Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Key Mood

Well, here goes. I’ve never yet found any correlation between readership and what I write about, so what have I got to lose.

If you take a piano with a fairly standard seven octave keyboard, you can of course play the C near the bottom of the keyboard and make seven steps, C to the next C, and finally reach the C that is the top note of most pianos; the one that to many people including myself often sounds more like a click than a proper note: our perception of very high notes as notes drops off with age and in any case is subject to variations according to the time of day, our mood and so on.

You could also get from that low C to the high one in smaller steps; steps of a perfect fifth: C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, C#, G#(Or A flat), E flat, B flat, F, and finally that top C. And that top C is the same top C you reached before by octaves. Isn’t it? Yes of course it is; it’s the same ‘key’ (in the sense of keyboard lever): that’s the way pianos are made.

But it only works like that as the result of a compromise: if our fifths were real perfect fifths, having the frequency ratio of 2 to 3, that is, if a note has a frequency of 200 Herz then the note a perfect fifth higher has a frequency of 300 Herz, if, as I say, we insisted on such perfection, then we would find that the high C we finally arrived at, (and of course we would need an audio signal generator rather than a piano to do it), was distinctly sharp compared to the high C we arrived at by the octave method. Sharp, in fact, by about an eighth of a tone; a painful amount known as the Pythagorean Comma.

The Pythagorean Comma almost certainly has nothing directly to do with Pythagoras: there were no pianos then, and ancient Greek music, about which we know very little, used a completely different scale system. The name is probably more to do with the fact that Pythagoras notoriously had an Asperger’s-ish obsession with precision and wanted things to work out just right, so this anomaly would have freaked him out. We all know how upset he was by the failure of the ratio between the circumference and diameter of a circle (known as Pi, π,) to come to a neat fraction.

In fact, on a modern piano all the fifths are tuned just a teensy bit flat; not enough for anyone to notice. The accumulated little bits of flatness mean that the C you come out at, going up in fifths, is the ‘right’ one; exactly seven octaves above the piano’s bottom C.

Now in the early days of keyboard instruments, (not actually pianos because at the time I’m talking of Cristofori was still working on his invention, but rather harpsichords, clavichords and so on, but let’s for convenience call them all pianos) they hadn’t worked all this out; the tuner might tune someone’s piano, starting with a C, to have all its fifths really perfect ones. The thing would then play beautifully in C major and still be OK in the closely related dominant of G major and subdominant of F major. But getting a bit more adventurous and going into D or B flat, people with sensitive ears would notice some oddity; a sourness or sweetness not perhaps amounting to real out-of-tuneness. If the player got really clever and went into B major it would sound pretty off, and I should think D flat major would have been ghastly. So a good tuner might ask the player which keys he most liked, and tweak a few notes so that things weren’t too bad. But no amount of tweaking could hide the fact, as it most definitely was in those days, that different keys had different qualities: if C were neutral, then B flat might seem to most people a touch martial, and D rather bright. D flat was positively funereal, and E a bit ethereal. Though people might disagree about the characters of different keys, these were real differences, which would have been measurable had the necessary scientific instruments been available.

Some composers and players — including JS Bach himself — were discontented with this. Wouldn’t it be nice, they thought, to have a piano that played really well in all keys, so that you didn’t have to get up and go to a friend’s house when you wanted to play in A, because your own piano only really sounded right in, say, B flat? Just flattening the fifths wasn’t enough; really one needed many much finer adjustments to ensure that the relations between the notes of the scale would be identical in all keys. Work on this went on for many years, centuries even, before the present system of equal temperament was arrived at, but there was a breakthrough in the time of Bach, and he celebrated by writing one of the greatest of all keyboard works: The ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’, also known as the ‘48’; two sets of 24 preludes and fugues in all possible keys, and all playable (if you’re good enough; I can do precisely 1/96th of the thing) on the one instrument.

But what of ‘Key Mood’? Surely there can now be no such thing? Indeed there are many who insist that because there is now no ‘scientific basis’ for a belief in different moods for different keys, there can’t be any such thing. I know of a university professor who has even developed a galumphingly crass set of tests, which ‘prove’ (to his satisfaction, if to no-one else’s) that Key Mood is just a persistent myth. Nevertheless there have always been, and still are, many people who believe in it, including composers from Mozart to the present day. Berlioz once wrote an exposed passage for trombone in D flat and then panicked; could trombonists reasonably be expected to play in such a key? He dashed out to find a trombone player, who laughed and said that actually it’s quite a comfortable key on the trombone. Believers in Key Mood are not all new-agey airy-fairy types who are so open-minded their brains have dropped out. I certainly believe in key mood, also that it is something so delicate and evanescent that it hides when you try to prove or disprove it. Sure, in the current state of science there is no explanation for it. Yet.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Mood Indigo

Today is (well it would have been were he still around; you know what I mean) Duke Ellington’s birthday.

