the small district of Urca, where most of the businesses seem to depend upon tourist traffic.

As at Corcovado, we had to wait while Karla jumped the queue for tickets but we could not avoid the queue for the cable car. We were quite content, however, to gaze up at the Urca peak and watch the cable cars gliding up and down. Alongside the public cars was a much simpler cable system carrying open cages in which sat single maintenance workers with the insouciant air of ski lift riders despite the 200 metres fall below them. The peak was dotted with climbers who were such tiny specks at such a distance that we argued happily about their number.

Eventually it was our turn to enter a cable car with some sixty other people to make the three minute ride to the first station. It was evocative to be on the location of Bond’s fight with Jaws in Moonraker. Although that cable car design had been replaced in 2002, Urca mountain is essentially unchanged.

Until 1983 Urca was the end of the cable car journey but a second route was then added to take passengers from Urca to the top of Sugarloaf itself. The Urca station is on a wooded peak with souvenir shops, restaurants and other facilities among spacious platforms from which Karla pointed out more landmarks. From the ground the peak had seemed rather barren but it was filed with trees and a tiny grey monkey sat boldly among the steel girders as we left the car. Beside the station were two retired cable cars. One was of the original 1912 design and the other was its 1972 replacement. Beside each stood a statue of its designer.

The third station, from which the second cable car departs to Sugarloaf, was on the far side of the Urca peak. We had to climb a few steps and then go down a like number a little further along. Karla squeaked when we saw the queue for the cable car. The next day was Tiradentes Day, a public holiday commemorating the hanging of a revolutionary, and many people had also taken this Monday off work to make it a long weekend. This is why everywhere was so busy. We did not mind, however, because the weather was pleasant and we had no deadline to meet. Once we did reach the peaks I went to use the toilets, which were also crowded. They seemed to be filled with climbers who were getting changed in the cubicles and washing their muscled torsos at the basins by the signs forbidding bathing at the basins.

W was beginning to grow concerned by the time I emerged having waited my turn and we had little time to enjoy the glorious vistas before we needed to rejoin the extensive queue for the cable car. By now we had become familiar with the form of the city and we knew where to look to pick out the cathedral and the pair of black office blocks behind it. The two black towers had been designed with profiles that outline a cross between them when viewed from our vantage point. It is such an elegantly witty design in a city littered with stylish fun.

After the long wait for the descending cable car we expected something similar to get off Morro da Urca but we were soon on our way back to our starting point. We had been impressed by what we had seen of the bars, cafes and shops on these mountain tops and could have spent hours loafing there. But it was time to return to Copacabana with Karla singing traditional songs that were familiar to our fellow tourists who were happy to sing along. As we passed the waterfront apartment home of singer Roberto Carlos, Karla told us about his pious weekly attendance at the church next door. We said goodbye to our new friends and went for a final walk along the mosaic tiles of the beach front. We found beachside seats at one of the Skol kiosks at the southern end of the beach between Postos 5 and 6 where the Stand Up Paddle operators cluster. All over the rolling ocean were people standing on broad surf boards propelling themselves with long single oars. Out to sea in front of us an ostentatious chap was performing a headstand on his board with his paddle balanced horizontally on one upraised foot. Another young man failed to emulate him. Repeatedly.

We left the paddlers and wandered north to the retro kiosk with its glazed tables and curling beermats. W drank the water from a coconut while I had my last Bohemia lager. We walked further along the beach and I sat on the sea wall while W went for a paddle. Then we crossed the street to Rio Maximo, retrieved our bags from behind Emma's desk and waited for our car to the airport. Except, it was not a car; it was the minibus from our day's tour. Uelton was waving at us wildly, his face alight with a grin. He put our bags across two seats and we travelled north in the spacious vehicle. The holiday traffic was very heavy but Uelton was undaunted in his pleasure; pointing out the illuminated Cristo Redentor atop Corcovado and offering us sweets. It was like getting a lift from a quiet friend.

After checking our bags we had a long walk to the lounge. It was such a long walk that we asked for confirmation from a passing airport employee and behind us an American grumbled with increasing volume as we got further from the ticketing hall. When we did arrive, the lounge was less than unremarkable. It was like a corridor with fewer seats than passengers. We were lucky to find chairs at a table near the food and drink station which had little variety but its slim pickings were not bad.

