Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Toulon and Toulouse

I'm in Montpellier, which I discovered the other day is France's 8th largest city. We go there about twice a month. It's about 90 minutes away from where we live. It's one of the most sophisticated Mediterranean cities: only Barcelona and maybe Nice outclass it.

We're there because J. has her monthly visit to her acupuncturist, and my business involves pins, too.

We park in one of the many city centre underground car-parks, from which we're borne up into the heart of a shopping mall called Le Polygone by lift. We've time for coffee before going our separate ways, double espresso, strong egg-cupful, twice, for J. ('Intravenous, she says. Straight into the vein.') and I prefer grand crème, a rich, creamy, potent café au lait which has not the slightest resemblance whatever to so-called latte or anything like that to be found in Costa's or Starbuck's.

Caffeined up, she takes the tram to Dr Acula's pin tables, and I take the trousers of my one and only suit to a place prosaically called l'Atelier de Retouches, the alteration workshop. Several genteel middle-aged ladies are sitting at sewing machines. I'm a little uneasy: J. has told me that in order for the alteration ladies to ascertain what work has to be done, I'm bound to have to put these trousers on and show them. H'm. Not only is it a bit of a quart-into-a-pint-pot fit, changing has to be done behind a flimsy folding screen, decorated with birds of paradise, with wide see-through gaps at the angles. How will the birds of paradise compete with furtive glimpses of my knees and calves?

In the event it doesn't matter. The genteel lady who receives me understands the problem straight away. I got this suit in Los Angeles 10 years ago, to wear at a wedding. When I first tried it on all those years ago the trousers were - can't resist this, I'm afraid - Toulon and Toulouse, so they had to be taken up and in. My leg length hasn't changed, but over the intervening 10 years I've put some weight on, nothing gross, just a bit of dignified girth that limits activity while wearing these trousers to holding my breath, walking bolt-upright very stiffly and slowly, like Frankenstein's monster, and trying to prevent my eye-balls from popping out.

Madame examines the original alterations. There's plenty of material. She won't have to let in a gusset. In fact, she'll only have to restore the trousers to their original state, the pristine way they were when they hanging on the rack in Hugo Boss in Century City, LA.

They'll be ready by Monday, she says. Will I have to try them on? I ask. Do I betray some apprehension? If you want, she says, but I think it would be more sensible to take them home and try them there, with the jacket. If they're not right you can bring them back in. That will be €14,40, please.


I really don't know how I've managed to become so sidetracked. Possibly some subconscious notion of freedom, of liberation. What I really wanted to post about was a demonstration in Montpellier in support of two French journalists held hostage in Afghanistan. It's a year since they were captured, and any negotiations for their release don't seem to have got very far.

Next time.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Liverish? Splenetic? Bilious? Gall-bladdered?

Here are some definitions from Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, first published in 1906 as The Cynic's Word Book.

All you have to do is match the definition with the picture.

a. Once too often
b. The first and direst of all disasters. As to the nature of it there appears to be no uniformity. Castor and Pollux were born from the egg. Pallas came out of a skull. Galatea was once a block of stone. Peresilis, who wrote in the tenth century, avers that he grew up out of the ground where a priest had spilled holy water. It is known that Arimaxus was derived from a hole in the earth, made by a stroke of lightning. Leucomedon was the son of a cavern in Mount Aetna, and I have myself seen a man come out of a wine cellar
c. A prestidigator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket

d. The feeling that one has for the plate after one has eaten its contents

e. One who in a perilous emergency thinks with his legs


f. A person who talks when you wish him/her to listen

g. A popular entertainment given by the military for the benefit of innocent bystanders

In line with the instruction given to male royalty at receptions, etc, especially when greeting female guests, DON'T LOOK DOWN

1g 2c 3e 4f 5a 6d 7b, but you got them all, didn't you, even without ringing Dave?

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Figgy pudding's off, old chap

Christmas greetings from . . .

. . . J and C

The best-laid plans . . . we had intended to wish you a merry Christmas and base our greetings on the sense of joy and quiet achievement surrounding Christopher's mother's 100th birthday, but the snow, deep and crisp and even, prevented us getting any nearer her home in the north of Scotland to celebrate with her than Luton airport.

So in the absence of any centenarian input here's a poem by Siegfried Sassoon:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on--on--and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Clearly Sassoon had the event below in mind when he wrote this. Sound on, do please watch it through to the end, even if you've seen it before.

