Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Augustus in the Hole

This little chap lives in the connection box for our vegetable garden hose. He's only about the size of a €2 or £2 coin. He comes and goes. Somehow he manages to clamber up the hose connection and squeeze through the gap between the hose and the box lid. I open the box every evening to open the valve and start watering: sometimes he's there, sometimes he's gone off a-mollocking or whatever it is that toads do.

He shares his home with some rather nasty little beetles.

We have to find a suitable name for him, one that he will respond to when called. 'Augustus' has already been suggested elsewhere recently, and I'm happy with that for now. In the longer term, however, I'm relying on your inventiveness. Please be sensible and practical. The naming of toads is no frivolous matter.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Gaze on them (or peel them) and weep

The label on the onion sets, when I bought them last February, claimed the variety was 'Stuttgarter Riesen', Stuttgart giants. This is the total of yesterday's harvest.

If I had a euro-centime for every stone in the vegetable garden, I would be fabulously rich and would spend all my days dishing out the dosh to the worthy, i.e. Lydian Airs regulars. The 'soil' consists of trillions of small stones bound together with a sort of natural cement, a clay composed of minute particles of Lybian desert blown across the Mediterranean over the millenia. This serves me well for wall-building (even if nobody else has got a good word for you, while there's still just time I'd like to say thank you, Col. Ghaddafi), but for growing things I might as well plant them in coal. In summer it dries to a hardness recognisable on the Moh scale. Some ash trees shade the vegetable garden from the pitiless sun, but in doing so they take all the water I lavish on it every evening. Full of hope each autumn I dig in compost and peat and other nutrients, but the goodness is quickly leached down far beyond the reach of any onion roots.

(In fairness to Mother Earth, strawbs and rasps do quite well in spring and early summer. The beetroot harvest in June marks the beginning of the season of despair.)

So their size isn't their fault. But I can't help feeling 'Stuttgarter Zwerge' - Stuttgart dwarfs - would be more appropriate.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Haven't a cluedo

As a pre-teen I adored board games. No one else in a somewhat dysfunctional family having the slightest interest in them at home, I played them at boarding school and dreaded - for this and many other reasons - the end of term and nobody to play with.

Monopoly, of course, even though it took so long to complete that most games ended up being abandoned, the winner being the person with the most money.

Contraband, a card game a bit like cheat or hearts, where by keeping poker-faced and lying through your teeth you might manage to smuggle the crown jewels and other goodies from the pick-up pile clockwise round the table to the discard pile.

Totopoly, which had a mechanism with a handle that enabled little horses to stagger fitfully to the finishing line, hopefully carrying your shirt on it.

And of course we played chess.

But my favourite was Dover Patrol, perhaps not surprising in a school with strong naval ties. This came out in 1919, and had firm echoes of Jutland and other great World War 1 battles the Royal Navy might have fought if the Kaiser's Hochseeflotte had put out to sea a bit more. It was a sort of naval chess, with the difference that you couldn't see the value of your opponent's pieces. Each player started off with a complete navy of about 30 ships, represented by dramatic drawings of ships of varying firepower on little rectangular cards stuck into tin stands. The back of the card was either blank red or blue, so that your opponent across the board couldn't see how your fleet was disposed.

The object was to manoeuvre yourself, one ship, one square at a time, across the board into your opponent's harbour, capture his flag, and sail back with it in triumph to your own harbour. Each ship had a numerical value, from your Flagship (10) to the lowly Patrol Vessel (1). Naturally your flagship blew everything else of lower value out of the water, but - who doesn't have his or her Achilles' heel? - was vulnerable to mines and submarines. The 3 submarines in your fleet, perhaps reflecting contemporary preoccupations at the Admiralty, had no numerical value but sank everything sinkable except Motor Torpedo Boats (2). Among the named ships were HMS Manchester (6) and HMS Gnat and Hornet (3), presumably Insect-class frigates. The submarines were designated E1, E2 and E3: an echo of then recent history, because low-numbered, un-named submarines (E10, E11, E15) had performed feats of daring in the 1915 Dardanelles campaign.

I never owned my own Dover Patrol set until many years later, when I was about 25. I saw a set in a Southampton toyshop window, nostalgia took over and I bought it. It had been upgraded, taking into account World War 2. The ships were mere silhouettes, no longer greyhounds of the ocean shipping it green among 10-inch shell and depth-charge. There were now flying boats too, like the Sunderland flying boats I used to see as a child taking off from Calshot on the Solent. I kept it jealously and eventually - I think - gave it to my son.


Then when I was about 12 Cluedo came out and caught on at once. Cluedo has survived well, while Dover Patrol and its fellows (L'Attaque, Tri-tactics) haven't been able to withstand the onset of computer-based games and have sunk beneath the wave, as far as I know.

