Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Places I want to visit: Kizhi Island

One of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen - an ancient wooden church on an Island not far from St Petersburg. The Church of the Transfiguration uses traditional Russian building methods - there are not even any nails, just pegs of wood...

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Gypsy bears

So inspired by ther wonderful photo in my previous post I decided to write an entry on Ursari - a branch of Roma people who traditionally trained bears. The young gypsy boy in Budapest obviously took it to another level, but the tradition goes back to the 12th century. A significant number joined circuses, but it is a distinct culture rather than a simple sideshow act. The term Ursari can also refer to a branch of traditional Roma language.

The Ursari tamed the bears by capturing them in their youth and rendering them harmless. However this obviously entailed some cruel techniques such as burning their paws in time to music, as well as the use of iron rods and nose rings. They were the focus of early animal rights advocates in the 1920s, but it was the repressive measures of the Romanian government in the early stages of WWII that was the first thing to really clamp down on the practice. But the legislation of the communist regime, whilst restrictive, protected the Ursari. It was not until the fall of communism that they were really persecuted, with mass arson attacks on Ursari settlements. However especially around the banks of the Black Sea they remained popular entertainment.

Tricks the bears were taught include dancing to the rhythm of a tambourine, walking upright and leaning on canes, but the bear has a greater significance in Ursari culture. They are believed to protect Ursari houses, ensure fertility and chase away evil spirits. Bear hairs were popular in amulets and bear fat was used to treat rheumatism and skeletal disorders. The Ursari make up a significant amount of the Roma population of Romania, Moldova, Serbia and Italy. There is a sometimes seen as separate group in Bulgaria known as Mechtari, or monkey handlers.

However one of the most interesting things I think is the depictions of them in art over the centuries:

Sunday, 27 January 2008

What are you looking at?

Polyphonic singing

When me and William were in Georgia last year we were lucky enough to be taken to see a young mens' choir rehearsing traditional Georgian polyphonic singing. I knew I had wanted to hear it whilst in Tbilisi, as I had heard records and thought it the most extraordinary thing - it genuinely sounded like nothing else, and while in many cultures I can see the links between the folk music with other areas nearby, this seemed almost implausibly unique. A friend of our good friend took us into this old building in the old town, up some twisting stairs and into a corridoor that echoed with the sounds of different groups of boys singing. We were not sure which door to go through as we didn't want to interrupt, but soon scruffy teenagers came out with a grin for a cigarette break and we went into a room. Everyone smiled and we sat on a rickety bench. I looked up at the group of maybe eight teenage boys laughing at us whilst one of them who was about to conduct gave them strict looks. It looked like they were just doing this for a laugh, but then they opened their mouths - it was simply extraordinary. At one point I felt tears come to my eyes in a cliche it was so beautiful... Sadly I don't have a recording of these young men but here is link to a website with a general overview of singing in the different regions and some interesting old recordings.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Rambo Amadeus

Somewhat of a cult figure in his native Serbia (so I have read rather than hearing from my Serbian pals I have to say...) Rambo Amadeus named himself an absurd paradox which continues throughout his music - sometimes comic, sometimes political, always anti-Milosevic - songs with such Serbian humour in the titles as "Don't happy, be worry". He had a top ten hit with a song he wrote with a Norwegian Journalist where a light house falls in love with an oil platform and a very big hit involving shepherds, both of which I could sadly not find, but here are a couple to introduce you anyway... the second one involves folk dancing robots which I guess can only be a good thing...

You can only buy his stuff on his website

Just in case you were confused when in Latvia...

Take care!

If a plain old coffin doesn't suit...

...move to Ghana!

The Ga tribe are Christian but still hold onto certain animist beliefs. They believe in a celebration at death and that it is important to bury someone in a coffin shaped as something that represented their life. For a more detailed post go to saharan vibe The coffins really are extraordinary...

Ghosts of the month!

Potentially a new monthly feature... This month:

The Windsor ruins. I have always wanted to do a road trip of ghost towns in the South and hope one day in the not too distant future this dream will be fulfilled, but what appeals to me the most the ruins of old Southern mansions. The windsor ruins are in Mississippi, a state with the most extraordinary dark atmosphere that I love, and I think would feel like entering a lost realm - my favourite atmosphere of all on arriving in a place.

