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


Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Comment conundrum

I calculate the optimum length for a blog comment is just under a hundred words. Alas...

For months I've written long comments, fondly imagining these monsters would demonstrate my interest, would prove I took the recipient’s post seriously. Vain hope. Length risks being misunderstood. It may embarrass those less grandiloquent. The final paras may remain unread.

Not that I favour cyber-short-form. For twenty minutes I had a Facebook account. Terrifying! Like inspecting my own tombstone - faces of the damned inching their way across my screen. While Tweeting is surely for those who would prefer to bark, cheep, howl, miaow, hiss or otherwise imitate animals.

There are people out there who write well and interestingly and I want more from them. Most are polite and have indulged me. But over-stuffing is for turkeys not humans. I devised a formula for an optimum comment:

Lapel-gripping start. Obsequious compliment. Not forgetting the comment author. Changing to a more profitable subject. Ending with self-promotion.

Constructed an example but, dissatisfied, deleted it. Pondered the essence of a comment which is – surely – to respond. But more than: Great post! Your recipe for cupcakes really touched me. I didn’t get past page four of that book. Happy Birthday.

One may always fib but after 1441 posts I’ve forgotten most of them; I could be revealed as a fibber. Fantasy becomes wearing. Ignore the original post and write any old stuff but that’s kind of Olympian. Correct the grammar and “improve” the syntax; hmmm; ask brother Sir Hugh about his reaction to that.

Asking for help is often productive but may be inappropriate; cupcakes, for instance, don’t figure in my life. Quote a poem (and risk being a show-off). TV programmes? Nah!

Stick to long comments? Pro tem? Avoid Latin tags?

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Spine game


I find myself reading Jay Mcinerney’s Bright Precious Days - post-9/11 New Yorkers snorting coke (and worse), fornicating with their best friends’ wives, spending money and setting a bad example to their offspring. More interesting is the way I acquired it.

Recently our supermarket set aside a table for unwanted books. Collection boxes prodded the consciences of those who took away their choices. An optimistic project, I thought. Hereford is notorious for mean-spirited tipping. Happily I was wrong. Quite quickly several thousand pounds were accumulated for local charities and the scheme continues.

Eventually I was drawn in. I say “eventually” because the scheme first needed to pass through its self-purging stage – ridding itself of Da Vinci Codes and of Fifty Shades of Greys. An invasion of Readers Digest collections, bound in shining (ie, unread) false leather, further hindered the commercial flow. Then, predictably, Ian McEwan titles started appearing and I could start playing Spine Game.

How is it one can narrow down second-hand book searches via the meagre information on the spine? Often it may depend on a no-longer-fashionable typeface. Or less lurid colours. Or a more modest rhetoric in the title. Another giveaway is whether the cover is scuffed, for scuffing is a sign of love. No one reads Dan Brown twice.

More important still is the conviction that in swathes of junk treasures will be rare. One must pay attention. My friend the late Joe Hyam was especially good at this. How galling it was to see him picking out a horribly shabby Everyman of Burke’s essays which my eyes had slid over. I mean Everyman spines are immediately identifiable by their poorly conveyed information.

No Everymans at the supermarket. But the first fifty pages of BPD were dense and technically well written. Spine Game continues.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Why and how

I sing.
You garden.
He works wood.


We philatelise.
You (pl.) ice cakes.
They high jump.


What makes my indulgence unique? It requires no baggage. One short warm-up and a flabby octogenarian, unkempt and unsexy, becomes a musical instrument. Somewhat battered, pitch unreliable, rhythmically uncertain but - Hey! - capable of rendering Wer ein Liebchen hat gefunden recognisably as a song. On a good day the score unscrolls in front of the inner eye. Not just a man but a baritone.

Singing's portable though it's not without effort. Taking in air becomes opportunistic; getting enough is hard. Forgetting the libretto is a failing the aged flesh is heir to. Best stay with the original since translations can be banal.

What’s a surprise is that the end-product is just as physical as stretching after sleep, diving into the pool, kissing the beloved. Like a pipe on a church organ the body resonates with what is created, offering its own applause. Away from the supermarket check-out the ear feeds on well-organised audio and is fulfilled. On a very good day the throat seems to relax (but doesn’t) and pitched sounds emerge stresslessly, flying like house martins.

