Sunday, 25 September 2011

Going, going, gone

A week or two ago J. and I were invited to the inauguration of a private observatory. Our German friend M. had built one in her garden, with her own hands, down to the last nail, rivet and dollop of cement, and finally it was ready to be put into operation. Local legend has it that M. has a supernova named after her, so clearly she is an astronomer to be reckoned with. A bit of a star, in fact.

So off we drove on the designated afternoon to find her house and observatory. After a warm welcome with lemon meringue pie served with a cocktail of rosé and concentrated pineapple juice M. led us to her creation. She has built her observatory on the traditional plan, a sort of giant rotating lemon-squeezer on a circular base. If she wants to view a particular section of the heavens, she rotates the dome, opens a panel and aims the telescope at whatever she wants to observe.

She has also built her telescope herself, everything apart from the reflecting mirror and some of the lenses. Counterweights, gauges, focussing gear, bearings, all these and more she has made herself, often using a lathe she was given for a thirteenth birthday present. A very remarkable lady.

It turned out, very much to our surprise, that we were the only guests, apart from a retired journalist who lived down the lane, whose private water supply had given out and who'd come to beg a shower. So M. produced a half-bottle of champagne and J. and I and the newly-clean journalist toasted her and her new observatory.

Unfortunately the day was overcast, so we saw nothing, not even the sunspots for which M. had rigged up a special viewing screen. The erratic behaviour of sunspots just now is one of the few things that seem to worry M. : auguries for the future aren't good. But we nailed the supernova legend: it wasn't true, M. said. No one had supernovae named after them. She had once belonged to a group of astronomers assigned to search a certain section of the heavens for supernovae, and she had indeed discovered several. They weren't all that rare, but they came and went, and any she had discovered were now very indistinct or had disappeared altogether.

We left at about 10, full of pride in our friend's achievement and also of a Rhineland speciality she offered us, a sort of potato rissole called Kartoffelklösse.

(Apropos of nothing, I see from our local paper Midi Libre that a Ukrainian died after eating Kartoffelklösse in a competition. He consumed 88. I expect Rog would call that deadication.)

Then a few days ago we had lunch with other friends, one of whom is an amateur astronomer, equally full of foreboding about those sunspots, as worried about their continuing effect as people were about Y2K 11 years or so ago, and I hope as needlessly. We told him about our visit to M.'s observatory. In turn he directed us to the supernova M101, saying it was growing fainter by the hour, but we might just catch it if we got the binoculars out that night.

Well, we forgot. The next night we looked again, cricking our necks endlessly scanning the area above Alkaid and Mizar/Alcor at the end of the handle of the Plough or Big Dipper. No luck. It had gone. Will we ever get another chance to see a supernova?

(Blogs come and go, too, and are clearly as unstable as supernovae. Lydian Airs is fading out for a bit. Maybe, like certain comets, it'll come round again. Who knows? Meanwhile, warmest thanks to all you celestial beings who've shone so brightly in the comments columns. You're all first-magnitude stars.)

Monday, 19 September 2011

Cocoa vs. Alveolar prognathism

Glancing through that horrific book Struwwelpeter the other day I was as much struck by the dreadful implications of the story of Little Suck-a-Thumb . . .

. . . as by the extraordinary irony of the advert on the back page of the rather tattered copy in our bookshelves:

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Through a local lens No. 10

Esteemed Organ

Every year about this time my friend Jean-Claude and I give a public explanation and demonstration of the organ in the village church. Jean-Claude's part in the demonstration is to read from the altar steps the explanatory text that I wrote some years ago, while I, hidden up there in the organ loft, chip in timeously with odds and ends of tunes showing the difference between an 8' flute and a 4' flute, the American-type wobble that the Vox Humana gives, the ear-shattering Bass Trumpet reeds, and so on. Finally I play a piece (a fugue in F minor by Charles Burney, a one-time acquaintance of Mozart) which gradually introduces all the stops and ends in a blaze of noisy glory after which everyone can go and have lunch.

It's rather a remarkable organ, because there are only six others like it in all France. It's not all that old, dating from 1845. At that time harmoniums (harmonia?) were coming in, to the chagrin of many a curé. A certain Abbé Clergeau designed a modest, wardrobe-sized organ to compete favourably with the dreaded harmonium in cost, size, specification and - a clear winner, this - purity of sound. One of the few that were ever manufactured eventually found its way to our village. It's so special that it has been listed as an Historical Monument.

