Thursday, 17 May 2018

Spanish Puzzle Party (Thursday / Friday)

For the past couple of years Nigel has been threatening to arrange a Spanish Puzzle Party. 

This year he made good on those threats and invited a few of us to his neck of the woods for some sunshine and some puzzling-related stuff. Having established that he was licensed to drive a 9-seater bus, he duly invited 8 of us over for a long weekend. We were briefed to fly into Malaga airport on the Thursday evening in order to give us a few days’ worth of puzzling before heading home on the Sunday afternoon / evening from Alicante or Murcia. 

Nigel had a serious road-trip planned for us, and our most excellent of hosts was there to collect us at Malaga airport on the Thursday evening… or at least he was, along with everyone else when our delayed Ryanair flight arrived in the early hours of Friday morning – in spite of the fact that some of them had already spent about 5 hours in the airport, they all seemed glad to see Gill and I arrive from Brum. Nigel handed me the obligatory SPP polo shirt before a short hike to the bus. Nigel took us to our hotel for the next two evenings where we promptly checked in and crashed. 

We gathered at the appointed, designated by the official spreadsheet, for breakfast before sitting in the hotel’s courtyard for a few gift exchanges… Steve presented Nigel with a giant tongue depressor box (Lord knows how he got that inside his Ryanair carry-on!) containing a pair of giant inflatable bananas – that tone for the weekend was duly set. (Nigel also received some puzzles, a bottle of something and some shortbread in a tin commemorating the royal wedding… the previous one – because he’s not that much of a royalist!). 

After a bit of puzzling we headed out in our trusty bus to the Berrocal Foundation’s workshop in Villanueva de Algaidas. On the way there Big-Steve produced a few more inflatable bananas and the back row of the bus almost passed out with the exertion of inflating 15 rather large bananas – sadly one did not make it and it was ceremonially turned into a cap-cover for moi – quite a fashion statement judging from the looks of some passing motorists. 

At the workshop we’re met by Beltran and Carlos, Miguel Berrocal’s sons – Nigel is greeted like an old friend. Beltran and Carlos kick off the tour of the workshop with a couple of huge posters in the waiting area: one shows hundreds of Mini Davids (jaw-drops) and the other a personalised bonnet ornament in Berrocal’s Mercedes -a Mini David that would rotate 360 degrees every time the car was started. 

In the workshop space proper Beltran begins by describing the beginnings of his dad’s artistic development, talking passionately about the process, his inspiration and his use of both space and form – how he found various materials and elements to include in his work and why he started out making his sculptures in pieces that could be assembled (literally so that he could pop them in the boot of the car and cart them around… humble beginnings for the eventual pinnacle of his puzzle creations at least!). 

We walk around the workshop following a natural progression with Beltran guiding the discussion and showing us pictures and illustrations on his tablet when the works he wants to talk about aren’t actually in front of us (like Citius Altius Fortius which is at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne… although there are a couple of copies of that in the workshop too!) and Carlos chipping in with occasional anecdotes and further explanations.

Now I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a bit of a Philistine, but the guys work their magic on me and the tour turns into quite a moving experience for me. 

Halfway through the tour we get to play with a copy of Torero casually left out on a workbench… next to a set of pieces that will make up Omaggio Ad Arcimboldo when they’ve been properly cleaned up and reassembled… a nearby trolley has a complete set of Richelieu bits, all beautifully polished before heading back to a lucky collector. 

It doesn’t take a bunch of puzzlers too long to take it apart, mixing up the pieces along the way just for a laugh and then reassembling it – under the watchful eye of Beltran who offers the occasional bit of advice and points out some of the subtleties of the design and the manufacturing process… off to one side there’s a grubby-looking plastic container with a set of bits in it – a set of unfinished pieces of Torero straight out of the moulds, ready to be finished off and packaged up, one day. (The guys explained that most of the casting of the multiples was completed in one go years and years ago and then the pieces were finished off when they were needed. For some that was the entire edition of 300, 1000 or 10 000. For others, only a subset was cast and further copies can still be cast today within the original edition.)  

When we’re finished with that we head upstairs to the mock-up (the studio and workshop have been moved from their original home in fair Verona, back to Spain) of the design studio, wandering past a bunch of Berrocal’s tooling and machinery – one of which has a signed sticker on it – I find myself wondering what that sticker would be worth, let alone the machines and the sculptures in this workshop…!

