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Sunday 29 January 2017

Family of show-offs

Once I left the newspaper I swore I'd had it with covering amateur dramatics, especially rigorously filleted plays which enjoyed Methodist seal of approval. But Zach's appearance in Rumpelstiltskin, a pantomime, demanded my presence.

Zach had two parts. As a bearded gnome, he slipped down his beard to make himself more audible and I could hear his confident young voice ringing out in the choruses. As the King's valet (left on pic) he was on-stage for ages but with little to say; his eyes roved as if he was imagining himself in a more demanding role - Iago, perhaps. Before the panto he'd played a Saturday afternoon soccer game, the following morning he was off to play rugby.

I once wrote a five-act docu-parody which I also directed and narrated. There were never more than three on the stage whereas here there were dozens - appalling logistics, but well managed. Confirmation too of what V said throughout last year: as with singing so with stage speeches, Brits must conquer a national tendency whereby what they utter fades away into nothingness.

Occasional Speeder, Zach's Mum, was Adult 3, a role forced upon her as a result of being Zach's chauffeur. As I earlier found out there's nothing like acting for creating a buzz. We all got home at about 10 pm and went to bed at 2 am. Much Green Room chat, much malicious gossip about those who became excessively "precious" during rehearsals, much giggling at risky improvisations.

I recalled my own acting debut at primary school, aged about 7, reciting The Grizzly-Izzly Bear, for a group of mothers, shabbily dressed, exhausted, able to forget the War for a few minutes. I didn’t forewarn my mother, she didn’t attend and there was a huge hole in my jumper elbow.

Thursday 26 January 2017

Nobody said it'd be easy

As 2017 dawned V said lessons would become more serious. We started with four bars of  Agilita (agility) from Panofka's 24 Vocalises. A vocalise is dully defined as "a singing exercise using individual syllables or vowel sounds to develop flexibility and control of pitch and tone". Another definition includes "other meaningless vocal sounds" as if to emphasise the dullness.

Whereas vocalises are often used by pros, V among them, to warm up before recitals. One, by Rachmaninov, is so beautiful it has entered the international repertory.

Scales with a difference and much harder than they appear on the score.

You want hard? I've got hard. Recently I've been picking apart Mozart's song An Chloë, note by note. Somewhat faster than any of the twenty-plus songs I've previously tackled, also more obviously Mozartean, liberally speckled with curlicues. Here's Rouchswalwe's favourite (see pic), the sadly late

Lucia Popp

chosen because she takes it slightly slower. V has sung An Chloë publicly and Consonants! is pencilled on the score - with good reason. Hard yes, but gorgeous and that helps.

QUITE DIFFERENT Want a terrific wine at £12 (at least from The Wine Society)? Try Ventoux Epicure, Ch. Valcome. Vineyard in the lee of Mont Ventoux, graveyard of some in the Tour de France.

Monday 23 January 2017

I've been lucky

Lucy on the left, VR on the right, pilot in the centre, me
behind the camera. Just prior to a flight over Brittany, aeons ago  
Lucy's closing down Box Elder. Perhaps for good (bad's more apt), perhaps not. Given I've recently tended to overdo my comments there I've just left one that's uncharacteristically short. It was either that or Swann's Way, majoring on the hawthorn blossoms.

To sum up. Several years ago our mutual friend, Joe Hyam, died and Lucy chose to attend the funeral. She lives in Brittany, the pointy bit of France that sticks out west; the obsequies were in Tunbridge Wells, about thirty miles south of London. Er, that's London, UK.

France's high-speed trains helped and VR and I were able to pick her up for the last leg. What followed was a long day for all of us and as we reached the hotel near midnight Lucy burst into tears of tiredness and emotion. In my gruff, unaccustomed-as-I-am, Northern way I gave her a hug and I must confess it felt like a privilege to be able to do so.

Lucy's admirable. Too understated, no doubt? Then I'm an unfeeling cold fish, a typical Brit.  Lucy encouraged me to blog, commented on my stuff, pointed out the few good things in my fledgling verses, sympathised when I needed it in well-constructed prose that reached into my tripes, could be wicked but was usually understanding, helped reinforce my Francophilia, shared the pleasures of the English language with me. And other big things. A friend.

