Sunday, 29 November 2009

Boycott, Oedipus and the Wing Commander

Every now and then, as hens do if you give them any kind of freedom, and if you don't keep a constant eye on them, our Scottish hens took it in turns to disappear into a hedge or a remote corner of their ramshackle hen-house. We would find them sitting, defiantly content, on clutches of up to a dozen eggs. (Part 1 of this saga came out a couple of posts ago.)

After they'd hatched it was pleasant enough in a sentimental kind of way, especially - we supposed - for the children, to see the mother hen surrounded by a cheeping following of yellow fluffs, but in due course they grew up into pullets. We kept the hens gratefully, but as we already had a cockerel called Boycott (Yorks. C.C.C. and England) and as cockerels fight dreadfully we had to get rid of them. We were far too tender-hearted to wring their necks, pluck, draw (always with a scoop of salt handy for a better grip on the entrails), truss and roast our own poultry, so another solution had to be found.

I took the coward's way out. After all, simple abandonment was sanctioned in Greek legend: wasn't the infant Oedipus just left out on a hillside? (Having consulted Wikipedia to confirm this, I notice that the fourth entry is The story of OEDIPUS, in 8 minutes, performed by vegetables. H'm.) So late one night I collected all the redundant cockerels off their perch, put them in a sack, where they lay very still and quiet, and drove them several miles away to a little farm I knew where they kept poultry. Lurking in some nearby roadside trees I let them out, knowing that in the morning they would find their own kind, and maybe the kindly hand of the farmer's wife scattering grain, or maybe not . . .

. . . to this day, whenever I'm in that part of Scotland, I can't pass that farm without a sense of guilt that maybe Oedipus knew.

Later we moved elsewhere and took with us the remnant of hens - and Boycott - that had survived the collapse of their hen-house. In time the same problem arose. My heart was no less tender than before. Fearful of my exalted position as a pillar of the community being compromised through being discovered wishing immature cockerels on to innocent and hard-working hill-farmers, I sought other means.

I'd made the acquaintance of a RAF Wing Commander, a local wildfowler, someone who presumably had the twist-and-pull-and snap technique of giving birds their quietus honed to perfection. I submitted my problem to him. Only too happy to help, he turned up one evening shortly after roost, ready to pitch in. I suggested that if I went into the hen-house - a new one that I'd built, incidentally - and handed the victims out to him, he could do the deed in such an experienced and immediate way as to minimize the troubling of soft hearts. No feathers flew on Death Row: the condemned cockerels were perched peaceably, some with heads tucked underneath their wings, as though to avert the eye of the Grim Reaper. I passed the first victim out to the Wing Commander, and returned for the second.

Outside there was a whirring sound I couldn't place, a combination of wind in the trees and a distant helicopter. I came back out with the second, and discovered the Horrid Truth: far from a simple and humane quick twist and sharp pull of the bird's neck, the Wing Commander had grasped the bird by the head and had whirled it round like a football rattle until it came off.

I expect he's Marshal of the Royal Air Force by now.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Dup egnops elcaert

I don't know why palindromes - sentences that read the same backwards as forwards: Gk. 'palin' = 'again': 'dromos' = 'running' - I don't know why palindromes should come to mind today, when a major focus of my attention is tonight's pud. The ever-stunning J. promises treacle sponge and custard. I can't say that this is a common dessert in France. It would be nearer the truth to say that 99.9% of French people are born, live their lives and die without benefit of that gorgeous, warm, womb-retro stodge, clarted with succulent golden syrup, nobly robed in steaming, smiling custard from which I will already have relished the skin from the jug.

Maybe it's the admission of a woeful sponge pud gluttony that leads me to a famous palindrome which you sometimes find carved into church fonts:

Nipson anomemata me monan opsin

It's Greek, meaning 'cleanse not only the face but sins also'. (To make it work you have to remember that 'ps' is a single letter in Greek.)

So often do palindromes disappoint through being over-contrived and not really meaning very much, ones like

Too bad I hid a boot


Anne I vote more cars race Rome to Vienna

- that it comes as a pleasant surprise to learn that W.H.Auden, consummate master of English in all its forms, should be credited with several quite outstandingly original palindromes:

Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?


Norma is as selfless as I am, Ron

I can imagine him sitting back at his desk, out of breath - it does happen - with his struggles to pin down some masterpiece like Musée des Beaux Arts ('About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters...') and suddenly realising that 'Are we not' reads 'to new era' backwards. A little thought, a welcome break from Breughel's Fall of Icarus that he's writing about, and suddenly it falls into place; he reaches for his palindrome book and writes it in. Another day, another palindrome. Yesterday's was:

Sums are not set as a test on Erasmus

Where Auden stood on sponge pudding isn't recorded, as far as I know, but I don't think he can have got through several years of boarding school without frequent exposure to this classic of English cuisine. As for me, I'm really looking forward to tonight's treat, although I may have to dose myself with Nocsivag: I occasionally suffer from reflux, and I wouldn't want my treacle sponge, palindrome-like, coming back on me.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

From the archive

We kept hens for a while, back in the last century, when we lived in Scotland. (The poultry above weren't ours; they merely serve as a pictorial introduction.) The impetus to keep hens came as a result of my daughter receiving as a 5th birthday present from her grandmother an old hen-house.

