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.'

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Little blokes free

When I was about 13 a friend of my mother's called Maudie Starbuck said how much I looked like Lawrence of Arabia. At 13 I can't have been much shorter than the adult Lawrence was: 5'3". At the time all I knew about Lawrence was his First World War desert escapades as recorded in effusions like The Wonder Book of Daring Deeds and - I might be wrong here - that fantastic comic Eagle. Contemporaries like my grandfather thought of him as a very great and courageous hero, a true and honourable man of the worthiest ideals, the greatest Englishman of his generation. Some even went so far as to say that but for his untimely death, he might have led the country. Great Britain and the Empire under Lawrence's leadership would certainly have stopped Hitler in his evil tracks. There would have been no appeasement tommy rot, to use an expression of the time. And so on.

So I was greatly flattered in being compared to him, if only in appearance. Having no father I was ripe for male role models. If only Maudie Starbuck had said I resembled Sherlock Holmes, Douglas Bader, Denis Compton, Odysseus, Clovis Sangrail, Robin Hood, Ernest Shackleton, Richard Hannay, Roger Bannister, Edmund Hillary as well...but I took it no further. I certainly didn't parade about Rochester, the town in north Kent where we lived at the time, dressed in agal and shemagh, the Arab head-dress that Lawrence favoured.

In my twenties other role models, chiefly musical, came on duty to relieve the not unimpressive list above. I kept an affection for Lawrence, an admiration bolstered by reading the then standard biographies of Lawrence by Robert Graves and Basil Liddell Hart. The significance of Liddell Hart's title 'T.E.Lawrence' in inverted commas escaped me at the time.

Then the blow fell, sudden and ruthless. I read Richard Aldington's biography, in which he argued very cogently that Lawrence was not what he seemed. A few lines are worth quoting, not merely because of their hammer-blows but because they could equally well apply to any of the undersized men mentioned in this mini-series: Napoleon (as Dave points out), Nelson, Sarkozy. (Only Sir Norman Wisdom is exempt, so far.)

Behind his self-consciousness, the diffident Oxford manner ... [Lawrence] was a watchful adventurer of intense ambition, a mind of versatility and skill, an unscrupulous will-to-power, a wilfulness impatient of control, a self-assertiveness which was allied with contempt.

So, Lawrence was a liar and a fantasist, the only accessible witness to the feats that made up the Legend. A flawed scolar, idle and devious. Vain and conceited, a sucker-up to the great. A dilettante of dubious tastes. A misogynist. A man of elastic morality. The indictment was savage. Much to my disappointment I found myself identifying with him more for his failings than for his qualities. For some of Aldington's accusations I found myself in the dock alongside Lawrence: there too but for the grace of...

But there was much to forgive, and Aldington clearly had a problem with compassion. Lawrence's father ran two families, the Lawrences and the Chapmans, each unknown to the other. Lawrence inherited from his Calvinist mother the suppressed guilt she felt through her irregular association with Lawrence senior. In his Arabian days at least Lawrence was gay. Homosexual activity was at that time a criminal offence in Britain. He later showed strong flagellistic leanings, arranging for himself to be birched at regular intervals. He lived mostly alone. I think he found it as difficult to live with himself as with anyone else.

Would he have been any different if he hadn't been so short? Sometimes when in taller company I find myself standing unwittingly on tiptoe, for all my 5'5½". I wonder if Lawrence, Nelson, Sarkozy, Wisdom, Napoleon, etc., did/do the same?

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Little blokes too

So the other day I was writing about men below average height. I think this was brought on by two events.

The first was the death of Sir Norman Wisdom, a small man whose film alter ego, Norman Pitkin, held us to ransom and blackmailed us in much the same way that anorexics can. At 12 or 13 I loved his slapstick, sneaking into the local Gaumont (disapproved of by anti-cinema and anti-theatre attitudes at home and forbidden by my school if you were wearing uniform) was revolted by ghastly songs like Don't laugh at me 'cos I'm a fool, but it didn't take long to become very quickly bored by the lack of sublety of the plots and total improbability of anyone taking this twit seriously, let alone any self-respecting girl falling in love with this grinning drip Pitkin: if this was subversion (and I was very keen on subversion then. Still am, in many ways.) it was about as anti-Establishment as Puss in Boots on ice.

All the same, there has to be something to be said for someone who apparently gave the restive and liberal youth of Albania, under the despotic Enver Hoxha régime, the Pitkin catchphrase 'Mr Grimsdale!' to be uttered furtively to fellow-members of the underground. In due course the Hoxha régime fell, along with all those other eastern European communist governments, but so far I haven't heard of Sir Norman Wisdom being given any of the credit for it. Who knows, maybe there are Pitkin Streets and Mr Grimsdale Boulevards in the capital, Tirana?

The second was the extraordinary unpopularity, marked by record low standing in the polls, of Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president. Nobody seems to have a good word for the bloke, and if he stands for the presidency again, in eighteen months' time, it looks as if he's going to be humiliated. If he does get in, it'll be by default, because the likely opposition candidates are so dire. If you get in by default, you can't really claim any kind of popular mandate for your programme. Like Sir Norman Wisdom, at first I liked Sarkozy and what he stood for, but as his presidency has tottered from crisis to crisis, and as he has barely scratched the surface of all the promised reforms that I as a resident outsider felt France needed so badly, I've gone off him rather.