Early twentieth century jazz was usually played by small groups — five or six people, typically with a front line of cornet, clarinet, and trombone, and a couple of rhythm players behind. It was a folk music, and could be played by people with little theoretical knowledge — you took a well-known tune, decided on a key, and just played. Plenty of scope for improvisation, varying the tune often to the point, after a chorus or two, of unrecognizability; all that was left was the original chord sequence, and even that was probably only really understood by the guitarist or pianist.

 So jazz would seem to be impossible for bigger bands. It would indeed be chaotic and cacophonous (shut up at the back there) if everyone played with the freedom of a small group. There has to be some previous agreement, some degree of arrangement, in jazz played by groups of more than about seven people.

That was Ellington’s great contribution to jazz: he took an improvised, often ragged folk music and showed how it could be arranged — even orchestrated — for a big band without losing its – what? ‘Raunchiness’ seems the best word; without its degenerating (or at least changing) into the blandness of the Paul Whiteman band or the syrupy smoothness of Glenn Miller. Ellington’s music has the gutsiness, the growling and wailing, the bent thirds, of small group jazz in — er — spades.

One of the Ellington orchestra’s most popular pieces was ‘Mood Indigo’, and I was going to use its mention as a way into the strange matter of ‘Key Mood’ — whether, and if so why, a piece of music has a different feel to it according to which key you play it in. (The printed music of ‘Mood Indigo’ is in A flat major, but one often hears it played in other keys.) Would it matter if I transposed, say, Schubert’s beautiful G flat major Impromptu into the much easier key of G major? The subject of Key Mood is complicated, controversial, and (I think) fascinating, but I’ve been putting off writing about as I fear it would, like most things demanding the use of the brain, frighten readers away. Another day, perhaps.

For now, let’s close with a piece of Duke Ellington’s wit and wisdom:

‘There are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.’

Monday, 28 April 2014

On Not Going To Church


There are many reasons, good and bad, for not attending the services of the Church of England. One is that it is a male-dominated organization whose liturgies use sexist language. Another is that most parishes have abandoned the beautiful language of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

In an attempt to address both these objections, and with the hope that people will now attend church at least once, albeit after death, the C of E has just brought out a revised Order for the Burial of the Dead. Here is a short extract:


Man or woman that is born of a woman or a man hath but a short time to live, and is

full of misery. He or she cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; she or he

fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.



Sunday, 27 April 2014

Never Mind the Popery, Here's the Panto

American and European radio were dominated this morning by the ‘News’ that two living popes would today declare two dead ones saints. This non-event being of as much interest to intelligent people as the latest Jeffrey Archer, I shall write about something more important: last night’s final performance, here in the island, of ‘Snow White and the Seven Sisters.’

Usually it’s on the first night of a show that glitches and graunches occur, but none did. There was one last night, but by then cast and crew were so used to the show, not to say blasé, that almost no-one in the audience took much notice when Sirius the dog tripped and hurt her paw quite badly. As she bravely limped up the aisle and out of the auditorium most people thought it was just part of the show, and when director and author Phillipa, in a brilliant piece of improvisation, made an unscheduled appearance to bark an important canine message, Orion thought it was a last night wind-up. Phillipa, trying to look doggy without a furry costume, took over the part, lending extra point to Orion’s line ‘You cannot be Sirius’.

The show must, and did, go on: so successful was the cover-up that I had difficulty persuading Doctor Yorgos, who was sitting next to me, that this was a real accident and he should pop out to give veterinary assistance. Phillipa did not in the end have to turn to the audience and deliver the classic line ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’

Congratulations to all involved in this year’s show, especially our new young star Anastasia Markou, very specially author and director Phillipa, and very very specially brave Sirius, (Michaela Kiriannaki).

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Alan Turing


The logo of Apple Computers (and i-pods and mobile phones and the Lord knows what else) — a silhouette of an apple with a bite out of one side — is thought by many to be a sly homage to Alan Turing, who was found dead in bed with a half-eaten apple beside him. Cyanide poisoning, always said to be suicide, but it’s quite possible it was an accident: he had a schoolboy fondness for chemistry experiments and was known to be careless about washing his hands afterwards.

