URUGUAY: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, rolled up inside Rizla papers. A nation that shares many of the same post-colonial woes and right/left governmental wobbles as its bigger Latin American neighbours, but has somehow lately emerged as a beacon of 21st-century liberalism, with justice and legalised cannabis for all. The best place to contemplate this might be right on the edge of the land, under the lighthouse at Cabo Polonio.
WHAT’S your favourite cloud? Perhaps it’s one of the stranger formations. Altocumulus lenticularis, maybe, which settles in spooky hoops over high mountain peaks like an alien mothership. Or it could be the simple, humble cumulus, also widely known as the “fair weather cloud”. Surely everyone loves those puffy cotton balls that seem to morph into friendly and familiar shapes – elephants, teapots, diving bells – while you gaze at them against a backdrop of blue sky.
THE best movies have music to match. The Godfather, great as it is, would be less so without Nino Rota’s dark and fateful main theme, also known as The Immigrant, or The Godfather Waltz – now a perennial repertory piece squeezed out by street accordionists all over Europe. Blade Runner’s visionary opening shot of the future LA skyline gets much of its transportive power from the electronic soundscape provided by composer Vangelis.
ON the Upper East Side of New York, between Woody Allen’s apartment and Henry Clay Frick’s famous mansion turned art museum, is a meeting point for mountain climbers, deep sea divers, adventurers and spacemen. Today the two flags outside The Explorer’s Club are flying at half-mast. One is the Stars and Stripes, the other is the flag of club itself. That standard has been carried to all the remotest corners of our planet, to the bottom of the ocean, and to the moon in every landing module that ever touched down there.
CONSIDER Gotham City. A fictional, fanciful place, dark and dirty but not without glamour or grandeur, where threat posed by petty criminals and super-villains is forever set against the hope of protection and salvation symbolised by The Batman.
A former student of Zadie Smith’s recently tweeted a telling anecdote. Some years back, while teaching creative writing at New York’s Columbia University (she’s now tenured at NYU) Smith handed out a laughable, pitiful, woefully sophomoric short story, and had the whole class critique it to pieces before admitting that it was one of her own.
PHOTOGRAPHY and manned flight are roughly the same age. The latter may be a little older – the Montgolfier brothers sailed over Annonay, France in a hot-air balloon some 30 years before Nicephore Niepce took the first heliographic picture from the window of his Burgundy estate in 1826. But aerial photography was born soon after that, as balloonists brought some of the earliest cameras aloft in their baskets, while Victorian meteorologist E.D. Archibald tied them to kites, with explosive charges on a timer to trigger the shutter.
FIVE YEARS after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, the port of Onagawa has a craft beer bar, an artisanal coffee house, a Spanish tile factory, and a workshop where electric guitars are carved from local cedar, all laid out along the new Seapal Pier shopping precinct, at the town’s own Ground Zero. None of these were here before March 11, 2011, when the quake sent a wave of almost fifteen meters through Onagawa Bay and over the waterfront – destroying more than seventy percent of the town’s buildings and killing about eight percent, or one in twelve, of its residents.
On a recent Saturday morning, I caught The Cervantes Train from Madrid’s Atocha Station. Don Quixote greeted me on the platform. He was dressed pretty much as described in the novel that made him immortal: a lesser nobleman of La Mancha from the early seventeenth century, passing for a knight in flimsy (cardboard) armor, and carrying the (padded foam) lance with which he tilts at windmills.
IN the interplanetary debris field between Mars and Jupiter is the asteroid 46610 Bésixdouze. Discovered in 1993, its name was suggested by Czech astronomer Jiří Grygar in honour of The Little Prince. The title character of that singular cosmic fairytale by Antoine de Saint-Exupery fell to Earth from a fictional asteroid designated B612, so this coding was rendered into phonetic French and hexadecimal notation for its real-life namesake. The author himself had drawn those specific figures from the registration of a plane he flew as an airmail pilot over the Sahara Desert in the 1920s.