Sunday, 7 August 2011

What's Your Problem? Lydian Airs' Useful Guide to Patron Saints

AGUE St Pernel and St Petronella cure

BAD DREAMS St Christopher protects from

BLEAR EYES St Ottilic and St Clare cure

CHASTITY St Susan protects

CHILDREN St Germayne. But unless the mothers bring a white loaf and a pot of good ale, Sir Thomas More says, 'he wyll not loke at 'em' (p.194)

CHOLERA Oola Beebee is invoked by the Hindoos for this malady

DANCING MANIA St Vitus cures

DEFILEMENT St Susan preserves from

DISCOVERY OF LOST GOODS St Ethelbert and St Elian

DOUBTS St Catherine resolves

GOUT St Wolfgang, they say, is of more service than Blair's pills

GRIPES St Erasmus cures

IDIOCY St Gildas is the guardian angel of idiots

INFAMY St Susan protects from

MADNESS St Dymphna and St Fillan cure

MICE St Gertrude and St Huldrick ward them off. When phosphor paste fails, St Gertrude might be tried, at any rate with less danger than arsenic

MUMBLING St Modget will hear

NIGHT ALARMS St Christopher protects from

PUMPKINS St Rusticus limits undesir'd growth

QUENCHING FIRE St Florian and St Christopher should not be forgotten by fire insurance companies

SCABS St Rooke cures

SORE THROATS St Blaise, who (when he was put to death) prayed if any person suffering from a sore throat invoked him, he might be God's instrument to effect a perfect cure

SUDDEN DEATH St Martin saves from

TEMPERANCE Father Matthew is called 'The Apostle of Temperance' (1790-1856)

TOOTH-ACHE St Appolonia, because before she was burnt alive all her teeth were pulled out


(From The Reader's Handbook, of Famous Names in Fiction, Allusions, References, Proverbs, Plots, Stories, and Poems. By the Rev. E. Cobham Brewer, LL.D. (1898)

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Brifknefs in the Lifts of Venus

I've been reading The Shocking History of Advertising!, by E. S. Turner, a versatile writer and journalist who penned his last full stop in 2006 at the age of 97.

He quotes from The Spectator of about 1740:

Famous Drops for Hypochondriac Melancholy: Which effectually cure on the Spot, by rectifying the Stomach and Blood, cleanfing them from all Impurities, and giving a new Turn to their Ferment, attenuating all vifcous and tenacious Humours (which make the Head Heavy, clog the Spirits, confufe the Mind, and caufe the deepeft Melancholly, with direful Views and black Reflections), comforting the Brain and Nerves, compofing the hurried Thoughts, and introducing bright lively Ideas and pleafant Brifknefs, inftead of difmal Apprehenfion and dark Incumbrance of the Soul, fetting the Intellectuals at Liberty to act with Courage, Serenity and fteady Cheerfulnefs, exciting Agonifts in the Lifts of Venus to great Deeds, and caufing a vifible, diffufive Joy to Reign in the Room of uneafy Doubts, Fear, &c., for which they may be truly efteem'd infallible. Price 3s 6d a Bottle, with Inftructions. Sold only at Mr Bell's, book-feller at the Crofs Keys and Bible in Cornhill, near the Royal Exchange.

Sounds exactly what's needed. I think I might order fome.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Through a local lens No. 9

Le Pont du Diable, the Devil's Bridge, Olargues

This bridge, according to a legend carefully fostered by the Office de Tourisme, took a very long time to finish because of an unusual phenomenon largely unknown to today's building trade.

As fast as the 12th century masons put this bridge up by day, the Devil came by night and threw the newly-laid masonry into the river below.

Tiring of constantly helping the builders to fish blocks of limestone out of the river, the villagers consulted the one amongst them who might have the readiest access to the Devil. So the village priest sought him out, and a pact was made whereby the Devil would allow completion of the bridge on condition that he could claim body and soul of the first living creature to cross the bridge when it was finished.

On the day the bridge was completed the villagers gathered at one end while the Devil, come to claim his due, stood at the other. The two parties advanced towards the middle, the Devil with arms outstretched to receive his sacrificial victim, while the villagers shuffled forward uneasily.

When they were but half-a-dozen ells apart, near enough for the villagers to be almost overcome by the stink of the antichristian mercaptan, the villagers' ranks suddenly opened, and a cat was hurled into the arms of the Devil.

The Devil, outwitted and snarling with disappointed rage, vanished in a miasma of putrid smoke. The bridge has been open to traffic ever since, but nowadays few feel the need carry a cat with them just in case. Given the number of strays about the village, you would have thought the Office de Tourisme could have hired them out to gullible or romantically minded tourists, or those in deep trouble, as laissez-pussers.

This photo, with the classic view of the village and the Devil's Bridge, was taken by my friend Jean-Claude Branville, a man of many talents and a distant cousin of St Theresa of Lisieux. The logo in the bottom right-hand corner is that of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, The Most Beautiful Villages of France, of which Olargues is one out of about 150, to some extent due to Jean-Claude's efforts.

This is the view of the bridge from the terrasse of one of our favourite restaurants, Fleurs d'Olargues. It's the Devil's own job to get comfortable in those chairs. Maybe....?

There's a line from one of Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales concealed in this post. If you spot it you're entitled to either a warm smile or a devilish grin. Please indicate your choice with your entry, as stocks are limited.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

A wry glance

This arrived a couple of weeks ago...

----- Original Message -----
From: D
To: C
Sent: Monday, June 27, 2011 5:14 PM
Subject: What is Scotsman's image of "comin' through the rye?"

Hi C,

How are you? We hope you are enjoying your summer so far. You will probably chuckle when you read what I am concerned about. I thought of you recently when G. read Salinger’s “Catcher in The Rye.” I have heard enough about the novel since it first came out that I feel like I read it, but I know I didn’t. While we talked about the novel and its title, I realized that I did not really know what Burns’s line means, “When a body meets a body comin’ through the rye.” Because I grew up in a part of the country where there are many descendants of Scottish immigrants from both Ulster and Scotland itself, I heard the song already as a little child. As a child I imagined the rye stalks being taller than people. I imagined that a person would wade through the rye not being able to see where he was going and occasionally run into another person who also happened to be wading through. I have never seen a rye field, but G. has seen them in Germany. She says the rye is typically about 25 or 30 inches tall or so. Any now my question. When a Scotsman in Scotland reads Burns’s line, what image does he have of people coming through the rye? It seems that if people simply walked across a rye field, the farmer would do something to stop them from damaging his crop. Or are there big rye areas with numerous rye fields separated by paths? Or did Burns mean something metaphorical or allegorical?

Cheers, D

I got round to replying this morning. It took me fully from 9.15 to 1pm to put this together...

Hello D,
Thank you so much for this, and sorry to have taken so long to reply. The question you pose is quite complicated and I can't do more than offer a few observations. In the early 1780s Robert Burns wrote his own version of a south of Scotland folksong, of which there existed many variants, which was so well-known at the time that eventually it became, duly bowdlerised, a children's song. The original, as published in The Merry Muses of Caledonia in 1800 (although in existence for many years before that), was downright bawdy. Burns may have had a hand in editing and even adding to it:

O gin a body meet a body
Comin thro the rye:
Gin a body f*ck a body,
Need a body cry.

