Archives for category: music

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!

subway entranceOn our second day in Toronto, my son and I hopped on the Yonge Street subway line to head down to the Harbourfront area. The subway system has been expanded since I lived in Toronto, and now reaches further in all directions. A good deal simpler than the London Underground system, the Toronto subway has two main lines: the yellow one goes North-South in a big U, and the green one goes East-West along Bloor Street.

Toronto Subway map showing the three lines. Map ©TTC.

The Bloor/Danforth line has been extended north at the eastern end. It ended at Kennedy when I lived there. So I see a new blue line and also a little purple one that wasn’t there before! These go out into the suburbs. Downtown Toronto is the area served by that lower part of the U.

The subway trains have also changed a great deal since I was last in Toronto. Now they are sleek and open with no divisions between carriages. They were revamped in 2010 and now look similar to New York subway trains.

The new Toronto subway trains were launched in 2010. Photo ©TTC/Mike DeToma.

The new Toronto subway trains were launched in 2010. Photo ©TTC/Mike DeToma.

The platforms are clean and modern, and signposting is pretty clear. You can get a transfer to travel on a bus or streetcar once you come out of the subway, but remember to get it at the station where you start! Look for the red transfer machines.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

Inside, the trains look great but the seats are a bit hard. Plenty of room for standing though, and you can walk down the full length of the train.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

There are regular announcements at each station and a set of arrows on the overhead display shows which side to exit on. There is also a clever illuminated map of the subway network with a green light indicating the train’s current location. Red lights show the route you are on and where you will go next.

So, all this to say we took a subway train down to Union Station, where we took a short walkway south to the Harbourfront. I hardly recognised the place, as so many new hotels and highrise condominiums had been built in the past 20 years! We were meeting a friend at the Queen’s Quay building, but I had some trouble finding it in a forest of glass and concrete towers.

queens quay condoThe Queen’s Quay Terminal building was originally a warehouse on the waterfront, but was converted to luxury condominiums in 1983. Back then it was virtually the only one of its kind, with lovely terrace restaurants on the quayside and a landscaped walkway behind. A nearby powerhouse was converted into an art gallery in those early days of cultural transformation.

Now there are a huge number of attractions, including a dog and cat centre, the Purina PawsWay, where pets are welcome to take in exhibits (such as the Animal Hall of Fame) and events like obedience training and obstacle races. Not being pet owners, we didn’t venture in.

Giant bronze pets welcome you at the PawsWay at Harbourfront. Photo ©Purina PawsWay.

Giant bronze pets welcome you at the PawsWay at Harbourfront. Photo ©Purina PawsWay.

Instead we had a lovely walk along the waterfront and a great meal with our friend on a sunny terrace. The next stop was the CN Tower, but when we arrived it was so crowded that we would have had to wait two hours to go up, so we decided against it. My son had forgotten his glasses anyway, so Toronto from the air would have been a blur!

We decided to stroll up Yonge Street, the longest street in Canada at 58 km. We had only travelled a few blocks when we came past the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre, a handsome Edwardian double theatre built in 1913 by Marcus Loew and designed by Thomas W. Lamb.

Photo ©Elgin Winter Garden Theatre.

Photo ©Elgin Winter Garden Theatre.

Originally designed for vaudeville, the lower Elgin Theatre was a sumptuous gilt and red velvet hall where silent films were introduced, and later it was adapted as a mainstream movie house.

The Elgin Theatre has been in continuous use since 1913. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The Elgin Theatre has been in continuous use since 1913.
Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The separate Winter Garden Theatre is located seven stories above the Elgin, and is a whimsical creation with its hanging beech branches and twinkling lanterns.

The unique Winter Garden Theatre has tree-like columns and hanging leaves. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The unique Winter Garden Theatre has tree-like columns and hanging leaves.
Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

This theatre was aimed at a more discriminating audience but it also featured vaudeville shows. When these declined in popularity the Winter Garden Theatre closed, and lay unused for 65 years. In the 1980s both theatres were restored by the Ontario Heritage Foundation. In the upper theatre, volunteers spent many months rolling the painted walls and boxes with raw bread dough to remove the soot. This was the only way to clean them as they were painted with simple water-based paints.

