Gone To Girona

viatgeresdetall_expoNext time I complain about the lack of space or the – inevitably futile – attempts of the crew to persuade me to buy lottery tickets on my cheap Ryanair flight to Europe, I may reflect on the fact that comfort is a relative term when it comes to travel, and I should be extremely grateful that from Scotland, for less than the price of a return train ticket to London, I can be almost anywhere in Europe within a couple of hours without leaving that (relative) comfort of my own well-padded seat.

Travel also happens to be the subject of a beautiful exhibition right now at the Museu D’Historia here in the heart of Catalonia. ‘Girona Through the Eyes of Women Writers (19th and 20th Centuries)’ is the brainchild of Cristina Ribot, whose study of the same name won her a scholarship from Girona City Council in 2013, and it provides a fascinating insight into the developing image of what is now a popular tourist destination. What makes it unique is that the picture is built up through the literary testimonies of 25 women writers of various nationalities, providing us with a snapshot of their own personal experiences and difficulties in an era when travel was a pastime almost exclusively reserved for men.

typewriterThere were few women writers in the 18th and early 19th centuries, education and writing being largely male privileges which required both support and money. The elite tended to view women’s writing as worthless, and consequently publishers were reluctant to take the risk of publishing them, thus setting up the classic vicious circle which women found hard to break. One exception to this was in the genre of travel writing, though even here books were often published anonymously or under a male pseudonym.The expansion of the railways at the end of the 19th Century had led to a sharp increase in the number of travellers around the world, but it would not be until the 1950s when the concept and the term ‘tourist’ came into the collective consciousness. Up until then it was the preserve of the rich, and the early explorers featuring in the exhibition were no exception. Many titled ladies, particularly French and English, travelled to the Iberian peninsula, usually with massive amounts of luggage and accompanied by several maids. Being aristocrats, leisure was their raison d’etre, and they would travel for months at a time, most often by donkey, mule or horseback.

However, in an era when ‘female modesty’ was also a requirement, the journeys were not without hardship, as some of the voluminous dresses and headgear in the exhibition bear witness. Often the women had to disguise themselves as men, and carried umbrellas, not only to protect themselves from the sun but from unwanted advances and potential robbers. As an extra precaution, many carried pistols in their hand luggage.

The exhibition notes inform us that the women were “easily recognised for their airs of superiority” and that “they arrived in Girona with preconceived ideas about the country….As well as the information these adventurers provide about the monumental city of Girona, their stories also speak of what surprised and shocked them while in the city. They write of vivid memories, intense sensations and powerful emotions; they record ecstatic or unpleasant moments, great friendships or ill-fated loves. The individual experiences may differ, but taken together they for a nostalgic image of the city as it was, while reminding us of the role of these pioneers, who broke the social norms of their times in pursuit of their most personal goals.”

One of these early explorers was a Scottish lady of means, about whom little is recorded, other than that she was a writer and an artist of some note. Lady Sophia Dunbar’s ‘A Family Tour Round the Coasts of Spain and Portugal’  published by William Blackwood in 1862, contains only a passing mention of the city of Girona (its remarkable early-17th Century cathedral), but is much more expansive on the tribulations of the journey from Girona to Barcelona:

“The roads now became execrable, full of holes, heavy clay and mud, through which our mules struggled and plunged. Our diligence (public stagecoach) lurched like a ship at sea and it became darker and darker. We felt very anxious as to our long lone road leading through rivers, mire and mud; at one time we came to a dead stop, caused by eight mules being all down at once. After much confusion and noise, they were got up, and constrained by thrashing and abuse to renew the struggle; for some miles we continued to go on in the same manner, making some tremendous lurches, from which we miraculously recovered our balance; at last fortune deserted us, we lurched, quivered in the air for a second or two, and went over.”