Comin thro the rye, my jo,
An comin thro the rye;
She fand a staun o' staunin graith,
Comin thro the rye

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro the glen:
Gin a body f*ck a body
Need the warld ken.


And so on for another three uninspiring verses...

Pause for glossary: Gin (hard G, as in 'begin') = if, should: a body = someone: jo = darling, love: fand = found: staun = something upright: staunin [play on words] = standing/astonishing: graith = growth: warld = world, everyone: ken = know:

Burns used the above as the basis for a much more subtly suggestive poem of his own:

O, Jenny's a' weet, poor body,
Jenny's seldom dry:
She draigl't a' her petticoatie,
Comin thro' the rye!

Comin thro' the rye, poor body,
Comin thro' the rye,
She draigl't a' her petticoatie,
Comin thro' the rye!

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?


Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need the warld ken?


Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the grain;
Gin a body kiss a body,
The thing's a body's ain.


Ev'ry Lassie has her laddie,
Nane, they say, have I,
Yet all the lads they smile on me,
When comin' thro' the rye.

Glossary: a' = all: weet = wet: draigl't = (be)draggled: ain = own; [the line means 'it's no one else's business']: nane = none. Warld is pronounced in two syllables, 'wah' and 'rlld'.

So there's a strong sense of an earthy sexuality in both the original folksong and Burn's version of it. Jenny is the village tart, or at least generous with her favours. The tune to the original, incidentally, is pentatonic, suggesting great antiquity.

Both versions also evoke secrecy and concealment with 'rye' and 'glen', both enclosed places away from prying eyes. In Burns' time and for long after rye and other cereals ('rye' is clearly more convenient for rhyme than 'oats' or 'barley') were grown with stems 5' to 6' high. Moreover, the contemporary method of ploughing (called 'rig and furrow') left much wider passages between the stands of cereal, sown haphazard by broadcasting rather than in neat rows, as via a modern seed drill. A field of cereal was thus a good place to hide in, and the likelihood of trampling much less than we would expect nowadays. Your childhood imagination was, maybe unwittingly, 100% accurate. The stalks were chopped and used as winter animal feed. (Waterloo was fought in mid-June: Wellington's troops used the concealment offered by long-stemmed cereals, almost ready to harvest, to great effect.) 'Glen', also good for rhyme, means 'valley', usually a narrow one. 'Strath' would be used for a wide valley. Where there's a valley, there's water, and consequently trees and bushes offering concealment, in addition to the enclosing hill- or mountainsides. There may be further sexual overtones here.

I'm not certain that J. D. Salinger was aware of any of this in 'The Catcher in the Rye', although I think he probably guessed at the implications and overtones of the poem(s), even if Holden Caulfield 'misheard' it, and saw how applicable the image was to his novel.

I hope this helps.


Thank you for reading this far, if you have. Please don't feel the need to include the word 'draigl't' in any comments you might be kind enough to make.

Monday, 11 July 2011

End Of The World Found On Moon

So the News of the World is no more. I can't say I ever saw a copy of it, except maybe when I was about 14 and preoccupied with behind-the-bike-shed ethics and practices. Sleaze was more gentlemanly (and no doubt more ladylike) in those days: the NOTW's genteel in-house euphemism for sex was 'intimacy'.

E.g.: 'Witness Miss F. , a hotel employee, having knocked at the bedroom door while carrying the breakfast tray, understood the sounds from inside to be an invitation to enter. As she did so she observed intimacy was taking place.'

I regret more the passing of the Daily and Sunday Sport, not for the unending diet of sleaze but for the occasional inspired, indeed poetic, zaniness of its headlines.

E.g.: 'Statue Of Elvis Found On Mars'
'Bus Found Buried At South Pole'
'Rose West Ate My Guinea Pig'
'WW2 Bomber Found On Moon'
'Mum Gives Birth To 8lb Haddock'
'Man Fights Shark With Wife's False Teeth' .

I nearly bought a copy once, one afternoon when I was wandering rather disconsolately round Lee on the Solent with my daughter Patroclus, killing time before the night ferry from nearby Portsmouth to Le Havre. The Daily - or it might have been Sunday - Sport headline in a newsagent's window was 'Hide And Seek Champ Found Dead In Cupboard'.

Mightily intrigued by the implications of this, I was all for going in and buying a copy, but Patroclus restrained me most insistently, claiming that she would rather have her teeth pulled than be seen in close proximity to her father carrying a copy of the Sunday Sport. Or words to that effect. So I gave in.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Going, going, gong

During my very first teaching appointment, uncertificated in a prep school, in the days when a pint of bitter cost one and fourpence and a packet of Senior Service half-a-crown, a Mr James Blades came to the school to give a lecture about percussion instruments. He was a very likeable man, spirited and enthusiastic, with a wide range of instruments, among which he moved with absolute confidence and mastery. Xylophone, timpani, snare drum, tubular bells, gong, traps (i.e. drumkit), shakers, rattles, bells and whistles, the complete 'kitchen'. The most dramatic moment came when he demonstrated his gong, a heavy Chinese instrument measuring about 40cm across. He claimed its original purpose wasn't to summon diners to table or to provide an orchestral boom, but to torture captives: they were tied to a post, the gongman blocked his ears with wax and built up a gradual crescendo with his beaters until the torturee could bear it no longer and cracked, spilling the beans.

Or it might be used to execute criminals: when a certain volume and reverberation had been reached, the condemned's eardrums burst and his head exploded, spilling the brains. Or something like that. 8- and 9- year-old boys, basically ratbag monsters, lapped this news up and wrote home about it the following Sunday, no doubt saying that when they grew up they wanted to be percussionists and/or Chinese executioners.

Years later, all degreed and certificated up, when a pint of bitter cost £2.40 and I'd stopped smoking, I was attending a summer school in Cardiff when the same man turned up again, by now Professor of Percussion at the Royal Academy of Music in London and universally known as Jimmy. He gave exactly the same lecture as I remembered from 20 years before, but tuned up and filled out musically and, in deference to our adult sensibilities, with the Chinese torture bit left out.

Curiously, everyone must have heard Jimmy Blades playing at some time or other. In 1942 he recorded the Morse code V for Victory, dit-dit-dit-dah (the same rhythm as the opening of Beethoven's 5th) on a favourite African drum for the BBC to preface coded messages to the French resistance. It was heard again in the film The Longest Day. More familiarly perhaps, he was the striker of the mighty gong that introduced J. Arthur Rank films. Not the one you saw on screen: that gong was a fake, made of papier maché. Jimmy Blades stood at one side with his much smaller Chinese gong and beater when the title footage was filmed, while the bare-torsoed gongman mimed his strokes.

He died in 1999. In a roundabout way (I was never a direct student of his) he taught me a great deal about percussion.

(I'd like to continue this, but there's the gong calling me to supper.)