(Memo to self: I must try not to do this to my grand-daughter.)

It was a desperately rickety thing, held together only by gravity and encrusted layers of long-dried chicken manure. At night unappealing little red things came out and jumped about on it.

We got three bantams, the result of a frantic night-time chase by torchlight in a barn belonging to a colleague. "They're just stupid when they're roosting," she'd said. "They're practically comatose. All you have to do is lift them off their perch and stuff them in a sack."


They weren't enough to keep us in eggs, so we got four hens from a nearby battery egg farm. Two died within the week, probably from agoraphobia*. Another, Mrs Collapsed Comb, laid splendid eggs at a terrific rate and justified the whole venture on her own.

Infant innocence about gender led these hens to be named after prominent cricketers of the time. Randall (Notts. C.C.C. 1972-93) would come indoors if ever she found a door left open. Here she is nesting in the laundry sink.

Gower, Boycott, Kapil Dev and others perished when their hen-house, unsurprisingly, blew down one night in a storm.

*cue Rog.

Monday, 23 November 2009

O fortuna, velut luna, statu variabilis

O fortuna, velut luna, statu variabilis...

'O Fortune, like the moon, ever changing' - these are the opening words of the mighty chorus which starts (and finishes) Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. 'Ever changing' expresses the meaning but is maybe a bit loose. Strictly the Latin statu variabilis means 'variable as to state', where variabilis refers back to luna, the moon, and statu is what those who ever suffered Kennedy's Latin Primer at school will recognise instantly as a Dative of Advantage. At least, all those who didn't spend their time defacing the cover of possibly the most hated book since William Caxton so that it read 'Kennedy's Eating Primer'.

(Holmes' Comprehensive Arithmetic, a Scottish instrument of torture banned at much the same time as the tawse, would run it a close second. Decimalisation in 1969 dealt HCA a kindly mortal blow: no more compound interest in halfpennies and farthings or long division of furlongs and chains to instil character into the Scottish soul.)

At the moment I'm on a composition jag, setting as choral music some poems of a little-known French poet called Jules Laforgue. (I've written music on and off all my life, and this is the last bracketed observation in this post.) Laforgue is a sort of late Romantic symbolist, a beat poet of his day. A snappy dresser, as you can see from the portrait below. He died very young after an extraordinary but short career partly as Reader to the Empress of Germany, Kaiser Bill's paternal grandmother. He married a girl called Lea Lee in Kensington. If she was Chinese it's not recorded. Both Jules and Lea died within a year of their marriage.

The line I'm struggling to make singable just now comes from a work called L'Imitation de Notre-Dame la Lune, The Imitation of Our Lady the Moon. It reads:

O Diane, à la chlamyde très dorique

'O Diane' is no problem, an address to Diana or Artemis, the goddess associated with hunting and the moon. But à la chlamyde? It has to mean 'with chlamydia', a really nasty sexually transmitted condition where the p - but I won't go into details. How can the goddess of the moon possibly be saddled with this? And très dorique, very Doric?

Neither Wikipedia nor Davepedia are much help. Dorique probably means plain, unadorned, artlessly simple, but I'm not certain. This makes even greater nonsense of chlamyde. How can people sing about artlessly simple Olympian venereal conditions with smirk-free conviction?

It turns out, after consulting several works including Abbott and Mansfield, the classical Greek equivalent of Kennedy, that chlamyde is the French version of the Greek chlamys. Chlamys means a short cloak or mantle, of the sort you see Artemis wearing, and not much else, in statues or her. The chlamys is heavily pleated and closely gathered or ruched, not to say puckered, at the collar. I begin to see a connection . . . but how to express it in music is beyond me. I wonder what Lea Lee thought about it all.

Saturday, 21 November 2009


Several (well, two) much esteemed fellow bloggers have been trying to trace their ancestry. Perhaps I can help them.

For many years, in fact from about 1945, this painting hung at home, neglected, smoke-stained and finally slightly damaged by fire. Through the layers of dirt and blackened varnish it appeared to be very old, maybe 17th century. The style and the Classical subject suggested Poussin or Claude Lorraine. My mother couldn't remember where she had got it from. It showed Europa, she said, being carried across the Hellespont from Asia Minor on the back of a bull. There were maidens on the shore welcoming her. This was how the European people were founded.

Recently I took it in hand and brought it from Scotland to France to have it cleaned by Aude Ficini, the demure, beautiful and very professional picture restorer in Montpellier.

