Monthly Archives: November 2013

Cardiff, Wales – The Richard Burton Diaries (2012)

I’m in Cardiff for a couple of days. I’ve often been to Wales, but only the north, and mostly as a child. This is the first time I’ve been in the south, and there’s clearly been a great deal of investment here in recent years. A lot of the architecture is shiny and new, and just a little bit – well, sexier than I was expecting.

Cardiff also has a lot more people dressed as superheroes and characters from Japanese animation than I was expecting – this is due to a comic convention taking place just over the road from my hotel. There’s a queue to get in around the block for most of the day, so whenever I go by there’s something new to see.

I’m staying at Radisson Blu – good, though some strange decor choices – lots of sharp corners (the desk is quite uncomfortable to work at for any length of time). There’s a little table in my room that’s such an eye-wateringly bright shade of orange that I eventually have to hide it behind an armchair just so I can get to sleep.

There do seem to be a lot of strange design choices in hotels these days. This room has what looks like a pink soft foam seat suspended below the television – but there’s a sign on it saying it’s not a seat – it’s to put your luggage on. Why? Why have it suspended, and make it out of something soft, if its sole function in life is to have heavy (and probably dirty) luggage put on it? And why have a luggage rack at the foot of the bed, rather than near the wardrobe?
But these are minor quibbles compared to some. It’s a good hotel, and all the staff are very helpful.

Not a lot of spare time this trip. I could take a city tour, and see Cardiff Castle? Or I’m a twenty minute walk from Cardiff Bay, and the Doctor Who Experience – maybe I can fit both in.

I get to the Doctor Who Experience at 11:11am, which I find quietly amusing (for those who aren’t drooling fangirls, the current Doctor is number 11). Honestly, this is the best money I’ve ever spent. An interactive adventure, with filmed sequences where you go through a crack in time! Fly the Tardis! Scream as weeping angels try to grab you – in 3D! Have your picture taken on a alien world! Operate a dalek! A building the size of an aircraft hangar filled with costumes, props, sets – and merchandise. Lots and lots of merchandise. My mental age drops rapidly. I’m happy as a hyperactive five year old, yet somehow I manage to stay within my budget in the gift shop – just.

The website said to allow an hour and a half. to go around the exhibition. After three hours, I’m still there. But that’s not all. Today there’s also a location tour – an hour and a half wandering round Cardiff Bay spotting locations used in Doctor Who and the spin-off show, Torchwood. The older buildings have stood in for Victorian London, while the more futuristic ones have been used for other planets.

My favourite location? The Millennium Centre – I’ve always liked the look of this, but it’s even more impressive up close. The building’s metal dome, gleaming in the sun, has huge words (made from windows) at the front. The Welsh reads “Crev gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais awen” (Creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration) and in English there’s “In these stones horizons sing”. Clearly a place with a love of language.

The most bizarre location? The shrine to Ianto Jones of Torchwood. Originally set up on the waterfront for the show, but then added to by fans, it now has a plaque commemorating him giving his life for Earth – with a little disclaimer underneath pointing out that he’s not actually real…

The location tour ends near Eddie’s Diner, which was used in a Doctor Who episode set in Utah. If you go down to the end of the diner, by the toilet, check out the storeroom door – it was painted for filming to look like the Tardis. I have to go in and have a burger. I don’t normally like burgers, but these are delicious – I don’t know whether it’s because it’s made with Welsh beef , or because I’m sitting at the table they used in the show. It is, of course, number 11.

Sorry, Cardiff Castle! Maybe next time.

So, what’s on my reading list that has a Welsh connection?
The Richard Burton Diaries (edited by Chris Williams). I’ve been wanting to read this for a while. I first came across Burton as the narrator of the classic War of the Worlds album, so I knew him as a great voice years before I ever saw him in a movie, though I’ve seen him in several since. This is bigger than the books I usually travel with (600+ pages) but as I’ve got at least four hours travelling each way, it should last the whole journey.

It does. The whole journey – and every spare minute after I got back. Unputdownable – it has it all – romance, tragedy, travel, excess – and books. Lots and lots of books.

I’ve never read anyone else’s diary before, but this is simply fascinating. The places he went, the people he met – the books he read! That’s the one good thing about insomnia – you can get a lot of reading done. I can relate to a lifelong insomniac – especially one who believes “Home is where the books are”.

The gaps in the diaries are frustrating – sometimes he stopped writing for years – but he lived such a big life, there simply wouldn’t have been time for him to write about all of it. Most of the diaries cover the 1960s and 1970s, but there are also some from as early as 1939, which allows you to see the contrast between the teenager collecting dung to sell for a penny a bucket, and the movie star wealthy enough to buy a jet plane on the spur of the moment.

And of course, there’s his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. The original Hollywood celebrity couple – how can any relationship survive under that constant scrutiny? And yet it did. Even after they divorced (twice!) they stayed in touch, and were there for each other.

Yes, there are days where the only entry is simply “Booze”. There are times when it’s depressing, partly because you know how it’s going to end, and some of the entries (mostly at either end) are of the more mundane ‘what I had for tea’ type. But it’s also moving, absorbing – heartbreaking in places. To call him a complex man is putting it mildly – sensitive, intelligent, often unhappy, and aware of his failings. On the whole I really enjoyed his writing style, especially at the points where I could almost hear that voice reading it aloud.