But why might Turing have wanted to kill himself? Well the war, in which he had done work of unrepeatable value, was over, so he might — like T.E. Lawrence after the previous war — have been in a sort of prolonged post-coital depression: if not suicidal then ‘an accident waiting to happen’ — a poisoned apple, a motorbike crash. And Turing had recently been found ‘guilty’ of homosexual activity, and subjected to the barbarous and humiliating punishment — touted at the time as ‘Humane “Treatment” for a “Pathological Disorder”’ (the hypocrisy of the times needs a plethora of inverted commas) — of chemical castration.

Now that homosexuality is positively fashionable — it’s as well to claim bipolarity too, though that is becoming passé — Turing is being turned into a Gay Hero; something this shy, reticent man who had never thought his homosexuality in any way remarkable would have hated. At the next Proms the Pet Shop Boys will be performing a number about him, (should sit well next to massed singing of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’) and someone else is writing a choral work about him. Even the British Government has got in on the act — he joins the growing list of people whom they first hang or hound to death, and then give a (posthumous) pardon.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Greek as She is Spoke. (Or Not, as the Case May Be.)


Today’s Post is addressed to my readers (both of them) here in the island; the rest of you can continue to ignore me.

Many local people feel offended, even insulted, by the apparently wilful failure, in  spite of ample opportunities, of most English people here to learn Greek, even after some years residence. At best, Greeks regard us with amused tolerance. Why should they take us seriously when we don’t even take their language seriously?

We would all rise in their esteem if we were seen — and heard! to be making a real effort, so now that I have more free time I want to start again to give Greek lessons for English speakers.

Individual tuition, (You may think you learn at the same pace as your partner, but believe me no-one does!) at my place, (Number 54 in the Old Village, on the road to the old school), €10 an hour, first lesson free and no obligation to continue if you hate it, so what have you got to lose? No nasty grammar; I shan’t hit people with difficult terms like ‘Nominative’ and ‘Genitive’ unless they’ve done, say, Latin or French at school and are happy with such words. Teaching will be individually tailored to suit each pupil.

I want to try and reassure prospective pupils that my reputation as fierce and sarcastic is just a protective front and in fact I don’t bite. What’s more you’ll get a cup of coffee or tea or a glass of wine.

Anyone interested can e-mail me — — or telephone — 24240 66 202. You might even enjoy it, as the Greek doctor told a friend of mine when he went for a colonoscopy.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

A Helmsman's journal, by Nikos Kavvadias.

Here is the last part of Kavvadias's short prose piece 'A helmsman's Journal', in my English translation.
But first, I'd like to remind readers that today is the 98th anniversary of the Irish Easter Rising.


January 1932

…Dangling from the top of a mast in the middle of the ocean, with a pot of paint… and the smallest movement hits your heart so hard you close your eyes involuntarily, feel you’ll fall any moment… then a little later you’re panting, and have to take deep breaths as if you’ve been running…

I’ve only just come down from up there… we helmsmen never do that sort of work, but Harry Viber the deck-hand died yesterday and it was just my luck to be the first to stand in for him…

Stand-in for a dead man… a cold thought, really… I couldn’t stop thinking about him all the time I was painting… he was a boy from Perth in Scotland who loved the sea less than anything else in the world: he liked tea, his pipe, and women, and he was always saying that as soon as he’d saved about two hundred pounds he’d kiss the sea goodbye and go home to his own town…

Yesterday we sent him down to plumb the Indian Ocean with two lead weights on his feet…

We’re crossing the worst part of the Indian Ocean today… we left the Laccadive islands yesterday. Somewhere round here once in a sailing ship we beat about for three whole days in a typhoon… when the wind dropped the sails were just rags, and when the captain called the roll there were four missing…

A sailing ship… no-one understands what that can really mean… when landsmen see them running before the wind, or coming into harbour all white and proud, they’re jealous… I made a voyage in one that lasted eight whole months…

We left New York for Sydney one morning, with a cargo of empty sacks. We were a crew of about ninety. On the sailing ships you can see time passing without ever looking at a clock. That’s horrible, a torture…

Once when there was no wind we were stuck in the same place for twenty whole days… twenty whole days in the middle of the sea… we ate little and drank less, for fear the food and water would run out. We didn’t know what to do. We fished. We climbed up the rigging… then when the wind blew we fell to like cannibals, and a month later we were begging for another calm…

The voyage out took four months… when I finally went ashore I staggered about like a drunk for hours.

I’d forgotten how to walk, and when I went into some joint that was full of mirrors I got tired of seeing myself: some suspicious hairy character in strange clothes.

