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Monday 31 December 2012

The awful skeleton of truth

At three in the morning, two days before Christmas, flashing blue lights outside woke us. Outside our neighbour’s an ambulance and a car had been hurriedly and awkwardly parked. Later we were told Geoff had died of lung cancer.

Geoff and Wendy moved in five years ago. I lent him my aluminium double-ladder and from then on “Good mornings.” and Christmas cards were exchanged. This is how, to the horror of many Americans, Brits endure propinquity in the suburbs.

Last night, when Zach arrived, I noticed strong winds had blown over our outdoor Christmas tree. I re-erected it and it blew over again. Eventually, in my PJs and my new fleece dressing gown, I tied the top of the tree to the wall.

Zach is here for the Hereford panto, VR’s treat. He entered my office this morning at 7.30, half an hour earlier than had been agreed. Breakfast time for him. Two Weetabixes swimming in milk (my anti-milk hand trembled, doing this), a small carton of apple juice and a satsuma. I also turned on the downstairs telly for him, sound almost inaudible. As I returned to my office I saw the tree had remained upright.

One reason I persisted with the tree is because its flickering light might, conceivably, have been a nighttime reassurance of normalcy for Wendy, alone in her house. It might, but never in a million reasons would I have pre-rationalised such an idea. I am up here writing fiction and that, if ever I saw it, is fictional reasoning. I am desperately sorry for Wendy and will, I hope, attend the funeral. But I re-erected the tree because the lights look good at night.
Fiction, by definition, is not truth. It handles truth, but fictively.

Saturday 29 December 2012

Sliding towards 2013

Sir Hugh visits, having delivered daughter/granddaughter Jill/Katie to a wedding in Oxford, a horrible dog's leg that takes up most of Thursday due to overcrowded motorways. He looks knackered and sleeps til nine on Friday - quite uncharacteristically since he normally gets up early and attends to his own breakfast.

Friday, his only full day here, is fragmentary. In preparation for a group he belongs to he attempts to read Christ Stopped at Eboli but only manages a page here and there. His Iphone burbles the arrival of messages, one from a long-standing friend who passes on his reaction to Gorgon Times, saying it resembles David Lodge in some ways. I am absurdly pleased by this.

It's raining. Knowing there'll be a leg of lamb that evening we set out for a "light" pub lunch and end up at The Duck in Ewyas Harold, one of Hereford's pleasingly named villages. The return journey is deliberately stretched out through Grosmont, Skenfrith and St Weonards on deserted narrow roads that are glorious in summer and only slightly less so in winter, evoking the monochrome tiers of a Chinese water colour.

Emails from The Crow and Joe tease away at aspects of short-story writing and VR's lamb comes with sweetheart cabbage deliberately divested of its thicker veins and cooked (with caraway seeds) for three minutes in butter. Whereby it ceases to be an accompaniment, becomes a dish on its own. VR announces she wants to transfer her book reading records to the computer and I argue with Sir Hugh about the relative merits of a database versus a spread sheet.

Now it's 7.16 am and I finish this, wearing my new fleece dressing gown, adjacent to dark windows.

Pic: Ewyas Harold memorial hall, where VR is tutored in painting

Monday 24 December 2012

Out of Arizona - extracts

WHERE IT STARTED The urge to fly dated back to her troubled youth and had then evolved into looking for the toughest job on offer. Mere transportation wasn’t enough and by age sixteen her ultimate goal consisted of slipping an air-to-ground missile down the throat of a two-metre target. She’d even sorted out the morality, reassured that training would equip her with a professional pride, a knowledge (admittedly limited) of international politics and an adult form of patriotism. But everything depended on military correctness: a legitimate target identified and destroyed. Without that clarity the comfort and purpose of military flying disappeared.

JOY OF FLYING And this was that type of joy, wasn’t it? The carpet of south-west France at three thousand feet. Clumps of trees like tight green sponge, orange roof tiles, cars idling along narrow roads like iridescent beetles. A seat of privilege in a well-found vehicle she could trust, linked to like minds who spoke the same pared-down language.

“Auch approach. Foxtrot-Sierra Delta Romeo...

SPANISH DIVERSIONS Go unofficial, she’d said. Unemployed until the plane was serviceable she watched him thread his way through the cat’s cradle of cabling behind the bulkhead. It took him less than an hour.

“Those hands knew what they were doing,” she said as she ran up the engine to test the gauge, he sitting beside her in the passenger seat.

“They have other uses,” he said quietly. His eyes were almost black, deep set into his skull and they were watching her at work as she had watched him earlier. He added, “Most Yankees like paella.”

Thus it had started.

Some realtors had open-plan offices as big as bowling alleys and these she avoided. Instead she made for a smaller frontage claiming to be family-run, flagging the slogan: Coffee and Sympathy (Tea’s for  Sissies). At the door a tall grey-haired man in a much-scuffed suede jacket courteously stepped back and allowed her to enter first. She smiled back at him hurriedly and took this to be an augury.

LEFTISH LEVER "If I’d been sour I’d have been sour about myself. I dropped out of her circle and came to France, as I’d always wanted. My first girlfriend here was PCF, an activist with the railway workers and not terribly likeable. That didn’t stop me. I made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: Tell me about women’s causes, I said. Convert me. The French love supplication, love being asked to teach.”

BRIEF LUXURY Now she had time to appreciate their comfortable way of life. She lay on a lounger on a huge terrace furnished in pinkish local stone, the Pyrenees as a backdrop. The location, south-east of Bayonne, was high enough for her to trace the minor road that led down to the bridge, over the Nive, into Cambo-les-Bains, up the Col de Pinodiéta and, beyond the mountain, southwest to Pamplona in Spain. There was Crystal in her glass...

