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Every Inch Royal: Mail Post Box

There are many things you can find in Manchester that strike an unusual cord with you. For instance, I used to adore this wall painting in Northern Quarter, in Hare St. It requires no further musing, and I always thought it was very witty, given the name of the street.

Alas, this was painted over with some bright children-friendly images, and my heart still aches when I think of what a loss it was.

Another site which may soon be driven to extinction is located not far from Deansgate. I first noticed it in spring, but the weather was never good enough to snap it. The site is this:

I know they say that royalty and nobility both have got blue blood, so it is perhaps only logical that this “blueness” extends on to their possessions. Including one post box in red-brick Manchester.

Water lilies in Warrington and Blogging at Cornerhouse

As you might notice, some changes have occurred in the sidebar on Notebooks, thanks to Craig McGinty. Craig has given a helpful hand and advice to many a blogger out there, and I didn’t escape his touch of gold either. Not that I mind, especially as the sidebar now looks neater and makes more sense even to me. Much encouraged by a late evening discussion I may tweak things further, but the top of the page is unlikely to change any more, so feel free to make use of the readily available archive of posts. Many thanks to Craig, who can always be contacted via his personal blog at Words, Writing and Web.

We met at Cornerhouse. This fantastic place, in addition to all gems of cinema and contemporary art, now also offers the wi-fi connection, which makes it a perfect venue for any purpose. We sat just a table away from where I wrote Exercises in Loneliness – IV, and admittedly the place today was quite busy. I’ve even met another friend of mine there and saw a fiancee of my colleague. This just confirms how small the world really is.

Long before then I had a short afternoon walk around the pond in Centre Park in Warrington where I work these days. I noticed that many provincial cities are often slagged off without a reason, and I find it truly disappointing because this is how an opinion is being formed. As a result, many people may just never visit a certain town because it is described as poor, or bad, or sad, and apparently people like Charles Dickens or Jean Genet are too rare these days, so no-one wants to enter the dens of life. What can be lost is well illustrated by this slide show of pictures I took today in Centre Park. I don’t think it will generate a flood of visitors to our business den, but hopefully it will somewhat have changed the perception of Warrington.


Warrington Centre Park on Flickr. Other photos from Warrington.

Memento Ossis (Remember the Bones)

As many a blog reader will agree, you never know what you find in blogosphere. Just like in any sphere, really. Blogosphere is your web Cosmos, and the last thing I read about our galaxy was that, unfortunately, Uranus was no diamond quarry. Neither is Neptune.

Thankfully, in our Blogalaxy there are some sparkling stones, and on this occasion I’m speaking of a post in Jezblog. Jez, as he says about himself on Flickr, is a “good freelance translator” and a “bad photographer”. I can’t doubt the former, but I do think he’s slightly too modest about his camera skills. At least, when he visited the Sedlec Ossuary in Czech Republic, he’d taken some stunning photos.

Ossuaries date back to the time before our era, but the examples of this somewhat morbid art that we see today across Europe have come into existence since the Middle Ages. Sedlec Ossuary that Jez has documented for his blog and Flickr photoset was created in 1870 by František Rint at the request of the Schwarzenberg family. One of the compositions that Rint had made was the family’s coat-of-arms. Below, on the left, is Jez’s photo of it; and right next to it is the original coat-of-arms. Rint’s interpretation lacks neither wit, nor creativity. Other examples of his artistic vision come from Jez (left) and the ossuary’s official site, http://www.kostnice.cz/.

Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora is not the only European site of this kind. The most famous is, perhaps, the Portuguese Capela dos Ossos in Evora. Built in the 16th c. by a Franciscan monk, the chapel has the following inscription above its entrance: “We bones that are here, for you bones we wait” (“Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos”).

I notice that the mendicant brothers were particularly apt at spreading the word about life’s being transitory in this peculiar “bony language”. Another ossuary was created by the Capuchin monks in Rome, in the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. The Order of Friars Minor of Capuchin, a deviation of the Franciscan Order, was established in the 16th c. in Italy. The church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini has also got the website, with a special section highlighting The Crypt.

The most recent ossuary is the Douaumont Ossuary in Verdun, which commemmorates the unthinkable cruelty and catastrophic human losses during the battle of Verdun in the First World War. Inaugurated in 1932, the ossuary (on the right) is the resting place for the staggering number of unidentified French and German soldiers.


Jez’s Kostnice Ossuary set on Flickr

Pictures of Capela dos Ossos at Sacred-Destinations.com

The Story of Discobolus

Imagine this: you’ve been waiting to take a picture of something. You found a perfect angle, even conjured a title for your photo, but your precious sight is an object of adoration for too many people, mainly tourists. They keep coming up to it, their figures exuding admiration, and their eyes lit with fever of connoisseurship. They don’t notice you. Worse still, they sometimes appear in front of your camera at the exact moment of your pressing the button.

