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  • Alexander Chance


I spent last week in Bergen, Norway. Before arriving I knew nothing about the city other than what I had learnt from an episode of Richard Ayoade's Travel Man–essentially, that the weather there is miserable, the surrounding landscape is beautiful, and that Richard Ayoade and Lou Sanders are very funny. The first of these points was confirmed by the lift in the hotel, which advertised that it rains on average 266 days a year in Bergen; it was further borne out over the week.

I was there to take part in two live screenings of 'The Blue Planet' (the original 2001 series), singing in a vocal ensemble that, together with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, would perform passages from the original score to accompany the film, played on a huge screen behind us. George Fenton, who wrote the score, and whose show this is, was there to conduct us. This was the first time I'd been involved in a show of this kind, but they are extremely popular, and have been for a while. One of my earliest memories of the cinema from childhood was being taken by my mother to a screening, with live orchestra, of Charlie Chaplin's 'The Gold Rush' at the Royal Festival Hall. As it worked for that silent film, so the medium is perfectly suited to nature documentaries (although, naturally, one does miss David Attenborough's voice). My involvement in the shows brought home to me how impressive it is to be able to score music that ebbs and flows with the vignettes of the various animals, and that is contingent on their often rapid motion or on the cuts and transitions of the editor. George Fenton, who has scored over 100 films and TV series, has said that the best film music often goes unnoticed, and I know exactly what he means, because, while serving the narrative, it shouldn't stand out too much. This reminded me of a quote from the great cinematographer Roger Deakins–something about there being nothing worse than an ostentatious shot.

The almost constant rain rather limited opportunities to explore the hills and mountains which enclose Bergen, although the latter explains the former. In such conditions, the bars teem. The game Shuffleboard, which I'd always thought of as an esoteric pursuit played mainly by the older generation in North America, features in a few of these bars, and was a particular, and frequent, delight. But our full day off, midway through the project, was bathed in sunshine, and thus afforded us the rare opportunity to be outside for an extended period of time. With a few other singers I walked up Fløyen, the mountain (hill, really) nearest the city centre, and not a particularly long or strenuous walk, but a memorable one. We were impressed to encounter a woman pushing a pram with her baby in it all the way up the snowy track to her home (she told us she does this every day). From the top we could see the fjords stretch out for miles, and make out the various other peaks which surround Bergen. I learnt that Bergen, as with many other cities around the world, claims to be built within 'seven' mountains, no doubt inspired by the model Rome, which was built on seven hills. This claim, which is slightly spurious given that the identity of several of the mountains in question is unclear, originated from one of Bergen's most famous sons, Ludvic Holberg, a writer and a polymath. I had previously known nothing about Holberg other than that the composer Edvard Grieg, also from Bergen, dedicated his Holberg Suite to him.

While on tour, I try to make it to the hotel gym (where there is one) as often as I can. Normally, I realise upon arrival that I have forgotten to pack my running gear; or, if I have managed that much, I find my enthusiasm for belt- or bell-based exercise waning after a day or two. I do however always remember to pack my swimming trunks, and Bergen boasts a very impressive public indoor 'swimming arena', replete with Olympic standard 50-metre pool, 10-metre diving board, and sauna. I went twice, and the dimensions of the features listed above is inversely proportional to the amount of time I spent in/on each of them. I was amused, and alarmed, by a sign in the men's showers, highlighting (via an intricate diagram) which areas of our bodies needed the more rigorous washing, before we could feel clean enough to enter the pool. It chimed with a passage in a book I've been reading (Haunts of the Black Masseur, by Charles Sprawson): the passage concerns a character in a short story by John Cheever called 'The Swimmer' who, "among the shrill, harsh sounds of a public confronted by the regimentation of the real world, the pressure to conform", the notice-boards instructing him to use the footbath, to wear an identification disc, etc. I remember going to a public pool in Tokyo as a child, and there being a list of about 27 things which you either mustn't or must do; the merest transgression would draw a bark from the lifeguard. Things weren't as strict in the pool in Bergen, but if I visit again I'd like to do so in warmer weather, so that I can swim outdoors.

A few of us tried to go and see the new South Korean film Parasite one night, and it was only shortly before we arrived at the cinema that one of us realised that the subtitles would likely be in Norwegian. Upon arrival, we found out that this was indeed the case.Though it would have been an interesting linguistic exercise to attempt to decipher the plot under these conditions, and perhaps amusing to compare our findings afterwards, we decided against it. Having since seen the film, I think this was the right call.

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