Monday, 29 November 2010

Lies, damned lies and grasshoppers

At school we had a CCF, Combined Cadet Force, a throwback to pre-First World War militarism. On Thursday afternoons everyone had to change into military uniform and play at soldiers. There was an army section and a much smaller RAF section. Both were officered by teachers who were so inclined, while lads who enjoyed that kind of thing provided the NCOs to bawl commands and stamp booted feet and find fault with gaiters imperfectly clarted with a sort of khaki mud called blanco.

The RAF section was looked after, incongruously, by an ex-Royal Navy sub-lieutenant, Mr Blee. Outside of Thursday afternoons, Mr Blee taught music. He and I got on well. After a year in the army section learning basic square-bashing drill I asked to be transferred to the RAF section. I was marched into the presence of the CO, Major Hawke, who taught maths when not in uniform. The following interview* took place, as near as I can remember it:

Cpl Harmer (whom I sat next to in Latin and sometimes allowed to copy my work): Detail, halt. Salute the officer.

Major Hawke:
At ease, soldier. What do you want, what's-your-name, Willie Wormy?

I'd like to join the RAF Section, Sir.

Major Hawke:
Oh yes? Nancy boy, are you?

Me (not really knowing at fourteen what a nancy boy was, but having my suspicions):
I don't think so, Sir. But my uncle was a distinguished RAF officer. And I'm interested, Sir.

Sub-Lieutenant Blee:
What better reason?

Major Hawke:
Take him away, Lieutenant Blee. We want men in the army, not your bloody pint-sized musicians. Request granted. Dismiss.

Cpl Harmer:
Detail, 'shun. Salute the officer. About turn. Quick march, left, right, left, right.

Parents paid good money for this sort of education. Well, some did: I won a scholarship to this place, with funds provided by a cathedral foundation, so I suppose it came free.

In the RAF section some sort of introduction to flying was provided by the Grasshopper. The Grasshopper was a skeletal glider, only to be used on windless days. The unfortunate chosen to 'pilot' it strapped himself on to a plank just forward of the wings. Each foot rested on a pedal, hands clasped a joystick. Clamps prevented all movement of the controls except one, a trigger to release the anchor that held the glider in its corner of the playing field.

Once the pilot was installed an immense bungee rope was attached in a V to a hook somewhere about the nose, like a catapult, or those rubber bands we used to flick pellets with. Two groups of cadets, like tug-of-war teams, spread outwards from the glider, took up the bungee, taking care to stand behind it, and on the order marched forward. When the sweating grunts had marched far enough and had created enough tension, the pilot was ordered to release the anchor and the grunts to drop the bungee.

At this point the Grasshopper lurched forward a few yards, sliding on its runner like a grass ski, and came to a halt. Other non-bungee erks were instructed to run alongside the wing-tips and to hold them up when the apparatus slid to a halt, to prevent damage to the mountings when it tilted over.

I resent the implication of the photo above. It is clearly false. Never to my knowledge did the Grasshopper ever leave the ground.

On one glorious occasion - I wasn't present, unfortunately - the officer commanding failed to instruct the heaving erks to take station behind the bungee rather than in front.

I was never in much sympathy with the CCF. I fiercely resisted promotion out of the ranks to lance-corporal, let alone corporal or sergeant. So did the authorities.

* I've lifted this dialogue from an earlier blog incarnation.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Midnight. One more night without sleepin'...

... actually it's 2.33am. I wake up, restless and wide awake. Blast. That's the third night in a row. When my back was really bad a couple of months ago, they prescribed something tetrapazam-based called Myolastan, a muscle relaxant. For weeks on end I took it last thing at night and slept perfectly and without pain. There were some declared side effects that I won't trouble a lady or gentleman like you with. Also it might become addictive, the notes in the pack said. The notes didn't say anything about total suppression of the creative imagination. Not good. Now that things are improving, three nights ago I felt it was time to wean myself off it. Easier said than done.

I get up, go downstairs and make a cup of tea, take a couple of chunks of F & N and turn the television on, but without the sound. One does not wish to cause household disturbance at quarter to three in the morning. Our TV package has hundreds of Europe-wide channels. Our regular channels have closed down for the night, but there's still a vast choice for the nighthawk and the sleepless. I try channel 30 at random.

