Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Well tell me then

Well that really worked a treat. There’s a thingy on my blog that tells me how many people are looking at it, (though not, you will be relieved to hear, who they are,) and so now I know that putting a poem in, or just mentioning poetry, causes the readership to plummet.

The trouble is the absence of what is now called ‘Feedback’. In spite of repeated invitations to do so, with the honourable exceptions of you, Dimitri, and you, Jane, no-one ever writes in to say ‘Well that was a load of old codswallop’ or ‘Gosh that was fascinating.’ It’s like the stand-up comedian’s nightmare: the sullen, unresponsive, indifferent audience. Far better the shouts of ‘Boo! Get off!’ and the bad eggs and rotten tomatoes hurled from the gallery.

So if you won’t tell me what you’d like me to write about, I’ll just have to guess. Today’s subject is the corpuscular theory of light. (I can almost hear the eager chorus; ‘Great! At last! A subject of wide general interest!’ Well tell me then.)

            The atoms of Democritus
            And Newton’s particles of light
            Are sands upon the Dead Sea shore
            Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

That’s William Blake. (I think I’ve got it right; I’m quoting from memory.) John Keats too, who with his medical training should have known better, thought Newton had destroyed the rainbow by analysing it. In Newton’s time natural philosophers (what we should now call scientists) argued over whether light was made of particles or was a wave motion. The argument continued until the twentieth century, when some peace-loving person came up with the notion of a ‘Wavicle’. Sometimes light is a wave, sometimes it’s a stream of particles. Actually of course it’s neither; light waves or particles have no more ‘real existence’ than do lines of longitude. We would be all at sea without lines of longitude, (if you work for the BBC you must pronounce it ‘Longditude’, just as you must pronounce ‘Antarctica’ as ‘Antartica’ and ‘February’ as ‘Febury’ and ‘Medicine’ as ‘Med-sun’. Sorry; end of irrelevant rant) but I don’t think transatlantic liner passengers were ever disturbed by the ship’s bumping over a line of longitude like a train bumping over the points. Scientific theories are just fantasies, but fantasies with explanatory value.

Newton, rather to the surprise of later theoretical physicists, went for the ‘Corpuscular’ (Particle) theory of light: light as a stream of little balls, bouncing off things or going through them and entering our eyes. The idea makes a lot more sense than it might seem to, in fact it’s helpful in understanding how magnifying glasses, microscopes, and even electron microscopes work.

So, on the corpuscular theory of light, how does a magnifying glass or a microscope work? The best analogy I can think of today (I’m not feeling too brilliant but nor it seems is anyone else in the island; you could hardly get into the doctor’s waiting room this morning so I gave up and went away) is a slide projector, of the sort with which people used to bore their dinner guests rigid (‘That’s me and Mavis coming out of our hotel’) before everyone had computers. Suppose you want to examine the fine structure of something or other. You take a very thin slice of it (microscopists use microtomes, which have blades from cut-throat razors, or pieces of glass or even diamond) and put it in the slide slot. Then you bombard it with particles of light (the projector bulb) and put a screen in front. Where the light particles hit something solid in the sample, none of them reaches the screen. Where they get through gaps, they do. (Duh.) So on the screen is a blown-up representation of the sample.

Now there’s a limit to the blowing-up. What happens if we want to see the really fine structure, what is called the ultrastructure, where the gaps between the solid bits are smaller than the particles of light? Well you can’t. It would be like expecting tennis balls to go through the net. That’s that. Microscopes just can’t go beyond a certain magnification. For a long time it was thought we could never never see the really fine structure of cells and so on; we made it all up and amazingly (as it turns out) got a lot of it right.

But hold on: tennis balls? Suppose we were to use ping-pong balls? Not much use for tennis, but they would go through the net surely? And that’s where the electron microscope comes in handy. Instead of great big ‘Photons’ (as particles of light are called) we use electrons, which are very tiny indeed. So tiny that in order to see them you would need …  


Monday, 30 December 2013

No Blog Today?

Something called 'Overview' tells me that 70 odd people look at my blog daily, but I sometimes wonder if it's the same two people - Dimitri and Jane - who look at it 70 odd times a day. So I get discouraged and sometimes fail to write anything. Dimitri has just sent me the following message; I hope he won't mind my putting it in here. Dimitri is Greek of course. How many English people could send me an e-mail in Greek verse?

No blog today
Are you ok?
What happened while I'm away?
Was the day pale and grey?
And if someone has caused you trouble,
when I'll return I'll give him double.
Did you visit yorgo? friend of mine
I hope that you're doing fine
I do have something in process of being, slowly, written, and I promise it is not a poem or about poetry. Be patient.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Another go at reducing my readership

Meaning in Poetry

‘Poetry is not made out of ideas, it is made out of words.’ Thus Mallarmé to Degas. A straightforward enough truth, but one often ignored or misunderstood. Shelley ignored it in his more overtly political writings, and so have countless propagandists before and since. The results are always dire — they may be verse, but never poetry — however much we may sympathize with the ideas expressed. What confuses the issue is that some of the writers of such verse, for example Shelley, were also poets, whereas most of them never were, because they thought poetry to be merely one of a number of possible vehicles for ideas. They had forgotten, or never knew, that the words come first.

A more interesting ignorance or misunderstanding is that which takes Mallarmés dictum and jumps to the invalid conclusion that the meaning doesn’t matter. That something comes second, or third, or twenty-sixth, doesn’t imply that it doesn’t matter; it may turn out to be what matters most: poetry is not a competitive sport. It’s just that in the normal course of affairs, when we are not writing, reading or hearing poetry, we have ideas and find words to express them. In poetry we have words and find that they express ideas.

What about Nonsense Poetry? In most cases it isn’t nonsense. There was, and probably is, something called ‘Concrete Poetry’, made of sounds rather than words. Good luck to it, and of course it may call itself what it likes, but it is probably more helpful to think of it as scat-singing without the tune than as poetry. What we think of as ‘Nonsense Poetry’ — Lear, Carroll, or in German Morgenstern and Ringelnatz — works so well precisely because of its ties — flexible but definite — to sense. Take, for example, the first verse (later verses are much less nonsensical) of ‘Jabberwocky’:


’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.


This is by no means nonsense. It uses a lot of made-up words, but they are recognizably words, and (pace  another of Carroll’s creations) it is as true of made-up words as of dictionary-words that they can’t mean whatever one chooses. Their meanings may be subject to differences of opinion — that is true also of dictionary-words — but they are delimited by the words’ sounds, their resemblances to ‘real’ words, their endings, and — perhaps most importantly, at any rate in English and German — their positions in what are recognizably sentences.

I want to examine more closely the verse just quoted. If the reader has borne with me, I think he will agree with much of what I say about it. If I have irritated her, she will perversely deny what I offer. Or one will prefer other interpretations, but in all cases I think they must admit that, even in the extreme case of Nonsense Poetry, meaning is vital.

