Friday, 29 April 2011


I hear there have been recent reports of a 10-strong foreign choir, due to sing in remote parts of the Celtic fringe, flying into the UK and then absconding.

If you have been, please stop worrying. It's not my choir. Indeed, at the time of the Disappearing Choir, my troops were busy rehearsing for our forthcoming concert tour. I can account for everyone of them. At the time in question they were arranged in their usual semi-circle round the piano in our...well, I don't know what to call it.

In France they say salon, which I suppose translates as saloon, but that doesn't give the right idea at all. It's just a space between our sitting and dining areas large enough to accommodate 8 people of mixed nationalities, conductor and pianist.

We've put a programme together of church music, which is mostly good to sing whatever one's beliefs, including a magnificent piece called Abendlied, a motet written by Josef Rheinberger, the Pride of Leichtenstein, the only composer I know of who came from the tiny Alpine principality which, since we're on the subject, I believe you can hire by the day for a consideration and which, just to complete the topic, I once walked across in about 45 minutes way back in the days when any present under 50-year-olds were but zephyr-blown ripples on the surface of the gene pool.

So some church music, and a set of Languedoc folk-songs. You might get the wine-and-olives, aubergine-and-honey, goat's cheese-and-fennel flavour of these from their titles and summaries:

La lauseta (The lark)
(Who'll provide meat and drink at the birds' wedding?)

La croquinhòta (My little pal)
(Let's take a walk and see what a topsy-turvy world this is)

Lo cipressièr (The cypress tree)
(My love is lost in sad cypress: for me the month of May will never return)

O up! As pas entendut? (Hey, haven't you heard?)
(In the village they're organising a cuckoo hunt)

Lo boièr (The herdsman)
(Despite his goodly soup, the herdsman's sick wife goes to heaven with her goats)

So some church music, some local folk-songs, and then a set of 14 Shakespeare songs from my own pen for choir and piano. We've already sung most of them in France, but this will be the first UK performance, due to take place in Ullapool, in the far north-west of Scotland, then in Nairn (some miles east of Inverness) and finally in Grantown-on-Spey as part of a festival called Speyside in May. Exciting times. (And I'll be off-blog for a week or two.)

Wish us luck. The troops are so wildly excited by all this that I wouldn't be surprised if they too absconded.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Two a penny

B. came round the other day, bearing gifts as he often does, because he really is the most generous of souls. Very seasonably, he brought us a box of hot cross buns of his own baking. In an earlier existence in south Devon, B. was a baker. In moving to France ten years ago and more he lost none of his skills. He still turns out Christmas cakes and mince pies, birthday cakes and hot cross buns to order; in fact he made our wedding cake when J. and I got married just over three years ago. He has completely seduced the local French with his craft and is probably the most popular man in the village, particularly as he and his wife P. are also adept at ballroom dancing, a highly-prized skill locally.

B. told us once that in parts of Devon it was the custom to place a hot cross bun at the highest point of the house. This would protect the house from evil spirits. At the time he told us this we were in fact building a new house, and it had reached the stage where the roof timbers were being assembled. B. appeared that Easter with a clutch of hot cross buns still warm from the oven, and it required no little sacrifice to set one aside as protection money for the Evil One.

So we asked Alain, the foreman builder, if he would climb up among the roof trusses and fix the sacrificial hot cross bun to the highest point. Rarely have we been looked at so pityingly, but all the same Alain found a 15cm nail (a French nail, to be sure) and a hammer, clambered up and transfixed B.'s bun to the very apex.

I had to climb up into the very shallow loft a few weeks ago, to look at a vent that might have been giving trouble. I flashed the torch up into the apex, and there was B.'s bun, still intact. I touched it: it was rock-hard, as well it might be after nearly seven years. I would like to be able to say that under its influence J. and I had become expert ballroom dancers, but I'm afraid it's not so. On the other hand, we've never been troubled by evil spirits. If you had to give up the Bossa Nova or Beelzebub, which would you choose?


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?

Friday, 22 April 2011

The Ashes Series

Driving to Montpellier, the big city, the other day, the in-car conversation between J. and me was mostly about the scattering of funerary ashes. It's a topical subject with us at the moment, and special measures are being taken to carry out our scatteree's wishes.