Fortunately, no serious injuries are sustained in the incident, except presumably to the poor abused mules, and Barcelona is eventually reached:

tour“The streets of Barcelona being extremely dirty, we looped up our dresses; this caused the old women to rush out of their houses or shops at us, and pull vigorously at our skirts; it was difficult to appease them, or make them understand that our dresses were purposely worn so. The woollen mantas of Catalonia are very handsome. The men wear these over their shoulder, much as Highlanders do a plaid. They are striped, the colours rich and brilliant, scarlet predominating.”

In the middle of the 19th Century bull-fighting is prevalent across Spain and Portugal and, as you might expect, our traveller has some observations to make on a subject which provokes an emotional response to this day:

“The picadors, or horsemen, the chulos or men on foot, with gay-coloured cloaks, and the matadors or killers, are dressed in gorgeous antique costume, and certainly have an imposing effect; but the poor bull, lately taken from his native pastures, in the prime of his youth and strength, being a four-year-old, is roused, and made to rush into the middle of the arena; here he halts, and stares with bewilderment and surprise at the assembled thousands, who greet his arrival with clapping of hands. From the middle of the arena, the bull was soon provoked to make desperate charges, right and left, at chulos and picadors, the former showing the greatest activity in vaulting over the palisades, or escaping into the narrow side-niches, where the bull cannot follow. The picadors receive the charge of the bull by meeting him with the point of their lance, which is a short knife on the point of a pole about eight-feet long. With this they meet or catch him on the shoulder, which always mitigates, and often completely checks, his charge. The bull sometimes avoids the lance, and it is then he gores the horse, or sends him and his rider sprawling in the dust. Cut and goaded with the lances of the picadors, and exhausted by fruitless charges at the gay cloaks of the chulos, he at last yields to the lords of the creation, and looks out for the entrance through which he had been admitted…”

A Family Tour.…’, one of the 25 works curated for the exhibition, was re-published in 2009. It can also be downloaded free from the Internet Archive by clicking on this link.

If you have the good fortune to be passing through Girona between now and the 27th of September, make sure you visit the exhibition at the Museu D’Historia De Girona, Placeta de l’Institut Vell, 1
17004 GIRONA.

Footnote: In 2010, the Catalan Parliament agreed, by an absolute majority, to ban bullfights involving the death of animals and the use of goads: banderillas, picas, and estoques. The law was passed thanks to a citizen’s legislative initiative (ILP) promoted by the civic associations that obtained hundreds of thousands of signatures in favour of animal rights. However, the approval of the law was strongly criticised in centralist media and political spheres, who considered the ban to be the result of anti-Spanish feeling.

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Art For Art’s Sake

There’s hardly a day goes by these days but I am engaged in a conversation with someone about ‘the future of the book’. The future of reading, not so much, which I think just goes to demonstrate how ‘reading’ and ‘books’ have become synonymous, despite the fact that most of the reading we do now is demonstrably NOT linked to a book. Personally, I find myself reading novels almost exclusively on my eReader, while I buy physical books for their physical qualities i.e. the look and feel of the book. You could say that I am increasingly looking at books as artefacts, or indeed ‘works of art’, but here’s someone who is taking that to a whole new level. Brian Dettmer is an artist who creates beautiful sculptures from old books, one form of recycling which definitely makes you sit up and take notice.

The Smartest Kid on Earth

I have just finished one of the most moving, beautiful, poignant, intelligent and thought-provoking books I have read for a long time. The fact that Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth is a comic book which won The American Book Award and The Guardian First Book Award in 2001 would suggest of course that I am not the first to recognise the delights of this ‘semi-autobiographical work of fiction’ as the author Chris Ware calls it, but I cannot recommend it highly enough for the fine detail of its artwork and the authenticity of its exploration of the complex relationships between a son, his domineering mother and his estranged father. The use of colour and tone, as metaphorical representation of  bland new consumerism, would be worthy of a seminar in itself.