 ’Twas brillig  This is clearly a statement about the weather. Bright and sunny, perhaps rather oppressive. If the BBC weather-man were daring enough to tell us that it will be brillig tomorrow, we should all understand.

and the slithy toves  Toves are some sort of living creature, plant or animal, and there is more than one of them. And they’re slithy: ‘slithy’ is obviously an adjective, or rather one of those adjective-y words — I can’t remember what they’re called — like ‘runny’ or ‘grassy’ — derived from verbs or nouns. Slithy things slithe; they are sly and/or slippery, like snakes or fish.

Did gyre and gimble  ‘Gyre’ is a perfectly good dictionary-word, and it’s been used by other poets. To gyre is to turn, about either one’s own axis or an external one; in the case of Yeats’s falcon, in an expanding spiral. As for ‘gimble’, gimbals are the double swivels in which compasses, lamps and what-not are slung on board ship, so that they remain vaguely level when the boat rolls and pitches. From within the moving boat, and taking it as one’s reference, the gimballed object wobbles about with a motion that might well be called ‘gimbling’.

in the wabe  Fair enough, I’m not sure about ‘wabe’. It’s perhaps a swamp or marsh, or maybe a glebe, of the sultry sort in which one faints.

All mimsy  We all know what ‘mimsy’ means. Pansies are mimsy, so is Violet Elizabeth Bott in the ‘William’ books.

were the borogoves  Borogoves are surely some sort of single-stemmed multi-bloomed flower, between foxgloves and hollyhocks.

And the mome raths  Mome raths are larger, darker creatures. Perhaps trees, perhaps something like mammoths. Faintly sinister.

outgrabe  Clearly a verb, and clearly (from the ‘out’) expressing an extreme action. Also clearly in the past tense. ‘Outgrobing’, if that is the present participle, is just the sort of thing one might expect mome raths, with their finger-like twigs, or twig-like fingers, to do.


You see? Oh, come on.

Saturday, 28 December 2013


Today, a poem, though I am well aware that by posting a poem on my blog I am almost certain to lose at a stroke the recent large and gratifying increase in the number of 'Page Views' as they are called.
This poem is a Sestina. As with most poetic forms, reading the dictionary definition of 'Sestina' is utterly bewildering, and even if one understands the definition one is likely to think 'Why on earth would anyone bother'? Nevertheless, here is a sestina. I might say (in fact I will say; surely one can blow one's own trumpet on one's own blog?) that this particular sestina won me a £500 prize. If the print has come out too small to read, I think you can make it bigger by clicking on it or something.


Friday, 27 December 2013

By their works shall ye know them

Footballers without two brain cells to rub together appear on television and are asked their opinion on the Palestine/Israel conflict. They’re famous, you see, and this apparently confers some authority. There are even people who seem to be famous for being famous, since they do nothing but appear on television and give their feather-brained opinions to an adoring public.

The effect of celebrity culture on literature is that writers are, for many members of the public, better known for their lives than for their work. People shed crocodile tears for Sylvia Plath because of her suicide, which they blame on Ted Hughes. How much of the poetry of either have they read, one wonders? Oscar Wilde? Oh yes; they sent him to prison for being gay. Didn’t he write a play or something? Etc. etc.

Many readers go more for the letters and biographies of writers than for the writings themselves, so I need to justify the inclusion of A Strong Song Tows Us, the life of Basil Bunting, by Richard Burton, (No, not the actor and not the explorer; this one is a publisher) in my list of much-wanted Christmas books. You see, I have read very little of Basil Bunting’s (gosh, I’m glad my name isn’t Basil Bunting) poetry; not even his masterpiece (so I’m told) Briggflats. Few but poets have even heard of Bunting; he has become a ‘Poets’ poet’, but respected critical opinion is that he was one of the finest English language poets of the twentieth century. Reading his work is something I’ve been ‘meaning to do’ (People say ‘I’ve been meaning to write’ as if that somehow excused their failure to do so until prompted) for a long time. So when I heard of this biography I asked for it, but I have resolved not to read it until I have first read Bunting’s poetry; there is bound to be some Bunting in my four shelf metres of poetry books.

So I’m afraid I can’t tell you, yet, anything about either Bunting’s work or his life. Just that the poetry is good.

    ~ —

Today we celebrate the release from prison of Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina.




Thursday, 26 December 2013

Mega Biblion Mega Kakon

Now to the two remaining Christmas books, both inviting-looking fat tomes.

Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie. I don’t know what sort of reinvention he writes about, but 500 pages about Bach are surely a good thing. The great Cellist Paul Tortelier was once asked in a television interview who he thought was the greatest of all composers. ‘Bach of course’ he said dismissively and in a tone suggesting the interviewer was a moron, which he probably was. ‘You seem very definite about that.’ ‘Of course. Anyone who thinks otherwise is not a musician.’

There are senses in which every generation reinvents earlier composers, and in the case of Bach there is plenty of scope for this. At least in his clavier works, Bach used almost no phrase marks, legato and staccato indications, or dynamic markings. We can often guess at tempo because many pieces are headed ‘Bourré’, ‘Gigue’, ‘Sarabande’ etc.; dances whose tempi we know. Very often the score just has the notes, with the clefs, time-signatures and key-signatures, but he was often careless about putting those last three in and we need to work them out from a knowledge of the western tonal system. Interpretive traditions grow up, some of whose adherents insist that their interpretation is the ‘right’ one, but we can’t know, and listening to recordings over the last century or so we find huge differences.

Maelzel, inventor of the metronome, was a contemporary of Beethoven, and Beethoven enthusiastically added metronome marks to many of his pieces, so we have a guide to tempo, but there is evidence that Beethoven’s metronome was rather inaccurate.

Mozart is another case altogether: Ur-text editions show that Mozart himself usually put in dynamic markings, phrase and slur marks, staccato and legato, and so on. Should we slavishly follow them? Those who heard him play have said that he often played the same piece quite differently on different occasions. He may have had second thoughts, or he might have been saying ‘Look, don’t bother too much about those marks; try it different ways.’ But even if he had been consistent in his interpretations and demanded the same from other players, there is still a case for reinventing him. Frank Zappa, a very accomplished musician who should have known better, complained that Mozart was ‘predictable’. He wasn’t. Hearing a piece of Mozart for the first time (though it is rarely in fact the first time — one has usually heard the piece before, if inattentively, and has then ‘forgotten’ it —) one simply could not guess ‘what comes next’. What happens is that when one then hears what does in fact come next, one says ‘Ah yes, of course.’ That is not predictability; that is the inevitability of perfection.

Even so, certain short phrases of Mozart’s, often those marking a return to a main theme, have become clichés through being heard again and again. I think particularly of the melody line, in many of his piano sonatas, falling chromatically from the dominant to the mediant. That may well have seemed very daring and original in Mozart’s time but, especially when played legato as it almost always is, it now provokes an ironic ‘Da-da-da’ from the more irreverent in the audience. The originality of the phraselet can I think be partly recaptured by playing the notes well-separated, non-legato. I think this is legitimate, for all that it goes against Mozart’s own legato marking. It is even, in a sense, faithful.

