● Lady Percy moves me - might she move you? CLICK TO FIND OUT
● 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.

Wednesday 30 December 2020

"gaily purple with purple sand"

Jab day. And – exhilaratingly – I’m transported twenty-five years back. Out of the inertial murk of retirement to a place where news is happening. Journalistic instincts switch on: observation, suspicion, collection of facts, conclusions that are mine and no one else’s.

The invitation comes from our own GPs; their Belmont Medical Centre will not be big enough, hence Saxon Hall, just down the road. And yet BMC accommodated the earlier flu jab; we queued in light rain in the car park and were only slightly moist by the time it was over.

Saxon Hall tells a different story. Real social distancing requires X/Y co-ordinates: left/right and backwards/forwards. You need area and lots of it, very little of which will be occupied. For space itself is protection.

And lots of people, about 35 by my estimate. Some ensuring car-park priorities for the lame and the halt. Some asking questions. Guiding prickees from the jab-seat to the waiting-seat. Recording statistics. Equalising small queues.

Signs in multiples, black-yellow warning tape.

Details cause you to wonder. After the jab you must wait on the premises for twenty minutes to check possible reactions. You carry a large egg timer, gaily purple with purple sand, to measure your wait. Several million, ordered, designed and manufactured.

Another masked operative puts your emptied timer into a bag marked Dirty Egg Timers. Her only job, but vital.

You knew that vaccine would be budgeted for. But when did someone say: “We’ll need egg timers.”

You leave via an exit through which you did not enter. And reflect. Our leaders have not covered themselves with glory during the pandemic. But certain others – once given the starting gun – have created a vaccination centre in next to no time. They’ve helped mitigate the shame I’ve recently felt at being British.

Don't let the size of the cheque faze you

You may already know, in which case good for you. But if you don’t, what line of business would you expect Louise Glück to be pursuing? Even though it means luck and/or happiness in German it isn’t a surname that hints at delicacy, profundity and stylish expression.
Oh heck! You knew all the time, didn’t you? She’s an American poet who won the 2020 Nobel prize for literature: Swedish krona 10m (£ 902,235, $1,221,795). Poetry isn’t all unheated garrets, or a blood-spotted pillow.

To give myself a tiny bit of credit I did ask for a book of her poems for Christmas and Occasional Speeder obliged. And here was another surprise. Poems 1962 – 2012* is no “slender volume”, it’s nearly 1½ in. thick and runs to 634 pages.

And that thickness is a major virtue since it provides a synoptic view of her talent. Perhaps I should say genius. More, it reveals a style of writing that endures and is adaptable to all seasons. 

Lines from the first poem (The Chicago Train, 1968):

Across from me the whole ride
Hardly stirred: just Mister with his barren 
Skull across the arm-rest while the kid 
Got his head between his mama’s legs and slept…

And from the last (A Village Life, 2009)

The death and uncertainty that await me
As they await all men, the shadows evaluating me
because it can take time to destroy a human being,
the element of suspense
needs to be preserved –

The directness, the confident rhythms, the pared-down vocabulary. OK, perhaps I’m stretching a point. But I have read some of the other poems. An individual yet immediately recognisable voice, then, which addresses the world. She’s rich now but I doubt it’s affected her.

*Courtesy: Poems 1962 – 2012. Louise Glück. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

Saturday 26 December 2020

Unwrapped but welcome


Two significant Christmas events.

A phone call from the GP (while we still lay abed) announcing jabs for both of us next Wednesday. At Saxon Hall where wearing woad will be optional. One advantage of having lived long past our sell-by dates.

I felt for V, my singing teacher, still much younger. I would have willingly kissed the backside of our wretched prime minister to have her criminally jumped up the jab queue, given what she contrived last Monday. 

It’s technical, I fear, but I’m bursting to communicate. My upper limit is F and I can reach this during warm-up. But warm-ups are like mounting a ladder, small steps that take you upward easefully. Reaching F (even some lower notes) in a song is another matter; I may get there but the strain is inescapable and the change of tone audible.

The answer is to produce the singing sound from the front of the mouth. Almost as if the teeth were vibrating like a clarinet reed. Easier said than done.

As it happened we had another problem where the key lay in better articulation, the lips re-shaped non-intuitively. Back and forth, through the Skype cameras, we gurned like vaudeville comedians.

“Do that again,” said V after several minutes. I did so.

“And again.” I did so. And again.

“Is that it?” I asked, hardly daring. V nodded.

In the bath (at home I hasten to add) I went through my repertoire, searching out the hard bits, lips formed into a trumpet. Gliding not straining. Yeah.