Meanwhile, a Christmas lucky dip into our 2010 doings brings up:

Hush, do not wake the infant William, born to Fiona and James on August 28th, a brother for Eliza, and apparently destined to become a night-club bouncer


First performance by C.'s choir Les Jeudistes and the Thalia Quartet (the photo was actually taken at the second performance, in what was once a lowly cattle-shed attached to local château) of C.'s cantata L'Imitation de Notre-Dame la Lune. Dedicatee of this work, head tenor Jean-Claude, in centre, hawk-like in his attention to the conductor.


We welcomed Ad Hoc Voices, a small choir (standing around all in white) based in Sevenoaks, paying us a return visit after our World Tour of Kent and Sussex in 2008. Which leads us to next year's adventure: Les Jeudistes' World Tour of Ross-shire, Nairnshire and Inverness-shire in early May.

Yes, we do all kinds of other things than rejoice with heart and soul and voice about choir events and the arrival of grandchildren, but a lot of energy is devoted to spending time with J.'s mother, in a wonderful retirement home that we're tempted to put our names down for, and with C.'s mother (ditto) in far-flung Scotland. Entre deux mers, as you might say. Ho ho ho.

Happy Christmas! Joyeux Noël !

Happy New Year! Bonne Année 2011 !

See our village amid the winter snow . . . we expect you've picked up all the quotes from and references to Christmas carols gathered all above. No prizes except an extra large helping of figgy pudding with all the trimmings if you get all 8. Go on, have a go.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Freezing and sneezing while Beelzebub lurks

Medieval theologians held that certain moments of bodily convulsion allowed the devil to enter. Sneezing, for instance: at the moment of greatest contraction, heightened sensation and subsequent release you're not in control, momentarily you're in another mind state, and who knows how many lurking demons may surge in through E, N and T at that moment and merrily begin their work of moral corruption.

I was reminded of this the other day after an experience I really wouldn't like to repeat. J. and I were in the UK, primarily to attend my mother's 100th birthday. She lives in the north of Scotland. Well, we never got there. The flight to Inverness which we were due to take from Luton, where we planned to leave the car, was cancelled, no suitable alternatives were offered, so very sadly we abandoned the mission and set out to drive back home through the snow and ice and general tundra of south-east England.

On the way - on the old M10, near St Albans in Hertfordshire, black with untreated and unsuspected ice - I braked very lightly, slowing down from about 30mph in order to maintain my 10-length distance from the car in front. There was a violent skid and spin, which I tried to control with handbrake, steering wheel and very low revs, and we ended up neatly parked on the hard shoulder. It must have taken all of five seconds, but on such occasions time passes both faster and more slowly than usual, and your - my, at any rate - mind state goes into that beatific mode outlined by those medieval theologians where you know a perfect peace, though which you can see quite calmly the dreadful thing that's about to happen, but that terrible fear and panic doesn't actually hit you until it's over.

We'd spun fully through 180º and were now facing the oncoming traffic. On the hard shoulder, it's true, but several trucks were taking advantage of the better grip the hard shoulder offered. Knots of slow-moving traffic crept past, slowing further as they passed us. Clearly we were an awful warning.

What to do? We put out a warning triangle. J. called our insurance company in France. In French she explained what the problem was. Magically, somehow their office in Paris managed to pinpoint us. They promised to send a breakdown truck. No, not from Paris. They had a local agent in St Albans.

While waiting a denser than usual knot of traffic appeared. In its midst was a police Land Rover. Seeing our predicament from a distance, the police surged to the front of the knot of cars and trucks and gently brought it to a halt. Two officers, a female sergeant and a male constable came over to us.

Again, that state of mind. Would we be charged? Obstruction? Would our French number plates help or hinder?

They told us they would hold the traffic back until we had turned car back and had set off again. The constable said he would turn it for us. I gave him the key. He tried to get in the car on the right, maybe wondering if the steering wheel had somehow spun off too: ours is a left-hand drive car. Grinning, he changed sides, started the engine, turned the car back through the missing 180º and invited us to continue our journey. The sergeant said they would hold back the traffic until we were well on our way.


