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● Plus my novels, stories, verse, vulgar interests, apologies, and singing.
● Most posts are 300 words. I respond to all comments/re-comments.
● See Tone Deaf in New blogger.

Monday 29 February 2016

News from an Offshore Island

I hesitate to bring this up so early but in June Britain will go to the polls to decide whether or not to remain a member of the European Union. When Greece faced the same situation it was labelled Grexit (Gr for Greece, plus "exit") so now we talk about Brexit.

I'm for staying in but there are persuasive reasons against that. The EU is a top-heavy, slow-moving administrative unit where getting agreement between the 28 member states is frustratingly difficult, More specifically laws are passed in Brussels and Strasburg by civil servants who are not answerable to any electorate. Brexit fans say that leaving Europe will enhance the "special relationship" we are supposed to have with the USA but which, I fear, tends only to work one way these days. (Yes I remember WW2; I lived through it.).

But Obama and other speaking heads in Washington would prefer us to remain in the EU. One vital further reason is that 40% of our trade is with EU countries and this may be affected if we get out.

There are many other reasons pro and con which would bore the pants off anyone not directly involved. One is rarely talked about: the EU was created to stop Germany and France going to war again. Hey, it worked!

Another is cultural. There are still powerful forces here encouraging us to sneer at Johnny Foreigner. We frequently look backwards, dwelling on the glories of Empire (where we exploited distant Johnny Foreigner) and the year we won the soccer World Cup; 1966 for goodness sake! Few of our books are translated from European languages. I am no patriot; yes I'm a Brit but faute de mieux.

I like being European; future posts will try to explain why.

Wednesday 24 February 2016

Gift from Ontario

Alice Munro of Canada (above) won the 2013 Nobel Lit Prize for her short stories. I'm reading her now and thinking about Joe.

Latterly Joe and I argued - technically - about the nature of short stories. I tried to deconstruct the art, Joe wouldn’t. Both of us trying to write the little buggers. Then, right at the end, Joe took time off from dying to compliment one of my attempts.

I haven’t forgotten that. The dialogue, much diminished, continues in my mind. Reading Alice Munro has led to an interim conclusion about what constitutes a good short story.

It must be rich in ideas. Not necessarily the big sort (morality, intellect, gender) though these are permissible; the quintessence of experience yet, somehow, distant from humdrum. For Munro finds rarity in day-to-day stuff; we recognise it when it's emphasised; but none of us is as good as observing it as she is.

"The word 'Manor' doesn't mean anything at all anymore, does it?" said Meriel. "It doesn't even mean there's an upstairs. It just means that you're supposed to think that a place is something it doesn't even pretend to be."

On human behaviour: (The dinner napkins) were set in overlapping rows so that the corners of each napkin... overlapped the folded corner of its neighbour. Nobody had disturbed them, or if they had... they had picked up napkins from the end of the row in a careful way and this order had been maintained.

On locations: Up Capilano road, into their own part of the city and their own corner of the world, where their lives took on true weight and their actions took on consequences.

Short stories aren’t my favourite medium but with Munro I now make an exception. Joe, well ahead, was a registered Munro fan.

Tuesday 23 February 2016

Age in abeyance

Recent happy events/thoughts:

BACK TO THE WOMB Going to bed under the new voluminous duvet: like burrowing down into thick snow that is both warm and doesn't melt.

SINGING Now upswing. Will have the chorus of the freed prisoners in LvB's Fidelio arranged for baritone, soprano and piano:

O welche Lust in freier Luft
Den Athem einzuheben!
Nur hier, nur hier ist Leben.
Der Kerker eine Gruft.

Oh, what a pleasure once again
Freely to breathe the fresh air!
In Heaven’s light we live again;
From death we have escaped

To be sung when I can. Click HERE to see why I'm tempted.

WINE Wine worth £35 a bottle: Drouhin's 2011 Gevrey-Chambertin, Les Grandes Rayes. Red burgundy five years from being perfect but in which perfection is imaginable. Tart, suppressed fruit, it blossoms. Bought six, now down to two. Could have waited but for what? Bill Cash as prime minister and Donald Trump in the White House?

PLAYS Have decided WS’s Troilus and Cressida is rarely played for several good reasons: it is wordy, frequently action-free and has been done better by others.

NOVEL That Lindsay (see below) makes far more sense as a right bastard.

