Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Lydian Arias

As you may have picked up if you come here often, ours is quite a musical household.

Here's a little souvenir of the other evening, when we had a few friends round. A glass or two of mulled wine, mince pies, some of Dave's jokes, tarot cards, charades, murder in the dark, wire puzzle competitions, tilting at the quintain, you know the kind of thing. And a bit of a sing, as recorded below.

(I'm a bit worried about that Carmen, though; would you say she came up to scratch?)

(If the complete image doesn't come up, double-click on it)

Thanks, C van L.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Lies, damned lies and grasshoppers

At school we had a CCF, Combined Cadet Force, a throwback to pre-First World War militarism. On Thursday afternoons everyone had to change into military uniform and play at soldiers. There was an army section and a much smaller RAF section. Both were officered by teachers who were so inclined, while lads who enjoyed that kind of thing provided the NCOs to bawl commands and stamp booted feet and find fault with gaiters imperfectly clarted with a sort of khaki mud called blanco.

The RAF section was looked after, incongruously, by an ex-Royal Navy sub-lieutenant, Mr Blee. Outside of Thursday afternoons, Mr Blee taught music. He and I got on well. After a year in the army section learning basic square-bashing drill I asked to be transferred to the RAF section. I was marched into the presence of the CO, Major Hawke, who taught maths when not in uniform. The following interview* took place, as near as I can remember it:

Cpl Harmer (whom I sat next to in Latin and sometimes allowed to copy my work): Detail, halt. Salute the officer.

Major Hawke:
At ease, soldier. What do you want, what's-your-name, Willie Wormy?

I'd like to join the RAF Section, Sir.

Major Hawke:
Oh yes? Nancy boy, are you?

Me (not really knowing at fourteen what a nancy boy was, but having my suspicions):
I don't think so, Sir. But my uncle was a distinguished RAF officer. And I'm interested, Sir.

Sub-Lieutenant Blee:
What better reason?

Major Hawke:
Take him away, Lieutenant Blee. We want men in the army, not your bloody pint-sized musicians. Request granted. Dismiss.

Cpl Harmer:
Detail, 'shun. Salute the officer. About turn. Quick march, left, right, left, right.

Parents paid good money for this sort of education. Well, some did: I won a scholarship to this place, with funds provided by a cathedral foundation, so I suppose it came free.

In the RAF section some sort of introduction to flying was provided by the Grasshopper. The Grasshopper was a skeletal glider, only to be used on windless days. The unfortunate chosen to 'pilot' it strapped himself on to a plank just forward of the wings. Each foot rested on a pedal, hands clasped a joystick. Clamps prevented all movement of the controls except one, a trigger to release the anchor that held the glider in its corner of the playing field.

Once the pilot was installed an immense bungee rope was attached in a V to a hook somewhere about the nose, like a catapult, or those rubber bands we used to flick pellets with. Two groups of cadets, like tug-of-war teams, spread outwards from the glider, took up the bungee, taking care to stand behind it, and on the order marched forward. When the sweating grunts had marched far enough and had created enough tension, the pilot was ordered to release the anchor and the grunts to drop the bungee.

At this point the Grasshopper lurched forward a few yards, sliding on its runner like a grass ski, and came to a halt. Other non-bungee erks were instructed to run alongside the wing-tips and to hold them up when the apparatus slid to a halt, to prevent damage to the mountings when it tilted over.

I resent the implication of the photo above. It is clearly false. Never to my knowledge did the Grasshopper ever leave the ground.

On one glorious occasion - I wasn't present, unfortunately - the officer commanding failed to instruct the heaving erks to take station behind the bungee rather than in front.

I was never in much sympathy with the CCF. I fiercely resisted promotion out of the ranks to lance-corporal, let alone corporal or sergeant. So did the authorities.

* I've lifted this dialogue from an earlier blog incarnation.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Through a local lens No. 5

We're very lucky. Practically at the foot of our garden there used to be a railway line. It was built in the 1860s, primarily to transport coal from open-cast mines at a place called Graissessac, a place with more esses than is good for it. The coal went to power the woollen mills around Mazamet, a small town 40 miles or so to the west. The line was engineered though difficult country, across ravines and valleys, with deep cuttings and tunnels through mountain outcrops. The many iron bridges, railings and parapets came from the studio of Gustave Eiffel, he of Tower fame.