We do this as part of an annual Europe-wide promotion of Historical Monuments, generally on the third weekend in September. Great houses, public buildings, whatever forms part of the national heritage, are open for the public. Even organs. Free. I think this is quite a good idea. I don't know what the National Trust would think about it.

(I wrote something else yesterday along these lines. Reading it again this morning I found it so patronising and, worse, so boring that I've rewritten it. Anonymous' capitalised comment said it all.)

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Putting one across

Montpellier. The photo above is of the Place de la Comédie, the great square in the centre of the city. It's called Comédie because the imposing building in the centre is the Opéra-Comédie, meaning that when it was built in the 1860s it was designed for both opera and stage plays. And you could hardly call this majestic square Place de la Tragédie.

I'm possibly in the photo, tucked away under one of those café awnings on the extreme right. It's 31º. These awnings have built-in brumatiseurs, which in very hot weather emit a fine spray, a mist, of cold water over the customers every now and then. Very refreshing. I have my coffee - alone: J. has gone to see her acupuncturist - and a glass of water. And today's Times, printed in Marseilles. I'm about to attack the crossword (1 ac. 'European residing in very attractive city' (6) - could be me, except that we don't actually live here) when my ear is savaged by some dreadful Eastern European accordion music.

It turns out to be coming from a lad of about 11. Faint traces of my former profession swirl up from the depths to ask Why isn't he in school? He is playing an endless sort of waltz, always in a minor key. After about ten minutes' worth of this revolving dirge he locks his accordion, takes a cup out of his pocket and wanders between the café tables soliciting coins from the clientèle. Many just shake their heads. Some put a few coins in. I lighten my net worth to the extent of 20 centimes. I could just have easily have taken something out as put something in. He goes away.

I thought (indeed, hoped) that might be the last we saw of him, but no. Presently he started up a new tune. The same minor key. It was like meeting unexpectedly someone you haven't seen for 30 years, you're unprepared for the change, you're not quite certain...

He was playing a tortured, barely recognisable, ultra-simplified version of Für Elise, a little piano piece by Beethoven, who would for once in his life have rejoiced to be stone deaf. Presently the lad wandered off to work one of the other cafés and I returned to my crossword.

Why wasn't the lad at school? I was reminded of an occasion years before when a parent, an American pastor whom I knew quite well, asked if he might take his two boys out of school for a fortnight. Would this hold back their progress? I trotted out two answers. Taking the narrow view, there would probably have to be some catching up when the boys got back, which tended to slow down the progress of the rest of the class, which was, to say the least, frustrating. Taking the broader view, in the context of the space-time continuum of the whole cosmos, it could not possibly matter two hoots if they took two weeks off school.

'That's the wisest thing I've ever heard a teacher say,' he said.

1ac. has to be 'Venice', surely?

Friday, 9 September 2011

Now we are 10

No, I can't remember what I was doing. Nothing special. In the early afternoon, J.'s mother phoned from England, urging us to turn on the television: unbelievable events were taking place in New York. Within a couple of minutes of switching on, the second aircraft went in. Like the rest of the world, we were gripped by the horror, the outrageous enormity pulled into sharp, human-sized focus by those pathetic, desperate souls throwing themselves from windows. Then the collapse, the Pentagon and all it stood for violated, the mystery of the fourth plane.

Then the phone never stopped ringing. J.'s niece was in New York, a couple of miles away. Bizarrely, she had heard nothing about it. My friend A., also with a daughter in New York, phoned; outraged, but expressing a certain stupefied admiration for an organisation capable of dealing such a monstrous blow. The rest of the family phoned, more out of solidarity than seeking news. Each call took us away unwillingly away from the television: might we miss other explosions?

Then the fist-shaking anger, the natural thirst for revenge of so many Americans saying they were going to enlist to fight this evil. (I wonder how many did?) Then the mistrust of the entire Islamic world, and the need for the United States to strike a mighty blow in return. It would have taken a far stronger man than Bush to say no, be patient, wars against enemies like this aren't won by vast armed mobilisations: on the contrary, we must use invisible, low-profile, subtle and secret counter-insurgency weapons. As indeed they were to take out bin Laden.

