Monday, 4 June 2012

Going dark

I'm going dark for a bit. Very busy month coming up. I'll try and keep Evelyn Dunbar going, though, over there on the right.

Musical highlights, both at the Prieuré de St Julien (a very beautiful 9th century chapel a couple of miles from where we live):

Friday, June 15th, at 8.45pm: First performance of my Trio for violin, cello and piano, by the Hoboken Trio - Saskia Lethiec (violin), Eric Picard (cello) and Jérôme Granjon (piano)

Friday, June 29th, at 8.45pm, annual Concert de l'amitié (friendship):

Madrigals from the 13th century (Sumer is ycomen in) to the early 17th century (Three Virgin Nymphs) via O my heart, my heart, my heart it is so sore: for I must needs from my love depart, and know no cause therefore, written in about 1510 by Henry VIII.

Duets for women's voices by Mendelssohn, including one apparently called 'GRUB' until you realise it is fact 'GRUß', i.e 'GRUSS' (= Ger. 'greeting')

Missa Brevis in F, K192, by Mozart, choir (my small choir Les Jeudistes) and string orchestra (from the Conservatoire de Perpignan), which I shall be conducting.

If you're in the area, I'd be so pleased to see you. Full details on, click on Concerts 2012

PS:  A call this morning from Clem Adelman, jazz clarinettist/saxophonist friend and impish humorist. He'd been playing clarinet at a jazz night in a local restaurant. During a break an Englishman on holiday interrupted his meal to ask:

'Excuse me, that instrument, do you blow it or suck it?'
'Suck it, of course. How else would I play it?'
'Yeah, I thought so. I must tell my wife. Thanks.'

Friday, 1 June 2012

Reading between the lines

As several Lydian Airs habitués live in the Reading area, I thought they might like to be reminded of the following gem in the tiara of their local heritage.

In 1851 there was a race between two travelling fairs, Hilton's and Wombwell's, to be first to set up, and thus disadvantage the other, at Henley Fair. Not far from Reading, on the Oxford road, Hilton's convoy tried to overtake Wombwell's.

A serious affray broke out, triggered by one of Hilton's drivers knocking one of Wombwell's drivers off his perch with a tent pole. This led to a mortal duel between Hilton's Fat Man and Wombwell's Living Skeleton, whose weapons were hardly matched: the Fat Man laid about him with a wrought-iron door hook, the Living Skeleton swung hard with a sledgehammer. In the ensuing general mêlée, the horses drawing the various waggons bolted, in the course of which both Hilton's and Wombwell's elephants escaped.

The seriously injured were treated in Reading Hospital, while the elephants were eventually rounded up from places as far apart as Tidmarsh and Tutt's Clump.

If The India-Rubber man smashed Mme Astragala's crystal ball (presumably she didn't see it coming) over her head and The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze ripped the Bearded Lady's stock-in-trade off as he swung past, the history books, and 'Lord' George Sanger's Seventy Years A Showman (from which this story comes), have unaccountably omitted to mention it.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Second to none

I had one of these once. I found it, years ago when we were house-hunting in France. It was almost the same as in the photo, only the curved members were extended to join at the ends, so that it looked like a kind of sledge. It was called un moine, a monk. There was a time when no house in this part of the world was without its monks.

I took it home to Scotland, hoping to sell it at a vastly inflated price, both for its curiosity value and for its practical usefulness, more appropriate for the frozen North, it seemed to me, than the sunny South.

I was let into the secret early.  And I'll let you in too. No, no, please don't thank me. It's just my nature. It's a bed-warmer. There's a metal plate, top and bottom centre. The practice was to heat a brick or stone by the fireside, wrap it in flannel, place it on the metal plate and slide the whole thing between the sheets.

(In the photo there appear to be embers or coals in the hanging pan. I never heard of that before and don't think this can be quite right.)

I think I eventually sold it for about £3. How dreams dissipate, like a freshly warmed bed on a cold night.

I wouldn't like to be thought sexist, so to ensure balance I thought you might enjoy this photo. Not a monk in sight.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

RIP Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

I was 16 when I discovered Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He opened new worlds for me, unimagined worlds of great lyrical beauty and depth of feeling. One of my earliest LPs was of him singing Schumann's Dichterliebe, The Poet's Love. The sublime ritual, drawing the shiny vinyl from its white and yellow Deutsche Gramophon Gesellschaft (an incantation in itself) cover, placing the record with reverent fingers over the central pin of the turntable, gently lowering the pick-up arm, the slight swish of the stylus in the leading grooves, and then this new universe of feeling, of longing, sadness, regret, joy, love, bitterness, anger, exaltation, hope, despair - all the daily emotional fare of a passionate 16-year-old.

He led me from Schumann to Schubert, and then, later, to Brahms, Hugo Wolf and Richard Strauss. A matchless voice, masterly technique, a very great musician. Here he is with Schubert's An die Musik, To Music. It's a hymn to his own art. I can't hear it without feeling the starting tear.

And here he is in Schubert's Der Musensohn, The Son of the Muses, with words by Goethe. After singing of the onrush of his never-ending music-making and the expectations people have of him, in the last line he sings 'You beloved, noble Muses, when will I finally come to rest on your bosom?' I feel like that sometimes.

Someone on a French comment thread has said Je suis jaloux des anges, I'm envious of the angels. Exactly.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Pigs and posterity

This chap (these chaps?) were in the local news recently. The man on the left is 83.  His name is Yvan Blaise. The other chap is called Bambi.

M. Blaise found Bambi wondering about his village when he was little, a marcassin, as wild boar piglets are called. He took Bambi home, gave him food, shelter, somewhere to grub about. And a name, of course. In due course Bambi grew to full size, and M. Blaise's troubles began. It's illegal in France to keep undomesticated animals as household pets. The local police and social services made arrangements to have Bambi captured and put down.

M. Blaise reacted strongly. Bambi was causing no harm to anyone. He was docile and friendly. M. Blaise had no one else to share his life with. He threatened hunger strike if Bambi was taken away.

The authorities relented. M. Blaise could keep Bambi on condition that he registered his smallholding as a stockbreeding farm. (It's not hard, apparently.) He would have to provide adequate fencing, pasture, water supply and shelter in accordance with the number of animals he proposed to raise. Which was one. All this was in place anyway. So now M. Blaise and Bambi are legal, and the moral the local paper draws is that not all local government officers are jobsworths.

But what about this? This chap was in the village the other day, with a folk band of drum, primitive oboes and bagpipe - or should that be pigpipe? They played horribly out of tune, but then the Mediterranean sense of tuning isn't like ours from the North. The man playing the bagpipe is called Daniel Loddo. He is one of those earnest people trying desperately hard to keep the local sub-language, Languedocien, and its culture alive. It's a very ancient language, descended from the Latin the people in the south of France spoke under and after the Roman Empire. It's a linguistic cousin of Provençal and Catalan. Once it was universal. Now only elderly people in remote villages speak it as their everyday tongue. I can manage a few words, but not much.