Let’s not be dismayed by tourists – for all I know, I may be just as inconsiderate. Occasionally, though, this inconsideration becomes a blessing in disguise, as I found out when I visited London this April.
I went to the British Museum, and I couldn’t resist taking a picture of Discobolus. I saw this statue in the books before, and I had previously visited the British Museum and taken a picture of it. But for me, it is a historic statue in more than one sense.

When I was in my first year at the University in 1997, we had a course in Art History and had to pass an exam. The task was to list all (or as many) monuments (sculptures, edifices, paintings) from a particular period in Art History within 40 min. After 40 min. the (now late) examiner collected our papers, checked them immediately and told us, whether we passed or not. I sat next to a girl who had a question about Ancient Greek art and knew it very poorly. This is when Discobolus appears. This statue was made by Myron during the classical period of Greek art (in the 5th cc. BC). The lecturer also touched on Homer whose lifetime – between 8th-7th cc. BC – is seen to have initiated the entire Classical Antiquity.

I vividly remember the girl asking me, if Discobolus was made by Myron or by Homer. I confidently whispered ‘Myron’. Nonetheless, the girl ended up writing that Discobolus was sculptured by Homer during the Myronian period. This true story became one of the best-loved anecdotes of the Faculty of History at the Moscow State University.

This time in London, when I first tried to take a picture of Discobolus, a group of visitors with children was around the statue. The parents did move, but a child, being a child, couldn’t stand still, and eventually I wasn’t satisfied with my first attempt. I decided to wait, but the visitors kept walking up and down the staircase, not even intending to disappear. I decided to wait out and took this picture – I thought it sent an interesting message (right).

Just as the staircase emptied, a couple appeared out of the blue. The woman struck a pose beside Discobolus, the man took a photo of her, and then the woman walked to the man, and they froze at the top of the stairs looking at the pictures they’ve taken. I stood several steps below, clutching my mobile phone and wondering, if they would possibly move elsewhere, so I could have a clear view. The speciality of the moment was in that there were only us three on the staircase, so providing they’d moved I could take a decent shot of Discobolus.

But no, they didn’t move. They were totally oblivious to the fact that the British Museum is one of London’s principal attractions and is visited by thousands of people each day, who may fancy taking a picture of Discobolus. I put it down to the special feelings they shared. Me, I was alone, and my despair was beyond imagination.

I was released from despair by my own roguish spirit. To paraphrase the well-known saying, if Discobolus couldn’t show its unspoilt angle to me, I was going to find an unspoilt angle of Discobolus. I suddenly realised that the majority of pictures of the statue were taken from the staircase. But what about the actual frontal view? Well, here was one.

What a sense of liberation that was! Nothing could stop me now. Another staircase was behind me, which was decorated with a vase. There was something intriguing about a composition involving Discobolus and the vase (left). And then I went as far as to almost lie on the stairs, to take the picture on the right.

So, waiting and not getting to snap Discobolus from a conventional point of view was entirely worth the trouble. Even for me, for whom Discobolus was anything but unknown, to see this sculpture in so many different compositions was a great way to enjoy it again. I know for a fact that next time I’m at the museum, I’ll be looking for something unusual in the objects I might photograph. And so should you – who knows what story you may be able to tell?

Loch na Garr (George Gordon Byron)

It’s raining. Yesterday it was sunny. Today it’s raining again. I feel this is the return of the summer of five years ago.

I’ve always loved rain, like I’ve always loved the sky before the rain or thunder. Both to me symbolise all that is hidden, buried of fear to appear weak. We don’t like rain because we’re afraid to admit that we don’t know how to deal with it, that we don’t want to deal with it. Umbrellas are cumbersome, we can’t wear the clothes and shoes that we like because they may be damaged by rain, we have to be twice as careful when driving in the rain. On a sunny day we may go out and enjoy people and places, and to only talk about things that are plesant, sunny. Rain forces us inside our homes, inside ourselves where we have no choice but to look at that which is hidden, and think and talk about it.

This is why, perhaps, as much as I like rain, I also love the idea of travelling in the rain. By car or by train, or even by bus. As long as I go somewhere I’m happy. I don’t mind walking, but for that I need an umbrella: rain doesn’t go well with my specs. I must be afraid, too, of what I have hidden inside me, or maybe I just find it easier to think when I’m on the move? I don’t know.

Or maybe I like rain because it’s so natural to be happy in sunny weather and melancholic on a rainy day, and I want to smile on a rainy day, just to change this routine?

Rain to me is the past; like snow. It dates back to the times when I was reading Byron’s Loch na Gar, which has become one of my favourite poems. Maybe I was a Scot in one of my previous lives; I don’t think about such things, but who knows, after all?

Away ye gay landscapes, ye Garrdens of roses
In you let the minions of luxury rove
Restore me the rocks where the snowflake reposes
Though still they are sacred to freedom and love.
Yet Caledonia, beloved are thy mountains
Round their white summits though elements war
Thorough cataracts foam 'stead of smooth-flowing fountains
I sigh for the valley of dark Loch na Garr.