On the way back, in Naples, I was like a lost creature who thought it was a joy to wash in fresh water and eat with a knife and fork… I was like a man who’d lost his personality for years from some strange illness, and was finding it again bit by bit, day by day…


In the Atlantic once, waiting for a wind, around the time the sun went down into the sea a huge postal ship passed us, full of people, flowers, music. It passed like a vision, so close we could see and hear the passengers calling to us…

Covered in hair, paint, and dirt we watched as if hypnotised, and when it disappeared into the sunset a lot of us started to cry; some of us were so dazzled staring at the same spot we couldn’t focus on anything else for hours…


There’s a tragic story troubling me. Sailors have the worst faults and commit the most fearful sins. I’ve got them all and I’ve done them all, except for two…

He was a Spanish sailor. The Spaniards are always after that sort of thing… I killed him with the very knife he’d given me himself… the captain wrote it in his log and put me in irons until we reached harbour. In Ceylon they handed me over to the Port Police and after they’d questioned me they let me go at once.

I often see him in my dreams… with his crafty eyes and his evil smile. Then I see the moment I killed him and I wake up. I’m not to blame… not to blame.


When I’m off duty for twelve hours I sit outside the fo’c’sle thinking before I go to sleep.

I think about the things that have happened… Ah, how I’d like to go back to the things that have happened. I’d give everything for one past moment, if one past moment could ever come back.

For hours now I’ve felt like crying. I believe it’s good for a person to cry… I remember when I was little I’d cry miserable in closed rooms, I’d enjoy the feel of the warm tears on my cheeks… how I wish I could cry…

Once I had a cat… a little black cat. Black creatures always have a special charm… she died, like every cat who sets its paws on the iron decks of a ship… when I threw her in the sea and went to my usual place to sit and think, I felt something trickling in my breast, for hours, and I realized I was crying inside. It’s not good for a person to cry without tears.

I know how to read the cards. It’s a strange art. An old woman taught me, in a brothel in Havana…

The way she taught me wasn’t the same as the way the gipsy women do it in Europe. Often, when I read them by myself, I’m afraid. Afraid? How could I be afraid! I’ve never been afraid of danger… I know what it feels like to be drowning. I was in danger of it three times. It’s nothing terrible or special, like people think. A short agony, just a few seconds… then it’s like falling from a height, a great height, onto feathers. Then nothing more. Nothing…

Translation © Simon Darragh 2006.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Anniversaries, and more Nikos Kavvadias.


Today is the birthday of the interesting Max Planck, and the nauseating Shirley Temple. It is also the death day of Shakespeare.

Yesterday I posted here the first page or two of Kavvadias’s piece ‘A Helmsman’s Journal’. Here is the next page or two:

I’m sleepy, so sleepy. The clock says two in the morning. Time for my watchmate to take over the wheel, and me to stand where he was. I’ll stand up for two hours more, and I’ll try to sleep. I’ve never tried anything worse than sleeping standing up. Your eyes close without your knowing it and suddenly you collapse. Then you have to grab something so as not to fall down. Then when you’ve got your balance, your eyes close again and you fall over again.

The other helmsman, just as sleepy as I am, isn’t the same as me because he’s expecting something, hoping for something. A letter from home. Me, I’ve got no expectations… for me such joys don’t exist. He’s waiting to get somewhere; when he goes ashore he’ll enjoy himself and forget tonight’s miseries. I never go ashore in the harbours. It’s months since I went ashore… at one time I used to wait anxiously to reach harbour. I’d watch the compass and think of beautiful women, adventures in the dark streets of unknown cities, and it would ease the pain… I used to play cards. In Madeira one night I won a lot, and it’s still in my kit-bag. I’ve lost all feeling for the value of money. There’s nothing I need to buy, and I don’t know anyone who needs it I could send it to…

Money! Once, when I was stuck without a ship in a London thick with fog, I went an age without seeing the colour of a shilling. I’d spend all day in the public parks, and in the evenings I’d eat in the boarding house where I was going to pay when I got a ship. Twenty or so of us ate in this long narrow dining-room. There was an Indian sailor sitting near me who was so hungry he’d forgotten his religious rules, and on my other side there was a black stoker who made a noise like bare feet on a wet pavement when he ate. I’ve never come across a man so serene. As soon as he’d finished eating he’d stuff his nostrils with a mixture of tobacco and some strange powder and go to sleep, making a noise like a train pulling in. Much later I heard they’d sent him to New Guinea on a convict transport, because one night in the West End he’d strangled a little girl just to get the packet of food she was carrying.


I’ve known a lot of strange people. The strangest was one I saw on a Dutch freighter. He was a Japanese stoker. When he was off duty he’d lie down on his stomach, naked from the waist up, reading a book full of strange characters. His back was all decorated with birds and trees like a Japanese shawl. The sailors would sit round him playing on his back with a dirty old pack of cards. He wouldn’t say a word, but whenever the game got heated and they’d slam the cards down hard, he’d shake his shoulders and the players would calmly carry on playing without a word.