I remember a scene in a Norman Wisdom film called, I think, On the Beat, in which Pitkin tries to get into the police force. As he is far below the minimum height for recruitment he puts on stilts, and of course he's found out. If Sarkozy ever put stilts on to convince the French that he was the man for the job, it never made it to the national news, but it's widely known that he's sensitive about his height. Any measurement between him and Sir Norman would be a close run thing. Which begs the question: what sort of a president would Sarkozy make if he were taller?

Then there's another little bloke, Lawrence of Arabia...

...but he'll have to do for another time.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Little blokes won

Before we met, my friend Dave said he imagined me as a 6' Highlander. He is too polite to have expressed relief, delight, disappointment, consternation etc. when we actually met. If, rubbing his eyes in disbelief, he had insisted on measuring my height before kindly inviting me into his house, he would have found I measured a respectable 5' 5½". Not the tallest man he'd ever met, by any means, but probably not the titchiest either.

As for the Highlander bit, I couldn't do much about that. Although I worked for 27 years in the north of Scotland, no drop of tartan blood courses through my veins. No trace of Scots accent spices my speech. Occasionally I betray a quarter of a century in Scotland by using 'shall' where other English might use 'will', by saying 'garridge' instead of 'gararge', ' and 'Aberdeen-shyer' instead of 'Aberdeen-sher'. Sometimes 'ettle' comes out instead of fidget, be impatient to do something, 'jalouse' for suspect or infer, and 'stushie' for row or uproar.

But never have I been known to say 'wee mannie' instead of little bloke. (Well, I did once: at the Aviemore or Coylumbridge ice-rinks the kids used to enjoy taking a dozen running-start steps on ice skates, then crouching down on their haunches and seeing if they could slide to the other end of the rink without stopping. This was called 'doing wee mannies'.)

Actually when I started writing this my theme was going to be lack of height as a psychological drive to exercise of power, as evidenced by wee mannies little blokes as different as that well-known East Anglian Horatio Nelson and President Sarkozy. But that's enough for today: my back's playing up sitting too long at the computer. You've got the general idea. I'll develop it more next time. To be continued...

Addendum: Nothing to do with the above, but in regard to the post below, Round The Block, some have asked for photos. To supply this need was with us the work of a moment: here are firstly Wobbly, the dog up the lane (with his friend, don't know its name) who barks at passers-by, and secondly Lady (pron. 'laddy') the donkey with her two friends (don't know their names either). Photo 2, with two artistic repoussoir trees, by J.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Round the block

This afternoon, in full sunshine with the temperature at about 24º, I set off up the lane, carrying my walking stick just in case,

- past Denise the neighbour's house, noting how wild boar have virtually ploughed up the ditch beneath her garden wall

- past the house that used to belong to Mme Lejeune, where there is a ceramic plaque on the gate announcing that St Etienne supporters live there

- past the house where a dog called Wobbly barks at passers-by

- past the house belonging to some blonde Belgian women whom we found sitting one evening on our terrasse getting outside a glass or two of best rouge, having been invited unknown to us by some Italian musicians who fancied them

- past the field where Eric the interior designer keeps his donkey called Lady (pron. 'laddy')

- up the lane to where the path branches off to the right through chestnut woods, where newly-fallen chestnuts cover the ground, making a first-class Fakirs' Autumn Handicap course

- down to a clearing where someone has chain-sawed tree-stumps into castles with battlements

- along the old railway line, now turned into a bridle path, where passers-by amuse themselves by heaving parapet coping stones down into the river

- past our neighbour Hector in his bee-suit busy with his hives

- through a gap in the woods past a malarial pond where hops and monbrietia grow

- back up to our lane again beside the house we used to live in, now inhabited by - among others - a cat called Moltonel

- up the lane for about 100 metres, having completed a circular walk we call 'round the block' for the first time since July 30th, when I first injured my back conducting.

I think things are looking up. I'm very pleased with myself, tho' I expect I'll pay for it tomorrow.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Meemorial lines

Something that came to my mind after reading Lyn Macdonald's 1915: The Death of Innocence (see previous post) is that a war memorial, often with the names listed of the local dead, features in every town and village in the entire United Kingdom. It's such a commonplace that we tend to take it for granted and only fully register its presence at Remembrance time.

I've been wondering if there were any communities which did not erect war memorials, on the grounds that all their World War I servicemen returned unscathed and there were no dead to commemorate.

It appears that there are one or two, but very few. Somebody called Arthur Mee, a sort of 1920s and 30s Mr Google, reckoned that out of the thousands of British town and villages, there were only 31 that suffered no loss. He identified some, but I can't find a complete list. Here are one or two:

Ovington, near Swaffham
Upper Slaughter, Glos.
St Michael, Suffolk
Rodney Stoke, Somerset
Mapplebeck, Notts.

I'm afraid I haven't heard of any these places. Can any readers add to the list?

The elegiac, not to say depressing, tone of the last few posts reflects my present situation, mostly prone and anguished, I'm afraid. Better days lie ahead. My colleague Nomenclator promises an inanely asinine post entitled 'Is your name Beelzebub?' in a few days' time. Or was it 'Is your name Bellygod?' I've forgotten. Anyway, nil desperandum.