Sunday, 26 September 2010

A weighty wait

Confined to bed just now for much of the day, waiting for recovery, I've been trying to catch up on some reading. Lyn Macdonald's 1915: The Death Of Innocence, her lively account of the second year of World War I, has been top of the bedside table pile for some days. I can only take it in short bursts, not only because the narrative is so dense but because the book's so heavy and, lying on my back, I have to hold it awkwardly above my head.

It's not the only history of WWI that I've ever read, and like everyone else I'm familiar with the waste, the slaughter, the shamefully deficient leadership, military and political, the idiocy, the pointlessness of it all and so on. And, in my dreadful vanity, how different things might have been if I'd been there.

I read each unfolding chapter with a kind of breath-holding hope at the possibility that before the chapter's end it may all turn out differently, that there will be no casualties, the generals will have been justified, and everyone will come home whistling happily. It's never the case, of course. And yet that hope persists. I wonder why.

[Finding it hard to sit at the computer for very long, I'm afraid I've fallen badly behind with visiting everyone. I'm sorry. I'll try and catch up as soon as I can.]

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Top lines from Chaucer No. 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 19 September 2010

No Full English for you, then.

We've had to call off our UK trip because I'm too ill to make it. Thanks for all your good wishes so far.

It's illuminating to discover what hotels, ferries, tunnels etc. do with bookings when you're obliged to cancel them. By no means all bad news.

Meanwhile here is a photo in which you may consider secrets of the universe are concealed.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Boult upright

A few weeks ago, through a combination of over-energetic conducting, jumping down metre-high banks laden with stones and contorting myself to make sure the last of a huge crop of blackberries didn't escape my clutch, I damaged my back, right hip, thigh, knee, calf, shin, ankle, instep and all stations beyond.

Nobody did much good until I went to see Pierre Castan, a local osteopath widely known for his healing powers. I have known him slightly for years as an accordionist but more particularly as a fellow choir conductor. He put everything back where it belonged, discs and even my liver, and although the pain persists the causes of it are very much better and I don't feel quite so suicidal any more.

But this remarkable man is blind. He's not the first blind healer I've heard of. What extra power does blindness give?

Pierre also advised me to conduct not from the pelvis, as I usually do, but standing bolt upright. Visual joke follows, ho-ho.

J. and I are going away for the best part of three weeks. I don't know how much driving I shall be able to do. Probably very little. More persiflage from Lydian Acres in early October. Have fun!

Thursday, 9 September 2010

From the archive

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

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

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

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

The greatest of the many wonders on earth is Man


Sunday, 5 September 2010

Through a local lens No. 4

Middle ground, right of centre (unlike local politics) is the Olargues village bell tower. It's the only part still standing of the 12th century hilltop castle that dominated this section of our valley. There's a long term project on the go to excavate and restore the original castle, but I think the restorers are on a hiding to nothing: as soon as the sort of local feudalism that expressed itself in fortified hilltops began to decline and the castle began to fall into disrepair, villagers helped the process along, and themselves into the bargain, by pilfering all the good building stone. To recover the original stone would mean dismantling half the village houses, and local politics would swing even further to the left.

The tower - the pyramid top is a later addition - was once part of the castle chapel. When a new church was built lower down the slope in the 17th century, they retained the tower and put a couple of bells in it. They're now operated electrically from inside the church.

One bell rings the hours - twice over, in you case you missed it the first time - and the other rings the Angelus. The Angelus, so-called from the first line of a late mediaeval hymn about the Annunciation, Angelus ad virginem, is a call to prayer. It rings a little after 7am, midday and 7pm. Who pays any attention to it I know not, nor do I know what the pattern of rings refers to: 3 sets of 3 slow strokes, followed by 15 quicker ones.

A few weeks ago the Hoboken Trio (violin, cello and piano) gave a couple of concerts locally. One of the spin-offs from their visit was that I should write some music for them. Bit of an honour, really, considering how good they are: the video below shows them in some lively Haydn with added accordion.

Saskia (violin) wanted 'plenty of Olargues' in it. It's a place she's very fond of. I started composing a few days ago. Searching about for Olarguisms to stir into the mix, I thought of the Angelus. You can't play much of a tune on one bell, but I could use the rhythm, 3 x 3 + 15. Here's the opening. If the wind blows at Angelus time, the sound comes (forte) or goes (piano) as the wind carries it towards us or away from us, so there's plenty of dynamic variety.

etc., etc.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Diabolical liberty bodice

Johann Strauss' second marriage was short-lived. After the death of his first wife Henriette in 1878, he was rescued from the depths of gloom and depression by Angelika Dittrich, a Viennese actress 24 younger than he. She was nicknamed 'Diabolika' by other members of the acting profession. One can only conjecture why. Above is the most flattering portrait I can find of her. The marriage lasted a few months and ended in recrimination and a very difficult divorce.

It's difficult to believe that Diabolika, all cramped up in crinolines and wasp-waist corsetry, ever managed to dance the fast polkas that her husband composed without something bursting. Here's Furioso, an unusually inventive, not to say poetic, polka. If - which is unlikely - Viennese masters of ceremonies ever called out, as Furioso was announced, 'Loosen your stays, girls!' one could quite understand the necessity.