Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Lord of the Flies

A lady correspondent suggests the way a man wears his trousers betrays his age.

Ouch! Oofyah!

I say Ouch! (and Oofyah! for any Scots reading this) not from the growing discomfort of wrenching the two tops of the fly together and fastening them frantically with the waistband button in the hope that it won't fly off before the zip is pulled up and the belt is secured, probably by the last buckle hole.

Far from it. Ouch! (Oofyah!) because there does come a time when man's vanity regarding his age finally catches up with woman's. I seem to have reached it. My correspondent has pricked the bubble.

It's true that I can no longer wear my trousers low-slung round my hips, with the bottoms scuffing round my heels and along the ground. (Was it for this that T.S.Eliot wrote I am old, I am old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled?) There aren't really any hips to low-sling them from. Just a sort of descending all-round pudding shape.

Among the few material things I inherited from my grandfather was a pair of much-gusseted evening trousers. (I have in fact made a will, but any of you with expectations may be relieved to know that I've made no disposition for my trousers. Cravats, yes. Trousers, no. They're up for grabs, so to speak.) Finely tailored by Ingram's of Preston, they came to me when I was about 24 and in urgent need of full evening dress for conducting. I tried them on, and despaired. Three blokes could have fitted inside, and still one would have had to ask the way of the others. Taking the waist in was like reefing sail in a hurricane. I was conscious of conducting with a sort of bustle peeping out between my coat-tails in the energetic allegro con fuoco bits.

If I tried them on now they would probably fit very comfortably, but they have long since gone to meet their maker. (No, not Ingram's of Preston, but the great trouser press in the sky.)

But I think I've solved the problem of female eyes nosey-parkering up and down the waistline trying to work out how long I'm good for. Here it is:

Hair styling - Sophie Frimousse in the village
Overall - bloke in a van who comes round once a month
Footwear - D. East
Vestimentary anthem:

Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay
My, oh my what a wonderful day!
Plenty of sunshine heading my way
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Quiz to match Rog's in non-Googleability

Where is it?

...and in other news I've become a grandfather again. At my age. Imagine.

UPDATE: Now you've got me wondering. The photo above was taken in 2008 by Barbara, who despite speaking excellent English had never been to the UK. Barbara sings alto with my small choir, and when we went on tour in Kent and Sussex a couple of years ago she was as excited about her first visit to the UK as she was about her first ever flight, by easyJet Montpellier - Gatwick. She was anxious to capture her first glimpse of the English coast as seen from 20,000 feet, and this is it. J. and I weren't on that flight, as we drove up as the group's roadies a couple of days before with heavy luggage and music stands, etc., so I don't know details of the flight path.

I thought it was Selsey Bill, but it doesn't match up entirely convincingly with the map. St Catherine's Point? Bembridge? I don't know. What do you think?

More to the point, in these circumstances anyone who gave any answer, even Sarah, wins a bottle of champagne on condition that you come and collect it personally within the next half-hour. Later than that I will have gone for my siesta and the prize will be forfeit. Or I will have wet the baby's head with it.

Thanks for your congratulations. Much appreciated!

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Bach to Nature


Recently we had staying with us Jean-Paul Minali-Bella. He's one of France's most celebrated viola players. He came with two instruments, a regular viola to play in a couple of concerts locally, and something quite new to me called an Arpegina.

In the 1720s Bach wrote a set of 6 suites for solo cello, which have become a byword for intimate, private contemplation and meditation. They didn't become well-known until the 1920s, when the great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals first popularised them.

There have been problems over playing them ever since, because there's no absolute certainty about what sort of cello Bach wrote them for. One of the difficulties is that in the course of the 18th century the cello underwent structural changes to enable a much bigger sound. The bigger the sound, the further behind the intimacy of the music is left. There isn't much intimacy in the concert hall.

There are technical problems, too. Some of the music doesn't lend itself to being played on a regular 4-stringed cello. This has led some commentators to believe that the suites were written for a 5-stringed instrument, or even that a special bow, now lost, if it ever existed, was needed to play them. It's possible to play the Bach cello suites on the viola.

In 1824 Schubert wrote a sonata for a friend who played an instrument called an Arpeggione, which was a kind of guitar played with a bow. The 'Arpeggione' sonata, with piano accompaniment, is now usually played on the cello, but there are arrangements for viola.

In conjunction with Bernard Sabatier, a Paris instrument maker, Jean-Paul Minali-Bella has developed an instrument which, while capable of playing the entire viola repertoire, can realise the 'Arpeggione' sonata as Schubert originally wrote it. And, of course, the Bach solo cello suites.

