Holidays in the USSR were decidedly purposeful. Their function was to provide rest and recreation, so citizens could return to work with renewed diligence and productivity
So, no lounging by the pool or sipping a pinacolada for these folk then? The sanitoriums turned out to be a cross between a medical institution and a form of summer camp, complete with exercise regimes, edifying and educational talks, and strictly healthy but bland diets.
Many of these institutions have closed, some have become more like the western ideal of a spa complete with mud wraps and the like, while others have maintained their strict adherence to alternative forms of physical therapy. For a fee, you can soak in crude oil, be wrapped in paraffin, wax, endure electrotherapy – or for the really adventurous, spend your summer vacation in a salt mine breathing in the pure minerals and sharing a curtained off dormitory area metres underground.
As well as the information about the therapies available, there is also fascinating insight into the architecture of the time with photographs alongside the interesting stories of the healing properties meted out in these unique institutions.
I nearly always judge a book by its cover, it is an enticement…a taste of things to come, but I sometimes find myself wondering if I have read a particular book as so many of the more recent book covers look very alike.
The covers in the era 1920-1970 were works of art in their own right. Representing a variety of art styles from Art Deco, Modernism, postwar neo-romanticism and the intriguingly named Kitchen Sink School (Wikipedia tells me a form of social realism depicting the situations of the British working class), this book includes over 50 artists mainly from the US and the UK. It is beautifully put together by the publishers Thames and Hudson and is a lovely book to dip into, both to read about the artists and to admire the beauty and detail of the covers.
Christchurch’s elite ultramarathoner Vajin Armstrong talks about his training, meditation, and of course, his favourite books.
Have you heard of ultra running? If a marathon just isn’t far enough, here is the new holy grail of running – the ultramarathon. The word ultra means “beyond” in Latin, and these extreme endurance races, commonly referred to as ultras, are certainly beyond what most people would consider physically possible. Perhaps that’s why Vajin Armstrong, one of New Zealand’s elite ultra runners, finds his success lies not only in intense physical training, but also in a strong spiritual practice.
Christchurch born and bred, Vajin has raced all around the world and has placed on the podium in numerous ultras in America, Australia, Europe and Asia. Among his most notable achievements are three consecutive wins of New Zealand’s premier mountain race, the Kepler Challenge in Fiordland. Normally a challenging 4-day hike, Vajin’s best time over the 60km course (which is not only pretty far, but also involves running over a mountain) is a mind-blowing 4 hours 55 minutes.
The 2017 Kepler Challenge is on this Saturday 2 December and once again Vajin will be lining up with the world’s top athletes.
Vajin, after three Kepler Challenge wins, what are your thoughts coming into the race this year? Is winning important to you?
For me the competition is not my primary motivation. My goal during training and racing is to enter the space where I’m completely immersed in the task at hand. At those times where you become totally one with the simple act of running, the rest of your life ceases to exist, there is no past, no future all that exists in that moment. For me this experience of being completely present, totally alive and free is more fulfilling than any outer accolades. The human in us can only do so much, but when we reach that point where we think we can go no further, this is when our inner strength comes to the fore to help us keep going. Ultra running is a great way to experience and explore this incredible frontier. In my life I always feel so happy when I can go beyond my own perceived limitations. Transcending our limitations in any field gives us such joy.
Describe a typical training week.
I regularly run between 160km and 200km per week, I enjoy the process and discipline of it. For me it’s enjoyable and fulfilling to have the opportunity to work hard every day towards my goals.
With such a high volume of training to fuel, do you follow a special diet?
I’ve been a vegetarian for my entire adult life and I have found that a plant-based diet is really conducive to both my running and my life in general. A lot of the top trail runners are vegetarian or vegan.
The highly successful vegan ultramarathoner Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run is a cross between a fascinating autobiography and a vegan recipe book.
What inspires you to keep training at a high level?
When I run I feel the most alive, the most free and the most connected to the world around me. And there’s the self-discovery – beyond the very extremes of fatigue and distress we can find a great calm and power that we never dreamed was there, sources of strength never discovered at all because we never dared to push on past the obstructions.
What are some things running ultras has taught you?
For me trail and ultra running is all about self-transcendence, freedom, simplicity and exploration. Our modern world is so obsessed with the search for comfort and ease that having this outlet, which gives me the chance to put myself in challenging situations and to explore and have adventures, is so balancing. Having the opportunity to spend a whole day out in nature for me is very meditative and fulfilling. You find you begin to value anew the simple pleasures of life, a beautiful sunset, drinking from a mountain stream, good company and natural foods.
How does your meditation practice relate to your training and racing?