Channel 30 has bought in some Venezuelan all-in wrestling. Various muscle-bound muchachos, some hideously made up and costumed, descend a flight of stairs to the ring amid strobe lights and swirls of coloured smoke, accompanied by adoring hip-swaying chicas in spangled bikinis. There are no rules. The wrestlers just throw each other about the ring as they feel like it. Presently a blonde bloke appears, classically beautiful, could have modelled for Michaelangelo, with a slight hint of camp about him. He has 'Marco' in sparkly letters across the front of his codpiece-tight shorts and 'Ocram' across his bume. A wit, evidently. The muchachos set on him. No swaying chicas accompany his stretcher back up the stairs. The crowd waves and stamps, delirious, ecstatic with pleasure.

I move on. Maybe a film will fill the wakeful hours? Our package groups films between channels 100 and 112. On 100 there's a film about Eric Tabarly, the epic French solo yachtsman. It's mostly black and white and depends on sound, so I move on.

On 101 a terrified girl with a torn dress is being threatened by grinning demons. On 102 some poor woman is being viciously attacked by some bloke in the toils of anguish. (I should recognise this film, but I don't.) On 103 a young couple are having a violent argument in a hotel bedroom. When a knife appears I move on to 104, where a gang of unlovely youths is arguing about a girl, pulling her this way and that. On 105 a not very beautiful woman is being raped. I go back to Eric Tabarly, who has just lost his mast. Is this a sly metaphor for our condition?

It occurs to me that 102 is in fact The Piano Teacher, a very fine film - tho' very Austrian - starring Isabelle Huppert and featuring some sublime pathos-ridden Schubert*. I return to it, but it's the sacrificial end, Mlle Huppert has just stabbed herself and is wandering away into the Viennese night to bleed to death.

I give up and go back to bed with much to think about. There's a thesis claiming that any cultural product, film, play, painting, novel, whatever, can only exist to fulfil or reflect a sometimes subconscious social need. What kind of people are we?

Maybe tonight I'll sleep better. I deserve to.

*Piano trio in E flat, Op. 100. Here's the slow movement. (If all three players don't appear, click on the image. The original You Tube excerpt should come up. Thank you, Vicus, for pointing this out.)

Friday, 12 November 2010

England, my England

Scene: Small Essex retirement home, a comfortable, friendly and well-run place where the staff are such saintly stars that I wouldn't mind putting my name down in due course. My son Nibus and I are visiting.

In the main day room there's a new resident, an elderly man with a gift for Herculean coughings, hawkings and phlegmings. Two or three places down an elderly lady, the only resident with a mild dementia, occasionally utters wild fortissimo shrieks and moans. It's one of the periods of the day when the television is on. (The residents' committee, partly guided by our visitee, has banned continual television.)

Mr Hawker is at full throttle. Mona is in mid-season form. So far their utterances have been separate. Suddenly for an instant they coincide, a simultaneous massive viscous rumbling and eerie banshee howl, a sort of transcendental geriatric coition. At that moment there's a burst of enthusiastic and prolonged cheering and applause from the television. Nibus and I daren't look each other in the eye...

...we eat that night in a little restaurant specialising in Tex-Mex cuisine. We've been there before, just often enough to know the staff, mostly stunning Essex blondes of which S. the chef/proprietor seems to have an unending supply, by their first names. I've nearly finished my fajita and Nibus his Big Beef Bummer when S. comes and sits next to us.

For no clear reason he tells us about the time when during a deep-sea dive he had been seriously alarmed by a presence his limited field of vision and the semi-opacity of the water prevented him from identifying exactly. The presence followed him continually, keeping just out of sight. At last he caught a glimpse of a single eye, staring balefully, as though it was trying to give him the evil eye. (I wonder. A distant memory comes to me, something legendary about looking into the eye of a whale and seeing certain visions of a higher truth.) At length the fish revealed itself. It was a cod, a big bugger, the chef/proprietor says. Nibus and I have more eye-to-eye trouble. S. punctuates his sentences with 'yeh', like David Brent in The Office.

Why is he telling us this? A possible answer is that he's deliberately engaging customers in conversation in order to escape some menial washing-up task that he's left to his wife in the kitchen.

We order dessert. Nibus chooses a Lemon Lush, a gooey confection consisting of a viscous glob of lemon curd nestling in vanilla ice-cream, surrounded by whipped cream. I ask, as always when I go out, for strawberry ice-cream. When it arrives I see it has been expressly, and suggestively, sculpted to resemble - well, there's a Russian cigarette set at an angle of about 60º between two pink globes. The waitress excuses herself: it's nothing to do with her, she says, she's a pure girl, unspoiled and untainted. So it's come like that from the kitchen. By what right...

