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)