SIMULATING DISASTER “Gliding at just under four hundred feet.  There’s something beyond two kilometres; a barer area, fewer trees but large rocks. Now we’re under three hundred feet. Nothing ahead. Two hundred. Just dense trees. Tree tops are better than ground level rocks, but only just. Decision time. Full flaps, nose slightly up. Body braced.” He started the port engine.

Jérome shook his head. “Doubt we’d have survived. At least trees are better than houses.”

CHRIS ON BOOKS “Don’t read them cover to cover, dip in, taste them, chuck ‘em into a corner if they don’t suit. Don’t treasure them as things. Books are what they leave behind, they’re not interior decoration. Hardbacks made me uncomfortable even when I had money. Too big, too stiff, too unnecessary. You can stuff a paperback into your pocket. If it falls out buy another. Better still don’t replace it; rely on what you can remember.”

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Sunday 23 December 2012

Older is not necessarily better

Chez Robinson, exchanging presents at this time of year has again been ditched in favour of an eye-watering sum shared and spent on DVD operas. But it's clear this practice will not stretch much further. The "wanteds" were acquired long ago, now we're into slightly more speculative choices and one fell rather heavily at the first fence last night.

The 2012 starters were: Orfeo (Monteverdi), Peter Grimes (Britten), Lulu (Berg), The Rake's Progress (Stravinsky), The Flying Dutchmen (Wagner), The Dream of Gerontius (Not an opera, of course; Elgar). Plus, left over from 2011: Salomé (Strauss, R).

We'd have saved money buying online but we like to support Outback our local CD/DVD store and this led to a little foolishness on my part. In phoning in my list I provided the names of the works only. "I'm not going to patronise you by adding the names of the composers," I said. Which is why we ended up with Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607) rather than the more famous Gluck's (1762).

Wow, what a difference 155 years makes. Monteverdi's Orfeo dates back almost to the dawn of operatic time, has hardly no action, is based on limited-dynamics accompaniment, and demands lengthy prodigies from the tenor who sings Orfeo. Old Claudio does his best to make memorable arias but the melodic limitations inevitably result in some samey-ness.

Which is a shame, as VR pointed out. Because in a later opera, The Coronation Of Poppea, Monteverdi ends it with one of the simplest and most memorable love duets of all time. Which I'm ashamed to say I did not know. It's called Pur ti miro and I've just played it a thousand times. If you don't know it please click, I beg of you

Friday 21 December 2012

Short trip to nowhere

In House, the TV hospital series, scanners are used quite casually - to measure an Adam's apple or check whether a pyjama cord is tied. Typically doctors argue about their sex lives while unfortunates passing through the big white tunnel have nervous breakdowns, burst their aortas or turn into industrial accidents when forgottten metalware within their chest cavity becomes incandescent.

VR worries about claustrophobia but I am now able to reassure her. Someone dropped off the Hereford scanner schedule (having become incandescent through waiting) and I took take their place at 7.20 pm last night. Why so late? Cherchez l'argent. Scanners cost big bucks and a constant flow of soft tissue makes economic sense.

As usual there's humiliation. Having removed all clothing above the waist I had to put on something both my grannies would have called a "pinny", a ludicrous scrap of cotton, worn back to front, too small to enshroud a hamster. I lay on an upholstered bench that looked unnervingly like those final resting places employed in lethal injection executions. When the institutionalised voice of an American woman told me to hold my breath the illusion was complete.

I became disoriented (lethal injection has that effect) as I was moved upwards and inwards although I remembered being grateful I'd removed my Longines wristwatch. In one House episode a small electrical device (perhaps a pacemaker) exploded inside the tube and I doubt it was covered by insurance.

Space wasn't a problem. Depending on your plans there was room for two. A print would be an interesting addition to an album of wedding photographs.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Gorgon Times - extracts

HATCH: TRANS-MANCHE CONTRAST On the wall was a mirror on which art nouveau script advertised a drink called Suze. The words fragmented their reflection: he, the Anglo, with close-cropped brown hair, rolled-up sleeves, golden fuzz on his forearms, facing Lemazaire’s delicate Mediterranean bones, artfully styled black hair and generously cut shirt. “You were supposed to wait. We were to go to Sofimam together.”

HATCH: BARE BONES Weldworth was linked to metal fabrication, an obscure activity to many, a meritocracy based on weld integrity, a service providing the unfamiliar, often hidden skeletons of structures. One wouldn’t expect atriums or courtyard fountains. Wit, such as it existed, lay, perhaps, in a mild-steel lattice where several braces had been ingeniously designed out, maintaining strength yet cutting assembly costs.

CLARE: A COMEDOWN? “Mother, do you disapprove of my career?”

“Disapprove? Goodness you are at odds with yourself. No, I’m impressed beyond measure. You’ve astonished me.”

“Like a dog’s walking on its hind legs?”

Mrs Morgan giggled. “You always get the quotations right. Most people think it’s hinder. That impresses me too. But disapprove? No.”

“In your heart of hearts, though, wasn’t physics a bit of a comedown? Perilously close to dirty finger-nails?”

CLARE: ACADEMIC GLITTER If the reasons were obvious the event was splendid. So splendid that she had no hesitation in doffing her tailored chalk-stripe for something far more extrovert: an ostentatious silk gown with deeply scalloped neckline, specified and bought for that evening alone, her response to Wadham honouring its brightest and best. Six months previously she’d been appointed UK technical vice-president of one of the world’s great software giants, the youngest to hold the job and the first woman. Tonight the college’s crystal contained Latour.