If you're interested in more ghost towns this site is a great resource.

The other contender this month is this great blog of advertising ghosts - the echoes on buildings of things that were once advertised there. And the ghosts so silver is fascinated with memory and place and strongly believed that it is in the ordinary buildings and places in the city where memories are contained - that the city's true history can be found. Buildings have many layers of history and if we only look closely many of them are nearer the surface than we think...

I've always wanted a hurdy gurdy...

I grew up loving the sound of a hurdy gurdy - the sinister drones always made it the most atmospheric folk instrument for me - but I'm used to it in the English folk tradition when in fact it is a folk instrument around the world - here is a video of a Russian master doing his hurdy gurdy thing...

Friday, 11 January 2008

A silvery bestiary

I have for along time been interested in medieval maps (see Hereford Mappa Mundi above) and monsters - the hidden creatures in manuscripts and churches that the modern world seems to have forgotten. Why is it that the mosters from Greek myths are so well know throughout the world, yet the monsters that are so much part of our western european mythical heritage are virtually unknown? I have been recently trying to address this with my children's television and book series Map Monsters, but I thought that for today I would just list my favourite few monstrous races.


Blemmyaes are basically headless beings with faces in their chests. They often carry a large club and are very muscular and fierce.


One of my favourites, the Sciopod looks relatively human until you realise he just has one huge foot. However this does anything but hinder them - for some reason in enables them to run very fast (I've always seen it as a bit of a seven league boot equivalent, enabling giant leaps) and it can also be handily used as a parasol - they are often shown in this pose and I like the idea that it somehow recharges them for more leaping - as if there were solar panels on the soles of their feet!


Perhaps the most mystical and enigmatic of all medieval monsters, the Astomi has no mouth and consequently lives off smells. They cannot speak so it has been suggested they were almost telepathic. They are particularly fond of the smell of apples, causing them to be sometimes referred to as "apple smellers". But while nice smells are their bread and butter they can also die if exposed to bad smells... There are other related monsters such as straw drinkers who can only digest liquid food through a straw through a small hole in their face.


Possibly the most fearsome of the monstrous races Cynocephali are also known as Dog-heads, though the head is usually that of a wolf-like creature rather than a pet! They have fiercesome mood swings and are great fighters. The picture I've posted here is particularly interesting as it appears to have been converted to Christianity, bringing me to the point that these creatures often got caught up in Crusade propaganda - it was easy to gain support for the Holy Wars if the infidels were monsters rather than human. Hence how in crusade literature people are often generically referred to as Saracens and Ethiopians. This had not so much to do with where they were from (Ethiopia was a mythical kingdom rather than an exact geographical location), but is sometimes rather a breed of mythical creatures not any less fantastical in the eyes of the average person hearing stories, than a blemmyae of a sciopod! Religion is a complicated issue with medieval monsters as it brings in the issue of physiognomy which at the time meant that if you had not heard the word of god then it was likely you would take on a monstrous form. Your physical appearance could also be changed by where you lived - the climate hugely affecting the four humors that influence how you were as a person, but also location determined whether it was possible for you to be human - for example on old maps, monsters often inhabit the antipodes, as there was supposedly a wall of fire detaching them from the rest of the world and as the word of god couldn't have spread through this, it was thought unlikely that anything human could live beyond it.


Perhaps the most endearing monster the Panotii has giant ears a bit like an elephant which some thought enabled them to fly. They were quite shy for monsters though and sometimes wrapped their ears around themselves like a blanket. However they were obviously evil in medieval eyes as their giant ears enabled them to hear things from a long distance, and this made them prone to listening to gossip.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Ice cream van music

