I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
I re-comment on comments and re-re-re-comment on re-re-comments.
* One exception: short stories.

Friday, 20 May 2016

The need


Short story (1647 words plus*)
*Editing note: Apart from hubris my most serious fault when writing fiction is over-compression. Blame my former trade. This story was no exception and excessive cutting led to some incoherence. The latter paras have been expanded in the hope of greater clarity.

GIVEN the presbytery’s gaunt interior, the view down to the crowded marina was definitely a distraction, a possible text for one of Fr. Rivière’s more insidious homilies about the trivia of wealth. But might music also be thought trivial, mere decoration for the saving of souls? Wycombe, on tenterhooks, must wait and see.

“Ah, Monsieur Wi – comb.”

Wycombe was long used to the French version of his surname and its evocation of the cemetery. What always surprised him was that Fr. Rivière was still in his thirties. His seriousnesss, gloom even, was that of someone far older with all the years necessary to be disappointed by the world.

The priest pointed towards an unyielding wooden chair, sculpted for discomfort and too large for its surroundings like the majority of French furniture. “You are here to talk about your wife. The nature of eternal peace, no doubt. Should we spend a moment’s contemplation of Marie who died a good Catholic.”

Already sitting, Wycombe bowed his head instead of stumbling to his feet. Clasped his hands together. The priest whispered inaudibly, possibly in Latin though that seemed unlikely. The church’s attitude towards languages frequently confused Wycombe.

Fr Rivière’s moment lasted exactly sixty seconds. When he looked up his rosy face was betrayed by its lack of expectation. He murmured, “As I said, a good Catholic. Generous too.”

Marie’s will had included a sum to pay for an improved watering system for the beds of flowers surrounding the church. The sheer pragmatism of that jibbed with the subject Wycombe must now raise. He began, crablike.

“Marie thought a good deal about your church, Father.”

The priest’s face remained impassive as if Wycombe had not spoken. Perhaps the words weren’t sufficiently stirring.

“A source of great spiritual comfort to her.”

Fr. Rivière shrugged at this as truism.

Wycombe spoke more quickly. “She had a great love of the choir, you know. Felt it enhanced the Word of God.” Unable to recall an exact translation of “enhanced” he substituted “added to”, possibly risking a charge of casual heresy. Wycombe could say things in French that would have been impossible in English. Grandiose concepts, emotional matters.

Fr. Rivière’s eyebrows rose. “You wish to discuss the choir, then?”

“You have an excellent choir.”

“Indeed.”

Wycombe spoke almost confidentially, upheld by a week’s research. “And if I’m not mistaken, your church supports an older, more rigorous view of how a choir should be employed during Mass.”

Fr. Rivière leant forward slightly.

Wycombe said, “It was Pope Pius X who recommended...”

“The Holy Father believed music was God’s gift and should be used accordingly.”

“Which the present-day secular world might not understand.”

“There is biblical precedent. Ideally choirs should consist only of men. Today’s fashions about gender are meaningless.”

“Men, as in Solesmes, the monastery...”

Fr. Rivière’s eyes gleamed. “The celibate example.”

“Pius X also believed that the congregation should – in a perfect world – rehearse the Gregorian Chant with the choir.”

But now Wycombe had gone too far, causing the priest to slump back. “The Holy Father may have been too visionary for that period, so soon after the war. We have not succeeded with the laity.” He cleared his throat to despatch failure. “But monsieur you have some comment...”

Wycombe straightened up. “Father, I sing. Immodestly I may say I sing well.” That at least was true; now came the lie. “It was Marie’s wish I should offer my services to the choir. That I should help your choir glorify God.”

Doubt invaded the rosy cheeks. “Your wife was French. But you are...”

“I have recorded choral music in England, worked with sound studios in London. Small expert groups of singers - works by Byrd and Tallis.”

Conscious, of course, that these distant foreign names were not Fauré, Duruflé, Messiaen. Time to mention money even if that too was a lie; money which did not actually exist. “Recording is expensive, of course. But the church’s name can benefit; the recordings can reach out to a wider congregation. And my wife, my blessed wife, made allocations for...”

“Ah, yes.” Fr. Rivière’s voice took on a yearning note. “But your faith, monsieur. You are not I suppose...”

“My wife hoped  I would take instruction.” The biggest lie of all.

“Ah!”

The silence lasted minutes and was excruciating. Wycombe discovered his hands were still clasped and slowly unhooked them. Fr. Rivière stared blankly toward the window through which he could have seen the marina harbouring the playthings of the rich. Wycombe had never been rich but in the parlance of south-east England had been comfortably off. Silently he cursed the circumstances of Marie’s birth, his willingness to move to a more splendid residence but in a country not his own, and the restricted life he now lived.

“Father, I must sing,” he said clearly, unequivocally.