“Guy I knew joined the Middlesex Press Group. Oxford, modern languages. Prepared to do the grind, the long hours, the lousy pay. Got sent out on a house fire and came back worried. ‘What do I do? I couldn’t think of anything more to ask. With more time I could have made a list. But I didn’t have the time.’ I thought it wasn’t time you lacked, mate, it was instinct. I gave him three months but he was out in as many weeks. Works in PR at three times the salary. He has the hair for it; long, light brown, keeps falling over his eyes."

CLARE: THE IT SWITCH “A tide in the affairs of man. During that time most of us found development work had more to do with using computers than, shall we say, visible engineering. And computer skills transfer to other branches of industry. I made a rather ironical move – from medicine to armaments. A very large step, in fact: a tank gun-sight with three sub-systems under one stratagem. I headed a sub-system team and had one of those lamp-bulb moments journalists like writing about."

HATCH: NON-MANAGEMENTAL It was his job to unlock the store for the seven o’clock opening. Within the racks Hatch smelt the bitter yet oily atmosphere cooked up by early morning sun on the corrugated-iron roof. At the reception counter he swung up the wire netting shutter then unbolted the customer’s door. Two sleep-deadened youths in garage overalls shuffled through, making their needs known in the oral shorthand Hatch had had difficulty understanding a few weeks ago. 

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Tuesday 18 December 2012

Lady Percy on abiding love

Lady Percy is Hotspur's widow. Here she dissuades her father-in-law, Northumberland, from going to war. But, in effect she is remembering her own beloved husband

O, yet, for God's sake, go not to these wars!
The time was, father, that you broke your word,
When you were more endear'd to it than now;
When your own Percy, when my heart's dear Harry,
Threw many a northward look to see his father
Bring up his powers; but he did long in vain.
Who then persuaded you to stay at home?

There were two honours lost, yours and your son's.
For yours, the God of heaven brighten it!
For his, it stuck upon him as the sun
In the grey vault of heaven; and by his light
Did all the chivalry of England move
To do brave acts.

He was indeed the glass
Wherein the noble youth did dress themselves.
He had no legs that practis'd not his gait;
And speaking thick, which nature made his blemish,
Became the accents of the valiant;
For those who could speak low and tardily
Would turn their own perfection to abuse
To seem like him: so that in speech, in gait,
In diet, in affections of delight,
In military rules, humours of blood,
He was the mark and glass, copy and book,
That fashion'd others
And him—O wondrous him!
O miracle of men!—him did you leave—
Second to none, unseconded by you—
To look upon the hideous god of war
In disadvantage, to abide a field
Where nothing but the sound of Hotspur's name
Did seem defensible. So you left him.
Never, O never, do his ghost the wrong
To hold your honour more precise and nice
With others than with him!
Let them alone.

The Marshal and the Archbishop are strong.
Had my sweet Harry had but half their numbers,
To-day might I, hanging on Hotspur's neck,
Have talk'd of Monmouth's grave.

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Friday 14 December 2012

Descent into squalor

(Above) I bought the light bulbs. Post-it has recipe for sausage casserole

Alone in the house (with VR in Lille, Aachen or even Aix le Ghent) I behave squalidly.

FOOD VR worries about this. She offered to make me a sausage casserole but I said this penalised her holiday. She told me how to make one myself and covered the kitchen chalk-board with accessible and easily prepared freezer items. Alas I forget to take them out in advance; also I suffered trauma thawing something in the microwave two decades ago. Instead I fried three sausages, split them longitudinally with a knife I had just sharpened (very proud of that). This enhanced their physical stability and I laid them on two slices of toast. The following day the same again adding another slice of toast which bore a fried egg, yoke deliberately punctured. Were VR away for a month scurvy would be a distinct possibility.

TIMETABLE I eat when hungry and go to bed two-ish. Last night I watched a Randolph Scott movie, High Lonesome, directed by Bud Boetticher, well regarded by French cinéastes. Did this after News at Ten!

HYGIENE Easily forgotten, I find.

BEHAVIOUR I sing aloud in unseemly places, eg, on the pot. Pick out carols on the keyboard at 7 am (The house is detached, I should add.) I open Christmas cards sent to the pair of us, albeit with a sense of guilt. Incautiously I drank a whole bottle of Cremant last night; fizzy wine metabolises far more quickly than still wine and my headache interfered with an erotic dream I was vouchsafed this morning.

QUESTION Why is the Agincourt Carol a carol? What's seasonal  about:

Our king went forth to Normandy,
In grace and might of chivalry.
Where God for him wrought marvellously.
He hath both the field and the victory.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

A fraternal chat

Nick called yesterday. He's my younger brother and not well. But he lives in Harrogate (the Goring of the North), a 300-mile round trip.

My Christmas card to him is sitting on the newell post awaiting a stamp. He chortles mildly, having already posted his card to me.

He hates to impose and I know he'll ring off unless I can extend the conversation in a natural way. As we talk I tick off subjects I know will interest him.

The typeface of Gorgon Times, he says, is too small to read easily. I tell him not to apologise. He reveals - to my surprise - he keeps a copy of our mother's book of poems on his coffee table. We agree she wrote pretty well (one poem came second in a nationwide competition) excepting the one about Douglas Bader, the WW2 fighter pilot. "It's as if... " he ponders a comparison. "It was written for the Beano," I say and he laughs despite himself. I tell myself Nick is alive and my mother is dead. Besides, she admitted the poem was unsatisfactory.

As a yachtsman he gives genererously to the lifeboat charity but has latterly become disenchanted. Once, sailing alone in the Channel he found a floating headless body. On the coastguard's instructions he circled the body for hours listening to the lifeboat coxswain tell the coastguard over the VHF he didn't want "that" on his boat. Nick forgets a lot, but not that.