For me the practice of meditation and the practice of running are completely interrelated. Through running I develop concentration, discipline and determination while from meditation I get peace, stillness and tranquility. It’s always important to have a balance between the outer aspect of our lives and taking the time to develop and connect with the deeper inner parts of our being. At a certain point the physical body gets exhausted and that’s where the mental and spiritual dimensions kick in – we’re finite, but we can connect to the infinite. I learnt meditation many years ago from the Indian teacher Sri Chinmoy. Sri Chinmoy spoke a lot about sports and meditation and inspired countless athletes. He talked about the cosmic or inner energy, and how when you can connect with this through meditation, your potential is boundless.
What keeps you going when things get tough?
While running, especially in long events, I try and use the skills I have developed from meditation to make my mind still and calm and to be present in the moment. Very often when we are attempting to do something really challenging it is our own mind that can become our worst enemy. Our doubts, worries and insecurities can all attempt to hold us back. Having the ability to quieten the mind and focus on the task at hand is an invaluable skill.
What are the coolest places you’ve ever run?
The Canary Islands, the Sahara Desert, the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, and the Himalayas in both India and Nepal.
Any books you’d like to recommend?
Some books I’ve been reading lately and enjoying are Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and anything by Malcolm Gladwell.
The collaboration between the writer A.A Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepard was unheard of at the time, and led to an iconic series of books where story and illustration became synonymous with our enjoyment of Pooh, Piglet, Christopher Robin, Eeyore, Tigger, Rabbit, owl, Kanga and Roo. This is a lovely book of whimsy and memory, including examples of how the illustrations developed, descriptions of the life and family of Shepard and his relationship with A.A. Milne.
Bothies were originally built as rudimentary accommodation for bachelor farm workers, and the vast majority of them were abandoned but have now been renovated by the Scottish Bothies Association. They are randomly found across Scotland, are free, and often nowhere near attractions or national parks, however the nature of their existence and local make them an attraction in themselves. These are not luxury 5 star huts, they are basic…”the two low benches can be edged towards the hearth, but there is a strange absence of chairs”. “Not available during stag stalking”. “No stove or fireplace” or “bring your own fuel”. The views, landscape and the sheer out-of-the-way nature of these places however make up for the lack of home comforts. Detailed descriptions of how to find them are included along with beautiful photographs of the hut and surrounding areas.
Coal, a yellow Labrador retriever is owned by Interior Designer Jeffrey Alan Marks.
“Coal travels with me a great deal, so her things are held in a navy leather tote bag that matches not only the car but also the navy leash I designed for her”
The dogs in this books live a charmed life, surrounded by opulent furniture, luxurious soft coverings and well clad owners. They generally tone in well with surroundings and exude a certain smugness as they lounge beside their owners. If you have a love of dogs and good interior design then this book will certainly not disappoint.
The author puts herself somewhere between the age of 80 and 100, so death is not an abstract idea, but she stresses that this is not a sad book. Certainly clearing away all that clutter accumulated over a long life, alongside making decisions about the precious to alleviate family arguments, and perhaps dealing with things that you would rather people didn’t pore over after your demise is not a bad idea. These are all practical suggestions, but this odd little book is as much about ideas on how to declutter as a memory of a life well lived.
In complete contrast to decluttering is an ode to the past, a collection of beautiful objects with memories attached, this little book is a celebration of the everyday. It is a mixture of history and art with beautifully painted renditions of old china and ceramics that the author remembers from her childhood, alongside family stories and interesting detail about some of the history behind these beloved pieces.
This is a book that celebrates the food of nineteenth century England and includes many of the dishes described in the books of Charles Dickens, including recipes and detail about the history of the time. Pete Evans of Paleo fame would no doubt enjoy Bone Marrow pudding, (apparently Queen Victoria had bone marrow every day so he is in good company), however French plums appealed more to me, alongside a good Leicestershire pork pie featured in Great Expectations. Many of the recipes are surprisingly appealing and are made even more interesting with a good dash of history and an even measure of literature.
I’ve recently been delving into some “recreational non-fiction” reading!
Recreational non-fiction is what you might call stories based on fact that read as easily as a novel. This can be particularly true of memoir or biographies, and I’ve come across four such titles that I would like to recommend to you, the Christchurch reading public!
They’re all based around the topic of the natural world, they all read like adventure tales, and they all have a common link; the idea that we should all spend more time in and around nature, observe, engage, and enjoy.