M. Loddo writes songs. Here is one called La croquinhòta. Nobody I have ever spoken to knows exactly what this means. We think it might mean 'sweetheart'.

Una tortugota me diguet un jorn
'Veni ma croquinhòta, anam faire un torn,
Aqui tot lo monde dormis, tot lo monde se languis,
Anam vistalhar lo paìs'. Aquí çò qu'avem vist:

Al cap d'uná pibola un cocut ernhòs
Picava una nivola a còps de bec furiòs:
La trumada se levèt e la branqueta petèt
Lo paure cocut tombèt dins l'aigueta d'un rec

Here's the translation:

A little tortoise said to me one day
'Come, my sweetheart (?), let's go for a walk,
Here everyone's asleep, everyone is quiet,
Let's have a look round'. Here is what we saw:

At the top of a poplar tree an angry cuckoo
Was pecking a cloud furiously with its beak.
A thunderstorm got up and the branch broke
And the cuckoo fell into the water of a stream.

There are more verses in the same vein, but I'm sorry, I really can't find the energy to copy them out. This time last year my little choir took this song and others from the same Languedoc culture to Scotland. They went down a bomb in Ullapool. Only one member of my choir actually comes from the south of France, and she doesn't speak Languedocien. Sharing the Ullapool concert with us was a Gaelic choir. Only the conductor was a native Gaelic speaker. All the rest were incomers. Is there any point in artificially trying to keep these languages alive?

And then there's this. No connection with the above. When my daughter was about 6 she wanted a bike. At the time, in the 1970s, I was headmaster of a smallish country school in NE Scotland. I asked round to see if any of the kids had a small bike they'd grown out of. A girl called Julie Minty said, via her parents, that her first bike was now too small for her, so £5 changed hands and Julie's old bike came into school for me to take home. It was pink and the make was shown on a nameplate on the frame. It said PUKY. I thought this was terribly funny, but being - at that time - a respectable pillar of the community I felt obliged to suppress any tendency to giggle. Besides, I'm not certain that my kids at that age, although sophisticated in many ways, were familiar with the term 'puke'. I'm open to correction, of course.

A couple of weeks ago the family spent a long weekend in Spain in a rather grand parador. J. and I took the ancient second-plus-hand tricycle my granddaughter E. rides about on when she comes here. As you see, parking isn't a problem, even in the grandest hotels, tho' if you asked for valet parking I daresay the staff would raise an eyebrow. I noticed for the first time that this vehicle too has a nameplate on the saddle support. It says PUKY too.

It's a wonderful thing to keep family tradition alive. I'm not so sure about dying languages.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Blockhead (Size 5)

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.
 Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784)

SOME years ago when my books were still in print I made a calculation of how much I earned per hour from writing them. I did this by adding together all the royalties I'd received and dividing the total by the number of hours I thought I might have spent at the keyboard. I cheated, I suppose, by adding in the fees I'd received from serialisation - which used to happen in French interest magazines - and odd other appearances in print.

It came to 8p.

THE moral of this, if any, is possibly pointed in the diary entry of Sir Harold Nicolson for May 12th, 1937, the day of George VI's coronation, to which both he and Ramsay MacDonald, a previous Prime Minister, had been invited:

I go to see Ramsay MacDonald for a moment and find him sitting in his room punching a hole in his sword-belt and looking very distinguished in a Trinity House uniform. I tell him how well he looks. 'Yes,' he answers, 'when I was a visitor to a lunatic asylum I always noticed how well the worst lunatics looked.'

AND today I've made the acquaintance of George Wither (1588-1667), a minor English poet who spent much of his life in prison for writing libellous verses, identifying leading members of English society with Lust, Lechery, Revenge, Gluttony and Hate. I am honoured to quote the only poem known to me in which the poet gives his love's shoe size:

I LOVED a lass, a fair one,
As fair as e'er was seen;
 She was indeed a rare one,
Another Sheba Queen:
But, fool as then I was,
I thought she loved me too:
 But now, alas! she 's left me,
Falero, lero, loo! 
Her hair like gold did glister,
Each eye was like a star,
She did surpass her sister,
Which pass'd all others far;
She would me honey call,
She'd—O she'd kiss me too!
But now, alas! she 's left me,
Falero, lero, loo!

Her cheeks were like the cherry,
Her skin was white as snow;
When she was blithe and merry
She angel-like did show;
Her waist exceeding small,
The fives did fit her shoe:
But now, alas! she 's left me,
Falero, lero, loo!

On one occasion when Wither was banged up in the Tower of London in the shadow of  the headsman's axe, another almost equally bad minor poet, Sir John Denham, begged King Charles I to spare Wither's life, on the grounds that as long as Wither lived, Denham would not be accounted the worst poet in England.

I don't know why I'm telling you all this.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Evelyn Dunbar

I've just started a new blog-project,  a series of commentaries, some short, some essay-length, about the paintings of my aunt, Evelyn Dunbar. It's over there, on the right, under Other Effusions.

Evelyn died suddenly in 1960, at the age of 53. She'd been out gathering peasticks with her husband, my uncle Roger Folley, near their house on the North Downs in Kent. May 12th was the date, so almost exactly 52 years ago. Whom the Gods love, die young...

Most of the information about her on Google says that Evelyn was the only female salaried Official War Artist, employed during World War 2 to record women's contribution to the war effort. This isn't strictly true: there were at least 4 other female War Artists, and the government (actually the Ministry of Information) paid Evelyn a maintenance allowance plus so much per painting. She was never paid a salary. The government accepted most but not all of her work. The Imperial War Museum holds a good selection of her work, ranging from paintings of the Blitz civilian evacuation measures to the work of the Women's Land Army. Other examples of it are in Tate Britain, Manchester and Sheffield City art galleries and elsewhere.

Evelyn was much more than a war artist, though. Throughout her work there's a theme of countryside, especially of the Kentish Weald, which she loved deeply. Gardens, farming, husbandry of all kinds she saw - and painted and drew - as man's side in a covenant between Mankind and Nature. Nature will provide endlessly for Mankind's benefit and survival: in return Mankind must cultivate, respect and love the Nature of which he is heir and steward.

She drew the little self-portrait above, of herself wearing a rhubarb-leaf sun hat, sometime in the late 50s. She was a very remarkable person, endlessly cheerful, generous and kind, energetic, a great lover of life and creation and a model of content. At the same time she was modest and unassuming. She was wonderful company and an unforgettable person. There's a full reminiscence of her here, something I wrote a few years ago (and have updated since) partly as an aide-mémoire for her biographer, Dr Gill Clarke, whose exemplary and very readable biography Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country came out in 2006.

I'd like this project to take on the form of a part-work, eventually building into a very personalised catalogue raisonné. I don't expect posts will be very regular. Do please enjoy it, if it's the sort of thing that appeals to you, and if you have friends who you think would enjoy the occasional excursion into Evelyn's world, then please pass the word on.

