Sunday, 31 July 2011

Mistaken identity

In the course of the village street market this morning J. and I met our friends M. and Mme Hector. While we were chatting I thought I recognised Mme Martin, a secretary at the Mairie (a sort of village town hall) and her husband coming towards us. They're neighbours, they live just up the lane from us.

I detached myself, smiled, held out my hand to be shaken and greeted them warmly, fulsomely, even. I asked them how they were, remarked how good it was to see so many people at the market, asked how the family was. They shook not only my hand, but J.'s and the Hectors', as courtesy demands. We wished each other good day, and they strolled on.

'Who was that?' Hector asked.

'But you must know them! Why, that was Mme Martin, the secretary at the Mairie,' I said. 'And her husband. He's a chauffeur to senior members of the regional council.'

'That wasn't Mme Martin,' Hector said. 'Nor was it M. Martin either.'

'She might have looked something like Mme Martin, but that certainly wasn't her,' J. said with great firmness.

Abashed, I said: 'Who were they, then?'

'No idea,' J. said. 'I've think I've seen her before. She might be something to do with the village drama club.'

So I've spent the rest of the day in a squirm of embarrassment.

* * *

Apparently once on a drive in Windsor Great Park, in the early days of his madness, King George III ordered his carriage to be stopped. He stood up, got down and walked a few paces towards an oak tree, which he addressed as the Prussian Ambassador.

Am I going the same way?

J. Zoffany (1733-1810): H.E. Baron von Bomburst, Prussian Ambassador to the Court of St James (Royal collection)

Friday, 29 July 2011

Dew est mon droit

If only it would rain. Good, day-long gardener's rain. I've had to water every evening, bar two hallowed, heaven-sent occasions, since May 22nd. Not just flowers, shrubs and vegetables, but three of our more delicate trees as well. I've abandoned watering what passes for a lawn.

This morning J., looking out of the window at the parched dwine, said 'I'm fed up with summer. I'm really looking forward to the autumn'. And we've got all August to go yet, with no rain forecast.

The morning dew, such a friend to gardeners, packed up weeks ago. Which takes me naturally to Encyclopedia Britannica, fourth edition (1816):

Alleged Virtues of Dew

The dew of heaven has always been regarded as a fluid of the purest and most translucid nature.


...the people of remote antiquity fancied that external application of dew had some virtue in correcting any disposition to corpulence. The ladies of those days, anxious to preserve their fine forms, procured this celestial wash, by exposing clothes or fleeces of wool to the humifaction of the night. It was likewise imagined, that grasshoppers feed wholly on dew, and owe their lean features perhaps to such spare diet.

So, ladies, if you're concerned about your fine forms, here's your answer. Go and roll in the dew.

I can only finish by bidding you A dew, dear friends.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Ho ho, Monsieur


Last night J. and I watched A Prairie Home Companion on one of the French film channels. A bit sceptical to start with, I gradually became more and more engrossed, then helpless with laughter, and by the end I couldn't wait to order the DVD via the link here.

It was in prairie English, with French subtitles. Very often French subtitles are poor. Sometimes they don't even complete the sentence, e.g. 'Je t'ai demandé si' (I asked you if) or 'Avez-vous terminé votre?' (Have you finished your?)

And of course there's the clever stuff that just doesn't, or won't, translate. Carry on, Cleo had the immortal line 'Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me! which came out in French so unconvincingly (L'infame! L'infame! Ils m'en veulent tous!) that I suspect the low-grade translator hadn't twigged Kenneth Williams' line.

But full marks last night to the subtle subtitlers. In a song called Bad Jokes singing cowpoke Lefty (or Dusty, I can't remember which) sang about his horse which, although gifted in chemistry, physics and mathematics, had problems with philosophy: he found it hard to put Descartes before the horse.

I could imagine the translator thinking long and hard about this one. He/she came up with a stroke of genius: the horse 'ne savait pas la différence entre Socrate et sa crotte', didn't know the difference between Socrates and his dung.


Saturday, 23 July 2011

Eden Tate Gallery

Yes, I'm afraid I won't be biting anyone to death just at the moment. I don't have any teeth. Well, I've got a quite a lot, but not the sort of incisors and canines you need to take on a couple of sabre-toothed tigers before breakfast with. And win.

Recently M. Tanguy the village locum dentist put in a couple of pre-molar crowns, with the result that the plate I've worn since I lost some front teeth in a flawed exercise in inebriate pugilism when I was a student, didn't fit any more. So while I wait for a new one I'm obliged to revise and extend my intimacy with soups.

