Thursday, 30 July 2015

From Siberia to the Muscovite train station of her youth, the Trans-Siberian journey draws to a close.

Anyone who follows this Blog, will know I have been singing the praises of this ITV three parter.  If you haven't been following, why on Earth not??

The final leg of the big adventure  is through Siberia, a  land mass bigger than all other countries were it to claim a nationality of it's own. Jo begins her journey through Southern Siberia,when the rivers are starting to freeze over and at -150 it is pretty darn chilly! She begins at  Lake Baikal  which is at some points over a mile deep and  many a unsuspecting soul have been lost to it's icy depths each year. It is rather amazing to consider it contains one fifth of the Entire Planet's fresh water. 

In the early freeze before the ice becomes thick enough to drive lorries across, is also served by two ice cutters Ships which hail all the way from Newcastle in England and I rather like the idea of Geordie built vessels on the Siberian lakes cutting a swathe through the mists. Why Aye man!

The lake also boasts it's own mythical monster, but Joanna catches no glimpse despite her side trip across it to meet some lovely folk in a fishing community. The rather choppy crossing in the little boat when little chunks of ice float, was obviously not Joanna's bag at all, Sergei her fisherman ferryman and host for the night thinks nothing of the waves, but the windows are totally iced over as waves hit the glass and freeze on impact, like in all the best cars, Sergei has heated windows so he can see his way forth !

Sergei and his family are an utter delight and the ambiance at their dinner table actually reminded me of family Christmases presided over by my own beloved, albeit Croatian Grandfather, as Vodka flowed freely, the laughs were just as copious and the random ( in this case,fungus based) remedies that look disgusting but are never the less palatable, seem to work a treat particularly after a few shots of the hard stuff! Sergei obviously is a very hardy individual and his existence in the lake may seem unwelcome to the impressionable youth who want to escape into the cities, but as Joanna muses, it would be a shame to lose the steely , handy and open hearted folks like Sergei entirely.

Joanna visits with a real life Oligarch and is treated to a really rather special bottle of vodka as she eats her pomegranate , caviar and field mushrooms, it is enriched quite literally with gold flakes. The man himself is very sweet, stymied in his political ambitions by the Putin's establishment who wanted their choice in the role of Governor, he is very diplomatic about it when Jo quizzes him on whether business and Politics can bring him into conflict and one wonders just how much pressure was actually exerted to make him  drop out of the elections in the area!  It is obvious he wields a great deal of personal power by the fact that he was able to erect statues in the area surrounding his construction Headquarters in a specially built park, so I Muse that perhaps he had a great deal of pressure exerted upon him or was promised a sizeable inducement to desist.

The divide between the haves and have nots is never more obvious than when you consider that only one hundred and eleven people own one fifth of all of Russia's Private wealth. 

Joanna rejoins the train, en route to the place where the Tsar and all of his family were murdered and to fortify herself is given a prepackaged vodka the size of which is astounding but I am sure after hearing  the fate of the  Romanov family, she was glad of the energy . The  bodies of family servant's and even the dog were taken out into the forest to be shot, dismembered and burnt. In memory of this gratuitous murder, the Russian Orthodox Church has canonised them all.

Sadly the town has not escaped further tragedy when at the fall of the Soviet Union rival gangs were involved in mass murders and Joanna is taken to see the ostentation of some of the high ranking gang member's memorials. The CCTV cameras over the graves were just another example of the  feeling of oppression that is always bubbling under the surface in much of the programme.

The young man  who guides her says it all  when Jo asks whether they, the remote watchers will think it suspicious that they are there "they can be suspicious, It's Russia!"

Perm is a town of contradictions, closed to Westerners for a good portion of the Cold War, it was a leading source of arms and munitions and a museum showcasing the tanks and missiles of the period, sits comfortably alongside probably , one of the most prestigious Ballet schools in the world. Housed in modest accommodation, young girls and boys are quite literally stretched to their limits to attain the best posture and positioning. The hands on technique by one of the tutors seems a little severe  to western eyes used to the idea of ballet as a posh person's entertainment and an  "accomplishment" for privileged little girls with buns and pastel tutus. This woman pulls and taps her 12 year old charges  in all directions, to perfect their technique.

In a rather delicious counterpoint, a ticket to the Ballet or Opera in Perm costs about £1 and so is accessible to all and the Opera house is packed to the rafters with normal folk.

The two lovely  young ladies Joanna interviews at the school are from the USA and London so whilst  obviously a real talent and aptitude is a necessity, the school is less elitist than many in the West.

