Wednesday, 27 February 2013
In my teens I went there for solitary holidays, coming upon oddities. The umbrella shop with arboreal signage, a shaving brush big as a cauliflower in Jermyn Street, a dusty Charing Cross Road window with condoms and enema equipment, Zwemmers art books (What a name!), Lisle Street's war surplus electronics, prostitutes in Park Lane who knew I lacked the money and the recklessness, whole massive fish at Harrods food hall, El Pais and Neue Zürcher Zeitung on sale in Soho.
Walked miles on pavements where good-looking young women passed by, always frowning. Would have loved to... just talk. But I was scruffy and my hair schoolboy-cut.
Diversions. John Gielgud in Coward's Nude With Violin, Ralph Richardson in Graham Greene's The Complaisant Lover, Dorothy Tutin in I Am A Camera, Maria Schell breaking my heart in the movie Gervaise, continuous news and cartoons at a cinema on Oxford Street (name forgotten), Otto Klemperer conducting the Phil in LvB.
I ate unadventurously, always with a book. A dirty, inauthentic Chinese on Denmark Street, the centre of Tin Pan Alley which later became the pop industry. Steak and kidney pudding at Lyon's Corner House on The Strand.
Some day, I told myself, I'll work here. I'll be part of it instead of looking in, yearning. That happened and some of the magic wore off. But then we moved away and the magic stole back. We're off there later today: quartets at the Festival Hall, Ice Age art at the British Museum. A couple of days as part of the uncaring crowd. London: unhealthy but fascinating.
I'm in pain with gout but knowing how to use the buses will help.
Monday, 25 February 2013
Sermons in stones. I don't have a stone to hand and at 07.05 the garden, where there are plenty, isn't going to lure me out. How about shoe laces?
Practical and symbolic. A Shakespearean director given to dressing up characters in modern clothes could probably make a case for turning Malvolio's garters into shoe laces. With my best wishes. I have never found a single laugh in the humiliation scenes of Twelfth Night. Laces might work.
They go back a long way, laces, but I refuse to Google. If Ye Olde movies are to be believed many a Mediaeval bum would have been exposed to public view had laces been uninvented. Their simplicity and usefulness presaged the zip and they were the subject of a horror story that terrified my youth. Gurkhas in WWI (probably anachronistically) slithered up to soldiers on guard-duty and fingered the lacing on their boots before deciding to eviscerate or not. The Germans, it seemed, did it differently. A crossed-over pattern meant you lost your tripes.
Laces define old age. Nancy Banks-Smith, ex-Guardian TV critic, said once you need to sit down to put on your shoes it’s time to start withdrawing from life. I agree. Recently I discovered a laces flaw. They become shiny and thus prone to untie. Which means re-tying on the pavement, risking being bumped by a short-sighted pedestrian. An ignoble accident.
I learnt to tie a bow at an early age and I wasn't alone. There's more to it than nimble fingers. Anyone who lets go of the formed loop during tying is ignorant of presdigitation and would have been rejected by Bletchley Park. I'm guessing.
I wore casuals at work then retired into trainers. Knotting laces early in the morning is a burden and a physical link with Toryism.
Friday, 22 February 2013
NOTE: Authors' names omitted as space saver..
HOTEL DU LAC Claustrophobic account of single womanhood. Not my cup of tea? Quite the reverse. I became a fan.
BY LOVE POSSESSED Proof that literary judgments at age 22 may lack legs. At the time I thought it rolled back the world; now I wouldn't dare open the first page.
THE NARROW CORNER Would I dare read it again? It seemed so wise. Now I may be (marginally) wiser myself.
A MOVEABLE FEAST His lightest, his liveliest, his most informative. Re-read it a few weeks ago and it stands up.
MADAME BOVARY Approached tentatively forty years ago; afterwards wondered if I'd read it in a condensed version. So quick, so factual, so to-the-point. Slower second time around. Slight disappointment.
MY DARK PLACES One of my favourite environments - California noir. Sheesh, this was hard. Other titles got harder. DNF'd one of the latest.
CLIMBS IN THE CANADIAN ROCKIES Read him in my youth because he was honourable, modest and terribly British. Now dull, pedestrian, obvious.
CATCH 22 Unique, uproarious, worth the effort but - make no mistake - it does require effort.