Since mentioning this I've fallen to wondering who among the regulars or indeed irregulars here fit the Cluedo bill? We already have our highly-esteemed Miss Scarlet, of course, but whom would you nominate for the other suspects? And while you're pondering this, here are two other Cluedo observations:

The French version of three of the characters. Pervenche is 'periwinkle', i.e. blue.

Just in case you were wondering, this desperate fatality didn't occur at our house. For one thing, our piano is an upright, and I don't remember a steam-roller being among the Cluedo murder weapons.

Which naturally leads me to this:

'There's been a terrible accident! Your husband's been run over by a steam-roller! They've taken him to hospital...'

'Oh, how dreadful! I must go and see him at once! What room is he in?'

'A5, A6, A7 and A8.'

Please excuse me. Happy Sunday.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Langue d'Octet

For several nights we've had musicians billeted on us and elsewhere in the village. Just now we're in the middle of an annual festival called Autour du Quatuor, Around the Quartet. Embiggenise (© Dave) the poster if it comes out too small. So we've had Sarah (viola), Juliette (cello) and Lola (bassoon) staying with us.

Goodness, they work hard, these people. Several hours' individual and group practice a day, plus performance at night. The major work they performed was Schubert's Octet, a rich and enjoyable work for string quartet plus clarinet, bassoon, French horn and double bass. The basic framework was provided by the Zaïde Quartet, with the woodwind and double bass drawn from the general pool of French musicians who take time off from their regular orchestras in summer to tour the provinces, turning an honest centime at the multitude of music festivals with which France is peppered in July and August.

Some impressions:

* The extraordinary cacophony heard while walking down the guest bedroom corridor, with something different being practised in each one

* So much modern music appearing to employ this particular effect

* Some woodwind players preferring to manufacture their own reeds - here's Lola making bassoon reeds out of a special variety of cane. I believe she uses the garden fork to stab them into submission

* The Zaïde Quartet practising, all very serious-minded on a hot and sticky afternoon. In the kitchen next door J. is making her spiced figs (it's the fig season just now), a speciality for which she is justly famed. We agree that it's a privilege, having a string quartet of this quality playing in our sitting room. Even now the Zaïde girls may be discussing the privilege of occasional heady wafts of spiced figs accompanying them while they tease out tangled skeins of Brahms.

* An unusual story someone told me. There's usually an encore at the end of each concert. At one concert the Zaïde girls played a fast Haydn movement as an encore, with great verve and spirit. As the audience filed out an Englishman, unknown to me, said 'Are you the O'Reilly that owns this hotel?' Mystification. He explained: Haydn wrote this music during one of his trips to London. A popular song at the time (1793?) was 'Are you the O'Reilly' etc. Apparently Haydn heard this, maybe sung in the street, and incorporated the tune in the movement les Zaïdes played. I wonder if anyone can confirm this?

They've all gone now, and the house is quiet, apart from a certain delirium in the washing machine, heavy with towels and bedlinen. I drove Sarah, Juliette and Lola to the station at Béziers early this morning, sending them on their way to their next engagement. This is how they live.

Next up we have a quartet of French horns, all blokes. One of them is called Hocquet. This means 'hiccup' in French. Like name, like nature? I hope not. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

As you were, I'm afraid

Owing to an embarrassing misunderstanding between myself and society photographer Scarlet B. the image I posted yesterday (see below), supposedly of the future appearance of three of my blog friends, was not of them at all but of the Fates (seen above in a somewhat stylised depiction). I can only apologise.

These ladies, well known to Greek mythology as the three Moiras (more correctly, Moirai) control all our futures.

Clotho, the spinner, spins out the thread of our comments lives.

Lachesis, she who allots, measures out the thread for each of us.

Atropos, a lady not for turning, cuts the thread irrevocably at the moment of our demise.

Some of you have identified yourselves with one or other of these ladies. You've thus clearly given yourselves away. I've always been kind to you, haven't I?

I thought you ought to know that I know that you know that I know.

Clotho East .... Great-Aunt Lachesis .... Atropos Z

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Seek to know no more

Last night I was vouchsafed a vision of the future appearance of three of my blog-friends.

It wasn't established who was which, though. Nor if anyone had taken to wearing drag.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Oh deer.

This photo from Le Figaro reminds me - can't quite explain the logical progression, I'm afraid, maybe Scarlet could oblige - of the story of the flock of ostriches. Suddenly aware of some danger, they all buried their heads in the sand. One, bolder than the others, lifted his head out first, looked round him and said 'But where are the others?'*

Happy Sunday. Or whatever day you read it on. If you read it at all.