I remember a friend from when I was a student. He wasn’t a sailor. He looked like a Syrian king and as he wasn’t much older than me I looked up to him as someone better; superhuman. His eyes were always laughing and he’d talk in a way I’ve never heard anyone else speak. When he’d stop I could never remember anything he’d said, I’d just be drugged with the spell of a strange dream, like someone who’s coming down from smoking opium.

‘Opium!’ I said. I’ve smoked it myself. I think I saw some beautiful dreams. I don’t remember much, just a fine white horse galloping over the waves, with me riding…


Once in Haiphong I saw barefoot Chinese captains in little silk robes smoking enormous pipes. They’d sit beside their weird reed-sailed boats waiting for cargoes for the Pacific Islands. I heard they always sailed without a compass, their only guide the currents that changed direction with the seasons. They say they charm away the typhoons with pentacles, and make voyages months long. When dawn comes they often find themselves at unknown islands, shining in the tropical sun, and hear, without seeing anything, songs in strange tongues.


For some time now I’ve been troubled by a weird day-dream… to set off alone in a little Chinese boat, a boat with no compass, no rudder, and either disappear in some steaming maelstrom or find myself, dawn breaking, years later, on some island shining like a diamond under the burning sun, and stay there for ever, surrounded by naked women who’d never set eyes on any man but me. To lie down at night on the corals and the shells, to hear invisible ukuleles, and see the stars, always the same in all the skies.


The ship's bell’s striking for the change of watch. And now I’m not at all tired…

Translation © Simon Darragh, 2014.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

A Helmsman’s Journal, by Nikos Kavvadias


(This is a short piece, about 2,500 words, by the Greek poet/sailor Kavvadias. Here is the first page or two, in my English translation. I hope to post the rest of it during the next few days.)


Extracts from papers found in the kit-bag of a sailor who jumped ship in Tonkin from the freighter Tamatave.


Standing up twelve hours out of twenty-four, for fifteen, twenty, thirty days, turning a wooden wheel with knobs on sometimes a little to the right, sometimes a little to the left, endlessly gazing at the compass and trying to keep your course exactly right. The days aren’t so bad, you can watch the sky, the sea — you hear people talking now and again — but the nights… I haven’t been on duty for two hours yet but I’m hopelessly sleepy. My watchmate’s sleeping on his feet beside me; he wakes up every time he loses his balance, only to drop off again a little later… at home, about now, we’d be getting ready for bed. My mother’s folded her newspaper and my sister’s finished — for about the hundredth time, in tears — Maria Bashkirtseff’s journal… I’d be in my usual place, closing ‘The amazing journeys of Bosun Will’, or the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ from Hamburg. But now?… Now, a narrow bridge, next to a shipmate I’ve got nothing in common with but exhaustion, on a ship full of coal, rolling on the watery expanse of the Indian Ocean, on the way to Tonkin, and I’m tired to death. The duty officer goes from one side to the other, stamping his boots, trying to wake his legs up.

I remember my first embarkation, on a big Postal. The moment my bright dream came true, I was suddenly full of doubts and fears. I remember that tragicomic ‘Mal du Dèpart’ that tortured me for so long. Then arriving at the happy harbours of the Mediterranean. Marseilles, Naples, Barcelona, the painted women in the bars, the endless leavings, the women who were travelling, the farewells, the tears,the stifled sobs and waving handkerchieves put such a spell on me that all the doubts and fears that had grown up in me just evaporated.

Then the black, dreary freighters. There’s no more miserable departure — life on them’s so mournful, and the continual silence is torture.

Here on the freighters they never talk out loud. The fo’c’sles are always dark,full of heavy smells; they’re like big prison cells.


Even me, I can’t understand myself. There are times I think I’m n o better than Johnny the black stoker, who only lives to eat. There are times I think everything inside me’s died, as if my heart’s hardened, like the palms of my hands… I’ve seen so much, so much… And then there are other times when I think I’ve got all the goodness and innocence that’s missing from the world inside me…

I’ve never in my life been in love… I’ve known thousands of women. They’re all the same, always… it’s been ages since I slept with a woman; the sailors laugh at me. I’m not to blame… it’s a story that started on the passenger ships I used to work on… miserable story…

I can’t remember her name any more. It doesn’t matter. Women shouldn’t have names, because they’re all the same… she was going from Alexandria to Marseilles with her mother. She was the daughter of a cotton merchant who’d gone bust and committed suicide. She wore black, read poetry. She could talk straight, she was a good, innocent creature. She gave me a fish-skin wallet, and I gave her my crucifix…

Three years later in Buenos Aires I spent the night with some woman. In the morning when I got my wallet out to pay — what can I say — she screamed when she saw it, and I screamed too, when I saw the little crucifix pinned to her dressing-gown… maybe I only saw it in my sleep. Anyway it seems to me all women are the same.