If anyone from the Hertfordshire Road Traffic Police picks this up, I'd like you to know that nowhere in the world do you have two more fervent admirers than J. and I, now safely returned home to France. You were superb. You stand alone. There is none like you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And I don't think any lurking Beelzebubs managed to squirm in during those frantic seconds while we were spinning, but I'll keep you posted. Or maybe some son of Belial did get in: we never managed to contact the breakdown service. I hope they're not still there, chugging up and down looking for us.

UPDATE: My mother's 100th birthday, today, went extremely well. The royal telegram was duly delivered by the Lord Lieutenant of Nairnshire in full fig. Champagne was poured, my mother made a gracious and cogent speech to the 50 or so guests, which she finished by inviting the company to raise their glasses to Vicus the Queen. I'm so sorry we weren't able to take part.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Through a local lens No. 6

Bizarrely, this is one of the main 'streets' in the village. It's called L'Escalier de la Commanderie, the Commandery Stair. ('Commanderie' is a medieval term. Nowadays we would probably say 'military HQ' or something similar.) The locals call it l'escalier noir, the black stairway. It dates from about 1300.

There are six flights of stone stairs, rising up under a vaulted casement through the heart of the village. Each step is a monstrous slab of gneiss. On the way up there were once houses, with their front doors opening off the stairs. Not so very different from apartment blocks today. One of the old houses has been converted into a museum of local arts and crafts, others are unoccupied and more or less derelict, awaiting the arrival of some devotee of French medieval villages built into rocky slopes to do them up. Or one of those countless TV house conversion programmes.

The stair takes you up to the church. It's a stiff climb. It's possible to reach the church by car, but the streets zig-zagging up there are so narrow and the bends so tight that you're lucky if you come back down again with wings and hubs and mirrors intact. At Christmas time the area in the photo above is taken up with a life-size Christmas crib, so you might think that the village had religious leanings, but it hasn't at all. I've never known such a heathen place. An ever-dwindling number of elderly women totter up the stairs to Mass on the occasional Sundays when it's celebrated. A dead church is a mournful place. It only comes to life when concerts are given there.

For villagers' final, horizontal, attendance at church the authorities chug out a very narrow-beamed tractor, one otherwise designed to harrow between rows of vines. No ordinary hearse would ever get up there, so the tractor pulls a special narrow catafalque to carry the coffin, designed with crude folk-images of death.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

My love is like a malady, correction melody

There, that's No. 14 done. It's my ambition to set every lyric in every Shakespeare play to music for four-part choir (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and piano. There must be about 60 of them altogether. Some of the verses are dreadful, others are very fine. I've long had a deep affection for this poem, at the end of Love's Labour's Lost:

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail,

When blood is nipp'd and ways be foul -

- Then nightly sings the staring owl
Tu whit! Tu whoo! A merry note

While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow

And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
When birds sit brooding in the snow
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,

When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl -
- Then nightly sings the staring owl
Tu whit! Tu whoo! A merry note
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

[Glossary: keel = skim the fat off. Doth = does. Saw = wise saying, i.e. sermon. Crabs = small, hard, sharp-flavoured apples.]

So this one's No. 14 of my collection. I introduced it to my small choir, most of whom are French, the other evening. 'Icicles' was unfamiliar to them, though their general standard of English is good. Did I by any chance mean 'bicycles'?

I gave the tune to the two altos, on the grounds that their English pronunciation is best and this is a poem worth hearing. It's a bleak, wintry tune, surrounded by the other voices humming bleak, wintry phrases like eddies of the north wind, while the piano accompaniment has high notes dropping like snowflakes at dusk.

Then I took a great musical risk: everything cheers up for the refrain Then nightly sings etc. , so the music takes an unexpected swerve into a kind of Brazilian samba that had my hips wriggling as I sat at the piano working it out. A few musical owl-hoots, and it's the end.

I wish I knew how to transfer it to something you could click on to hear it. We're due to perform it, along with the other 13, in Ullapool, in NW Scotland, of all places, next May. Maybe I'll have learnt how to do it by then.

Monday, 6 December 2010

My love is like a red, red nose, correction rose

Botticelli. More pink than red, really. Still blooming strongly despite frosts and glacial winds from Norfolk. All the other roses have been pruned right back - growth followeth the knife - but it would be a shame to prune this one while it's still on track to give us flowers for Christmas.

If you don't find this very interesting, here's a photo of some wild boar piglets we came across on a forest walk about 18 months ago.

