Archives for category: art and design

I’m looking forward to seeing an opera based on Macbeth next month, written by Giuseppe Verdi. And much like Proust’s famous madeleine biscuit, the thought of Verdi (whose handsome portrait you see above) brought memories of my youth flooding back!

When I finished university I moved to Montreal and rented a flat on the top floor of a small apartment block. The flat was small and bright with white walls and a skylight, and basically had three rooms: a bedroom in front, a long narrow living space, and a kitchen in the back. It was the first place I’d ever lived on my own, and I took great pleasure in furnishing it to my taste.

That striking portrait of Verdi (by Giovanni Boldini) hung on my kitchen wall (in poster form, not the original!) I have always admired the skill of the artist in capturing every whisker, those sparkling blue eyes, the velvety blackness of the coat and the sheen of that top hat. Even more impressive to me is the fact that Boldini worked in pastels, which I have never mastered. I just love this portrait and wish I still had that poster!

Another beautiful thing I miss from my Montreal flat is the bamboo bird cage that stood in my living room, under the skylight. I would never keep birds in a cage, but it was perfect for holding a trailing ivy plant which was very happy there. I have tried to find a similar cage online and was taken aback to find they are now called “vintage” (making me feel rather old!)

I lived on Rue Messier, which was typical of the area in Montreal known as the Plateau Mont-Royal. You can see the three-storey buildings with six flats in each, and the distinctive curvy metal staircases to reach the upper floors. I remember having to brush eight inches of snow off each step every morning in the winter!

I studied French and Quebec Literature in Toronto, and then moved to Montreal to live in a French-speaking environment. I had read the novels and plays of Quebec author Michel Tremblay and was a huge fan, so it was quite a thrill to move into the neighbourhood where he had grown up! Much of his work is set in those same streets around the Parc La Fontaine, and in one novel he mentions Rue Fabre, just a few streets away from my place on Messier.

The first novel in Tremblay’s chronicles of the Plateau Mont-Royal was called La grosse femme d’a coté est enceinte (The Fat Lady Next Door is Pregnant). You can see from the image above that my copy is well worn and well loved!

Photo ©Alchetron

Michel Tremblay is most famous for an early play called Les Belles-soeurs (The Sisters-in-Law). I have seen it performed in French, which is quite a challenge for a native English speaker since it is written in a working-class Montreal dialect called joual. The play has had such success that it has been translated into many languages, including Scots! It was a great pleasure for me to see a production of The Guid Sisters in Glasgow a few years ago. It took me right back to my youth in Montreal. And now an opera of Macbeth has done it again!

Recently my family and I had an amazing adventure on the other side of the world. We flew from Glasgow to Malaysia in the heart of Southeast Asia where the weather is always hot and steamy, even in December. From the capital city of Kuala Lumpur we took a four-hour train ride (with f-f-freezing cold air conditioning) up the coast to the island of Penang.

The main city on the island is called George Town, and it has a long history as a trading port. Today the city is a modern metropolis with high-rise office blocks and fancy hotels, but there are still some beautiful historic buildings that give a sense of the old way of life in Penang.

One of these is the famous Blue Mansion on Leith Street. It was built in the late 1880s by a very successful Chinese businessman and diplomat, Cheong Fatt Tze. Born into relative poverty in southern China in 1840, Cheong fled civil war and settled in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he started as a shopkeeper before building an impressive business trading rubber, tea and coffee. He had three ships which travelled between Penang and Sumatra with trade goods, and soon he was rich enough to buy a bank.

Wealthy businessman Cheong Fatt Tze in the 1890s.

Cheong Fatt Tze was so well known and admired in Penang that the Chinese government appointed him as Chinese Consul, responsible for the wellbeing of all Chinese residents of Malaysia and Singapore. For this highly prestigious position, Cheong decided he would need an impressive residence as his base.

The Blue Mansion was built according to the principles of Feng Shui, a Chinese philosophy linking architectural design with the elements of nature to ensure a lucky and harmonious life. For example, the house has five courtyards open to the sky, allowing rain to enter, as water is a symbol of wealth and prosperity. The house is also built on a gradient which allows drainage and represents the upward steps toward progress and self-improvement.

The first courtyard features an ornate Chinese screen, imported cast iron columns and railings and a granite floor.

Because Cheong was an international trader, he chose the highest quality materials for his mansion from around the world. These included Victorian encaustic floor tiles from Stoke-on-Trent and decorative cast iron from William Macfarlane’s Saracen Foundry in Glasgow.

A view from upstairs shows the ornate cast iron columns, railings and brackets, as well as the decorative floor tiles, all imported from the UK in the 1880s.

Being a Glasgow resident myself, I couldn’t resist finding a Macfarlane imprint on one of the columns!

The floor tiles are typical of the time and the same patterns can be found in Victorian houses around the UK.

The exterior of the house is finished with a lime wash (mixing powdered lime – not the fruit – with sand and water) which is spread on the surface like plaster. Natural lime wash dries white, but because this colour represents death in Chinese culture, Cheong’s mansion has the addition of indigo dye which creates a beautiful blue colour.

