Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Not to be thrown in the public road

Posters are up, final rehearsal schedules are out, programmes are printed, recording engineers are prepared, local wine producer retained (for post-concert verre d'amitié, glass of friendship), everything's ready.

My batons have been sharpened for some time.

For those who can't, won't, shan't, don't etc. I've Little Else to offer you (i.e. the young Lil, sometimes to be seen here) and her friend (who I believe has been seen here) starring in this bagatelle I've posted for your amusement and I hope you haven't seen it too often before because I find that on the nth showing you begin to feel great surges of sympathy for the intruders.

(How did they get in, you may wonder? Why, intruder window, of course.)


Obscure, that title? If you embiggenize (© Dave) the poster the bottom line reads Ne pas jeter dans la voie publique, Not to be thrown in the public road. Don't ask why. All posters, handbills, etc. carry this injunction. Bizarre.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Le put-put de Monsieur Hector

Sorry. I've been out of circulation for a few days.

Nicolas the village firewood merchant turned up with his lorry the other day to deliver next winter's wood. I'd previously ordered 2 cubic metres of ash logs, cut to 50cm lengths, and 4 cubic metres ditto of Mediterranean oak, an evergreen called chêne vert, green oak, a very dense, heavy and slow-burning wood.

Nicolas, whose father is a retired undertaker who never wears socks on the grounds that the only pair he ever had was stolen from him once in Corsica, tipped (by arrangement) the whole lot on to the gravelled drive-cum-parking area we have. It all had to be stacked, meaning that it had to be carted in wheelbarrow-loads to place beside a wall (not one I built) where it's reasonably convenient to go and collect armfuls for winter fires. A mammoth task, loading, carting, unloading and stacking. And I do like a tidy woodpile.

M. Hector our invaluable neighbour came to the rescue with his put-put. This is a wonderful motorised wheelbarrow, mounted on caterpillar tracks, ideal for ferrying several metric tonnes of firewood. (It's actually called une brouette motorisée, so we have to take care because any French word starting with 'put' has unfortunate resonances with pute (=prostitute) and putain, which is a common French swear-word.) So I strolled down to the Hectorium, took charge of the put-put and strolled back even slower, because the p-p's maximum speed is about 2mph.

So after countless trips backwards and forwards with put-put (me) and wheelbarrow (the heroic J.) the winter's wood is stacked, on palettes to ensure air circulation. I'll leave it uncovered to dry out fully through high summer, and in early autumn I'll cover it with a tarpaulin.

But throughout the shifting and stacking a pitiless sun high in an incandescent sky thoroughly broiled the toiler in the heat of the day. With all the lifting and stacking I did my back and abdominal muscles, became dehydrated, was sun-stricken despite wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat I bought two or three years ago in Selinunte in Sicily and had to retire for a day or two. J. survived better than I did, through the wisdom of working early in the morning while the other member of the household (not counting Tonip the cat) fritters away the cooler hours of the day writing blog posts, consulting Dr Dave and the like.

Merci, M. Hector. Without your help someone might have had to winkle Nicolas' father out of retirement.

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!)

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Was Fabio Cappello ever a primary school teacher?

The other day there was a report in Midi Libre, our local paper, of an interview with a primary school teacher from Boulogne who had moved to the south. Twenty years or so ago she had had a lad called Franck Ribéry in her class. 'C'était un petit dur,' she said. Her meaning lies somewhere between 'he was a tough little nut' and 'he was a little hooligan'. She went on to say that he achieved nothing in school (if you achieve nothing in primary school it's unlikely that you'll achieve anything at secondary level, although miracles happen) and that he lived only for playing football. Deprivation of football, or the threat of it, was her only means of bringing him to heel.

This Franck Ribéry is clearly an outstanding footballer who has played in his time for Lille, Galatarasay, Marseille, Bayern Munich and for the French national team. He's instantly recognisable by his punchy, rapier-like style of play and by the disfiguring scars on his face, caused by a car accident when he was a small child.