We certainly don’t all need to go to the extreme lengths that these authors do – you don’t, for example, need to be the man responsible for dangling Sir David Attenborough 180ft in the upper canopy of one of the world remotest rainforests! You also don’t need to chase errant wild stags through the outskirts of London during the storm of the decade! And you definitely don’t need to be the man behind the push for Cpt. William Bligh to set off on his ill-fated voyage in the Bounty to take breadfruit from the Pacific Islands and take it to the Americas as cheap fodder for slave owners!
No, we can just sit back on a sunny spring day and enjoy stories of nature and travel, real stories told by real people who actually wrote the words themselves (apart from Linnaeus and Banks of course, their stories are ably told by Oxford historian Patricia Fara)
The amazing story behind two giant names in natural science; Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks. Just how great were they? Were they true champions of natural science, conservation, and preservation? Or were they subject to their own particular biases and egos in their work, striving to become something more than they were..? This book is a great insight and a brilliant read, giving context to the lives and journeys of these two names so famous now that we forget how recent their work actually is!
This is a series of stories that follows a man around the globe as he climbs some of the tallest trees in the world! He regularly works for the BBC to help produce some of the amazing images of the flora and fauna to be found in forest canopies seen in their Planet Earth series, he has a brilliant outlook on nature and conservation, and is a very talented storyteller – his tales read like boys-own adventures as he navigates all kinds of perils (weather, insects, primates, you name it!) to provide safe vertical passage through the forests of the world. If you like the natural world then this is a memoir too good to miss!
The story of David Attenborough’s fist major nature assignment as he travels into remote parts (pre-internet or mobile phone coverage!) to obtain vision of some of the creatures of the earth that humans have only ever read about in books. Written by the man himself, his voice is clear and present in every word as he deals with the perils of travelling the wilds of the earth for the betterment of natural science.
John Bartram stands as the longest serving gamekeeper of the illustrious and ecologically-fragile Richmond Park – a secluded nature reserve in the midst of the busyness of London. He tells of his journey to get to the job and the lifetime of work and memories he has obtained along the way. It is written in a very matter-of-fact manner which serves well to remind the reader that nature is on our doorstep and to stop now and then to treasure it.
And if these stories have piqued your interest in the natural world but you’re wanting to read more about OUR natural world, then perhaps try one of these beaut magazines available through Christchurch City Libraries… they’re full of the same fascination and excitement of discovery as the old stories but with the added advantage that they’re the stories of our own generation, in and of our own region.
This Labour Weekend I’m off to the West Coast of our South Island again. I get an itch to escape to there fairly often and this time it felt like it had been too long since last visit. There is something wholly relaxing about leaving your busy city life for the wilds of ‘the Coast’.
By the time you read this blog, I hope to be on the receiving end of the gracious services of airline personnel as we wing our way to Italy on a long-awaited trip.
This trip has been four years in the making, starting with my husband learning Italian (thanks Mango Languages!), followed by library colleagues making all sorts of wonderful suggestions on what to do and where to stay (whilst others provided terrifying horror stories of things that could go wrong), and one dear colleague who helped my husband get conversation practice by meeting us for coffees and setting him up with an Italian pal for chats. Thanks one and all.
But now for the really important question on everybody’s lips: “What will you be reading in Italy?”
A friend’s suggestion:The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce. “For your trip” she said sliding it across the café table. From the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I thought I’d get home and just read the first couple of pages. Within two days I had read the whole book. It is every bit as good as Harold Fry, with the same complex characterisation, the same zingy dialogue, the same fullness of heart. But with a more complex resolution of plot. All that this book is missing is a soundtrack list. I loved it, but now it can’t come to Italy with me.
A book from my must read list:Dianne Athill is a favourite author of mine – she is one of that breed of really old women (she is now aged 99) who still writes. If you’ve not done so yet, read her book Alive, Alive Oh! which asks the question, should you live to be 100 years old, what will you remember? One of the things Diana hopes to remember is sex! I’ve had her A Florence Diary on one of my must-read lists, and it’s time has almost come. It is a small book on her trip to Florence with her cousin when she was a young woman. I shall read it in that city. Into my case it goes.
A serendipitous find: How could I resist The Lovers’ Guide to Rome by Mark Lamprell. This one crossed my path in the course of a day’s work and it felt as if it were meant to be. What I love about the first few pages is that they include quite an arty little map of Rome. My husband and I both love maps, they form part of the early folklore of our relationship. It turns out that “the Eternal City has secrets only lovers can glimpse.” This one is coming with, and as an eBook on my iPad!
A book which has nothing to do with Italy at all: A possible antidote to all this Latin charm is the in-your-face 2017 novel entitled Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose. Here were my first thoughts: Nobody writes novels about Johannesburg. No-one even calls the city by its full name any more. The library won’t have this book, and even if they did no one in New Zealand would read it. Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong. Set in Joburg in the twenty-four hours after Mandela’s death, the first few pages convinced me that this is a brilliant book.