And top o' the mornin' to yez, Bob. 

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Atomere, Kumancius

As a small child just starting to read I remember passing and being fascinated by a front gate in Stubbington. Whoever lived there had tacked tin (or they may have been bakelite, it was that long ago) letters to it which said ATOMERE.

And someone else nearby lost in the mists of a distant Hampshire childhood (but could it have been Martin?) lived in a house called KUMANCIUS.

I've thoughtfully included the photo above to make all my blogfriends in England, where I understand it has been raining, feel atomere. And of course if you wanted to kumancius you'd be more than welcome.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Taking the bull by the horns

Place: La Bispal de Emporda, NE Spain

Scene: A vast shed containing many bays leased out to antique and curio dealers. It is called, engagingly, Antic Center.

Cast: Myself (C), son (A), grand-daughter (E).

In one of the bays I come across this extraordinary artifact, as illustrated. No one else is in the immediate area. I am tempted to have a go. What you have to do is stand on the corrugated platform, grasp the bull by the horns, pull them inwards with all your force.  It tells you your comparative strength as a lover. The image of a Spanish lady presides over a scale 5-100, indicated by a needle. If you score 5 you are a gnome. If you score 100 you are a superman. There are many other categories in between, monk, lion tamer, pasha, romeo, gravedigger, donkey, footballer, torpedo, flunkey. Something for everyone.

It appears to be plugged in. It costs 5 francs a go, but francs went out years ago. What shall I do? Maybe it will work if I press the red button.

I press the red button. The machine hums. I grasp the horns. I squeeze them together, gently at first. The needle rises to 5. I squeeze harder. The needle rises further. What if I bust it by squeezing too hard? Suddenly the bull emits two terrifying roars. I drop the horns instantly. Have I bust it? Will the Antic Center charge me?

I notice the needle has stuck at 40. It says 'Pensioner'. While this is perfectly true, I feel I could do better another time, with more preparation. Or am I deceiving myself?

The bull roar has attracted the occasionally butterfly attention of E. She comes running up and asks 'What you doing, Grandad?' I'm not certain how to answer. I'm saved by having to explain by the arrival of A. He says he's going to have a go. He invites E. to press the red button. The needle falls to zero.

He applies his not inconsiderable strength to the horns. The needle rises to 55. It says 'Peasant'. At this point the bull gives out a ghastly moan which dies away to silence. The lights go out. The needle is jammed on 'Peasant'. Have we bust it? It seems very likely.

We scarper. E. says 'Why are we running away, Grandad?'

I say 'Because we're going to wreck the bar football machine now.' Earlier we did indeed see two bar football tables. 'When we score a goal we've to shout 'G-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-L!!!' like they do on Spanish TV.'

And we do.

P.S. In case anyone thinks our antics as a family unit include going round vandalising stuff in shops, please be reassured - by the time we left the bull-horn machine was working again.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Trio-mphe? H'mph...

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.)

Monday, 23 April 2012

Through a local lens No.12

Yesterday morning I went down early to the village to buy a few croissants. I've long since grown out of this ikon of francophiles, but as M. Gosset the master baker is retiring in a couple of days J. and I thought we might treat ourselves. Oh dear.

But we will miss a special wholemeal bread he makes, especially as it comes in the form of the sliced pan loaf, so handy for sandwiches or the toaster. There's been a bit of playing the futures market here, to the extent that our freezer now houses some 18 Gosset loaves.

M. Gosset is Belgian, yet another of the expats who have holed up round here. He assures everyone that croissants originally came from the Near East. His compatriot Godefroi de Bouillon brought them back from the crusades in about 1100. We may have been privileged to have had some of the originals.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Back to the wall

It's a life sentence, really. I don't think it will ever be finished. It has taken me 7 years to complete what you see here. (Mind you, there are other walls elsewhere that I've finished.)

The problem is finding the stones. Local rocks are metamorphic. They're all schists and shales and marbles, twisted and ungrateful lumps, unsociable geological misfits that utterly resist any kind of companionship with their fellows. It's a red letter day when, in driving about, I find a flat or right-angled stone, one that maybe with a little persuasion from 7lb hammer and bolster will fit with another. I shudder to a halt, leap out and whisk it into the boot (trunk, if you're reading this in the USA or Canada, and I hope you are).

Another local wall-builder, Marcel, hailed me the other day as I was trudging along the lane pushing our wheelbarrow with a large stone in it, one the size of a pillow. I'd noticed it lurking, half-buried in the undergrowth a short distance from our house. Marcel gave me secret information, similar in value to the map Columbus returned to Spain with in 1493. He knew where there were some flat stones. Well, flattish.

I drive high up into the mountains, stopping on the way to enjoy the extraordinary views of our valley and village from two or three thousand feet up. I follow Marcel's directions to the letter. There are indeed outcrops and scatters of flattish and very useful sandstone. Does the Liberté of the French motto entitle me to help myself? Does Egalité mean anyone, even humble foreigners like me, has the right to plunder the very substance of France? Am I alone up there on the mountain tops? I am not. It seems there is a Fraternité of stone-gatherers: the first vehicle I see is a builder's truck with a sturdy youth running beside it, loading it at intervals with these beautiful slabs.

I find a rich haul, enough to feel the load on the brakes as I drive back down again. Thank you, Marcel.

I'm not really conscience-stricken. That builder salved it for me. But all the same I'm reminded of the fate of Edward II of England, a man apparently much given to digging holes and building walls. A useful sort of bloke to have as king, you would have thought, but no: his kingship was so appalling that he had to be done away with. According to legend the method of his execution in 1327 was so unspeakably grotesque that delicacy forbids me to do more than refer to it obliquely through the image below. H'm. He should have kept his back to the wall, shouldn't he?

Monday, 9 April 2012

Who was Miss Watts?

(The writing has come out much smaller than I thought it would. The upper inscription says 'Campbell Lammerton', and the lower '(Drawn by) Miss Watts'. Now you can put your glasses back on/take them off.)

Going through some old papers with a view to throwing them putting them back in the drawer again I found these, done when I was a 23-year-old student.


1. Yes, I did smoke a pipe.

2. No, I did not play rugby for Scotland.

3. Yes, I did sometimes need to stand on a rostrum.

4. No, I can't remember who Miss Watts was, but Angela Gordon was gorgeous.

5. Yes, I did have a beard.


1. With some effort, I stopped smoking in June 1985. The least agonising way to give up was to concentrate on activities in which I was physically unable to smoke a pipe. For some reason I could never play the piano and smoke at the same time. I've never played better since. I gave my one and only piano recital at that time. Or take a bath, that was something else incompatible with smoking. I was very clean. My first wife did not notice that I'd given up. She gave me a 2oz tin of Gold Block pipe tobacco for the following Christmas.