Hardline Hope, a novel (15,387 words)
Lindsay hung up her suit in a locker in the women’s loo; put on her jeans and hi-vis jacket. From Pool Green to the high rise estate outside Walsall where she lived was just over three miles. There was no bus service and her assets didn’t run to a car. A bike was the obvious solution even though she knew, pettishly, it set her apart, like being vegetarian or voting Green. Certainly the persona she had created for herself, the sharp active face intensified by the slot-like lenses, looked misplaced, as if, like the present prime minister, she was biking for reasons other than getting from A to B.

Friday 19 February 2016

A throne less British

Didn't know they came in pink
Up at 06.25 as usual. Hey! Dawn's sky-slots over the Malverns and one part of winter at least is in retreat.

My mind's full. A post? Practice Santa Lucia? (Too noisy; too early.) More novel? (Lindsay's becoming cruel and it's unexpected; she's being nasty to Jenson; poor Jenson - revealed as just a salesman.) A short story? (It's been ages.)

But no. Yesterday - when, I can't remember - I read some fiction - can't think of the book title. Americans boasting about their bidet. Weird. Bidets are so French and it's traditional for Americans to think of the French as unhygienic.

"If we had the space," I ask VR, "should we install a bidet?"

From deep in her Kindle VR surfaces. "Perhaps. If I knew exactly what the French used them for."

A memory, sixty-five years old. Paris; too much rich food; an embarrassing moment on the pavement (US: sidewalk); the bidet back in the hotel answers. After which an adventure, already posted.

A bidet of our own! If visitors asked, how would I explain? I am not known for my hygiene; with age it’s less important. Am I now boasting? In a crabby Brit-type way?

OK! A post it is! Quod erat demonstrandum.
Hardline Hope, a novel (14,488 words)
Dear Piet, healthy yet timid. When he allowed himself to kiss her it was clear there would be no further progress this side of the marital bed. Lindsay wondered whether this was the result of being brought up within the Dutch Reformed church. But no the DR was regarded as progressive and had pronounced publicly in favour of same-sex marriages. Eventually Piet’s restraint became a mild form of obsession with her and she prolonged their affair... convinced (she)... would finally winkle out Eros.

Wednesday 17 February 2016

Dear Ellena

Lucy's just e-mailed me to say Ellena's died. With more time at this end (ironically there are doctors and hospitals to visit) I could have done better. Should have done better. Here's my comment.

O hell's bells. That's hard to take. And perhaps that's a measure of what Ellena meant to me; that I should immediately behave so selfishly without a thought for you and the rest who have lost so much. But then I can't help it; I can't of course hear her voice but believe me her writing was a wonderful ambassador on her behalf.

Her aim was to be modest, to go beyond modesty almost to invisibility. And she failed as she - a subtly intelligent person if ever there was one - must have known she would. Often her talk was of the smallest domestic matters but shaped in a way that made them glitter. Her style of writing seemed artless but it was the best kind of art - serving the subject never herself.

She said it took ages to come up with comment. At first sight I thought this was an ingenious excuse but quite quickly I knew it was the truth. Sometimes she'd leave less than ten words with me but the indirect angle and the lack of a single unnecessary word were unmistakably her.

One thing I can be proud of: I wasn't about to let her extraordinary skills go uncelebrated. Over and over I told her I was on to her; that no one who wrote as well as she did it for any other reason than a love of language.

And finally - how I hate that word - she brought her style to bear on a very big subject, her masterpiece: "The geriatric care wing of a pavilion attached to a nearby hospital" in April last year. A deliberately cumbersome title for a series of visits she made to old people. Here's how the first visit ends:

I push the glass softly against his mouth and slip a straw between his lips.    Glass empty..... his eyes still closed. 

I feel triumphant.

As well she might.

Although I've done this before I feel I must do it it again. EB White's children's book, Charlotte's Web, ends with a tribute I cannot better:

It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte (and Ellena) was (were) both.

Tuesday 16 February 2016

V tells me what's what

MUSIC LESSON Told V I needed "propping up", my recorded singing voice was embarrassing, I felt wimpish. V pointed out I had arrived seven weeks before, aged eighty, untutored in singing during a frequently self-destructive life (I'm adding in that last bit). That on the first lesson I stumbled through one of the great bass operatic arias of all time, that I now use scores and obviously enjoy doing so. That I am "perfectionist".