Before entrusting it to her I took it out of its frame and was mortified to find that it appeared to have been painted on hardboard. H'm. I looked closely with a magnifying glass and found traces of frayed canvas overlapping the backing. Apparently it had been originally painted on canvas, and at some time someone had cut it away from a frame and had glued it on to a sheet of hardboard. Big relief, even though this suggested that at some time it might have been stolen.

Mademoiselle Ficini was very interested. She raised an eyebrow over the hardboard, but she proved the painting's antiquity in an interesting way: she closed the shutters and put all the lights out and passed an ultra-violet light over the painting, saying that anything that appeared black was relatively recent, say post-1850. Only the garland woven between the bull's horns came out black; some later hand had added it. She suggested 1630 as a possible date, and I was enormously gratified. 1630! Why, Shakespeare was hardly cold in his grave, Charles I was on a collision course with Parliament, Europe was in the grip of the Thirty Years' War...

It took Mlle Ficini two months to transform it into a scene of light and clarity. What had appeared to be a big black smudge on the right turned out to be a capacious cave. Far from making gestures of welcome, the shore maidens were frantically urging the bull and Europa to turn back. One of them points to the cave, showing where the bull will deposit Europa, reveal himself transformed into Zeus or Jupiter and slake his wicked troglodytic lust on her.

But that bull looks all wrong, as though the artist couldn't do bulls. He's so placid, so playful, even. He has a suggestion of Moomin about him. You can't imagine Moomin being done for rape, even if the result is the founder of a great continental race. I wondered if the original painter had taken his information from the commonest contemporary account of the legend, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and there it was, on p.73 of my Penguin edition: 'There was no menace in the set of his head or in his eyes; he looked completely placid. Agenor's daughter [i.e. Europa] was filled with admiration for one so handsome and so friendly...'

So there you are, Vicus and Dave. I suppose that makes you cousins.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Good morning, Croatia

When I was about 15 someone gave me a cravat, a thing of great loveliness, rich in swirled Paisley arabesques in custard yellow and strawberry jam red. I adored it and wore it on every possible occasion, at one time getting into trouble for attempting to subvert the school uniform. School uniform - it pains me to type this ghastly admission - included a straw boater and a dashing green waistcoat with brass buttons, if you were a member of a select society called the Zetountes, which is Greek for 'seekers'. To my mind all that it needed to proclaim the ultra-fashionable Zetounte*-about-town was a brilliant yellow cravat. Others thought differently.

In any case not long afterwards the cravat became associated with those of a certain sexual orientation and my cravat never left its drawer. "Why don't you wear your cravat any more?" my mother asked once. "It suits you so well. I rely on you to wear it on Sunday, please. Denby Williamson is coming. He is just the man to appreciate it."

Denby Williamson, a man of perfumed middle age, was gay. His father had been curator or keeper of the last Tsar's Fabergé collection. Denby Williamson had inherited several Fabergé pieces, on which my mother had cast envious eyes. But my cravat stayed in its drawer.

Living in France many years later I rediscovered it. Other significances, never current in France, had long since died out, I imagined. I dared it once more, and found my earlier fashion fire rekindled. Passing a tailors and outfitters in Essex during a recent visit to the UK I went in, on the offchance that they might have some dusty tissue-wrapped relics in some distant stock-room. I was surprised to find several in prominent display. Could it be that they're now back in fashion? Could they still have those old connotations?

Well, who would care in France? I came out the richer by three gorgeous silken beauties, and the poorer by - but I'm ashamed to tell you. I'm now obsessed with wearing cravats, especially in winter, tucked confortably into open-necked polo shirts.

Denby Williamson died twenty years and more ago. No Fabergé came our way.

* I KNOW the singular of 'Zetountes' should be 'Zetous'. And the word 'cravat' comes from Hrvatska, which is what the Croats call their country.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

In my end is my beginning, for the time being, anyway

I can't stay away any longer.

Better to walk alongside the great English bloggers, Vicus Scurra, Dave, ur-Patroclus, Z, Rog, Belle de Jour etc. than creep about in the shadow of their comment threads. So Lydian Airs breathes again.

(I expect I subconsciously kept my options open with the photo I doctored slightly when I packed up last July. It wasn't a symbolic sunset at all. It was a winter dawn over the western Mediterranean, taken from a bedroom balcony somewhere that wouldn't be a secret any more if I said where it was.)

Speaking of bedrooms, while heading for Scotland a few days ago with the ever-stunning J. we pitched up at nightfall at The Collingwood Arms in Cornhill on Tweed, right on the Border. We'd known this hotel from years back, when it was comfortably scruffy but none too warm in winter. It's had a terrific makeover since, taking much of its inspiration from Cuthbert Collingwood, Nelson's vice-admiral at Trafalgar, who had family connections in north Northumberland.

The bedrooms are named after the men-of-war in Collingwood's Trafalgar division. You may well wonder what goes on in bedrooms with REVENGE or COLOSSUS painted on the door. As for us, they put us in POLYPHEMUS, the supposedly one-eyed giant out of Homer's Odyssey. The Greek name means 'chatterbox'. Very suitable for a returning blogger