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.)