2. Still no call from the SRFA selection committee. I fear it may be too late.

3. I think I may have grown since.

4. Miss Watts, if you happen to read this, you might like to remind me who you were? (No impersonations, please.)

5. I didn't keep it very long. There were inexplicable ginger hairs in it.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The Famous Five vs. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Some people admit, during their youth, to smoking weed, forming inappropriate relationships, to under-age drinking, to causing riot and affray, playing Knock up Ginger, ringing up somebody in the telephone directory called Smellie to ask if they were, to being addicted to blackberry-flavoured fruit gums, to locking their sister in the shed for five hours, to stealing the next-door neighbours' tulips as a last-minute Mothers' Day present, to looking up 'anus' in the dictionary...

I plead not guilty to many of these - for instance, our shed had no lock - but I have to admit with shame to a passing passion for Enid Blyton's Famous Five stories. It didn't last long. All I can remember now is total identification with Julian, being intrigued that any couple should call themselves Mr and Mrs Stick, by a sinister butler called Block, an ineffectual teacher called Mr Luffy, and a description of a car, probably the one above, whose headlights were so powerful that they could pick out the country lanes for half a mile ahead. Oh yes, and my vocabulary grew by one word, 'deft', which is how Anne was described. I don't think I've had occasion to use it since. I think I'd grown out of them by the time I was 9.

Apparently the first Famous Five story came out in 1942. I found a display of Famous Five book covers in a newspaper the other day - that's one of them at the top - to celebrate 70 years. They never aged, those kids. Julian would now be about 82, banging on endlessly in his retirement home about buried treasure, secret tunnels, spook trains, kidnappers and Kirrin Island, where he understood his sister Anne, now 77 and her civil partner Georgina (81) now lived and eked out a miserable existence distilling useless essential oils from seaweed and bickering about whose turn it was to stroke the stuffed collie...

...beneath this article there appeared the usual two or three supposedly targeted adverts. One read, as far as I remember:

2008 was God's warning. May 27th, 2012 will see collapse of the USA economy, WWIII.

I don't begin to understand what analysis and filtration of previous purchases or internet searches caused this one to end up on my screen, but here's the link if you're interested. But I do assure you nobody need worry about anything at all. It's clearly a case for The Famous Five, always one up on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They'll see to everything, sort everything out. And tuck us in at night.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

This Sporting Life

I was reckoning up the other day the number of sporting events I've attended since coming to live in France 20 years ago. It came to four.

1. A football match between Olargues (our village) and St Pons. At one point the St Pons goalkeeper easily fielded an unthreatening punt upfield, cradled the ball in his arms, and unwittingly stepped back across his goal-line. Olargues won 1 - 0.

2. A football match between the local secondary school and a scratch team including girls from an Ullapool High School group on exchange. The Scottish kids had no one to cheer for them, so I got a very sore throat. To no avail.

3. World Cup Rugby, 2007. My friend A. and I went to Montpellier to watch Samoa play Tonga. I never got the hang of which was which. It was an excruciatingly dull match. At half-time A. and I assembled all we knew about both places, viz.:

SAMOA - Robert Louis Stevenson lived for a while in Samoa and died there, in a place called Vailima.

TONGA – At Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, Queen Salote of Tonga, a cheerful lady of fabulous girth, was assigned a place in the carriage procession next to a very small personage, probably the Akhond of Swat. Noël Coward was watching the procession. When asked who the little fellow crammed in beside Queen Salote was, he replied 'Oh, nobody special: that's her lunch.'

4. See photo above. I leave you to decide what the event was. CLUE: You know something's going to happen when you hear the helicopters.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Transports of delight

Fellow-passenger on a Caen-Portsmouth ferry three or four months ago was this Bugatti. It looked as if it had seen better days, and was being brought back to Blighty for some bugattiphile to do up and sell on. Or maybe to do up and keep for his (or her: I can think of certain ladies who wouldn't at all mind being, and being seen at, the wheel of a Bugatti) personal gratification. Where would you drive it as it deserved, though? It seems to me, from my occasional visits, that there are very few places left in the UK that aren't so thrombotic with traffic that you can open up the throttle and head for the horizon to your heart's delight.

I don't know why this lower-deck apparition should have reminded me of my first car, which had nothing whatever in common with that Bugatti. But remind me it did, and I was going, for your utter delectation and absolute delight, to post a photo of this car, a 1954 Ford Popular. Most of my photos are stuffed in an envelope. I shook them all out on to the dining room table, but it wasn't there. All I could think of was that at some time or other I'd used it as a bookmark, which is a habit I have with tram tickets, postcards, the occasional letter, receipts and so on. And maybe the odd photo. To find it would mean searching through - oh, I don't know how many books, but the best part of a tidy few. This is quite a bookish household.

Its registration was JST 271. If you'd like to exercise your mind's eye and substitute this for the number plate in the photo below, you'll get the general idea. To fill out your impressions, I should add that it had only three forward gears, finger indicators, a single windscreen wiper that grew slower and slower as the engine laboured, for instance when driving uphill in the rain. (Not that this happened very often: it did go uphill, but it went better if you pushed it. It was occasionally referred to as the Envy of Tantalus.) And it started with a starting handle. Look, you can just see the starting handle hole above the X of the number plate.

But I loved it. Adored it. Fiercely.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Now just imagine how it feels

Coeval Tim left an interesting comment the other day about a miracle, one performed by St Egidio of Taranto, a bizarre story about re-assembling a butchered calf. This calf, affectionately called Catarinella by the locals, used to wander freely about the streets of Naples until a rascally butcher captured her, slaughtered her...and after St Egidio's intervention the pieced-together Catarinella miraculously continued her wanderings. Wondering if St Egidio could be any help with our lemon tree, which we seem to have lost in the recent frosts, I found a website about him and discovered more of his miracles, including the bringing back to life of a tub or wheelbarrow full of dead eels. H'm.

Then I discovered this diary extract from Norman Lewis, an undeservedly little-known mid-20th century writer. He was an army Intelligence Officer in March, 1944, when Allied troops were gradually pushing the German armies back up the Italian peninsula, via Naples, which suffered badly during the hostilities: and all that at a time when Tim and I were but little tiny boys...but never mind that.

Fear is expressed that the blood of San Gennaro may refuse to liquefy this year...Everywhere there is a craving for miracles and cures. The war has pushed the Neapolitans back into the Middle Ages. Churches are suddenly full of images that talk, bleed, sweat, nod their heads and exude health-giving liquors to be mopped up by handkerchiefs, or even collected in bottles, anxious, ecstatic crowds gather waiting for these marvels to happen. Every day the newspapers report new miracles. In the church of Santo Agnello, a speaking crucifix carries on a regular conversation with the image of Santa Maria d'Intercessione - a fact confirmed by reporters on the spot. The image of Santa Maria del Carmine, first recorded as having bowed its head to avoid a cannon-shot during the siege of Naples by Alfonso of Aragon, now does this as a matter of daily routine. This church used to be visited annually by the King and his court to watch the royal barber shave the hair that had miraculously grown on an ivory Christ during the preceding twelve months. The custom is likely to be renewed. And even if San Gennaro's blood doesn't liquefy they have a phial of the blood of St John in San Giovanni a Carbonara, which - say the papers - bubbles away every time the gospel is read to it.