Then the idiot invasion of Iraq, which seemed to me to be no more than a dismal strategy to satisfy US public opinion that something, anything, was being done to efface the shame of 9/11. Then the treacherous Blair fabricating feeble excuses for trotting alongside, making a bad situation much worse and wasting so many lives, essentially lives to be lined up with those who perished at Ground Zero. And countless millions of ill-afforded national wealth squandered on a pointless exercise.

Then Afghanistan, a ludicrous and shameful escapade, an unwinnable campaign with flawed objectives and no prizes. A futile hearts and minds campaign undertaken by ordinary soldiers speaking no Farsi or Pushtu: how could they hope to communicate with Afghans? Then the honours rightly accorded to the fallen, victims of a more vicious enemy than the Taliban, political ineptitude and military blunder. Then everyone knowing perfectly well that the reasons officially touted for military involvement in Afghanistan are false, and that the mourner leading those sad cortèges at Wootton Bassett is lifting his top hat, and those flag-bearers are lowering their colours, in salute to a sacrifice for a sham.

Please excuse me for writing something less frivolous than usual. The photo above I took in Spain earlier this week. It's of dawn, not sunset. Maybe better things lie ahead.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Crickets and croquettes

We went out the other night to a restaurant in the next village, an eatery called La Gariguette. Since opening a year and more ago it has become a firm favourite, not merely because it's named after a variety of strawberry that I particularly enjoy but because of the excellence of its cuisine.

For €19 (about £17) you can enjoy a three course meal, entrée (starter), plat (main course) and dessert (pud) chosen from a menu with at least two dishes per course. To start with I chose Croquettes d'émincé de poulet, which are slightly crunchy rissoles of minced chicken breast and hazelnuts, seasoned and lightly fried in olive oil, served with a mixed salad, and I hope I'm not disappointing American friends by not having taken a photo of them.

Croquettes comes from croquer, to crunch. Because of their crunchy quality, cat and dog biscuits are called croquettes. Our cat Tonip eats nothing else, bar the odd part-mouse (always avoiding the gall-bladder) and the occasional salad of blades of grass.

Clearly another member of this household, something of a recluse and stowaway, in fact only appearing in the house at the end of summer, felt miffed about not being invited to join us at La Gariguette. There he is up there at the top as I found him the next morning, tucking into Tonip's croquettes. You could hear his jaws (or palps or mandibles, I'm not strong on insect eating irons) crunching away. He's a vine cricket. When he had finished his meal, leaving a few crumbs, I put him into a nearby rosemary bush. You see what preoccupations we have here in rural France.

Friday, 2 September 2011

No foe, beer

Sorry, I haven't been around for a day or two.

Seeking to compare a temporary relapse from keeping Lydian Airs up to date with the agonies of letting the ironing pile up (Interjection from J.: 'What would you know about it?'), I looked for a suitable illustration in Google Images of a life-threatening heap of ironing. To be fair, there were several photos of smug, ill-favoured piles of ironing, but there was also this gem, the one at the top. Maybe one your recent sailing holiday pics somehow got in by mistake.

Google also came up with the photo below, presumably of something happening under the ironing board. If you suffer from AELUROPHOBIA, please don't feel obliged to look at it.

This brings me to what I was going to write about, which is phobias. I can't find any phobia which directly expresses a temporary aversion to blogging, but there are plenty of others, so here is Lydian Airs' Helpful Guide to Everyday Phobias:

BAROPHOBIA: Fear of gravity
KENOPHOBIA: Fear of voids
STYGIOPHOBIA: Fear of hell
ACAROPHOBIA: Fear of itching
COULROPHOBIA: Fear of clowns
PTERONOPHOBIA: Fear of being tickled with feathers
RHYTIDOPHOBIA: Fear of developing wrinkles
POGONOPHOBIA: Fear of beards
MERINTHOPHOBIA: Fear of being tied up
KERAUNOTHNETOPHOBIA: Fear of falling satellites
KAINOLOPHOBIA: Fear of anything new
CYMOBPHOBIA: Fear of tides, waves
MEDOMALCUPHOBIA: Fear of detumescence
NOCOMMENTOPHOBIA: Fear of cyber-isolation

If you suffer from all or any of these, it's best to bring them into the open. Unless of course you suffer from

AGORAPHOBIA: Fear of open spaces (Gr. agora = market place, phobia = fear)

Now in accordance with the title I'm going to pour myself a beer. I'd be delighted if you'd like to join me.