Ah! there my young footsteps in infancy wander'd
My cap was the bonnet, my coat was the plaid
On chieftains long perish'd my memory ponder'd
As daily I strode through the pine-cover'd glade.
I sought not my home till the day's dying glory
Gave place to the rays of the bright polar star
For fancy was cheered by traditional story
Disclosed by the natives of dark Loch na Garr.

'Shades of the dead! have I not heard your voices
Rise on the night-rolling breath of the gale?'
Surely the soul of the hero rejoices
And rides on the wind o'er his own Highland vale.
Round Loch na Garr, while the stormy mist gathers
Winter presides in his cold icy car:
Clouds there encircle the forms of my fathers;
They dwell in the tempests of dark Loch na Garr.

'Ill-starr'd, though brave, did no visions foreboding
Tell you that fate had forsaken your cause?'
Ah! were you destin'd to die at Culloden,
Victory rown'd not you fall with applause:
Still were you happy in death's earthly slumber
You rest with your clan in the caves of Braemar'
The pibroch resounds to the pipers loud number,
Your deeds on the echos of dark Loch na Garr.

Years have roll'd on, Loch na Garr, since I left you
Years must elapse ere I see you again
Nature of verdure and flowers has bereft you
Yet still thou art dearer than Albion's plain.
England! thy beauties are tame and domestic
To one who has roved o'er the mountains afar
Oh for the crags that are wild and magestic!
The steep frowning glories of dark Loch na Garr

The image is taken from Ensis Ltd.

Barbra Streisand in Manchester (M.E.N. Arena, July 10, 2007)

 And so, Manchester has finally joined the cities on the route of Barbra Streisand’s first European tour. Some reports prior to Manchester concert expressed fears that the night might fall through because of high ticket prices. Admittedly, pleasure of seeing Streisand on stage wasn’t cheap: add a program’s price (£25) to your cheapest ticket (£75), and you’ll get quite a sum. Looking from my seat in the stalls down on those who sat in the first row in the box did bring certain thoughts to mind. But as the show went on, I realised that with my £75 ticket I bought myself much more than just a lifetime experience.

Like with quite a few other things, it started thanks to my mother. I said before that my mum has got this tremendous ability to discover things – and once Russia has opened her arms to the West after 1991, there was (and still is) a lot to discover. I believe that the discovery of Barbra in my family has started with the song Woman in Love, which was in an audio cassette collection. Around 1996-97 the articles about Streisand have really flooded our first Russian editions of Harper’s Bazaar and ELLE. They wrote about her youth, her romances, her music, but, being an adolescent, I was most interested in her portraits. As terrible as it sounds, before I saw those photos, I thought I would never look good in front of the camera. Studying them, thankfully, changed me in many ways. I still haven’t seen a lot of Streisand’s films, but Funny Girl, The Mirror Has Two Faces, and The Way We Were have entered my memory forever. I would watch The Way We Were anyway because of Robert Redford, but the first two we watched because of Barbra. So, it was only natural that when I saw an email about the release of her tickets I knew I had to go. I wanted to surprise my mother, but in the end we had this conversation on Sunday night:

I: Mum, do you want to be jealous?
Mum: Why?
I: Do you know where I’m going on 10th July?
Mum (anticipating pause)
I: I’m going to Barbra Streisand’s concert
Mum (after a long pause, and with a sigh): Yes, I’m very jealous.

Although I’ve been living in Manchester since 2003, July 10th was the first time I went to a concert at the M.E.N. Arena. Contrary to all fears and misgivings, the hall was full: at 7pm people were coming in tides, and by 7.40 there was virtually no room to move in the foyer. The audience’s rapture was palpable; and how could it not be if the man with a black-and-grey scarf around his neck was one of the first to rise from his seat when Barbra appeared on stage for the first time? I cannot say I’ve been to many concerts, but I’m certain I won’t see such frequent standing ovations any time soon. Where I sat, people behind me were humming and singing along with the performer who – we all hope – celebrates the 50th anniversary of her stage career in three years’ time.

As you can guess, from photos on Flickr and from videos on YouTube, the organisers’ appeal against taking pictures wasn’t acknowledged, and we shouldn’t blame the fans for many of whom this was once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see and hear their favourite performer. In the audience there were Mancunians, Liverpudlians, Geordie, as well as Italian and Spanish fans whom Streisand greeted in their native language. When answering questions, she admitted that of all three – singing, acting, and directing – she enjoyed directing more because of what she called ‘inclusiveness’, and this show may very well be the proof of her directorial hold. Alas, we were not introduced to Samantha; instead we saw Streisand putting on glasses and demonstrating her – quite good – piano technique.