After the lies it was a relief to tell the truth, even though he was now discarding subversion and depending on the priest’s mercy. “I believe that my need is Heaven-sent; that with goodwill it can be converted into a hymn of God’s love.”

The priest bestirred himself. “The instruction, Monsieur... It might be delicate. It might be seen as cause and effect. I must also speak to our choralist, he may wish to advise me.”

THE KITCHEN had the most responsive acoustics. He sang Schubert’s Fruhlingsglaube, started on the picture aria from Magic Flute but did not finish it. Recalling the lies he had told he turned superstitiously to Bach and challenged himself with tricky recitative from Ein fest’ Burg. Knowing, of course, these three works were all in German and German was a luxury he might have to renounce if Saint-Nicolas de l’Estuaire opened its doors to him. The sounds bounced back from the tiled walls, hard and true but lacking heart. Marie was no longer there to suggest a stronger ellision within “Er hilft uns frei...”

As a further act of superstition he phoned the agency in Brest where the house was listed. He was told yet again the market was plutot calme. The last enquiry had been weeks ago and had confirmed the price he was asking would always be the sticking point. But reducing the price here in Brittany would condemn him to nothing better than a semi in somewhere horrible like Staines. Very close to London Airport.

It hadn’t always been like this. Earlier there’d been money for trips back to Teddington for recording sessions. Even to pay for a high-level voice coach in Rennes.

What’s more he’d sung here in Brittany. Marie, born in Paris, had had a talent for rural friendship. There’d been gentle parties where he’d entertained with a hired accompanist and well-chosen programmes. He’d known enough to choose indigenous works - student fragments by Bizet and Ravel, modern words for Charpentier with a bit of Piaf thrown in here and there. A happy old age beckoned.

Then the melanoma had intervened, savagely and swiftly. The health facilities had been superb but powerless. And money had gone on transport, a desperate holiday in the Alpes Maritime, luxuries intended to deflect Marie’s mind from what lay ahead. Finally a funeral with black plumes and a horse-drawn carriage. Wine, of the sort Wycombe preferred, was down to two bottles a month.

The overgrown garden would have saddened Marie and he hurried back indoors. Drank the last of the cognac from a decanter that would forever remain empty. Sang a dozen chromatic scales in the kitchen to drive out reflection.

WEEKS passed before the choralist got in touch and the audition was held in the church hall where girls practised basketball at the far end. At great expense Wycombe had familiarised himself with Gregorian Chant material; now, bemused, he was asked to render demisemiquaver vocalise that ran through all the intervals, sounds that the Solesmes monks might never have heard.

As a final sop he was asked to sight-read a folk-song arrangement written by Poulenc, surely while still in his teens. M. Saulnier, the choralist, stared up from the keyboard, tending to increase the tempo throughout, the overhead lights flashing from his unnerving rimless glasses.

It was quickly over. M. Saulnier smiled thinly. “You have a fine voice, monsieur. But you are of course an Anglo-Saxon tenor.”

"By which I take it you mean I'm not French. That I don't do the... I'm sorry, the French word escapes me."

"Tell me in your own language, then," said M. Saulnier, speaking English for the first time.

"Warble."

Again the thin smile. "A charming word, monsieur. Usually your fellow citizens prefer something more pejorative."

He'd walked to the church hall in mild weather, now the wind had a sharp sting to it. Going home held no attraction, the house was empty, perhaps hollow. Down below lay the marina with its flash, white-walled capitainerie. Ironic that Fr. Rivière hadn't had to confront Wycombe's religiosity, that a small stitch-up had sufficed. He felt the need to do something un-French and took the cliff steps downwards.

Huge windows dominated the building's new extension. Wycombe could just see the bows of the tiny single-berth cruiser he and Marie had bought almost a decade ago. A pouting receptionist had just reminded him that mooring fees were overdue and he had countered by asking for a weather forecast. “Heavy rain at midday, winds 50 kph from the west, strengthening in the afternoon.” A lively prospect.

A drink at the bar first? Cognac to compensate for the empty decanter? Wycombe stood in the foyer, indeterminate. The woman receptionist – quite attractive now she had lost her pout – turned to examine Wycombe more closely. “Monsieur is not thinking of going out?”

He was still wearing the suit he had chosen for the audition. With its sombre tie. If he craned his head to the right he'd have been granted a distant view of the presbytery.  He imagined Fr. Rivière looking down grimly, sensing Wycombe's indecision, expecting another of the pastoral disappointments mankind had furnished throughout his short life..

Mind afloat he glanced at the receptionist’s name brooch. “Tell me Janine, have you ever heard of Kindertotenlieder?”

“But of course, monsieur. The "dead baby songs" - such a grim title. Mahler.”

“You know them!”

 “There is more to France than Jacques Brel, monsieur. I have two recordings but I ration their use. They are sad, unbearably sad.”