Here is a list of the soups the splendid J. has fashioned for me:

Brown Windsor
Ale and Coracle
Gappo Root
Consommé Beauharnais
Carrot and Coriander
Leek and Bovril
Imperial Game
Iced Walter
Oxtail with Red Wine
Mushroom with Champagne
Drabbed Bawlor (Soup)

If you have a favourite soup that doesn't appear on this list and which you think I might find both toothsome (if you see what I mean) and nourishing, perhaps you could let me know?

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Noise Fludde

Gustav Mahler, maybe the world's most original orchestrator, a composer forever searching for new - some would say excessive - orchestral effects, once went to see the Niagara Falls. His comment was 'Endlich, fortissimo!' (Fortissimo, at last!)

I've never been to Niagara, but I have been to Eas Coul Aulin. Well, sort of. I believe this is the highest waterfall in the British Isles. It's a few miles inland from Eddrachillis Bay, in North-west Sutherland. We went to find it once, when we lived in Scotland. I'm ashamed to admit - I have to take the blame myself - I made an imbecile mistake, the unerring effort of a complete cretin: instead of clambering through the heather to view this slender skyscraper of a cascade in its entirety from the foot, I clambered through the heather at the head of the grumbling family + dog to view it from the top. All we saw was an insignificant burn* disappearing over the edge of the cliff. Had I been Mahler I suppose I could have said 'Endlich, pianissimo!' but even if I'd thought of it at the time it wouldn't have been much consolation.

I can't account for this photo. (The choir isn't my vocal group Les Jeudistes, in case you were wondering.) Maybe they're performing something very noisy from Mahler. There's a mighty chorus towards the end of his 8th Symphony which includes the words (from Goethe) Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis, All that is transitory is but an illusion. Or possibly metaphor. Not a bad notion to draw from a waterfall.

Please could any comment you might feel moved to make not include any anagrams of 'Waiter! Scum!'? Thank you.

* burn = stream, brook, Jimmy.

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.

Friday, 15 July 2011

John Cage

This is what it feels like when the musical ideas I'm trying to set down on manuscript paper just WILL NOT come.

If as you pass you'd like to push a slice of cake through the bars, I'm sure this would help no end.

And if you could avoid seed, walnut, Battenberg or cattle cake, I'd be very gratified.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

The mouse that boared

Once again (remember the nightingale last week?) our much-esteemed friend and neighbour Hector comes up with something a bit special. Having set up a movement-triggered infra-red camera in a swampy bit of bamboo thicket on his land, he was gratified one morning recently to find this encounter had taken place during a night of storm and tempest:

The eyes have it, don't they?

There are more close encounters here and here.

Thanks, Hector. Life in your bamboo thicket is never dull.

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.)

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

Our much-esteemed friend and neighbour Hector has set up an infra-red camera in a bamboo clearing on his land. All the local fauna*, rabbits, martens, jennets, wild boar, tigers, drop in from time to time, drawn there by scatterings of maize or fresh bones nailed to a convenient branch in camera range.

The other night another visitor made his presence known, although I doubt if he was much interested in pecking at shreds of meat. Here he is:

Nightingale (mp3)

There wasn't much to see on Hector's film. He - the bird - far from appearing as colourful as his song, looks like a dun-coloured dicky bird, a little bigger than a robin. Now that the summer heat has set in and his brood has flown the nest, he'll be flying back to Africa.

It's very considerate of him and his all-nite singing pals - you can hear them in the background - to vanish just as hot nights oblige us to sleep with windows wide open. If only those carousing Belgian holidaymakers up the lane would follow their example . . .

I'm glad to have a permanent record of nightingale song. A piece of music I'm writing just now ends with a nocturne featuring 'nightingale' song high up on solo violin. (Ottorino Respighi did the same with one movement of his suite The Pines of Rome, but he specifies a recording rather than an imitation.) Nightingale song is surprisingly percussive and I may find myself asking the player to tap with a fingernail on the finger-board or even on the body of the violin to produce the desired effect.

I understand Hector once played the violin, but I assure you the recording above is 100% genuine.

*spot the odd one out

Monday, 4 July 2011

Ferrari Testarusta

Yes, there's been some talk about getting a new car.

Miss E., aka The Blue Kitten, rather fancies this model, as seen in the village recently.

But could there be a problem with low bridges and multi-storey car parks?