...oh, never mind. We don't get to England very often. We should relish these authentic glimpses of the Old Country more.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Top lines from Chaucer No. 5

If that he faught, and hadde the hyer hond,
By water he sente hem hoom to every lond.
But of his craft to rekene wel his tydes
His stremes and his daungers him bisydes
His herberwe and his mone, his lode-menage
There nas noon swich from Hulle to Cartage.
Hardy he was, and wyse to undertake;
With many a tempest hadde his berd been shake.
He knew wel alle the havenes, as they were,
From Gootland to the cape of Finistere,
And every cryke in Britayne and in Spayne.
His barge y-cleped was The Maudelayne.

[Paraphrase: When he won a sea fight he threw his victims overboard. From Hull to Cartagena he had no equal for navigation - tides and currents, shoals and reefs, zodiacal position of the sun, phases of the moon and magnetic compass usage. He was tough but prudent, with a beard tossed by many a tempest. He knew all the havens from Gotland (in the Baltic) to Finisterre, and every creek in Brittany and Spain. His ship was called The Magdalen.]

This is the Shipman, although he's not recognisable as such from the vignette above. He's described in the Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written in about 1386. The line His herberwe and his mone, his lode-menage has raised many critical eyebrows. 'Herberwe' apparently means housing or harbour, not in the sense of anchorage but of the hosting implied by astrologers in speaking, for instance, of the Sun being in the house of Libra, or Gemini, etc.

'Lode' is lodestone, a magnetised rock, which will in turn magnetise iron nails or pins if they are placed in contact with it. A magnetised nail or pin, if floated on a small piece of wood or card, will automatically point towards magnetic north. It's a small step from this to fashion a compass rose. Lode-menage is apparently the first mention in English of navigation by magnetic compass, although there are earlier references to it in Italian. If Chaucer takes it for granted that his fellow-pilgrims on the road to Canterbury are familiar with the system, its use was presumably widespread. Maybe this indicates that passage across the Bay of Biscay, out of sight of the French and Spanish coasts that pre-compass mariners hugged, was possible and commonplace by 1386.

'Every cryke in Brittany and in Spayne' at either end of the cross-Biscay dash, is well chosen, because both areas are riddled with sheltered creeks and inlets, particularly in the north-western Spanish province of Galicia. I wonder if Chaucer's Shipman knew Baiona, a sheltered anchorage about half-way between Vigo and the Portuguese border? Not much more than a hundred years after Chaucer wrote this, Baiona was the landfall of the first of Columbus' ships, the Pinta, to return with news of his discovery of the New World.

In the harbour at Baiona there's a full-scale replica of the Pinta. It costs 2 euros to look over it. It's tiny, not much bigger than the pleasure craft around it, and you wonder how on earth Columbus' men managed to sail such a matchbox across the Atlantic and back. I also have a photo of myself at the wheel of the 'Pinta', but as it makes me look like Rev. Septimus Brope I prefer not to publish it.

You see what I get up to when I'm practically bedridden. Thanks so much for all your good wishes.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

From the archive

In the upper photo there are two brothers, one of whom is now a peer of the realm. The character on the extreme right is blind and of uncertain gender.

In the lower photo the two 'women', one of whom gives her name to the play, are in fact lusty lads of 16 or 17.

I'm in both. Despite these anomalies, I'm as certain now of my gender as I was when these was taken, back in 19...I forget when exactly. If you identify me correctly I may magically come to life.

One of the most famous lines from this play, written in about 440BC, is:

The greatest of the many wonders on earth is Man


Friday, 13 August 2010

And God Made Tracey

Well, I enjoyed them.

Happy weekend.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Top lines from Chaucer No. 4

Gat-tothed was she, soothly for to seye.
Up-on an amblere esily she sat
Y-wimpled wel, and on hir heed an hat
As brood as is a bokeler or a targe;
A foot-mantel aboute hir hipes large,
And on hir feet a paire of spores sharpe.
In felawschip wel coude she laughe and carpe.
Of remedyes of love she knew perchaunce
For she coude of that art the olde daunce.

(She was gap-toothed, to tell the truth. She sat comfortably on a nag, well wimpled [i.e. her cheeks and neck veiled] and on her head a hat as broad as a buckler or a shield; a plaid around her wide hips, and on her feet a pair of sharp spurs. In company she could laugh and chatter. As it happened she knew all the old tricks for curing venereal diseases.)

This is Chaucer's Wife of Bath. (Isn't there a pub named after her in Canterbury or thereabouts?) She's next to last, just in front of the Pardoner, in the photo. She'd been married five times, and was looking for a sixth husband. We're not told if she found one among the other pilgrims on the road to Canterbury.