At the moment Ribéry, who has converted to Islam, is with the rest of the French World Cup team in Knysna, their HQ in South Africa. The French team is even unhappier than the English team. Despite the obvious quality of their players they seem unable to score any goals at all, let alone win. French team supporters are practically suicidal. Their despair is further deepened by the scenes of the greatest excitement and frenzied celebration in France when Algeria held England to a draw the other evening. The north African presence in France is enormous.

Raymond Domenech, the meek and unassuming French manager, is usually made the scapegoat for French failure.

Yesterday however, new troubles bubbled up from the depths. Nicolas Anelka was sent home after hurling insults at Domenech which sound surprisingly prim and verge on the comic in translation: Go and sodomize yourself, son of a dirty prostitute. (Ruderies in Romance languages lack the more robust Anglo-Saxon directness.)

Yesterday too there was a television discussion about the roots of French failure, and some extraordinary revelations came out. It appears that at the heart of the French team there's a clique, what the French call un 'clan', a term often applied to the mafia or criminal gangs, of four or five players who resent or accept the presence of other players, however gifted, according to their readiness to knuckle under to the clique on and off the field. If a player ostracised by the clique is played on the wing, for instance, it can happen that that wing will be starved of passes. The ball is passed to outcasts only with reluctance. The clique is greater than the team and than the nation it represents. The term caïd, gang boss, was aimed at Ribéry. Anelka is too individual a player to be accepted by the clique. Domenech's greatest problem has been his failure to root out this noisome growth.

And his failure to consult primary school teachers.

This couldn't happen in the BMCC, could it?

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Fustian, newts and love-bites

Thalia Quartet: (l - r) Amandine, Sonia, Clémentine, Oriane

As our train drew into Toulouse station a heavily built Frenchman sitting near J. and me, who had been reading throughout the journey, suddenly produced an A4 sheet of typescript which included the words 'fustian manufacturers' surrounded by yellow highlighter. What did 'fustian' mean? he asked.

He must have heard J. and me speaking English (we do speak French to each other occasionally, mostly when French people are present, so that they don't feel we're talking behind their backs in front of them, if you see what I mean) and immediately assumed that one of us at least must know what fustian was.

'A coarse material,' I said.

'For clothes?' he asked.

'Yes,' I said, but very uncertainly. It was the sort of thing I imagined mediaeval peasants wearing, one quality notch up from sackcloth. Itchy. Tickly. Ooyah. Robin Hood and Friar Tuck scratching themselves. Wat Tyler and his Revolting Peasants too. Gyrth and Wamba from Ivanhoe a perfect mess of sores and weals and rednesses where the wretched material had chafed.

But he seemed satisfied, so presumably it made sense in the context of what he was reading. I was glad not to have confused matters with Shakespeare's alternative meaning of 'rubbish', 'high-flown twaddle', 'bombast'.

We wished each other bonne journée and went our separate ways. Ours led us to the Toulouse conservatoire, nothing to do with conservatories but something like a regional version of the Royal Academy of Music. We were met by Amandine, and one of the first things I noticed about her was a sore, a weal, a redness on her neck, beneath the jaw and forward of her left ear.

I knew about this. A couple of years ago I remarked on exactly the same thing, with an unwarranted smirk of complicity, to Kamila, a Polish string player who is now principal viola with the Jena Philharmonic Orchestra. 'It's not what you think,' she said sharply, and I blushed. And here was Amandine with the same. Aha, but I knew better now. Not love-bites, but an occupational condition of violin and viola players: where they grasp their instruments between jaw and collarbone it can chafe, particularly after a long play.

Amandine (1st violin) introduced us to her fellow quartet members, Sonia (2nd violin), Clémentine (viola) and Oriane (cello), all final year conservatoire students and really first-rate musicians. The richest of pleasures to work through the string quartet accompaniments to my cantata (to which you were invited a few days ago) The Imitation of Our Lady the Moon.

At one point the viola has to play continuously the interval B-F. This is the 'spooky' interval (try it on the piano if you're in a position to) recognised as such by musicians of Robin Hood's day, who called it diabolus in musica, The Devil in Music, down to modern composers wanting to invoke an eerie, unearthly effect. This interval has got three names, diminished fifth, augmented fourth and tritone. I didn't want to get tied up in linguistic knots with the French for the first two, so I stuck with tritone. In a sensible world, the French for tritone would be triton.

