Lucy + Jorge Orta at The Yorkshire Sculpture Park

 

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Yesterday saw me back at my favourite place, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which on a beautiful warm autumn day was looking at it’s absolute best.  The main underground galleries were being prepared for the next exhibition after the incredible Yinka Shonibare show which has been on over the summer so we headed first to the have a look at Roger Hiorns : Seizure a truly bizarre creation whereby he turned the inside of an East London council flat (which has now been transported to Yorkshire) into a weird blue crystallized Doctor Who like world after he flooded the inside of the flat with 75,000 litres of copper sulphate, left it for a month to see what happened.  This was a great example in my ongoing series with the kids of is that art/ what is art to which one of them replied simply “If that’s art then anything is”.

We meandered our way slowly over to the Longside Gallery to have a look at the new Orta exhibition which has the theme of water.  There is large collection of different pieces all linked together through the theme.  The central piece is a large raft “The Raft of the Medusa” based on the sinking of the French frigate Méduse in 1816 and the subsequent painting of the disaster by Théodore Géricault.  In the disaster there were not enough lifeboats for the crew so those who could not make it onto the ships 6 boats were left to fashion rafts from what they could.  The Orta’s have constructed their large raft out of all sorts of flotsam and jetsam including children’s inflatables and it asks the question of you what would make a raft out of?  All around are other life jackets made up of all sorts of things together with water tanks, taps, bottles etc.  The bottles are used in a number of sculptures either as bottles or they’ve been covered and joined together in a coloured coating making clouds and other fluid shapes.  All of the objects make you think of water in it’s various forms, that it is the most essential element for sustaining life but that it also causes death through flooding, tidal waves etc.  I also thought how utterly maddening it must be to be stuck on a raft afloat on a ocean of water that you would not be able to drink and how you would long for a supply of bottles of water.  All of the bottles of water in the various pieces were empty which perhaps helped to heighten this sensation.

As always the Sculpture Park had produced an excellent family guide to the exhibition which my kids enjoyed, it got them thinking about both sides of water, how vital it is but how it can also cause destruction together with getting them thinking about what they would want if they were cast adrift.

For me I was not totally convinced by the individual pieces within the exhibition, the piece at the top of this post being a very notable exception, but I did enjoy the collective experience and how it made me think about our most precious resource – water.

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The Nao of Brown

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My new found forays into the world of the comic saw me looking for something to follow up the marvellous Daytripper so I popped into OK Comics to see what they would recommend next.  I came out clutching the Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon.  As I don’t know much about the comic world I’m fortunate to be guided by the marvellous people at OK Comics and, although the stories and depictions obviously differ, one thing that is consistently striking to me about the form is the ability of the artists to display multi layered and complex characters and emotions that morph and shift from one pane to the next and this was beautifully portrayed via the character of Nao Brown.  At one point in the book Gregory Pope quotes Herman Hesse thus “Words do not express thoughts very well, everything immediately becomes a little different, a little distorted, a little foolish” and this quote seems particularly apt for the way the Nao of Brown pictorially deals with thought and emotions.

Nao is half Japanese half English and we pick up the story as she arrives back in England from a trip to visit her alcoholic father in Japan.  She is an artist who has ideas for creating toys but has recently lost her job so begins working in her friend Steve’s Japanese toy shop.  Steve is infatuated with Nao but this appears to go fairly unnoticed by Nao who instead tries to fix him up with her flatmate.  Nao has a form of obsessive compulsive disorder where she imagines causing extreme harm to herself or those around her each example of which she scores out of 10.  So for example she finds herself in a state of panic after she is sat near the emergency exit on a plane as she imagines throwing herself out of the plane (9 out of 10); snapping the neck of a taxi driver (8 out of 10); smashing a beer glass into the face of her date (3 out of 10).  This obsession is really well portrayed in the book as one moment all is fine then in the next pane Kaboom ! as her imagination takes over.  The result for Nao is that she has become fearful of letting these imaginations take over her real life so she struggles with relationships, is scared of ever having children in case she hurts them and does not want to be left alone in any situation that might bring on anxiety and certainly does not want to be alone around any potentially dangerous implement especially pens and the knife draw in the kitchen !