We wander over well-worn reminiscences and I try to provide joky punchlines. He laughs at quite a few and these are greater triumphs than anything I've ever written. When he finally does ring off I pretend to myself he does so reluctantly. One never knows. 

Tuesday 11 December 2012

A Christmassy salade

I'VE BEEN misinforming people but, then, what's new? VR and younger daughter, OS, will not take the TGV (train de grande vitesse) to visit Christmarket markets on the Continent tomorrow, they are going by car. Thus they will pack in two favourites: Lille and Aachen. Normally restricted to plane cabin luggage VR asks me what bulkier thing would I like as a prezzie. Not wine, of course, I can do better through The Wine Society, a marvellous British institution. A hundredweight of sausage, perhaps?

STILL ON BOOZE. Were I limitlessly wealthy I would breakfast on vintage champagne each morning. Alas... In my time I have tried and discarded the cheaper fizzy alternatives (prosecco, sekt (Uggh!), Freixenet, cava) but have recently found a genuine contender, France's Cremant de Jura, £7 from despisedly down-market Aldi. One disadvantage: the flask-shaped bottle is ridiculously wide and will not fit my wine racks. I can live with that.

TIME FOR a funny from Hymns Ancient and Modern:
How Judah's lion burst its chains.
And crushed the serpent's head,
And brought with him, from death's domains,
The long imprisoned dead.
Would someone better educated than me (ie, virtually everyone out there reading this), or more marinaded in CofE ethos, tell me what's going on here? On the other hand, perhaps not. Bound to be an anti-climax.

FOR CHRISTMAS I ordered D, granddaughter Bella's boyfriend, a witty, intellectually stimulating... Oh cripes. Can't tell you. Despite the huge generation gap, he still reads TD. Sent me a comment the day before yesterday. Post-Christmas then.

Friday 7 December 2012

The fairies just flew in

One of the mainly unnoticed miracles that happens in the Robinson kitchen a couple of times a week: here the creation of fairy cakes. But on this occasion it was the speed that was remarkable.

VR arrived home at about 12.45 from having her hair done. Realised she hadn't bought cakes to go with the lunchtime coffee. At 12.54 she'd assembled the constituents (It wasn't a kit) and by 13.13 was eating the first one.

Actually I'm a bit slick myself. I did this post, including writing the stuff, cropping the pix and doing a six-part Photoshop Photomerge in 25 minutes. We may be old but we can move when it's in our interest to do so.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Been to The Great Wen and back

Often I need confirmation I haven't died undramatically (Entering a department store lav, Buying printer consumables, Queueing for diesel, Waiting for a Rossini overture to end) and reappeared in a Hell resembling my event-free life. Puckish Jahweh telling me - but gradually -  he does actually exist. Not just puckish but Scottish: Ah weel, ye ken the noo.

The best confirmation occurs when I do something new, preferably technoid. Yesterday it happened. Destined for London and for you-know-where I found myself on the Newport-Paddington express, unshipping my HP tablet-ish computer, plugging it into the power socket, and  rewriting a short story that had set out to be enigmatic and had over-achieved. The two-hour journey, never a burden, slid by in an eyeblink and I have finally discovered the way to overcome the exigencies of mass transportation. Too late, alas, for those hideous 11-hour flights to NZ.

Joe né Plutarch stood up well to cross-examination on the nature of the short story (Sample: Might it be defined by its "completeness".) and then we were on to stuff that really mattered: Why are there so few synonyms for women's trousers? Are women able to rate their attractiveness to men other than empirically (ie, via the score-sheet). JnP was particularly good on this with a theory that depended on a special form of social and, I suppose, sexual unawareness. I should add these exchanges were entirely sympathetic, not in any sense laddish, and were aimed at helping me write more intelligently when I embark on Blest Redeemer's successor.
Assuming I bypass J's puckishness.

Carriage interior is Chinese or Canadian but you get the idea.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Power of life and death

I am into the final furlong of Blest Redeemer (146,792 words done) where smaller and smaller passages are gathered together, seamlessly, to end in an arrowhead climax representing a single brief event. Another 2500 words will do it, about the length of a complaint letter to HMRC. I asked VR if there was an embroidering equivalent to what I was doing but she said it sounded like finishing off a knitted item. I’ll take her word for it.

There are literary attractions in killing off a fairly prominent character who’s there in the story to be nice. Her death would offer a sweet-smelling bouquet of possibilities. As I weighed the pros and cons I became aware of voices, getting louder, on behalf of humanity in general. Assassin, they said. To kill so casually, they added.

I note from my back-up hard drive that serious work on BR started thirteen months ago. Imagine sharing a 1930s semi for that length of time with a dozen and half people, unable to leave and breathe fresh air. And now I’m about to garrotte, strangle, behead, gas or electrocute a saintly member of their company for my own convenience.  That woman is more real than most of my flesh-and-blood neighbours.

There’s a moral issue here. Not least because I’m relishing the drama and its potential. Should she suffer? Would that help?

Perhaps you believe I’m too sensitive for my own good. And that I’ve painted myself into this corner and I can jolly well de-corner myself all on my own. True on both counts. But it’s still bloody painful. Poor X, she was so sympathetic to Judith.

You’ve got to be tough as old boots to write novels. I’m inclined to let her live. I will! Ah! She’s so glad, and so strangely am I.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Stuff your ears, I'm ranting

You have the perfect draining rack? Fibber!

Unless you had it made specially and even then I doubt you.

No kitchen device faces so many conflicting demands, even when you reduce the crockery range to an artificially minimal three: cups (or mugs), side plates, dinner plates.