*Courtesy my Aunt Evelyn, ca. 1956. Other little gems may follow at discreet (and indeed discrete) intervals. Be prepared.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

It's the bees' knees

Before I came to live in France I can't say that kissing played a huge part in my everyday life. It wasn't a thing we did much in our family. The odd goodnight peck. A special greeting or leave-taking with someone known for a long time. Or kids' games. Truth or dare. Spin the bottle. It wasn't that we never felt affectionate or loving: it just expressed itself in other ways than kissing. I'm speaking about day-to-day co-existence, of course. We just weren't particularly demonstrative, that's all. Les grands amours were clearly different, from that first tentative brushing of lips to those vertiginous occasions when you just had to come up for air or you'd have passed out.

Coming to live in France brought many surprises. One was la bise, the habit of kissing on both cheeks, left-right in quick succession. Or right-left, there's no etiquette: you just have to guess which cheek to proffer first and adapt if necessary. All you do is touch cheeks together and go mwah, change cheeks and go mwah again. Nothing more. It's a curious thing, but while many expats, particularly men, hang grimly on to the apron strings of the Mother Country and sell their Britishness dear, indeed over their dead bodies, they're prepared to abandon themselves to la bise without any problem, indeed with enthusiasm.

Now it's a commonplace, a daily courtesy. The magic lady that comes to clean, Kathy the window-cleaner, our doctor, local lady councillors, waitresses, neighbours, the girl in the tourist office, visiting musicians, lady members of my choir, friends generally. Children, girls and boys, automatically put their faces up to be kissed. When attractive 17-year-old girls do this as a matter of course, I still find it more exciting than perhaps I should. And Brit friends that I would never have dreamed of kissing back in Blighty, who have also become devotees of this very agreeable habit.

And we find the number of bises varies. Mostly in France it's twice. Locally it's three times, L-R-L or R-L-R. Occasionally we meet people from the north, and Belgians, who expect four bises.

Men mostly shake hands with each other, on first meeting each day and often on parting. La bise between men isn't uncommon. It took me a long time to get used to it. A few summers ago J. and I were taking part in pre-lunch drinks (known as the apéro, short for apéritif) at which the village mayor, a squat, gravel-voiced local politico, and other notables were present. In the course of conversation I remarked that la bise wasn't very common in the UK (although now it seems to me to be becoming more and more usual and I'm all for it) and it was practically unknown among men.

As it happens I have been kissed by this same mayor for various of my activities, mostly musical, which he seems to think have brought credit to his bailiwick. On hearing me say, at this apéro, how rare kissing between Brit men was, in the general run of things, he said that la bise I'd experienced between men in France wasn't kissing: it was l'accolade républicaine, the Republican Accolade.

H'm. Very curious. And how very different, as a late Victorian theatre-goer was heard to say after a performance of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, from the home life of our own dear Queen.

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)

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Learn modern Greek with Christos

It was finished in December. It was hard parting with this composition, like giving a child away. I still miss it, to tinker with and call my own. It took me 18 months, on and off, to write.

 Trio Hoboken: Saskia Lethiec (violin), Eric Picard (cello), Jérôme Granjon (piano)

Anyway, since then it's been with Saskia, Jérôme and Eric, the musicians who are going to give it its first performance on Friday, June 15th, in the little 9th-Century chapel called the Prieuré de St Julien, below.

Prieuré de St Julien, Hérault département, France

It's crammed with visual images, mostly about the village. The up-and-down outline of its shape. Crocodiles of infant classes going to the school canteen. The village cats. A lizard, even. The youth of the village assembling behind the bus shelter, revving their bikes. A little old lady dancing - in this instance, trying to do the Gay Gordons without falling over. The time in about 1930 when the church roof fell in during Mass. (No one was hurt. A miracle?) The monsoon-like rain that sometimes soaks us. A love duet for cello and violin, over a plainchant accompaniment, inspired by the Prieuré, the place where it will actually have its first performance. The strong  Spanish element in local dances...

Do you (i.e. does anyone) see pictures, form visual impressions when you listen to music? Of events, or places, or people? I know I do. One of the poverties of modern popular music is that it depends so heavily on the visual, and the visual becomes more important than the music. It's all done for you, your choice in the matter has been stolen from you. Is this a terribly unfashionable, indeed arrogant, thing to say?

Anyway, I've managed to cram about 5 minutes'-worth of extracts here:

With this time limit it isn't possible to include all the things listed above. It's not the real thing - I'll post that after performance, all being well - it's the approximation my composition software comes up with. I hope you enjoy it. And if you should happen to be in this area on June 15th, do come to the concert, details here, click on CONCERTS 2012. I should be so pleased to see you.

(Copyright 2011, of course, though it seems churlish to mention it. But you have my full permission to hum the tunes if you want to.)

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.