Fortunately we did not have long to wait until we retraced our lengthy route to our departure gate and our place at the front of the first class cabin. Indeed, I was at the very front; in seat 1A with its larger cupboard had I wished to hang a jacket. I had placed my flight bag in the bottom of the cupboard, arranged my book and my entertainment devices, and changed into my slippers by the time Mark, our steward, came to offer us pre-takeoff drinks. He was congenial and helpful; and he liked my slippers: “they're much better than ours” he observed. Chris, the Cabin Services Director, introduced himself and then I was left alone with my book until after takeoff.

Once we were in the air I availed myself of a slug of Johnny Walker Blue Label whisky (possibly, to my mind, the greatest benefit of first class travel) and returned to my book until dinner. The second greatest benefit of first class travel is that it allows W and I to dine together at the same table in the skies. The food was good and Mark was enthusiastically knowledgable about the wines; I ended up tasting small samples of the full range.

When W returned to her seat she feasted on chocolates picked from a box proffered by the obliging Mark before he switched her seat to the flat position, made up her bed, and left her to sleep. I read for an hour before going to wash and change into my 'sleep suit' (or 'pyjamas' as Mark styled them in a departure from company policy). I find it astonishing that my great carcase fits into the 'Large' size albeit snugly and can only imagine that small people just drown in the 'Small'. While I was changing my bed was also established and I slept soundly as we flew east across the Atlantic.

Apr. 19th, 2015

grin

Ipanema

As far as I was concerned, Ipanema beach was known for only two things: Tom Jobim's 'girl' and the Sunday 'hippie market'. It was Sunday. We were going to the market. We walked south along Copacabana to the fort that sits on the promontory. We could have paid to see the museum at the fort but we still would have had to leave the beach to get to Ipanema. Indeed, the first beach south of Copacabana is the tiny surfing bay of Arpoador and Ipanema only starts at the point that the street rejoins the beach. And there, at the start of Ipanema beach, stands a lifesize painted brass statue of Tom Jobim with his guitar over his shoulder and all the paint rubbed from his shoulder by posing tourists. Before coming to Rio I had imagined Stan Getz's lyrics to be simply a translation of Vinicius de Moraes' original Portugese lyrics but I learned that Norman Gimbel had written the English version as something much freer. The Portugese original says nothing of her height or the samba. Instead of being 'tall and tan and young', the girl has a sweet swing of the sea with a golden girl body from Ipanema sun. Both lyrics are quite brilliant but they are very different.

So, the lyrics of the famous song were not as I thought. And nor was the market. Instead of being on or by the beach it is in a square beneath trees beside a metro station a block back from the front. Again, this does not diminish it; it changes it. Before going to browse the stalls we drank chilled water outside a little cafe bar at the corner of the square watching buses and pedestrians pass. Amazônia Soul specialises in açaí na tigela (the sweetened cold slushy pulp of the fruit of the Amazonian açaí palm) but there was no way that I was going to propose that we ate more sugar.

The market stalls sold well-made clothes, leather goods, jewellery, furniture, and other crafts amid the aroma of fresh-cooked spicy street foods. A few stands sold traditional musical instruments and in the centre of the square a band played enthusiastically as a gleeful dancer capered between them with amazing energy in the heat. Around the band were the displays of many local artists. The paintings tended to be bright and stylised; they ranged from the competent to the masterly and with prices seeming to range between £10 and £100 they were good value.

On our way back to Copacabana, we tried to find a way through without using the road. We climbed the rocky mound of Arpoador to see the impassable military perimeter fence of the fort. Perhaps, we thought, there is a way through Parque Garota de Ipanema (Girl from Ipanema Park). There is not. Beside some steps we found a lovely low cave with its roof decorated with golden stars. At the top of the steps was a view point and two graffiti-decorated concrete skateboard bowls. Steps led downward on the far side but these only took us back to Arpoador beach. Back in the park we passed a small playground as we found our way to the northern exit. We were still just east of the fort. All our walking and climbing had done no more than save us the short walk around the Arpoador Hotel.

Back in the apartment I collapsed in a sweaty heap and snored over the hum of the air-conditioning. Refreshed, I helped W as we packed our bags, distributing our belongings more for fit than access because they would not be needed again until we got home.

On our wanders we had spotted a sushi restaurant near the apartment just off Avenida Atlantica on rua Bolivar. It was crowded when we arrived but there was a table for two by the window and a varied menu had us engrossed. I could not persuade W of the merits of octopus but there were plenty of set selections that avoided this contentious delicacy. When we placed our order, the waiter persuaded us to try salmon meiji as a starter. It was a winner: six small warm salmon rolls stuffed with cream cheese and shimeji mushrooms marinated in an Indian spiced sauce. We then shared the 46-piece 'Combinado Lapamaki' selection. The quality was not as high as at Umê Sushi but it was better than much English sushi. And it went down well with a bucket of five bottles of Bohemia, the local lager that claims to be the oldest beer brand in Brazil. Five bottles between us; not five for me.