In order to help deal with some of these compulsions Nao seeks peace at her local Buddhist centre where she also draws Enzos which is the Japanese word for circle but are also a zen symbol of enlightenment.  Circles and the sound and symbol of O or oh are everywhere in the book, in the Enzo drawings, the face of the ipod, saucers, clock faces, washing machine doors, the rounded face of Nao’s favourite cartoon character, the mix tape with all songs starting with O, Nao Brown as you pronounce it creates the O sound.  All of this is more than mere coincidence and I think it’s all to do with the idea of completing the circle or cycle of life to find enlightenment.

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Nao meets Gregory who repairs washing machines and effectively fixes their broken cycles, is he the character to repair Nao to fix her cycle allowing her to reach fulfilment and enlightenment in her life ?  Nao falls for Gregory who she thinks looks like the Nothing from her favourite cartoons but Gregory while being able to quote Buddhist teachings also appears to struggle with relationships and turns to drinking too much when anxious.  You later learn what he has been through and that he can perhaps use his knowledge and experience to help others as he tries to help Nao battle her demons.

Running through the book alongside Nao’s is an allegorical story of Pictor who is half man and half tree and there are similarities between Pictor and Nao.  Both end up in a happy place but go through unhappiness or do bad things before they get there the writer appears to be saying that within the cycle of life our experiences lead us to where we end up and there will inevitable by good and bad along they way but neither one or the other defines us they simply help to shape us into what we are.  Doing something bad does not necessarily make you a bad person and doing something good does not mean that you do not possess the potential for badness.  As human beings we all possess the capacity for both sides it’s how we handle that dichotomy that will define us.  As Gregory says to Nao “there is good and bad in all of us, no one is all one or all the other, there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”

I did find the ending slightly strange, I enjoyed the build up and dramatic moments but found the section where it simply skipped forward somewhat at odds to what had gone before, however I suspect that this lies with me and not the writer as it is clear when reading this that every single element of the book has been meticulously thought through so the ending will have been as well, I’m just not sure I’ve fully appreciated it yet.

Overall this is a stunning work of art and literature.  Read it and search for your own peace.

 

 

Pentre Ifan

 

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When I was down in Cardigan recently I went to have a look at Pentre Ifan burial chamber which is something I’ve been meaning to do for a couple of years now but not got round to.  It must be tricky when managing historical monuments to decide what you do in terms of access and information, do you build a visitor centre, have lots of display boards and information, car parks etc all of which have their place and can add to your enjoyment but at the same time they can detract from the actual monument.  I liked the approach that had been taken at Pentre Ifan in that there is basically nothing so you can sit and take in the ancient stones very much in the elements with nothing around.  There is a simple fence and path out to a small road (no car parking) and one display board.  Parking is a couple of miles away with footpaths meandering upwards through woodland and farmers fields to the monument which only reveals itself at the last moment.

I found the stones absolutely breathtaking, it was a warm still day when I went and only a trickle of other people were around which meant I could spend a good period of time simple taking in the enormity of what I was looking at.  The placing of the burial chamber is on a hillside high enough up to give fantastic views across the rolling countryside down to Cardigan Bay.  There are around 7 stones still standing (with some others scattered about) that would have formed the entrance to what was believed to have been a communal burial chamber.  The stones date back to 3,500 BC and I was in awe of the skill and engineering of the ancient neolithic people that constructed this.  I was scratching my head as to how they got the stones there? how did they get them in place? how did they manage to sculpt the stones to create what in some instances were completely smooth cuts and surfaces?   I also boggled at the fact that South West Wales is not exactly heaving with people now so how sparsely populated was it 5,500 years ago? and yet clearly whoever was there at that time lived I think in a technically sophisticated and structured community.

The largest stone on the top (or capstone) is about 15-20 feet in length and is estimated to weigh around 17 tonnes and is beautifully balanced on the sharpened tips of 3 supporting stones.  It honestly looks for all the world like the capstone is going to slide off at any moment but clearly it’s stood the test of time.