Unfortunately, triton in French means 'newt'.

After a really enjoyable rehearsal we went home. Despite the day's subliminal suggestions I stayed completely sober.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Through a local lens No. 1

This is part of Bardou, a tiny hamlet hidden in the mountains a little to the north of where we live. It was restored almost completely by a remarkable German, Klaus Erhardt, who made its restoration his life's work. Before Klaus' arrival in the 1970s Bardou was in ruins and virtually deserted. Little by little he bought up all the 15-odd properties and restored them, taking care to preserve - as far as possible - traditional methods and materials. It irked him to his life's end in 2009 that the owners of two ruins refused to sell to him.

Occasionally Klaus, whose English was excellent, would invite friends to read Shakespeare plays round his dining-room table. Naturally he liked the plum parts. Once the question of who was to read Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, he or I, was only decided by the spin of a coin. What knowledge I have of Shakespeare is partly due to Klaus.

But today all you have to do is count the peacocks*.

*© Rog

UPDATE: In an unpredictable focus-swerve, this post has now become a forum for bird-sliding.

In the photo below of Thames barges, taken in Maldon, Essex, each time a fresh starling alighted (alit?) on the rigging the incumbents all slid down a place to make room. Any other pictures of birds sliding will be welcome.

Good afternoon.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Adeste, Fido

Here you are. I wouldn't like any of you to feel that you hadn't been invited.

And here's a rough translation, not that many of you need it:

Les Jeudistes (= 'Thursday people')

(Multi-national vocal group)

are honoured to invite


to the first performance of

"The Imitation of Our Lady the Moon"

(Cantata in 10 movements to words by Jules Laforgue)

a work composed by their director


accompanied by the Thalia string quartet

as part of the Concert by the Friends of the Musical Association of the Valleys of the Jaur and the Orb

at the Priory of St Julien (34*) Friday, July 2nd at 8.45pm

collection to defray expenses

We're almost ready. We've been rehearsing since September, on and off, and we're into the final straight. On Wednesday J. and I are going to Toulouse to meet Amandine, Sonia, Clémentine and Oriane. They're the quartet. They call themselves 'Thalia' after one of the Muses. Great excitement, particularly as I've only heard the music I've written for them in my head and as a rough computer simulation. I'm particularly looking forward to hearing in the flesh a funeral march that gradually transforms itself into a can-can.

* 34 indicates the Hérault département (= something like a county), right down in the Deep South.

* * *

However, if you don't think you can make it on July 2nd, please don't feel deprived. Here's something to console yourself with. M. Hector very kindly sent it to me. I'm sending it on with very best wishes for Oz and Lil. I believe Lil makes a brief guest appearance.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Soft. Tender. Ripe. Yielding. Fruity.

And before you deliberately pick me up wrongly, let me hasten to tell you that we're talking strawberries. And not any old strawberries. These are special. They're fraises des bois, wild strawberries. And they're quite rare. So rare that in our Puritan-deferment-of-gratification natures we don't eat them, unless there's an enormous glut. We freeze them, and in the depths of winter J. puts them in the liquidizer and makes a delicious coulis, redolent of glowing summer suns and all the subtle, heady sun-drenched perfumes of midsummer.

We're especially lucky to have them within reach. Well, almost. Behind our house the hillside rises steeply. When I first knew this land a dozen years ago the owners were investing heavily in developing the virgin slopes, hiring diggers to sculpt out terraces in the bowl of the hillside, planting them with cherry, olive and apple trees, putting in expensive espaliering and layering frames.

Then three or four years later, just as this orchard and olive grove was beginning to mature, they lost interest. Nobody came to prune, nor to spray, nor even to harvest the cherries, which just blackened and shrivelled on the branches. The apple trees died. As the years passed, nature gradually took over and this land became a jungle. This reminded me of the story of the priest (not Dave, who is much too much of a gardener to entertain such a notion) who, passing one of his parishioners tending a neat and trim garden, remarked what wonderful things God could do with a garden. 'Ah, but you should have seen it when he had it to himself, vicar,' came the reply.