I wonder if these are the very same wild boar which, having grown into adults, ploughed up so much of our garden last summer? And I wonder if, as a result of the distant shots we hear every weekend, they've now reaped the whirlwind and are now steaks, chops and pâté?

Deservedly? I wouldn't say so. I don't much care for them being killed for the sake of killing them. We don't buy wild boar meat. I'm quite happy for them to rootle about in their own necks of the woods. If they must ravage people's gardens, let it be someone else's. Nimby. Our good friend and much-valued neighbour M. Hector is bound to have a view on this.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Them and usquebaugh

In an elegant essay Ms Kentucky (aka Charlene) runs up the flag for deferment of gratification. I can only add the following story.

SOME years ago a brand of whisky, as celebrated for the excellence of its product as for the egregiousness of its copy style (a callow forerunner of the quality on offer here), advertised in the national press for stories, poems, cartoons, anything that readers might care to send in for publicity use. Whatever made it into their marketing department out-tray would be rewarded with a case of whisky.

I remembered the gist of a story my aunt Evelyn used to tell, typed it up, not certain that it wasn't too feeble, indeed too fey, for the distillery to use. I sent it off and thought nothing more about it. I gave myself some licence: I never had a great-uncle Sandy, aunt Evelyn could hardly specify which brand of whisky he drank, we never kept a family journal. However, a next door neighbour we had at one time when we lived somewhere else in Scotland did indeed refer to porridge as 'them'. And I did spell 'practice' correctly in my original.

One Saturday morning a few weeks later there was a ring at the door. Who should be standing there but the Marketing Director of the distillery in person, with a case of whisky at his feet. I was as pleased as I was surprised, and the personal delivery by such an august personage might have been even more gratifying if he hadn't lived a quarter of a mile away the other side of an enormous field.

I gave most of it away. I don't remember ever pouring any of it back into the bottle.

For several weeks beer mats and publicity material, like the card above which folds into a kind of pyramid, carrying aunt Evelyn's story were distributed to pubs and hotel bars throughout the UK. This probably marks the very pinnacle of my literary career.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

My love is like an arquebus, correction arbutus

At last I've remembered to take the camera on my daily walk. There's something I've been wanting to photo for weeks, and today it's almost too late. Anyway, there it is, up there: it's the neighbours' arbutus tree. I don't know whether they grow in the UK, but they're quite common in this part of the world. It's also called the strawberry tree, and you can see why: that red fruit with another behind it is about the size of an average strawberry, and the taste is similar although not quite so tart. The arbutus is unusual in that it flowers and fruits simultaneously.

You can eat the fruit straight off the tree. Once I offered one to my son Nibus, who can be particular about what he eats. In an impressive display of courteous discretion he took it outside, ostensibly the better to appreciate its texture and flavour. At any rate it had gone when he came back in.

J. tells me the Portuguese distil a potent brandy called Medronho from the fruit.

In Madrid, apparently, taxis and manhole-covers feature images of bears eating from the arbutus.

This is all I know about the arbutus.

I did not see any bears on my walk. Nor manhole-covers. But as always I enjoyed the view of the village and the mountain behind, a massif called Mt Caroux. This mountain is curious in that there's no other side to it. Once you scale the cliffs and reach to the top, it just undulates away at the same height into the far distance, in fact for about 300 miles northwards. Mt Caroux and its neighbouring mountains are the ragged southern edge of the massif central.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Lydian Arias

As you may have picked up if you come here often, ours is quite a musical household.

Here's a little souvenir of the other evening, when we had a few friends round. A glass or two of mulled wine, mince pies, some of Dave's jokes, tarot cards, charades, murder in the dark, wire puzzle competitions, tilting at the quintain, you know the kind of thing. And a bit of a sing, as recorded below.

(I'm a bit worried about that Carmen, though; would you say she came up to scratch?)

(If the complete image doesn't come up, double-click on it)

Thanks, C van L.

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.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Through a local lens No. 5

We're very lucky. Practically at the foot of our garden there used to be a railway line. It was built in the 1860s, primarily to transport coal from open-cast mines at a place called Graissessac, a place with more esses than is good for it. The coal went to power the woollen mills around Mazamet, a small town 40 miles or so to the west. The line was engineered though difficult country, across ravines and valleys, with deep cuttings and tunnels through mountain outcrops. The many iron bridges, railings and parapets came from the studio of Gustave Eiffel, he of Tower fame.