Take those slots. Plates are thinnish, right? Surely 7 mm is enough? Wrong! Dinner plates have ridges underneath and you need about 12 mm. So, fewer dinner plates can be stored and – worse – the side plates drop through. Then there are plate diameters. The stainless steel rack (above) was bought believing that simpler would be better. But the splayed angle is insufficient to support dinner plates.

Cups/mugs. Four will eat up all your rack space. So add another level (see the white rack). Alas! I notice VR removes her bone-china mug when she sees it on the upper level and surreptitiously dries it with a tea towel. I could go on. But it gets much worse when we consider bowls.

Talk not about dish-washers. Their owners are zealots, ideologues and pedants, quite capable of running blogs entirely devoted to this subject.

BOOKMARKS Both of us use ABE books and VR reads about four library books a week. Thus we are in receipt of lots of un-chosen bookmarks. Some of dubious taste although I hasten to say this doesn’t include Joe né Plutarch’s patented and self-decorated markers, much appreciated.
Dubious taste? Surely I’m a grievous offender myself and am disqualified from pontificating on such a matter. But how about the inset? Perhaps you are too young or too forgetful to link the line drawing with one of the words. Does the date November 22, 1963 jog your memory? Wouldn’t buy from this lot. A joke? What’s funny?


Wednesday 28 November 2012

It gets you right there

I know I promised Kitchen Draining Racks and they’re there, I promise, nestling in my frontal lobes, utterly fascinating. But last night’s TV programme on how music affects us must come first.

A dullish academic in Sweden listed several results (Happier, Calmer, even Angrier) but not, I’m glad to say, Collapsed With Laughter. I’ve never believed music, as opposed to song lyrics, can make us laugh, whatever po-faced advocates of the Bach double violin concerto and that wearisome Haydn symphony say.

But I do find myself agreeing with the vicar of a London church saying of funeral services: when the first hymn starts, that’s when people feel it’s OK to cry. Which was to some extent reinforced with a clip from the London Olympics when Scottish singer, Emeli Sandé (above), sang Abide With Me unaccompanied. “Good lyrics”, she observed and I bethought myself how tune and words combine:

Swift to its close, ebbs out life’s little day
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away

The programme was uneven and gave too much time to those with hobbyhorses. But two things stood out.

● Kindergarten children sitting on their mother’s lap (she wearing sound-blocking earphones to prevent the transmission of  her own reactions) responding instinctively to a quite complex piece of posh music, kicking their feet and in one case also thrusting the chest forward contrapuntally.

● In a home for the ghosts of people suffering from dementia a keyboardist plays an exceptional version of A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square and there are signs on those remote, cut-off faces that it’s getting through.

VR’s sister died last year and asked for a hymn recording without “others joining in”. We applauded her typically pawky choice. But she was gone and we needed catharsis.

Monday 26 November 2012

Too hard? So was LvB once

I sought out Double Concerto (for piano, harpsichord and two small chamber orchestras) by Elliott Carter who died recently, aged 104. Why? Because Charles Rosen, who’s performed the piano bit a dozen times, says it is “Carter’s most brilliantly attractive and… most complex work”. For me, whatever Rosen says goes. Also not much was written for harpsichord in 1959.

It’s playing now. Parts are quite noisy (“four percussionists, each with a formidable array of about dozen instruments”) and harpsichords have middle-class voices. Never mind.

Rosen says “the final section… contains the most complicated rhythmic passage I have ever been asked to play… the right hand plays seven even notes to each beat, the left hand plays three.” Pfooie. In the full score the ratio becomes 21 against 9 and (Rosen’s italics) the accents of all four lines in piano and harpsichord never coincide.

I’m not attending yet it hangs together. That’s good, separation can be a problem with modern stuff. Forget music for the moment, think of irregular sound sequences: distant F1 cars racing, a metal workshop, children in a playground. Are you engaged, held? So combine them.

But the concerto is planned. Explosions of funny struck noises, dramatic trumpet outbursts, the harpsichord a mouse within the piano. It lasts 22 minutes so play it again. A third time and you anticipate a passage here or there. And no, it isn’t random. It’s no longer “it” and “you”. Play it again looking out of the window in another room. Switch off, lean back, close your eyes. What can you hear? Nothing? OK, there are no penalties. Something? Perhaps you’ll play it tomorrow. Music cannot be explained.

Quotes from Rosen’s Critical Entertainments, Harvard UP $17.95 ( more in UK)
LATER THIS WEEK: Sink draining racks

Friday 23 November 2012

Towards a Feminist car

In case the irony in Feminists Have A Point went undetected may I say I try to support women’s viewpoints, albeit silently, thus without the grammar.

Many women’s choice of car is imposed. Thus their car is often:

(a) Small (Low purchase price (LPP), less power, easier parking, low consumption, ostensibly better ergonomics)

(b) Bottom of the range (Cheaper, less “complexity”)

(c) Manual (LPP, lower consumption).

(d) Petrol engine (LPP)

(e) Less visibly macho (Less vulnerable to male drivers)

(f) Oddly coloured (The only inexpensive option left).

But the opposites of these features have beneficial sides. Take Small: More powerful biggish cars are less demanding to drive (fewer gearchanges), quieter, more restful on long journeys, have more carrying capacity (eg, for baby impedimenta) and in the case of larger US cars with far greater steering assistance, easier to park. More power need not be feared; the driver is in control; the power need not be used; it doesn’t “sneak up”. Alas, small car ergonomics means fewer adjustments.

Less “complexity” Cheap cars often lack reversing sensors; vital in parking garages. Ignore arguments (always male) saying these “de-skill” driving; the aim is to travel not take a degree. Expensive cars usually have more copious lighting, remote radio control, better info systems – all recognisably helpful.