The boxes and stage surround are painted with trellis and roses. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The boxes and stage surround are painted with trellis and roses.
Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

We had intended only to pop in and look at the lobby with its lovely stained glass doors, but we ended up going on a 90-minute tour! A very lucky discovery, and much more interesting than the CN Tower, as it turned out.

The entrance to the Elgin, with beautiful stained glass doors. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

There is so much more to see in Toronto that we must try to get back very soon. I’m going to make a list and be a bit more organised next time!

Toronto skylineMy son and I spent a couple of days in Toronto recently. It was a first visit for him, and I hadn’t been there in over twenty years. So much has changed in that time that I hardly recognised the place!

We arrived by bus, and that brought us into the city along University Avenue, where a striking new sculpture caught my eye. It’s a shiny, silver, twisted tree root covered in silver birds, and it stands in front of the Shangri-La Hotel. The sculptor is Zhang Huan, a Chinese artist who does impressive large-scale sculptures with a dream-like quality. This one is called ‘Rising.’

Detail of 'Rising' by Zhang Huan. Photo ©Craig White.

Detail of ‘Rising’ by Zhang Huan. Photo ©Craig White.

Our first stop in Toronto was the Royal Ontario Museum, where by chance we found some more sculptures from China in the William Charles White Gallery. These were ancient gold Buddhas and life-size statues of Buddhist scholars and teachers.

Painted wooden statues from Shanxi province in China. Photo @Royal Ontario Museum.

Mounted on two walls of the gallery were enormous murals taken from a Buddhist monastery from the Yuan Dynasty (over 700 years old). They were very impressive, and remarkably well preserved. It’s hard to imagine how they managed to move such large and delicate wall paintings into the gallery.

Yuan Dynasty mural. Photo ©Royal Ontario Museum.

Yuan Dynasty mural. Photo ©Royal Ontario Museum.

After all this ancient history it was time to get back out into the 21st-century city! We walked through Queen’s Park past the Ontario Legislature (where we had just missed all the Canada Day celebrations) and found Dundas Square where a street performer was juggling flaming torches on top of a very tall unicycle! We stayed to watch but kept well back, just in case!

Dundas Square opposite the Eaton Centre in Toronto.

Dundas Square opposite the Eaton Centre in Toronto.

When I lived in Toronto, Dundas Square didn’t exist. It’s similar in feel to Times Square in New York, though on a smaller scale. The bright billboards look best at night, and we were there to have dinner at the local Hard Rock Café. I thought my teenage son would enjoy a truly North American experience, but later I found out there are lots of them in the UK! We sat next to a wall mounted with backlit boxes displaying Stevie Nicks’ boots, a hat worn by Tom Petty, and a guitar played by a member of Kiss, among other things. The boxes went right up to the ceiling and we were craning our necks trying to read all the labels. Perhaps the restaurant should issue telescopes to all their customers!

Toronto is a great place to take photographs, and I found an excellent page on the Tourism Toronto website called Top Picks for Pics. We got to a few of these places but sadly only had two days in the city which wasn’t enough time!

Tomorrow I’ll tell you all about our visit to Toronto’s Harbourfront and a brilliant tour we took of the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres on Yonge Street.

Verdi portrait

The other day my daughter mentioned the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, and I was reminded of a fantastic portrait of him painted by Giovanni Boldini. When I was at art school I had a poster of this image on my wall, so the splendid gentleman with his top hat and jaunty scarf would greet me often in the course of my day. The poster is long gone, but just a mention of the name Verdi instantly brings this handsome portrait back to me.

Did you know that in the World Beard and Moustache Championships there is a category of beard called the “Verdi”? Of course there is. There are quite a few people around the world who take facial hair very seriously!

world beard champs

These guys have all been competitors in the World Beard and Moustache Championships over the years. A good number of them come from Germany and Switzerland, where beard cultivation is a well developed art form.

Over the centuries, beards and moustaches have gone in and out of fashion. Depending on the look you choose, the effect can vary enormously. A big white beard for example, as worn by Socrates and Santa Claus, is reassuring and conveys wisdom and kindness.