The local woollen industry died in the 1960s, and with it the need for coal. The railway line sputtered on fitfully until it was closed in the French equivalent of the Beeching Axe, which closed down so many UK railway lines. The last train ran in the late 1980s. The line became overgrown and derelict until someone had the bright idea of taking up the rails and sleepers, laying down an all-weather gravel surface and turning it into a recreational facility for cyclists, walkers and riders on horseback. Cars and motorbikes aren't allowed. It now extends from a village called Mons la Trivalle to Mazamet.

We walk along part of it nearly every day. Over the years I've cycled along most of it, on one occasion with the shorter of the two people in the photo. The most exciting parts are the big Prémian tunnel, where your passage triggers lights in succession, and the small Riols tunnel, where there's nothing but a disc of light at the end. It's surprisingly difficult to keep your balance when the light at the end of the tunnel is your only point of reference. There's a metaphor somewhere there. I expect that great cyclist Rog can explain it.

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.)

Thursday, 18 November 2010

A jam-jar by any other name

Snowy reported the other day that, in the school which she visits as Governor, girls called Julie tend to be nicknamed 'Jelly'. This seems very sensible to me, and a typical example of the endearing British gift for inventive and (mostly) affectionate nicknames.

Until I was 13 I was usually called 'Titch', and indeed I was quite small as a child. Later on, at 15 or 16, I was called 'Jam-jar' for a while. Someone 5th-form wit had said that I 'walked like a pregnant jam-jar'. H'm.

As a 6th-former and student I don't remember attracting a nickname at all. Nor as a teacher and head teacher, but maybe the kids took care not to be overheard. Among my friends and associates I was always Chris.

I had a problem when I came to live in France, nearly 20 years ago now. I was surprised to find, when conducting sacred music, that in France 'Christ' is pronounced without the final T, i.e. kreess. 'Chris' and 'Christ' sound exactly the same. I felt obliged to renounce Chris and insist on Christopher (or kreesstoffair as they pronounce it) in full.

But in English-speaking circles I'm happy to be called Chris.

Jam-jar, indeed.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Songs my aunt taught me

During a wakeful period at about 3am I find myself trying to account for my much-loved artist aunt Evelyn's lively interest in Cockney music-hall songs. She wasn't a Londoner: indeed her father William Dunbar came from Morayshire and her mother from from Stagglethorpe.

A few weeks ago my blog-friend I (i.e. E I) commented that she'd never heard of a song called Boiled beef and carrots. I E lives south of the river, well beyond the sound of Bow bells, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised that she didn't know it. In any case, the tune is so like Kelly from the Isle of Man that she might have known it without realising it. Here are the words:

Boiled beef and carrots,
Boiled beef and carrots.
That's the stuff for your Derby Kel
It makes you fit and keeps you well.
Don't live like vegetarians,
On food they give to parrots.
From morn till night, blow out your kite,
On boiled beef and carrots!

['Derby Kel' (short for 'Derby Kelly') is Cockney rhyming slang for 'belly'. 'Kite' in line 7 is a northern dialect word meaning 'belly' too. (What's that doing there, then?) 'Vegetarian' in line 5 seems so out of place that I wonder if once there was something much more robust there.]

Aunt Evelyn's repertoire included this and several others - Any old iron?, My old man said Follow the van, Hello! Hello! Who's your ladyfriend? - but her favourite, sometimes triggered by landing there when we played Monopoly, was Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road:

Last week, down our alley came a toff,
Nice old geezer, with a nasty cough,
Sees my missus - takes his topper off,
In a very gentlemanly way.
"Ma'am," he says, "I have got some news to tell:
Your rich uncle Tom of Camberwell
Popped off sudden, which is quite a sell,
Leaving you his little donkey shay."

"Wotcher," all the neighbours cried,
"Who yer goin' to meet, Bill?
Have you bought the street, Bill?"
Laugh - I thought I should have died:
Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road.

[The above, incidentally, is the real thing. Shirley Temple served up a meaningless garble of it in a 1939 (I think) film called A Little Princess. 'Shay' is a corruption of 'chaise', meaning a little cart. There's some ingenious word-play with 'Uncle Tom' (i.e. pawnbroker), 'popped' (i.e. pawned) and 'quite a sell' (i.e. a scam, cheat).]