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Che hora c'è?

A short but entertaining post here about very old books sent me looking for mine, which I keep in a cardboard box in my study hoping that generous applications of Oblivion will somehow improve them. I'm really waiting for the day when, unprompted, some specialist bookbinder and gold tooler will restore them to their original pristine state when they came out in:

1735: Poems by Eminent Ladies, particularly, Mrs Leapor, Mrs Pilkington, Lady Winchelsea

We allow'd you Beauty, and we did fubmit
To all the Tyrannies of it.
Ah! Cruel Sex! will you depofe us too in Wit?
1759: Plutarch's Lives Vols. 2, 3, 4, 6

1763: The English Expositor, being, A Complete Dictionary

1774: Homeri Ilias Vols 1 and 2

1815: The Satires of Juvenal, translated by James Sinclair, Esq.

1816: Tales of my Landlord, collected and arranged by Jedediah Cleishbotham, Schoolmaster and Parish-Clerk of Gandercleugh [actually Sir Walter Scott]

1818: Carmina Q. Horatii Flacci

This last is the Odes of Horace. I did Books 1 and 2 of the Odes as a set book for A level Latin. I wish the examiners had chosen something else, because at 18 I really wasn't old enough to appreciate the mature wisdom, wit and quiet sophistication of these short poems.

Horace apparently was in the excellent habit of putting any writing away for seven years, probably in a cardboard box in his study. At the end of seven years he would retrieve it, and either destroy it, glad that he didn't have to suffer the shame of anyone else looking at it, or rework and polish it, by which time it might be of a standard for publication.

You may be interested to know that I wrote this post in June, 2004. I wouldn't expect any comments until 2018.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Top lines from Chaucer No. 103

Actually they're edited from The Washington Post's annual round-ups of topical neologisms. But Chaucer would have enjoyed them.

1. Coffee, n. The person upon whom one coughs.

2. Flabbergasted, adj. Appalled by discovering how much weight one has gained.

3. Abdicate, v. To give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.

4. Esplanade, v. To attempt an explanation while drunk.

5. Willy-nilly, adj. Impotent.

6. Negligent, adj. Absentmindedly answering the door when wearing only a nightgown.

7. Lymph, v.. To walk with a lisp.

8. Gargoyle, n. Olive-flavoured mouthwash.

9. Flatulence, n. Emergency vehicle that picks up someone who has been run over by a steamroller.

10. Balderdash, n. A rapidly receding hairline.

11. Testicle, n. A humorous question in an exam.

12. Oyster, n. A person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.

13. Frisbeetarianism, n. The belief that, after death, the soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.

14. Cashtration, n. The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.

15. Reintarnation, n. Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

16. Giraffiti, n. (Ital) Vandalism spray-painted very, very high

17. Sarchasm, n. The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn't get it.

18. Inoculatte, v. (Ital.) To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

19. Osteopornosis, n. A degenerate disease

20. Karmageddon, n. It's like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's like, a serious bummer.

21. Decafalon, n. The gruelling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

22. Glibido, n. All talk and no action.

23. Dopeler Effect, n. phrase The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

24. Beelzebug, n. Satan in the form of a mosquito which gets into your bedroom at 3am and which cannot be cast out.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Les Jeudistes Scottish Choir Tour No. 5 (final)

Desperate times

We spent the final night of the tour in the Holiday Inn, Ayr, a mile or two down the road from Prestwick Airport, a dismal place whose motto 'Pure dead brilliant' illustrates a characteristic Scottish thrift in its simultaneous combination of hyperbole and litotes.

The return flight, to Girona in northern Spain - the nearest airport to our base in France offering convenient flights to Scotland - meant checking in at 5.30am. We arranged to meet in the hotel foyer at 5.15, ready to embark in the minibus for the airport. The hotel reception staff said they didn't do wake-up calls, so we left it to the troops to manage their own mobile alarms. We suggested setting them for 4.30am.

Easier said than done. We should all have done it then and there, before saying goodnight, rather than leave it to each individual:

*Few if any had changed the time on their mobiles on arriving in Scotland some days earlier.

*Some were uncertain whether UK time was an hour ahead of, or behind, French time.

*And did the UK put clocks forward an hour at the end of March? Or did they put them back?

*Some had failed to advance their mobiles to take account of Continental summer-time.

*Did this mean that UK time was two hours ahead of, or behind, France?

*Some were uncertain if Spain and France had the same time.

The upshot was that alarms rang at 2.30, 3.30, 4.30, 5.30 and - the following morning, to M.'s annoyance, his mobile having been switched off for the flight - 6.30.

A further consequence was that M. and E., two of the lads, as they liked to call themselves having discovered that this is a popular term for 'man' in Scotland, had virtually to be dragged out of bed at 5.30 by one of the lassies, as they liked to call themselves having discovered that this is popular term for 'woman' in Scotland.

(Actually I should excuse E. from all this horological uncertainty. He leads a charmed life disdaining any kind of technology. He has no mobile, iPad, iPhone, anything like that at all. The most up-to-date artefacts he has about him are a comb and a two-coloured crayon. Sometimes I'm quite envious...)

But they all made it. Head lassie B. has put up a photo gallery of the whole trip here. Do have a look, tho' you would hardly gather from it that this was a Seriously Grand International Choir Outing and that we actually gave a few concerts here and there.

As for J. and me, we weren't flying back but returning a few days later by car. Of course I too in my imbecility miscalculated the alarm, which rang at 3.30. I wasn't too disgruntled. I went back to sleep for a bit. We both got up to drive the troops down to the airport, I went back to bed on return and got up for breakfast 3 hours later, by this time feeling really quite gruntled.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Les Jeudistes Scottish Choir Tour No. 4

I know I sometimes write the first thing that comes into my head, and anyone reading these effusions is clearly graced with the greatest forbearance (or has no idea how best to spend his/her time), but today's post is something special.

No, it's no illusion, no trick photography. It's the Sultan of Oman's Mounted Pipe Band. Look, you can quite clearly see the camels, with bagpipers mounted. How you do this I've no idea. And just think, the other day I could have found out, but the opportunity passed, and unless any of the myriad camel-mounted pipers that come here every day can enlighten me, it will have passed for ever.

We took Les Jeudistes to Cawdor Castle. It's the one in which Macbeth murdered King Duncan, according to Shakespeare. (In fact Macbeth, who reigned in Scotland - as it often does - at about the time of William the Conqueror wasn't a bad king at all. His queen was called Gruoch, or maybe she was merely clearing her throat when asked what her name was.) It's a fascinating place to visit, and I've known this castle for many years. I once borrowed - by permission of Earl Cawdor, a Campbell - the castle dinner gong for a performance in which I was playing percussion of Carmina Burana in nearby Inverness.

I arranged for a piper to meet Les Jeudistes, thinking we might as well go the whole hog. Mutedly resplendent in mainly blue tartan, he met us at the turnstile, led us in procession to a well-known march called The Old Rustic Bridge by the Mill to the castle drawbridge, where we were all photographed with him. When he stopped playing I asked him what his pipe-history was: usually pipers have served with some military unit or other. He wore a silver badge with a stag's head on it, the badge of Clan Mackenzie which eventually became, together with the motto 'Caberfeidh', the emblem of the Seaforth Highlanders, now merged into The Highlanders.