The Song is You, sings Sinatra. And he’s right. The version you are creating has never existed before, it is the combined output of your memory, your inclination, your training, and your vocal mechanism. At the last note it will be gone: you may dwell on its successes and ignore its failures.

Your teacher plays/sings a repeated ascending phrase. You duplicate it. There’s no time to prepare, in realtime you draw it out of a ragbag mind and send it on its way. It is accepted. Now here’s another, half a tone higher. Afterwards – paradoxically – you ask: “Could I do that?”

Friday, 17 August 2018

Too late, I fear

A third of News at Ten (ten minutes - an eternity on TV) was devoted to Aretha Franklin who died recently. I was aware of her, notably via Sesame Street; Oscar the Grouch kept her records in the trash-bin where he lived. What I was unaware of was her worldwide significance. Big names were her friends and Obama wept at a 2016 performance.

Aretha Franklin sang soul and I have no idea what soul is. Rather I imagined it to be perhaps reflective, an expression of the black burden: yet last night’s initial extracts were fast, loud and assertive. The Obama extract (You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman - I've just looked it up) was longer, more varied and I had time to respond.

Yes, I could latch on. Time to hear it again in full.

Done that. I'll ditch emotion and dwell on one skill - the mastery of rhythm. The ability to float away from a comparatively simple accompaniment, to stretch out, to compress, to expand a single lyric word into a whole ode of meaning, to snap, to move physically, to find time to smile or (more often) to frown with concentration, without departing for a nanosecond from the swinging heartbeat of the chosen piece of music. Swing is at the core of US music. I’ve heard fire-brigade bands and hack ensembles of Boy Scouts swing. Franklin's swing is transcendental.

Soul comes poorly defined, a mix of several kinds of popular music although I like "impassioned improvisatory delivery". But what label could be worse than "classical", implying "hallowed by age". Categories are nearly always imperfect. I’m too late for Aretha Franklin since I have other fish to fry, the pan’s already hot and time’s a’wasting. Others, ignorant but younger, should find time.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Fruit of my loom

Singing for others never seemed likely; it was enough to learn, improve and pass on to another song. Subconsciously I accepted that starting from scratch at eighty wouldn’t leave me enough time to entertain an audience, always assuming I had an ounce of natural ability.

Some time ago I posted recordings at others’ urgings. Responses varied from lukewarm politeness to (more often) silence, confirming my suspicions. In any case such exposure was premature. Several basic requirements (notably a voice that was demonstrably my own) hadn’t yet been met.

I sing far better now but still as a student. V dispenses approval carefully: I need encouragement but praise must be precisely and technically worded. I’m a retired wordsmith and alert to what I regard as insincerity. Recently we had two fabulous lessons and the exhilaration, on both sides of the piano, was authentic. Coincidentally three blogging friends then asked me to post recordings. But I still can’t be sure there’s any transmitted pleasure in what I do.

Here are four songs, sung and re-sung for the hard disc, graded according to musical ambition.

Der Lindenbaum, from Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle. Elegant melody in narrow dynamic range. Suitable for advanced warm-up (but without the gruff one-bar fall-out).

I will give my love an apple. More staccato, slightly faster, folksy, a change of pace.

Time stands still. Sublime Dowland; seemingly easier on the singer and thus full of less obvious traps.

An evening hymn. Early English masterpiece by Purcell. Way beyond my abilities and I fear my tempo is uncertain. The Hallelujahs, as you may imagine, present many problems; had to cut out final ones. Very much work in progress.

Three in English, unusual for me. I prefer singing in German. I can’t deny that snobbishness plays a part in pretending to be a musical executant.

NOTE V's house is remote and I couldn't use my phone to play these recordings at my lesson yesterday, so I sang them. This was salutary:

(1) I do not have the score for Der Lindenbaum (it's coming shortly as a birthday present). V pointed out that the third verse, starting "Ich musst' auch heute wanderns..." switches to a minor key on the piano, before switching back again. Whoops!

(2) Apple. The two words "love a" in the second line ("I will give my love a house, etc) take the same note but UP not down. This despite the fact that I do have this score.

Just in case you noticed.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Willing fool

I’ve sung Handel’s Did You Not See My Lady? round the house, behind the steering wheel and in the bath for many years. Perhaps I heard it first at school. Here’s John Morgan, baritone, showing how it should done.

Without warning V added it to our repertoire acknowledging I probably knew it already.