The studio is laid out with a single table in the centre running the entire length of the long room – this would allow the artist to have several projects on the go at any one time and enable him to scoot from one project to another as the urge took him… literally. One side of the room is taken up entirely with a massively long bookshelf containing all manner of inspiration and exposition… and one shelf is given up to a set of glass cabinets containing an example of each of Berrocal’s multiples – his puzzle sculptures. 

Beltran and Carlos pick out a few of them and talk about them, their development, the puzzling elements, their various phallic references (it had to get at least a nod!). We start with Romeo e Giulietta, one of the earlier multiples, completed in 1967. We wend our way through the classic Mini’s and spend a while on Paloma Jet with its fantastical folly before diving back into the real puzzles. 

From there we head down into the basement and we all agree that it feels a lot like a scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy heads into the mysterious warehouse that contains all the treasures. 

Carlos shows us around, showing us the moulds for one of Berrocal’s grand pieces of public sculpture, and below them several sets of moulds for the Mini’s, Il Cofanetto and several other recognisable multiples – we’re all dragging our jaws along the ground by now… but when Carlos takes us over to bins piled high with raw, cast pieces of Il Cofanetto awaiting finishing, treatment and plating, we’re all seriously slain. 

Back upstairs Gill and I have a short conversation about the fact that we like to collect art on our holidays rather than the usual tourist tat and we then decide that we really should support the lads and buy a (very!) little bit of their dad’s work. We pose for pictures beside some of the Almogavares – big brutish torsos with actual anvils at their hearts – now there’s an image to conjure with - before signing the guest book. 

From there we follow Carlos to the family home in the village for lunch with the lads and their mom – served with a complete set of Il Cofanetto cutlery, of course. We have a truly wonderful lunch while listening to stories of their time in Italy, of visits from artists and stories behind various photographs and pieces of art in the rooms – which would put several serious art galleries to absolute shame. The family are warm and engaging and treat us like friends in spite of being just a bunch of weird Midlands Puzzlers!

That evening we head into Antequera for a bit of a wander – things go badly wrong when Nigel decides he’s had enough of leading the walking tour and insists that someone else take the lead… so Frank and I head up the nearest hill – which turns out to have a lovely view of the town below, a rather grand old church and a pub on top of it – so we settle down and have a few rounds of drinks while chatting about the Berrocal visit… when hunger drives us onward we begin to head downhill, but not before there’s a bit of a La-La Land tribute (or perhaps a Sound of Music retrospective – it was hard to tell to be honest!) and some shenanigans on the way down - all of which make for some great photographs. 

Back down in town we line up a suitable-looking tapas joint and take up a small alcove for the evening… we feast on stuff that Nigel orders for us (he’s slipped back into tour guide mode) and have a really superb meal – before collapsing back into our beds at the hotel on the outskirts of town. 

SPP Day one was a pretty darn memorable day!

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

King’s Day 2018

I consider myself rather privileged to be invited to Wil’s annual King’s Day Puzzle Party. It’s a wonderfully relaxed gathering at Wil’s house attended by some talented magicians, some gifted puzzle designers, several puzzlists, and, dare I say it, quite a few friends. 

As usual the weekend started with a short flight to Schiphol followed by a leisurely 150 km train ride toward the south, where Louis, Shane and Mieke met me at the station. We had a lovely lunch with the assembled Coolen-clan before the majority of them jetted out on holiday. (Louis would subsequently be teased with glorious shots of the beach and the facilities at their hotel in the sun for the rest of the weekend while we were “treated” to what was apparently typically Dutch weather… although to be fair, Shane and I were describing it as typically English weather – so much for the grass being greener and all that!)

We spent the rest of the afternoon around the Coolen’s dining room table taking turns admiring Louis’ superb new puzzle cabinets (WAY better in the flesh than in the pics I’d seen!) and plundering them for puzzles to play with… 

At one point I spotted a copy of Roy Leban’s Librarian’s Almanaq that Louis had clearly already started having a go at – the clue was in the fact that several pages had been torn out of it! I had a copy at home and had been waiting for the right occasion to have a go at it – knowing that I’d need the help of several good puzzlers and many spare hours, strangely that opportunity hadn’t presented itself yet! 