I'm afraid I've no miracles to report from our village, unless you count getting up before 8am this morning a miracle. As for the T-shirt below, I'm afraid I really don't care for eels at all. And when it comes to miracles I'm quite happy for people to believe what they want to believe. They always do, anyway.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Through a local lens No. 11

This afternoon while rootling about behind the house tidying up after the winter I was vouchsafed the vision of a salamander, photo above.

According to the old Oikopoiesis legend, to those who are privileged to see salamanders, fabulous wealth is promised. That or eternal condemnation to write quirky and facetious blog posts. It's one or the other. There's no choice. I wonder which will come my way?

And mention of visions leads me to something strange I read recently in Graham Robb's book, The Discovery of France. In 1858 Catholic France was astir with stories of a 14-year-old girl, Bernadette Soubirous, who lived in the foothills of the Pyrenees in a - then- nasty little village called Lourdes. Visions of the Virgin Mary appeared to her and to her sister and a friend on almost twenty different occasions. Less publicised was a similar apparition 12 years earlier, when the Virgin Mary appeared to a boy and girl looking after sheep near Grenoble. They threw stones at it and it went away.

Monday, 12 March 2012

A woman is only a woman, but...

...a good cigar is a smoke. (Rudyard Kipling, who ought to have known better.)

I once knew a rather humourless lady called Eithne who was hyper-sensitive about anything that might conceivably reflect disadvantageously on women's place in the world. One suggestion that exercised her particularly was the notion that the best hand-made Havana cigars were rolled on women's thighs. It seemed improbable to me, but her cigar-smoking husband Daz maintained that it was so. Just to tease, I daresay. You know what men are.

Then a few nights ago I was sitting next to Patricia, who sings soprano in my little choir, at a little post-rehearsal celebration. The conversation turned to cigars, don't ask me why. Nothing to do with smoking them: I haven't smoked for about 30 years. Anyway, she (and her husband) had been to Fidel Castro's Cuba some years before and had actually visited the Cohiba cigar factory. The cigar rollers, all men according to her account, sat at tables in long rows, like in a refectory or canteen, all occupied with rolling tobacco leaves into the required shape. They worked on the table, not a female thigh in sight.

There was complete silence, except for one man sitting at a desk on a kind of daïs or platform. He was reading aloud to the 60-odd employees. Patricia, a modern languages adviser specialising in Spanish and English, recognised the book being read as by Balzac. She was gratified that a 19th century French novelist should attract should such close attention from the workers, and was much impressed by a political and economic set-up that promoted work-place entertainment of such a high cultural level. I suppose it was as though the assembly line at - oh, I don't know, let's say a UK hand-made chocolate works - was kept entertained with readings of Dombey and Son.

I mentioned Eithne's problems with female thigh-rolled cigars. Patricia looked at me with eyebrows raised. Was that all I knew? she said. Didn't I know that before the final rolling the embryo cigar had to be rolled over the roller's armpits? H'm. I'm not convinced. You know what women are.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Return to Vienna (7)

Was Schubert ever fou as a wulk here?

All right, nearly finished. Thank you for staying the course, if you have. 6 days (actually Friday evening - Wednesday morning) was quite long enough to become completely inebriated with all Vienna had to offer, particularly to one of my romantic and musical leanings. Inebriated? The very word sent me to Roget's Thesaurus, where it seemed to me that fully to convey the sense of Viennese intoxication what I needed to do was to copy out the entire adjectival §949:

Drunk, inebriated, intoxicated, inder the unfluence, having had a drop too much, in one's cups, in liquor, the worse for liquor, half-seas over, three sheets to the wind, one over the eight, boozed up, ginned up, liquored up, lit up, flushed, merry, happy, mellow, high, full, fou, tanked up, bevvied up...

*takes sip of Alka Seltzer*

...tipsy, tiddly, squiffy, tight, half-cut, well-oiled, pickled, arseholed, canned, bottled, stewed, smashed, wasted, legless, sloshed, sozzled, soaked, soused, plastered, stinko, stinko paralytico, blotto, stocious, under the table, fou as a wulk...[erm, what?]

*takes another sip of Alka Seltzer*

So on our last morning in Vienna we spent an hour or two wandering around the Ringstrasse, noting that in front of the Town Hall they'd made a massive public outdoor ice-rink, with be-skated classes of infants being shepherded round; breakfast in the Café Landtmann, 'coffee-house of Vienna's intelligentsia', the guide book said; across the street to the Mölker-Bastei where the Emperor Franz-Josef survived an assassination attempt in 1853 (a tailor tried to stab him with a pair of scissors); into a house where Beethoven once lived on the top floor, but not in the apartment across the landing now made into a tiny museum with a Streicher piano as almost the only exhibit, which the notice said once belonged to Beethoven, but it certainly did not: he never owned one of that make; past another wedding-cake-like house, the Dreimäderlhaus (photo above), where Schubert was notable for not having had three girlfriends at one go despite the claims made in Lilac Time; and so back to our hotel via the Vienna Stock Exchange to pick up our luggage and take a taxi out to the airport.

We checked in, went through security and into the departure area in search of lunch, a final Wiener Schnitzel. The restaurant was decorated here and there with cartoons, photos and other memorabilia of two other composers with strong Viennese connections. Please believe me: it was called the Brahms und Liszt.

Exactly so.

On the way back we flew high over the Danube. From that height it really is blue.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Return to Vienna (6)

J. has never been much drawn to specifically Viennese dance music, the music of the Strauss family with all those waltzes and polkas, galops and quadrilles, whereas I'm a hopeless case, pathetically addicted to it. So it was particularly noble of her to sit through a sparkling performance of Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus for my benefit. While in Vienna we noticed that an opera by Vivaldi called Il Giustino was on for one night only at the Theater an der Wien. Neither of us had ever heard of it, but Vivaldi is a name that usually means your ticket money won't be wasted. And seeing that she'd stood (actually sat, in a red plush box chair) by me while I indulged my addiction, the least I could do was to stand by her in her love of Baroque opera. So we bought a couple of tickets, the last available in the second row of the stalls.

I don't dislike Baroque opera, I just find other periods more interesting. (Except Wagner. If my advanced age allows me one or two little indulgences, one of them is by-passing Wagner. I can only apologise to the myriad of Wagnerians who come here with every new post: all I can say is that you've got all the more of him to yourselves.)