Jean-Paul's Arpegina has 5 strings, the lowest tuned to the E below the C of the conventional viola. To accommodate the extra tension of a fifth string, and to provide extra resonance, the body has been widened and thickened into a sort of cauliflower ear. The basic design is two adjacent ellipses. This leads to the instrument looking a bit like a viola with mumps, but it works.

When he played extracts to J. and me the sound was refined, sweet and somehow personalised. Gone were the declamatory, showy and sometimes overblown virtuoso tones we so often hear. We can never know what sound Bach originally intended, but we were very happy with this approximation. Thank you, Jean-Paul.

UPDATE: Here's Jean-Paul playing the last movement of the Schubert 'Arpeggione' sonata, accompanied by European Camerata, the string ensemble he has done much to establish. I'm afraid the recording doesn't do anyone all that much justice.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Dancing with Cats (3)

A few months after buying a house in France I joined the local choir at the suggestion of the estate agent, who sang in it himself. It was a choir of about 50 based on the cathedral of St Pons de Thomières, a little Languedoc town which - as Dr Johnson once wrote of the small Scottish town of Nairn - if once it flourished, was then in a state of miserable decay. I hadn't sung in a choir for years, but as a general hack musician I found the ability to read music at sight a very rare, if not unique, accomplishment and in due course, after about four weeks, I was appointed deputy choirmaster.

Someone in a stratum of music-making miles above my head then decreed that the St Pons choir should take part in a multi-choir effort involving a set of songs in a language whose existence I was hardly aware of. Some called it Occitan, some Languedocien, but the deepest-rooted local people called it the patois. Here's an example of it:

O Magali ma tant aymado
Mettez la teste al fenestroun
Presto l'aureil a quel' aubado
De tambourins et de violoun:
Lou cel es prets d'estello dor e l'air es calmo,
Mé las estellos paliroun quand te veroun.

[O Magali (girl's name, very pretty) my so beloved
Put your head out of the window
Lend your ear to this aubade (morning serenade, a bleeding nuisance)
Of drums and violin:
The sky is sparkling (a guess, this) with stars of gold and the air is calm
But the stars will pale when they see you.]

There's no set spelling for Languedocien, and there are as many dialects as there are valleys for them to flourish in. Anyway, Magali and the other songs in the collection were pushed my way, mainly because the head choirmaster didn't do rhythm, and eventually we got them under our belt. Not without sometimes violent argument breaking out: some from one neighbourhood would assert that 'chibal' (i.e. 'horse') was pronounced 'chival', while others from across the river said rubbish, it was pronounced 'chibau', while a sturdy group of backwoods basses insisted on 'chivau'.

I thought of taking a vote on this and similar differences, but then I thought no, you folk can't do this without me, and although mightily aware of the ironies involved in me, a Brit, coming to teach these people their own songs, I said in kindly manner, having selected a reasonable compromise pronunciation and chancing my arm no little, you'll do it my way or not at all. After that there was a smouldering, uneasy peace and we got on with it.

All this is really to introduce the idea that all round the Western Mediterranean basin there exists a little-known family of languages which are really the descendants of popular Latin. One day I would love to explore them fully. If anyone has ever written a comparative analysis of them, I would be so pleased to hear about it. In France the correct umbrella term is Occitan, which incorporates, travelling east to west, Niçard (from around Nice), Provençal, Languedocien and, as you approach the Spanish frontier, Catalan, which is easily the most widely spoken.

I know there are other variants in Corsica and Sardinia, and that the Balearic Islands have their own dialects. There's a similar dialect spoken along the Italian Riviera, where it's called Ligurian, but I wonder if the same basic language with its rainbow dialects continues down the inside leg of Italy and across to Sicily?

Meanwhile here is a very useful if unexciting phrase in Catalan which you (especially I,LTV and Mel and other caffeinds) shouldn't hesitate to trot out any time you find yourselves in Barcelona:

Dos cafés amb llet si's plau

(Pron. 'Doss caffess amb yet seess plough')

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Dancing with Cats (2)

Ten and more years ago J. and I set ourselves to learn Spanish. Every morning at breakfast out came Hugo's Spanish In Three Months. It had an old-fashioned, grammatical approach to language teaching, which we both appreciated, even if the photo on the cover appeared - according to the address on the back - to represent 104 Judd Street, London: a London landmark which had so far passed us by. We made reasonable progress, chattered to each other self-consciously in basic Spanish, and swapped the odd Spanish expression, just for fun, with some of the Spanish-speaking people in the village, of which there are a few, mostly descendants of refugees from the Spanish Civil War.