Every Inch of the Way – Tom Bruce

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I think that anyone who has ever ridden a bike anywhere has at one point thought “what if I just keep pedalling” and this is the essence of Tom Bruce’s book where he sets off to ride every inch of the way around the world.  This isn’t a tourist book focussing on the fantastic places that exist in every country along the way, instead it’s very much a travel journal where you accompany Tom through the natural rhythm of his long distance ride.  This rhythm falls into three basic parts: ride; find somewhere to pitch tent and sleep; eat and drink.  At first you might think that this might make for dull reading but it’s anything but, the fact that life for Tom is stripped back to these basics means he experiences the culture and hospitality of the ordinary people along the route and for me it was this that I really enjoyed.  There was something beautiful and simple that Tom revealed about human nature as he rolled into towns and villages where he knew no one and couldn’t speak the language but would need to ask for directions or somewhere to pitch his tent for the night and that is that if you peal away the structures that govern us, be they political or religious, we are human beings, social animals that in the vast majority of cases will help each other out.

Many of us will have travelled in Europe and some further afield but Tom’s trip opened up for me when he started to move from Turkey to Georgia and onwards heading East.  Time after time people who perhaps did not possess the material wealth that many in Britain have and take for granted displayed a wealth of community, spirit and hospitality that would put many of us to shame, opening up their houses, sharing food etc with a total stranger.  Would we do the same if someone from Kazakhstan cycled into your town, village, city looking for similar assistance?

One of the things that I really liked about Tom was that he was not trying to break any records he was just basically seeing if he could do it and while clearly he is a fit guy had not done huge amounts of prep or training prior to going.  The bit of the journey I liked the best was Tom’s travels through the Caucasus and central Asia; Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan via the ancient Silk Road effectively crossing huge deserts and colossal mountain passes – 4,655m at the highest point of the trip and also including a mindboggling climb of 156 miles in Tajikistan and a descent of 78 miles in Kyrgyzstan.  Each one of the countries sounded amazing in their own way full of interesting people, history and places and they really felt isolated and unknown.  However despite this isolation and the vast distances involved Tom would always come across other cyclists which seemed quite amazing to me included one night when he was staying in the ancient city of Samarkand where there were 12 cyclists in the hostel he stayed in, what are the odds on that?

Sometimes Tom would hook up with someone riding the same way at the same pace and they’d ride together for a country or two before going their separate ways as they took different routes onwards and you got a real sense of both the need and relief to have that human contact and company and how hard it was to sometimes go out on your own again but at the same time, apart from a few instances I never got the feeling that Tom struggled with loneliness that much on the trip.

Much of what Tom experienced I think I’d have loved but I would definitely have struggled with some of the hardships, Tom did not have much cash so the trip was done on a definite budget and this made things very tough at times.  In addition some of the conditions both from a cycling and human perspective were challenging to say the least, the desert crossings in central Asia for one seemed madness and the time spent cycling across China did not seem much fun where the culture seemed much less hospitable than elsewhere on the trip.  Of course despite the vastness of the world it’s smallness was also revealed as Tom was able to get bike parts sent out to a remote hotel in the middle of nowhere to allow him to do some running repairs and it was also clear that bureaucracy is alive and kicking everywhere especially with regards to border crossings, embassies and visas.

It was great to ride along with Tom (as that is what it felt like you were doing reading his book) but what did he learn from his trip?  There is a great section on this in the book where he expands on the following:

  • The world and the people in it are good
  • Don’t believe the press and in particular what they tell you about other countries, people and religions
  • Get out into the world and experience things
  • Society is important
  • You can achieve amazing things if you want to

Seems like a pretty good list to me and if you want evidence of the truths within those lessons pick up a copy of Every Inch of the Way and go for a ride round the world with Tom

Footnote:

Tom kindly sent me a copy of this book but if I did not enjoy reading it I would not have written about it on the blog.

Slinky

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In this age of electronic gadget wizardry and toys that require batteries or charging before they work it’s easy to forget that there are simpler toys and games that can still provide great fun, cards and board games of course are classic examples but the other night we went back to messing about with Slinky’s.  Now there is apparently some serious maths going on behind the slinky as it transfers energy along it’s path and it was invented by the engineer Richard James in the 1940’s but for us we just wanted to work out the best way of getting them down the stairs and then racing them.  We tried pulling them from the front, flipping them from the back and various other methods until each one of us settled on our favoured method and the races commenced.  Huge fun had by all and no matter who was in charge we were all cheering for anyone who managed to get that perfect moment when the slinky flipped gracefully end over end right the way to the bottom.  A genius invention and still thankfully as much fun today as it was when I did the exact them thing when I was a kid.

