Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Struck by lightning conductor

I'm taking a little time off from blogging to attend to musical activities.

Meanwhile Bernd Sienna, Artist in Ordinary to Lydian Airs, has artfully contrived to include all you regulars (even Anonymous, fag in mouth at the organ) in the assemblage above. I'm sure you'll recognise each other.

A bientôt!

(In fact the above painting, called Toontje hoger... ['Pipe up...'] (2008) is by Dutch artist Marius van Dokkum)

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Through a local lens No. 3

This great fissure in the flank of a limestone massif called Mt. Caroux is about 3 miles down the road from us. It's (they're?) called the Gorges d'Héric, after the tumbling stream, the Héric, which has carved out this narrow valley and the vertiginous crags and pinnacles that overhang it. There's a road which twists and turns following the stream until it reaches the deserted hamlet of Héric. A little train (actually a small truck got up to look something like Thomas the Tank Engine) used to puff up and down the gorge, but eventually no one could be found to insure it against public liability, so it was withdrawn.

When I first came to live in this part of the world I hardly thought earth had anything to show more fair. Now I may pass it several times in the day without sparing it a glance. Heigh ho.

A peculiarity is that once you've climbed up the gorge and have reached the top of the parent 4000' mountain, there's no other side. It doesn't come down, at least not for several hundred miles. You come to a vast rolling plateau. In fact this is a tiny section of the southern edge of the Massif Central, the great upland mass which occupies much of central France.

Monday, 19 July 2010


I never exchanged more than a dozen words with my father, and one of them was 'Mendelssohn'.

During the 16 years that separately we walked this earth, I met him once, briefly, when I was 12. I did not know who he was. He had not seen me since shortly after my birth. He was introduced to me as a 'friend' by my grandfather, who had organised the meeting when I went to stay with him once. My father played a short piano piece. When he had finished he asked me if I knew who had written it.

'Mendelssohn?' I suggested.

No, he said, it was by Elgar. He asked me if I would play him something. I played a Sonatina in F, supposedly by Beethoven.

I never saw him again, and when he died four years later I was not told about it. I only discovered the true identity of my grandfather's 'friend' many years afterwards. I sometimes wonder what this meeting meant to him.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Insect celebrates French Revolution - Reuters

July 14th is a national holiday in France and there are firework displays everywhere. They're often staggered around the 14th, partly because firework engineers can't be everywhere at once and partly so that, as in our case, people from one village can enjoy neighbouring villages' fireworks on consecutive nights.

Ours was on the 13th. The village we live in, with its mediaeval tower and bridge, is a superb backdrop for firework displays. We went out for a meal with M (who took this splendid photo) and Mme Hector to a terrace restaurant which overlooks the bridge, the river and the village rising behind it, a super vantage point for watching the display. In the event we got rather more pyrotechnics than we bargained for.

Firework photos are two a penny, so I won't bore you with those. However the end, the finale, of the display was marked by what they call l'embrasement, the burning, of the bridge and tower. It's all done with red flares. All very lurid and diabolical.

It was over by 11.30. Our half-mile walk home was unexpectedly interrupted by a small forest fire in a pinewood just the other side of the valley. Most forest and heath fires start by the roadside, but as there was no path or track nearby we could only assume that a rocket stick or something similar from the village display had fallen in the tinder-dry pinewood and . . . we'd hardly uttered these ideas before the first fire engine appeared, followed at short intervals by five more.

There wasn't much to see, so we walked on home. By the time J. and I got in, all of five minutes later, the fire was out. They don't hang about, these fire crews. So I've no photo of this, but as a small consolation here's a photo of a forest fire across the valley from a year or two ago, when a vast area of wooded mountainside caught fire. Terrifying, especially if the wind's blowing in your direction. The most effective fire-fighting in areas inaccessible by road is done by aircraft, but they can't of course fly at night. (It was put out the next day.)

Even so the night's pyrotechnics weren't over. Climbing up the steps from the road to the house I noticed this tiny green light shining on a stone in the wall. We see these lights now and again in summer, but they're not very common. It was too feeble to photograph without flash and I don't have a long-exposure tripod, so here it is by flashlight, in the middle of the biggest stone. If you enlarge it you can see it better. It's a glowworm. No doubt it was celebrating the capture of the Bastille as well.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Through a local lens No. 2

This bridge, across the Rue du Balad in the heart of the village, was built to enable the young Marie-Eloïse to nurse day and night her cousin Timoléon, a sergeant of Napoleonic cuirassiers. Their love-child was christened Marengo, after the battle in which Timoléon was severely wounded by Austrian grape-shot. Despite Marie-Eloïse's devotion, Timoléon succumbed a few hours after Marengo was born, just long enough to have taken the baby for a few fleeting moments in his failing arms.