Where had she got these songs from? Neither music-hall nor Cockney were her natural element. When she was a student at the Royal College of Art, in the early 1930s, she formed a relationship with one of her tutors, Cyril Mahoney, whom she called 'Chas'. Her letters to him survive. They're deliciously illustrated, and they're lightly peppered with deliberate, sometimes self-conscious Cockneyisms, or Mockneyisms: 'Ain't there, matey?', 'I knows of that there plant', 'Wotcher, cock!'. It was a passing fad. By the time the relationship had advanced to within sight of marriage, and had retreated to break-up, it had disappeared. Her familiarity with these songs may have been linked to this.

Or they may just have been a part of the universal popular culture of the time. Having come to this rather unsatisfactory conclusion I think I must have dropped off again.

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.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Greenery-yallery gallery

Someone (was it SB?) observed over at the Davery that this year's autumn colours were the most spectacular since 2003.

Ours aren't bad, either.

There's some equally colourful stuff at the Miggery, too.

You wouldn't get this in Godthåb, now, would you?

Tuesday, 2 November 2010


A few days ago we were invited to a very unusual ceremony.

About 15 months ago K. died after an unavailing struggle against cancer. He was a remarkable man in many ways, a German of wide education who, having decided to settle in the Languedoc, set about the restoration of a remote hill village called Bardou. This village had been progressively abandoned as small-scale sheep-farming and chestnut cultivation ceased to provide a means of existence, and when K. arrived in the mid-70s most of the houses were ruined. He bought them up gradually and with his own hands began the process of restoration, always keeping within the local, traditional style. There's a photo of a corner of Bardou above, which I posted in another context months ago, inviting people to count the peacocks which K. had introduced.

Apart from building his own house, he turned Bardou into a rental village aimed at musicians, artists, theatre groups as well as individuals attracted by the solitude and quiet of this mountain fastness. Most of K.'s guests were German. Regular summer visitors included a 35-strong orchestra, the Sinfonietta, which would rehearse in a K.-built studio in the village and then perform in local churches. For a few years I played timpani with this orchestra and thoroughly enjoyed the experience

He had lengthy battles with local authorities, some won, some lost. After years of badgering, electricity was installed. The telephone followed. To this day water comes from the stream that flows through the village. The 4-kilometre road to Bardou, cliff on one side, precipice on the other, is the last in the locality to receive any attention.

The mountain country in which Bardou nestles. We live near the valley floor, just visible on the extreme right if you enlarge

J. and I used to go to Bardou fairly frequently, for concerts in the recital room K. had constructed, for art exhibitions, or to rehearse with his musicians. Sometimes we used to brave the potholes for something particularly associated with K., the reading of Shakespeare plays with friends round his dining table. K spoke excellent English.

It was thought fitting at his death that he should be laid in a private tomb overlooking his creation. At his funeral he was housed temporarily in somebody else's family tomb in a village down in the valley, with their permission. Meanwhile a mausoleum was constructed, a most beautiful little open-fronted chapel with a crypt beneath, built in the local style on a rocky promontory overlooking Bardou. The paperwork needed for the transfer from one burial place to another is unbelievably complex and lengthy, but at last it was complete, and the other day K. was transferred from his temporary to his permanent resting place. There was a short and simple ceremony, a few words from his family to the 30 or so invited guests, a moment or two of silence, and finally installation into his mausoleum. He had come home.

A nearby chapel, called St Martin du Froid, on which the design for the mausoleum was based

I wondered what the technical term was for placing a coffin into a mausoleum. I hoped I might find the correct term in Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One, knowing that I might easily be led astray because Waugh had written it as a satire on United States attitudes to mortality. I found 'inhumement', 'inurnment', 'immurement' and even 'insarcophagusment'. None of these seemed to fit the bill for K., so I'm afraid I've invented the title of this post.

We're going away for a few days. Back next week. Happy days.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Grumbling appendix

I'm afraid there have been complaints. Certain critical stances have been taken, certain adverse reflections passed.

There has been head-shaking. And whispering in corners. There is a feeling in some quarters that Lydian Airs are too rarefied. Some even claim it smells of the lamp.

So as a special November sop to Cerberus, here is a little poem. Please make certain your dentures are firmly fixed before reciting aloud to your little ones.