Yes, he'd served with the Seaforths, he said, but after leaving and before taking full retirement he'd been appointed piping instructor to the Sultan of Oman. Here he had to learn not only to ride camels but to play the pipes while riding. I was tempted to think he was pulling my leg, but he was a very serious-minded gentleman, not at all like his interlocutor, so I imagine it must be true.

Les Jeudistes thanked him and moved into the inner bailey, just beyond the drawbridge. Although open to the skies, the acoustic was excellent. Despite our rule never to sing out of doors, we thought we might have a go just this once. We formed up and sang a couple of our Occitan folksongs. Heads appeared at doors and windows, mulberry-uniformed staff forsook the cafeteria to listen. Enthusiastic applause. Not having perfect pitch, I borrowed J.'s tuning fork to find the right pitch. I suppose I could have borrowed the gong again if I'd thought of it.

There's another stag's head on the heraldic shield above the gate. This time the motto is that of the Campbells of Cawdor: Be Mindful.

I don't think we'll forget.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Les Jeudistes Scottish Choir Tour No. 3

Tir nan Og

Ullapool, far away on Scotland's remote north west coast, has a dreamy, Local Hero quality to it, a siren-song that calls you to ditch everything and just lap yourself in the still waters of Loch Broom, cradle yourself in the mountains of Wester Ross and stay there forever. There's a Gaelic expression for it: Tir nan Og, which means something like the 'country of the ever-young'. Or fairyland.

It's not like that at all, of course. Things are seldom what they seem. Les Jeudistes enjoyed the 50-mile drive there, oohing and aahing at the North Highland scenery, especially when after miles of bleak moorland you suddenly begin to descend towards the Atlantic coast with its temperate climate (thank you, Gulf Stream), lush vegetation and seductive views of the little town and port of Ullapool. And maybe in keeping with the unreality of all this there's nowhere to pull in and take photos. Except maybe of the road sign that says 'A835 Stornaway/Steòrnabhagh', which is about 50 miles away by sea across the Minch. To be fair, the road sign shows an image of a car ferry. Place names are given in English and Gaelic in this part of the world.

We're due to share the concert programme with a New Age folk-band calling themselves Pineapple Tuxedo, and it would need someone like Geoff with his encyclopedic knowledge of such things to explain why. And a Gaelic choir, calling itself Coisir ghaidlig an iar tuath. (I'll spare Geoff that one.)

Ullapool High School

We rehearse in the almost brand-new theatre attached to Ullapool High School. Hardly anyone has a local accent, virtually everyone we meet speaks the speech of southern England. Have they all been seduced by Tir nan Og? We meet members of the Gaelic choir. They're all super people, we get on very well. There's an American among them, and I think instantly of Local Hero. Few, if any, speak a word of Gaelic. The songs they sing they've learnt by rote. They have the gist of what they're singing about, but not much more. They rely entirely on their elegant and very musical conductor, Lisa Macdonald, who is a native speaker.

Between rehearsal and concert we stroll down to the water's edge. It's still, sunny and so warm. We sit on the sea-wall, drinking in the view up Loch Broom, lifting up our eyes to the hills. The pull of Tir nan Og is very strong. We could sit here, a happy little band of musicians enjoying each others' company, for ever. It's hard to pull ourselves away, return to the theatre, put on uniform and take the stage. Pineapple Tuxedo (P Tux for short) kicks off, bass guitar, electric guitar, accordion and bagpipes played without the drones. We follow with all my Shakespeare songs, and I'm conscious how curiously incongruous they are in this never-never land.

At the interval there's a big surprise. The pipes and drums of Ullapool High School, girls and boys, are drawn up for us in horse-shoe formation on the front concourse, 17 pipers and a dozen drummers including a small lad with a bass drum so large that he probably sleeps in it and rolls to band practice like a hamster in a wheel. They play several military marches, some in the wild harmony that the limited bagpipe scale allows, and far from being dressed in kilt, tunic and plaid like soldiers they're all in ordinary clothes, jeans, trainers, football strip tops and so on. At the end they form up in ranks and march off into the distance, maybe into the very heart of Tir nan Og. But more likely to home, chicken nuggets, Coca-Cola and the X Factor, or whatever.

In the second half the Gaelic choir sings, maybe a bit diffidently, finishing with a phuirt-a-beul, very rhythmical singing that does duty for dance music when no instruments are available. Les Jeudistes are fascinated. They've never heard anything like this before, a rapid, urgent, toe-tapping succession of sometimes nonsense syllables. Could we do that? they ask, and I skirt round the enormous effort needed to learn this hyper-exotic music at such a far-distant remove from my beloved Brahms or Schubert by saying maybe they could persuade the lovely Lisa Macdonald to come and teach us.

We follow with our Occitan songs. We're on level ground with the Gaelic choir here. None of us is a native Occitan speaker. It's all an elegant pretence, one I sometimes feel quite uneasy about, especially when it comes to bilingual road-signs. All the same at the end of the concert I put a few words of Gaelic together, almost my entire vocabulary: Gaidhlteachd gu brath! Tapadh leat, agus oidhche mhath. ('Gaeldom for ever! Thank you, and good night.' Sorry, my spelling might be a bit wonky). I might as well have spoken to my knees for all anyone in the audience could make head or tail of this. The one person who might have understood, Lisa Macdonald, had to go home early to relieve her babysitter.

That's Tir nan Og for you. You have to face up to reality some time.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Les Jeudistes Scottish Choir Tour No. 2

At the door of Whinnieknowe, the retirement home where my mother is a few months into her second century, Eloi the basso profundo, perplexed by all the un-French Ws and Hs and Ks, asks me how you pronounce it. He might well be extra aware of the pitfalls of pronunciation: only that morning at breakfast Paul, our B & B proprietor, addressed him as 'Elloy' instead of 'Elwah'. General laughter. I pronounce it for him, telling him it means a small hill (knowe) covered with whins (gorse or broom).

We install ourselves in the south drawing room. We're all in uniform, red tops, black bottoms. Christine the accompanist settles herself at the Clavinova. She doesn't like electronic pianos. There's no control. This one is particularly brassy, even honky-tonkish in the higher registers. Christine does her best to draw a flowing cantabile out of it. It needs all her very considerable skill.

We've come to sing to the residents, who have been placed round the outside of the room. They're all more or less sane. My mother isn't among them. Maybe she's chosen not to come. She can be quite capricious. She's also almost totally deaf, so there isn't much point in her coming anyway.

We set off into Le Cantique de Jean Racine, a serenely beautiful sacred motet by Gabriel Fauré. We sing it in French, but the theology is so abstruse that no one would be much the wiser whatever language we sang it in. About three quarters of the way through the doors open and a flurry of attendants eases my mother's wheelchair through. She makes nods and becks and wreathèd smiles to all the company, who respond appropriately. Through the music, now coming to a close, I hear someone asking 'Fa's thon wifie?' This is local dialect for 'Who's that lady?' (My mother stays in her room most of the time.) Le Cantique comes to an end. They've sung it beautifully, despite this interruption. Polite applause.