The local woollen industry died in the 1960s, and with it the need for coal. The railway line sputtered on fitfully until it was closed in the French equivalent of the Beeching Axe, which closed down so many UK railway lines. The last train ran in the late 1980s. The line became overgrown and derelict until someone had the bright idea of taking up the rails and sleepers, laying down an all-weather gravel surface and turning it into a recreational facility for cyclists, walkers and riders on horseback. Cars and motorbikes aren't allowed. It now extends from a village called Mons la Trivalle to Mazamet.

We walk along part of it nearly every day. Over the years I've cycled along most of it, on one occasion with the shorter of the two people in the photo. The most exciting parts are the big Prémian tunnel, where your passage triggers lights in succession, and the small Riols tunnel, where there's nothing but a disc of light at the end. It's surprisingly difficult to keep your balance when the light at the end of the tunnel is your only point of reference. There's a metaphor somewhere there. I expect that great cyclist Rog can explain it.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Midnight. One more night without sleepin'...

... actually it's 2.33am. I wake up, restless and wide awake. Blast. That's the third night in a row. When my back was really bad a couple of months ago, they prescribed something tetrapazam-based called Myolastan, a muscle relaxant. For weeks on end I took it last thing at night and slept perfectly and without pain. There were some declared side effects that I won't trouble a lady or gentleman like you with. Also it might become addictive, the notes in the pack said. The notes didn't say anything about total suppression of the creative imagination. Not good. Now that things are improving, three nights ago I felt it was time to wean myself off it. Easier said than done.

I get up, go downstairs and make a cup of tea, take a couple of chunks of F & N and turn the television on, but without the sound. One does not wish to cause household disturbance at quarter to three in the morning. Our TV package has hundreds of Europe-wide channels. Our regular channels have closed down for the night, but there's still a vast choice for the nighthawk and the sleepless. I try channel 30 at random.

Channel 30 has bought in some Venezuelan all-in wrestling. Various muscle-bound muchachos, some hideously made up and costumed, descend a flight of stairs to the ring amid strobe lights and swirls of coloured smoke, accompanied by adoring hip-swaying chicas in spangled bikinis. There are no rules. The wrestlers just throw each other about the ring as they feel like it. Presently a blonde bloke appears, classically beautiful, could have modelled for Michaelangelo, with a slight hint of camp about him. He has 'Marco' in sparkly letters across the front of his codpiece-tight shorts and 'Ocram' across his bume. A wit, evidently. The muchachos set on him. No swaying chicas accompany his stretcher back up the stairs. The crowd waves and stamps, delirious, ecstatic with pleasure.

I move on. Maybe a film will fill the wakeful hours? Our package groups films between channels 100 and 112. On 100 there's a film about Eric Tabarly, the epic French solo yachtsman. It's mostly black and white and depends on sound, so I move on.

On 101 a terrified girl with a torn dress is being threatened by grinning demons. On 102 some poor woman is being viciously attacked by some bloke in the toils of anguish. (I should recognise this film, but I don't.) On 103 a young couple are having a violent argument in a hotel bedroom. When a knife appears I move on to 104, where a gang of unlovely youths is arguing about a girl, pulling her this way and that. On 105 a not very beautiful woman is being raped. I go back to Eric Tabarly, who has just lost his mast. Is this a sly metaphor for our condition?

It occurs to me that 102 is in fact The Piano Teacher, a very fine film - tho' very Austrian - starring Isabelle Huppert and featuring some sublime pathos-ridden Schubert*. I return to it, but it's the sacrificial end, Mlle Huppert has just stabbed herself and is wandering away into the Viennese night to bleed to death.

I give up and go back to bed with much to think about. There's a thesis claiming that any cultural product, film, play, painting, novel, whatever, can only exist to fulfil or reflect a sometimes subconscious social need. What kind of people are we?

Maybe tonight I'll sleep better. I deserve to.

*Piano trio in E flat, Op. 100. Here's the slow movement. (If all three players don't appear, click on the image. The original You Tube excerpt should come up. Thank you, Vicus, for pointing this out.)

Thursday, 18 November 2010

A jam-jar by any other name

Snowy reported the other day that, in the school which she visits as Governor, girls called Julie tend to be nicknamed 'Jelly'. This seems very sensible to me, and a typical example of the endearing British gift for inventive and (mostly) affectionate nicknames.

Until I was 13 I was usually called 'Titch', and indeed I was quite small as a child. Later on, at 15 or 16, I was called 'Jam-jar' for a while. Someone 5th-form wit had said that I 'walked like a pregnant jam-jar'. H'm.

As a 6th-former and student I don't remember attracting a nickname at all. Nor as a teacher and head teacher, but maybe the kids took care not to be overheard. Among my friends and associates I was always Chris.