But the Theater an der Wien drew me irresistibly. For those that set store by these things, it's a kind of Holy of Holies. I expect the theatre has burnt down and been rebuilt, or closed down by the censor or gone dark or broke in its 210-year history, but I don't care: not only did Die Fledermaus have its première here, the first performance of The Magic Flute took place here, and Mozart himself on one occasion shortly before his death crept into the orchestra pit to play the glockenspiel, the magic bells that made Monostatos and his goons dance. Beethoven, on whose grave I had placed a rose a few days earlier, conducted the first performance of Fidelio there, a few weeks after Trafalgar. (Unlike the French fleet at Trafalgar, it didn't go down very well: the audience was mostly made up of invading French soldiers.) And there we were, just a few metres from where these legendary things had happened.

Il Giustino was given in concert version, no scenery or action. It all seemed pretty exemplary to me, and J. was delighted with it. I'm afraid my attention strayed now and again, seeing in my mind's eye the slight figure of Mozart just beyond us in the pit, stooping over the glockenspiel and casting an occasional complicit eye up to the stage, or the stocky Beethoven on the rostrum, conducting as he did with his whole body, crouching down for soft passages and leaping up for the more excited bits. Happy days.

At home a day or two later J., while searching for more information about Il Giustino, discovered a strange, not to say bizarre, website: while it's normally forbidden to film operatic performances, no restrictions apply to filming curtain calls. And here was the curtain call from that very performance that someone just behind us had filmed. Are those our heads on the extreme left? And could this be the least interesting video ever posted?

Monday, 5 March 2012

Return to Vienna (5)

Having mastered the routes and workings of the Viennese underground, we set off in good time, picked up our tickets at the box office, and, having almost an hour until curtain-up, J. and I went across the road to a café-restaurant. In keeping with the culprit of the show, the villain of the piece we were going to see, we asked for champagne, but the waiter apologised: they didn't stock champagne, but would we like a glass of Sekt instead? Sekt is a bubbly champagne substitute, top hole for giving you a terrible headache. We opted for a glass of white wine instead, and a single serving of apfelstrüdel with two spoons, so that we could share it. This apfelstrüdel turned out to be very like English apple pie, especially as it was served with what they called hot vanilla sauce, which was no less than custard. So an evening dedicated to nostalgia started unexpectedly well.

30 minutes later we took our seats, having been shown to a box furnished with red plush carpet, red plush chairs and a red plush balcony to lean on. A few minutes' wait while members of the orchestra drifted in, tuned their instruments, ran over tricky passages just to be sure, the houselights dimmed, the conductor strode in, took a bow, lifted his baton...

* * *

46 years earlier I too had lifted my baton at that point, not in Vienna but in West London, for a student production (photo below) of Die Fledermaus, preparation for which entailed missing every lecture for almost a complete term. The authorities were very understanding: obviously putting the music of quite a tricky operetta together, rehearsing the chorus and soloists, gathering and rehearsing the orchestra, organising the ballet, all these were excellent training for the headship of school music and drama departments to which we would undoubtedly be appointed in double quick time, given our energy and effervescence.

Or something like that. I still have the programme (cover below) of that student production. There are names in it you might just recognise: Roger Sloman, Christopher Strauli, Patricia Hodge, Røgnvaldur Areliusson, Rosemary de Pemberton. Actually, I don't know what became of Rosemary, but with a name like that she ought to have gone far. Few of those involved actually became teachers.

It was a legendary production set in halcyon days. Cast members found themselves caught up in a Viennese whirl, fell in and out of love with each other. Beefier members entered a local 7-a-side rugby tournament. There was a glorious reunion several months later at the wedding of two of them who'd stayed the course. People took each other for full-fig birthday dinners to a Soho restaurant called Old Vienna. Corps de ballet members swooned over photos of Nureyev, then in his prime. The whole production became an icon of unity and teamwork, bonded more strongly by knowing that in a few months many of us would have left, students no longer. As two lines from the libretto ran:

Glücklich ist, wer vergisst
Was doch nicht zu ändern ist.

[Happy is he who can disregard
What can't be changed.]

* * *

So a return to all this in Vienna, birthplace and setting of Die Fledermaus, in the Volksoper, was particularly heady and poignant, and, sentimental soul, I felt the starting tear for the memory of all those old friends, some no longer with us, as the famous overture started and the tangled plot started to unravel its threads of revenge, lies and perfidy, famously exorcised by Dr Falke the avenger's climactic call to brother- and sister-hood towards the end of Act 2, and in the finale the attribution, however improbable, of these follies to the effects of champagne.

But to bring us down to earth, there was an unfortunate occurrence. Minutes before curtain-up, there was a slight disturbance behind us in our box, and an elderly lady appeared, accompanied by (I suppose) her daughter and a friend. The elderly lady was on crutches, and the 3 chairs in the box were already taken, so that she was obliged to stand. J. and I looked at each other: should one of us offer the elderly lady our chair? We had come all the way from France for this, a special and quite expensive birthday treat booked months in advance. Should we make this sacrifice? There was a third person in the box, a stout German, middle-aged, sleek and pomaded. I'm afraid we left it to him to offer his chair. He didn't. Just before the end of Act 1 there was a crash and exclamations of pain behind us. The elderly lady, unable to stand any longer, had collapsed. Her daughter came to the rescue, and I don't think any great harm was done. But J. and I felt bad about it, all the same. What would you have done?

Friday, 2 March 2012

Return to Vienna (4)

(Vicus, dear friend, you may prefer not to read this)

Shortly before we left for Vienna Carlotta, a Swiss friend, told me that the best Wiener Schnitzel - literally 'Viennese Slice', thin slices of boned and steak-hammered veal fried in a coating of breadcrumbs - was to be had at a restaurant called Oswald und Kalb, 14 Bäckerstrasse, Vienna. If O und K's was OK, if their Wiener Schnitzel was the best in Vienna, it had presumably to be the best in the world. We found the restaurant, a tiny place with room for about 15 people, and booked in for supper on my birthday.

That evening we were shown to a table for two by Herr O. (or maybe Herr K.) beside the bar. In the window there was a sign saying - I can't remember the exact German - that here was served the best schnitzel in Vienna. I asked Herr O. (or perhaps Herr K.) if this was true: Yes, he said, it is very true. Very, very true. He retired behind the bar to pour himself a generous glass of white wine, and I was astounded to see him light up a cigarette. We've become so used to smoking being banned in public places, even where we live in individualistic France, that we considered leaving in disgust. But we'd placed our order, we respect Carlotta's opinion, and if the best Wiener Schnitzel in the world was on its way to us, maybe it would be better to overcome our dislike of tobacco smoke and make the best of it.

Both J. and I are former smokers (I used to smoke a pipe until about 25 years ago) and it's notorious that there are no more fanatical anti-smokers than those that have given up.