I've had this felt picture for years and years, and the colours are as fresh today as they were when it was made in the mid-50s. It hangs in my study. Each pilgim is faithfully depicted, so whoever designed it knew their Chaucer. I'm in two minds about it. I love Chaucer dearly (maybe you've picked this up already), but I'm not convinced that sewing patches of coloured felt on to a pre-outlined canvas backing is the best medium for expressing the exuberant, post-Black Death energy of 14th Century England. On the photo above there's a curious diagonal mark towards the foot, and if I enlarge it...

...clearly somebody else is drawn to the Canterbury Pilgrims too. I found him when I first entered my study yesterday morning. He appears to be aiming straight for the Wife of Bath. He's a lacewing. Isn't he handsome? He appeared yesterday morning. One of our high summer tasks is to open all the doors and windows at 4am. Cool air floods through the house until we shut everything and close the shutters at about 9 o'clock, trapping the dawn coolth for the rest of the day. Consequently any passing early lacewing finds open house here. As I see the fashion for posting insect studies has been established recently here, I wouldn't want to be found wanting.

Besides, we know what happens in popular mythology when princesses kiss frogs. Who knows, maybe in their mythology remarkable things happen when lacewings kiss wives of Bath. Moreover, our lacewing has since disappeared. Like the W. of B.'s other five husbands. H'm...

Incidentally, can you identify the pilgrims? 7 and 8 are, as mentioned, the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner. I have my own ideas about the others, but I'd be very glad to know what you think.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Brush up your Swedish: Lesson 23

With apologies to


STOP PRESS: Due to universal demand from Ikea staff among many others, I have much pleasure in appending a translation:

Bibbi Snurr: Lack, lack! Antilop kritter! Antilop kritter hopen salong!
(Look! Look! Antelope critter! Antelope critter hopping along!)

: Indeed, indeed? Where?

Bibbi Snurr: Leckman! Odda sydröd!
(Look, man! Other side [of the] road)

: Why, so there is. How most bizarre. And in Stockholm too, imagine! I thought they lived in Africa.

Bibbi Snurr: Besta kilim?
(Best to kill him?)

: Why, whatever for? Bit hard, isn't it?

Bibbi Snurr: Bigarrå effectiv?
([Would a] big arrow [be] effective?)

: I'm sure it would be.

Bibbi Snurr: Annons! Antilop kritter gormin ribba! Dång!
(Oh noes! Antelope critter's gone in [the] river! Dang!)

: They can swim, you know.

Bibbi Snurr: You aren't from round here, are you?
(Varför vill ni tala som Jeremias Paxman?)

(with acknowledgements to Geoff)

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Is your name Baboonio?

Is your name Baboonio?

by 'Nomenclator'

Were you teased horribly at school? Did your schoolfellows make ape-like grunting noises, shrieks and whimperings? Did they make jokes about bananas? Did they swing from branch to branch scratching their armpits, sticking out their lower jaws and going Hoo-hoo-hoo mockingly?

Never mind. Names will never hurt you. You have the last laugh. You see, you are a CLERICAL ERROR. Your name is really Bassoonio.

So, what happened?

Bassoonio and Saloonio are two characters in Shakespeare's New Wives For Old, the early comedy he never managed to finish nor in fact to start. Set in Renaissance Italy, Bassoonio and Saloonio are drunken, bawdy servants of Cosimo, Duke of Milan. They spend their time in bars and bordellos, wining and wenching. Their famous eructation contest is rudely broken up by the watch, led by Nogood, a leper, and Scrotumio, the Duke's wrinkled retainer.

When New Wives For Old came to be translated into German, the double S in Bassoonio was rendered by the German double S, called es-zett or scharfes S, which looks quite like our capital B.

Here's a row of them:

Please feel free to take one home with you if you would like to. HURRY while stocks last!

You see how it happened? Bassoonio = Baßoonio = Baboonio. Simple, really. And nothing to worry about. No need to trouble the deed poll office.

Why, if a Shakespearian pedigree wasn't enough, Coleridge mentions you as well in his famed Rime of the Ancient Mariner. If you remember, the Ancient Mariner could not expiate his sin of shooting an albatross until he had confessed all to a stranger, in this case a guest on his way to a wedding:

The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.

'The ship was cheer'd, the harbour clear'd,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.

The Sun came out upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.

Higher and higher every day,
Till over the mast at noon—'
The Wedding Guest here beat his breast,
For he heard the loud baboon.