In the past I’ve been there for a few seconds, then lost it. Now I’m fairly sure I have the bastard by the goollies. Courtesy V.

Why do I do this? It means nothing elsewhere.

Because it’s hard.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Could Skype save us?

Look, I’m  serious. Here’s a huge unanswered question.

I belong to a very small, totally informal blogging group, no more than six or seven active. All affected to a greater or lesser degree by Covid-19. Cut off from families, reduced to domestic routines, half-mad from watching telly. Why has it taken ages for the possibility of Skyping among us to be raised? And then only timidly.

Does everyone understand Skype? It’s very very simple, for many (ie, mobile phone and laptop owners) it costs nothing to install and use (the software’s free), the few would need to spend about fifty bucks for a webcam/mic. The rewards? Long, long conversations round the world that cost nothing and allow us to see each others’ faces as we talk.

I Skype three times a week. Twice to members of my family. Once to receive my singing lesson where the shape of my mouth and my enthusiasm – or lack of it – for certain works can be precisely checked by V my teacher.

There are risks. Perhaps we don’t care to reveal our looks, our foreignness, small details about the interior of our residences, our incapacity to frame interesting conversation or our inability to wrestle with new technology. Those are understandable restraints. But we face an indeterminate period of incarceration. We need new stimuli to prove we are still developing human beings.

Or are we getting to like our prisons?

Wanna ask me a question without blurting your misgivings to the world? I can’t promise I’m not the ogre you suspect. But what the heck – try rodrob@globalnet.co.uk

Monday 21 December 2020

Merry? How about reflective?

A merry Christmas is possible, but unlikely. Too many matters would have to be ignored.

In one’s eighties the past offers more than the future provided one doesn’t succumb to nostalgia. That indulgent yearning for golden eras which never existed. I'm trying clear-eyed reflection

Not so much past events but the periods of change. The way science, via National Service, shaped the rest of my life. Those determined eighteen months in which I struggled to leave the West Riding of Yorkshire and eventually succeeded. A life split into two as I tasted the nature of marriage. The USA, as exotic as Saturn. My first editorship which opened up another door on what constitutes journalism. The long, long haul of children and how I eventually responded. Travel, lots of it. Comfortable wealth. Retirement and the gentle decline into whatever destiny the microbes working in concert with physical decay have in store for me.

Against several backgrounds. Intensive reading which slowly diminished to give way to writing fiction. Language as an alter ego. Music from the inside.

The rest – I hope – will consist of less guided reflection, wandering where it may to the accompaniment of popping champagne corks. The view from Carmel peninsula (see pic), chatting with Norm close to another peninsula – the Coromandel, buying a present for VR in a Tokyo department store, failing at golf.

My wishes for you – dear readers - will hardly be persuasive since I cannot summon up wishes for myself. Surely anyone can wish anything so WTH. Hope then? I hope for a reduction in worldwide irritation.

Salut! say the French. And you sort of hear their heels click.

Saturday 19 December 2020

Best laid plans...

The plan was to remain together, alone, for Christmas so we could spend New Year’s Eve/Day with Occasional Speeder and family. A fivesome. That way Grandson Zach, who’s been exposed at school throughout December, would then have passed through the longest period possible of self-isolation at home.

But Wednesday’s Ten O’Clock news said otherwise. The oh-so-familiar daily Covid-19 figures were all going the wrong way. Afterwards VR turned to me and I knew what she was going to say. I emailed OS and almost immediately received one in return. Starting: “Ah you beat me to this - I had this conversation earlier with Darren and said…”

One thing about Covid-19 is that nothing surprises you. There’s so much uncertainty that disappointment becomes a chronic condition. How might we mark the now lonesome year’s end? In the past opera DVDs have been our support. But by now we have a huge pile covering all the operas we know and all those we care to experiment with.

I scratched around and came up with Mozart’s Seraglio, Gounod’s Faust, George Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence, and Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment.

And, since OS would be paying us a flying visit to hand over and receive presents that would have been opened on December 31, and was due a late groceries delivery, we tacked on an extra couple of bottles of champagne to her order. That’s six bottles in total for us. Plus Bordeaux and Burgundy of course.

VR and I have had rows since. Nourished by our state of social nothingness. Rows quickly resolved. It’s important not to fall back into cliché. My default reaction. A cousin died two weeks ago; I wrote to his widow, careful to avoid that lumbering horror “condolence”. In these times language demands great attention.

Monday 14 December 2020

Doing what we like

Christmas Eve/Day will be just the two of us.

