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, 25 February 2011

A foe to graphic art?

A few days ago we were in Scotland for a long weekend, principally to attend a family reunion and a belated celebration of my mother's 100th birthday, which heavy snow prevented most of the more widely scattered family members from attending in December.

Featuring in this view from our hotel room over the Moray Firth towards the Black Isle (not really an island) and the snow-covered hills of Easter Ross beyond are three Highland cattle. This has no connection whatever with anything that follows.

Our travels also took us to Ullapool, a lively community on the shores of Loch Broom on the remote north-west coast. We went there to prepare for a choir concert in May. In Ullapool - in fact all over the Highlands and Islands - all the signs are in English and Gaelic. We visited Ullapool High School, where every door has a sign in Gaelic. Ceann na h' sgoil (or something very like*), it said on the Head Teacher's door. Ceann I know means 'head'. It's pronounced something like 'kyen', with a very short 'y'.

'If I'm Ken,' said the Head Teacher (whose name is actually Pete), 'that makes my wife Barbie: better not tell her, she'll...'

But we never discovered what effect this might have.

Only one of the many people we spoke to in Ullapool had anything like a local accent. None of them spoke Gaelic. Although I have a great fondness for languages, I still wonder what purpose this bilingual signing serves.

Outstanding photographer at the reunion was The Blue Kitten, aged two and a half. The samples of her work below may give some flavour of the event as well as the colour of the carpet:

Maybe you can make out a shelf with cards on it in the Kitten's photo below? My mother invited us to look at them. On the extreme left is a red card, which some friends sent to her to congratulate her on reaching 100. It features an angel trumpeter, a detail from a painting from the Italian Renaissance. My mother is very deaf indeed and often things have to be written down for her. One of her retirement home staff, failing to make her hear, looked about for something to write on. Nearest to hand was this card.

In addition to a congratulatory message and her friends' signatures, we could also read 'Are you ready to go to the toilet?'

*If any of the myriad Scots Gaelic speakers who come here every day would like to correct this, please don't hesitate.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Through a local lens No. 7

Good pedigree, I suppose. In 1889 Gustav Eiffel, he of the Eiffel Tower, put his name - or that of his studio - to this railway bridge. Before they closed the railway some 25 years ago, this bridge carried it over the river Jaur. Devoid of its rails, it now forms one of the most spectacular parts of the 40-mile trail for cyclists, walkers or horse riders into which the old line has been converted. A mile or so further on it passes the foot of our garden.

If you don't have much of a head for heights you really have to steel yourself to walk across it. What horses feel about it I don't know, but I shouldn't care to be crossing it on a bucking and plunging horse suddenly seized with vertigo.

In its heyday this line carried the then famous Lamalou Express. This was a direct rail link between Paris and Lamalou les Bains, a thermal spa not very far from here. In Lamalou there are natural hot mud springs supposedly good for all sorts of ailments. Initially the springs were particularly recommended for venereal diseases. The artist Toulouse Lautrec, supposedly afflicted, bought a house nearby so that he could conveniently drop in as the need arose. History does not relate who, and in what circumstances, first found the mud to be beneficial. One can only wonder.

Lamalou prospered enormously, even to the extent of building a casino for the afflicted. It's still quite a prosperous little place, and the regional centre for physiotherapy has now grown up rounds the springs. For a long time it was rumoured that the Italian mafia sent its wounded there for rehabilitation. If you came across a swarthy man with his arm in a sling operating a casino fruit machine, you might legitimately wonder which was the one-arm bandit.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Nice one, Olive

Some weeks ago I was writing about our first-ever crop of olives from the young tree (below) which my choir gave J. and me three years ago.

We harvested the olives, a very small but highly flavoured variety called Cailletier, soaked them in frequent changes of cold water for several weeks, drained them, and then soaked them in brine for a day or two.

J. then bottled them in olive oil with some bay leaves, a sprig of thyme and one or two of the immature lemons that fell off the tree when it blew over in a sudden gale some days ago.

They're the tiny olives round the edge of the salade niçoise pictured above. They're delicious. Somehow I don't think they're going to last very long. I wish you could be here to try them before they disappear.

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.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Not much hair today, gone tomorrow

I wouldn't like you to think that you weren't kept up to date with Lydian Airs day-to-day trivia, and it's in this spirit of candid openness that I record that last week I had my hair cut.

I go down to the village to Sophie. I used to go to the men-only barber, but he doesn't open very often. Before that we had an itinerant hairdresser who came to the house, but this person's tongue was so loose about the not always very glorious doings of other clients that we preferred not to imagine what might be related about us, so we moved on.

Sophie, as lively a conversationalist as she is good as a hairdresser, acknowledges that business is always a bit flat during the waxing moon. Past full moon, as it will be very soon, business picks up. Local wisdom has it that growth follows the phases of the moon. Hence it is more economical, particularly for her lady customers, to patronise her under a waning moon.

It doesn't matter much to me. There's so little hair left that I'm grateful for any growth, whether the moon be waxing, waning, new or blue.

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.)