Automatic gearboxes no longer absorb fuel. My two-litre turbo-charged diesel car (ie, medium to biggish) has a six-speed autobox and has consumed fuel at 51 mpg since purchase. Autobox changes gear more efficiently than I can. Much, much more restful.

Petrol vs diesel. The latter lacks LPP but is cheaper to run. So, buy second-hand. Especially in France.

ESSENTIAL Ignore advice of male driving enthusiasts; they speak a different – often subjective – language. Given the choice I would have a chauffeur.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Feminists have a point

Lucy recently lost out to White Man Van on a greasy road in Brittany. It made me think. Women often come off worst where cars are involved.

FLAT TYRE No problem, there’s a spare. But first the used wheel, bolted on with a pneumatic torque wrench. Even so, a breakdown truck driver told me, women drivers will often have a go. Men call the AA and listen to Radio 1.

BOOT LIDS Many now have a dangling handle and not a moment too soon. Previously women got warm and angry jumping up for the rear number plate.

OIL FILLER ORIFICE “Oh that’s where it is, right at the back of the engine. I’m lucky I never liked this ball gown.”

DRIVER ERGONOMICS Everything’s adjustable. The steering column’s telescopic, seat and the squab are hinged, seat can be slid backwards and forwards and it can be raised and lowered. But only within average male variations. That’s why women’s cleavages bear the mark of the manufacturer’s logo found in the centre of the steering wheel.

PEDAL ACCESSIBILITY Fine for ladies – lady giraffes, that is.

CAR PARK TICKET SLOTS “Hang on to my butt while I reach out another metre.”

REVERSING VISIBILITY Simply lower the head-rest. Oh, it’s as low as it will go. Sorry.

RADIO CONTROLS “I can do without Bartok’s violin concerto or without steering for two or three seconds. Which will it be?”

TYRE HOSE Manicured this morning; will need another this afternoon.

VISOR VANITY MIRROR “Why does driving a Ford age me so?”

SPEEDO JUDGEMENTS 30 mph – woeful old grannie. 70 mph – flashy young tart.

Saturday 17 November 2012

Comforted, but not with apples

Last Thursday was Reassurance Day, important for the elderly, vital for the old, oxygen for the moribund.

For dinner we had Lancashire Hot Pot. A dome of sliced potatoes, the upper slices crisp and neatly edged in brown. Absorbed slices lying tastily below. Thin-cut carrots because nobody wants a mouse’s dartboard. Lamb diced small, greatly superior to chops which impart too much grease and leave bones behind. Over a pool of clear, spoonable broth, flecked with brown, offering flavour a wine lover would say “had legs”.

A Farewell to Arms, which got better and better, was finished. I didn’t care to find out whether Ian McEwan, William Boyd or Margaret Drabble had anything to say. These days I re-read to avoid being disappointed. Mainly to wallow. So here’s to Joyce’s Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, a 1928 edition, the dust-jacket flap shorn of its price, a gift to my mother whose unmarried name, D. H. Stringer, is written neatly on the flysheet. From my father, coming a courting? Perhaps. He once bought me Joyce’s Dubliners.

A mysterious opening; “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming  down along the road…” Then here’s Stephen Dedalus, eventually co-hero of Ulysses, reluctantly playing soccer at school (“… making little runs now and then. But his hands were bluish with cold.”), clever but unable to solve the hard sum on the board, admitting he kisses his mother before going to bed. At Christmas dinner overhearing a rip-roaring argument about Catholicism between devout Aunt Dante and Parnell-favouring Stephen’s father.

And I am Stephen and Joyce is playing me like a squeeze box. And this is great easy literature. And I’m reassured by hot pot and this book.

Thursday 15 November 2012

No, he hasn't become twins

When I first picked Zach up from school at his mum's request I heard the head mistress ask: "Zach, is that Big Grandad?" I mentioned this in a post and Lucy commented: "Does that mean there's a Little Grandad? And does he mind?"

Perhaps he did though he's a sporting gentleman (golf) and as far as I remember as tall as me, if much narrower. For now he has a different Zach-imposed name: Grandad Who Looks After Nanna. I have only met GWLAN once and have never discovered how he feels about names that sound to be translated from Zulu.

I'll get back to GWLAN (not forgetting N) in a moment. As photos in Tone Deaf have shown six-year-old Zach has an elfin charm which he may quickly grow out of. Any fule can point a Canon Power Shot (this fule does) and we wanted an interpretation. Caroline The Artist has done good work for us and I commissioned such an interpretation from her. Back came not one but two brilliantly elfin pix, one in crayon and one in something else - I've learned not to guess when it comes to the visual arts.

I know, I said, we'll choose one and give the other to GWLAN (not forgetting N) because they dote on Zach and look after him an awful lot. That was several months ago and the two pictures still hang on our walls. I could submit this problem to the BBC radio programme The Moral Maze. Or invite the services of your good selves.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

The bright cloud darkens

Perhaps this means I'm softening. Becoming "lovely" as The Crow so hideously suggests
I get up at 6.25 am. Precisely, of course, because by now I'm obsessional. My mind's sharper; my writing's technically better, invention arrives less grudgingly. I know these things even though I know I'm Boastful Brit for saying so. Where's the stiff upper lip, the sense of restraint?

I use this sharpness to cut into whatever needs to be written: presently the final 500 words about two spies fencing with each other, or the final 8000 words of Blest Redeemer. That's the theory. But first and fatally I access LiveMail to find out if anyone's responded. If they have I'll often use up the two hours ostensibly allocated to novels, short stories and schlock verse to being clever-clever with my correspondents. My wider social circle. And commenting on their blogs too, of course.