But back to Paul Elie’s huge book. I don’t yet know what sort of reinventions he writes about. One thing I notice, skimming through, is the absence of musical examples. Perhaps they are not needed for what he is writing about, but there is always the suspicion in such cases that the publisher asked him to avoid them as they might put off people who can’t read music. The logical progression of that idea would be the avoidance of long words; no doubt people are already ‘writing’ books that consist entirely of ‘Emoticons’ and text message abbreviations. Good luck to them actually, provided it doesn’t lead to nobody any more being able to read Middlemarch or Ulysses. But it is extraordinary the lengths to which people who claim to be interested in music will go to avoid learning to read standard musical notation, and the lengths to which writers and publishers will go to pander to their ignorance and laziness. An ability to read and write music makes discussion of music so much clearer and easier.

As I say, it’s quite likely that little of the above is relevant to Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach. I look forward to reading it and finding out what sort of reinvention(s) he has in mind.

There remains one even huger book to write about, but it must wait.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas Books

My family in England has generously sent me two big boxes of books for Christmas. So in the best tradition of reviewers and blurb writers, I shall tell you about them before I’ve read them, starting with the smallest (132 pp) and ending with the fattest (618 pp).

Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman is subtitled ‘Confessions of a Common Reader’. She probably had in mind Virginia Woolf’s collection of essays ‘The Common Reader’, but it is nothing like that book — well, not much. It is much more, to use a hideous expression much loved by the BBC when it proposes to bore us with trivia, ‘Light-hearted.’ But this is interesting trivia; anecdotes about things found in books, (marginal notes, kippers), typos or rather ignorances in menus in foreign restaurants, (Greece is rich in those,) the cruelties people commit on books as physical objects, the delight of children in cruelties committed by story characters, and many other things to please enemies of the Kindle. Anne Fadiman is someone who loves books; real books.

Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino, translated by Martin McLaughlin, tells us why. This was not I think intended by Calvino to become a book; it is a collection of essays on ‘Classics’, using the word in the older sense. Nowadays anything over a year old that hasn’t been thrown out is called a ‘Classic’: this book itself is so labelled. (Thus one has to read it to find out why one should read it.) Calvino’s essays here however range from Homer, through Ariosto, Cyrano de Bergerac, Voltaire and Diderot, then Tolstoy, Hemingway, and (only now pushing the edges of the term ‘Classic’) ending with Raymond Queneau and Cesare Pavese.

Next, Gabriel Josipovici’s  Infinity, the Story of a Moment. Josipovici is sometimes so obscure that one wonders if he is putting it, and us, on, but this looks promising: it comes under the broad heading ‘novel’ and consists of a long interview with a fictional composer, in fact based on Giacinto Scelsi, of whom even music lovers such as myself can I think be forgiven for not having heard. Without, as I say, having yet read it, it looks as if it will turn out to be a rambling reflection on music and related subjects, with the ‘Novel’ structure as its alibi. A very handy literary trick; I used something similar in my ‘Anatomy of Wireless’ (available free to anyone who asks), which purports to be, and indeed contains, a technical history of the development of Wireless Communication, but is also an excuse for talking about Proust, feminism, life, the Universe, and everything.

Next, Monsieur by Emma Becker, translated by Maxim Jakubowski, whose name does not appear, as it should, on the cover. This is a novel dealing with that politically incorrect and therefore very attractive subject, a sexual relation between a very young woman and a much older man. It is interesting that of the three novels on this theme that I have read, two have been written by women, and only one of them, the one written by a man, (Nabokov’s Lolita), showed any serious disapproval of the man. Will this one ‘redress the balance’? What balance? What have novels, or life come to that, to do with balance? Anyway, it will probably be the first of my new books that I read; it has been months since I read a novel, and this one, at 370 pages, will (if it’s any good) be just right for the season.

Now to the heavy stuff. I have a long-term interest in Freudian psychoanalysis, both as a theory of the mind and as a therapeutic technique. There probably cannot be ‘objective evidence’ for the ‘actual existence’ of such things as the unconscious, the super-ego, etc. — it’s hard to see what could count as evidence, or existence, for mental (as opposed to physical, brain) entities. But theories are just that; explanatory constructs implying no entities.  I also have a long-term interest in Marxism. In fact I ‘believe in’, as one says, both Freudianism and Marxism. So V.N. Voloshinov’s Freudianism, a Marxist Critique, translated by I.R. Titunik  should be a treat, even if (perhaps especially if) it attacks long-cherished beliefs. The blurb suggests that, if I agree with what he says, I should in consistency abandon either psychoanalysis or Marxism. In fact I hope and intend to hang on to both.

Slightly lighter (I would guess) is a book of essays by the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, One Way and Another. These are on subjects of such wide general interest as Tickling, (about which he has apparently also written an entire book), Clutter, and Talking Nonsense (and Knowing When to Stop. I had better read that first.) Psychoanalysts can often be very funny. Sometimes even intentionally so.

That’s enough, indeed probably more than enough, for today. There remain two really huge tomes, but I shall write about those another time.

Once again, Merry Christmas.





Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Alan Turing

Just one quick brief post today, Christmas Eve. Alan Turing has been given a 'Royal Pardon' for his conviction for 'homosexual activity'. Much good may it do him; he's been dead a long time. Not that such pardons should not be given; they pardoned Timothy Evans many years after they hanged him for murders he didn't commit. But pardons don't exonerate the people who, and the state which, fitted up poor daft Timothy Evans and hounded Turing (who was naively open and honest about his homosexuality) to probable suicide. No-one should feel smugly that 'Justice has been done.'
It has been calculated (God knows how) that the work of the people at Bletchley Park, notably Turing, shortened WWII by several years. It was they who broke first the Enigma code and later more complex codes; work which led to the development of computers.
If anyone wants to know how an Enigma machine works, I'll make it the subject of a future post. Up to now, I have been highly impressed by the intellectual acumen of my readers: not one of them had the slightest difficulty understanding that poem about people waiting to get into heaven, and I fully expect no-one to write in to say they don't know how an Enigma machine works.

Happy Christmas!

Monday, 23 December 2013

Poetry Schmoetry

I was writing the other day about how, and why, poetry is sometimes ‘difficult’. Here is an example:


Saxophone Schmaxophone.


Heaven’s ante-chamber: Eliot (Tom)
silently observes recursive time
defragment the past – now Webster (Ben)
plays his tenor sax for Webster (John).


‘Dead cold metal warms with breath’ says Ben
‘Hot flesh hides the icy bone’ says John
‘You two guys need wood’ says Johnny Dodds
Eliot in his corner smugly nods.


Adolphe (conic bore) says ‘Stuff’s a fetish:
wooden sax? It’s still a saxophone;
metal clarinets sound clarinettish:
what you hear is cylinder or cone.’


Let Ellington, more abstract still, construe it:
‘’Tain’t what you do,’ he says, ‘but how you do it.’


If no-one writes in to ask ‘What the hell was that all about?’ I shall assume that either every detail is crystal clear, or that no-one out there gives so much as a nun’s wimple.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Merry Christmas

A Merry Christmas


Both my Readers.