Soon the three of us were clambering about on the floor piecing pages together with the occasional loud “A-Haa!” when one of us spotted a useful combination of pics and produced a set of phrases we thought might actually work. (The first puzzle consists of 64 pages with three drawings on each that need to be arranged into a square where adjoining pictures clue a word or phrase… mostly in American… so it took us several hours!) 

From there the instructions suggested there’d be an obvious answer… only there wasn’t from where we were sitting… so we pondered and we posited, until a little while later from across the room I yelled “It’s Spartacus!” – actually I didn’t yell that, I yelled something else, but it might actually have been correct, so I’m not going to mention it in here in case that spoils it for anyone who hasn’t completed this epic set of puzzles…

We then spent several more hours working on the next set of puzzles – some of which we found pretty hard going… but we bashed through them and left Louis a little bit further through it than when we’d arrived… but it was after midnight and the puzzle-solving was slowing dramatically so we retired for the evening…

Next morning we hit the road east and arrived a little earlier than we should have at Wil’s place – just after Jan Willem. Sensing an opportunity that would never present itself again, I took a couple of quick snaps of Wil’s freshly tidied lounge with nobody in it – the weather was still pretty Dutch and there are usually around 20-30 people at Wil’s parties so it was going to be rammed with people.

We settled down for a quiet chat over some coffees before the hoards arrived and somewhere over the course of the next hour or so the scene changed from a quiet chat with friends to a bustling full-blooded puzzle party. 

[Before the hordes arrived Wil presented me with a well secured bottle-shaped package that rattled a little... some preliminary investigations yielded not a lot, so I passed it to Louis who determined that it should be unshrouded, so he coaxed it out of it's covering - and there followed a good few guffaws... and I'll explain them in a subsequent blog post - Wil's created a wonderfully apposite puzzle that chimes perfectly with a meme doing the rounds among some puzzlers at the moment... stay tuned.]

I’d taken along a couple of cube assemblies from Rich Gain and goaded a few folks into trying them… Coronation Cube tended to have more success than the Printable Interlocking Cube #4 for some reason… yet stacks of folks seemed to enjoy playing with them throughout the day – and indeed the evening, when we headed to the local Chinese restaurant for dinner. 

Michel had brought along a couple of recently 3D Printed puzzles from some old designs and I particularly enjoyed his puzzle consisting of three pairs of semi-circles with the instruction to make a symmetrical shape… cute puzzle!

Somewhere around lunchtime the clouds parted and the sun came out and a lot of people migrated outdoors into the back yard where plenty of café tables made puzzling easy. Wil laid on an absolutely incredible spread for lunch and I think we all feasted, and whenever it looked like provisions might be running low, they were magically restored.

Oskar set up a table full of his latest jaw-dropping creations - including a set of three huge (think vase!) skeleton twisties, each of which had a slightly different axis of symmetry, which made them all behave totally differently. Oskar tried to explain them to me and I tried (hard) to follow, but his mind is just so far ahead of mine that it wasn’t really a fair fight! They look awesome and their movements look fascinating… although with the different sizes and shapes of pieces, they look like they should be hopelessly bandaged – and yet they aren’t…

Everyone spent a while raking through Wil’s crates and taking out the odd thing or two to purchase… and we didn’t hold back on that front… although there was a funny moment after dinner back at Wil’s place when someone asked him if he had a spare copy of Casino and he said “Of course, in the crates at the back door” – at which point the three amigos looked at one another and realised there were two entire 5-foot stacks of crates that we hadn’t even looked through yet! … guess what happened next?!

Invariably some of the crates contain works-in-progress, so you might find a crate full of little angels, or, as I did, an entire crate-full of High Five pieces – made for a great picture!

As we were leaving, Louis asked if I’d spotted my sign and I had to admit I hadn’t seen it, so he had to show me what Wil had done with one of the signs from our last MPP… seemed fitting somehow! 

Sometime around midnight we hit the road back to Eindhoven, entertained by some impressive lightning in the distance while the rain lashed down – in a rather Anglo-Dutch manner… back at Louis’ we crashed before heading our separate ways in the morning…

A great puzzle party, some wonderful hospitality from both Wil and the Coolen-clan made sure than Shane and I had a fantastically puzzling weekend – thanks guys!