Our schnitzels arrived, golden, beaming, lovingly prepared and served with pride. The first mouthful reminded me of a superb flavour and texture I hadn't experienced for 50 years. I wish I could describe it to you, but unfortunately I'd hardly eaten a tenth of this glorious offering when some of Herr O's (or possibly Herr K's) pals came in, leant against the bar not two feet from our table, ordered themselves drinks and lit up their vile gaspers, filling our end of the restaurant with noisome smoke. My eyes started to water, my throat to sting, the superb dish was ruined and I couldn't wait to leave. J. was practically apopleptic. I've nothing more to tell except that I honestly don't know whether we'd been served the best schnitzel in the world, and that the walk back to our hotel through the frosty air of the old city of Vienna on a Saturday night was a privilege after the desperate miasmatic stench of Herr O's and Herr K's.

I thought Europe was virtually smoke-free. Stringent anti-smoking laws have been made in France, a country notorious for individuals noisily asserting their inalienable right to do whatever they want whenever they want, yet the no-smoking regulations are pretty scrupulously observed. It's the same in Italy, apparently. In my experience things may be a bit more lax in Spain, but I'd always counted Austrians as being fairly ready to toe the line in such things. Clearly not.

I mentioned this to Carlotta when we got back. Yes, of course, she said, and added she was very sorry, she just hadn't thought to tell us. But then she's a smoker.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Return to Vienna (3)

We're in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, a vast, mind-numbing palace of art, conceived in a lavish style of overblown magnificence I can only call Imperial Viennese. I've never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world. But inside it's comfortable and un-cathedral-like, and above all warm after the glacial wind outside, and it's all on a reasonably human scale, as though the architects insisted that man should be the measure of all things.

A massive central hall is open to the domed ceiling three storeys above, painted with an extraordinary trompe l'oeil called The Apotheosis of the Renaissance, where Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Raphael and others and their models and so on are seen from below as though in a sort of heaven. (And very cleverly painted so that decency is preserved and, crick your neck as you may, you can't see up their togas or tunics.) This hall is flanked by white marble stairs wide enough for at least six crinolines abreast: ultramarine and white marble columns support the arches on which the upper floors rest. The spandrels (the triangular-ish spaces between the vertical columns and the tops of the arches) have been decorated by Gustav Klimt, his brother Ernst and a third Viennese artist called Franz Matsch to illustrate the history of art. Ancient Egyptian art, as accounted for below, appears to have appealed particularly to Gustav Klimt.

There are about three British paintings among the hundreds of Italian, Flemish, Dutch, German and Spanish masters. It doesn't matter. We've learnt the hard way that the more paintings you try to take in, in huge collections like this one, the less they begin to mean. We reach saturation point very early, so we've come with a specific intention: we only want to see the Brueghels and the Vermeers.

It turns out that there's only one Vermeer, The Artist's Studio. It's much bigger than we expected it to be. There doesn't appear to be any restriction at all on taking photographs, so here it is:

As the for Brueghels, they too are huge, much bigger than expected. All the famous images are here, Winter Sports, Hunters in the Snow, Children's Games, The Tower of Babel. And the Peasant Wedding, the one where there's an unexplained extra leg underneath the tray (actually a door taken off its hinges) from which they're serving what looks like porridge. Is this Brueghel's joke? I buy a T-shirt for my son Andrew with the Tower of Babel printed on it. It seems very suitable for one whose business is largely localisation, the trade term for commercial translation.

All Vermeered and be-Breugheled up, we go for lunch in the restaurant. I have goulash followed by palatschinken, sweet pancakes with apricot jam. (It is Shrove Tuesday, after all.) On the next table are three Japanese. They have no German and very little English. They are clearly tempted by the obscenely mouth-watering display of confectionery, Mozart bombe, gebackener Topfentorte, Klimt Torte. The waiter asks them what they would like. My localisation experts advise me that in Japanese all words end either with a vowel or with the letter N. Assuming that English must be the same, our neighbours point and say 'Cakie'.

Cakie? the waiter asks, uncertain that he's heard right. They nod enthusiastically. Wouldn't you?

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Return to Vienna (2)

You mustn't hold it against me, this excessively romantic cast of mind. I couldn't rid myself of it, even if I wanted to. I know, you're all so pragmatic and down-to-earth, so sensible and clear-visioned, you've got your feet so firmly fixed on the ground that the following story may mean nothing to you. In fact, if I were you I should stop reading right now and do something sensible, like make a Yorkshire pudding, clean out the hamsters, pay the electricity bill and get your calceolarias in. Right? You've been warned...

* * *

My first thought after leaving school at 18 was to get myself to Vienna to pay homage at the grave of Beethoven. His music had irradiated me, thrilled me, sent shivers down my adolescent spine, excited me to a world-view of limitless, Olympian joy. He had to be thanked. So I and a particularly complaisant friend set off hitch-hiking to Vienna. (A truncated version of this saga appears in the very earliest Lydian Airs posts, back in 2008. My friend, whose real name was Martin, is called George in that account, I don't know why. And as for 'Adèle', her real name was Gudrun.)

According to my information at the time Beethoven (d.1827) and Schubert (d.1828) lay side by side in a little park in the 18th district of Vienna. We found them easily, two elongated mounds with lichen-grown, obelisk-like headstones. On Schubert's headstone there was his name and a lyre. On Beethoven's there was his name and the figure of a butterfly carved into the stone. My information (a biography of Beethoven by Marion Scott) interpreted this butterfly as a symbol of freedom. I bowed the grateful knee. And touched my forelock respectfully to Schubert, whose music I loved too, but not with the same ardour that I felt for the Master. Duty done, we came home.

Then some years later I read, to my horror, that in 1874 the Vienna city council had opened a new municipal cemetery two or three miles out of town, the Zentral Friedhof, where the great and good, present and past, as well as the humble of Vienna would henceforth be buried. To this end they dug up Beethoven and Schubert from their little private graveyard and transferred what remained of their remains to new resting places with their fellow musicians. The quiet graves beside which I had paid homage had been empty. Schubert's lyre hardly respected the truth, and Beethoven's butterfly had flown.

So last week in Vienna, in fact on my birthday, and with J. as complaisant as my friend Martin had been, I put the record straight. I bought two red roses from a flower stall in the city centre, we took a taxi to the Zentral Friedhof, found the true graves and I laid a rose on each.

We came back to the city centre by one of the characteristic Viennese red and white trams. There were no means that we could find for buying tickets, so I'm afraid we bilked the fare. But next day we bought a book of 10 public transport tickets, valid equally for any journey by tram, bus or underground. We didn't use them all, so I suppose our consciences are clear.

And I feel I've discharged my obligations, even if it took me half a century to do so.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Return to Vienna (1)

I hadn't been back to Vienna for 51 years. With the utmost generosity J. took me there for a long weekend to mark my birthday. What happened will probably occupy blog posts for weeks. For now, the events of those crowded and climactic few days were encompassed - well, more or less - on the Do Not Disturb card the hotel invited us to display outside our door each morning. (If we weren't ready for the chambermaids, that is: for the record, there was an alternative card which read Please Clean My Room.)