Next week: 'Nomenclator' asks 'Is your name Fillyfod?' and explains the 18th Century ƒ.

Good morning.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Top lines from Chaucer No. 3

(In anticipation of George Osborne's budget)

To yow, my purse, and to noon other wight
Complayne I, for ye be my lady dere!
I am so sory, now that ye been lyght;
For certes, but ye make me hevy chere,
Me were as lief be layd upon my bere;
For which unto your mercy thus I crye:
Beth hevy ageyn, or elles moot I dye!

(To you, my purse, and to no one else
Do I complain, for you are my true love.
I am so sorry that there is no weight in you
For you certainly give me such heavy grief
That I might as well be laid on my bier:
And so I fall on your mercy crying
Be heavy again, or else I must die!)

Now voucheth sauf this day, or yt be nyght,
That I of yow the blisful soun may here,
Or see your colour lyk the sonne bryght,
That of yelownesse hadde never pere.
Ye be my lyf, ye be myn hertes stere,
Quene of comfort and of good companye:
Beth hevy ageyn, or elles moot I dye!

(Now promise today, before nightfall,
That I may hear your wonderful sound
Or behold your colour, bright as the sun,
Of unequalled yellowness.
You are my life, you are the rudder of my heart,
Queen of ease and of good company:
Be heavy again, or else I must die!)

Now purse, that ben to me my lyves lyght
And saveour, as doun in the world here,
Out of this toune helpe me thurgh your myght,
Syn that ye wole nat ben my tresorere;
For I am shave as nye as any frere.
But yet I pray unto your curtesye:
Beth hevy ageyn, or elles moot I dye!

(Now, purse, that are to me my life's light
And saviour down in this world here,
Help me out of it through your power
If you prefer not to be my treasurer,
For I am as close shaven (i.e. skint) as any monk.
All the same I pray you , in your kindness
Be heavy again, or else I must die!)

Friday, 11 June 2010

Is your name Roadrunner?

No doubt about it, you Roadrunners have an honourable place in History. It's one of those occupational names like Clown, Nightsoilman or Scrumper, what nomenclature experts call 'jobbies' in Scotland.

Your ancestors did a job that Father Time has long since drawn his sable cloak around. Roadrunners used to run in front of vehicles waving a red flag, warning of the oncoming danger, counselling people to move aside. For the benefit of the visually impaired, they would shout 'Beep! Beep!' (from OE beepan = to avoid stampeding cattle, poultry, etc.)

Waggons, curricles, open flies, phaetons, growlers. Runaway horses. Cavalry charges. Early trains, like Stephenson's 'Rocket'. Dirigibles. Dreadnoughts. Tanks. All were grist to the Roadrunner mill. But by the time the first cars arrived in the reign of William IV they were beginning to die out - as a profession.

Their name lives on, however, and ancestral urges sometimes impel surviving Roadrunners to foregather at latter-day venues, Cowes Week, Silverstone, Aintree, White City, Salisbury Plain, where their rude encampments a-murmur with soft cries of 'Beep! Beep!' betray their atavistic - but harmless - presence.

What your stars hold in store
by 'Latrans'

Roadrunners, your working days are done. No longer the hustle, the shouting and waving! No more flags! No more beeps! Slow down! Enjoy the view! Smell the wayside flowers! Take time to stand and stare! What's the hurry, anyway? Learn to amble! Learn to snooze! Learn to contemplate! Learn to close your eyes and dream in the lay-bys of life's highways! Learn to trust those who want to be closer to you! Surrender to those who want nothing more than to enfold you in their arms!

(© Syndics of Wile E. Coyote features)

UPDATE: Loyal reader M.Hector sends me this photo of a real roadrunner, taken by himself (or by 'Mee-meep' as he puts it) in the Arizona desert. The man with the red flag is just off-picture.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Top lines from Chaucer No. 2

Ther nas no dore that he nolde heve of harre,
Or breke it, at a renning, with his heed.

(There was no door he couldn't heave off its hinges
Or, running at it, smash it with his head.)

Geoffrey Chaucer (?1340-?1400): The Canterbury Tales, Prologue.

Five or six years ago I was invited to Montpellier to take part in an English literature evening hosted by a French cultural association. To put everything into context they'd made a time-line of Eng. Lit. giants to put on the wall. Eng. Lit. giants included William Beckford (who?), Barbara Cartland and Agatha Christie.