Apr. 18th, 2015

grin

Churrascaria rodizio

We had a lie-in and watched the Sky coverage of Ipswich Town's draw against Wolves using W's phone to display our home signal through our SlingBox. With one eye on the game I checked the opening hours of Real Gabinete Portugues Da Leitura, a vast library of Portuguese books built in the 1880s to promote Portuguese culture. The reading room is an atrium four stories high with a glazed cupola illuminating the book-lined walls. The collection of over 350,000 volumes contains some real rarities and most of these are available to browse by anyone who requests a reading card. It is renowned as one of the most spectacular libraries in the world and it is closed at weekends. Our Monday schedule was full so I had missed my chance.

Instead of negotiating the metro to visit the library and its nearby theatre, we went for breakfast at Stalos, a brightly coloured design conscious cafe bar with wonderful dishes under glass counters in front of a wall of illuminated bottles and glasses. There were people eating pizzas at the street front counter but we took a table inside and ordered a breakfast with crispy curls of bacon, toast, fried eggs, and coffee. The waiter seemed very surprised when we declined milk and sugar for the coffee and I understood his position when I tasted the brew. It was a very strong rich flavour. I loved it but I can imagine it being too much for many people.

Sated and buzzing with the caffeine we browsed the shops along the Avenida. There were clothes, shoes, stationery, and leather goods. There were electronics, books, gifts, and flip-flops. Flip-flops? Yes, an entire shop seemed entirely devoted to the casual sandals with a window crowded with the fashionable Brazilian Havaianas. Inside, entire walls were coated in the things and W was thrilled to discover that overstocks from the 2014 World Cup were selling at just under £5. When she looked closely at the shoes in England colours, a sullen sales assistant came to help. Having chosen her Havaianas, W noticed that the back of the shop was devoted to all manner of other goods, there were bags, hats, homewares and there were padlocks. The success of W's little lock from Buenos Aires had convinced us that we should buy slightly larger versions for our bigger bags. We chose combination locks as a more convenient technology for this need. Still without a smile, the young sales woman handed our purchases to a cashier and returned to the front of the shop.

Equipped with the height of fashionable beachwear, W had to return to the sands. We walked the block to the ocean road, crossed the busy highway, and flipped floppily along the promenade.

Back in the apartment, we passed the afternoon in gentle loafing with books and laptops.

As sunset approached we returned to the beach for sundowners. We chose a retro kiosk where beer mats curled under glass-topped tables as trapped flies mooched aimlessly among them. When darkness fell we headed north to find a rodizio. We had heard that Marius was one of the finest such steakhouses where waiters with long skewers of skillfully grilled meats carve portions at your table until you cry 'uncle'. Marius is notably expensive and lay at the far end of the beach, almost two miles away, and the cheaper Carretão was about half that distance. Carretão is noted, however, for its long queues. We decided to check out Carretão and only go on to Marius if the queues were offputting. We had the opposite problem. We were a bit early for Brazilian diners and Carretão was just too quiet for our comfort. Rodizio, like most buffets, needs a certain level of trade to maintain an appealing stock turnover and to encourage restauranteurs to offer the widest range.

To give Carretão time to fill up we went to Rondinella, the restaurant bar on the street corner at the beach front. We were looked after by a double act of two friendly waiters and their drinks measures were sufficiently generous that I wondered why they bothered with the jigger. “He has a … you say 'heavy hand'?” commented one as my second Campari was delivered at about 50% over spec. It seems that televised football is ubiquitous in Rio. The bar was far from full this early evening but immediately under the large television at the far end of the tented decking sat a couple who had found the only way to avoid watching a game.

After about an hour of large-scale drinking we returned to Carretão. It was still more quiet than we wished but we were hungry so in we went. The buffet was very varied. It even had sushi. But we moderated our grazing to leave room for the glorious grilled meats that were being paraded around the room. Every delivery presented me with the challenge of deciding between the delicious lightly charred crust or the delicious rare inner. Of course, I chose both each time and the waiter wielded his wickedly sharp knife to slice fine flesh onto my plate. We did not have the usual red/green stop/go discs on our table but it was quiet enough for the waiters to ask us personally if we wished to have any of their current offering. Mostly we said 'quero' (literally 'I want', which is the appropriate assent) but eventually we declined. Marius may have been able to offer us more variety but we were more than satisfied with our meal at Carretão.

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