Friday, 10 December 2021

Les Jeudistes Scottish Choir Tour No. 3

Tir nan Og
Ullapool, far away on Scotland's remote north west coast, has a dreamy, Local Hero quality to it, a siren-song that calls you to ditch everything and just lap yourself in the still waters of Loch Broom, cradle yourself in the mountains of Wester Ross and stay there forever. There's a Gaelic expression for it: Tir nan Og, which means something like the 'country of the ever-young'. Or fairyland. It's not like that at all, of course. Things are seldom what they seem. Les Jeudistes enjoyed the 50-mile drive there, oohing and aahing at the North Highland scenery, especially when after miles of bleak moorland you suddenly begin to descend towards the Atlantic coast with its temperate climate (thank you, Gulf Stream), lush vegetation and seductive views of the little town and port of Ullapool. And maybe in keeping with the unreality of all this there's nowhere to pull in and take photos. Except maybe of the road sign that says 'A835 Stornaway/Steòrnabhagh', which is about 50 miles away by sea across the Minch. To be fair, the road sign shows an image of a car ferry. Place names are given in English and Gaelic in this part of the world. We're due to share the concert programme with a New Age folk-band calling themselves Pineapple Tuxedo, and it would need someone like Geoff with his encyclopedic knowledge of such things to explain why. And a Gaelic choir, calling itself Coisir ghaidlig an iar tuath. (I'll spare Geoff that one.)
Ullapool High School
We rehearse in the almost brand-new theatre attached to Ullapool High School. Hardly anyone has a local accent, virtually everyone we meet speaks the speech of southern England. Have they all been seduced by Tir nan Og? We meet members of the Gaelic choir. They're all super people, we get on very well. There's an American among them, and I think instantly of Local Hero. Few, if any, speak a word of Gaelic. The songs they sing they've learnt by rote. They have the gist of what they're singing about, but not much more. They rely entirely on their elegant and very musical conductor, Lisa Macdonald, who is a native speaker.
Between rehearsal and concert we stroll down to the water's edge. It's still, sunny and so warm. We sit on the sea-wall, drinking in the view up Loch Broom, lifting up our eyes to the hills. The pull of Tir nan Og is very strong. We could sit here, a happy little band of musicians enjoying each others' company, for ever. It's hard to pull ourselves away, return to the theatre, put on uniform and take the stage. Pineapple Tuxedo (P Tux for short) kicks off, bass guitar, electric guitar, accordion and bagpipes played without the drones. We follow with all my Shakespeare songs, and I'm conscious how curiously incongruous they are in this never-never land. At the interval there's a big surprise. The pipes and drums of Ullapool High School, girls and boys, are drawn up for us in horse-shoe formation on the front concourse, 17 pipers and a dozen drummers including a small lad with a bass drum so large that he probably sleeps in it and rolls to band practice like a hamster in a wheel. They play several military marches, some in the wild harmony that the limited bagpipe scale allows, and far from being dressed in kilt, tunic and plaid like soldiers they're all in ordinary clothes, jeans, trainers, football strip tops and so on. At the end they form up in ranks and march off into the distance, maybe into the very heart of Tir nan Og. But more likely to home, chicken nuggets, Coca-Cola and the X Factor, or whatever. 
In the second half the Gaelic choir sings, maybe a bit diffidently, finishing with a phuirt-a-beul, very rhythmical singing that does duty for dance music when no instruments are available. Les Jeudistes are fascinated. They've never heard anything like this before, a rapid, urgent, toe-tapping succession of sometimes nonsense syllables. Could we do that? they ask, and I skirt round the enormous effort needed to learn this hyper-exotic music at such a far-distant remove from my beloved Brahms or Schubert by saying maybe they could persuade the lovely Lisa Macdonald to come and teach us. We follow with our Occitan songs. We're on level ground with the Gaelic choir here. None of us is a native Occitan speaker. It's all an elegant pretence, one I sometimes feel quite uneasy about, especially when it comes to bilingual road-signs. All the same at the end of the concert I put a few words of Gaelic together, almost my entire vocabulary: Gaidhlteachd gu brath! Tapadh leat, agus oidhche mhath. ('Gaeldom for ever! Thank you, and good night.' Sorry, my spelling might be a bit wonky). I might as well have spoken to my knees for all anyone in the audience could make head or tail of this. The one person who might have understood, Lisa Macdonald, had to go home early to relieve her babysitter. That's Tir nan Og for you. You have to face up to reality some time.

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.

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 her and she went away.

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.