Funnily enough I don't begrudge her closing down Box Elder. She's earned it. And others' comments, already rolling in, show I'm not alone. I don't think I'm even sad, how could I be with such a credit balance? I do think I've been lucky.

Saturday 21 January 2017

No talk of walls

Christmas 1971, when I was working in Pittsburgh, my  mother died in Britain. I felt I must attend the funeral even though it meant spending money I'd saved to cover any emergency that might happen to a foreigner (with a wife and two children) working in the USA.

But to leave the USA I needed clearance from the Internal Revenue as proof I'd paid my taxes, and the IR office was closed. Ed, the father of one my daughter's friends, was an attorney; he phoned me, "Call your congressman." I pointed out I was a voteless alien. Ed said, "Call him and tell him I'll call him if he doesn't do something. And if you're short of cash I'll let you have anything you need."

As it happened things went smoothly. I was reminded of this when the new president ended his speech exhorting Americans to think only of themselves.

Thursday 19 January 2017

Lost, and it'll stay lost

...You may see a stranger
Across a crowded room,
And somehow you know...
Etc, etc.

These groaningly familiar lines from Rogers and Hammerstein's South Pacific speak of love-at-first-sight, plot fodder for Hollywood at its squashiest and for Mills & Boon. But not for me. Why?

In all my five novels Jack meets Jill or, rather, Jill meets Jack, but never in that traditional blinding flash.

One reason's obvious. Novels allow you elbow room so why swap growing realisation for Kapow! when you've chapters to fill? Perhaps too, because I've never been convinced... Perhaps... yes, how did things go when I first met VR (then VT) in 1959's endless hot summer in London?

A double date (blind for me): two journalists, two Charing Cross nurses, and an old, old van we'd borrowed. I remember asking VR/VT for her telephone number. Not having pencil and paper I used a penny to scratch the seven figures on the van's battered interior. But that was at the end of proceedings. What happened that evening? I'd no idea.

Timidly, shamefacedly, in 2017, I put that question to my spouse of 57 years. "We went to The Dove at Hammersmith," she said. Strange, a touristy pub on the riverside; a pub I later grew to hate after reading the landlord’s autobiography. "What did we talk about?" I asked; then, in an even more timid voice: "What were your impressions?" VR shrugged: "We drank a lot of beer."

And then, quite forcibly, I knew I'd reached an impasse. Even with long-married couples, especially with them, there are questions which cannot be asked. All I can say is we were married a year later. Thus, for me, the South Pacific assertion remains unanswered.

Monday 16 January 2017

Lead unkindly light

These are the bad times, the dark times. I rise at 06.25 and there's still an hour of oblivion out of doors. Last night's wine glasses and decanter need putting away and I must use an Eye Wipe to clear up the gruesome results of blepharitis. Curtains are pulled, blinds raised. Sometimes, if there's enough spirit in me I do these tasks without turning on the downstairs light; today, crushed, I flick the switch and endure a shock to the optic nerve.

This is the time of year when nasty arguments occur. There was one last night, my fault. Will the effects have lasted overnight?

I could write a few paras for Opening Bars, my account of the singing lessons, now standing at 25,883 words; almost 1000 words past the original target. I could re-examine my novel, Rictangular Lenses, (28,752 words, untouched since November 23 and there's a shock). I could write a maudlin post. Yes, why don't I write a maudlin post.

At 10.00 there's a singing lesson, a return to the Mozart I sang on the first lesson a year ago. But in detail. "Concentrate on the little problems," said V last week. "Do them several times before singing the whole song." The professional approach, but I'm weak and amateur; I need the reassurance of the song's lovely completeness.

There's a fearful temptation to dwell on past times, when I climbed, cycled, motor-biked, swam, swilled pints of beer and argued, hectored PRs at press conferences. But that's self-destructive nostalgia. Those laddish times are now held in a silo called Raw Material, to be drawn off in spoonfuls and recycled as fiction.

Be positive! Hey, I got up! Stirling Moss still lives! - early reports said he'd died. Music's to come. Maudlin's now a post.

Wednesday 11 January 2017

Make 'em laff. Make 'em...
oh, why bother?

Wine suppliers, imagining I drink myself silly every evening,  bombard me with email spam. A headline in my inbox shrieks: "A breathtaking wine!" Well no, I'd rather not. Pickled-onion vinegar's better with chips.

