Saturday, 29 August 2009

On shaky ground

Last night the earth moved. No, really. There was an earthquake at around two o’clock in the morning which shook the house. Chester thinks we are targeting him specifically.

As we are moving house, we have been repositioning things, packing things and creating spaces where previously there was furniture. He doesn’t like this – it unnerves him.

We have locked him indoors so that he doesn’t run away or hide in the removal van. He scrabbles his paws against the cat flap which no longer wafts open at his touch, so we have blocked it with boxes. He walks around in circles, yowling. He has to use his litter tray rather than popping out for his morning ablutions – this is undignified and unacceptable. He suffers in less than silence.

Finally last night he curled up on our bed after pacing back and forth and chewing up cardboard for hours. Just after he had settled there was a rumbling, a bang, a crack and a shake. He leapt off the bed and recommenced the vocal complaint (as only Burmese can do).

He is affronted. He is disturbed. I keep telling him that there is no way on earth we would ever leave him behind but I can tell by his furry little face that he doesn’t understand. His little world is coming apart at its seams. I feel responsible, but not for the earthquake.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Daffodil Day

Today is daffodil day. I don’t know if that is an official term but today volunteers from the Cancer Society of New Zealand are out and about on the streets collecting money for research into this most pernicious disease.

The website assures us that 88% of money collected “goes towards vital scientific research into the causes and treatments for all types of cancer, as well as providing a wide range of support services, information, health promotion and education programmes to reduce cancer risk, awareness campaigns and practical support for people affected by cancer.”

The daffodil with its spring connotations and cheerful yellow bloom is the symbol of the Cancer Society and when you donate money you are offered a plastic one to pin to your clothes or a sticker.

The streets of Wellington are grim and grey today but there are bright yellow spots of hope tied to lampposts and blossoming on sombre civil service suits. The ladies I spoke to were eating muffins that had been donated to them by a café across the road. Apparently cancer affects one in three New Zealanders. We cannot be unmoved.

If you can’t find a ‘daffodil seller’ – and they’re pretty easy to spot – you can also
donate through the Cancer Society of New Zealand website. I urge you to wear your daffodil with pride and help to battle this disease, which has such devastating consequences.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Lava Glass

Everyone I interview says they are passionate about their job (yes, even the insurance sales representatives) so it is hugely refreshing to find somebody who actually is. Lynden Over’s eyes light up when he describes his enthusiasm for glass. “I’ve always had a fascination with glass – it’s really amazing material.

“Glass has changed our view on the world. Before glass we didn’t have microscopes and we didn’t know that bacteria caused disease. It has led to so much progress and invention in many areas, and I just wanted to work with it.”

He is taking a mini break from his work at
his studio in Wairakei near Taupo. He rarely stops for coffee or lunch because the ovens are so expensive to heat to their necessary temperatures that he doesn’t like to waste a second. “I have four gas-fired furnaces and four electric, and my gas bill alone went from $3,000 to $5,000 a month with the latest rise in fuel prices.”

His cheese sandwich rests on a workbench and a bottle of water is constantly at hand. He calls this the hot shop where the furnace is heated to 1060°C. Beside the furnace, there is a ‘glory hole’ and an ‘annealer’ which is used to slowly cool the glass.

“The thickness and the vagaries of the glass depend on how long it takes to cool – we need special cooling areas so that it doesn’t cool down too quickly.” The vase that he is working on will take about two days, but some of the paperweights in his gallery are eight inches thick and took two months to cool properly.

Customers can watch Lynden work his molten magic from a bank of cushioned seats in the studio. “I describe to people what I’m doing and talk to them as I’m working.

"The studio used to be open and part of the gallery but people would come and stand and watch which it made it hard for others to look at the artefacts and buy things. So we separated them into different areas and that works really well – people can get close to the objects in the gallery and have a good look at them now, or they can sit and watch the glassblowing uninterrupted.”

He is a born showman as he explains the process. He puffs air into a molten blob of glass which he gathers at the end of a blowpipe like a honey dipper. Through a series of breaths, he then inflates this to the desired size, and twirls it in the air like an acrobat to control the temperature.

“You have to be ambidextrous. There is only a limited amount of time you can work with the glass before it cools down, and if it cools too fast it can break so you have to be able to make really quick decisions. You work to a rhythm and know what comes next in the process.”