Set in Chicago and some of the bleak backwaters of the American mid-west in the middle years of the 20th century, the central character seems doomed to replay for ever in his mind every mundane detail of his life, as well as the range of alternatives he imagines for himself if only things had been different, occasionally losing himself in the fantasy world of his superhero alter-ego, complete with mask and cape. Introverted, neurotic, bullied at school and at home, Jimmy’s (or Ware’s) observations, and the sharp wit with which he delivers them, suggest that with a grand sense of irony, he may indeed be one of the smartest kids on earth.

This is how the book, which started out as a weekly comic strip in the ‘New City’ newspaper, was described by one reviewer when it was first published in 2001:

Jimmy Corrigan is further set apart by Ware’s visually stunning, two-dimensional artwork, where simple characters are drawn against painstakingly detailed backdrops, and an overall creative layout that utilises more traditional uniform panels, full-page vistas, draughtsman diagrams and cut-outs, among other things. With the flashbacks and disjointed narrative, Chris Ware shows a remarkable command of the comics medium, elevating Jimmy Corrigan far above its peers. More than just a great graphic novel, this is a classic in any medium.”

The Smartest Kid on Earth has been compared to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, and while the scale of its tragedy is local rather than global, the scope of its achievement is immeasurable.

*NB Due to the use of ‘adult’ language the book would probably be deemed unsuitable for study in school for anyone other than the most mature reader.

However, for a list of comic books and graphic novels suitable for 10-14 year old readers click on the Books 10-14 tab at the top of the page.

Sam, The Spaceship and Me

For the past few days I have been playing games, or one game to be precise, to explore some of the possibilities for using it in the context of improving literacy in the classroom. Samorost is a free online adventure/puzzle game created by Jakub Dvorsky while he was a student at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague; it is produced by his freelance Flash and web design agency Amanita Design. I first heard of the game from Andrew Brown at Learning and Teaching Scotland, who are doing some really interesting development work on Games-Based Learning.  I am also indebted to Dave Terron at Elgin Academy who has used the game in his English classes to very good effect, and to Kim Pericles, a primary teacher in Sydney, Australia who has used the game with her students for some time now – you can see some of their creative writing by clicking here.Samo_1

The object of the game is to direct the main character, a small white gnome-like humanoid (let’s call him Sam), through a series of visually stunning landscapes, by clicking the mouse on various objects in the correct sequence, and to help him avert a collision between his home planet and another planet/spaceship which is hurtling towards it. In the sequel, Samorost 2,  the gnome goes on a longer quest to save his kidnapped dog and return home safely.

Both games are played out against a uniquely atmospheric soundtrack, which is another of the game’s attractions, and against a backdrop of surreal worlds which combine natural beauty, spooky underground caves and a kind of post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland. Another positive is you can have endless attempts to solve the many puzzles which are put in front of you, and no matter what you do you can’t be killed. The problem-solving element of the game is difficult, at least for me, which probably means it is suitable for 12 or 13-year olds, and I could imagine it being used in a variety of contexts within the curriculum to develop listening and talking, writing, collaborative working and problem solving skills. Here are just a few ideas for discussion and other activities which immediately come to mind:-

Samo_2English/Literacy

Group Discussion-Who is this character? What is happening here? What is going to happen? What should we do next? What would happen if….? What would happen in real life if…..?

Writing – freeze the frame at almost any point in the game and ask students to describe what they see. Ask them to create and describe their own “world” to include as an extra level in the game. Tell the story from the point of view of another “character”. Write detailed instructions for someone else to play the game. Write instructions to play a game they are familiar with, including board games and street games. Write another adventure for Sam and/or his dog.