BABBIT Biting satire becomes a distant period piece done in poker-work with embroidery round the sides.
THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES Way above my intellectual level yet I finished it. How? So I could boast about it.
THE ORDEAL OF GILBERT PINFOLD Oh, how I wish he hadn't written this.
THE POODLE SPRINGS MYSTERY He should have finished it himself, not ceded it to an upstart admittedly due to force majeure (ie, death).
ISAIAH Thrilling for teenagers, less so for aged adults.
Wednesday, 20 February 2013
Sunday was come-uppance.
It started with the coach hired to take us to Birmingham. Very new, very swish, each seat fitted with a three-point seat belt which I was unable to secure. Too fat! Already St Cecilia was warning me.
At the hall we sat in the wrong seats. My fault.
For Poulenc's organ concerto the conductor arrived at the podium with a man I took to be the organist. Strange, since the organ seat (just below the pipes in the pic) was a longish hike from the podium. But then the organist walked a dozen steps and sat behind a wooden box to the right of the orchestra. Surely he wasn't going to play this noisy music on something slightly larger than a Hammond organ all Americans have in their front room?
A musical roar quickly told me that the wooden box was merely a remote keyboard for the main organ. What a fool!
Then came Fauré's requiem. Eh? The orchestra disappeared leaving the choir alone on the stage. A modernish requiem sung a capella (unaccompanied)? It was in fact Poulenc's Figures Humaines settings of Eluard's poems. Not having bought a programme (I don't need one!) I hadn't realised it was scheduled. VR scowled; labelled it "vapid".
During the requiem proper a man abruptly rose from the male part of the choir, sidling awkwardly to one side. Too young to have prostate problems. Ah, the baritone soloist adopting a (slightly) better position. Get with it, RR.
Riding home I read a Ross Thomas. Enough music for the day.
Monday, 18 February 2013
For God’s sake don’t leave it
up to the monumental mason
I'm apprehensive, knowing that my endWill lack the clarity I would prefer.
For that’s the way with words, they bend
Then break; the focused phrase becomes a blur
My epitaph will be approximate,
A wall of jumbled stones too rough to fit,
I know the snags when trying to create
A dash of truth, or digging deep for wit.
I’ll be deceased, a flaccid word for "dead",
Belov’d instead of criticised or snide
A well-worn template that my life has fled -
I’ll pay in honesty for having died.
Unless, of course, some calm, distrusting soulStrikes up a tune and brings about control.
Thursday, 14 February 2013
Yet Stravinsky's music which caused riots in Paris in 1913 later figured in Walt Disney's movie, Fantasia, presumably aimed at children.
Most people who hum along with Lark Ascending and drum their fingers to Rondo à la Turca just don't give a damn. And unless there's some natural curiosity what I write here will be meaningless.
My prescription for those willing to close their eyes, pinch their nose and wince at the taste is to forget non-vocal music and try opera. Two in particular which we’ve just seen.
Srauss's Salomé, based on Oscar Wilde's play, is erotic, as in "a state of sexual arousal or anticipation of such, an insistent sexual impulse." The story could be summarised thus: sexual whimsy, sexual frustration, seduction, sado-masochism, and finally sadism. It's simple, short, gripping and echoes the turmoil in your reproductive system. There’s a famous dissonant chord which some wimp described as "the most sickening in all opera". You won't come away dwelling on tonal ambiguities and polytonality, though there are lots of both.
Hogarth's engravings tell you what to expect from Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. The libretto is by Auden and Kallman so if you're watching a DVD, as we were, enable the sub-titles. It's more reflective than Salomé and remarkable for the way your sympathies are enlisted as insanity and death claim a far from sympathetic character. Again, the music simply pulls you along. Not ancient, not modern, just music. The sets at Glyndebourne are by Hockney and they’re witty.
Monday, 11 February 2013
My failure is the more condemnable. Both are "classics" but whereas BK is simply hard, MD is whimsically hard. One suspects one is being teased and therefore entitled to give up.
I suspect DNF (Did not finish) is rare with most people who take books seriously. Given a broad panorama one simply avoids books where it's likely. There was no way I was ever going to read George Meredith. That great omnivore, my wife, was discouraged at school by Mrs Gaskell and I simply accepted that view without question.