Not for the first time. When your kids get married off you share them on alternate Christmases with the other set of parents.

More music than usual probably: certainly Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. But VR has a new suggestion:

“Let’s not get dressed. PJs and dressing gowns throughout the day.”

Good idea! Also, if I didn’t shave and used a spoon to eat my dinner* I’d be sluffing (The educated classes spell it sloughing). Snakes slough when they get rid of their skin; more recently, and especially in Yorkshire, the word can mean temporary rejection of all middle-class morals and standards.

Well why not?

And there’s a poignant detail. I have slippers but if I wear them all day it’s too much off and on. Instead I wear my old thick-wool après-ski socks and weep an occasional nostalgic tear. Once I frolicked among the snow-covered high mountains but that was in the days when my legs wore muscles and I knew not fear.

Some things never change. I will blow dust off the cocktail shaker and make a pair of KCBs, courtesy Mr Boston’s Cocktail Guide, a definitive encyclopedia. Main constituents are gin and kummel (an aniseed/caraway seed liqueur) in the ratio 6:1. Very adult.

* An individual beef Wellington.

COMPENSATION For at least ten years VR has been a member of Ewyas Harold art group, presently hibernating from Covid-19. She suggested they all create Christmas cards: the originals to go to one other member, the scanned versions to form an internet exhibition. My second blog, Tone Deaf renewed, was launched as a test pad for New Blogger. It’s doing nothing so that’s where the cards reside.

You could pay them a VISIT.

Monday 7 December 2020

Me, a larger fragment

It’s just after seven in the morning and still dark. I’m clean-shaven, the wheelie bin has been pushed to the end of the drive and I’m nearing the end of five years of weekly singing tuition. That’s potentially 250 lessons and I’ve missed very few. Say 230 sessions.

For four of those years I’d have driven through Hereford’s heartbreakingly lovely landscape to V’s tiny village (see pic). To stand next to her piano. This year I’ve waited in my study for her Skype call at 08.30. I’m not her first pupil of the day (some are in foreign places) yet she always looks fresher than I do.

Things have changed. Lesson anticipation used to thrill me, now it’s simply part of my life. But no less important, no less rewarding. The repertoire has grown to about seventy songs, some came easily, some were a struggle. During the early years some of my faults were overlooked, not now. The coming lesson will be all detail.

Today it will be Weep You No More Sad Fountains, the words written by an anonymous Elizabethan four hundred years ago. The setting by Roger Quilter (died 1953) one of V’s favourite composers. Here’s a 17-year-old baritone doing Weep you no more. CLICK.

But the biggest change is that I’ve entered the whole world of music making. I listen differently, I admire skills that were previously obscure, I’m aware of the disciplines musicians willingly accept. The songs I now tackle are not those that immediately reveal their qualities.

I self-isolate (with VR of course) but I’m eighty-five. A chance encounter with Covid-19 could blow me away. I don’t suppose I’d be happy about that but knowing something about music might make it less of a wrench.

It’s a bit like Wotan’s spear.

Tuesday 1 December 2020

Me, in fragments

FOR TWO months in the USA I lodged in the YMCA. My own room for $13 a week. Old men, presumably retired, lurked in other rooms, avoiding eye-contact in the corridors. I wrote copious airmail letters back to VR in the UK and read into the small hours. At nearby Riggs Lounge, where I’d gone for a beer, I fell into conversation with a scrawny guy, querulous in tone, looking for an argument. I said something in German and he snarled my accent was “bad”.

A dish of fat prawns graced the bar counter, I ate them absently, imagining they were free. Abruptly Querulous Man said, “Yuh know, yuh gotta pay for them.” He must have seen from my face I was ignorant of this. Still grumbling QM fished out his wallet and paid the barman for my prawns, as if obeying some ancient law of hospitality extended to foreigners, however unlikeable. Then he left.

NEVER BUY underpants in batches. The elastic in all will fail during the same week a year hence. The sensation is one of unease, as if the pants were about to slip down inside one’s trouser leg and lie like a guilty secret on the sidewalk. This can’t happen but the belief persists.

BEFORE responding to a question posed in French by a foreigner, a Frenchman will first correct the speaker’s grammar. Not always but enough to generate what is known as Urban Myth.

DURING six years in the USA I ate no more than half-a-dozen hot-dogs. Not because I disliked them, rather they would have reduced my social status had I been in the UK. Which I wasn’t.

ONCE my life depended on libraries. I haven’t used one for ten years. Instead, I buy books, often second-hand. I have no idea why.