Luckily the scatteree had been as practical and sensible as we might have expected and hadn't imposed too impossible or unwelcome a load on the next of kin. No last wish, for instance, to have ashes scattered on the outgoing tide at the Cape of Good Hope, or in the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, or thrown to the four winds from the top of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, the deceased having once been seduced by a poem with these magical names in it and having been led away by the Grim Reaper before he/she had a chance to alter the will. Or, come to that, on the moon, theoretically possible, but where presumably the scatterers would have the embarrassment of the ashes hanging in mid-air, if there was any air for them to hang amid, in the absence of gravity as we know it.

The most recent issue of The London Review of Books carried a very readable piece about the business of death. We learn, for instance, that cremation ashes are relics of the hard bits, bone mostly, ground up into a kind of grit. Foreign bodies impervious to great heat, the remains of stents, dental implants, ceramic hip-joints, etc, are raked out before the ashes are delivered to the customer. Having that sort of mind, I suspect that the whole business of cremation may be liable to more-or-less honest error, and that what goes on behind the velvet veil may not always be what it seems. I sometimes feel the same about abattoirs.

We learn also that the life of death, so to speak, is 25 years, that's to say about a generation. It's after this period (unless the deceased is someone very notable indeed) that graves become forgotten, physical memorials decay, while memorial funds, always dodgy and the very devil to administer, run out of puff much sooner than that.

When I made a will some years ago I specified exactly where I wanted my ashes scattered. It was the only specific request I made, and I don't know why I made it. It's not appropriate now and it would put my next of kin to fearful trouble. Every other disposition I left to them, to do whatever they felt appropriate. After all, all that dreadful paraphernalia of funerals is for the living, not for the dead, and I can't imagine that ex-I would have the slightest concern about or involvement in the whole wretched business. So I'm going to change it, and leave the scatter venue, if any, up to them. If to aid them in their choice I had to identify the places where I had been truly happy, there would be an awful lot, but two places would be paramount: the playing fields at school (so the scattering would probably have to be done secretly, at dead of night), or in bed.


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

Friday, 15 April 2011

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

I'm sorry, I've been very irregular. Unsettled times here, with a death in the family and many comings and goings, largely to the benefit of Michael O'Leary of Ryanair. In the course of them J. brought back from Pret à Manger at Stansted airport a BLT sandwich for me, a rare treat.

Francophiles (and I've lived here too long to call myself a francophile) sometimes drool at the notion of a crusty baguette sliced horizontally and filled with good things, but I've had enough of them now to long sometimes (i.e. often) for an ordinary Anglo-Saxon sandwich. So J.'s gift of a BLT sandwich was wondrously toothsome and so packed with lettuce, mayonnaise, tomato and mini-slices of cold streaky bacon that eating it required close attention and both hands.

So it would never have done for that hardened gambler the 4th Earl of Sandwich (one of those people like Hoover or Cardigan who gave their name to something that has since become quite ordinary, tho' I don't know what the Iron Duke would have made of wellies) who according to legend arranged for a couple of slices of beef (with horseradish) to be clapped between two slices of bread so that he could both eat at the gaming table and hold a hand of cards at the same time.

The best bacon sandwich I remember had everything exactly right. Back bacon, slightly salty, done to a sublety below crisp. Allowed to cool a little, so that the ample spread of butter didn't melt completely. Sourdough bread not sliced too thick. This glorious confection I had at an extraordinary place in California called Desert Centre Café.

It was plumb in the middle of the desert between Southern California and Arizona next door. It was just an adobe-style café with an immense parking area, some petrol pumps and what seemed to be a vast vehicle repair shed. There was nothing else for about 50 miles, it seemed, although the postal address of this Nirvana of the Bacon Sandwich was 44,321 Ragsdale Road. This has brought back such irresistibly droolsome memories that I think I must go and make one for myself right now. But it won't be the same. There's no relish quite like nostalgia.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

For crying out loud

Watching a Rossini (that's him above) opera during an idle moment this afternoon, I was reminded that he only wept three times in his whole life.