First on the list, however, was Geoffrey CHANCER. I expect he would have been proud to be associated with this spirit of adventurous spelling. He would also have enjoyed our hosts' attempt to cultivate the ambience of a typical English gathering of literary giants. Among other things they served jelly, not made in the usual way with boiling water and left to set in moulds or little dishes: they simply served jelly cubes straight from the pack with cocktail sticks stuck in them.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Is your name Bum?

There has been a complaint that Lydian Airs is 'a tad high-brow'. I'm sorry about this. I do try to please all comers. The following may redress the balance:

Escalus: Come you hither to me, Master Tapster. What's your name, Master Tapster?

Pompey: Pompey.

Escalus: What else?

Pompey: Bum, sir.

Escalus: Troth, and your bum is the greatest thing about you...

(William Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, Act 2 Scene1)

Alive to the possibility that Pompey's descendants are still in evidence, I consulted one of those genealogical websites. I'm afraid it was a French one, one that pops up uninvited while waiting for other things to load. There are 728 registered Bums.

The site helpfully lists the most popular Bum family forenames. 'Pompey' doesn't appear. Nor does Al, too busy sticking things into himself to register.

They are:

Elisabeth Enric Fritz Jakob Large Madeline-M Mary-Elizabeth Milliard-Fillmore Minnie Mnukhe Oliver Otto Tressa Vigder William

That's all I can tell you. I ought to know better, really.

Next week: Is your name Halfwit?

* * *

If you're in need of further diversion (maybe the election didn't go the way you would have wished?), try this:

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Not quite bald yet

Having an hour or two to kill in storm-lashed Montpellier yesterday morning I went to the Musée Fabre, the very fine city art gallery. I've been several times before, but always in company or with limited time, both of which affect one's ability to wander at will. The woman on the ticket counter was one of those thankfully rare French people who, as soon as they hear the slightest trace of a foreign accent, speak very very slowly in a sort of moronic pidgin-French amplified by infantile gestures, talking to a colleague the while about something else. In these circumstances I'm reminded of the immortal poem
See the happy moron,
He doesn't give a damn.
I wish I was a moron...
My god! Perhaps I am?

Nicolaes van Verendael (1640-1691): Vase of flowers, 1674

Anyway I bought my ticket and went in. I spent a good hour hour going Dutch, absorbing all that the Musée Fabre could throw at me from their giant collection of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish masters. From all the peasant scenes, portraits of plump burghers with crazily goffered ruffs, land- and seascapes, I chose a flower painting, itself a minor genre from the period, from the souvenir postcards in the gallery shop.

I expect you too can find an ant, a bee, a looper caterpillar, a Red Admiral, a snail attacking a peach, a fritillary, along with a fat watch and its key on a ribbon. I expect it needs winding up, because time seems to have stopped, if it allows a season in which brambles (bottom right) and tulips are prominent together. Tulips in Dutch paintings are always significant because they point to the wealth accruing from a busy and lucrative overseas trade which England was wrenching away from them even as this painting was drying on its easel. Tulip bulbs, originating in the Near East (the words 'tulip' and 'turban' are etymologically close) commanded high prices, especially flowers as striking as these. But however magnificent the flower, in time it withers and dies. I think the whole painting is an unwitting commentary on the decline of Dutch commercial primacy. I expect this is completely fanciful.

I moved on to a special exhibition the gallery was holding of the work of the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, a specialist in portraits. Among other people prominent in Paris in the 1770s and 80s (Benjamin Franklin, Christoph Willibald Gluck) he sculpted the philosopher Voltaire, who had recently been allowed back to France as an old man after years in exile in Switzerland. When he died in 1778, a month or two after Houdon had finished his portrait, he was greatly mourned in certain circles because of his outspoken criticism of pre-Revolution France. The demand for memorials grew, and Houdon found his order book filling with demands for Voltaires, even though his subject was cold in the grave. The need for speed of execution grew too, and we find Houdon moving from marble to the much speedier terra cotta and plaster.
Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828): Voltaire seated, c. 1780-90

This is one of the many posthumous portraits, a quarter-life-size portrait of Voltaire, and I do like the way Houdon has captured the wit, the fine intelligence, the humanity and dignity of this first-thing-in-the-morning old man in his dressing-gown, his few remaining wisps of hair held in a band (I wonder why?) and his attitude of quiet, smiling, even smug, satisfaction. But you never know with Voltaire, always a man to spring surprises. It's just possible that his attitude may be due to the effectiveness of his laxative.
Finally I couldn't resist this magnificent bat in (I think) sand-blasted bronze. The French for bat (that's to say flittermouse, pipistrelle, etc.) is chauve-souris, bald mouse. That's how I feel sometimes, too, especially when Sarah forgets to pretend not to notice it.