May the young lady below come to fill your stockings.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Some of these Days

The golden age of American popular music - not just jazz, but the popular songs even people who didn't like jazz listened and danced to, and which were often then taken as vehicles by jazz players - (Jazz is omnivorous) was the first half of the twentieth century. A common feature of these songs is daring harmony; quite often the melody note is accompanied by a chord to which it doesn't even belong. I first noticed this - though I must have semi-consciously enjoyed it thousands of times before; most people are not conscious of more than the melody, though the harmonies are working on them - in Kurt Weill's 'September Song', but yesterday I was looking at 'Some of these Days' (incidentally a favourite of Jean-Paul Sartre's, though that may not be a recommendation) and saw it again. Here's the melody line, with the chords (I have left out a few inessential ones) marked above:
We're in G major, and the first change is to the mediant major chord (with a seventh.) It fits the melody, and is a change well-known to players of American popular music. Used judiciously it never fails to do something to us; it hits a spot the obvious harmonization with the tonic chord can't reach. You hear it right at the start of, e.g., 'Nobody knows you when you're down and out' and 'T'ain't nobody's business if I do.' Players of more folkey guitar styles will know it as the change that happens when you reach the refrains of 'Freight Train' and of 'Cocaine'. People of a popular 'classical' taste will know it from the third, the best-known, of Liszt's 'Liebestraume'. (Sorry; the blog window doesn't seem to allow for umlauts.) So far so (fairly) conventional. But look at bar ten, where the melody goes up to a C, but the chord underneath it is an E7th, none of whose notes is a C, and anyway it would have (to match E) to be a C#. What was the composer thinking of? Well evidently he knew what he was about, because even, or perhaps because, it breaks all the rules, it sounds great. And then, two bars later, he hits us with an A7th under the melody note - a sustained one, as before - of B. This is not too outrageous; it makes a 'ninth' chord. But it's certainly not the obvious choice. Now look a couple of lines further down: a repeated  long E, so one expects the subdominant C chord, (or, if one is beginning to expect the unexpected, perhaps an E7th again.) But what we get is that most dramatic of chords, a diminished 7th, the one that runs C#-E-G-Bflat. (Since diminished sevenths divide the octave into four exactly equal steps, there are only three of them). Then right near the end, the coup de grace: the melody is, here, simply repeated crotchet Bs, but the chords under them are G, B7th, D minor, and E7th. Fair enough, the note B is in three of those, and the E7th takes us nicely on to an A7th, which then resolves onto the dominant seventh, D7th, so that we can hit the repeat bar on the tonic and go back to the top again. But D minor? Totally out of order, but, yet again, it sounds great.
People such as myself and, I hope, a few others of an analytic (did someone say 'pedantic'?) turn of mind like to know, as far as it's possible, (which admittedly isn't very far) just why the music that sounds great does so. I have heard even accomplished musicians say that such an analytic approach must surely reduce one's true enjoyment of the music. Keats, who with his medical training ought to have known better, made a similar complaint about Newton's analysis of the rainbow. No; knowing how things work increases one's joy in them. 

Friday, 20 December 2013

Why is Poetry so Difficult?

King James said of John Donne’s poetry that it is ‘Like the peace of God — it passeth all understanding.’ Even now, four hundred years later, many people find Donne, and indeed poetry in general, ‘difficult’, and so avoid it. ‘If they can’t say what they mean and mean what they say in ways us lesser mortals can understand, then to hell with them’.

But there are good reasons why poetry — real, good poetry — is difficult. Two of the essential qualities of poetry are concentration — using as few words as possible — and operation at the borders of language: finding new ways to use words, so as to say things that could not be said with a more straightforward use of language. Of course, that breeds charlatans, who write pretentious incomprehensible rubbish, and even get published, paid, and praised on the emperor’s new clothes principle — those who don’t understand it pretend they do lest they be thought philistine. And there are the dangers that a pioneering poet might stray too far into unknown territory and lose his readership, and the opposite one that in an attempt to be ‘accessible’ he writes mere trivial verse. There are also those (like myself, but also like William Empson, a very fine poet) who use their poems to show off arcane knowledge. But a good poet will usually try to be as clear as possible, even though he is trying to say things that have not been, indeed could not have been, said before.

If nothing else comes up before then, I’ll go through an example or two tomorrow.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Economic 'Crisis'

As all English speakers know or ought to know, a crisis is something instantaneous or nearly so: some process continues until it reaches its zenith or nadir, (the 'crisis'), and then there is a sudden change and things are completely different. Illnesses are commonly said to reach their crisis; the patient, or his fever, gets worse and worse, the crisis is reached and then he either dies or starts to get better. A crisis is like the sharp edge of an escarpment, or the point at which an aeroplane, rising steeply, suddenly stalls and swoops downwards. Thus what is happening in Greece and other third world countries that happen to be in Europe can not properly be said to be a crisis. 'Properly'? Nowadays majority usage is what determines meaning, and as usual ignorance rules OK, so crisis is the word we have to use for the worsening states of affairs in these places. Another good word done gone.
In small isolated communities, where everyone knows everyone else, things have not been so bad. No-one is allowed to starve or to have no roof over their heads. Such a place is this island where I spend most of my time, with a population of around 2,000, so that we rarely have need of the formal Σας rather than Σου, equivalent to the French Vous and Tu. We all know each other well enough; only too well in some cases.
What is noticeable here though is how empty of goods the shops are getting. Wholesalers now demand payment in advance even from long-established customers; all too often businesses have collpased and the owner become bankrupt or simply disappeared, perhaps to be found later shivering in an Athens underpass waiting for some charity to pass with a cup of soup. Suicides, especially of previously successful businessmen with families they are too ashamed to admit they can no longer support, have increased. But I'm getting too sad and serious for what I wanted to say, which was just about the downward spiral of available foods for those who have the money to buy them:
Because of that demand for advance payment, shopkeepers are slow to replenish depleted shelves. They haven't got the money to pay for things that might take a while to sell, and, especially in places like the islands, where everything comes by ship, orders must be large before the wholesaler will bother to deliver. So as the shelves of their favourite shop empty, people stop going to that shop - which therefore gets even less money - and go to another better-stocked one. Until the same thing happens there. So shops close, one by one, the smaller ones first, and only the big well-off ones survive. The little shop where one was a close friend of the owner, and she always made sure to keep a bottle or two of the special ouzo you liked but few others bought, or your favourite but unfashionable cigarettes, (Note that I am speaking here just of essentials) has gone; you will have to drink the mass-market ouzo the big shop has, and smoke Marlboro.
It's called Capitalism.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Further Operatic Silliness