I’m a complete fool about singing lessons, readily seduced by life “on the other side”, a slave to new priorities. But this seemingly simple project made me wary. V’s decisions rarely lack reason. Besides, she warned me: “You’ll go crazy trying to sing ‘lady’ properly.”

V was right. Most lines end with an enforced rest so no languishing there. Also “la-” and “-dy” carry the same time value so singing “ladee” is forbidden. But “la-” (pronounced lay) is a long vowel, while “-dy” (pronounced di)  is short and it’s remarkably difficult to balance out the two sounds without chopping off the second abruptly. Further, the general speed is faster than most amateurs realise (a common fault with amateurs) and singing faster helps with “lady” even if it doesn’t resolve things.

Minor problems? Not quite. I now no longer sing casually but from the score. The suspended tadpoles mean something. V points out other non-intuitive matters and I take these aboard. In the final two lines:

Riv’lling the glittering sunshine,
With a glory of golden hair


I’m encouraged to swell (ie, increase then decrease the volume) on “glory”.

I used to enjoy singing the song from memory for myself. But as my corruptions are stripped away and Handel’s intentions become clear, the disciplined experience becomes something else entirely. I’m taking precise instruction from one of the world’s great composers. Doing his bidding. An utterly seduced fool.

Note: Thomas Allen clip was musically defective and has been removed.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Chewing into oblivion

We had salad last night, we don’t often.

A few leaves of rocket, a small pile of varied beans in vinaigrette, slices of knobbly tomatoes and purple-skinned onion, a freshly made potato salad with chives, a spread-out fan of avocado – edible garnish for a luxuriant terrine of coarsely chopped meats in a style VR has evolved over  half a century.

There should have been stuffed eggs but these went as bitings-on for a novel form of kir royale: very cheap cava ameliorated with splashes of a boozy (15 proof) peach cordial. The latter purchased speculatively – and, it turned out, rewardingly – by younger daughter Occasional Speeder while we were in France.

What was missing from our salad? Ah, that was what gave it its extra quality.

For years in British caffs salads consisted of a mound with a skimpy decorative carapace: three microtomed slivers of tasteless tomato, two discs of hard-boiled egg, a radish sliced into twelve and, if you were lucky, a sardine. The mound? Lots of that very dark, very limp lettuce that tastes of, and chews like, silage. Because, you see, the lettuce is cheap. A fraudulent disguise.

To add to my woes cucumber may have lurked. I gave up British salads in the early fifties and was to discover that salads were always better in virtually all the countries I subsequently visited. Even, I think, Venezuela.

VR has wooed me back. There is some specious talk about eating healthily but it’s all for show. For me good salads start with an absence of lettuce and thereafter strike out into the Land of Inventiveness. Croutons perhaps, some strands of samphire, a detached mermaid’s ear.

Lettuce, strangely, has its addicts but I am beyond their exhortations. Lettuce is for rabbits, both the literal and metaphorical sort.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Going native 2

The villa was in Creissan, 35 km from the Mediterranean, close to the hard-to-pronounce village of Puissergian (Pwee-sair-gian) which quickly became Pussy Galore to our mainly monoglot party of eight. Each morning I awoke to the sight of this olive tree. Tiny olives, the size of peas, were reassuringly foreign.

There I lay, my PJs drenched with overnight sweat, dwelling romantically on my relationship with the difficult concept of France. From the first visit (a few days supervised by my father of Paris's three-star restaurants: "the last part of your education"), to the tours by car, to the scruffy falling-down house we owned for a decade in Loire Atlantique, to the lusher holidays spent in rental villas. Running in parallel with years spent vainly looking for fluency in the language, knowing it would never happen.

The brightly attractive young woman in St Chinian's cave des vignerons, spoke of schists and bottle aging as I tasted my way through half a dozen whites and ros├ęs. She spoke in English and I in French, our competences roughly equal. As I left she paid me what she imagined to be the ultimate compliment, that I spoke good French. Other French citizens have said it too; it's not true. My French is non-idiomatic but what I say strives to be interesting, if possible funny.

The dentist who ministered to VR described his manual skills and I commented - "A sort of carpenter, then." He grunted his approval, but at the idea not the language.

Early morning at the supermarket, the middle-aged women, facing a long day, whipped our purchases through the bar-coder. Quelle vitesse! I said. What speed! She laughed, despite her awful job and my foreignness.

Language is human to human. One is obliged to do the best one can.