And then what really mattered. V said: "If I'd thought I couldn't do anything for you I'd have told you, immediately." Exercises, then Benjamin Britten’s round, Old Abr'am Brown is Dead and Gone. Rebirth!

And now Santa Lucia (see pic). "Neapolitan and sentimental," I said. As ever V was way ahead. I'm singing in the language best fitted for singing: Italian. "Come, my love, to the agile boat," I trill and it's oh-so-liquid as Venite al l'agile barchetta mia!

PAINTING With the other V in my life, VR, watched egg-shaped, Waldemar Januszczak, prove the Renaissance started long before the Italians thought it did. Exquisite Jan van Eyck shockingly labelled a "Flemish Primitive". Funny really.

Hardline Hope, a novel (14,040 words)
“Watching women who present TV news gave me the idea. About age forty their eyesight tends to go off and they face the big choice. There’s one in particular - handsome, intelligent, speaks well and quick with it; she tried contacts and her face lost all focus, as if she was struggling in a fog. Now uses discreet glasses that are almost invisible - a lot better than contacts and I’m glad for her. But there is another option.”

Gayle’s face lit up. “Don’t tell me, it’s like the legs isn’t it? Getting in and out of the car. Go for it, don’t hide it.”

Sunday 14 February 2016

Mich! Moi!! Me!!!

There’s no one like you, is there? You feel that instinctively but how to prove it? Atomically it’s true, genetically too, probably. But you can’t easily check these matters.

One way is to see your uniqueness as a combination of features, qualities and achievements.

I am male, the world population is 7bn, therefore I need only compare myself with half that figure, the rest being female. I am almost 6 ft 2 in. tall and - I guess - that removes two-thirds of the male competition and I’m down to 1.2bn. I'm eighty which reduces my peers to 600m. Almost manageable.

Let's get more personal. Aged eleven I decided what job I wanted then, later, went ahead and did it. How many eighty-year-old, 6ft 2in men can claim that? A small percentage? Say 5% and we're down to 30m.

I lived several years in a foreign country. Perhaps 10%. My peers at this stage now only number 3m - say a large city.

I've written a couple of novels now in print. That's a real slasher: 500,000 is perhaps too generous, shall we say 100,000?

I've been married for over 50 years. I only know fewer haven't than have. Half? So: 50,000. Remember I’m moving towards a unique combination.

I never saw The Sound of Music. Game, set and match? No, even fewer people have seen TSOM run backwards through a projector; that could be easily arranged to juggle the numbers. Stick to stuff that matters or you’re proud of.

I’ve read Proust, Ulysses and War and Peace all more than once. Plus The Man Without Qualities just once; that was enough. That might just do it. Eight factors: can you do it in less?

No doubt, but observe the rules.

Wednesday 10 February 2016

Steep stuff

And now the grind, except I must not see it as that. Doing so closes off the route to those eminences far higher than the Himalayas (mere physical excrescences): the range that includes Mounts Leporello, Marschallin and Erlkönig.

It is V's job to teach. Her encouragement continues but mixed with less welcome matters. I am asked to reproduce continuous mounting and descending triads with octaves (doh-me-so-doh; doh-so-me-doh) legato style - ie, without gaps. Easy-peasy, I used to do this quite plausibly on the trumpet, moving up a note at a time.

But what's this? V tells me me that I sharpen the descending "so". By something less than a semitone, to be sure, but in music, just as in affairs between men and women, there is no such thing as "slightly" pregnant. And, a few minutes later, V unintentionally re-makes the point by filling the room with a sustained, powerful and glorious mid-range note of her own making that fictitious range of peaks seem much more distant.

But how can I rectify this fault practising on my own at home? Who's to guide me? I acquire recording software, and sing my Ghanaian warm-up song, Tu-we tu-we, Barima tu-we tu-we, into the computer. After ten goes all the notes sound to be there but it isn't really music - more the sound of a robot still in nappies (US: diapers).

I must be careful not to be despondent; there is progress and I know it. But that resounding soprano note - say, middle C - I heard days before in Little Dewchurch still echoes in my ears. I must have faith, and in so many ways. And this time it's not to be found in words I string together.

Saturday 6 February 2016

The compliment dilemma

Compliments are hard work; it's easier - alas - to be nasty.