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The 25 Mile Eating House

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I love visiting Cardigan and the surrounding areas of South West Wales but if there is one thing that always slightly surprises me is that it’s not that brilliant for places to eat, or at least I’ve not managed to find them.  Granted there are some notable exceptions but not a huge variety and the pubs in particular are not great.  This has always surprised me as it’s surrounded by fantastic agricultural land, sits on the mouth of the longest river in Wales that feeds into Cardigan bay all of which produce some of the finest produce you could wish to find anywhere and it baffles me why more is not made of this.  I was chatting to someone about this who said that there was not enough trade outside of the tourist season to make places viable but what about people who live there do they not want places to go out and have good food?

One place that appears to be bucking this trend is The 25 Mile Eating House which I was lucky enough to pay a visit to and where I had one of the best and most enjoyable meals out I’ve had anywhere. The concept behind the place is strikingly simple, source the very best local ingredients from no more than 25 miles away, treat that produce well, cook it simply and let the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves.  Do all of this in a welcoming enviornment, where the staff know what they are doing and hey ho you have all the ingredients of a great place.  Of course places that say locally sourced homemade food are ten to a penny no matter where you are, it’s an easy statement to make but often seems to mean we sent one of the staff to Lidl and we have microwaved the results.  The 25 Mile actually does what it says on the tin and does it fantastically well, a lesson in fact to many many other establishments.

As soon as we walked in I got a good feeling about the place, the atmosphere was relaxed, warm, welcoming but professional.  A good mix of seating showed that people on their own, in couples, families or groups would all be catered for and all of these were in when I visited, including the owner/backer and his family on the table next to ours which was a good sign.  Gorgeous bread and home made butter were were quickly put in front of us to nibble while we looked at the menu, which like the rest of the place, was refreshingly simply a couple of fish dishes, meat dishes and vegetarian options for the mains with starters to compliment them.  For the children they could choose any of the mains for half price or there was an additional four options they could go for which were at the incredible bargain price of a fiver.  Now I have no idea why general in Britain we seem to treat our children so badly when it comes to food, they are either not particularly welcomed in restaurants or have generic frozen ‘children’s menus’ options or both.  How are we going to grow the next generation of people who care about what goes on their plate if we are so bad at treating them when they go out to eat.  The 25 Mile was a revelation in this regards by providing food for the children that was of the same standard as the adults and treating them with respect meant that we all had a great experience and from a business perspective it meant that the adults had three courses where we might otherwise have been simply trying to get something down us and leave as quickly as possible.  It doesn’t seem that difficult to me but perhaps it must be as so few places seem able to pull this off.

The 25 Mile has a great philosophy but that will of course amount to nothing if the food on the plate does not match up.  It was however incredible with a couple of quickly devoured starters setting us up for the mains.  I went for Welsh back sirloin steak with beef hash, fried duck egg and an incredibly intense steak sauce every mouthful of which provided a comforting meaty glow within me while A opted for a tomato and purple basil risotto cake, fennel salad troed y rhiw pesto and smiled all the way through eating it.  You could say steak and a risotto cake, so what? but that’s the point it’s simple food, sourced locally and cooked brilliantly and would prove very difficult to beat.  One of the kids had a mini steak which was a slimmed down version of mine but retaining all of the quality and she was treated properly, asked how she would like her steak cooked etc while the other went for a fresh pasta dish that was sublime.  I’d have happily eaten either of the kids meals and left happy and how often could you say that about somewhere you’ve eaten out?  For afters there was a selection of amazingly strange sounding ice cream, black pepper anyone, which had to be ordered and tickled the tastebuds like nothing I’ve quite experienced and it wouldn’t have been right if I’d not had a cheeseboard.  The serving of cheese in restaurants can spoil many a good night out for me as I’m often faced with a mound of crackers or fruit with a slither of cheese.  No I want to protest I ordered a cheeseboard not a cracker board or fruit bow.  At The 25 Mile however it would appear as if someone has actually sat down and ate the portion being served as it had exactly the right amount of cheese (all Welsh of course) to cracker.

We left stuffed, happy but sad that The 25 Mile is not my local eating house.