I have always wanted an ice cream van. Not for the endless supply of ice cream, or for the fact that their ice cream is the sort of squirty soft stuff I was never allowed as it was somehow more artificial, but because of the idea of a vehicle that played music that made me feel like I was entering a weird realm. That is what ice cream van music does. It's like a private music box moment on a public scale. You hear it, but if you don't hurry or look in the right direction you might miss it and it will disappear, leaving only an echo lilting around your street - a hint of a different place where it might have gone and you could have gone with it. I grew up in the wilds of Somerset where we never had an ice cream van, so I associated them with mythic-feeling memories of seaside holidays in Cornwall. I remember when I was 14 my boyfriend lived in the centre of a town and I heard an ice cream van outside his house one day - I was amazed they strayed so far from the sea! But they do, and when they do, they take on a whole new atmosphere - kind of like the Pied Piper of the inner-city vehicle world, they call out to local kids. I lived on Brick Lane for a while and our local ice cream van played the teddy bears picnic (you can buy a cd of said tune here but watch out for the sinister voiceover on the sample files). Each day me and my flat mates would hear it calling, and the innocent children's song suddenly had creepy undertones of come hither children and we will lead you to a world far from here. This might sound ridiculous to you, but we never saw this mythical van, just heard it every day calling out, luring people in...

Anyway on a lighter note, for those who want it, click here to read a paper on the history of ice cream vans. There is also a good wfmu blog entry on the subject.

If you, like me, want to buy one, then click here
There is also a flickr group

But beware... they might sound pretty, but who knows where you will end up... Actually I wish I had a photo of what I once saw out of the window of a train in South London - it was what can only be described as an ice cream van graveyard - lots of them quietly rusting back to nature as plants twisted round them in a patch of abandoned city greenery...

World's Fairs

So this is one of my pet obsessions - ever since I was young and I discovered the fabulous dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Park in South London and realised that they were part of a grand festival which also included, well, a crystal palace housing newly discovered wonders of the world. What has happened to the days when structures were designed purely to celebrate the innovation and variety of what the future has to hold (and no the millenium dome does NOT count)? The Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Unisphere in New York in '64 - all were the result of world's fairs. On said subject here is a great little film about the Unisphere with wonderful '60s graphics:

For a general intro to the 1964 world's fair this film "To the Fair" is great:
One of my favourite things from this particular world's fair is the Futurama 2 exhibit by Ford General motors - space age vehicles and imaginary cities galore! If only they actually built these places... but the future never turns out as you expect it...
As an aside on the future as we may or may not expect it, here is a great and in places accurate short film from the 1930s on future fashions in the year 2000 Thanks to Fed by Birds for the tip off on that one.

Caucasian Cowboys

Having always been obsessed with Georgia (the country not the state) and having a love for all things old Wild American West, to discover that many of Buffalo Bill's "Cossacks" were in fact Georgians (Cossacks tend to be from further north around the Southern Steppe, though one can become a Cossack - it is arguably an endurance lifestyle and state of mind more than a geographical race). Needless to say the Georgians have picked up on this, and this great website tells you all about it and contains wonderful old photos.

Of Russian children's dreams

So it's a new year and whilst this blog was primarily set up to function as the news/diary section of my website I have decided to also use it as a more conventional blog to post the things that interest me and albeit sometimes in a random way influence my work.
I have never been to Russia but have a good friend I have written to for a long time in Moscow. Recently we were talking about memory and how certain seemingly inconsequential things you have forgotten in your childhood suddenly come back to you, maybe even triggered by something as simple as a smell or a sound, and now these objects, whether a book or a TV show, seem to represent so much more - that they now somehow contain the memories that surrounded them - that they are the key to unlocking an atmosphere or a state of mind. I am in love with classic children's books for this very reason - for me it is always The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge that does it every time - the small door she crawls through to her magical bedroom, the giant dog she can ride which is probably a lion and her friend Robin who lives in caves and trees. My friend was kind enough to compile a youtube list of Russian cartoons that have this effect on her. Some are naive and dreamlike, others psychedelic and truly surreal. Here is one that I really enjoyed with singing creatures, a Tsarist castle complete with egg wielding monarch and a singer songwriting drifter:

The list got more and more surreal. In this country my generation often jokes how programmes like The Magic Roundabout were obviously made by people taking a lot of drugs, but this cartoon takes LSD animation to a whole other level...

I was lucky as a child as Dad ran the first British satellite TV channel for kids in the '80s and got sent lots of amazing cartoons from all round the world - many of which he bought and were shown for the first and sadly the last time in this country... My favourite was a Czech series about a little mole (I think how the makers were more concerned with telling the story rather than the constraints of conventional timekeeping, therefore making each episode a different length, could be why it didn't make it elsewhere). Watching it now it's extraordinary how beautiful it is and in a bizarre way restores your faith in humanity. This is a grand statement I know, but watch and see what you think...