Translation © Simon Darragh, 2014.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Deaths of Two Fighters


The man known as ‘The Hurricane’ has just died. He was a professional boxer. I have no interest at all in sport, but this was a special case: just at the time his career seemed set to take him to the top of his profession, The Hurricane was fitted up for a murder or murders he didn’t commit. He spent nineteen years in prison before an international campaign, including a famous song written specially by Bob Dylan, prompted the authorities to re-examine the case and release the chap. This happened in America. No prizes for guessing the colour of The Hurricane’s skin.

And on this day in 1918 Baron von Richthoven, the ‘Red Baron’, Germany’s most famous fighter pilot, leader of a squadron known as 'von Richthoven's Flying Circus', was finally shot down and killed.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Limerick

As my more erudite readers will know, English verse is usually accentual – syllabic; that is to say, its rhythms and scansion depend on both syllable count and number of accents per line. The Limerick is exceptional in being almost entirely accentual, so that it is legitimate, up to a point, to squeeze in lots of extra syllables as long as they’re not accented and the standard well-known rhythm can be maintained. Here is a puzzle-limerick; reciting it correctly demands a knowledge of postal abbreviations:

A randy young fellow from Hampshire
Got off with a girl at a dampshire,
But she was from Oxfordshire
And slept with her socksfordshire,
Not to mention her pampshire.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Mädchen in Uniform

The original film with this title was made in 1931, and there was a re-make in 1958. Both are now touted as ‘Lesbian Classics’, but that is not, or not primarily, what it’s all about. It’s a presentation — only semi-allegorical — of the conflict between the severe Prussian militarist tradition and the liberal values of the Weimar Republic.

The setting is a girl’s boarding school — I’m pretty sure there’s not a single male character, not even an incidental servant or delivery boy, in either version — presided over by a fierce old headmistress dressed always in black. Were she a man she would have been played by Erich von Stroheim. Among the staff is a young woman who, against opposition from the headmistress and her conservative allies, tries to be gentler and kinder with the girls. In particular, she makes a point of going round the dormitory every evening to kiss the girls goodnight.

What sets the story going is the arrival of a new pupil, played in the re-make by a very young Romy Schneider. Even more emotionally starved than the other girls, she falls in love with the young liberal teacher. The crisis is reached at the party following a student production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’: the well-meaning but rather dizzy kitchen staff have been generous with the rum in the punch, and our new pupil gets very drunk and loudly proclaims her love before falling in an alcoholic stupor at the feet of the scandalized headmistress.

Our young heroine is carted off to the infirmary to sleep it off, and there follows a private confrontation between the headmistress and the young liberal teacher. This would of course be a fairly vital scene for anyone who hadn’t already worked out what the thing was all about, but unfortunately I couldn’t really get it because the English subtitles to the 1931 version were too crass, and I could only find the re-make in a version with the original German soundtrack and Spanish subtitles: I have very little German and no Spanish. Anyway, the upshot is that the young teacher is forbidden any further contact or even speech with her young friend, and told to pack her bags and get ready to leave the school.

Our recovering pupil gets up to learn this, and to find that the headmistress has also forbidden the other pupils to talk to her. Desperate, she attempts suicide, but is rescued by the other pupils and the young teacher, defying the headmistress’s ban. The girl is taken back to the infirmary in a delirious state.

It is here, and only here, that the two films differ: the 1931 version closes with a view of the headmistress, bowed, her confident stride as broken as her spirit, walking away from us — and the school to which she has devoted her life? — down a long corridor. In the re-make, we are shown her, at last remorseful, reaching clumsily out to grasp the hand of the half-conscious Romy Schneider.

I recommend both films. Those who, like me, were first attracted by the titillating prospect of two dozen teenage girls romping around in their nighties, will stay for the dramatization in miniature of the most disastrous  ideological conflict within memory.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Another Great Man Gone

Gabriel Garcia Marquez has died. Newspapers will of course have had their obituaries ready for some time, but that reminds me too much of the time I had to dig a grave for a terminally ill dog, couldn’t do it with the dog itself watching, and so had to dig by the light of a hurricane lamp and a crescent moon, after the dog had died. It would be too impertinent, even for me, to give an off-the cuff critical assessment of the great man’s work.