Painting by American artist Norman Rockwell.


A carefully manicured goatee, worn by Charles Dickens, gave him an air of distinction and individuality. Apparently he was also fond of fancy waistcoats and gold jewellery. Very dapper!


Shakespeare is thought to have been bearded too. There is some doubt as to what he really looked like, but this painting makes him look very cultured and intelligent:


His neatly trimmed beard comes to a point, and brings to mind another Elizabethan gentleman, Sir Walter Raleigh. In those days a beard was a sign of manliness, but in the next century (the 17th) it became fashionable for men to be clean-shaven with long, curly hair (often wigs).

17th century man

Fashions come and go (thank goodness) and not everyone follows the herd. In the 1960s it was in protest against social constraints and repressive government policies that young people grew their hair and beards long and called themselves “Hippies.” In the ’70s and ’80s beards became unfashionable again, as money and success were seen as what society should be striving for once more. For some men it came down to a choice between their beard and their job, as certain occupations (police, health care professionals, Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet) forbade facial hair.

Thankfully, today there is much more freedom in that department, and the beard is currently enjoying a resurgence of popularity.

beard comp poster

There are clubs and associations around the world celebrating a rich variety of facial decoration. Celebrities from George Clooney to Graham Norton are sporting beards these days, and for those who have been standing out in the crowd for the last few decades it comes as a bit of a shock.

Photo ©Nosy Crow

Photo ©Nosy Crow

Children’s author Philip Ardagh stands two metres tall and has always worn a prodigious beard to match his size 16 feet. Now that beards are all the rage, he may have to up his game! Maybe a little moustache wax will do the trick…

The very first Bobbly Bunny, born on Christmas Eve 2014.

The very first Bobbly Bunny, born on Christmas Eve 2014.

Over Christmas we went to visit some friends who have a 5-year-old daughter. I decided to make her a little present from some bobbly socks that were perfect for sewing. As you can see from the picture, two socks were all I needed to make a cute toy rabbit, and she loved it! When my own daughter was that age, she used to be fascinated by miniature things, so I gave the first Bobbly Bunny a little yellow backpack full of interesting items. I put in a shiny toy trumpet (a Christmas decoration) and some sheet music, a small notebook and a set of mini crayons. These tiny items were such a hit that I later sent a few more, including a map of the London Underground, a photo album (with pictures of bunnies) and an even smaller toy bunny that would fit inside the backpack.

This bunny has a blue felt satchel for her music lessons.

This bunny has a blue felt satchel for her music lessons.

After that first success, I thought it would be fun to make more Bobbly Bunnies, and give them cute little bags full of goodies. I rushed off to buy more bobbly socks, and looked for just the right sort of fabric to make the bags.

Inside her satchel, this bunny has a trumpet, some sheet music and a pink notebook.

Inside her satchel, this bunny has a trumpet, some sheet music and a pink notebook.

It’s fun to think up all sorts of accessories for the bunnies. Some of them play musical instruments. Others carry toys and books, maps, diaries, photo albums and more! I’m wondering whether perhaps I should make each bunny a birth certificate, too…

This bunny has a flowery backpack with a French horn, sheet music and a yellow notebook.

This bunny has a flowery backpack with a French horn, sheet music and a yellow notebook.

At Hillhead Library in the West End of Glasgow there is a craft fair that’s held once a month as part of The Makers Markets. It’s a great place to find unique hand-made gifts of all sorts, and at the next fair (Saturday the 28th of March, 11:00am to 4:00pm) I’ll have a table laden with my Bobbly Bunnies! bunny trio There are baby- and toddler-safe bunnies (with soft, stitched faces) and little boy blue bunnies. There are button-eyed bunnies for older kids (4+) and all sorts of bags and accessories that can be mixed-and-matched.

Just a few of the Bobbly Bunnies waiting to meet you!

Just a few of the Bobbly Bunnies waiting to meet you!

If you can’t get to the Hillhead Library to meet the Bobbly Bunnies on 28 March, just visit my Contact page and let me know if you’d like one made-to-order for someone special. Hope to see you soon! BandW bunny logo