I mentioned 'Cosi fan Tutte' yesterday. It is generally reckoned to be one of Mozart's best operas, yet it has a plot almost as silly as a message on Facebook.
The title 'Cosi fan Tutte' is difficult to render in English: something like 'They all do it' or 'Thus do they all', but Italian being an inflected language the grammar shows that the 'They' who do 'it' are women.
Two young men are boasting to each other of the virtues of their girlfriends: how beautiful, how devoted, and above all how faithful they are. As is the way with idiotic young men, each insists that his girlfriend is in all respects better than his friend's. They are interrupted by their cynical old friend Don Alfonso, who tells them their girlfriends would betray them at once if they got the chance. Much indignation, and finally they lay a bet on it. 'But', says Don Alfonso, 'You must follow my instructions to the letter'.
Don Alfonso goes off to see the girlfriends, who conveniently live together, in fact I think they are sisters. He brings them the dreadful 'news' that their boyfriends have been called up and must go abroad to fight the Turks. The boys turn up with military uniforms and long faces, then set off to catch the boat. Don Alfonso and the two girls sing the trio 'Soave sia il vento, tranquillo il mare' (May the winds be gentle, the sea calm.) It is typical of Mozart that this heart-breakingly beautiful trio is sung by a cynical old deceiver and the two airheads he is deceiving.
The boys gone, the two girls sit around drinking hot chocolate and bemoaning their fate, until their maid Despina (suborned of course by Don Alfonso) suggests they divert themselves with a couple of nice young men from the invading Turkish army. Don Alfonso duly supplies two nice young men, who are of course the original boyfriends in Turkish disguise, and each of them sets about trying to seduce the other's girlfriend. At first they are unsuccessful, much to their secret delight, but Don Alfonso gets them to fake depairing suicide, from which they are revived by a pupil of Dr Mesmer (In most productions 'he' wields an enormous horseshoe magnet; it is of course Despina in drag) and the girls relent. A double marriage is arranged, each 'Turk' marrying the (real) other's (real) girlfriend. Just as the notary (Despina again) is reading the marriage contracts, Don Alfonso dashes in to warn that the original boyfriends are back from the war. The two Turks rush offstage (to do a quick costume change into their original gear) and come back on as 'themselves'. They 'Discover' what has been going on, but everyone lives happily ever after and the girls are forgiven: Cosi fan Tutte after all.
And this outrageous mean calumnious sexist trick is what Mozart chose to hang one of his finest operas on. But: The music is beautiful.  

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Absurdity of Opera

I made a sort of Christmas resolution to write something in this blog every day, in the hope that a few people might start to look at it. Today, here in the Northern Sporades, it has been damp and dreary; It is already evening and I didn't write anything. So here, unrehearsed, and provoked simply by what I said of Beethoven's 'Fidelio' yesterday, are a few random thoughts about opera.
I can sympathise with those who think they can't stand opera. For one thing, the ludicrous plots, whose idiocy shows in concentrated form in the synopses in sleeve-notes for CDs: 'Meanwhile the count, disguised as a student, is climbing up to the balcony of Despina the servant...' The way any dramatic action is interrupted by the 'necessity' for a character to come downstage and sing a complete da capo aria. Above all, the ghastly shrieking of the huge sopranos in Wagner. (Like many who love opera I don't much care for Wagner except in theory.) To enjoy opera you have to suspend not just disbelief but a whole tranche (what incidentally is a tranche?) of critical faculties while sharpening various others.
Let us consider one or two plots. Verdi's 'Rigoletto' for a first example; an opera Nabokov dismissed as 'A packaging error'. Rigoletto the hunchback is the court jester. He has a secret; at home he has a beautiful young daughter of whom he is very protective. A nobleman gets to hear of this and sets about getting into the garden to seduce her, but to his surprise he falls, for the first time, genuinely in love. Meanwhile (opera needs lots of 'meanwhiles') Rigoletto, on his way home from work, encounters Sparafucile, a Iago-like chap with a splendid deep bass voice and who offers to do any murders Rigoletto might happen to need. When Rigoletto arrives home there is an ecstatic reunion of father and daughter which always makes me think of the joy of a dog who has been shut in the house all day while his master is at work. Dad pops off to bed and Gilda the daughter sings about just the beloved name of her secret lover, the nobleman. Her music is full of little jumps of an octave or a sixth, mirroring the light, skipping quality of the character: Verdi is a much more skilled composer than many think. But back to the silly plot: various worthies of the court, curious about Rigoletto's secret, are spying on her, and they kidnap her 'for a joke', tying her up in a sack.
'Meanwhile' Rigoletto has discovered that some chap is trying to seduce his daughter, and arranges for Sparafucile to do the necessary. A body-containing sack is duly delivered.
Well you've guessed the rest. Gloating over his sack, Rigoletto hears in the distance the seducer singing his trade-mark aria 'La donna e mobile', known vulgarly as 'Arseholes are cheap today, cheaper than yesterday...' So who's in the sack? Guess. With her dying breath Gilda of course sings a great big aria.
What utter nonsense. But the music is very beautiful. A friend of mine once found himself sitting at the opera next to the German composer Carl Orff, who said to him 'Oh, who cares what they're saying? I come for the music.' (I think the opera was Richard Strauss's 'Der Rosenkavalier' which marks the end (except for Puccini who is a special case) of the great romantic opera tradition: romantic opera fits neatly into the nineteenth century. In fact, at the end of 'Der Rosenkavalier' it comes full circle: the two young lovers, finally and unexpectedly coming together, sing their exquisitely beautiful duet 'Ist ein Traum kann nicht wirklich sein', and Strauss, for all his genius, comes up with a tune that could have been written by Mozart.) End of digression. What I wanted to say was that 'Rigoletto' can be read as a feminist text: an attack not just on the 'gay seducer' attitude to women, but more importantly on the overprotective attitude of fathers who keep their daughters locked up at home like dogs deprived of their freedom. Incidentally Gilda's mother is dead, and when Gilda has the temerity to ask about her Rigoletto responds with an aria about her being an 'Angel'. No doubt he also thought she was a virgin.
I was going to continue with a consideration of 'Cosi fan Tutte', which many consider Mozart's greatest opera. This has a plot of such outrageous sexism that it demands a whole essay, and it's time for coffee, piano practice, whisky and bed.
But to repeat: The music is very beautiful. 

Monday, 16 December 2013


In a recent production of ‘Fidelio’ a string quartet descended from the flies in wire mesh boxes, playing — no, not John Cage, but a movement from Beethoven’s own late quartet opus 132. The TLS reviewer Guy Damman says it was the second movement, which seems an odd choice; I would have expected the third, the Molto Adagio in the Lydian Mode. But I wasn’t there and Guy Damman presumably was, and anyway he teaches at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, so I suppose we must take his word for it.

Many people don’t ‘hold with’ this messing around with established works, but in the case of Beethoven’s (mercifully) one and only opera it might be justified: Beethoven’s Mary Whitehouse-ish views on fit subjects for the stage meant opera wasn’t really his thing, so directors feel he needs a little help.

‘Fidelio’ tells the story of Florestan, unjustly imprisoned for political reasons. His wife Fidelio/Leonora dresses up as a man (are there any operas without cross-dressing?) and gets a job as a screw so that she can see her husband. Later, an off-stage trumpet call announces the imminent arrival of a liberal Minister to free Florestan, and everybody lives happily ever after.