The vocabulary associated with compliments is parched, over-familiar and lazy. The impulse to compliment may be sincere, but the end-product may look as if it had been assembled in a factory. Hmmm, says the recipient, instead of Wow! The sentiment need not be original but it must be originally expressed.

I don't attract many compliments, one reason being I raise unpopular subjects like this. Sarky bugger, people think, and they're right. Actually, that can be read as a sort of compliment but only by a sarky bugger.

I had ten minutes to go before the final episode of  a heartless French political drama series on telly. I pulled out a poetry collection and from it fluttered a card written by the person who had given me the used book. Here's an extract:

"I like this but don't need to keep it, and thought his voice sounded a bit like yours in certain places... or maybe I find him a bit too dry and clever for me."

That word "voice" is carefully chosen. No attempt to suggest that my barely finished stuff in any way resembles the poet's ultra-professional work. Only that I share an attitude with the poet who, I must confess, is somewhat cynical. Not wholly likeable.

This is nevertheless a compliment. The writer has flattered me by getting to know my little ways and is unafraid to be honest about them. Knows me well enough for that too. Since I own up to being cynical and often unlikeable how could I grumble? Truth can be received in different ways.

There are two further qualifications. The phrase "a bit like" ensures I don't get too big-headed. And I'm left to speculate about the indirectness of "dry and clever".

As I say, compliments are hard work.

PS: "Sarky" is knowingly sarcastic. And, no, I will not identify the poet.

Friday 5 February 2016

Uncaring youth

Trolley bus had open entrance at rear: good for "legging off"
Kids are insensitive wretches. Tending - at best – to ignore adults, at worst to treat them as enemies. I was a boy you see.

Going to school by trolley bus I never waited for it to stop before descending. I experimented: what was the highest bus speed for "legging off"? Hitting the ground running, to match the speed of the vehicle I'd left. I found my limit and came home bloody. My mother worried but did I care? Not a jot.

A nearby flat-roof garage was set into the hillside. I could walk on to the flat roof, climb its surrounding wall and shuffle round three sides of the building (20 feet above ground at the front) on an elevated pathway three bricks wide. A quandary for watching neighbours: Leave me be or remonstrate, perhaps causing me to fall off? Hah!

Then swimming in an operative canal (say no more), motorbikes and rock climbing. But, you say, I too became an adult. Alas for those who prayed for my just deserts. My kids were girls, too sensible for such idiocies.

Fairness in the after-life?  It's run by Jahweh who probably had a wild youth.

Hardline Hope, a novel (13,369 words)
“Is selling a step up?” Amber asked.

“Not as such but it can lead to different places. Office manager is a dead end.”

“Didn’t Leesha do something like that? On the free newspaper?”


“Caribbean family; one year ahead of us.”

Lindsay waved her hand faintly. “Good grief, I can hardly keep up with our lot, let alone other classes. Why do you mention her?”

“It didn’t do her any good. They hired and fired almost seasonally.”

Monday 1 February 2016

Late developer

Like some unwanted old bassoon,
Sad comic of the orchestra,
Conduit of mistaken farts and groans,
Now left to gather attic dust,
Reeds split, keypads unstuck, the case
A velvet nest for mice and memories
Of Bartok and a starring Mozart role,
My voice responded only to a daily round,
Of supermarkets and desultory chat,
Of booking dentists and of movie seats.
An aural calling card but nothing
More, no call for skills or pleasantry.

But under tutelage it stirred at chords,
Aping their sonority. Catching the
Flight of clear soprano séductrice,
Adapted to instructive work.
My God! Such wanton eagerness!
Unhampered by those obstacles
Of hoarseness and of ignorance. This was
Immediacy, a sense that would improve,
That would disgorge the mystic dancing dots,
Their tones, their times, their links to all
Those godlike names and temperaments:
And there’s a jeux de mots to start the course.

Modest repeated echoes of a phrase,
A line, a verse and then the whole damn song,
The voice alone engaged; I left my mind
Behind just then; later I’ll comprehend
How sounds elide, combine and ultimately affect
Those cords – not chords – within the throat,
And I become a child again, helpless yet,
But loving it, the willing victim of a force
That, through adult complicity, tells of a
Language I may speak with competence,
Newly equipped and willing to discourse
About the better side of things.

Note: Rewritten before and after lunch.