It is remarkable how personally people are taking his death: the common reader, who knows only his books but has not met the man, seems to have lost a friend; a writer who was (and many aren’t really) on the reader’s side.

His best-known novel is ‘A Hundred Years of Solitude’ and everybody remembers the bit where the villagers start to suffer from progressive but selective amnesia: they forget common nouns; the names of things, and have to attach labels: ‘Cow’, ‘House’, ‘Bicycle’, ‘Bucket’. It could be a synecdoche for the writer’s work. My own favourite among his novels is ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’.

    ~ —

Notable events on this day in other years are the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and (according to the calendars of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches) the death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

People Who:


Use the ‘Comic Sans’ typeface.

Say ‘Hopefully’ when they mean ‘I hope that…’

Put little smiley faces in their e-mails.

Keep looking to left and right when you are talking to them, in case someone more interesting comes by.

Say ‘Hi!’ instead of ‘Hello’.

Get up to leave and then stand in the open doorway and continue talking.

Gaze abstractedly into the distance while the supermarket check-out lady adds up their bill, then say ‘Oh!’ and start looking for their purses.

Buy books on Amazon then complain when their local bookshop closes down.

Boil a two litre kettle of water to make one cup of tea.


On the 17th of March 1951 American forces landed at the aptly named Bay of Pigs in Cuba, with the intention of overthrowing the Cuban government and imposing a puppet regime that would favour American interests. They failed ignominiously.


Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Crisis? What Crisis?

Language is organic. Like a living thing, it grows new bits, and watches — sometimes with dismay — as old bits atrophy and eventually drop off, or turn out to be adaptable to some new use. When Doctor Johnson found St Paul’s Cathedral ‘Amusing and awful’ he didn’t mean what we should now mean, but that it was amazing and awe-inspiring; ‘Ossum’ as young people now say. (Yes, they still do; I checked recently with a highly street-wise nephew.)

I am told this or something like it very firmly whenever I have the temerity to complain about the latest ‘incorrect’ (as I still sometimes want to call it) use of a word. Majority usage is now the only criterion of meaning, so if most people now use ‘Literally’ to mean something like ‘Very’, then that is what it now means. (That one has now made the OED.) When I complain, people assume I want English to become a dead language, available only in ancient texts or inscribed on stone tablets. I don’t of course; I just want to draw attention to what is happening and to say that something — usually precision — has been lost. The engine of linguistic change is always, always, ignorance, and if anyone can find a counter-example I shall be interested to hear of it. What typically happens is that a journalist, wishing to sound clever, gets hold of an impressive sounding word — ‘Exponentially’, let us say, and not knowing much maths, decides it means something like ‘Very’ or ‘Rapidly’ and starts using it like that. Pretty soon others start using it like that, it gets into the dictionaries, and another good, precise word is lost.

For convenience, to avoid tiresome circumlocutions, I shall in what follows use ‘Correct’ and its cognates to refer to what words used to mean, and ‘Incorrect’ to what they now mean. My example is the word ‘Crisis’: correctly, a crisis is a turning point: some process continues to a point at which it is unsustainable, and then there is a sudden change. Illnesses are said (at least by doctors) to reach their crisis; the fever or whatever rises to a critical point, and then the patient either dies or starts to get better. The stalling of an aeroplane is a clear example: the controls, set too high, make the aeroplane rise ever more steeply until something has to give, and it suddenly dives; one sees it in geography in the form of an escarpment, where one ascends an ever-steeper slope and then, at the top, finds a cliff.

But in recent usage, ‘Crisis’ simply means something like ‘Regrettable state of affairs’, and crises are said to be ‘continuing’ or even (God help us) ‘ongoing’. This is incorrect. What is now happening in Ukrania[1] can correctly be called a crisis. What has been happening for some years now in Greece is incorrectly called a crisis. So another good word is, right now, being lost. Those of us who want to be precise in our speech and writing will have to abandon ‘Crisis’ as a lost cause, and find some new word or expression. We shall; language is living and growing.  

[1] Microsoft Word’s limited vocabulary does not contain ‘Ukrania’, which is what those who live there call the place. ‘The Ukraine’, as it is often called, actually means in Russian ‘The border area’. By using this expression one perhaps unwittingly allies oneself with the Russian separatists.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Everything that has Ever Happened

I was living in Milton Keynes — a place mocked only by those who don’t know it — when supermarkets started selling books. Unsurprisingly for shops more used to selling fish fingers and baked beans, the choice was limited but bizarre, and I came home with a pocket-sized ‘World History’ from Old Testament times to New Age times. In the front was a disclaimer: ‘It has not been possible to include everything that has ever happened.’