Until I Find You – John Irving

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The latest BoysBookClub saw us tackling the 800 odd pages of Until I Find You by John Irving and I wonder if there is any other way to sum up this book than to ask whether Irving is the closest we’ve got to a modern day Dickens? as this is how I felt reading this – complex multi-layered, grown up storytelling with an incredible array of characters that rewards the efforts of the reader.  It is one of the most enjoyable books that we have read in the book club.  Despite it’s length I had no problems reading the book and devoured it in great chunks laughing and feeling great melancholy in equal measure (a bit like Any Human Heart by William Boyd that this book resembled in parts).  The book worked on many levels for me, the fun of reading it and the sparkling array of characters but also the way the themes unfolded across the book and left me thinking about them long after I’d finished the book which is always a good sign. The book charts the life of actor Jack Burns as it unfolds across the years as he seeks to establish the truth behind his upbringing, his relationship with his mother and his search for his absent father.  In many ways a simple premise but that does not do justice the way the story is told and unfolds. The main themes that I took out of the book were:

  • Life’s journey and how we see things or are told things together with the difference between objectivity and subjectivity.  Probably most of us assume we are being objective in our dealings with people and relationships but we can’t be, we can only be subjective based on our own own experiences and what the people who we come across in life reveal to us.  I thought that this was beautifully portrayed by the Jack Burns character.
  • Memory – the book explores what is real and what is not, what do we tell people about the past.  I can’t remember a book that dealt with this issue so well and the way the story twisted between when Jack began to realise that his memories were based on events told by his mother Alice that might not have been real.  Also how do we remember things? do we write them down, take photographs or, in the case of people with tattoos do we ink those memories and journeys into our flesh as was revealed (in more ways that one) by Jack’s father William and his full body of tattoos.
  • Truth, which is closely linked to memory and the concept of objectivity/subjectivity.  What is truth and who decides what it is?What played out throughout the book was to show the unfolding effect that lopsided truth telling can have on the people around you, particularly your children.  All of us will have told truths, half truths and lies to our children and I’m sure most of us will have done this for what we believe to be the right reasons, usually to protect them, but what happens when they realise that what you are telling them maybe doesn’t add up to how they see the world?  Does it mean that you are building a house of cards that can very easily come crashing down?
  • Sex and damage were huge themes throughout the book – some people use many things to deal with emotional pain and damage in their lives, drugs, drink, addictive behaviour of all types which of course can include sex and tattooing and it was interesting how often tattoos both show damage e.g. the ripped hearts etc but that they also often reflect painful memories that form part of our personal journeys through life.
  • Abuse (which was inextricably linked to almost all of the sex in the book).  This was uncomfortable reading in many aspects, not least because I found many of the situations that Jack found himself in absurdly funny.  The abuse was also perhaps unusual in that it was primarily carried out by women in the book.  The abuse of Jack in the early years was also predicated on the belief that Jack was going to turn out to be like his father, a womaniser but this turned out to be a lie so all of Jack’s sexual adventures and desires for older women was built upon the house of cards of memories and truths that were not reality.
  • Identity, all of that things I’ve described above help us to define who we are and who are the people around us.  Jack had no real idea who he was and became an actor that simply reflected back onto the people and situations around him, he had no real identity or core stability due to the damage caused by the abuse, lack of truth and false memory that had been his life.  He acted to his audience of one, his absent father, but that audience was almost mythical.  It made me think about what we all need to be stable, happy people.  We do need an identity that we are comfortable with otherwise we become like Jack mere actors upon the stage of life rather than actually living life.  Perhaps it’s only when we find ourselves (as in the title of the book) that we shape an identity that we, the people around us and those we come into contact with can trust and be comfortable with.
  • Dysfunction/ normality Jack clearly had a dysfunctional life, as did many if not all of the myriad characters throughout the book but again is this not how it is for many of us, perhaps not as dysfunctional as Jack’s granted but I think this book asked the question what is normal and who decides that?  Even if you are not normal that does not mean you lose the rights or capacity for all the good things and emotions that ‘normal’ people maybe take for granted.
  • Complexities of families and relationships – I think that Irving, perhaps like no other writer around at the moment, is so good at drawing out and alluding to the abnormalities/dysfunction that exist in so many families but that also family life is so complex when perhaps all that we need is to be loved and to understand what love is.  I think that this is a theme that gets explored in many of his books and perhaps has something to do with Irving as a person (although I don’t know anything about his background so am only guessing here).  William, Alice, Jack, Emma, Heather and Lesley – you could not get an odder, more complex or more dysfunctional family and yet they were all bound together by the deep bonds of love however misguidedly that was displayed.  I found this one of the most poignant recurring themes throughout the book.

