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.

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.

Chorus:
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.

(Chorus)

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!

Chorus:
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?


(chorus)

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need the warld ken?

(chorus)

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the grain;
Gin a body kiss a body,
The thing's a body's ain.

(chorus)

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.

[...]
Christopher

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.)