The importance of seeing an “old league” performer cannot be underestimated. A rather simply decorated stage was a perfect backdrop for the stunning costumes (designed by Streisand and Donna Karan), a warm smile, and the beautiful, powerful voice of the world’s first showbiz diva. I must admit, after reading several fans’ reviews, that I couldn’t put my feelings about the evening into words better than John Grundeken from the Netherlands did, which is why I hope a lot of you will follow through to Barbra’s Archives to read his heartfelt story of the night at Bercy in Paris. Moreover, John is travelling to London’s concert, as well. What I must absolutely agree with John about is the incredible power of Streisand’s voice: ‘”Starting here, starting now”, her voice sounded so warm and rich. I realised this was the first time ever I wasn’t listening to a recording of her voice, this was the real thing’. And one more fact about John: I am used to seeing people wearing T-shirts with John Lennon’s or Che Guevara’s face, and I made myself a T-shirt with the print of the Beatles’s Let It Be cover. But, upon my word, this was the first time I saw someone decorating a tie with their favourite artist’s portrait. I’ve got a feeling that the world of fashion has already been there, but this tie is special for its colour, design, and image. Above all, the whole work glows with admiration for Barbra Streisand, which makes it really impressive, and this is why I asked John for permission to use the image in my post. Thank you, John.

I have a confession to make. As I mentioned above, my mother is a huge fan of Barbra Streisand. I haven’t been back to Russia since I came to Manchester, which makes almost four years. So as a present for her I recorded several songs from the concert, which are strictly for private use and will not be put up anywhere. However, I noticed that there are many videos on the web, which probably warrants my action: I cut and put together two extracts from the concert. The first extract is a great proof of cordial atmosphere at the M.E.N. Arena, not without a few funny moments. The second is the song Unusual Way from the second half of the concert. Please note that the audio, like all the content of this site, is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial – Non-Derivative Works 3.0. If you wish to cite it, please do so accordingly.

[To be reuploaded soon – JD]

The songs may very well be the ones that people older than me have already heard Streisand singing live before. Yet, as Paul Vallely from The Independent puts it, ‘she progressed from one song to the next in a way which was not autobiographical so much as the story of the lives of those who listened. She was singing the soundtrack to their joys and sorrows, triumphs and failures’. In spite of my age, Smile, Unusual Way, Papa Can You Hear Me resonate in me deeply, while People and Somewhere fully correspond to the views and ideas I behold dearly and often express in writing and here, in Los Cuadernos, for which you can certainly call me a Cockeyed Optimist.

The peak of the performance for me was when Streisand run and danced barefoot on stage. And it was most lovely to see the audience standing and greeting Barbra with several rounds of ovation. In Russia, it was a part of nearly every performance experience: to call actors or singers come back on stage several times. In four years here, attending theatre and cinema many times, I almost got used to people giving a few claps, standing up and leaving, so seeing this “Russian” reaction felt incredibly warm.

It is evident that I, like many others, enjoyed every minute of two-and-a-half hours of Streisand’s concert, including the interval, when I took the photos of the Arena’s hall that are now scattered throughout this post. And I feel I should comment on a criticism that the show was scripted. Where I sat, on the side, was the perfect place to see both the stage and the screens with running scripts. First, the lines run fast, so unless everyone (Barbra and the Broadway guys) knows what they are to say, they won’t be on time with the script. Most importantly, though, is that they didn’t actually follow the script word for word. Yes, maybe it’s bad to direct your own show, but as a spectator I think it would be worse to listen to an artist, who sounds and looks like a sheep, not knowing what to say. From my own experience of writing scripts or watching written scripts going live I can only say that it’s essential to know where your carriage (be that a play, a radio or TV show, or a performance) is going at any given minute. To ensure that it runs naturally is up to a performer, and for Barbra Streisand it was a piece of cake.

“Barbra – was she worth the money?” – a sly question that has left many a reviewer’s pens. Someone cynical may say a performer like Streisand is used to the crowd’s adoration, but no matter how used you get to people praising you, there are always new people, and every performer needs them, not only because ‘people need people’, but because people need art, and a performer is the mediator between art and the world. This entire contemplation on worthiness reminds me of Maugham’s Theatre, one of my favourite novels. In one chapter, the heroine’s son reproaches her for being “false”. He fails to understand how one minute Julia Lambert can be all emotion on stage, then have a go at the technician during a short interval, and then immediately regain the altitude and power of her performance once again. She feels disturbed, but in the very final passages of the book she realises that the actors give substance and meaning to the lives of people in the audience: ‘… out of them we create beauty, and their significance in that they form the audience we must have to fulfill ourselves… We are the symbols of all this confused, aimless struggle that they call life, and it’s only the symbol which is real. They say acting is make-believe. That make-believe is the only reality’.

You may cue in Vallely’s review or Gogard’s musings on image and reality in Notre Musique. Or you can read the review of one of the concert’s attendees, who (though not without some inner struggle) has taken from this single night something precious and indelible. One thing is certain: art transforms life, and ever since coming out on stage 47 years ago Barbra Streisand has been doing just that.