Taking into account that my mother's entry has spoilt the other residents' enjoyment of this piece, and that my mother herself hasn't had a chance to hear it, and that maybe a particularly persuasive carer has got her to put her hearing aid in for once, I say to the company 'Would you like to hear it again?'

'No,' someone says from the other side of the room.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Les Jeudistes Scottish Choir Tour No. 1

Best joke of the tour :

J-C, when offered a slice of pressed tongue:

No, thanks. I don't much care for tongue. Somehow I don't relish the thought of eating something that's come out of some creature's mouth.

I'll have an egg instead.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Spring Greens

Is your name Green?

by 'Nomenclator'

1. 10 years ago one Sally Barnes, who worked for a Yorkshire branch of Tesco's, spent £2000 on cosmetic surgery to make her look less like Su Pollard, an actress who enjoyed her hour or two of fame in a TV sitcom called Hi-de-Hi. This Su Pollard once entered a talent contest and came second to a performing dog. The contest, an early edition of Opportunity Knocks, was hosted by a certain Hughie GREEN.

2. Stanley GREEN, however, who died in 1994, was a London sandwich-board man, whose message, sometimes in pamphlet form, was that carnal lust is brought on by eating beans, meat, cheeseburgers and particularly by sitting down. This was the message he brought daily to the Oxford Street crowds and cinema queues, some members of which occasionally attacked him. He cycled daily from Northolt to his work, standing in the saddle.

3. Mary GREEN, maybe a 17th Century ancestress of the above GREENS, claimed to have a licence from the Archbishop of Canterbury allowing her to practise alternative medicine. She had cures for:

a) Windy Vapours
b) Glimmering of the Gizzard
c) Falling of the Fundament
d) The Scotch Disease
e) The Wombling Trot.

Mrs GREEN also produced publicity flyers in rhyme, one of which from 1685 read:

The Cramp, the Stitch,
The Squirt, the Itch,
The Gout, the Stone, the Pox,
The Mulligrubs,
The Bonny Scrubs,
And all Pandora's Box.


Please underline as appropriate:

I feel this is an honourable surname and I am privileged to be called GREEN

I am going to change my name by deed poll to GREEN

My name is/is not GREEN and I do/do not wish to be associated with this twaddle and refuse to read any of it.

Good morning.


Next week: 'Nomenclator' asks: Is your name Welshcreep?

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Elephant's nest in a rhubarb tree

I don't know what might have triggered it, but during a wakeful moment in the night I found myself thinking about childish ripostes that passed for wit when I was a 9-year-old:

Q: 'What are you doing?'
A: 'MYOB' (Mind your own business)
A: 'Ask no questions, hear no lies.'

Q: 'What are you looking at?'
A: 'Elephant's nest in a rhubarb tree'

Q: 'What's for dinner?'
A: 'YMCA' (Yesterday's Muck Cooked Again)
A: 'Yum yum, pig's bum.'

Q: 'What's the time?'
A: [Whatever the time happened to be] 'Half past nine, hang your knickers on the line. When the policeman comes along, take them down and put them on.'

[The implications here are deep. Is the assumption that you only have one pair of knickers? Why the policeman? Questions of scansion aside, why couldn't it be the greengrocer, muffin-man, hall porter, lance-corporal, etc.? Why should the policeman cause this reaction, maybe before the garment has dried? Does the policeman's advent somehow speed the drying process? Or are there considerations of public decency to be taken into account?]

Then there was the immortal

Q: 'Wotcher, cock.' (Still current occasionally)
A: 'Wotcher.'
Q: 'How's your mother off for dripping?'

There was something obscenely suggestive about this, something I could never quite pin down. I went back to sleep before arriving at any conclusion.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Berkeley Square, all change

Awaking from a drowsy numbness the other night at about two o'clock, I was so struck by the fluting cascades of bird-song through the open window that I got up and went downstairs, opened the front door and stood for several minutes listening on the flagstones outside, still warm from the previous day's sun.

The nightingales are back. Hearing them for the first time in spring is something like hearing the first cuckoo in other climates. Mid-April is about right, though. Whatever it is that guides these little birds, slightly bigger than robins, on their migratory course from southern Africa back to Europe hasn't failed them. I don't think I've ever read anything about the effects of climate change on migration habits, but I don't expect I've looked in the right places.

A full moon silvered everything as I stood outside in bare feet with little else*. It was exceptionally still, with no sound apart from the ever-present distant murmur of the river. And, of course, the song of the nightingale. Nor was there only one: I could detect four or five, maybe more, each fainter as the distance between their territories swallowed them.

Experts say that it's only the males that sing. Opinion is divided as to whether they sing to mark their territory or to attract females. Maybe it's both. At any rate they sing until the summer heat closes in, but this coincides with birth and feeding of the nightingale chicks, so all the pairings-off must have been made some weeks before. And they sing during the day. There's one singing outside my window as I type this at 10 o'clock in the morning.

My small choir is preparing for a mini-tour of Northern Scotland in less than three weeks' time. They'll defend their corner, certainly, but how many will attract mates with their singing remains to be seen. If we make it, that is, because there's a question-mark over one of our songsters: he fell out of a tree the other day and injured himself. I haven't yet asked him if he was singing at the time. Fingers crossed for him, tho' I think he'll be all right.

*Yes, I KNOW

Monday, 21 March 2011

Mwah mwah, Muammar

On the principle of trying to find something good to say about people, however desperate their villainy, I want to extend a big thank-you to Col. Ghaddafi.

And, to be fair, to King Idris, Mussolini, Giolitti, the Karamanlis dynasty, Haroun el Rashid, Unkh-el Tomh Qhob'leh and everyone else who at some stage or other has ruled Libya, for their very great personal kindness. In their time they must have given me several tons of the sacred soil of Libya, and their generosity knows no end.

Delivery arrangements are haphazard but effective. It works like this. Vast dust storms blow up in the Fezzan. Zillions of minute particles are swept up into the atmosphere, borne wherever the wind blows them. Mostly humid incoming weather systems coming in from the Atlantic gather some of them up, swirl them about and deposit them in raindrops.

Local winds have all got names, Mistral, Tramontane, Autan, Grec, Albigeois. And the Marin. The Marin, warm and wet, starts in North Africa and blows northwards off the Mediterranean, laden with ochre-coloured particles that J. and I call Sahara Dust. It unloads its rain on the first land obstacles it comes to, especially the hills where we live. Sahara dust gets everywhere, into the minutest cracks and crevices, discolouring everything it lands on.

Almost all of it lands on the ground, as it has been doing for millions of years. The ground round here is very stony, shards and lumps of slates, schists and marble, tortured and twisted from the original limestone by immense geological pressures. All these bits are bound together in a sort of natural concrete by a very fine-grained ochre-coloured clay, the result of aeons'-worth of Marin winds bearing their tribute of Libyan dust. It sets pick-axe hard when dry, has no other virtue and only the coarsest weeds will grow in it.