Receiving an email is almost the equivalent of a letter in the old days,  a privilege, a gift despite the technology. Runes to read. I'm in danger of getting sentimental.

So can Amazon, INKcredible (printer inks), Dawson (sheet music), The Marquise at Alkham (swanky food), First Direct (a bank), Santander (another bank) realise how TRULY DISAPPOINTED I am to receive their huckstering blandishments instead of something from a live being in, say, Pennsylvania. How full of bile, how resistant to their products and/or services, how mulish, how trigger-happy, how bloody-minded? How utterly put out? Well now they know and the hell with them.

BOOK NOTE For most people these days Hemingway's down the terlet. Wanting to swim against the tide I'm re-reading A Farewell To Arms. Two extracts:

The town was very nice and our house was very fine.


"Wine is a grand thing," I said. "It makes you forget all the bad."


Tuesday 13 November 2012

By (slightly more) popular demand

Brother Sir Hugh says the photographs used in By Unpopular Demand (below) aren’t as he remembers me. I could say he started wearing glasses before I did but I won’t, it would be cruel. At his behest I am posting a more cheerful pic together with what I now see is an unfortunate written example of navel-gazing. I pray for your forgiveness.

 Obviously when I say I don't smile that's not quite true; I have in my time responded to jokes and friendliness. What I mean is I rarely initiate smiles. I distrust the gesture, don't do it well. Here my two brothers Sir Hugh (left) and Nick (right) beam away at the Frenchman we persuaded to take the photo. At best I am smirking.

Which is a shame. This was a happy occasion and grows in retrospective importance given Nick's illness. My failure is even sadder since at the time I was being introduced to sailing which I enjoyed enormously. Despite that I was unable to contort my face appropriately.

For other reasons I've had to reflect on my social inadequacies recently. I conclude I'm not an inter-personal person. Being inarguably a smart-Aleck, I've found a way round this. Social intercourse depends initially on certain familiar approaches which qualify as conversational clichés. I've spent a professional lifetime avoiding clichés. But of course this is sophistry.

The answer is to avoid social encounters which - with a few exceptions, mainly mano a mano - I do. Instead I write, these days more than ever before. I'm lucky in that blogging includes written exchanges with interesting people round the globe so I'm not exactly an anchorite. Americans find my situation unbelievable so there's written mileage to be gained there. Perhaps I need my own French valediction: au revoir becomes au récrire.

Friday 9 November 2012

By unpopular demand

say optimistic observers,

So this is what the world has seen for years,
While I, inside, have worked the steering wheel,
Unconscious of those sleek-fit otter ears
And oblate lips that snaggled teeth conceal.
Should I have been so damnèd confident,
Given those parboiled eyes with pendant sacks,
A mouth that falls apart, an accident,
A wattled neck with flaps of melting wax?
A nose for poking into others’ lives,
Untended hair that apes insanity,
While all the while a tomblike gauntness strives
To add an undeservèd dignity.
Without the face I’m told I irritate;
With it, the greater I aspires to grate.

(1) This is one of my better shirts.
(2) I have learned never to smile for portraits
(3) The prints are first-rate
(4) Zoom and it's worse.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

In UK trump can mean flatus

POST ELECTION Donald Trump has urged Americans to march on Washington and overthrow Obama given that the election was "a sham". Hmmm.  More on this later - much later.

Obama's victory speech tried to include everyone but had me worrying about the ones he'd left out. Tick Native Americans, untick politicking Republicans in the House.  However in a long list he did include "gay or straight" and that pleased me.

Asked when he first guessed Romney's wheels were coming off, a cynical BBC correspondent cited a GOP spokesperson who said: "Gotta vote Romney. Don't like what he's saying about abortion but, in my heart of hearts, I know he isn't going to do those things." Recommending a candidate because of his transparent mendacity didn't seem to be the way to go.

CHARITY GIVING You give so the fundraisers ring you up to give more. This irritates the hell out of me and if Amnesty International (to whom I give a fairly large monthly sum) do it again I'll stop the direct debit and switch it to the Old Donkey's Home (just to please Lucy). The exception is the ever glorious Médécins Sans Frontières who never nag. Here's an extract from a letter they sent to VR

... Currently you are donating £5/month on the 26th of the month as well as £15/month on the 26th of the month. We are unsure if these donations have been set up intentionally or in error... let me know whether or not you would like to continue with both of your gifts (or)... if you would prefer to cancel one of the donations.

Imagine! Inviting VR  to cancel a donation! In fact it was a cock-up and the single donation is now £20/month.

Monday 5 November 2012

Freebie without strings

Below are three plot-obscure extracts from the Little Miss Monoglot sequel. The whole 5712-word Word doc comes as an email attachment if you comment Yup or communicate (secretly) via email. No need to react critically but, if you do, best tell me what’s wrong. If I haven’t got your email address then that will be your big decision. Mine is rodrob@globalnet.co.uk.. Fact is blogs aren’t suitable for fiction: the lines are too short, paras need to be line-spaced, no indents.

  THE DIGITAL clock and thermometer were from Barbara. Being un-French she ambushed Grégoire with surprises, with gifts that did more than meet a need. The electronic displays looked far too sleek for his wooden chest of drawers and he accepted them bemusedly. But now the hot nights kept him awake and as one numeral slid into the next (sometimes backwards with the thermometer) he pretended these changes were Barbara, in another form of life, observing him and approving.