A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what should they do?
Said the fly: 'Let us flee!'
Said the flea: 'Let us fly!'
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

APPENDIX: Many apologies to those concerned, but as from tomorrow (2nd Nov.) I'm afraid I'm going to have to disable the anonymous comment facility and restrict comment access to those with blog accounts. Sorry, all the various Anonymice that have come here: there's nothing stopping you continuing to drop in under blog-registered pseudonyms, as many others do. Thank you for your understanding.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Hot, hot, hot in Havasu

At getting-up time the other morning J. and I had a conversation about the most god-forsaken places we'd ever been to.

With sincerest apologies to the myriad of US friends who come here every day to drink deep at this well of Englishness, our thoughts simultaneously and without any prompting crossed the Atlantic and ended up in south-west Arizona.

J. said she found the mostly empty trailer parks between the ill-named town of Hope and Salome truly depressing. I agreed they were pretty desperate, but thought a desolation called Lake Havasu City, a bit further north, took the prize. Lake Havasu City is built (as you might have guessed) on the shore of Lake Havasu, an artificial lake made by damming the Colorado river. It seems to be a place dedicated to power boats and architectural curios.

Here, crossing an arm of Lake Havasu, is the old London Bridge. Not the one with houses built on it and traitors' heads fresh from the executioner's block displayed on poles, but the much later one opened in 1831. I remember walking across this bridge a few years before it was sold in the late 60s.

A US oilman called McCulloch bought it, block by numbered block, transported it to Arizona and re-built it on the site of Lake Havasu City. There's apparently no truth in the rumour that McCulloch thought he was buying the much grander Tower Bridge. It was built first, as the photo above shows, before the watercourse beneath it was excavated and allowed to fill. Before the town was built, it seems.

We fetched up one September evening a few years ago at Lake Havasu City, on our way from the Grand Canyon (named, incidentally, after the River Grand, now called Colorado river: Grand Rapids further upstream is an echo of the old name) to Palm Springs, east of Los Angeles. It was stiflingly hot, about 45º.

The Howard Johnson motel, fully automated (breakfast, often my favourite meal, came out of coin-operated slot machines) was some way out of town. I proposed walking into town for something to eat, passing the endless power boat yards, but J., ever as prudent as practical, turned this zany idea down flat on account of the temperature.

So we drove down, parked, marvelled at the not very convincing attempts to evoke Old London Town with multicoloured plastic half-timbered eateries advertising traditional London fare like tacos and fajitas, and then walked over London Bridge. It was much narrower than I remembered it, and in the heat the tar stuck to my shoes. In the restaurant the other side of the bridge I asked for a cold bread roll with my swordfish steak, instead of the piping hot one I was given. The waitress looked at me as though I was some kind of cloacal gift from from a passing bird and said no, it wasn't possible.

'This roll must have been cold before you heated it,' I argued.
'Nope,' she said. 'We just do them hot.'
'You couldn't possibly find me a cold one?'
'I just told you, we only do them hot.'
'Not even if I paid extra for a cold one?'
'Jeez, we only got them hot. You Australian or something?'
'No, I'm not Australian. I'd like a cold roll so that when I butter it the butter doesn't melt. Is that too much to ask?'

Clearly it was. I gave up. If Spadoman had been there he would have sorted it out for me. He wouldn't have stood for it. Or Charlene, of course. She knows what's what. Maybe it was revenge for leaving deposits of tar on their stairs.

Next morning we were searched as we crossed from Arizona into California. They were looking for illegal imports of fruit and vegetables. Huh. Fat chance of finding forbidden fruit in Lake Havasu City. Or cold rolls. Or anything.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Bloody Shakespearo

Much as I love Shakespeare, it's taking me weeks to set to music Desdemona's lament out of Othello:

The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow.

The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur'd her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and softened the stones;-
Sing willow, willow, willow.

The problems I'm having are maybe due to the muddle of trees. Come on, Swan of Avon, which is it to be, sycamore or willow? As Dr Johnson said: 'Shakespeare never had six lines together without a fault. Perhaps you may find seven, but this does not refute my general assertion.' Six lines? The first two are enough for me.