My only gripe (besides wanting more) is with the footnotes which, despite their size, are frustrating (also, after years of reading Terry Pratchett, I now expect humour in footnotes). Some of the detail seems unnecessary (surely anyone who’s seen enough of his films to be interested in Burton would be likely to know that Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar?). Strangely the footnotes don’t explain or convert references to pre-decimal currency, which aren’t going to be very clear to anyone under fifty, or not British. Translation is inconsistent – some French phrases are translated, some aren’t. Family members are mentioned in the footnotes, but only the first time they appear in the diaries. The book is too big to read in a single sitting, so family trees might have been more helpful, just to keep track of people – Burton was the youngest of twelve, so he had a large family already, even before you add his children, and Elizabeth Taylor’s children from various marriages.

Most of what I’ve read about Burton has focussed on his drinking, and how it was a shame he didn’t do more theatre. Personally, after reading this, I think it’s shame he didn’t do more writing. I don’t normally recommend books to people, but if you’re interested in theatre, film, books, fame or booze – read this. It’s a book that will stay with me forever.

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Posted by on November 23, 2013 in United Kingdom & Ireland, Wales


Trinity, Newfoundland – Seldom (2002)

Well, it took me three days to get here (read my previous post, if you haven’t already), but it was worth it.

Trinity is simply beautiful. It used to be the centre of a busy fishery, but now it’s a heritage town, with lots of very picturesque historic buildings, and a busy theatre festival, Rising Tide’s Seasons in the Bight.

I’m staying at Maidment House, which was built in 1892. It’s been lovingly restored, with the emphasis on local crafts – the bed, the quilts, the soaps are all made locally. Even the pretty leaf keyring for my room key was made at the forge just across the street. Karen (who runs the place) is hospitality itself. She makes the most amazing breakfasts, a different one every day. Normally when it comes to breakfast I’m a toast and coffee kind of girl, but they’re so good I try to eat as much as I can.

In fact, everyone here seems very hospitable. I’m out walking one day when a man says “You’d be that English girl that’s staying with Karen”
How did he know? Because he didn’t recognise me. Everyone knows everyone here. His wife has just made biscuits, so I’m invited in to try them. The next day I come across someone frying fish, and I’m invited to try that as well. Just two hours ago it was in the ocean – fish doesn’t get much fresher than that!

I love it here, though it might not be for everyone. There are some shops, restaurants (where you can watch icebergs drift by), a small marina – but it’s an hour’s drive if you want fresh fruit. And if you want to get a signal on a mobile phone, you have to walk to the top of a hill. I do, and finally get an update from home – I now have a new nephew, and all is well. I can breathe a huge sigh of relief, and start enjoying myself.

I go to several performances, all good. There’s a lot of artistic talent here. The New Founde Land Trinity Pageant makes particularly good use of the unique setting, where storytellers lead the audience around the town, and different historical episodes are re-enacted at each stop.

One play (a comedy) features a scene where campers exit, pursued by bear. There are screams backstage and everyone laughs – until someone comes back onstage and asks if there’s a doctor in the house. The bear has tripped over and broken his nose – luckily there are two doctors in the audience, so they look after him until the ambulance arrives (nearly an hour – the one drawback to living somewhere off the beaten track).

From fake wildlife to the real thing – there’s a whale-watching tour nearby. I’m interested in this one as they use a Zodiac. Apparently because it’s inflated, rather than having a solid hull, whales seem to regard it as sea life, and come closer than they would to a normal boat. Of course, being inflated means that if it hits a submerged rock, you’re in trouble, so we have to put on survival suits.

I now look like a fun balloon animal. Any whale watching me will probably die laughing. But off we go. And it seems to be true about the Zodiac, as several dolphins join us shortly after we set off. They stay with us, leaping alongside, until we pick up speed. A couple of humpback whales have been spotted in the area – we don’t see them, but we do come across a fin whale (the second largest whale after the blue whale). I’ve never seen one before, so that’s a real treat.

Next day I go hiking on the Skerwink Trail. It’s a slightly drizzly day, so I have the place almost to myself. Then I hear something breathing – something big. I make my muddy way through the trees (past a sign reading ‘Danger – Unstable Cliffs’) and lean over the edge. In the bay at the bottom of the cliffs are two humpback whales – the breathing I heard was them spouting. They are totally oblivious to me, so I can stand and watch for as long as I like, without worrying that I’m bothering them. Beautiful.

It’s so quiet here – and very dark once a play ends and the audience drives away. Luckily that means it’s time to read. Maidment House has a bookcase full of Newfoundland books, including Seldom, by Dawn Rae Downton (2002). Seldom is an outport on Fogo Island, not too far from Trinity, so it seems like an appropriate choice.

It’s the story of the author’s grandmother, who loved a man who was lost at sea – so she married his handsome, charming brother instead. Unfortunately he turned out to be jealous, devious and violent. But she stayed with him, trying to keep the family together, because that’s what people did – bandaging up the wounds, and telling the school the child was off with a fever. In small towns, where everyone knows everyone, it’s interesting what people choose not to know.

This makes it sound depressing – and it’s not always an easy read. I would have enjoyed it more if it were fiction. But it’s well-written, with loads of little details of daily life back then. The book spans the first half of the twentieth century, giving a history of the island as a whole, as well as the central family,. There’s no attempt made to excuse or justify the grandfather’s behaviour – it’s just another threat in a harsh environment, like the sea or the snow. But despite the harshness, love managed to flourish between the six children and their mother.

And reading it here, where you can see Newfoundland at its best, is the ideal setting.

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Posted by on November 17, 2013 in Canada, Newfoundland