Lynden is able to craft this vase himself, but he says he enjoys making big pieces, such as huge galactic bowls which take three people to make. “You have to be really organised and know what stage you are up to – it’s almost like a dance around each other. It’s a fine line between letting a piece get too hot or too cold and it requires a lot of concentration.”

Backlit by flames like a sorcerer he sculpts and decorates the malleable glass, rolling it in fragments of coloured glass (intriguingly called ‘frit’) that have been transported from Auckland. These chips are laid out in piles on a workbench like the ingredients of some sparkling dish.

He shows me shelves of neatly labelled boxes of many colours – the green hues alone take up several rows: emerald; jade; forest; eel; lime; granny smith; opal; olive… The cold shop is where the grinding and polishing take place. “It’s easy to tell which is which depending on whether or not you need a jersey.”

It seems appropriate for Lynden’s studio to be based in this region and it takes its name, Lava Glass, from the surrounding volcanic activity. He didn’t always intend to be in Taupo, but he came here for a holiday and stayed.

Now he takes his inspiration for designs from the natural world around him. A series inspired by the Huka Falls features shades of blue and white and frothy bubbles. The tectonic teardrops imitate the lava-like molten shapes; “a liquid tear with layers of colour representing the landscape of mountain and rock with hints of the fluid, fiery depth of the earth.”

Lynden’s interest in glass creations ignites his vocabulary and he is also creative in his practical approach. “The equipment is highly specialised and a lot of our tools have to come from England or America. You have to be a bit inventive with making your own equipment. I built the kiln and made this workbench myself because I couldn’t find anything that worked.”

He is no stranger to this type of problem-solving. “My dad was a potter and I helped him build a kiln so I’ve always been used to working with high temperatures and hazardous materials. But I soon realised there was no money to be made in the arts so took engineering courses and became a labourer.”

A diploma of applied arts at Northland Polytechnic at Whangarei majoring in glass and jewellery drew him back to glassblowing – “It’s part of our heritage and history.” When he talks about machine-made glass, the fire flickers and threatens to go out. “Rogernomics killed all the glass studios. They are so expensive to run and you can buy mass-produced items for a fraction of the cost. Some of the most prestigious glassblowing industries, such as Waterford Crystal and Caithness have gone into receivership.”

But the spark is still there and he brightens up again as he explains, “Handmade goblets will be unique while machines can’t put coloured patterns into glass. I suppose for everyday use people can buy their glassware from the Warehouse, but glassblowing is still used for gifts and art. We just need to educate the public about what goes into it.”

The Lava Glass studio is a great place to start learning.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Sporting highlights

What a weekend. We beat the Aussies! We won the Ashes! It was very exciting, what with Ponting’s ovations, Hussey’s hundred, Flintoff’s throw, Strauss’s example, Broad’s bowling, Swann’s flights of fancy (much like mine) and the ‘raucous Sunday crowd’ complete with the return of the trumpet. I’m glad it’s back and we are all very happy.

The football season is off to a flying start – it’s stirring, scintillating, and sparkling stuff. Man Utd, Chelsea, and Arsenal have all come out guns blazing, and Burnley are proving that they will be no mere cannon fodder. Liverpool are doing their usual 'inspire you with hope one minute; crush you with despair the next' thing that they do. It really is the beautiful game.

I admit to cheering a Man Utd goal, but before I am stoned by Scousers, I hasten to add that it was scored by Owen, and even if he is in the wrong red, he's still my Little Michael.

The World Athletic Championships in Berlin is throwing up thrills and spills. The track events produced dropped batons, barged competitors, disqualifications and ‘gender verifications’. Jamaica won both the men’s and women’s 4 x 100m, Britain earned a silver medal in the men’s 4 x 400m – my favourite event to watch.

Usain Bolt is unquestionably the world’s fastest man, and Kenenisa Bekele is arguably the world’s finest athlete. By winning both the 10,000 and the 5,000m at the same event, the Ethiopian becomes the first person ever to do so.

British athlete Lisa Dobriskey was upgraded to silver in the 1,500m after a barging charge against the original winner. Polish hammer thrower Anita Wlodarczyk achieved a world record in this mad sport that involves twisting your back and gyrating your neck in a way that can’t be good for you, and then she twisted her ankle in a victory bounce.