Drystone wall-building occupies a lot of my time at the moment. Drystone ramparts might be a better description. Just now I'm trying to catch up on the lower rampart with the steps in the photo below, which has advanced quite a lot since the photo was taken. I pride myself on jig-sawing the stones together and never using cement. I don't need to: the invisible bits of stones are all set in solid Sahara dust clay. It's not cheating, is it?

So I'm obliged to you, Col. Ghaddafi. Thanks to you my walls are a lot less tottery than your régime appears to be.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Get me to the font on time

Rustle, rustle, whisper, whisper, tee-hee, giggle, giggle. Note-passing in the back row? A silent but deadly? Risqué mobile phone photos?

It couldn't have been this, of course, because this happened in the mid-90s. It wasn't in school, either, but during a rehearsal of the 50-strong French choir I used to conduct.

One of the sopranos asked if we would sing at her daughter's wedding. While - like most choirs - we had a wide funeral repertoire, there wasn't much pacy, festive stuff suitable for a wedding. There was general agreement about taking part. Monique, the choir president, suggested a gospel song, O Happy Day.

The title seemed tailor-made for a wedding. Not being all that strong on gospel songs, I didn't realise until we'd started to learn O Happy Day that it's a happy-clappy adult baptismal hymn. No matter. A few of the choir had just enough English to understand the title, but the rest of the words were far, far beyond them, explain them though I might.

To avoid any copyright issues I re-arranged the music, writing the words in English, syllable by syllable, underneath the music in the usual way. They couldn't have had more expert advice on how to pronounce it.

But they hated singing in English, almost as much as singing in German. We can't do other languages, they said, it's not in our blood. (Very occasionally you would overhear them speaking Occitan, sister language to Provençal, and sometimes they'd surprise you with their fluency in Spanish. But English, no.)

Rehearsals went badly, mostly because they found the words so difficult, but suddenly, inexplicably, it all came right. This was during the rehearsal in which there was all that paper-rustling and passing of notes, or whatever it was. Back row complicity. And not just the back row. The whole lot seemed to have some smug secret. When we came to run through O Happy Day, the words were strongly accented, but otherwise seemed reasonably convincing. Did it matter, anyway? Who listens to the music at weddings? All the same, I was relieved.

Monique, a neat and collected lady, wasn't president for nothing. She turned out to be the culprit. No, not for juvenile misbehaviour. She had typed out, to the best of her understanding, a phonetic version of the words for the ease and convenience of the troops. She'd distributed it surreptitiously while they were singing other things. I came across it in a forgotten folder the other day. There it is, up there.

Despite a problem distinguishing between 'watch' and 'wash', Monique clearly deserves a prize for the most outrageously nonsensical representation of an English text ever. The actual words are:

O happy day, when Jesus washed,
O when he washed,
When Jesus washed, he washed my sins away,
O happy day!

He taught me how
To watch, fight and pray,
And live rejoicing every day,
Every day.
O happy day!

Friday, 18 February 2011

Lean and slippered pantaloon

Today is my birthday. This clearly entitles me to be extra sentimentally sententious.

My favourite present is having nearest and dearest, kith and kin, who are good to me and grandchildren who although as yet tiny seem to have been launched pretty well.

Now I'm going to have to choose which cake I prefer. (Vicus, dear friend: I'm told both jumpettes are vegan.) Would you help me to choose? Naturally, there's a piece for everyone.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

An elderly seafaring man

Sometimes during our occasional forays into Essex we go for lunch to a little quayside place, a café-cum-restaurant with an art gallery and gift shop next door. If the weather allows we sit outside, overlooking endless salt flats, low-tide mudbanks and skeletons of derelict boats. We go there chiefly because they do an excellent dressed crab.

On a recent occasion a small, squat, elderly man with cropped hair, nothing like the drawing above, came and sat alone at the table next to us. When a waitress passed, he asked her to bring his coffee. So she did a minute or two later.

I'd seen him there before, but had never spoken to him. Did he recognise me? I don't know, but catching my eye he cocked his head and said 'All right, mate?' I told him I was fine, and so began an extraordinary conversation. I don't know why people open up to me uninvited. Maybe I look gullible.

Far - for the moment - from being an elderly seafaring man, he told me he had been in the RAF. He was now 86, so that was all a long way behind him. He'd been in Bomber Command in the war. In fact he'd flown with 617 Squadron, the famous Dambusters.

'Ah,' I said. 'Guy Gibson, VC.'

'I knew him well. Very well. Actually I was his navigator.'

This was astounding. I had an idea that Gibson's navigator on the famous Dambusters raid was someone called Terry Taerum. An unusual name, which is perhaps why it stuck with me for so many years after reading Enemy Coast Ahead, Gibson's own account of the raid on the Ruhr dams, when I was 12 or so. Was this really Terry Taerum?

'So your name's Terry?' I asked. I'd never met a war hero before. A dwindling breed, as the years pass. I shook his hand, with some pride.

'The name's Reg,' he said, looking away. 'I'm not long back.'

'Where from?' I asked.

'Belgium. I go there most weekends. I got a 42' yacht. Sail it out of Ramsgate. Put in at Ostend. Load up with stuff. Smokes for the lads. A few crates of beer. Have a mosey round. Put the car on the back, go for spin. Look up old pals. Got a girl there too.'

'You put a car on the back of your yacht?'

'Sure,' he said. 'A little Citroën.'

I supposed it might be possible. There might be other possibilities too. Fancy took over: some lines of W.S.Gilbert, the words half of Gilbert and Sullivan, swam into my head:

O, I am a cook and a Captain bold
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And the bosun tight, and the midshipmite,
And the crew of the Captain's gig.

- and this person, the elderly seafaring man in Gilbert's drawing above, claimed to be all these personages because once, having been shipwrecked in the Indian ocean, he'd survived in an I'm an elderly seafaring celebrity: get me out of here sort of way by eating them all. Had Reg's Lancaster bomber once ditched in the North Sea? Had he been obliged to eat his fellow crew members to stay alive? Was this why he was so cagey about the whole business?

In due course Reg got up and left, apparently without paying. We shook hands again. He'd parked his car, a blue Fiesta, at the foot of the sea wall.

When we went in to pay our bill I asked the woman at the cash desk about Reg.

'Oh, don't pay any attention to him,' she said. 'He's harmless. He'll tell you anything. He used to be a hospital boilerman. He comes in every day. No, of course he doesn't have a yacht. We give him his coffee. He's all right, is Reg. Only he does imagine things.'

'So he's not a cannibal, either?'

'He told you that? That's a new one. Here, Linda, you know what Reg has been telling this gentleman...?'

I shouldn't have let him start, really.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

I'll be gone by Christmas

Being at a loose end last night I spent a happy half-hour glancing through the 1899 edition of The Times Atlas of the World. It's a big book, not something you can conveniently curl up in an armchair with, and whatever dilapidated state it may once have been in, it has now been handsomely restored by a friend with a great gift for bookbinding. It's a privilege to have it on our bookshelves.

