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.