At the eaves, Chinese craftsmen have added an amazing floral decoration in the Chien Nien style with pheasants, parrots, crabs and fish. These are made with red, yellow, white and green ceramic bowls which have been broken to create curved mosaic pieces. All very labour intensive!

The curved porcelain pieces make perfect feathers and flower petals.

Cheong Fatt Tze had eight wives and six sons. His favourite wife (number 7) lived in the Blue Mansion, and Cheong used part of the building as his office as Chinese Consul in Penang. He died in 1916 and his will stated that the mansion must be shared by his descendants and could not be demolished or divided up. Over the years it fell into disrepair, and was eventually inhabited only by drifters and rats.

In 1989 a group of Penang conservationists who saw the historic importance of the Blue Mansion bought the property and spent many years and a great deal of money (supported by UNESCO and other heritage agencies) restoring the building. It is now open to the public and has a museum installation on the first floor with guided tours three times daily. (We went on one and the guide is very entertaining!)

The mansion also houses a luxurious 16-room hotel and a restaurant called Indigo. It’s an impressive building with so many surprising details, not least of which is the fascinating story of Cheong himself. I think if we ever go back to Malaysia it will be my hotel of choice!

Twitter is a wonderful way to make new friends. Recently a head teacher I follow drew my attention to a knitted puffin that a Glasgow teacher had put up on Twitter. She thought it looked very like one of the characters of my puffin books, Lewis Clowns Around and Harris the Hero.

Knitted puffin by Susan Quinn.

Knitted puffin by Susan Quinn.

I was impressed, and wondered if Susan the clever knitter would be able to create a fluffy grey puffling to go with me on school and nursery visits when I’m reading my new puffin story, Skye the Puffling. Through Twitter I was able to chat to Susan about what Skye should look like, and show her the lovely illustration by Jon Mitchell:

Skye coverSusan immediately set to work, and soon I was able to see my little puffling taking shape! Not being a knitter myself, I was baffled by the complex knitting instructions she seemed to be following. A fluffy little grey thing began to emerge…

knitting-skye-1Next she sent me a little bird shape and I could imagine a very cute, fluffy puffling who looked soft and snuggly:

knitting-skye-2Finally, Susan sent me a picture of Skye with eyes and a beak, with the message, “only the feet to add.” Little Skye was soon finished, and Susan and I agreed to meet up so I could repay her with three copies of my puffin books.

knitting-skye-3My fluffy Skye has already come with me to a Bookbug Library Challenge event at Drymen Library, and she was very well received! I’ve got another event tomorrow at Alloa Library, and Skye will be coming with me again, to be sure.

fluffy-skyeI was very touched by Susan’s generosity, and it was a real pleasure to meet her for a chat as we exchanged puffins. Many thanks to Joyce Hawkins who first alerted me to Susan’s impressive knitting talents!

Cute knitted cactus plants I spotted at fnac bookshop in Barcelona.

Cute knitted cactus plants I spotted at fnac bookshop in Barcelona.

While I was on holiday in Spain another knitted item caught my eye. It was a pair of soft and squishy cactus plants with brilliant care instructions: “Cactus of extremely slow, almost imperceptible growth. Easy to care for, simply give abundant morning smiles.” As my daughter is a huge cactus fan, I took a photo of them to show her. I’m glad I did, as it meant I could show the same photo to Susan. I thought she could easily knit a cactus and find a pot for it, and sure enough, she had already done it!

Susan Quinn's cactus.

Susan Quinn’s cactus.

It seems there is no end to what you can do with knitting needles! Susan is already thinking about Christmas…

squinn-tree

Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool in Seattle has a new community library. From www.teachertomsblog.blogspot.co.uk

Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool in Seattle has a new community library. From http://www.teachertomsblog.blogspot.co.uk

It’s nice to know that in these days of library closures and cutbacks, the desire to share books and celebrate reading is still a powerful force in many communities. I follow the blog of a preschool teacher in Seattle called Teacher Tom, who recently posted about the new community library he has installed (with the help of a parent who built it!)

The idea of providing free access to a small collection of books on a local level has been around for generations, and one particular movement called Little Free Library developed recently in the United States. Its aim is “to promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide and to build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity and wisdom across generations.”

The first Little Free Library, from https://littlefreelibrary.org/history/

The first Little Free Library, from https://littlefreelibrary.org/history/

The first Little Free Library was built in 2009 by Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin. It was designed to look like a one-room schoolhouse, and was created as a memorial to Todd’s mother Esther Bol who was a teacher. He filled it with books and set it on a post in his front garden for anyone in the neighbourhood to enjoy. I think the concept may have sprung in part from the American tradition of the curbside mailbox.

The traditional mailbox found in rural and suburban settings in the USA.

The traditional mailbox found in rural and suburban settings in the USA.

These are similar in concept – a box on a pole at the end of the drive – and can be quite fanciful in design, ranging from red barns and Victorian houses to boldly painted American flags. There is just as much variety in the Little Free Library designs, and many have outdoor seating and shady umbrellas for your reading pleasure.

Todd Bol’s original library spawned a growing movement, and by the summer of 2010 little postbox-style structures made of recycled wood were popping up all over Wisconsin. By the end of 2011 there were four hundred of them across the United States. Today that number has reached 36,000 and is still growing!