Barbra Streisand official website

Manchester reviews: BBC and Manchester Evening News

Paul Valley, Broadway Diva Lives up to Her Billing, The Independent, 11 July 2007

Set list, photos, press and fan reviews at Barbra Archives.

Barbra Streisand group on Flickr

John Grundeken

The Cotton Mill Blog

Barbra Streisand in Manchester set on Flickr

About images:

All images used in this post are copyrighted. The details for the booklet illustrations can be found in the captions to the pictures here. ‘The Tie’ is designed and produced by John Grundeken.

Manchester Bloggers Meet at the Festival Pavilion

What do you do on Monday evening? Come home from work and wind down in front of your TV? No, no, and no, especially when you’re involved in Manchester’s blogging scene and when you know that the BBC’s Robin Hamman and Richard Fair have reserved a table at the Festival Pavilion near Manchester Central. Is there a better way to spend a hard Monday’s night than in a company of familiar and unfamiliar faces, in the heart of your lovely red-brick city, in the location that looks so stupendously grand?

This is exactly what we did tonight, and as I’m writing this post, the clock is close to striking midnight, which means that I haven’t slept for 18 hours. Still, it’s nothing in comparison to Robin who seems to be travelling non-stop in space both virtual and physical. And nothing in comparison to Richard, who admitted with a sigh that he hasn’t got a slightest idea of when he was going to have his holiday. So far the hero of all Alan Rickman’s fans has been faithfully blogging about the Manchester International Festival and is on duty next week to cover the Tatton Park Flower Show. Oh well, I regularly get my own doze of excitement with Search Marketing.

Craig McGinty was over, giving, as usual, a plenty of helpful advice (thank-you, Craig!). I had the pleasure to meet Stephen Newton and Andrew Wilshere, Paul Hurst and Vince Elgey, Edward (whose blog I don’t know yet) and Ian, and to see Stuart Brown again. Apologies to everyone who saw me but whom or whose blogs I don’t know – please feel free to add yourself to my map of friends, and we’ll all know who you are and what you do.

In general, this meeting was a good opportunity for me to test my memory. I recognised Stephen Newton from his blog’s profile picture. Better yet, I recognised Paul, who works for one of Wigan’s schools as a media instructor. I saw him one and only time in the summer of 2005, when I went to help out Paul Ridyard, my once colleague at QT Radio in Northern Quarter. There was, however, no difficulty in recognising Phil Wood, on whose show I had my first ever radio placement back in February 2005. Broadcasting from the Pavilion late at night, Phil was, as ever, all smile and professionalism – which is exactly the memory I’ve taken of him from the placement.

The Festival Pavilion is open to everyone during the Manchester International Festival, which is to end this Saturday. I’ve planned to blog about Manchester Peripheral and Carlos Acosta, but before I do either I will go to MEN Arena tomorrow to see Barbra Streisand. This reminds me of two guys who came all the way from Birmingham to see George Michael at the Arena. They met me in Bridge St, and with a sheer distraught on their faces anxiously began to explain that they got lost and that George Michael was unlikely to wait till they find the way to the venue. Standing under my huge umbrella in the drizzling rain I was explaining to them how to get to the Arena, but eventually I began to doubt the guys were actually going there. Anyway, I do know where the Arena is, although, alas, it seems that I won’t be able to take any pictures.

And it’s almost 1am now…

For more pictures, go to: BBC Manchester Blog on Flickr

First comes an observation: Alan Rickman has got a huge retinue of fans (I shall confess – I am one of them) who, I guess, are following publications about him online via news subscription (I don’t). There is such thing in Google, for instance, as Google Alerts: it saves time ego-surfing and also keeps you updated about your favourite subject. I didn’t check it for other email applications, but I’m sure this service is quite wide-spread. Well, Alan seems to be the subject of such alerts for a few people, and we can count this as yet another beauty of blogging and analysing who visits your blog, and why. I’m sure BBC Manchester Blog has amassed a stupenduous log of “alan rickman” queries since the broadcast of his interview.

And second, as I promised, several links to the posts about the meeting. Robin said on his blog that I wrote “what must be the definitive round-up of the evening”, but what I didn’t do (so tired I was) was that I didn’t say a word about this lovely little thing which you can find at http://www.kyte.tv. To see how it works, head over to Robin and Craig.

Richard Fair (who is the hero of Alan Rickman’s fans in Manchester and elsewhere in Britain, in case I didn’t spell it out right the first time) reviewing the night on BBC Manchester Blog. Also, BBC Manchester Blog on Flickr.

Vince writing about the night on It’s a Blog! Not a Log! and uploading pictures.

Robin Hamman doing a nice mosaic of photos on Flickr.

Paul Hurst uploading many interesting pictures on Flickr, as well as Ed Brownrigg from Mamucium.

Ian from Spinneyhead and Kate from Mersey Basin Campaign each offering their take on the night.

If anyone else writes their impression of the night, please feel free to add links to the comments.