A young woman working in this heartless structure who knew about sadness. On impulse and softly, so that no one but Janine could hear, he sang the opening line,“Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n...”

Unbelievably she hummed the next line.

Tears flowed wetly and he refused to wipe them away. Laughed shakily, “Thank you, Janine. In answer to your question: no I am not going out. These are not the right clothes, are they?”

Monday, 16 May 2016

A mort for words?

My mother's first typewriter had no shift-key; capitals were mixed with lower-case letters on a huge shelf-like keyboard. From them, aged about eight, I picked out a story about a boxer fighting a cheat given to "heel-gouging".

Later, for the newspaper, using my own portable, I reviewed amateur plays, reported AGMs and court cases and transcribed interviews with local celebrities. For a slew of magazines I covered bike and motorbike races, described how to build a hi-fi loudspeaker enclosure and publicised apartment block developments. Towards retirement I explained how carefully-planned warehouses combined with forklift trucks could save companies cash, time and space.

I wrote many, many letters.

I learned facility: I could write a thousand-word article directly on to the typewriter in an hour.

In my spare time I wrote novels:

SHE sat on the sharp rim of the bath, balanced her odd little mirror on the window-sill, peered myopically and started to arrange her hair. This was how her day started.

Uncomfortably.

short stories:

When United gave away the second goal Taylor’s treble voice died and enthusiasm turned to fractiousness. He kicked the seat in front – happily unoccupied – and looked away from the pitch. She’d have bought him a burger if the price hadn’t been beyond her.

and sonnets:

It suits me well, the role of absentee.
One mention, then perhaps a genteel cough;
Soon lost in bouncing waves of repartee


Until this year I couldn't imagine not writing. Now I can. In exchange for being able to sing Quilter's setting of Oh Mistress Mine, in tune and with a solid tone.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Leather's sentiment

I need to remind myself of brother Nick, six years younger but distant from me in Alzheimer's toils. I remembered him this morning, fumbling with my wristwatch unable to work the strap buckle. Not surprising, the buckle had disappeared.

This happens regularly. The strap consists of stitched leather. Sweat from my wrist rots the stitching; strap and buckle part company. The strap doesn't have to be leather - theoretically it could be expanding metal, but alas no: a sub-editor I admired described metal straps as "a mark of the beast" and ever since I've taken him at his word. That was in 1952.

Instead, for a time, I used a cheap (but secure) plastic strap of the sort shown. But then Nick pronounced. Nick, by the way, was a company MD, had wealth, lived a stylish life and wasn't given to compromise. "With that watch," he said, "you should use a better strap."

Nick knew the watch was expensive and was a gift from VR. Hence the pricey leather - pretty if risky, but also a reminder that pierces Alzheimer's veil.

Hardline Hope, a novel (19,453 words)
Two hundred yards away black teenagers were playing on what remained of a basketball court. Only one of the hoops still remained and that was bent down. Much of the court’s wire netting had been torn away from the angle-iron posts. The shallow bowl surrounding the court ensured that all mobile rubbish accumulated precisely in this area.

None of which meant anything to the dozen youths. Even to someone as ignorant of the sport as Lindsay their intensity was unmistakable as was their elegant skill. It was of course the great liberator, nourished in the black US ghettos and now spread to Britain; a way out of poverty that was also cool.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Too many damned questions

Desserts. When it's up to me they never change: on non-diet days a raspberry-cranberry yoghurt (always eaten with the same thick-handled teaspoon), on diet days a Braeburn apple and a satsuma. However VR not only hates alimentary sameness she hates it on my behalf; yesterday she made us plum crumble.

I reflect. That yoghurt/fruit duo has persisted for several years, perhaps a decade. Partly due to old age, resistance to what's new. You could say repeated meals are in themselves harmless. But are they symptomatic of something more serious? Am I also sticking with the same literary diet? Should I really be watching As You Like It for the tenth time or relishing the new Don DeLillo? Worse still, am I now thinking the same thoughts?

Am I now left-wing by habit, not conviction? Do I reject new ideas if they are ungrammatically expressed? Is my liking for Germany born out of unrefreshed sentimentality? Are my fantasy women film-stars on the elderly side?

I took up singing recently. At age eighty. But did I want to prove I could do something radically new? A slightly ignoble reason.

Note in passing: this is not a post about yoghurt. Or Braeburns.

This is also familiar speculation. Hardening of the arteries goes with old bodies; hardening of opinion is equally prevalent. Ought I to seek out debate with younger, more energetic thinkers? Fine if they opened my eyes and my brain. But suppose I wiped the floor with them, for I am an unpleasant and tenacious arguer?

Enough. Enough. One of Roman Polanski's best movies ends with the words: "It's Chinatown, Jake." Here, something more old-fashioned: "It's anno domini, RR."