Anyone in the US and Canada can order a Little Free Library box online to install in their own neighbourhood. Its location will then be pinpointed on a map on the Little Free Library website. If you live elsewhere in the world, you can still be part of the scheme by registering your own mini-library with Little Free Library. This will put you on the map too!

If you happen to live near Minneapolis, Minnesota, you can catch the first Little Free Library Festival:

LFL Festival

The festival will feature live music, poetry, storytelling and of course library-building. That last option appeals to me, as I love all the amazing designs and would quite enjoy giving my library a colourful and distinctive paint job!

One example of a rather unusual mini-library is this TARDIS one from Macon, Georgia:

The TARDIS Little Free Library built by Christopher Marney. From www.littlefreelibrary.org

The TARDIS Little Free Library built by Christopher Marney. From http://www.littlefreelibrary.org

It has room for all sorts of books and access for all heights, from the smallest readers to the tallest ones. Not everyone can have a TARDIS in their neighbourhood (although I do!) Ours is a real Police box that now serves as a tiny coffee shop outside the Botanic Gardens. I wonder if they might consider having a collection of free books on one shelf…

 

Winnequah Dream Park in Monona, Wisconsin. Photo from www.mymonona.com

Winnequah Dream Park in Monona, Wisconsin. Photo from http://www.mymonona.com

Recently I was doing some research for a simple, non-fiction book about playgrounds (published by Cambridge University Press) and I was amazed at all the brilliant and imaginative play spaces I found. Wooden castles with giant serpents, crazy ice palaces, wild water jets and wonderful animal sculptures – there was no end to the inventive playgrounds I came across. It made me wish I were a kid again!

On Wednesday 4 May, the Duchess of Cambridge will officially open a new playground at Hampton Court Palace in what used to be King Henry VIII’s tiltyard (where he held jousting tournaments). It’s called the Magic Garden, and it features bright red and blue towers (King’s and Queen’s), a moat, a secret grotto and a very scary smoke-breathing dragon!

Hampton Court Magic Garden, from www.hrp.org.uk

Hampton Court Magic Garden, from http://www.hrp.org.uk

You can see the dragon’s head on the left of the picture above. Close-up he looks like this:

The Magic Garden dragon, from https://londonist.com

The Magic Garden dragon, from https://londonist.com

Apparently every hour his eyes light up and steam rolls out of his mouth! Behind the dragon on a grassy mound is a large metal feature that is shaped like King Henry VIII’s crown. From up there you can survey the entire garden (and spot your family if you’ve lost them!)

If you like the idea of climbing all over scaly monsters, here’s another surprising playground feature: a giant pike! It was designed by a Danish company called Monstrum, and stands in Annedals Park in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Monstrum pike, from their website at www.monstrum.dk

The Monstrum pike, from their website at http://www.monstrum.dk

Monstrum create all sorts of amazing wooden structures for children’s playgrounds, including moon rockets, submarines, snail shells and a haunted house. The company was started by two men who were set designers and builders for Danish theatre. When one of them joined the parents’ committee of his son’s nursery to look into buying playground equipment, he realised he could design and build something much better himself. That’s how Monstrum was born.

Brumleby play area in Copenhagen, from www.monstrum.dk

Brumleby play area in Copenhagen, from http://www.monstrum.dk

The wonky buildings in this playground in Copenhagen reflect the design of the surrounding houses in a comical and surreal way. What child could resist exploring this weird play space that includes three houses, a baker’s shop, a slide and a rope bridge? Do take a look at the Monstrum website to see the amazing designs they have built all over Europe, Scandinavia and even Russia. I wish I spoke Danish so I could work for them!

Another company that makes fun wooden playground equipment (among other things) is Adirondack Storage Barns in upstate New York. The boat above is like a little Noah’s Ark, which you half expect to find full of animals in pairs. It would be great to climb inside and peek out those portholes. If you don’t fancy a boat to climb on, how about a wooden train?

I can imagine all sorts of kids having fun on the train, though there might be some disputes about who is going to drive… Adirondack also make a tractor and trailer that would hold a good crowd.

Tractor and trailer from www.adirondackstoragebarns.com

Tractor and trailer from http://www.adirondackstoragebarns.com

But not all playground equipment is made of wood. What would you think of exploring a huge amusement park made of ice? Every year in northeastern China, ice sculptors gather to create the most amazing play space for the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival.

Children enjoying the slides at the Harbin Ice Festival in China. Photo from www.mymodernmet.com

Children enjoying the slides at the Harbin Ice Festival in China. Photo from http://www.mymodernmet.com

Blocks of ice are taken from the Songhua River to build impressive castles and super-fast ice slides. They look best at night when lit up by colourful lights. Looks like fun, but you’d have to bundle up!

At the other extreme, when the weather is way too hot, you can always get yourself to Washington Park in Cincinnati, Ohio, where there’s a brilliant interactive water feature. Over 130 pop-up jets spray water in time to music and lights, and everyone just jumps in!

The walk home would be pretty soggy, but it would be worth it!