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.