Whole books full of Great Operatic Disasters have been written; one of my favourite true stories concerns a performance of one of the several overtures, also featuring the off-stage trumpet call, at the Albert Hall in London. The trumpet player stationed himself in one of the audience boxes, but when he raised his instrument to his lips at the crucial moment, an officious but ill-informed attendant dashed in and tried to restrain him from disrupting the concert. Trumpet players are used to playing in difficult conditions, (I used to play the trumpet myself, and may do so again if no-one stops me), and apart from a faltering first note or two the audience didn’t notice anything wrong.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Pro-Palestinian Equals Antisemitic

Roger Waters, late of Pink Floyd, has provoked anger with his outspoken attack on Israeli treatment of Palestinians. What made people particularly angry was his comparison of Israeli policy towards Palestinians to Nazi policy towards Jews. The comparison seems to me a fair one: it is only too common, at personal, national, racial and cultural levels, for the oppressed to learn from their oppressors and then to use what they have learnt when they get the chance. The child who gets bullied at school grows up into the school bully; the sexually abused child becomes an abuser. In South Africa, blacks liberated from apartheid commit atrocities against whites. It would be surprising, though pleasing, if Israelis did not look around for a group to persecute, after centuries of persecution of Jews.

Accusing those who object to Israeli policy of anti-semitism  is a very nasty cynical tactic that is being used more and more to silence critics. The two things are entirely separate, as Roger Waters himself makes clear to those who take the trouble to read what he actually very calmly and articulately said.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Jeder Engel ist Schrecklich


‘Every Angel is Terrible’. So said the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his ‘Duino Elegies’, and indeed mention of Angels has always caused fear, confusion and even violence. The Headmaster of my prep school encouraged us to mock and sneer at the mediaeval scholastic philosophers who, he told us, would argue about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. But then, he encouraged us to mock and sneer at any opinions other than his own narrow conservative ones, which were of course not opinions but facts.

As a boy William Blake used to go for long walks into the countryside not far from his home in London’s Soho. He would see angels in the trees and then tell his father, who would thrash him for it. That was in about 1780, when belief in angels was perfectly respectable, but presumably one wasn’t supposed to actually see them; to do so merited severe punishment.

We have advanced since then: we no longer thrash people who see angels but instead declare them schizophrenic and send them to the funny farm.

It seems now that the man who got into trouble at the addresses made before Nelson Mandela’s funeral for making wildly inaccurate sign-language interpretations has said that he was distracted by angels, and has ‘admitted’ that he was ‘suffering’ a ‘psychotic episode’. The possibility(?) that there were indeed angels present, visible to certain privileged people, has been officially ruled out.

Luckily for us, William Blake lived before schizophrenia had been invented. He continued to see, write about, engrave and paint angels all his life. Good for him.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Translation Fast and Slow

That Cavafy poem I gave you in the original yesterday. Here is my English translation:


In the Dives…

In the dives                                                                             and bordellos
of Beirut I wallow.                                                     I didn’t want to stay
in Alexandria; not I.                                                   Tamides has left me:
he’s gone with the mayor’s son                                            just to get
a Nile villa                                                                  and a house in town.
It wouldn’t do to stay                                                in Alexandria —
In the dives                                                                 and bordellos
of Beirut I wallow.                                                     In cheap debauch
I squander my life.                                                    All that saves me
like a lasting beauty,                                                 like a lingering scent
that stays on my flesh,                                              is for two years I had
Tamides my own,                                                      that magnificent boy,
and not for a house                                                    or a villa on the Nile.


It took me about half an hour to translate that from Greek into English. Recently I had to translate three pages of English into Greek. That took about a month, with lots of help from Greek friends. It just goes to show. What it goes to show I’m not sure, except that just because one can translate a poem (the most untranslatable of all things) from language A into language B, one shouldn’t assume translating mere prose from language B into language A will be easy.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

C.P. Cavafy

The venality and faithlessness of lovers, especially those younger than oneself, has been a subject of poets from Sappho to Catullus, from Petrarch to Swinburne, and of course to the present day. (When love is going well, one has better things to do than write poems.) Here is a poem on that subject, in the original, scanned from the works of Cavafy (My English translation to follow, I hope.)
In this poem the speaker (who is not the poet) tells how his boyfriend has deserted him and gone with the Mayor's son, who has given him a house and a villa on the Nile, from which he can no doubt watch the crocodile-catchers. The speaker consoles himself with the thought that for two years this lovely boy was his, 'And not for a house, or a villa on the Nile.'
Many English readers of my generation first came across Cavafy as 'The Old Poet of the City', mentioned in Lawrence Durrell's 'Alexandria Quartet', and perhaps, like me, imagined he was a fictional character. A few years ago I was in Alexandria just for eight hours, so I consulted a map and set out on foot to find the flat where Cavafy lived most of his life. I got hopelessly lost, wandering through some very dangerous-looking areas and expecting to be mugged for my English passport. It didn't help that I spoke only English and Greek, so couldn't ask for directions, and anyway the name 'Cavafy' got blank looks. Eventually I gave up, tired and sweaty, (five minutes is enough to make any visitor to Alexandria tired and sweaty) and sat drinking tea at a roadside cafe. When I called the waiter over to pay him I thought 'Why not? One last try; he won't know but I'll ask him.' 'Cavafy? House? Can't find.' 'But it's right here!' It was in the very block of flats above the cafe, which was no doubt where the poet himself had his elevenses.
I climbed the dark staircase of the silent and apparently deserted old-fashioned high-ceilinged block, and on the third floor came to a door with a note saying 'C.P. Cavafy' in both English and Greek. Feeling foolish I knocked, and was surprised when someone answered. 'Is this Cavafy's flat?' 'Yes, come in. have a look round.' Here was his writing room with desk and pen and, I think a pair of his almost trade-mark round glasses. And here his bedroom, with balcony. I went onto the balcony and looked out over a rather grotty part of the city. 'Cavafy himself stood here' I told myself, and tried to feel whatever emotions are appropriate.
It was one of those things whose significance strike one later, long after the event.
I said 'My English transation later, I hope.' I know I translated it once, but I can't remember if, or where, the translation was published, and my (Windows PC I'm afraid) computer has with its usual philistine illiteracy decide the original file is old and boring and deleted it. I shall have to translate it again. Watch this space.
Meanwhile I must find some recordings of English poets reading their own poems, for my 'Apprentice', young Anastasia, to listen to. She speaks very good English, but her school English teacher (who is Greek) has told her that her pronunciation is very bad. She (Apprentice, not teacher) rang me yesterday, almost in tears at the falsity and injustice of the accusation.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013


In the summer many people like to lie on the beach. They get bored easily, so they read trashy novels while cooking. yes, I know.

Now however it is December: time for more serious reading, so I'll tell you what I'm reading. (Well, it's my blog, dammit.)