I had a problem when I came to live in France, nearly 20 years ago now. I was surprised to find, when conducting sacred music, that in France 'Christ' is pronounced without the final T, i.e. kreess. 'Chris' and 'Christ' sound exactly the same. I felt obliged to renounce Chris and insist on Christopher (or kreesstoffair as they pronounce it) in full.

But in English-speaking circles I'm happy to be called Chris.

Jam-jar, indeed.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Songs my aunt taught me

During a wakeful period at about 3am I find myself trying to account for my much-loved artist aunt Evelyn's lively interest in Cockney music-hall songs. She wasn't a Londoner: indeed her father William Dunbar came from Morayshire and her mother from from Stagglethorpe.

A few weeks ago my blog-friend I (i.e. E I) commented that she'd never heard of a song called Boiled beef and carrots. I E lives south of the river, well beyond the sound of Bow bells, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised that she didn't know it. In any case, the tune is so like Kelly from the Isle of Man that she might have known it without realising it. Here are the words:

Boiled beef and carrots,
Boiled beef and carrots.
That's the stuff for your Derby Kel
It makes you fit and keeps you well.
Don't live like vegetarians,
On food they give to parrots.
From morn till night, blow out your kite,
On boiled beef and carrots!

['Derby Kel' (short for 'Derby Kelly') is Cockney rhyming slang for 'belly'. 'Kite' in line 7 is a northern dialect word meaning 'belly' too. (What's that doing there, then?) 'Vegetarian' in line 5 seems so out of place that I wonder if once there was something much more robust there.]

Aunt Evelyn's repertoire included this and several others - Any old iron?, My old man said Follow the van, Hello! Hello! Who's your ladyfriend? - but her favourite, sometimes triggered by landing there when we played Monopoly, was Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road:

Last week, down our alley came a toff,
Nice old geezer, with a nasty cough,
Sees my missus - takes his topper off,
In a very gentlemanly way.
"Ma'am," he says, "I have got some news to tell:
Your rich uncle Tom of Camberwell
Popped off sudden, which is quite a sell,
Leaving you his little donkey shay."

"Wotcher," all the neighbours cried,
"Who yer goin' to meet, Bill?
Have you bought the street, Bill?"
Laugh - I thought I should have died:
Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road.

[The above, incidentally, is the real thing. Shirley Temple served up a meaningless garble of it in a 1939 (I think) film called A Little Princess. 'Shay' is a corruption of 'chaise', meaning a little cart. There's some ingenious word-play with 'Uncle Tom' (i.e. pawnbroker), 'popped' (i.e. pawned) and 'quite a sell' (i.e. a scam, cheat).]

Where had she got these songs from? Neither music-hall nor Cockney were her natural element. When she was a student at the Royal College of Art, in the early 1930s, she formed a relationship with one of her tutors, Cyril Mahoney, whom she called 'Chas'. Her letters to him survive. They're deliciously illustrated, and they're lightly peppered with deliberate, sometimes self-conscious Cockneyisms, or Mockneyisms: 'Ain't there, matey?', 'I knows of that there plant', 'Wotcher, cock!'. It was a passing fad. By the time the relationship had advanced to within sight of marriage, and had retreated to break-up, it had disappeared. Her familiarity with these songs may have been linked to this.

Or they may just have been a part of the universal popular culture of the time. Having come to this rather unsatisfactory conclusion I think I must have dropped off again.

Friday, 12 November 2010

England, my England

Scene: Small Essex retirement home, a comfortable, friendly and well-run place where the staff are such saintly stars that I wouldn't mind putting my name down in due course. My son Nibus and I are visiting.

In the main day room there's a new resident, an elderly man with a gift for Herculean coughings, hawkings and phlegmings. Two or three places down an elderly lady, the only resident with a mild dementia, occasionally utters wild fortissimo shrieks and moans. It's one of the periods of the day when the television is on. (The residents' committee, partly guided by our visitee, has banned continual television.)

Mr Hawker is at full throttle. Mona is in mid-season form. So far their utterances have been separate. Suddenly for an instant they coincide, a simultaneous massive viscous rumbling and eerie banshee howl, a sort of transcendental geriatric coition. At that moment there's a burst of enthusiastic and prolonged cheering and applause from the television. Nibus and I daren't look each other in the eye...

...we eat that night in a little restaurant specialising in Tex-Mex cuisine. We've been there before, just often enough to know the staff, mostly stunning Essex blondes of which S. the chef/proprietor seems to have an unending supply, by their first names. I've nearly finished my fajita and Nibus his Big Beef Bummer when S. comes and sits next to us.