Steve Bell, The Guardian's cartoonist, is dismantling our new prime minister. Dressed as Harlequin, her face slathered with white paint and made to look 110, she stumbles down descending stages of madness. Today she asks: "Mirror, mirror, on the wall who is the most socially concerned of all?" Says the mirror, "Larry the Downing Street cat is the most concerned of all."
Arf, arf!

Nor does Labour's Jeremy Corbyn escape. Asked about the big Brexit issue, immigration, he says (to the despair of his supporters): "Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle. But I don't want to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out." As Jim Crace, the newspaper's political sketch-writer sardonically observes: "There was little danger of anyone misinterpreting that because to do so would have involved the possibility of someone interpreting it correctly."
Arf, arf, arf!

Donald Trump? Might he be Meryl Streep in drag? The one where she wins all the Oscars. But the screenwriters need to work on that surname (the one beginning with T), it's too obviously risible.

Monday 9 January 2017

Disasters averted

On giving up DIY (Fr. bricolage)

● No more haggled screw-heads.
● No more re-assemblies with two washers and a spline left over.
● No more deviating saw-cuts.
● No more pop-ups starting "Microsoft warns the user..."
● No more U-shaped nails.
● No more suddenly splitting wooden battens.
● No more waiting for repaired plumbing to leak.
● No more gradually widening holes in plasterboard stud walls.
● No more losing the chuck key.
● No more paint blobs on the carpet.
● No more partially erased paint blobs on the carpet.
● No more visits to carpet shops.
● No more visits to the dump with discarded carpet.
● No more lengthy post-mortems about how paint got on to the carpet in the first place.
● No more failures of no-longer-available light bulbs.
● No more holes dug slightly smaller than the sapling's root ball.
● No more accidentally severed hedge-trimmer cables.
● No more futile tours of the wallpaper department.
● No more head down the WC.
● No more danger from the angle grinder.
● No more drilling in the wrong place.
● No more unwonted pride in the unused case of drill bits.
● No more self-disconnecting pairs of wires to the ring-main socket

Progress report: Opening Bars. A late-life adventure. Roderick Robinson. 25,070 words.
Sample extract: It’s a truism but a musical score looks daunting at first sight and becomes more daunting when its purpose is explained. Namely that items of instruction have been gathered into vertical strips representing set periods of time, that each strip must be read as if it contained just one instruction not several, and then – get this! – turned into action with all the items of instruction simultaneously and miraculously combined. Didn’t one US president say another had difficulty chewing gum and walking? How about chewing gum, walking, blowing one’s nose and directing someone to Trafalgar Square in a foreign language?

Wednesday 4 January 2017


It's January 2, 2017. One year - minus two days - after my first singing lesson. Forty-plus lessons ago.

And V says, "We're going back to that first song."

The Mozart! I love all the songs I've learned but that one (Sarastro's "O Isis Und Osiris") I love the most. How many times have I sung it to myself during 2016? A hundred? More?

V plays the sweet-sad opening bars on the piano and I give it the full welly. Taking it down (zu Grabe - To the grave) then up (lasst sie die Prüfung, Früchte sehen - Show them the fruits). Overdoing it but what the Hell?

V nods, meaning I've hit most of the notes. But... "Too dark," V says, "it's someone else's voice."

A recurrent tendency. I'm a baritone and this is a bass aria; I sing it hearing rich noises from Martti Talvela (see pic), Kurt Moll, Kim Borg and Matti Salminen.

"Sing it in your own voice," says V.

It's a struggle, there are mistakes. But V nods, differently. Another of my defects is to talk too much, to try to explain. "I'm committed to this aria. Don't want to let Mozart or Schikaneder (the librettist) down."

V smiles. "There've been things during the year I've let you get away with. Now we're moving on; it's going to get more difficult."

Then she does something quite horrible. Sings "O Isis," deliberately distorting her gorgeous soprano voice into the subterranean grumblings I used first time round. A sort of blasphemy. And a warning.

V says, "The darker version betrayed Mozart more, you sang flatter."

Later my knees start wobbling, sign of an intense lesson. They still wobble in the car. And now, as I write.

PS: In exchange for an incredible encomium from RW (zS) here I am, doing my best with MOZART.