I arrived at the Western Mediterranean page. I have a deep Platonic love for Mediterranean islands, Platonic in the sense that apart from Sicily I've never got inside any of them, so to speak, except in my mind or through the pages of others, which is sometimes the best form of travel, especially when curled up in an armchair beside the fire on a winter's night. All the same there are several I would dearly love to visit in the flesh, Crete, Lampedusa, the Aegadian Islands, Stromboli, several in the Aegean and finally, at the end my travellings, like Odysseus, Ithaca.

There's one Mediterranean island I shall never get to, though. I was very surprised to discover on page 44 of this 112-year-old atlas, lying conveniently between south-western Sicily and Tunisia, an island called Ferdinandea. Beside it was marked 'July-December 1831'. I'd never heard of it. What was this?

As so often Uncle Wiki came to the rescue. In 1831 the inhabitants of a Sicilian coastal town called Sciacca (where J. and I once stayed in a hotel full of very fat Germans taking the cure; our comparative leanness seemed out-of-place and ill-mannered, as though we'd gone there deliberately to taunt) assumed the smoke on the horizon was a burning ship. Vessels were sent to investigate. They discovered lava from an undersea volcano breaking the surface, spreading and solidifying into quite a reasonable little twin-peaked island.

It didn't take long for the Royal Navy to appear on the scene and for a party of bluejackets to plant the Union Flag in the volcanic detritus, claiming the island for Great Britain in the name of William IV (who 'appeared' here the other day). They called it Graham Island, after Sir James Graham, First Lord of the Admiralty. The then Italian kingdom of The Two Sicilies also claimed it, calling it Ferdinandea after the Neapolitan King Ferdinand II. So did the French, who called it Julia. Spain also cast envious eyes on it. Diplomatic wrangling over ownership went on for some months. Ownership was settled when Ferdinandea/Graham/Julia cocked a snook - to use a Thackerayesque expression of the times - at the whole lot of them by completely disappearing beneath the waves five months later, at about Christmas time.

Apparently it's still there, a few metres below the surface. It last made the headlines in the 1980s, when USAAF bombers attacked Libya in a stand-off with Col. Ghaddafi. Assuming the radar-defined shape just below the surface to be a Libyan submarine, depth charges were dropped on the sunken Ferdinandea. We're not told what damage was done, but as King Ferdinand had through his fondness for punitive explosives earned himself the nickname 'Bomba' no doubt he would have been hugely gratified.

Friday, 11 February 2011

No relation of Dave's

Auntie Jessie, a regular worshipper at her Yorkshire chapel, died and was buried.

In due course the question of a headstone arose. The family asked the monumental mason to engrave her name, date of birth, date of death, etcetera. The monumental mason asked them if they would like a text as well. They thought for a while, and then said 'SHE WAS THINE, LORD' would be a suitable epitaph in every way.

Some days later the monumental mason rang to say the headstone was finished, and would the family like to check it before installation? The family were surprised to discover that the inscription read 'SHE WAS THIN, LORD'.

'Happen you've missed out the E,' they said.

The monumental mason apologized, said he would put it right forthwith, and would proceed to set the headstone up. The family agreed.

When a little later the family went to pay their respects at the grave, they found the inscription now read : 'EE, SHE WAS THIN, LORD'.

(Sorry if you've heard it before. Sometimes these gems take the slow boat across the Channel.)

Friday, 21 January 2011

Lydian Airs Travel Notes No. 26

Breakfast in the Shangri-La: A Useful Guide to calling Room Service

Room service (RS): Morny. Ruin sore bees.
Guest (G): Oh, I'm sorry, I thought I dialled Room Service.

RS: Rye...Ruin sore bees, morny! Jewish to odor sun teen?
G: Uh...yes, please: I'd like some bacon and eggs.

RS: Ow July den?
G: What?

RS: Ow July den? Pry, boy, pooch?
G: Oh, the eggs! How do I like them? Sorry. Scrambled, please.

RS: Ow July dee bay come? Crease?
G: Crisp will be fine.

RS: Hokay. An San Toes?
G: What?

RS: San Toes. July San Toes?
G: I don't think so.

RS: No? Judo one Toes?
G: I feel really bad about this, but I don't know what 'Judo one Toes' means.

RS: Toes! Toes! Why Jew Don Juan Toes? Ow bow tinglish mopping we bother?
G: 'English muffin'! I've got it! You were saying 'toast'! Fine. Yes, an English muffin will be fine.

RS: We bother?
G: No - just put the bother on the side.

RS: Wad?
G: I mean butter - just put it on the side.

RS: Copy?
G: Sorry?

RS: Copy? Tea? Mill?
G: Yes, coffee, please, and that's all.

RS: Wan Minnie. Ass ruin torino fee, strangle ache, crease bay come, toesan inglish mopping we bother honey sigh and copy? Rye?
G: Whatever you say.

RS: Tendjewberrymud.
G: You're welcome.

(I believe this or something very like it appeared in the Far East Economic Review several years ago. My son Nibus sent it to me in 1999. It resurfaced while going through some old papers. WARNING: There may be more.)

But what's 'torino fee'?

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Conjecture in black and woite (3)

Margaret of Anjou, hot-blooded, proud and wilful, went on to become a major figure in the Wars of the Roses, taking a leading role from her unwarlike and unstable Lancastrian husband, King Henry VI. She became a target for the opposing Yorkist forces, who slung every dollop of mud that came to hand. One of the slanders concerned the night before her wedding, spent in St Margaret's, the house I was privileged to live in for a few years when I was quite small. She was not alone, apparently. Fingers were pointed at William de la Pole, later Duke of Suffolk, an influential figure who had arranged Henry's marriage with Margaret, had stood in for Henry at the betrothal ceremony in France which preceded the actual marriage in Titchfield in 1445. It was he who had escorted Margaret from France to Titchfield. The most you can say about such allegations is 'well, they would say that, wouldn't they?'

5 years later, as the full fury of the Wars of the Roses was about to burst, William de la Pole was captured by Yorkists at sea, off Ipswich. His possibly headless body was left on the beach at Dover, where Queen Margaret had it recovered and taken care of. He had long been her favourite. She gave him a decent burial at Wingfield, in Suffolk.

What stands out for me in this account is the association of St Margaret's with a passionate young girl of noble family, on the edge of adulthood, being forced into an arranged marriage. I'm not quite certain what 'passionate' means in this context: a hapless martyr to her emotions, maybe.


Almost a century later Henry VIII broke with Rome, not so much over matters of doctrine as of authority, principally the authority to enable his divorce from Anne Boleyn. Short of money, it was also an expedient time for him to close down, annex or sell off the great religious houses, a 1536-9 movement known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, an astute courtier and able servant of both Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, a Londoner called Thomas Wriothesley (pronounced 'Risley') bought out the Abbot of Titchfield before his Abbey and its estates could be suppressed.