Monday, 7 February 2011

Canteen fever

The other day Dave kindly offered to take any photos I might need to be taken. Alas, this was after my feeble unfocussed effort of several weeks before, shown above, to capture a package of 'Aunty's' Spotted Dick. I chose a red table napkin as a background, because I wished to emphasize the burning, blood-red, vital qualities of this splendid dessert. But there's never a Dave about when you want one, so I can only apologize for the quality and hope you understand the sincerity and conviction that went into the taking of it. At least the date's in focus.

'Aunty', whoever she is, makes individual portions. Into the microwave an individual portion went, J. being no lover of canteen puddings. It didn't need much lubrication, just a dressing, a veil, of a kind of de-natured cream called Bridélice, a word which looks like a rather unpleasant matrimonial condition (although pronounced 'breed-day-lease'). In any case we've re-christened this cream Dulux.

It was excellent, a worthy sacrifice on the altar of noshtalgia, a longing for comfort food particularly associated with childhood, a sort of à la recherche du pudding perdu. I've only two complaints, viz.:

1. I remember Spotted Dick as a lumpish grey suety roly-poly pudding with currants or sultanas embedded. 'Aunty's' was more of a sultana sponge, and

2. We bought these puds in an Essex Tesco's while on a UK visit. They're made in and imported from NEW ZEALAND. I'm sure my sense of eco-outrage should have totally eclipsed my pleasure in eating it. But I'm afraid it didn't. Clearly I am a weak vessel.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Ghoulies and ghaisties and things that go tra-la-la in the night

William IV (1830-1837)

My choir Les Jeudistes is going on tour in Scotland in May.

We met last night to discuss the programme. Not just what we're going to sing - that's long been settled - but where we're going to visit as well. French ideas - and they may not be limited to France - about Scotland are extremely stereotyped. I don't quite know what to do to meet their expectations.

They want to visit a castle. Luckily there's a very good one just in the locality where we'll be staying. This is Cawdor castle, home supposedly of Macbeth. No problem there. It's open to the public. Besides, I feel a certain affinity with this castle, having once borrowed the castle dinner gong for a performance of Carmina Burana I was playing in in nearby Inverness.

But the castle isn't enough. They want ghosts.

They also want to visit a distillery. Again, there's one on the doorstep, the Royal Brackla. It has the 'Royal' prefix because it once supplied whisky to William IV, uncle of Queen Victoria. The choir isn't necessarily expecting ghosts at Brackla, but if William IV would oblige our lady choir members would be most gratified.

Then they want whales, seals and dolphins.

And a piper.

And one wants to buy a kilt. Does it matter if you don't have a name associated with a particular tartan? she asked. No, we replied, in the absence of a MacDubois tartan you can wear whatever you fancy. With one or two exceptions all that tartan business is a complete fiction, popularised by Sir Walter Scott and William IV's older brother, George IV. There are hundreds of tartans now, many never seen in Scotland.

We got the clan tartans book out. She rather liked McLeod of Raasay, a mostly yellow confection with black and red stripes. If she wore it, she asked, would a real McLeod of Raasay take exception? Might she be made captive by McLeod clansmen? Endungeoned in Raasay Castle, never to be seen again, save as a mouldering cadaver?

Not the least doubt of it, we said. How do you think there come to be so many ghosts in Scotland?

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Rude shock horror drama probe

Our peaceful, innocent viewing last night of Part 1 of a French TV adaptation - a very good one, a miracle of condensation - of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu was rudely interrupted by a heavy crash from outside. It was a dark and stormy night, not fit for man nor beast, and, thinking that a sudden gust might have carried away some items of garden furniture, I rushed out to the back of the house, to find that the only damage was to the birds' fat-ball bucket, whose lid had blown away. This happens several times a year. We get through a lot of lids.

Easily the least appealing element in our climate is a wind called the Tramontane, the 'across-mountain' which blows in monstrous gusts sometimes for days on end. It's the same wind as the better-known Mistral, which funnels down the Rhone valley well to the east of us. Cold and usually dry, the Tramontane blows off the Massif Central and when it reaches our valley it doesn't know where to go, so it blows in all directions at once, up and down as well as sideways. When the Tramontane's blowing in autumn, we can watch giant flurries of leaves blowing left to right along the back of the house. Moments later, another capricious gust will blow them all back again, right to left.

But last night it wasn't leaves. It was our precious lemon tree. I bought it for J. about five years ago. The usual practice here, where winter frosts are common, is to grow lemon and other citrus trees in pots or tubs on trolleys, so that they can be wheeled inside when temperatures drop below freezing. For the past few winters we've opted out of tugging it into the garage every time the mercury drops, and we've wrapped it in a blanket instead, a thin fabric several times folded that I could confidently say looks like ectoplasm if I'd ever seen any.

Anyway, last night a particularly violent gust upended it, ripped at the blanket like a Mills and Boon heroine's bodice, scattered lemons far and wide, smashed the terra cotta pot and made a few small gashes in the house wall for good measure. We bought a new pot this morning, the ever-helpful M. Hector came up this afternoon to assist with replanting it, and J. and I have just put its blanket back on, because it's freezing fast again.

Why am I telling you all this? Day-to-day events aren't really the Lydian Airs style. But today is Chandeleur (Candlemas) in France, when like Shrove Tuesday in the UK pancakes are served. Yum. And of course there'll be no shortage of fresh home-grown lemons to squeeze over the delectable, golden-brown, smiling pancakes. Why, they've even picked themselves.