Thursday, 5 May 2016

As James did to Louis

When did you last betray a friend? Five years ago? Ten? Never? Chances are it was within the last twenty-four hours.

Here's how. You've happily experienced a painting. It could have been a novel, a sonata, a sunset, a conversation or a sausage-roll; in which case the language may differ but not the nature of the betrayal.

You feel you must communicate this happy experience to a friend. You say: The painting looked like its subject (But a photo would have been even more realistic.). Its colours were well-chosen (But didn't nature choose the colours anyway?). It was inspired (By what? To what end?). It matches the painter's style (So what's the painter's style?). You get the idea. In broad terms you lied, not intentionally but because what you said didn't get close to "the truth". Whatever that is.

Your verbal inadequacy has left your friend uninformed about your happy experience. Since you felt it important to pass on details of this event, you've let your friend down. Betrayed your friend. But don't worry, your friend probably betrayed you twenty-four hours previously. It is in the nature of being human. Words are all we have. Words - so easy to understand as singletons, so slippery in groups.

V, my singing teacher, used to apologise before correcting me. But we've moved on. Things are more difficult (Intervals: oof!); V now shouts "No!" and I rectify. The level of difficulty, I’m told, betokens my progress. A happy event verifiable on the piano keyboard. I am unbetrayed because what V conveyed did not depend on the meaning of words.

Going back to that painting you enjoyed, perhaps you should try la-la-ing your happiness to your friend. You don't sing? Well V's tuition is worth a guinea a box.

Monday, 2 May 2016

More - fervent - bardolatry

Why would one consider Hamlet in Russian? Pared down from a maximum 4 hr 15 min to 2 hr 20 min? With English subtitles (translated by Boris Pasternak - remember him?) arriving so thick and quick one hardly has time to watch the action. Starting at 23.00 BST.

VR and I had one flimsy reason. We dimly remember the movie got good UK reviews when launched in 1964. Also we're both committed to watching any and all Hamlets as they crop up.

It happened last night on BBC 4, the channel those wretched Tories want to close down. Reluctance was gone in five minutes. We were silent and riveted. This Hamlet is in my Top Five whatever the language. Here's to director Grigori Kozintsev.

I know, I know. If you've got this far you've got questions. Russian translated into English? For what reason? Didn't WS write Hamlet in English? I'll get to that.

Envisage Hamlet set by a raging sea. In a huge castle that justifies the Prince's wandering. Scenes as inventive as any in Citizen Kane (The Ghost’s long cloak streaming like a dragon's tail). A Hamlet who, while being cruel to Ophelia, evokes an earlier tenderer version of himself. Hamlet, dying, stumbling from the blood-boltered fencing scene out into daylight, where Fortinbras's final judgement ("For he was likely, had he been put on, To have prov'd most royally...") becomes more poignant, makes more sense. A Gertrude whose incestuousness may have had other outlets. Music by Shostakovich.

And those subtitles? Many speeches have been cut but what remains is rendered in Russian poetry. Which Pasternak then renders in - sort of - English poetry. Vandalism? Ah, no. If you care for WS or poems in a foreign tongue please see it. This is true Hamlet, I promise.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Lump-bagging

Sir Hugh (left), dressed to withstand blizzards;
 RR (right), obviously a townie but note the boots
Brother Sir Hugh is staying, partly for social reasons, partly to feed his obsession for walking. But not simply ambling to Tesco for a litre of semi-skinned, there are rules. Once he walked from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean along the Pyrenees. These days, sere and tortured by his exertions, he pursues more modest projects: bagging all the landscape lumps in England of a certain height. He invites me to climb a trio of lumps within spitting distance of where I live.

I'm older than Sir Hugh. Years ago I foresaw there'd come a time when I'd only be capable of  a sedentary life. This has now happened; it's one reason why I compose sonnets. Sir Hugh insisted his lumps were hardly distinguishable from the flat.

My “walking” boots were last worn thirty years ago. Dust had stiffened the laces, making them hard to tighten. But the thick leather had maintained its contours and despite the boots' enormous weight they were a reassurance. I felt I could kick to death any importunate mugger.

I'd forgotten about going uphill. When my breathing started to scare cows Sir Hugh tactfully stopped for unspecified strategic reasons. Resuming I made no more noise than a slumbering spaniel. The eventual panoramic view encompassed the distant Malverns and the even more distant Black Mountains (in Wales).

The second lump was wooded, diminishing any sense of altitude. Alas we picked up an Ancient Mariner figure, in favour of Brexit (England's departure from the European Union) and much given to interference.

The final ascent was deceptive: the initial lane was unpleasantly steep and filled me with hatred. On my return I was able to jog-trot down this section and thus take my revenge. Walking is sustained by many similar delusions.