Sycamore (Acer pseudo-platanus)

Verdi made a matchlessly beautiful setting of this in his opera Otello, which reminds me that some years ago J. and I went to the opera house in Montpellier to see Verdi's Macbeth. I've long had an unusual affinity with Shakespeare's original, because not only did I live near Cawdor (Thane of Cawdor, remember?) in Scotland for many years, but going to work everyday took me past Macbeth's Hillock, a group of hummocks in a field where local legend had it that Macbeth met the Weird Sisters in thunder, lightning, or in rain.

Verdi's Macbeth was entertaining in other ways than just musical. The designer had envisaged the interior of Cawdor Castle like the inside of a submarine. Lady Macbeth's yellow nightie kept getting caught on the conning tower ladder as she climbed up and down it, goodness knows why. Far from being murdered in his bed, King Duncan was done to death in a sort of hole in the stage floor. The production was whistled and hooted, something I'd heard of in Continental opera houses but had never witnessed before. I particularly enjoyed the Italianization of the characters: Banquo escaped the process, of course, but we had Cauduro for Cawdor, Fifo for Fife, Macduffo...

Back to composition. Maybe having written about it will release the flow.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Mobbed by weasels

On my way to the village this morning - on foot, the first time I've attempted this half-kilometre walk since doing my back in July - I met T., whom I hadn't seen for some time. She kindly stopped her car to talk to me. What she had to say turned out to be a recital of the woes that had beset her since the last time we met. While wholly sympathetic, as misfortune piled on to misfortune I found it very difficult to keep a straight face. To her great credit, T. could see the funny side of the sheer bare-faced quantity of adversities too.

I was reminded of a short story by, I think – if any reader knows better, please tell me – by Emile Zola, about someone, maybe Zola himself, who found himself on a bus sitting next to a stranger, an elderly woman who started to tell him about her sons, one of whom had been recently gored to death by a bull: Zola tut-tutted in sympathy.

Another had been swept away in a flood, never to be seen again: Zola agreed that it was very sad.

A third had fallen to his death from a hot-air balloon: Zola was conscious that the rest of the bus was now listening fascinated to this catalogue of woe.

By the time the fates of a fourth (decapitated by a madman), fifth (swallowed a tarantula in a green salad), sixth (mobbed by weasels) and seventh (accidentally transfixed by a circus knife-thrower) had been described, the other passengers were rolling about helpless with laughter, into which the old woman, at first uncomprehending, eventually joined.

(I hasten to add that no such tragedies befell T.)

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Rien ne va plus, O Demosthenes

With my back still in a bad way, I was having great difficulty getting up off the floor after giving Tonip the cat his daily brush. So awkward and maladroit was my struggle to get upright that J. asked me if I'd ever done any yoga. She has taken more than a passing interest in it in her time. (Yoga seems to be the topic in fashionable blog circles today.)

'Yes, a bit,' I said. She asked where.

'In the Classical Sixth store cupboard,' I answered. Clearly this wasn't the answer she'd been expecting.

I explained that for a while some of the 6th form lads took time off from Demosthenes and Tacitus and repaired next door to the store cupboard, more of an ante-room than a cupboard, which we'd turned into a kind of divan or oriental parlour. To annoy the Head of Classics by distancing ourselves from what he represented, we made a show of learning Hindustani in there, burning joss-sticks, saluting each other - and the Classics bloke - with a nod of the head and palms pressed together on the chest, that sort of thing. Naturally there followed a shallow dip into yoga.

(We also played pontoon and poker in there, and at one time there was talk of getting a roulette wheel. If J. ever asks me if I've ever been to Las Vegas, or Crockford's, I shall be able to say 'No, but in our Classical Sixth store cupboard' etc., etc.)

For us yoga meant little more than trying the various positions. Some, like the Tree, were too undemanding to be interesting. In those happy days - ah, if only I could do it now! - I was supple enough to hold the Lotus for minutes on end. One or two were brave enough to try that interior cleansing which has a name I've forgotten and which involves slowly swallowing, bit by bit, a length of muslin-like bandaging, for eventual withdrawal. In due course a lad called Anthony van der Wall, a useful spin bowler, attempted a position, probably called the Reef Knot, in which you hook your heels behind your neck. He burst a blood vessel and had to be taken to hospital. We returned heavy-hearted to Demosthenes and Tacitus.

'So you see I do have some experience of yoga,' I said.

'Yes, I do see,' she said. 'It's exactly what I might have expected.'