When you write the themes down like this I makes you think blimey that’s some big stuff there and each one could involve serious discussion and I think that this is one of the great things about this book there is just so much in it that you could discuss and think about from the themes to the characters – it’s all in there.  This leads me on to the characters and Wow, I’ve obviously not counted them all but there are dozens and dozens of them all beautifully drawn and none of them confusing in when the appeared in the book, which can often be the case in some books with minor characters appearing later and you’ve got to backtrack to work out who they were.  There is a real skill in being able to have so many characters and to get them to fit the story without confusion.  In the book club we have often complained about the lack of characters in books but this one had them in spades.  Tattoo artists, prostitutes, musicians, actors, wrestles, teachers, medics, chauffeurs, bikes, movie execs, counsellors, policemen etc etc and they are just some of the categories under which there were numerous fantastic individual characters.

Apart from the various tattoo artists at the start of the book the characters I was most drawn to were Jack, Alice, William, Emma, Mrs Oastler, The Wurtz and the Grey Ghost.  I think you could write a thesis on Alice in particular and she was one of the most interesting female characters I think I’ve come across in a book.  In the book club we often talk about whether books are mare or female and I’d love to get a female perspective on this book, both from the point of view of the abuse which as mentioned was primarily carried out by women, but also on the female characters and Alice in particular.  William, Jack’s father and a genius organ player with a full body tattoo, did not reveal himself until right at the end of the book but again was a fantastically drawn character, both in terms of when you actually met him but also how he was portrayed right from the opening page and how your opinion of him, what he looked like, who he was etc, changed as the book developed.  As I was reading the book I was desperate for Jack to find him but for the vast majority of the book it did not look like this would ever happen.  As I reflected on the book while writing this it strikes me how unusual it must be to have one of the main characters introduced on the first page but that you don’t actually meet until about page 800.  There are so many great characters that I couldn’t possibly hope to do them justice in this review.

A few other points to mention, this was a book that was simply packed with great farcical comedy that was often incredibly poignant which is a difficult thing to pull off but you will find yourself chuckling to yourself at regular intervals.  Irving also has recurring themes that crop up across his novels, wrestling, Vienna and bears !  Wrestling was definitely in the book and Vienna was mentioned but I was disappointed by the lack of a bear.

Tattoos and organs and the culture around them were brilliantly described.  I really like tattoos, the history of them, what they signify etc and I was totally in thrall to the detailed descriptions of the significance of certain tattoos, the signature designs of certain artists and the whole world community that the book described.  Allied to this was the weird world of organs, a subject about which I know nothing but again you had this idea that, in the same way tattoo fans will seek out certain signature artists around the world, the same is true of organists who look to play at different churches and cathedrals depending on how many stops the organ has etc.  I ahve no idea what a stop is though or why it’s significant.  The was a real passion (and an OCD / addiction element) to both of these worlds that Irving described and that William was immersed in and I can’t remember ever reading about music in a novel that portrayed the power and moving quality that music can have.  The whole town in Zurich coming to William play each week was a particularly fantastically euphoric moment in the book, mixed in with a dose of farce of course.

However despite all I’ve said would a judicious use of an editor have helped to tighten things up a bit, reduce the length and get rid of some of the rambling ambling sections of the book that potentially distract from making it an absolute classic?  Perhaps yes, however I think that Irving was purposely trying to show how life does amble and ramble and how we develop as characters as life unfolds.

Finally the title of the book Until I Find You – who is the You ?  The tattoo of the words (as depicted above) was on Alice’s breast with a broken heart (damage again) but it was not William that she was looking to find so we were perhaps led to believe that it was the love of her life but I think that it relates to us in that until we find ourselves and are comfortable with the truths/untruths/memories that we hold then we will never be at peace.