I am reading a mystery novel
I am collecting my thoughts
I am contemplating my future
I am remembering things past
I am so happy to be in my room
I am trying to concentrate
I am enjoying a pastry
I am being inspired by a book
I am listening to music
I am planning my evening out
I am watching a great film
I am thinking about a career change
I am reflecting on my decisions
I am sitting in the lotus position
I am tasting a glass of wine
I am enjoying coffee
I am stimulating my curiosity
I am writing a love letter
I am dreaming of a bright tomorrow

Friday, 10 February 2012


For the last ten days it has been bitterly cold with icy winds keeping temperatures down well below zero (-9 is our record and it's much colder elsewhere) despite bright day-long sunshine. Typical winter anticyclone weather, no suggestion at all of the straw hats, shorts and T-shirts generally associated with the south of France. Our friend A. came round last night, complaining about the draughts in his house. Chief culprit was the cat-flap. The wind had been so strong, with gale force gusts, that it just blew the cat-flap open and the Arctic blast swooshed through the house freezing everything in its path, especially A.'s and Mrs A.'s ankles. A recent gust was the last straw, A. told us: intolerant of such things sent to try us, he aimed a kick at the cat-flap. It shattered, leaving a hole through which the polar winds blew in their icy fury.

I believe a new cat-flap is on the A. household shopping list, but meantime the hole has been securely patched, probably with the sort of cast-iron plates they used to make Dreadnoughts out of. The result seems to be that A.'s cats are now put out last thing at night, and spend all night scritching and scratching at the windows and mewing to get in. So no one's a winner.

We have no choice. Our cat Tonip is too thick to understand how cat-flaps work, so ours is permanently propped open with a couple of clothes pegs.

I wondered recently what the arrangement was at Wells cathedral. Cat-flaps aren't a thing one readily associates with cathedrals. The question arose because on our UK travels last autumn we spent an hour or two in Wells, mostly in the cathedral. There were many remarkable sights to be seen, none more notable than the main altar in the nave, where, oblivious of the bustling ecclesiastical activity about it, a cat was fast asleep on the richly-worked altar cloth.

At the cathedral reception desk we asked about the cat. We learnt that his name was Louis, he was the cathedral cat, and that the minor canon (or some such title) on duty had to put him out at night. No cat-flap, then: does Louis also spend cold nights scratching at the stained-glass windows, mewing to be allowed in?

In view of the expression 'poor as a church mouse' I wanted to ask if a diet of cathedral mice was any richer. Louis certainly looked sleek and well-fed. But a queue was gathering behind us and we had a plane to catch at Bristol, so the question remains unanswered.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Bagpipes in the boot

My friend R. asked me today if I'd ever played the bagpipes. I think he was quite surprised when I said yes, I had.

Three months after starting teaching in Southampton, now many years ago, I had an unexpected tax refund. There seemed at the time nothing more prudent nor praiseworthy than to spend this windfall, about £40, on a set of bagpipes. So I did, and spent several months thereafter, mostly in the school hall after the kids had gone home, wrestling with the beastly things. Eventually I beat them into submission, and even the long-suffering school cleaners remarked on how I had improved.

Using mostly recorder fingering I mastered various pipe tunes, Bonnie Dundee, The Old Rustic Bridge by the Mill, The Brown Bear and curiously named dances like Mrs Farquharson's Farewell to Towcester. In my vanity I used to keep these pipes in the boot of my car, at that time an MG Magnette, so that it would be work of a moment to take them out and give them a blow to jolly up any party I might be invited to.

Pride went before the inevitable fall. One sub-zero January night, at a party in Totton, an area of Southampton not known for its devotion to the Great Highland Bagpipe, at about 2am, just as things were livening up, my hosts invited me to blow up a reel or two and give the party - and the neighbours - no end of a treat. Out I went into the wintry night to fetch my £40-worth from the boot. (If you're reading this in the USA, and I hope you are, 'boot' means 'trunk'.) They were strangely, inexplicably, rigid. With horror I realised what had happened: naturally prey to interior condensation with all that blowing, they were frozen. Yes, frozen stiff. Lifting them out was like manipulating a dead miniature giraffe as rigor mortis sets in.

I took them inside to warm them. Attempting to ease the chanter out of the stock (see diagram above) before it had properly thawed, I split it open along the grain of the wood.

I never played them again. Later I took the chanter to a craftsman in wood for repair. He made an excellent job of the outside. You wouldn't have known there had been any damage. But it isn't the outside that matters: it's the perfect conical bore of the inside that guarantees the accuracy of the bagpipe scale. Inside the chanter my craftsman friend had, all unknowing, left little dowels and splints, globs of glue and lumps of plastic wood. The people of Totton were spared.

* * *

One reason why I left the blogosphere temporarily last autumn, absenting myself a good bit longer than I expected, was to deny myself the pleasure of posting two or three times a week when I should instead have been devoting my time to the composition of a piano trio. This Trio, a 25-minute work for piano, violin and cello, is now finished and the parts have been sent off to the musicians who are due to give it its first performance here in France on August 18th. (You can find details here: click on 'Concerts 2012'.)

It would be a delight to see any blog-friends, or indeed anyone at all, at this concert, if you happen to be planning summer holidays just now, maybe with the south of France in mind. No bagpipes, I promise.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Struck by lightning

Reading Graham Robb's The Discovery of France (a must-read for people who think they've already done so by living here) I come across the origin of that extraordinary expression The Postilion Has Been Struck By Lightning.

I discover that a certain Madame de Genlis in 1799 wrote a French-German phrase-book called Traveller's Manual for French Persons in Germany and German Persons in France. Clearly horse-drawn travel was not without risk. Here are a few excerpts:

Postilion, this horse is worthless. It is restive. It is skittish. I am decidedly loath to take it.

Postilion, can one place a harp in its carrying-case on the luggage rack?

What kind of road is it? It is strewn with rocks.

Postilion, I believe that the wheels are on fire. Please look and see.

Postilion, a man has just climbed on to the back of the coach. Make him get down.

Postilion, allow this poor man to climb on to the seat. He is so tired! Leave him alone. He is an old man!

Postilion, the king-pin has fallen out. The suspension has snapped.

The coach has overturned. The horses have just collapsed.

Is anyone hurt? No, thank God. The horse is badly wounded. It is dead.

The postilion has fainted. Gently remove the postilion from beneath the horse.

There is a large lump on his head. Should we not apply a coin to the lump in order to flatten it?

Poor man! Be assured I sympathize with your suffering.

* * *

And while I'm on the subject, I remember hearing many years ago about a certain none-too-literate policeman in the little town of Forres, in Morayshire, which wasn't far from where we used to live. A horse had collapsed and died in Urquhart (pronounced something like 'erkut') Street. The policeman arrived, took out his notebook and pencil and began his report. The spelling of 'Urquhart' was quite beyond him. Not without resource, he directed the crowd of bystanders to drag the dead horse round the corner into the High Street.