Art and Design

Discuss the design of the game in terms of colour, form, detail, tones, texture and pattern. Describe what it is that makes the game visually appealling. Design and draw a new character/landscape/object/ planet  for the game. Design a new game. Make a board game version of Samorost. Make a short animation of one of the levels of the game.Samo_5

Music

Play the soundtrack without the visuals and ask students to describe what they think is happening (music tracks are available from iTunes). Identify instruments used on the soundtrack. Explore music relating to outer space/the planets/other worlds and to suggest alternative soundtracks (Space Oddity? Lost in Space? The Planets? Star Wars Theme? War of the Worlds?). Compose and play an alternative soundtrack.

Science/Planet Earth

How many animal and plant species can you identify? Find out as much as you can about them and find out how they depend on each other for survival. How many different ways are there of creating energy in the game? Examine any of the means of transport that the gnome uses in the game and explain how it works. There are numerous opportunities at various points in the game to examine and discuss the concepts of ecology,evaporation, distillation, gravity, flow, substance, compound, circulation, motion, suction, current, voltage and quite a few others.

Technologies

Sam_3There are a number of “machines” in the game, most of them in the Heath Robinson style of design. However, they provide excellent opportunities to discuss such things as valves, pulleys, thermostats, pressure and combustion. You could ask students to build a simple version of the ski lift or the metal ball which lowers Sam into the underworld in Samorost 2 or to design and build a new rocket for Sam.

Social Studies

How much do we know about Sam’s planet? How does it differ from the other planets he travels to? Are there any clues as to what era we might be in? What kind of society does this seem to be? What can we tell about the creatures who kidnap the dog?   Is there life on other planets? Debate the merits and demerits of space travel in the 21st century.

These are just a few ideas but if you have any more, or indeed if you are already using the game I would be delighted to hear from you.

The Wordle is Out!

This is a simple application I’ve discovered recently, and already it’s being used by a great number of people. Like most of the new technology available to us now it’s also entirely free and easy to access and use. A wordle is a graphic representation of a piece of text; I have even heard it described as “word art”. The one at the bottom of the next column is a snapshot of my blog – the more often a word appears in the blog the bigger and more prominent the word in the picture. You get the idea. You key into a box a piece of text or the URL of your blog or web page and a “word cloud” is generated, which can then be downloaded, printed or shared with others. The colour, font and layout of the wordle can be altered with a click of the mouse!

Thanks to digitalmaverick for the presentation below which illustrates the potential of Wordle.


Immediately I can think of a number of uses for this simple device in the classroom. For example:-

  • Summarise a discussion by noting the key words, typing them into Wordle and displaying the result on screen
  • Create your own poem in Wordle and print out in colour for display in the classroom
  • Preview the main themes of a short story or novel by copying and pasting an extract into Wordle and discussing the resulting picture
  • Copy and paste a complex examination piece into Wordle to create an immediate summary of the text before looking at the questions in more detail

 I’m sure you can think of more uses of your own. Please share them so that we can build a really useful tool for teachers. Then go create your own at www.wordle.net

Is it art or is it vandalism?

Ciao,

Managed to find a cafe in Bergamo with great coffee (not difficult) and a free internet connection (not so easy). We’ve had a great week so far, much of it spent on trains. On Tuesday we took a train along the shores of Lake Como and on up into the mountains. There is still a considerable amount of snow on the tops. Yesterday we went to Verona, which was much more touristy even at this time of year. However I did manage to get a good picture of Juliet’s balcony – could be a useful visual aid if I ever get to teach Romeo and Juliet again, which I used to enjoy doing very much. I was never really into holiday snaps in the real world so I’m not going to bore you with them in the virtual one. Instead, here is something which is a common sight in Italy, some graffiti.

In this case it is on the side of the train, but it is equally prevalent on buildings, and in public spaces. The question is, is it a valid expression of the creative artistry of the people, just as valid as the works of high art which we pay good money to see in the art galleries and museums, or is it something which despoils an otherwise beautiful country? The previous government in Scotland placed the removal of graffiti and punishment of “offenders” high on the political agenda, but just how offensive is it? Can’t quite make up my mind where I stand on it but it’s usually interesting to read. Is it another form of text?