Joanna gets to visit a little 12th century Church with the Russian owner of the Evening Standard and the Independant, whose childhood memory of the spot is that in the thaw when the rivers that skirt the building are swollen, it appears to float and explains that the law against organised religion was relaxed when Stalin decided to use a famous religious icon as a ward against the advancing Nazis  by flying it around the city in a plane for several circuits, to protect Moscow and because they were never able to infiltrate the city, the Soviet leaders were willing to turn a blind eye so that in time orthodoxy returned to Russia.

And so onto Moscow... Where the 18 year old Miss Lumley visited in the height of the Cold War. The underground bunker  housing the army reminds me of the German Hospitals on the Channel Islands and the Churchill War rooms under Whitehall, all austerity and clanking iron, but the secret entry point from the underground  metro tunnels is like something out of Harry Potter, the ministry of misery and mayhem... Where Nuclear catastrophe could have been wreaked at any given moment with the press of a little button behind a gun metal grey cover on a grim looking control bank. You can just see all these civilians popping in through the unassuming door and changing into their uniforms ready to protect Mother Russia from the west.

 Jo visits a model agency , modelling is huge in Russia  and it brings back floods of memories for her. The beautiful scene where Jo tries to recreate her photograph taken on her first visit to Moscow in  the beautifully domed concourse which has changed little in fifty years, is such a lovely ending to the series. She may demure, but Ms Lumley has changed little in the intervening years. She still is beautiful and brave, humble and very amusing! She truly has an inner light that has made this series so utterly enthralling and infinitely re-watchable.

Menu madness and "bus bum" in classic India Travelogue.

Kevin and I in India by Frank Kusy

I am quite the lover of travel books and for some reason India, Pakistan and Afghanistan seems to be the area I gravitate towards. I was thus very much looking forward to reading this about a journey through India and Nepal .

On one level it is a tremendously engaging and hilarious travel diary and the mishaps that befall our erstwhile heroes kept me chuckling away throughout, but part of me wanted more, a little more history perhaps or a little more commentary on why India was so integral in frank's life plan, more about his faith perhaps? Just something to rest the misadventures against. I would have like a list of everything he took in his rucksack to see how light one can travel without putting oneself in mortal danger

Maybe I am doing a Frank a Disservice as I know he has returned to the subject of India often in his writing and perhaps this is in response to him wanting to add weight to his Indian story. The tales he shares from his diary entries are lots of fun and one wonders whether in the intervening years if travel is easier now, it could not get much worse than regular dysentery and starvation that is certain.

The Indians and Nepalese are treated with a gentle ribbing about the way they describe food on menus and  the way they provide tourist accommodation  to the unsuspecting traveller, but at all times the culture and religion of the region are respected. Overall an enjoyable if imperfect book.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Humans, family and essential electrolytes on Channel 4

I will be returning to the beautifully fragrant Joanna Lumley in a separate Blog but suffice to say RUSSIA was beautiful and often charming, but still not up to the gorgeousness of Mongolia!

But first to...


Channel Four's parallel present drama, is rolling to a massive crescendo as all the various threads begin to mesh and the disparate members of the sentient Synths finally get to reunite after Max's act of heroism at the denouement of last week's episode. The work of Ivanno Jeremiah to make him the most Human and frankly lovable member of the clan makes his utterances in this episode all the more mesmerising.

In a scene worthy of McGyver, the Gang create a life giving drip that in a dramatic attempt to save a life that brings both a human and a Synth together in perfect synchronicity.

It is really interesting to see how the dynamic between Mia/Anita  and the family has changed now that Mia has been allowed to come to the fore. She is strong, she is wise and she is so much less creepy, which only goes to show how if this show were to come to fruition, that Humankind might not enjoy "The strangers amongst us" as much as free labour might appeal. 

It is only when the Synths become like us that we are comfortable with them. And in fact it is Leo, the Human with Syth parts that becomes the least relatable as his alienation remains in stasis, not quite one of us, but still slightly removed from his "Siblings" Kudos to Colin Morgan for his understated performance

It is also really clever the way that the little girls Sophie has switched allegiance, now that the living Dolly that was Anita is now akin to a real Mother, she loves the least socially comfortable Niska who in turn cracks her shell of  angry disassociation, which only illustrates that life really is about nurture rather than nature when it comes to emotional maturity.

It was a really heart wrenching end to the story of George and the ever devoted Odi whose final words to his keeper were so subtley delivered that it made the impact all the more affecting. I will be very sad not to see both characters on screen in the remaining story.

Copper Karen/BeatriceBOT who always seemed a bit weird even before the big plastic bag Gullet trick, really plays a blinder in ill advised knee jerk reactions after being rejected by Pete and thwarted by Niska, so the final stressful and angst ridden moments of episode Seven remain seared on my brain... I cannot wait for episode Eight, but as Channel 4 has given series 2 a Green Light, I am not sure all our artificial heroes and heroines or the Humans who love them will make it through unscathed, Gulp!