Once when an early opera of his failed.

Once when he heard Paganini play.

And once when a truffled turkey fell into the water during a river picnic.


The last time I wept was when watching a biopic about Brahms. As a solitary old man he was not very good at looking after himself. At a particularly poignant moment, when one of his most deeply-felt slow movements was playing in the background, he was shown struggling to open a tin of pressed tongue. The patent opener (this would have been in the 1890s) broke, leaving a small hole through which he was reduced to scraping out pathetically small shreds of this really rather nasty meat with the wrong end of a teaspoon. The notion that this elderly, lonely man, creator of such very beautiful things, should be reduced to this . . . well, although not usually that emotional, something gave way and I could not hold back the tears.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Suits me

Sometime in the 80s, when I was working in North-east Scotland, an elderly friend who had once been celebrated as the smallest chaplain in the 8th Army, who had ridden crucifix, as you might say, in 1944/5 with Field Marshal Montgomery's armour into Caen, Paris, Brussels, Cologne, Hamburg and Berlin - this mini-chaplain gave me three suits. They were no use to him, he said. He was long retired, he'd never worn them and never would now and they were much too big for him anyway.

My job required that I should wear a suit and tie every day, so the gift of three unworn suits was not to be sneezed at. I accepted gratefully.

I took them home and tried them on. They were well tailored, although the material wasn't what I would have chosen, being mostly bright blue (which in parts of Scotland is code for being Protestant and a Glasgow Rangers supporter), and the fit was pretty button-bursting, making me walk like Frankenstein's monster after vasectomy.

But maybe a competent tailor could make alterations? Three free suits meant a saving of about £600 at mid-80s prices, also not to be sneezed at. I consulted a Mr Gordon Kelso, a tailor who worked in a Banffshire town called Keith. At the time my work took me to Keith occasionally, so with me and Mr Kelso it was but the work of a moment to fix up an appointment for 5pm on a certain day, after the meeting I was due to attend had finished. I would take the suits, he would measure me up and see what he could do.

With the suits done up in a parcel on the back seat, I drove to Keith on a perfect early summer morning, so sunny and warm that it was the keenest of pleasures in that often harsh climate to drive with the window right down and enjoy the onrush of the balmy Banffshire air, resting my left elbow on the sill and singing the while. In the best of moods I parked, greeted my colleagues cheerily and began the day's work.

About lunchtime a violent thunderstorm burst, with shattering claps of thunder and torrential, stair-rod rain. Street drains overflowed, municipal flower beds were washed away, the river Isla was full to bursting its banks.

Shortly before 5 the rain stopped and the meeting ended, having found solutions to every educational problem then current except the trifling matters of how to fund, staff and implement them, and I returned to my car. You've seen this coming, of course, because you're so much more intelligent and common-sensical than I am...

...I'd left the driver's window open. Fool. Imbecile. Cretin. And as there is no means of driving a conventional car except by sitting in the driver's seat and operating the controls, I had no choice but to plump my backside in the swamp, the morass that was the drivers' seat and work out how to explain convincingly to Mr Kelso, when he took my inside leg measurement, that...


...but enough of this. This tale of tailoring was brought on by a certain fascination with the adverts that Mr Raja M. Daswani puts in newspapers and magazines. He's often in Private Eye, for example, advertising Raja Fashions, a bespoke tailoring service in Hong Kong. The copy style is individual, to say the least, and somehow quite endearing. I looked for it on line, but could only find the Canadian version. Substitute British terms for Canadian ones and it's exactly the same as the UK version.

I wondered why there appeared to be, behind the figure of Mr Daswani measuring the shoulders of an elegant lady customer, a portrait bearing some resemblance to Col. Ghaddafi. Scroll up and have a look. Having nothing better to do I contacted Raja Fashions, whose Rita replied very courteously that the Ghaddafi-like figure, far from being the self-styled Colonel, had been included deliberately and was in fact Mr Daswani's spiritual teacher. My respect for Mr Daswani leapt upwards immediately. How many of us keep portraits of our spiritual teachers - not the same as religious ikons - on the wall while we work?

I know I don't. I couldn't answer for Mr Gordon Kelso.