This jungle is now home to countless self-seeded firs from an adjoining plantation, false acacias, dense thickets of juvenile ash and brambles, stands of wild cherry, enormous heathers and junipers. All manner of crickets chirrup from dawn till dusk. You can smell the scent of badgers, acrid and musky, and follow the tracks of wild boar. Here and there desolate olive trees, scarcely bigger than when they were planted, struggle to survive.

We have wild strawberries on our land, fruiting modestly in odd corners, but this year they have been very disappointing. Yesterday our cat Tonip went missing, driven out of house and home by the vacuum cleaner indoors and the strimmer outside, and then chased by a dog. I went looking for him in the jungle, calling the while. No cat, but what did I find? Wild strawberries. Soft. Tender. Ripe. Yielding. Fruity. Dear reader, what would you have done?

Well, so did I. Here they are. This represents about an hour's worth of picking, so you see how we're reluctant to squander them.

And of course Tonip turned up to see what I was photographing.

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, 10 June 2010

Never mind the neighbours, just admire the view from the balcony

In Montpellier the other day I spent an hour or two exploring another example of the city's extraordinary collection of trompe l'oeil, i.e. 'deceive the eye'. This is a popular urban art-form intended to brighten up derelict or unappealing inner city corners, maybe with a eye to discouraging graffiti at the same time.

(It seems to work: I haven't seen any graffiti disfigurement of Montpellier trompe l'oeil. Maybe it's akin to playing Mozart in supermarkets to discourage shoplifting or public places to reduce leaving of litter. Apparently this is unaccountably successful. I don't know what Mozart would have thought of it.)

The trompe l'oeil artist here has gone one better, though. The people on their balconies are all past citizens of Montpellier, so the whole takes on the commemorative function of those circular blue plaques you see in London and elsewhere telling you that So-and-so Lived Here.

Left to right, starting on the ground floor:

Pierre Magnol (1638-1715), shown as a medallion plaque: Botanist, gave his name to magnolia, example flowering just beneath him.

Léo Malet (1909-1996), writing at his window: Crime writer, a sort of French Edgar Wallace, creator of detective called Nestor Burma. Film posters in background.

Léopold Nègre (1879-1961), with wife: Pioneer of BCG vaccination.

Juliette Gréco (1927- ), waving at trompe l'oeil pigeons: Actress and singer. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, with whom she had a relationship, in background.

Antoine-Jérôme Balard (1802-1876), chemist: Pioneer of photography, discoverer of bromine and hypo (remember the smell, if you ever developed your own photos?).

Jules-Emile Planchon (1823-1888), botanist: This was the man who saved the Languedoc wine industry. In the 1860s and 70s a disease called phylloxera devastated the vineyards of the south of France, causing widespread misery and unemployment. Planchon identified the cause (a sort of greenfly from the USA), and gradually eradicated it by grafting French vine varieties on to American stocks known to be resistant to the disease. The healthy vines on his balcony are witness to the success of the first large-scale biological operation in history. Or so the notes in the current Montpellier city bulletin tell me.

What my photo doesn't show is where I had to stand, with no little heroism, to get the whole façade in. The railings enclose an espace toutou, doggy space. (The notice on the front door, incidentally, says Attention: chien gentil i.e. 'Warning: kind dog', probably the golden retriever asleep on the mat.) As dogs are banned from the nearby park, local dog-owners are invited to 'exercise' their dogs in a weed-strewn waste area, about half the size of a tennis court, in front of the 'house', this side of the railings. It was touch and go, picking my way between the canine organic sculptures. One false step . . . but for the delectation of the myriads of urban art lovers who come here it will have been worth it.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

By any other name


A wonderful season for roses so far. Here are a few of ours. I'm not good with their names and I've probably made at least one mistake.

Pierre de Ronsard

Pauline Prescott

Christopher Columbus


Monday, 7 June 2010

Cover story

Several years ago I completed my novel The Night Music* after about ten years' working and tinkering. I had definite ideas about a cover, and rather than have anyone else's notions imposed on me I asked my son Nibus and his partner Nibula if they would accept the commission.