As to modern books I have convinced myself I can distinguish between wilful and worthwhile complexity. Thus The Cloud Atlas was banged shut after two pages but that, I think, was not DNF. On the other hand I absorbed Gravity's Rainbow and V, both arguably more complex.
Getting older I look instead for junk. But junk can be junk in all senses. If one were able to love the novels of James Paterson there would be thirty or forty titles to go at. But the way they are written grates like a nail on chalkboard. This is not writing as such, merely assembly. I never reached the point at which I could judge his plotting.
Whodunnits have a built-in flaw. All those futile interviews in which alibis are checked and re-checked. No writer has been able to turn such dross into gold.
Have you got a DNF? Was despair the reason?
Thursday, 7 February 2013
So here's BB being atavistic (hope you like that five-dollar word).
You don't pour petrol (US: gas) into a car engine, you supply it as petrol vapour and air. Now fuel injection does the mixing via controllable, not very interesting electrical pumps.
This effect can also be achieved more ingeniously (and cheaply) with a carburettor (US: carburator).
Imagine a narrow tube - a jet - with a tapering bore. A needle with a matching taper sits in the jet. A cable raises the needle from the jet, allowing petrol to flow through the space now created.
But we don't need a pump to urge petrol flow. The jet/needle works inside the carburettor body containing the sucking action which occurs when the engine cylinders descend. Thus petrol is sucked through the needle/jet gap.
A hole in the carb body leads to the outside world. As the needle/jet rises an attached tubular "trapdoor" also rises allowing more and more air to be sucked in through the hole via a widening slot in the trapdoor. Mixed petrol and air are then burned in the engine.
Difficult to explain but admirably simple. The driver's need for power is conveyed via the cable and the tricky bit - mixing - is done proportionately and automatically with two sliding parts. Cast in pot metal and costing tuppence.
Fuel injection is more efficient, less polluting. Carburettors are limited these days to small motorbikes and mowers. But they’re still an elegant solution.
Monday, 4 February 2013
Seven apostrophes plus cow-byre talk! I diagnose Adam Bede disease! But the same author wrote one of the greatest novels ever in English.
George Eliot's crime with Adam Bede was to keep me away from another apostrophised British writer: Robert Burns. Except he had more excuse, he was writing in Scottish. Just recently I've made amends by letting him move me. Who could resist:
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae weary, fu' o' care!
Thou'll break my heart, thou warbling bird
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun :
And I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
Both familiar. Slightly less so (I didn't know it had been set to music) is the humanity of:
A man's a man for a' that:
For a' that, an a' that,
Their tinsel show, an a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.
I read it aloud, apprehensive about, then relishing, that staccato repetition. Followed by the last verse, sung by politicians (!) at the first opening of the Scottish Parliament:
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That sense and worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That man to man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.
Friday, 1 February 2013
Happier times, probably Princeton, NJ. With elder granddaughter Professional Bleeder
Doris appears at the end of Blest Redeemer. I needed a detail that caught her deprived, working-class upbringing in Bradford.
As Doris pondered her lips moved tentatively over her teeth at the front. Judith realised Doris had once done without teeth. Causing the shape of her mouth to shrink inwards. Doris said, “There was a time. A bad time. When…” But that was as far as she was prepared to go. “Oh, you know. Teenage stuff. Summat and nowt.”
Re-reading this much reworked passage I abruptly recognised its origins. Beset by problems with my father my mother was told she must lose all her teeth. She still had pride in her looks and took it very badly. Understandably.
This was the late forties and total extractions were routine. For some they were a relief, an end to drilling. Not for my mother. Even I, a wretchedly self-centred twelve-year-old, noticed the way my mother subsequently slid out of her early thirties into despairing middle-age. I say I noticed this change but my viewpoint was entirely selfish. None of my teeth had ever been drilled and the idea terrified me. Would extraction be preferable? My mother, suffering physical and emotional agonies, didn’t care to discuss things with her callow son.
Sixty-odd years later, like Doris, I ponder. Some other defect could herald Doris’s uncared-for youth. Have I been too casual, turning my mother’s Calvary into something that only exists through implication? That only arrived via my sub-conscious. Should I save that sad event for an occasion when I have an abiding need for poignancy?
Novel writing can lead to involuntary disinterment: old bones, wisps of hair, part of a shoe. It’s chilly inside looking out. Is it better – clearer? – outside?