Germaine Richier (1902-1959): Bat, 1946

Monday, 3 May 2010

Ding donge

J. produced some new soap the other day, a brand called Donge. I didn't see the pack, so I didn't know where it came from. Living in deepest European Union, the possibilities are legion.

If it was French, it would be pronounced 'dawn-zhuh'. If it was German it would be 'donger' to rhyme with 'longer'. Spanish? 'don-hey'. Italian? 'don-jay'.

And English? 'donj' , 'donjy', 'dongy' or just 'dong'?

'Dong?' J. said. 'That's a colloquial American word for--'

But that's neither here nor there.

'However you pronounce it,' I said, 'I've seen that word before.'

And so I had. With me it was the work of a moment to speed downstairs - this conversation having taken place in the upstairs bathroom - to the bookshelves.

Eng. Lit.

Chaucer, Geoffrey: The Canterbury Tales

The Nun's Priest's Tale, ll 190 ff

(A man dreams that his friend is about to be murdered and is calling for help. He wakes, dismisses his friend's SOS as a nightmare, goes back to sleep. It happens again. The third time he dreams his friend says:

"...I am now slawe;
Bihold my blody woundes, depe and wyde!
Arys up erly in the morwe-tyde
And at the west gate of the toun ," quod he,
"A carte ful of DONG ther shaltow see,
In which my body is hid ful prively..."

(GLOSSARY: slawe = slain, killed: Arys = arise, get up: quod = quoth, said: DONG = dung, manure: shaltow = shalt thou, shall you: prively = secretly.)

In the morning the man does as his friend's ghost has told him.

And forth he goth...
Unto the west gate of the toun, and fond
A DONG-carte, as it was to DONGE lond

(GLOSSARY: goth = goes: fond = found: DONGE = to spread manure: lond = land.)

And guess what? He calls on what passes for the constabulary in 14th century England, the people rally round, upset the cart-

And in the middel of the DONG they founde
The dede man, that mordred was al newe.

(GLOSSARY: mordred = murdered: newe = newly, freshly.)

Completely vindicated, satisfied that in Chaucer's day few soap-boilers would have called their product DONGE, I went back upstairs and completed my toilet.

* * *

No donge here, but compost instead. I'm now digging in all last year's compost. I see the compost box is home to a lively population of worms, grubs and creepy-crawlies, which is as it should be, but goodness knows what these 1½-inch maggots are:

Now and again I come to curious lumps about the size of a haggis. I poke and prod: what are these things that haven't broken down into a rich grainy compost and which even the most omnivorous larvae eschew?

I remember: last September Patroclus and Mr Blue Cat and the Blue Kitten came to stay. The Blue Kitten's disposable nappies, supposedly entirely composed of natural fibres, went into the compost. Bio-degradable?

After all this I washed my hands. With DONGE, of course.

(GLOSSARY for the benefit of the legions of US Chaucerians who come here : nappies = diapers)

Friday, 2 April 2010

Nailing an anomaly

A few weeks ago I was writing about St Francis of Assisi, a man of such outstanding goodness that towards the end of his life the stigmata appeared on his palms, insteps and side. (The stigmata are the scars of the wounds made by the nails that held Jesus to the cross and of the gash made in his side by the centurion's spear.)

A stimulating scholarly debate followed. Crucifixion was a common method of execution in the ancient Roman world. (The 19-year-old Julius Caesar, captured for ransom by Eastern Mediterranean pirates, promised to crucify every one of them. And eventually he did.) Experts in anatomy and ancient history claim that to prevent a condemned man falling off the cross, he would have to have been nailed to the wood through the wrists and ankles. Nailing through the palm wouldn't support the weight of the body.

But the stigmata have been traditionally depicted on the palms. Palms or wrists? Dave and I went to the earliest existing account of the crucifixion, in the Greek of the New Testament. Would there be a distinction between the Greek for 'hands' and for 'wrists'? Certain that scholars would have discovered it if there was, all the same I thought I'd found something significant.

The Greek for 'hands' appears several times as χειρας, cheiras. But once or twice we get χερσιν, chersin. Aha. Could χερσιν possibly mean 'wrists'?

In our bookshelves few books gather more dust than Abbott and Mansfield's Primer of Greek Grammar, a relic of several year's worth of Greek at school. The dust blown off - I took it outside - it became my bedside browsing for several nights. I didn't get very far, because I usually fall asleep after a page or two, but eventually I found what I was looking for in an obscure footnote.