First, a heap of recent issues of the TLS. It seems there is a new Penguin Classics Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland, who is I think a poet, which sounds promising. The TLS reviewer Edith Hall compares this new version with earlier ones. She says it is marred by trendy populist anachronistic expressions, and recommends the earlier Penguin Classics edition translated around 1920 or '30 by Aubrey de Selincourt. It will come as no surprise to either of my regular readers that I read Herodotus in a late Victorian translation.
But isn't Herodotus 'history', and therefore by definition boring? I was certainly bored by and useless at history at school, but then I hadn't been given Herodotus. He is usually entertaining and sometimes Carry-on-film hilarious, as in the passage where some ancient ruler is so proud of his wife's beauty that he gets his servant to spy on her naked (the wife, not the servant, though come to think of it...) through a chink in the bathroom door. My own favourite Pythonesque bit is the description of the way they catch Nile crocodiles: they used to tie a pig up on the bank and beat the shit out of it. Seems the indignant pig's cries of pain attracted all the crocodiles for miles around. We are not told why they wanted to catch crocodiles. They say its meat is delicious, but then so is pork: why not just eat the pig?

Four years ago in London there was a celebration of the life and works of Stephen Spender, with his poems read by various poets, including famous Seamus who has since left us. As I couldn't be there, Robina Pelham Burn of the Stephen Spender trust has generously sent me an admittedly very bad recording of the event. This has led me to get down from the shelf Spender's 1939 book 'The Still Centre'. I had always thought Spender the least interesting of the group known by the near-fascist poet Roy Campbell as 'Joint MacSpaunday', but reading him again shows that I was quite wrong.

Also: 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone', which I am reading with my friend Anastasia. If you put all the Harry Potter books in a row you will notice that they get progressively thicker, in both senses. J.K. Rowling-in-money is not a good writer: the early books were heavily edited. Then she became rich and famous, so now the timorous editors have had to put away their red ballpoints.

I'm also re-reading the fragments of Sappho, in the excellent Robert Chandler translation. We never had more than fragments of Sappho's writings. These were augmented by the discovery not so long ago of the Oxyrhincus (that's almost certainly spelt wrongly) papyrus, but there's still not much of it and most translators have tentatively or boldly filled in the gaps. The second half of the Chandler edition contains versions, elaborations, and downright inventions of Sappho by English poets through the ages. Unfortunately the book has, in the paperback edition by Everyman, an off-putting cover, which looks like the local weight-watcher's tableau vivant of Botticelli's 'Primavera' painted by Matisse on acid. As Robert told me, anyone who likes the cover won't like the poems, and vice-versa.

'Enough! Or too much.' (William Blake.) I was going to tell you about another Nile bank thing, a poem by Cavafy, but it can wait.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Rejected Rhinos, Roth's Writings.

A friend writes to say that, had she not already seen it when I gave her a sneak preview, she would want to see the rest of 'The Replacement Rhino'. Other than that, not the slightest flicker of interest from anybody, so I shall not bore you with the next instalment, but turn instead to one of America's finest writers.

Philip Roth's first novel, 'Goodbye Columbus', was only just long enough, at 100 pages in paperback format and a usual font, to qualify as one. So the American publishers included five short stories, the best of which are 'The Conversion of the Jews' and 'Eli the Fanatic'. Very noticeable in these stories is their Jewishness. Not just in subject matter, though both are about Jews and the oddities of assimilation in or separation from a gentile society. They have the typically self-mocking Jewish humour we know from the kind of 'Jew jokes' told by Jews themselves, typified by the apocryphal 'Oedipus Schmoedipus, who cares so long as he loves his mum.' I recommend them both to those who have read his later 'faction' or 'alternative history' books and those who have never read Roth. The later books - not all of them, but certainly the best-known ones - have an earnestness that, as in D.H. Lawrence's novels, detracts from their value as literature, but these two early stories have a lightness of touch that makes any 'message' creep up on one rather than bash one over the head. They are also, of course, very funny.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Today, a story. (If it will fit.)




The Replacement Rhino




Simon Darragh




Neither Frobisher nor I were keen to set out on what would prove to be the most quixotic expedition of our careers, but little Matilda had been heartbroken by the mysterious disappearance of her pet rhinoceros. Had it simply escaped during the night there would surely have been sightings about the streets of the city. Theft too seemed improbable as it was not the sort of thing that, like a gold watch, could easily be concealed about the person.

            No; reasoning that a rhinoceros could be considered fungible I decided replacement was the best option and sent Scrotum round to Frobisher with the message ‘Leaving for the continent tomorrow’.

            There occurred a minor setback before we had even left London: at Victoria the worthy employees of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway, with many a sharp indrawing of breath and shake of the head, declared it quite out of the question to load the stout crate I had proleptically provided against our successful return. Irritatingly, Frobisher chose this moment to display his inappropriate sympathy for the lower orders, with a concomitant lapse into coarseness of expression: ‘Dammit, Caruthers, να τους συμπαθάς: the thing’s the size of a wooden shithouse that’s been blown on its side in a gale.’ (Following a disgraceful episode in the Northern Sporades he tends in moments of stress to pepper his speech with odd phrases in Demotic Greek.) Clearly I should have to deal with the matter alone, so I drew the head porter aside and pressed a crisp white fiver into his grubby paw, whereupon a flat-bed wagon was hitched with an unaccustomed alacrity to the rear of the train, and we were at last able to set off.

            I had as usual engaged two adjoining first-class sleeping compartments but my preparations for bed were interrupted as, in spite of my strict instructions to use the communicating door only in emergency, Frobisher burst through with a silly grin on his face: ‘I say, Caruthers, come and look at this!’ Giggling like a schoolgirl he drew my attention to the ingenious lead-lined hinged chute, giving straight on to the tracks, through which one emptied one’s chamber-pot. He was especially taken with the engraved notice ‘Not intended for solid matter’. ‘Very droll, Frobisher,’ I muttered icily, and on returning to my compartment ensured a good night’s sleep by tying up the handle of the communicating door with my sock suspenders and taking a generous draught of laudanum.

            Thus I slept through the transfer of the train to the ‘Lord Warden’ ferry at Dover Marine station. The procedure there is that the train is broken into three or four sections which are then shunted — as gently as possible in the case of the first-class carriages so as not to disturb the passengers — onto the tracks in the aptly-named bowels of the ship. It was therefore not until our arrival at the Gare du Nord that I became aware of the absence of the flat-bed wagon onto which our crate had been loaded. I sent at once for the station master, a self-important fellow who showed a high-handed indifference. Frobisher was as usual unhelpful, merely remarking with a silly titter that the chap had ideas ‘Au dessus de son gare’.

            I decided to call on the British Consulate, but first in view of Frobisher’s levity I sent him away to amuse himself however he saw fit. We arranged to meet at some place called I think ‘Le Cheval Rouge’ in the dubious area of Montmartre, where he claimed to have friends.

            The Consulate was equipped with telephone apparatus and I was eventually able to establish that the crate was now in the Goods Depôt not at Dover Marine but at Dover Priory, where it was being used by junior boys from the adjacent barbarous minor public school as a refuge from the unwelcome attentions of the prefects. It seemed my fiver had been sufficient only for inland transport, and an exorbitant sum was being asked for bringing the crate to the continent.