He rolled over in his otherwise empty bed and dreamed of the word “purification” which stayed with him until the doorbell sounded at six o’clock. His rarely used dressing gown was not on its hook and instead he put on underpants. Passing the open door of the second bedroom he saw Philippe and Janine, sweatily asleep, flopped like wet bladderwrack on the shore. Neither had reacted to the bell.
Each had a ramekin straight from the refrigerator, the contents hidden by a hard yellow shell. “Buttered shrimp,” she explained. “In England the shrimp would be brown and very small, fiddly to peel. The best come from Morecambe Bay on the north-west coat. Hot butter poured over the shrimp, a touch of cinnamon, allspice and pepper. France, alas, lacks brown shrimp so I’ve made do with your so-called grey shrimp. A bit discouraging…”
  “Such a silly word in French. Culpabilité. As if there were blame. As if I’d want to think about guilt when you’re here. With your dahlias.”

“Are they dahlias? I didn’t know.” He explained their provenance, how the elderly couple had bustled on behalf of his promise. “Barbara please handle them. Put them somewhere. Let them not die.”

In fact she wasn’t at all prepared for flowers and they found a temporary home in a kitchen measuring jug. Seeing the stalks in water, visible through the glass, he felt childishly relieved.

Saturday 3 November 2012

Suck it and (don't) see

Notice what I've done here. I have no graphic arts talent and this is my limit. Don't deconstruct it for it is self-evidently meaningless unlike much of my prose which is only revealed as meaningless after much effort by the reader.

This is an inhaler, its benefits obscure. I was, however, seduced by its name - Ventolin. Large enterprises, and especially Big Pharma, are peculiarly bad at agreeable names. Think of Royal Mail becoming, briefly, Consignia. But Ventolin, plus previously mentioned Amoxicillin, buck the trend.

Ventolin is a euphonious (ie, pleasing to the ear) word based on a recognisable root, vent, meaning wind. But the honeymoon stops there. Using it is not intuitive. Stick the boot "toe" between your lips, breathe in and squeeze the plunger. That's the theory, except instinct stops you breathing in as you plunge. Take a week off to rectify this.

Try again. If there's a chill sensation on your tongue then you've misdirected the "toe". The particles have thus been absorbed without reaching the air-ways. Take another week off to master this skill. By this time you're well again or dead.

Moral: Don't be taken in by a nice name.

Joe né Plutarch's phone call (see previous post). He reminded me our first Blogger's Retreat lunch occurred four years ago, the day after Obama's victory. Alas, physical failings preclude me from taking an immediate rail trip. Sink or swim without us, Barack.

Friday 2 November 2012

It's a Battlefield*

* With apologies to Graham Greene

I am not well but that’s a good thing, I can write about drugs.

Normally drugs bore me stiff: in fiction they’re a licence for irrationality, in non-fictional confession there’s always that sneaky residue (OK, I lost my septum but deep down I was hip, truly hip.)

These are the drugs that go up against the prowling hosts of Midian on my behalf. Like my good chevalier Nurofen Express 400 mg liquid capsules, evoking Joni’s line “a ruby in a black man’s ear”. Cough at fifteen-second intervals for most of the afternoon and your chest feels like a sherry cask burned out to create a charred interior, the better to age scotch. The call is for an analgesic and, lo, your chest is chemically removed. Someone else’s burden.

Then there’s the antibiotic, Amoxicillin 500 mg capsules, smartly dressed in deep beige and mahogany, carrying the warning “contains a penicillin”. The product of big bad pharma but frankly it could come from the Devil himself for all I care. I take “a course” as if being taught geography; much as I’ve always resented formal education I am a lamb to the slaughter.

There are others but let’s finish with Night Nurse capsules, not a serious name even though they boast paracetamol, promethazine and dextromethorpan. Best taken when suffering from PUO (pyrexia of unknown origin) and with the mind switching on an off like a cheap bulb. On a good (ie, apoplectic) night you may well find “Sand-strewn caverns cool and deep, where the winds are all asleep.” The beginnings of a trip and, honestly, you don’t give a toss whether you return or not.

Joe (né Plutarch) telephones and we discuss mucous. Bad stuff (especially when yellow) but a good descriptive word. Almost onomatopoeic

Thursday 1 November 2012

The anti-incunabulum

Julia writes enthusiastically about Dorothy Sayers’ crime novel Gaudy Night and I hoik out my copy to jog my mind. It’s like a time machine. I’m back in that bleak period after the war (WW2 not those backyard scraps like Korea) when Britain’s deprivations seemed to get worse and worse. Bread rationing, yet.

Plus paper rationing. Books were published but not the sort people moon about romantically these days. Open the cover and you saw the title page, on the back of which was the publishing history plus the copyright line. The next page (in effect p.3) you could start reading. Top, bottom and side margins were about half-an-inch wide and the paper was already turning brown. I had a perfect example, G. W. Stonier’s Shaving Through The Blitz, a collection of New Statesman articles, but it seems it’s disappeared. Stolen, perhaps, after it turned into an antique.

Gaudy Night was published in 1935, my birth year, and my impression is the nineteenth published in 1955. Same narrow margins, same brown pages despite the fact paper was by then freely available. But Victor Gollancz, the publisher, was famously stingy; ten years after WW2 he was still selling economy editions.

A closer glance at the publishing history (You don’t think I just read the story, do you?) reveals the book was re-set in 1948. Which probably means you’d have needed a magnifying glass before then. And look at that dust jacket: a salade of typefaces, unforgivable quotes round Lord Peter, and the word cheap from a guy who thought euphemisms were cheap.

I shouldn’t complain. Sir V (he was later knighted) gave us low cost books from good authors. But so did Penguin yet their books, even though paperback, didn’t look cheap. Am I too picky? Of course I am.