And to round it all up, a picture from Paul Hurst: it shows two die-hard Mancunian bloggers at the meeting. Have I said before that I liked monochrome photography and blur? No? Well, now you all know it.

The Visions of Begemot (Part 1)

It’s been a few months since Manchester bloggers met at The Hare and Hounds pub in Shudehill. And we’ll be meeting again this coming Monday, between 6 and 11pm at the Festival Pavilion outside Manchester Central (G-Mex). Read more at BBC Manchester Blog and leave a comment there if you want to come along.

And when I was at the memorable meet-up in April (when I saw a man in a yellow duckling suit, unzipped on the back), I was talking to Rob Baker, who happened to be having an on-and-off romance with The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Like most readers, he was fascinated with the cat Begemot (or Behemoth, if we opt for historical spelling). This cat is an adorable black gluttonous creature that walks on his back paws, speaks rather eloquently, and rides a tram. On occasion, he can also tear one’s head off and even fire a gun, but for that one needs to seriously enrage the cat.

As we know, artists see things differently not only from other people, but from other artists, as well. I wondered how many interpretations of Begemot in illustration I could possibly find, considering how popular Bulgakov’s novel is. The result can be seen below. I didn’t even think of making a complete list of all Begemot’s images that could be found online, but even those that I found make up for enjoyable and observant viewing. There are also so many of them that I will have to organize them in a few posts, otherwise there will be too much writing and too many images.

Book covers.

Type in “bulgakov” in Amazon.co.uk Search window, and in a matter of seconds you will be staring at the innumerable covers of editions of one of the best-known and loved books in world’s literature. And on almost all of them you’ll see Begemot. We may speculate endlessly, exactly what makes this character so appealing. It is generally appealing – as any tram-riding cat would be. It challenges our attitude to black cats – again, a black cat may be a symbol of bad luck, but Begemot appears to be a master of smooth-talking, and how can it then bring any bad luck? This creature is lovely, fluffy, magical in every sense of the word, and it’s a cat. I suppose one of the reasons why Begemot is so popular is because it seems easier to conceive of a cat’s, rather than human, face.

The covers of the first English-language editions showed a particular fascination with Begemot’s rascal and smart side. It is no wonder that Harper & Row 1967 cover (left) is liked by many: the illustrator has probably come closest to capturing the cat’s mischievous essence. The Grove Press edition of the same year takes more interest in Begemot’s “human” side, falling short of giving us an ultimate boxer-cat (right).

It is interesting to see how the same
publishing house – Penguin and Picador, on this occasion – can present two so different interpretations of Begemot. With Penguin, one illustrator opted for a carnival mask (thus highlighting the theatrical and the figurative in the novel) (left), whilst another chose to produce a caricature (right), not unlike those drawn to illustrate one of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s books (below).

Picador’s covers are no less peculiar: one shows you, well, a cat with cards (left); and on another the cat has got an extreme modernist makeover (right). Vintage Classics and
Avalon Travel Publishing both take
on the theme of all-pervasiveness of a devilish spirit, which Vintage makes slightly more figurative and political. On another Vintage cover we see Begemot in profile, and the angle of his head reminds me of a gargoyle at the Notre Dame de Paris. The Harvill Panther’s monochrome cover brings to mind politics, the black-and-white cinema and photos of 1930s, and the closeness of the Second World War (below, from left to right: Vintage, Avalon, Vintage and Harvill Panther covers; the gargoyle image is displayed on top). Finally, the cover of Fontana 1974 edition (further below, right) made me wonder if it had had any influence of the make-up artists who subsequently worked on The Cats musical.

(And please forgive me this little rant, but how could The Daily Telegraph reviewer back in 2004 ever allow themselves to write this phrase, which is now proudly cited on the book’s page on Amazon: “The Master and Margarita comes over like a grown-up and vastly superior version of Harry Potter”. OF COURSE, it is VASTLY SUPERIOR to Harry Potter and to the vast majority of other books out there. OF COURSE, it is incomparably thought-provoking, challenging and complex, which is why there hasn’t been and still isn’t any equally great adaptation of this novel in cinema or on stage. OF COURSE, The Daily Telegraph was reviewing one of the most influential books of the 20th c. I’ve got nothing against Harry Potter (or J K Rowling, for that matter), but to even compare it to Bulgakov’s novel is too much of an honour for the young wizard saga).

Russian cover artists also like Begemot, although the cat doesn’t feature prominently on the Russian covers. The covers of EKSMO-Press publishing house, as well as that of Molodaya Gvardiya (Youth Guard), present an unmistakably feline face of Behemoth. Personally, I like the Sovetskaya Literatura (Soviet Literature) cover better of the three, which partly has to do with the fact that it was this edition that I read myself more than ten years ago (below, from left to right: EKSMO, Molodaya Gvardiya, and Soviet Literature covers). Surprisingly, the only website I found which has got this edition listed is Kevin Moss’s comprehensive resource.