In due course, for services to Henry VIII, Thomas Wriothesley was created Earl of Southampton. He transformed Titchfield Abbey into a palace, which he called Place House, I don't know why. It's a ruin now, pictured above. Other estate houses were upgraded and enlarged. Maybe St Margaret's was among them. Thomas Wriothesley's grandson Henry, 3rd Earl of Southampton, was a favourite at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. In the early 1590s, in the course of court activities he met an up-and-coming poet and playwright, rising 30, attractive and intelligent, witty, educated and companionable, drawn to London from his native Warwickshire. His name was William Shakespeare.

Southampton and Shakespeare got on very well. In 1593 Shakespeare dedicated his long and sexually palpitating poem Venus and Adonis to Southampton, which maybe says more about the dedicatee than the poet. In the summer of that year the London theatres were closed because of the plague. It's a possibility that Shakespeare first came to Titchfield then, partly to escape the plague and partly to pursue his friendship with Henry Southampton.

I suppose it's also a possibility that, in riding together about Place House, Shakespeare asked his host - by now his patron - how Anjou Bridge, a bridge over the Meon close by the former Titchfield Abbey, had got the name it still has today. If he knew the story, Southampton would have been in a position to tell him about the passionate 15-year-old French princess, her overnight stay at St Margaret's and the marriage that had been arranged for her. Maybe those House Detectives, exploring the connection between St Margaret's and Romeo and Juliet in that BBC TV programme didn't look quite far enough outside the frame.

And for the multitude of serious historians whom come here, I did entitle this mini-series 'Conjecture....'

(to be continued or even concluded, who knows?)

Monday, 10 January 2011

Conjecture in black and woite (2)

When my mother bought St Margaret's, a great house on the edge of the Hampshire village of Titchfield, one of the first things she did was commission a stained glass window by an artist called Donald Brookes. The window, installed in the porch beneath the tower, showed St Margaret surrounded by flames. There are several St Margarets in the lists of saints, so which St Margaret my mother or Donald Brookes had in mind is a guess.

My money goes on the earliest, St Margaret of Antioch, who belongs in the same Apocryphal Saints Club as St George and St Nicholas and many others. She appears to be the same person as St Marina or St Pelagia. Maybe there's some kind of sea element here: the word 'Margaret' means pearl, 'Marina' speaks for itself and 'Pelagia' is a Greek word for marine. According to the legend the first St Margaret, a devoutly Christian shepherdess, received an offer of marriage from a Roman notable, on condition that she renounce her faith. She refused. She was tortured in an attempt to make her change her mind, and was eventually done to death, burnt, maybe. She worked various miracles involving dragons during her torture. Virgin and Martyr, she became the patron saint of childbirth and pregnant women, shepherdesses, those falsely accused, exiles and, curiously, those suffering with kidney problems. She became a Christian cult figure in England at the time of the crusades, roughly 1100-1250.) In essence she is a personification of courage, determination and faith.

Almost exactly 500 years before Donald Brookes' window was commissioned and installed, another Margaret, much less shadowy, comes into the picture. In the early 1440s King Henry VI, aesthete and slightly unbalanced son of the victor of Agincourt, was looking for a queen. The choice fell on Margaret of Anjou, a French princess with strong continental dynastic connections. Margaret was sent for from her home in Lorraine (she was born in Pont à Mousson, now an ironworks town known to every Frenchman because the name is cast on innumerable manhole covers), she sailed across the Channel and put in at Titchfield Haven, then a small port on Southampton Water. From Titchfield Haven she rode the four miles inland to Titchfield, where she was due to be married the next day, April 23rd 1445, to the 23-year-old Henry VI.

The wedding venue was the chapel of Titchfield Abbey, a Premonstratensian monastery by the banks of the river Meon. The Titchfield Abbey lands (I expect 'messuages' is the correct term) included a guest house or just possibly a small convent on the hill to the west of Titchfield village. Or maybe St Margaret's was just one of the eight manors with which Abbey was endowed. However it might have been, this was where Margaret of Anjou spent the night before her wedding. Maybe it was in her honour that the house (or its predecessor) that we lived in half a millenium later was called St Margaret's.

Margaret of Anjou was a month past her fifteenth birthday. The historian Paul Kendall describes her as 'already a woman: passionate and proud and strong-willed'.

(To be continued. Sorry, Vicus.)

Sunday, 2 January 2011

A to Zee

In the course of New Year greetings a long-silent American friend called Greg Abbott phoned. There was a long rambling conversation, of the type you have when you're catching up with friends you haven't spoken to for several years. You can maybe judge how rambling the conversation became: at one point he spoke about a schoolfriend called Zygslič. Their class was seated in rows, and where the kids sat was determined by the first letter of their surnames. Accordingly Abbott sat at the very front, while Zee for Zygslič was assigned an obscure desk at the end of the back row.

Now in his 80s, Greg wondered what effect this ordering had had on his subsequent development. Had the limelight of the front row caused him later to shun exposure? Had back-row obscurity turned Zygslič into a kind of lowly, furtive troglodyte (or poor worm of clay, as Dave might have it), desperate for attention? How would Greg have turned out if he'd been called Zygslič, and vice versa? There are no answers to questions like these, of course. Maybe with a phonetic name like Abbott you tend to have fewer problems with spelling than the eternal suspicion and self-distrust you possibly have about it if your name's Zygslič. (I'm very tired of typing this wretched name, so this is the last we'll hear of him.)

When I first went to do my stint at the chalk face in Scotland I had a mixed class of 10 and 11-year-olds, known in Scotland as Primary 7. There were about 40 of them, great kids. I was surprised to find that each one of them knew exactly where to sit, at which individual desk in which row.

I asked one to tell me how this was. The lad stood up, shoulders back, chest out, feet apart at an angle of 45º, thumbs pointing down the seams of his shorts, as though he was standing to attention in the Black Watch or the Gordon Highlanders. (It wasn't a military school in any sense. It was an ordinary primary school in a North-east fishing village. However, this lad belonged to the Boys' Brigade, I discovered later.) As Primary 6 they'd had end-of-year tests the previous June. If you failed the tests you stayed in Primary 6 and repeated the year. (Very few did.) In Primary 7 you sat according to the marks you got in your tests. The brightest kids sat at the front, the average in the middle, slowest at the back.

I thought this was an iniquitous system and, after a week or two in which I'd got to know the children, I changed it for something less pointedly segregational. Their Primary 6 teacher, a Mrs Crumbie, was furious and there was a big staff-room row. It was as though the purpose of Primary 6 tests, indeed of the whole Primary 6 syllabus, was to determine seating order for the next school year. I'd just arrived from teaching in England. Clearly I represented everything that undermined and devalued the order and discipline that made Scottish education famed throughout the world. I was a dangerous threat and ought to go back to England. This was a heavy charge, but I stood my ground. I expect I seemed very arrogant.

I didn't know Greg Abbott then. If I had maybe I would have used the A to Zee system.

This isn't Mrs Crumbie in the photo above. The kids I'm writing about wore uniform, and teachers were expected to wear academic gowns, called togas in Scotland. I suppose they protected clothes from chalk dust.