Then disaster struck. Just as we'd reach el fin in Hugo, with its choice of imperfect subjunctives, just what every elementary language student needs over the croissants and Yorkshire Gold, we went on a 48-hour trip to San Remo, not far beyond the Franco-Italian border. We both have a basic level of Italian. Would any of it come out that night in a San Remo restaurant called '88'? Would it il mio culo.

But the Spanish streamed out as generously as the tagliatelle they served us.

Then a month or two later J. and I took ourselves off for a weekend to one of those pearls of the Mediterranean on the Spanish Costa Brava that we discovered by accident and that nobody seems to know about. Catastrophe struck. All that breakfast Spanish so laboriously garnered had gone. Buzzed off. Vamoosed. Vanished, apart from one or two stock phrases like hay siempre algun jaleo i.e. there's always something that goes wrong.

No problem with Italian, of course. Out it gushed unbidden in all its rich and rounded fullness, like the Rioja they served us.

This would have been a serious setback, had it not been for the fact that everyone's mother tongue in that part of the world isn't Spanish at all, but Catalan. H'm. Back to square 1...

More of these linguistic pretensions next time, but meantime I'd better do something to justify the title. Do enjoy the period photo above, especially the very 1950s fireside compendium.

'Woman Dancing with her Cat': © Meyer Ostroff/Corbis 2002

Monday, 16 August 2010

Dancing with Cats (1)

Some years ago we spent a few September days in Barcelona, which is about 4 hours' drive from where we live. We braved the most discouraging stories about the scourge of petty theft, how tourists were liable to have the eyes stolen out of their heads if they didn't look out, but we duly kept our hands on our halfpennies and had a good time.

We stayed at the Hotel Colon, in the old city centre, overlooking the cathedral square. 'Colon' is the Spanish for Columbus, Barcelona being one of the seaports Christopher (Sp. Cristobal - and thereby hangs a tale for my colleague 'Nomenclator' ) C. was associated with and just at the moment I can't remember how and maybe Dave can fill me in.

Anyway, on the Sunday morning of our stay J. and I went up to our room after breakfast to get ready to go out, which involved one hanging over the balcony waiting for the other to vacate the bathroom. There was music in the square below, from a uniformed band mostly of primitive oboes with a drum and a double bass arranged in rows on the cathedral steps. People were dancing, hundreds of them. We watched, fascinated. Several circles formed, broke like amoebae into smaller formations as more and more people arrived to join in this public dance.

We went down and out into the square. Catalans of all ages, out shopping, walking dogs, on their way to mass, kids playing, whatever, stopped what they were doing, leant bicycles against walls, tied dogs to railings, put their shopping or handbags in a heap in the middle of the dance and joined in this very stately round dance that I imagine everyone must have known since childhood, like Scots kids do with The Dashing White Sergeant.

We watched, daring each other to go and join in. We could have joined in anywhere, though you're not supposed to split partners. Dancers willingly made room for newcomers. It looked simple enough. Hands held with your neighbours at waist height. Point, step, step, cross to the left. Point step, step, cross to the right. Repeated several times, as far as I remember. Then with hands held at shoulder height, the same pattern, faster.

Well, cowards that we were, we never did join in. This was the famous Sardana, the national dance of Catalonia, a thing of great popular pride and a symbol of Catalan unity. After about an hour the band ran out of puff and the dancers dispersed.

I'm sometimes reminded of this when I glance across to the panel of 'followers' just over there --> on the right. Some of my blogospherically nearest and dearest have installed themselves comfortably (bit of an anomaly sometimes between the number given and the number of thumbnails, Vicus) in the merry dance of my two or three posts a week. But some are complete strangers and I've no idea who they are. Two Russians have joined recently, Helena and someone in a Santa Claus outfit whose name I can't read. And what I really want to say to these and to Jim Kearns, archie oxygen, gamallomousy, pagan sphinx and anyone else that appears overnight is Hi, thank you for joining in, and please stay for as long as I have puff to keep going.

I don't suppose any of you are in the Sardana clip below? I'm ashamed to say we aren't.

Friday, 13 August 2010

And God Made Tracey

Well, I enjoyed them.

Happy weekend.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Is your name Neep?