This bridge was built to enable blind Balthazar's sons, who lived opposite, to wheel their orchestrion (a sort of automatic harmonium) across every evening to enable him to listen to the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, without hearing which he was unable to compose himself to sleep.

This bridge was built to allow Mme Frot full observation of the passers-by. When M. Balzanelli passed beneath she would contrive to drop her lace handkerchief through the open window. Should he retrieve and return it, she would read the Tarot cards to him. Rarely would the import of her readings discourage closing the window and drawing the curtains.

This bridge was built to allow nuns of a closed Ursuline order to pass from their cells to the chapel for the night Offices unseen and undisturbed. The windows were added later, when the convent closed down.

Only one of these is true. But what is truth? People believe what they want to believe.

What is also true is that once, as part of a summer festival of music and drama conceived as a perambulation about the village, J. and I sang from the window to the crowd gathered beneath The Foggy Foggy Dew (in English) in impeccable 2-part harmony. However we felt that the ethereal beauty of the music was compromised by a grotesque, gargantuan pair of knickers hanging on the nearby line, as in the photo. We hadn't realised that ownership of this deliberately-placed prop was the basis of the drama club sketch which followed. Bubbles exist to be pricked.

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.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Dark deeds at Dio

The trouble is, after a big concert I get so depressed that I'm not really capable of doing anything much except mooch about feeling savage. I exaggerate the tiniest performance blemishes to the point where they become hideous crimes, I become wildly suspicious of other peoples' motives, I become paranoid over my creative shortcomings, I swear vile oaths to no purpose under my breath and the best thing nearest and dearest can do is shut me up in a cave with a few days' supply of Cadbury's Fruit and Nut until they feel it's safe to let me out again.

Which nearly happened...

...anyway, it's over now, until the next time. Looking back as objectively as I can, it all went very well. We gave two performances of my cantata L'Imitation de Notre-Dame la Lune, the first with standing room only in the 9th-century Prieuré de St Julien, and the second 24 hours later in the Château de Dio, where the photo was taken.

This château is what I would call a vanity castle, because for the life of me I couldn't see any strategic value to its position. It dominates the village below it, which only appears to exist by virtue of the availability of building stone when the castle fell into ruins in the 17th century. (If you're interested in finding it on the map, it's about 12km east of a town called Bédarieux, itself some 35km northish of Béziers, a nasty town almost on the Mediterranean halfway between Montpellier and Narbonne. Good hunting.)

Some years ago an extraordinarily moneyed person bought the castle, cogged funds out of various French ministries and heritage associations, matched them with his own funds and set about restoration. It's nothing like finished yet. Far from performing in a vast hall where the ghosts of The Three Musketeers and their like swashed their buckles and swung from the chandeliers, we were consigned to the stables. Any horses had long since galloped off, and the flagged floor and vaulted ceiling provided a harsh and unrewarding acoustic.

After the concert a remarkable German lady, a coastal oceanographer by profession and an amateur astronomer and speleologist, invited me to 'her' cave. Few women have ever suggested this to me before. It was close by, she said; it was 'her' cave because she was the only person ever to have surveyed it, with a laser-based apparatus of her own invention. Monica and Barbara (2nd and 3rd from left in the photo) came along too, all three of us still in our concert reds and blacks, plus a couple from the audience.

Well, it was only a hole in the mountainside and it was bleeding miles away, and I say 'bleeding' advisedly because that's what we were when we came back, filthy and bleeding from grazes and scratches from sharp rocks on the near-vertical goat-path and from clutching for support at thorny branches and knife-edge grasses.

Still, it kept the German lady happy. And my black dog of depression at bay for a bit. I'm feeling a bit more livable-with now. It's what has kept me away from the blogosphere for several days, in case you were wondering. Sorry.

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)

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Spoop the Hotpoe

This my first and last contribution to the current plethora of bird photos in the blogosphere.

And as otherwise this post might appear a little sparse, perhaps this is the moment to ask if anyone else finds playing Spider solitaire a matchless aid to deep, productive thought, or a hopeless waste of time?

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.