A Hungarian cover gives us a giant Behe-Cyclop, while two Italian covers give completely polar interpretations of Behemoth: one cat is arrogant; another reminds me of a rabbit (below, left to right). Yet another Italian cover looks familiar to the Vintage’s that you saw above. This profile view seems to be the most popular, as it is also replicated on a Portuguese cover (I didn’t include either in this post).

A Chinese book brings to mind those beautiful medieval Chinese paintings; German and Estonian covers have not at all been taken by Behemoth (at least those that I saw), and a Polish 2006 cover gives the cat a minimalist feel (below, left to right).

Master and Margarita, a resource created by Kevin Moss at Middlebury College. The site lists published texts of Bulgakov’s novel, translations and bibliography, as well as the list of illustrations and themes. Unfortunately, the list of links hasn’t been updated for some time, but otherwise it is a very useful website. In addition, Kevin has also created several other sites dedicated to the Russian choir at Middlebury, Russian literature and language, and Russian gay culture.

Master and Margarita, a very comprehensive resource from where I linked to many images here. The resource was created by Jan Vanhellemont from Belgium, and, as Jan tells us on the front page (written in quite good Russian, I should say!), he never heard about the novel until one summer night in 2003 in Paris, where he first heard about the book. A year later he finally got to read it and has been studying the Russian language since, in a hope to be able to read the book in its original language one day. I must admit, I’m very smitten by this story. Bulgakov’s novel has played a crucial part in my life, as well, but Jan’s is a very different experience. Judging by the site, he’s doing pretty well, and since I’m sure he’ll know about this post, I’m happy to provide some distant language tuition. The site contains articles, illustrations, film excerpts, music pieces, and many more, so is definitely worth a visit.


Most of book covers’ images were taken from Amazon.co.uk and Jan Vanhellemont’s site. Soviet Literature edition’s back cover image is on Kevin Moss’s site. The cover of Mayakovsky’s work is of the Krasnaya Nov’ (Red Novelty) edition displayed at Mayakovsky and His Circle site (some areas of the site are still in development). The gargoyle picture comes from this lady, WTS, at traveljournals.net. The Chinese painting is Plum Blossom and the Moon by Chen Lu (Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644) at http://www.xabusiness.com/china-resources/song-liao-jin-dynasties-paintings.htm. All images are linked to their original location.

Carmarthen Cameos – 8 (Dinefwr Castle, Llandeilo)

As you read in the previous post, I’ve only visited three medieval castles, in spite of having studied Medieval History for a while. As you could also gather, I found that both Conwy Castle and Carmarthen Castle have lost to a certain degree the air that we expect castles to possess. They may be impressive, but hardly awe-inspiring. However, this was very different in the case of Dinefwr Castle (pronounced as ‘Dee-ne-foo-r‘), and I can’t help but to try and replicate my journey in this post.

To go to Dinefwr Castle, you take a bus from the stop outside St Peter’s Church. For about 40 minutes you are going past the sumptuous hills, breathtaking views of the fields and the cattle, but occasionally, as you may see on the photo on the right, there will be a small hill, on top of which – a castle’s ruins. When inquiring at the tourist centre about castles in the close distance from Carmarthen, I’ve been told there were three: Dinefwr Castle at Llandeilo, Dryslwyn Castle at Dryslwyn, and Carreg Cennen Castle at Trapp. I’ve chosen to go to Dinefwr Castle, and this proved to be the right choice. As a matter of fact, the booklet I’ve been given says that you’re charged for admission to Dinefwr. This is not true: if you’re only going to the castle, it’s free. If you also want to go to Newton Hall, to have a cup of tea, and to buy some souvenirs, then indeed you have to pay for admission.

When you enter Dinefwr Park for the first time, you walk for a while without having a slightest idea of where to go. It is, I may argue, the perfect state of mind when you’re about to encounter something as impressive as a real medieval castle. You begin to comprehend both the importance and the difficulty of the journey, when you catch a first glimpse of the castle (left). Still, the beautiful landscape that surrounds you makes you forget at once all the misfortunes of walking up the hill (right).

While on this excruciating journey, I’ve been thinking what it was like for people of previous centuries. I had a denim bag, and I wore jeans, a shirt, and a pair of rather comfortable moccasins. But I had neither hat, nor sunglasses, and I had to walk in the raging sunshine, which cost me the sunburnt forehead. If it was a rainy or stormy day, I wouldn’t even think of going to the castle, but previously the inhabitants of and the visitors to Dinefwr wouldn’t always have my choice. And so, what would this walk be for peasants with their carts, and baskets, and cattle; or for knights in armour, on horses; or for lords and vassals, with their court? With this thought in mind I finally reached the castle.

Dinefwr Castle not only survived en masse until today, it was well cared after in the 17th and 18th cc. – so well in fact, that some of the castle’s stones were used for its renovation. Some of the interior details of the 13th c. northern chamber block are well preserved, as you can see on the left. On the right image, you see the restored wall-walk and the 13th c. tower, viewed from the circular keep (you can see on the image above; it dates to around 1230s). Below you can see the northern part of the castle, which comprises the 13th c. tower, the 14th c. hall, and the 13th c. chamber block.