Is your name 'Neep' or 'Turnip'?

by 'Nomenclator'

I expect you're oh-so-well used to sundry folk sniggering as you pass by 'There's a distinct neep in the air this morning'. And you don't turn a hair. You don't mind a bit, do you? In fact you're quite gratified to find people taking any notice of you. Like in the pub, for instance, when you're sitting alone in a quiet corner nursing your Guinness with grappa chaser, you don't care if they say, nudge-nudge-wise, 'Fancy a neep of whisky, squire?' or 'I'm just going tur nip round the corner to point Percy at the porcelain'. (See explanatory diagram above: the small black hole centre left houses a photo-electric beam which activates the flush when the 'customer' momentarily breaks the beam as he approaches the porcelain sanitaryware. Please do not 'aim' at it, men, however great your neep need: wait until the recommended forward stance is achieved.)

No, no, friends, you're used to being ribbed and joshed. And you can take it. That's because you have all the moral strength and historic stature of one of Europe's most ancient races. Originally from Catalonia, where 'Nap' is the original version of 'Neep', your seed has blown before the wind to all quarters of the continent, even to the furthest reaches of Scotland, where your name is cognate with a certain toothsome and nutritious root vegetable.

('Cognate' is a technical word we folk-taxonomists sometimes use. It's just our homely jargon for 'born with a toothed wheel'. If we didn't exercise the vocabulary of our mystic craft no one would take us seriously, would they?)

But there's a distant echo of your Catalan origins in your family motto, one of the longest in all the motto-rich land of the condes and hidalgos, flies and practices:

Si, Señor, dere dago - fortelor resin aro; demsis nolor res, demsis trux fulla causan hensan dux

(Translation: Yes, Mister, if you look like a - turnip, they'll treat you like one.)


Next week: 'Nomenclator' asks 'Is your name Elsanol™?'

Monday, 9 August 2010


Most mornings we watch the French TV breakfast programme 'Télématin'. It's streets ahead of the BBC breakfast magazine, which we watch with deep disappointment whenever we come over to the UK: its concept is lively, colourful, far-ranging and fast-moving, with expert contributors, serious and light-hearted, throwing in their glittering two centimes-worth under the paternal eye of its chief presenter (and owner), William Leymergie. After a dose of Télématin you start the day light of foot and high of spirit, which is more than ever happens, to me anyway, with the wooden Bill Turnbull and the frumpish Sian Williams.

M. Leymergie is on holiday at the moment, but he still sends in occasional book reviews from his seaside resort in discussion with the programme's literary consultant, the gorgeous Olivia de Laremberterie. The other morning Mlle de Laremberterie gushed and swooned over the translation from English of a book called Mr Thake, which I can't say I'd ever heard of, by J.B.Morton.

J.B.Morton? A moment's thought over the Special K and Dorset Cereals purple mix, and the spark ignited. Of course! J.B.Morton, who must have died during World War II, was otherwise known as Beachcomber, and wrote a seminally humorous column for the Daily Express called (I think) By The Way. (For devotees of his contemporary A.G.Macdonell's England, Their England, J.B.Morton was the original of 'Tommy Huggins'.)

M. Leymergie raised an eyebrow. (This pillar of the French TV establishment cut his teeth on telesales and once cut a novelty single called, I believe, Monsieur Pacman. We all have episodes in our pasts we would prefer to forget.) Clearly M. Leymergie had never heard of J.B.Morton.

O-O-O-Olivia tossed her lustrous shoulder-length tresses, made a little moue, and gently scolded M. Leymergie for not keeping up. J.B.Morton, she insisted, is very much read in England just now. He is hyper, hyper, hyper popular. You could say he is in the top five English writers...

...we live in the remote fastnesses of the Languedoc (tho' it seems central enough to us) and maybe we're out of touch with current UK literary trends. But can this possibly be true?

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Entente Chordiale

Dedicated followers of Lydian Airs (probably me alone) may remember me taking my small choir Les Jeudistes (red and black in the photo above) on our World Tour of Kent and Sussex in May 2008. Abiding memories of this tour are:

*Bluebell woods

*Beers tasting of something, unlike anything available in France

*Unbroken sun from dawn till dusk

*Mysterious ceremonies of cricket on village greens

*Zebra crossings with stop request buttons at equestrian height

*Seeing Boris Johnson in Northumberland Avenue and NOT KNOWING WHO HE WAS

*Overall impression of the English as being universally kindly, wealthy, generous, warm-hearted, francophile, god-fearing folk deeply committed to classical music, striped lawns, rhododendrons and driving on the wrong side of the road.

We invited our hosts, mainly from Sevenoaks, to return our call. They came, not entirely at full strength, last weekend. We sang several things together, including the Cachucha from The Gondoliers. If you believe the version below is what we performed - do watch through to the end - you maybe ought to see a specialist in credulity.