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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.