At Dinefwr you can’t help but also begin to contemplate on what it was like to live in a castle. A tourist notice at the castle’s entrance warns you against the bats. I haven’t seen any, but I surely heard the wings’ beating. If that was indeed a bat, I’m glad I haven’t seen it, otherwise my screams would be heard all over Carmarthenshire. Imagine if I were a fair maiden, inherently fearful of those creatures. As you can see, the castle’s windows are large, but the entrances are often not, which makes one remember that medieval people weren’t especially tall. The views from those windows, however, make you realise just how important was a castle as a fortress; how far it was possible to see from the window or from the wall; and how strong and deft were medieval archers.

Finally, at Dinefwr I was able to do something which I was thinking of doing for a while. I do like spiral staircases, but all of you who’d ever been on a medieval staircase would’ve noticed how narrow the stairs were. David Dimbleby recently showcased both the purpose of spiral staircases and the art of using them, when imitating the fighting with a sword in How We Built Britain. What we need to realise is that it wouldn’t be Mr Dimbleby (in comfortable shoes and with no sword) who would be exercising the martial technique, but the knights who would look and dress like those two on the left image. And so I thought: exactly how wide are those stairs? The widest part turned out to be of the size of my foot, and I wear size 3/4 UK (36/37 EUR). This also allows one to wonder at the size of medieval people’s feet.

Going from the castle was quicker, as I took a different route. The walking got tougher, however, and my soles were sorer and sorer, and the hot ground was only making things worse. Little did I know that all this time a Red Kite was soaring in rounds near the entrance to Dinefwr Park. When the next day after visiting the castle I went to the tourist centre in Carmarthen, I saw a book on the stand, with exactly this bird on the cover. ‘I saw it yesterday at Dinefwr!’ I exclaimed. ‘Oh, it must’ve been your luck’, an assistant, a young lovely woman, replied. ‘People come to Carmarthen especially to see it, but it’s a rarity’.

Seems like it was the reward for my journey in the footsteps of medieval Welshmen.

Links and credits:

Dinefwr Castle

Dinefwr Park and Castle (Flickr set)

The colour image of fighting knights is taken from the Knighthood, Chivalry and Tournaments Resource Library

Carmarthen Cameos – 7 (Carmarthen Castle)

I’ve always been fascinated with the medieval period, although now I am aware that before I actually went to study it, I had this romantic view of the Middle Ages that many of us share: magical castles, the Belles Dames, lovelorn knights, valiant kings, you name it. Until I began to read thick history books, I never gave a thought of how the Middle Ages sounded or smelt. As far as smell goes, the Middle Ages often stunk. But this is not a nice thing to contemplate, is it?

So, I’ve been studying Medieval and Early Modern History since 1998, but I haven’t travelled much. The first medieval town I’ve ever visited was Tallinn, and it was in 2002. And it was in the summer of 2002 that I came to England for the first time and went to my first ever castle at Conwy. Five years later, this June I visited Carmarthen Castle and Dinefwr Castle. Like it happens with London that I tend to go there in spring, so it happened that all medieval castles where I went are in Wales.

Carmarthen Castle, which seems to be the oldest of the two, stands rather inconspicuously, providing the background for the Nott Monument. It was mentioned in the sources as early as the 11th c., played an important role in the rivalry between Wales and England in the 12-13th cc., was used as a prison in the 18th and 19th cc., and is now surrounded by the Council offices, houses, shops, and the endless tail of cars on the road reminds you of the fact that time has changed.

There is enough left of the castle to observe some architectural details, in particular, the window frames (left), the stonework and planning (right), but the overall impression will still be diminished. The castle looks delicate in size and not at all awe-inspiring.

The same paradox I noted when I was at Conwy Castle five years ago. I vividly remember a souvenir shop at Conwy, where the visitors to the castle flocked in the endless stream. It was a lovely castle, and for a medievalist it was fairly easy to reconstruct Conwy’s past. And, of course, its stupendous bridge, especially when viewed from the towers, dazzles you with both design and colour. Yet cars, houses and yachts that surround Conwy Castle, steal a lot of its independence. Add to this the car park at the castle, and you will understand why to me Conwy seemed tamed. In this, it was a perfect reminder of the ambiguity of Time, which often erases grand monuments until only a feeble silhouette is left.

This is very true about Carmarthen Castle. Due to the way Carmarthen expanded and to how the castle was used after the Middle Ages had ended, it appears to have been absorbed by the town, its people and its visitors. It has become a part of the town’s ensemble to the extent when one is probably capable of going past it without even noticing it. Yet you can still contemplate, looking from the top of the tower, on how good was the castle’s observation capacity (left).


Read more about Carmarthen Castle at CastleWales.com.

More photos of Carmarthen Castle in a Flickr’s set.

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