So off we went together to Collioure, which is an attractive little Mediterranean fishing port in the shadow of the eastern Pyrenees, almost on the Franco-Spanish border. Once it was a haunt of Matisse and Derain, and I would like to think Picasso too, but to my knowledge there's no record of him ever going there. It's very built up now, with measles-like rashes of holiday villas swarming up the hillsides, but the old port manages to keep its ancient appeal despite the summer crowds. I once saw Michael Winner there, wearing a blazer.

I wanted the tower to feature on my cover, partly because of its phallic overtones but mostly because a big chunk of The Night Music is set in pre-war and wartime Collioure. I made my hero be born there in 1941. I made him spend the first three or four years of his life there, playing about on the beach, dodging about the anchovy boats with their furled lateen sails, making up to café customers for centimes.

Nibula set to work with her camera, and Nibus - already with several book covers to his credit - set to work to enhance one of her images, arranging a kind of ejaculatory nimbus around the top of the tower. This may have been deliberate or accidental, I don't know, but I hoped it wasn't too obvious or crass an allusion. Maybe it was just moonlight. But it worked:

Then something magical happened, one of those occurrences that make you think that just now and again someone else, some other entity, the Muse, perhaps, is on your side: quite unperceived by Nibula at the time she took the photo, a little lad of about three - just the age the novel's hero would have been - ran into her camera's field of vision. He's there in the bottom left hand corner, a sort of providential seal of approval.

Alas! When The Night Music eventually hit the shelves the printing of the cover came out so dark that this tiny providential figure was completely obscured. But I knew. And so do you, now.

*Now out of print, so this isn't a plug. As if such a thought would cross your mind.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Lady Watership's Odyssey

It's unlikely that you would have asked, but no, I couldn't have told you which were the three best-selling post-war Penguin titles.

But according to Phil Baines' Puffin by Design: 70 Years of Imagination 1940-2010, the immediate post-war best-seller was Homer's Odyssey, in its superb and unsurpassed translation by E.V.Rieu. In 1960, following a sensational obscenity trial, the Odyssey was knocked off its column by D.H.Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. Its hero Mellors continued to give the profession of gamekeeping a certain dark nudge-nudge cachet until something came lolloping along that gamekeepers ought to have been attending to instead of debauching aristos (not that Lady C. needed to be tied down): rabbits. In 1970 Richard Adams' Watership Down, another Odyssey in its way, topped the Penguin charts.

Or rather Puffin charts; it's the same company. I was as surprised to learn this as I was to discover that Watership Down was the very same hill between Winchester and Newbury on which I became engaged on a sunny June Sunday in 1969. This must have been just at the time when Richard Adams was starting his collection of 13 rejection slips before a company called Rex Collings, and subsequently Puffin, took it on.

Puffin by Design: 70 Years of Imagination 1940-2010 (I ordered it though Davazon) is a delight. It has echoes of This is Your Life combined with a visit to the National Portrait Gallery: a constant stream of old friends and acquaintances, some deeply loved, some liked, some best kept at a distance, some merely tolerated, some you would have liked to make friends with but somehow never managed to. Puffin by Design is really a notated compendium of the covers from the period, covers that jump out at you saying -

Remember me? You used to read me aloud to Primary 7 (James Vance Marshall's Walkabout), or

You lent me to P. who never gave it back (Jenifer Wayne's The Day the Ceiling Fell Down), or

You left me out all night and I never recovered (Kathleen Hale's Orlando the Marmalade Cat's Evening Out), or

You accidentally dropped me overboard when going about in Salhouse Broad (Arthur Ransome's The Big Six), or

We never met. Your kids knew us well, but somehow you never got round to saying hello (Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series).

Of all the Puffin books that fed my and my children's imaginations in the great post-war heyday of children's literature, only two remain on our bookshelves. The kids took nearly all their books with them in the gradual process of leaving home, but there's one orphan left behind in our shelves; the last of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe series:

And one I've kept since childhood, a book that made such a deep impression on me that it featured in my novel The Night Music.

So if you've been wondering where I've been all this week, I've been having orgies. Orgies of literary nostalgia.