χερσιν, Mr Abbott and Mr Mansfield told me, was an irregular form of χειρας. (For grammarians, the dative plural form.) So, 'hands' after all. No mention of 'wrists'.

Perhaps I shouldn't meddle in these things.

Friday, 5 February 2010

You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I'll tickle your catastrophe!

I recently gave a friend (in fact the man who represents the Scottish police to the world) a birthday card that I'd been hoarding since the mid 60s, never finding quite the right occasion to send it until the other day.

The text was a long list of insults - kindly and inoffensive, I do assure you: my friend is the kindliest of men - with a box beside each, so that you could tick the ones which you felt applied. There was also a spare box for you to write in an extra one if you felt the insult compilers had unaccountably left one out. I'm happy to try to reproduce it (from memory) for the greater delight of the multitude of gentle abusers who come here every day. It went something like this:

Fraud.... Tinker.... Cormorant.... Slug.... Cannibal.... Greenhorn.... Sourguts.... Reptile.... Don Juan.... Tartar.... Hillbilly.... Torpedo.... Landlubber.... Butterfingers.... Hellhound.... April Fool.... Lotus Eater.... Drone.... Weevil.... Vampire.... Toady.... Scribbler.... Lie-abed.... Crumb.... Egghead.... Babyface.... Imperialist.... Sassenach.... Rake.... Puritan.... Tom-cat.... Loafer.... Sponge....

and so on. I'm particularly happy to include 'sponge', because I understand this is what Simon Cowell once accused Prince Philip, giant among the multitude of gentle abusers, of calling him.

It's hard to beat King Lear for colourful insults:

Coward.... Brazen-faced varlet.... Whoreson zed.... Unnecessary letter.... Wagtail.... Finical rogue.... Pandar.... Cullionly barbermonger.... Eater of broken meats.... One-trunk-inheriting slave.... Worsted-stocking knave.... Jakes wall-daubing....

Thank you, Will. I feel the better for that.

Friday, 22 January 2010

It was a summer evening:

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840): Moonrise over the sea

Monument Valley, Arizona

Old Caspar's work was done...

...for him already.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Where there is error?

I was really surprised when I first saw this painting of St Francis. Actually it's a fresco, not a particularly prominent one, in the the lower basilica of the great church of Assisi. J. and I went there several years ago, intending to have a look at the Giotto frescoes in the upper basilica, but it was closed for renovation, so we had to make do with the lower.

Chief memories of Assisi are:

The most monstrous pile I've ever seen of Walkers of Strathspey shortbread in one of the souvenir shops

The monstrous irony of Bellamy our golden retriever not being allowed into St Francis' own church

The monstrous array of scaffolding around the upper basilica, each pole painted black and decorated with beautiful gilded finials

And of course this portrait of St Francis. It was painted in about 1270, within living memory of St Francis, by the most shadowy forerunner of the Italian Renaissance, Giovanni di Pepo, better known by his nickname Cimabue, or 'ox-top', maybe because of a curly tuft on the top of his head.

I was struck by it because apart from the obligatory halo and the wounds on his hands and feet St Francis appears as someone entirely believable, an unprepossessing little bloke with a hooked nose, big ears and piercing compassionate eyes that see through pretence and vanity to the weakness beneath. Not that there's doubt about his existence: his life is well documented even if you scrape away the accretions of legend. What damage to credibility later artists caused, oiling and massaging their saints into an impossible, unapproachable and downright unappealing sanctity!

But I think there's a problem with the famous stigmata, the supposed mystical appearance of Jesus' crucifixion wounds on someone of great holiness. Cimabue has painted them in on St Francis' feet and hands. (His habit is also torn to show the wound in his side.) We sometimes forget that crucifixion was as usual a method of execution of criminals in Roman dominions as hanging was in the UK until its abolition in the 1960s. Crucifixion nails were heavy, hand-made builders' nails. To support the body weight on the cross, they were driven in through the wrists and the ankles, crossed one over the other, of the condemned. Nails driven through the palm would have torn through the flesh and ligaments of the hands and the victim would have tumbled forward, still pinned at the ankles. It doesn't bear thinking about.

Why has Cimabue, revolutionary devotee of realism, given St Francis - his real name was Giovanni di Bernadone: the Italian 'Francesco' just means 'frenchified', because he was born in France and affected French manners during his wild youth - why has Cimabue given him stigmata that couldn't have existed in that form? Or should we accept them as a convention, like his halo?

It's quite nice to write a serious post now and again.