For no clear reason he tells us about the time when during a deep-sea dive he had been seriously alarmed by a presence his limited field of vision and the semi-opacity of the water prevented him from identifying exactly. The presence followed him continually, keeping just out of sight. At last he caught a glimpse of a single eye, staring balefully, as though it was trying to give him the evil eye. (I wonder. A distant memory comes to me, something legendary about looking into the eye of a whale and seeing certain visions of a higher truth.) At length the fish revealed itself. It was a cod, a big bugger, the chef/proprietor says. Nibus and I have more eye-to-eye trouble. S. punctuates his sentences with 'yeh', like David Brent in The Office.

Why is he telling us this? A possible answer is that he's deliberately engaging customers in conversation in order to escape some menial washing-up task that he's left to his wife in the kitchen.

We order dessert. Nibus chooses a Lemon Lush, a gooey confection consisting of a viscous glob of lemon curd nestling in vanilla ice-cream, surrounded by whipped cream. I ask, as always when I go out, for strawberry ice-cream. When it arrives I see it has been expressly, and suggestively, sculpted to resemble - well, there's a Russian cigarette set at an angle of about 60º between two pink globes. The waitress excuses herself: it's nothing to do with her, she says, she's a pure girl, unspoiled and untainted. So it's come like that from the kitchen. By what right...

...oh, never mind. We don't get to England very often. We should relish these authentic glimpses of the Old Country more.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Greenery-yallery gallery

Someone (was it SB?) observed over at the Davery that this year's autumn colours were the most spectacular since 2003.

Ours aren't bad, either.

There's some equally colourful stuff at the Miggery, too.

You wouldn't get this in Godthåb, now, would you?

Tuesday, 2 November 2010


A few days ago we were invited to a very unusual ceremony.

About 15 months ago K. died after an unavailing struggle against cancer. He was a remarkable man in many ways, a German of wide education who, having decided to settle in the Languedoc, set about the restoration of a remote hill village called Bardou. This village had been progressively abandoned as small-scale sheep-farming and chestnut cultivation ceased to provide a means of existence, and when K. arrived in the mid-70s most of the houses were ruined. He bought them up gradually and with his own hands began the process of restoration, always keeping within the local, traditional style. There's a photo of a corner of Bardou above, which I posted in another context months ago, inviting people to count the peacocks which K. had introduced.

Apart from building his own house, he turned Bardou into a rental village aimed at musicians, artists, theatre groups as well as individuals attracted by the solitude and quiet of this mountain fastness. Most of K.'s guests were German. Regular summer visitors included a 35-strong orchestra, the Sinfonietta, which would rehearse in a K.-built studio in the village and then perform in local churches. For a few years I played timpani with this orchestra and thoroughly enjoyed the experience

He had lengthy battles with local authorities, some won, some lost. After years of badgering, electricity was installed. The telephone followed. To this day water comes from the stream that flows through the village. The 4-kilometre road to Bardou, cliff on one side, precipice on the other, is the last in the locality to receive any attention.

The mountain country in which Bardou nestles. We live near the valley floor, just visible on the extreme right if you enlarge

J. and I used to go to Bardou fairly frequently, for concerts in the recital room K. had constructed, for art exhibitions, or to rehearse with his musicians. Sometimes we used to brave the potholes for something particularly associated with K., the reading of Shakespeare plays with friends round his dining table. K spoke excellent English.

It was thought fitting at his death that he should be laid in a private tomb overlooking his creation. At his funeral he was housed temporarily in somebody else's family tomb in a village down in the valley, with their permission. Meanwhile a mausoleum was constructed, a most beautiful little open-fronted chapel with a crypt beneath, built in the local style on a rocky promontory overlooking Bardou. The paperwork needed for the transfer from one burial place to another is unbelievably complex and lengthy, but at last it was complete, and the other day K. was transferred from his temporary to his permanent resting place. There was a short and simple ceremony, a few words from his family to the 30 or so invited guests, a moment or two of silence, and finally installation into his mausoleum. He had come home.

A nearby chapel, called St Martin du Froid, on which the design for the mausoleum was based

I wondered what the technical term was for placing a coffin into a mausoleum. I hoped I might find the correct term in Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One, knowing that I might easily be led astray because Waugh had written it as a satire on United States attitudes to mortality. I found 'inhumement', 'inurnment', 'immurement' and even 'insarcophagusment'. None of these seemed to fit the bill for K., so I'm afraid I've invented the title of this post.

We're going away for a few days. Back next week. Happy days.