And if I do read this book in Italy, I think we can safely say I will be the only person in the whole of that country reading an English novel set in South Africa and with the title Johannesburg. And there is something about that which I find perversely appealing!
It was one of those moments when you hear your crazy calling and decide in a split second to just indulge it. Your favourite singer was performing 3 nights in a row on the same island as you … why not go to all three gigs?
Sure it meant driving more than the entire length of said island in less than 3 days, while going to three concerts, booking motels, concert tickets, taking a half day off work, but life is for living and following your passions, and everyone knows I’m passionate about the glorious Tami Neilson.
Luckily for me my husband is a fan boy of almost equal proportions (competitive moi?), so he was all up for the adventure.
The first night of the adventure was a Thursday night, and Tami was performing at Charles Luney Auditorium here in Christchurch. It was sold out and it was a very refined, well behaved audience… well except for the devotees like us, who of course know the words of her songs and cheer and whoop enthusiastically.
Friday lunchtime, we leave work at 12, rush home, throw some clothes and snacks in the car and head nonstop for Dunedin. Another awesome concert – a different crowd and venue gives a different vibe, more intimate and grateful. You get the sense so many more people here actually know her music.
Next morning, and we’re heading to Queenstown, through parts of the country we haven’t seen in decades, if ever.There’s a little snow around, hardly any traffic, and the rolling hills through the Rock and Pillar range are truly breathtaking. Road trips in New Zealand are just wondrous.
It’s a weird little crowd at this last gig. They’ve got a definite country pub thing going on, a lot of them have been drinking for quite a while, so are behaving rather boorishly and in the end, Tami, after trying her darnedest to engage with them, gives them what they want, music to dance to – she even sings Happy birthday.
We get back home that night wishing we didn’t have work in the morning, but the memories and the music are buzzing in our brains, and does so for days after.
If you have a passion for music, check out the wealth of music and learning to be had within Christchurch City Libraries’ databases, like American Song which offers rich pickings in many genres, Gospel being among them.
So, moral of this long tale? Take a chance, if you say, “no, that’s crazy I shouldn’t” then I strongly recommend that you do. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
When selecting stock for the library it is always important to think about trends and what might be the next ‘big thing’, and one area that always garners interest is health and wellbeing – that elusive food/exercise/natural remedy/mindset that will provide the magic elixir of anti aging/weight loss/fitness and a long life.
Is Algae the new Kale? Turmeric latte anyone? I was unfortunate enough to read that some are suggesting beetroot, charcoal or mushroom becoming your coffee substitute! Forget nose to tail eating, now it’s about root to stem.
If you have been struggling with Mindfulness then you can now rest easy with Mindset – the belief that basic abilities can be developed through hard work, a love and learning, and dare I say it – ‘resilience’. Breathing is also big – not surprising given we all need to do it, but are we doing in the right way? And last but not least, Neuroslimming, giving you a “mind plan, not a meal plan”.
Tiny houses are still wildly popular, at least the pictures of them in the books are, but I do wonder how many people actually bite the bullet and live in the small but perfectly formed shed in the back yard? Travel stories are still very popular and I have it on good authority that Iceland is the next big thing (and I just happen to be going there in the middle of the year!)
I expect we will see a few more books on Donald Trump this year along with his good mate Putin. There may be a few books on Fidel Castro and Cuba could become a more popular travel destination?
The craft area is dominated by a love of anything Nordic and the knitting, quilting and embroidery books are still as popular as ever. Cooking is still raw, which is ironic considering it’s cooking.
Need some cheering up, then these two titles might help the optimism quotent.
Kaye Neely from Miramar Wellington, departing at Christchurch Airport with anNACair hostess. Kaye had come down for a holiday with her older cousins. As she was only four at the time she’d had to tell a “little white lie” saying she was five (the minimum age to travel unaccompanied. She was beautifully dressed in the new dress her mum had made for the occasion and wearing a hat and matching bag. Date: 1974.
Christchurch City Libraries has been running an annual Photo Hunt in conjunction with the city’s Heritage Week since 2008. The 2016 Photo Hunt is running again from 1 – 31 October. During the month of October we will be posting a series of images from earlier Photo Hunts.
I’d be willing to bet cold, hard cash that of all the writers who took part in WORD Christchurch this year, Steve Hely is the only one who has “actor: flautist and shirtless bohemian, The Office (US)” on their CV. Assuming that he does, in fact, even have that on his CV… and if not, why?
He’s also one of those annoying people who are intelligent, funny, and interested in lots of things and therefore make the rest of us feel bad with their rampant overachieving.