Caster Semenya is grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons. The South African athlete won the women’s 800m only for people to question whether she is indeed a woman. Apparently she is ‘far too strong, fast and masculine’ to be a woman, and doubts were raised when ‘she liked soccer and wore trousers to school’. Well, heaven help us all.

The IAAF have stated they will ‘verify’ her gender, which involves an endocrinologist, a gynaecologist, an expert on gender and a clinical psychologist. Results may take three to four months. I honestly didn’t know it was so complicated.

Resignations and columns of newspaper print surround this story, but it leaves an unsavoury taste. Is it out and out cheating; is it just sour grapes by those beaten; or is it that the media can’t cope with women in sport who don’t look like Anna Kournikova – no matter if they’ve got infinitely more talent; would they look good on a billboard advertising underwear?

There was also some rugby on – I know because the football and athletics programmes were cancelled while the rugby match was shown several times with warm-up and post-mortem debates. While I was watching it very attentively, I noticed a striking look-i-like-i: Matt Gitteau actually bears a strong resemblance to Heath Ledger.

I think it’s because they’ve both got slightly skewed faces with their features all pointing in opposite directions, not unattractively. It’s as though God said, ‘the good new is; I’m going to give you a face like an oil painting. The bad news is; it’s by Picasso’. Now who said He has no sense of humour.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Power and Persuasion

Power and Persuasion (Alchemy Actors Company)
Philosophy House, August 14-21

Shakespeare’s plays are so often about power – who has it; who wants it; and what they are prepared to do to get it. This theme is extensively explored in a series of extracts from a selection of the playwright’s dramas in Power and Persuasion. John Bach and Mel Dodge enact these vignettes with palpable emotion. The venue of Philosophy House is perfect as the audience walk up a sweeping staircase and into a world of heightened reality where issues are argued from every angle.

Each of the five pieces are performed in the traverse so you watch one then another like a tennis match or a fencing bout as the actors serve and volley; thrust and parry the barbed comments and cunning appeals. Tipping this balance like a see-saw they approach and withdraw or circle one another, sneaking up from behind or breaking away as in a fervent tango.

The actors are dressed in black and change their characters through their movement and expression rather than their dress. Small costume adjustments allow a shawl to represent Queen Katherine or a bright red ribbon tied around the waist to indicate the blood-lust of Lady Macbeth. Bach twists his own back into the deformity of Richard III or toys casually with an apple as the confident suitor Petruchio.

Oberon and Titania begin the evening with the scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream in which they battle over the changeling child. This episode is often cut from full-length productions, although I wonder why if it can be made so alluring as this. Nature itself is perturbed by their duelling, and their whirling, twisting movements are fluid and lithe, verging on hypnotic.

I’ve never read nor seen Shakespeare’s Henry VII so this extract is a real treat. Bach is all calm composure and assumed deference as his Cardinal Wolsey approaches Dodge’s Queen Katherine and bids her to grant King Henry a divorce so that he can marry Anne Boleyn. Knowing how much she stands to lose, Katherine refuses and her inner turmoil writhes passionately beneath her mask-like face. This would be an excellent piece for an audition and I mentally file it for future reference.

Hilary Norris directs a selection of scenes from Macbeth from the moment Lady Macbeth hears of the prophecy of the witches to the murder of Duncan and the onset of madness. Highlighted by an intense and eerie soundscape (James Dunlop), this piece has chilling power and Lady Macbeth uses all the emotional weapons in her arsenal (from seduction to ridicule) to persuade.

The actors wrestle both physically and verbally through Taming of the Shrew. Bach is a commanding and confident Petruchio with just a hint of cruelty while Dodge is truly tempestuous as Kate. The constant ebb and flow movement resembles the erosion of waves upon a shore and, when the couple grapples on the floor, I can’t help but think of the beach scene in From Here to Eternity.

According to the programme notes, Lyndee-Jane Rutherford has never directed Shakespeare before. Judging from this excerpt from Richard III which befits her slightly melodramatic style, this is definitely a direction she should explore. Bach’s mellow tones suit the tyrant king perfectly and Dodge is credibly distraught as the grieving Anne. The intensity of hatred underpinning the formal courtship leaves a lasting impression as the final of the quintuplet. As we descend the stairs back to the rain-washed streets I believe this really is a ‘brave new world that has such people in it.’