            My cab driver winked and sniggered impertinently when I asked for ‘Le Cheval Rouge à Montmartre’, and there I found Frobisher deep in conversation and a vile-smelling greenish-yellow drink with a funny little fellow in bowler hat, pince-nez, frock coat and very short legs. I mentioned the sum required to Frobisher. (I tolerate his company on expeditions as it is his aunt Bertha who acts both as chaperone to my ward Matilda and funder of our travels.) The little Frog eavesdropped shamelessly and on hearing the figure exclaimed ‘Sacred Blue! You propose to pay zat simply to bring a wooden sheethouse from Douvres? Why, such Monet here in la Belle France would buy…’ ‘Two loos!’ Frobisher burst in and they collapsed in helpless laughter.

            ‘Look here, Caruthers,’ he said when he had sufficiently recovered, ‘Why don’t we just carry on anyway, and get the local wogs to knock us up a new crate when we get to — er —wherever it is we’re going?’ ‘Splendid idea, old chap!’ (I am punctilious in praise on the rare occasions Frobisher says anything intelligent), ‘Let’s do just that. After all, as things stand here, we have little to lose.’ During a further unaccountable outbreak of hilarity I went out and engaged  a cab before going back in and extricating my companion from his pedally challenged little friend. ‘Gare de Lyon, Empshi, empshi!’ I told the cabman. ‘Wrong lingo, Caruthers old bean.’

            The journey to Marseilles was mercifully free of incident, unless the asphyxiating wafts of garlic each time the train stopped to admit further packs of Frog peasants count as such. Frobisher, following his overindulgence in the oily greenish-yellow drink served at the ‘Cheval Rouge’, slept stertorously, and I was able to take stock and consider for the first time where indeed it was that we were going. Foreign explorers tend to make preparations and decide on such matters before setting out, but I am British — as, indeed, appearance and behaviour notwithstanding, is Frobisher — and so considered that unsporting. I fell asleep soothed by thoughts of the superiority of the English character, which treats such trivial details as precise knowledge of what one is doing with effortless patrician disdain.

            We woke at dawn as the train made its slow and insalubrious way through the northern outskirts of the city. Marseilles is a noisy, dirty, smelly, indeed irredeemably foreign place, so it came as no surprise to find that Frobisher seemed quite at home as he led the way to what is always the noisiest, dirtiest, smelliest and most foreign part of any harbour town, the dockyards. As we wandered the narrow streets, looking in a desultory fashion for the offices of the Peninsular and Orient Steam Navigation Company or a firm of similar respectability, Frobisher suddenly clutched my arm: ‘I say, Caruthers, over there! Can it be? No, surely…’ I followed his gaze across the road but noticed nothing more remarkable than a shambling figure, rather short, with a round, amiable face, balding head, jug ears and the distinctive rolling gait of a seaman.

            ‘But it is!’ cried Frobisher; ‘Ρέ φιλαράκο, που ήσουνα τόσο καιρό; Έλαδώ!’ The little man trotted over to us and was introduced to me as one Niko, a Greek merchant seaman. In my experience all Greek sailors are called Niko. At Niko’s insistence, seconded enthusiastically by Frobisher, we repaired to a dark underground bar called, apparently, ‘L’Aveugle Caniche’, where Niko ordered a bottle of really quite drinkable if immature claret. The conversation, in which I took little part, seemed to be about the poet Baudelaire and the French Impressionists, subjects about which as an Englishman I knew almost nothing, but Niko seemed to know far more than could be considered appropriate for a mere Greek sailor.

            After the second or third bottle — I really can’t remember — their talk, as far as I could understand it, turned to the relative merits of houses of assignation in Beirut and Alexandria. ‘I bid you good afternoon, gentlemen,’ I said, rising to leave, ‘I have —‘ (here looking pointedly at Frobisher) ‘— important matters to which to attend. Frobisher, I shall expect you later at the Hôtel des Anglais.’

            I spent a fruitless late afternoon and early evening trying to locate a company — any company — that could be prevailed upon to take us across the Mediterranean to a port — any port — on the North African coast. I was met with shrugs and indifference everywhere I tried, no matter how loudly and clearly I spoke. They even affected not to understand my French. This was admittedly meagre, because of the belief held by our headmaster and all right-thinking people that the advance of civilization would imminently cause all peoples to stop speaking in their foreign tongues and learn proper English. Nevertheless I was confident that I spoke what little French I knew with an impeccable accent, as our French master was rumoured once to have spent an entire week on the wrong side of the channel, the continent having been cut off from England by fog. The story went that he had returned to civilization so transmogrified by his ordeal that he was barely recognized at his club, and it was then that he had retired into the decent obscurity of school-mastering. But that is by the by; I was getting nowhere and possibly even creating enemies along the waterfront by displays of exasperation I had difficulty containing. I returned to the Hôtel des Anglais and lingered despondently over a foul dinner rendered acceptable only by a quite decent ’98 Chateau Neuf du Ponce. I was unsure whether to be alarmed or relieved by Frobisher’s failure to appear by the time I retired to bed.

    ¦¦ —


Part two in due course, but only on request. (Send me an e-mail.) 

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Snow White

GITs - Greek Island Thespians, a group of ageing stage-struck anglophone expatriates - I suspect few of them have looked up 'Git' in a dictionary - are preparing their next pantomime. We do our pantomimes around Easter as many expatriates go 'home' for Christmas, (surely just the worst time to be in England), and this year it is Snow White. Snow White and the Seven Sisters, as we couldn't find enough dwarves. The part of Snow White, at least while she is still a little girl, will be played by a local Greek girl who speaks good English.
When we did our first pantomime a few years ago almost no Greeks came on the first night: 'Oh, it will be something for the foreigners' thay said and stayed away in droves. However those few who did come found the thing so outrageously hilarious that they told all their friends, and since then GITs have played to packed, mostly Greek, houses. Local people have even learnt to shout 'Oh, no he isn't!' and 'Behind you!' and even on one occasion Τί σκατά θέα είσαι εσύ; . Our exasperated organizers have been hoping that in a decade or so Greeks will learn to buy tickets in advance rather than clamour at the door just after curtain up. A first lesson in Greek culture for foreigners should be analysis of the concept of  Ρωμιοσύνη.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Life and Death in Africa and Athens

As I mentioned yesterday, now that he is safely dead 'World Leaders' are suddenly remembering what a splendid fellow they 'always' thought Mandela. Some are even going to Soweto for the funeral.

Let us honour if we can
The vertical man,
Though we value none
But the horizontal one.
(W. H. Auden.)
Meanwhile in Athens a single mother had her electricity cut off because she had no money to pay the bill. She had been relying on electricity for heating, oil being now prohibitively expensive and fireplaces rare in Athens flats. In a deperate attempt to keep her child warm she burned charcoal in a brazier. Her little girl died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Nelson Mandela

Short-Wave radio news (VOA, DW, and the faint and feeble BBC) has been dominated by the fulsome encomia of the political and moral pygmies known as 'World Leaders'. No-one has had the bad taste to say that, in the natural course of events, (if there can still be said to be such a thing) Mandela would have died some time ago. He was being kept alive until an opportune moment. We can assume then that the quarrel over his burial place has been settled.
The world is poorer for his passing. We must hope that the Jewish belief that there are always seven just men in the world is true, and that one as great as he is now growing up. But Nelson Mandela will be a hard act to follow.