In addition to having worked on some of the best comedy shows EVER (in addition to The Office and 30 Rock, there’s American Dad and chaotic political comedy Veep – pretty sure those are on the CV), he also does a podcast, The Great Debates, in which he argues passionately about the big questions in life… such as whether dogs should be allowed on the beach.
He’s also written several books. His novel “How I became a famous novelist” is a satire of the literary world (and somewhat awkwardly, given the context of this talk, literary festivals).
His two non-fiction efforts are both travel books, of a kind. The first, The Ridiculous Race, documents the competition he and friend Vali Chandrasekaran undertook to travel around the world, in opposite directions, without air travel. First one back to Los Angeles won. The second follows him on his trip down the west of the South American continent, right down to Tierra del Fuego at the southern end of Chile.
On Comedy writing
Toby Manhire started out asking him quite a few questions about the process of television comedy writing*, and how it differed between shows like Late Night with David Letterman and 30 Rock.
Letterman had much more of a factory approach where people worked independently like “12 monkeys at 12 typewriters”, which answers the question “if infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters will eventually produce Shakespeare, what will a drastically smaller number get you?” A Letterman top ten list, is the answer.
Sitcoms, according to Hely are a more collaborative kind of environment, though being employed as a writer on a show that is already hugely successful is pretty intimidating. Of his arrival at 30 Rock, says Hely “I was a scared little puppy trying to help out”.
Inspiration can come from anywhere. Great television writers have a magpie-ish ability to retain “something weird, some odd sentence that someone said to them” and turn that into a gag or even a whole episode. There is also such a thing as “riffing” for comedy writers though it’s “embarrassing to talk about compared with guitar music because it’s less cool, but it is, in a way, similar to how music is made”.
With regards to his forays into sitcom acting, it was definitely useful, as a writer, to have that experience, to be able to understand what it’s like for the actors.
“The feeling of being an actor is terrifying and strange.
And in a long-running show like The Office, the actors have spent more time with their characters than many of the writers have so “you’re wise to listen to the actors’ ideas about their characters.”
Hely admits to a certain kind of wanderlust and feels that travel breaks a person out of the routine ways of doing things, creating a certain kind of heightened awareness. Where will I get food? Where will I sleep?
“It really makes you feel alive”.
He’s also interested in the whole genre of travel writing – the history of going somewhere and reporting back on it, from Herodotus to Mark Twain (another American writer who has visited Christchurch, by the way).
There are examples of this interest in The Wonder Trail, which in certain chapters feels like a meta-travel book (a travel book about travel books) when Hely documents the history of what what travellers of old have made of the place that he’s visiting in the present, which allows you the perspective of seeing what has changed (or not) in the meantime. It’s an amusing, enlightening, and informative read, whether you’ve any interest in travelling to South America yourself or not, there’s plenty to keep you reading.
On Trump, Clinton and Sir Edmund Hilary
There’s no denying it, things have gotten weird. Or as Hely puts it “that satire is being outpaced by reality is alarming”. Er, yes, it is rather.
Hely is in a good position to say just how alarming as he got press credentials for and attended the Republican National Convention. He found it “upsetting”, though in the wake of Ted Cruz not endorsing Trump it felt “like a pro-wrestling match – I enjoyed the chaos of that”.
A lot of Trump’s political success, he believes, is “because politicians are boring”… as they should be – “I want boring people working on policy,” he says.
Trump is woefully unprepared for the job.
“His plans for being president don’t seem like those of someone who thought about being president for more than an hour…”
Whereas Hillary Rodham Clinton has probably been thinking about being president “since the second grade”. This is not to say that he’s necessarily a fan of HRC. In fact he thinks she’s very cavalier with the truth, going so far as to call her “chronically dishonest”.
An amazing example of this was the time she claimed to have been named after our own Sir Edmund Hilary. Later fact-checking revealed that Clinton was born years before Sir Ed and Sherpa Tensing reached the summit of Mt Everest. So why lie? Did she even really claim that? Was it a joke that got misreported? If not had she just, as Hely put it “wigged out” and made it up, or did someone in her family tell her it was true and she believed it?
We know from audience member (and veteran political cartoonist) Peter Bromhead, who knew Sir Ed and spoke with him about this very topic, that Clinton certainly did relate the story as fact and that the man himself had believed it to be true initially. As to why Clinton lied…well, who knows? Or as Hely suggested, was it true after all? Might her parents have just been really, really keen on beekeepers?
Hely is a fan of Cormac McCarthy but also evocative non-fiction like The Possessed by Elif Batuman. He’s also loves the design of Penguin classics.