Friday, 24 July 2015

Horses and Hassle on leg two of the Trans-Siberian Adventure

This second look at the thus far; impeccable three part series about Joanna Lumley's Trans - Siberian Journey is likely to be littered with many images as I feel I could not give  justice  to the beauty of the country without revealing the landscapes through which Joanna travels.

Mongolia, Land of Genghis Khan and of the Horse. Simple and utterly breath taking.

Joanna's stay with a herding family was just such a lovely interlude, welcoming her with open arms into their tented home like family, giving her the eldest Son's bed without a single blink. They smile often and seem utterly at peace with their lot in the world. Herding families are nomadic, packing up the whole kit and caboodle every few months  to allow the cattle and horses to pasture on lush green grass often.

Horses are the most important part of the Mongolian economy and so the products made from Mare's milk are the family's source of income , their raw Mare's milk is made into skincare products. The scene where the family enquires as to Joanna's age is so sweet, there is a cheeky humour to these simple people,

"You look really young for Sixty Seven" he says gallantly
"When I use my mare's milk balm, I'll look even younger" she says smiling.
" We have a product, Tonic.. Use that one"  He and his wife chuckle... One wonders if they supply the Tonic producers and frankly I hope they do!

I loved the way that Joanna tried the mare's milk products, she seemed to genuinely enjoy them. There was none of that demure, nibbling and diplomatic mentioning of unusualness, she just got stuck in! Her enjoyment of the boozy fermented milk was much more enthusiastic than mine might have been, but who is to say that they would not turn their nose up at a blue raspberry WKD, different strokes for different folks.

What a lovely couple they were and although undoubtably a spare existence, it seemed so idyllic too, everyone has a place in the process and it works, I do not think a great deal has changed since Genghis surged across the land with his marauding hordes and that is actually very comforting.

Joanna rejoins the train and her chat with the utterly delightful Dandi, handsome young man whose education in the UK made him the perfect travelling companion to explain that Mongolia faces a big decision and all reliant on the very railway on which they are hurtling through the countryside. being landlocked the choice of railway gauge is important to whom they ally themselves with for trade agreements Russia or China as both have different sized railway gauge .

The rather moody waiter who Jo's rather exuberant gesticulating nudges whilst delivering their beverages is the hero of this piece, taciturn yet desperately accommodating. I loved him on sight.

Three million people live in the country with half of them living in the capital. The people there are just now beginning to be allowed to remember their heritage now the Soviet rule in Mongolia has ended, it was illegal  to make mention of their rider warriors and the Chingis Khan monument is a huge way of celebrating their most famous warrior. The politician and business man who financed the stainless steel erection of the man that dominates the skyline at almost the same height as Nelson's column is uncharacteristically meek for a bureaucrat. His pride in his people and their heritage  is obvious but he humbly admits to his previous world champion wresting status with much drawing out by Joanna. If only all politicians were so humble.

The untouched nature of the Mongolian Landscape is now under threat as many foreign conglomerates are seeking access to the rich natural resources of the land. uranium, coal and other fossil fuels are in demand, but Joanna is only interested in Gold. The open pit mine she visits is like a massive hole ripped into the ground and it made me sad to see it . All resources must be sold back to the government and all pits must be refilled after mining ends, but I still feel sad on behalf of the Mongolian people.

The  security is tight, but the people there were good natured enough to allow Joanna to step outside with a few nuggets  to show the glint of the raw material in the sunlight. Sadly she was unable to stuff one up her jumper!

The distinct difference in the treatment Joanna and her crew receive from the Mongolian Border Control and their Russian Counterparts is startling. The tone turns ominous and threatening very fast and cameras are confiscated and Mongolian Traders are forcibly ejected from the train at the Border. The young Russian officer is so close to a Cold War stereotype that it is almost laughable, but Putin's Russia is no laughing matter.

Luckily they make it beyond the border and Jo has the chance to see the biggest Lenin in the business!

She also meets the Jimi Hendrix of Church Bell Ringers, as the Russian Orthodox Church again get a resurgence after the secular Soviet time, trailblazers in the world of campanilogy are hitting the scene.

This delightful and entertainingly informative episode left us on a high note as Natalya a young English Teacher told Joanna why she and a few pals spent hours sewing beautiful costumes to attend regency balls in the midst of Siberia, because they miss the structure and safety of the Soviet times and love Putin for his Strength.. Jo is less impressed.

The sight of all those swirling silks were a lovely end to this episode. I would love to go to Mongolia, would happily muck in with the horse herders for a week and yet, I feel slightly more trepidatious about a visit into Russia by train. I have friends who have visited Moscow and made to feel bad for not knowing the language so it's not confined to border staff, but I am very much looking forward to seeing Ms Lumley's  final Siberian leg of this tremendously interesting journey!