Some of the things that have happened on today’s date in other years: Leonardo was born, in the little town of Vinci. The ‘Titanic’ sank. The first MacDonald’s restaurant opened. Which of the latter two was the greater disaster I leave it to readers to decide.


Today, and on all future days, we ask you to extend your special care to the following words and phrases which have been the victims of abuse by Newspapers and the BBC:



Begs the question.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The English Pantomime


Here in this little Greek island preparations are almost complete for the yearly pantomime, performed in English by the English. We do it around Easter as many of the English are away in winter. On the first night of our first pantomime here some years ago, very few local people came; ‘Oh it’s just for the foreigners.’ But those few who did were so astonished and had such a good time that the next night and at all subsequent performances locals were clamouring for the last few available seats. We have had to introduce advance booking, though this is a concept ungraspable by most Greeks.

Readers who were not brought up in England will need to know a little about the traditional English Pantomime. Hold onto your seats:

An English Traditional Pantomime is intended as a Christmas entertainment for children and their parents. It is always based loosely on a well-known fairy story, such as Cinderella or, this year, Snow White. There are lots of jokes and songs and a fair amount of embarrassing audience participation: the audience is required to shout, over and over again, ‘Oh no it isn’t!’ whenever some stage character says ‘Oh yes it is!’ (or vice versa), and ‘Behind you!’ when the character keeps failing to notice some enemy creeping up on him. Towards the end of the show the audience is even forced to sing a song.

But the weirdest feature of all is the casting: the ‘Principal Boy’, the young male lead who will eventually marry the princess or whoever, is always played by a young and attractive woman, wearing tights to show off her legs, and doing her best to behave butch-ly. The Principal Girl whom ‘he’ will marry is not, however, usually played by a boy, but by another girl. Another stock character is the wicked stepmother, or the ugly sister, or the widow who takes in washing, or the fairy Godmother: this character is usually played by a man, in drag of course, and care is taken to choose an actor who is a well-known screaming queen, and is for the occasion allowed, indeed expected, to camp it up as outrageously as possible.

‘And this is an entertainment for children?’ Well, yes. No wonder the English are so odd.


Sunday, 13 April 2014

Bloody foreigners, comin’ over ’ere an’ stealin’ our jobs

Not to mention our hats: The Bolshoi Ballet visited London some time in the ’sixties, and one young underpaid dancer was so dazzled by the wealth of capitalist goodies on open display in the shops that she tried to steal a hat. She was caught, and sentenced to deportation. Then as now, there were unpleasant people who said ‘Serve her right; send them all back where they came from’, but the view among decent people was that, since it had been a century or more since English people were sentenced to transportation (a free one-way trip to Australia) for such petty offences, this poor girl was being deported not so much for pinching a hat as for being foreign.

Fortunately attitudes have changed since then. Or have they? There has been a resurgence of ugly xenophobia in England, and in America a huge increase in deportations of recent immigrants. Obama himself has ‘justified’ these deportations on the grounds that the people being sent ‘home’ (in most cases their only home has been there in the United States) are criminals. It turns out that in most cases their ‘criminality’ was — shoplifting hats. Or more likely bread or milk for their children.

So the news that a film is to be made about the life and work of Cesar Chavez is timely and pleasing. Chavez is a common name in Latin America, so don’t confuse Cesar with Hugo. Cesar Chavez was one of the many Mexicans who, then as now, was welcomed into the United States every year during the fruit-picking season and then kicked out as soon as the farmers had no further use for them. He worked all his life to improve their pay and conditions. Of course, being a Hollywood production there is likely to be too much emphasis on his personal life and not enough on his work, but even so, as happened long ago with a Hollywood film about Joe Hill, (Joel Hilstrom), it may increase public awareness of how many of the rights and freedoms we in the richer, more comfortable countries take for granted we owe to the efforts of those who came originally from poorer, less comfortable places.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Readers in Brazil, Writers Nowhere


This blog has suddenly acquired about thirty readers in Brazil. You know, where the nuts come from. I don’t know why, but I’m pleased of course, and my sympathies go out especially to the 5,000 or so homeless people in Rio who occupied some empty buildings and have just been forcibly and violently evicted by, reports say, as many as 50,000 police.

For the last few days a powerful coalition of Google and Microsoft has prevented me from writing the blog. They said it wasn’t mine, that its several hundred pages must have been written by some other Simon Darragh. This reminded me of occasions when far more distinguished writers than myself suffered something similar:

His best-known play ‘The Importance of being Earnest’ was running to packed houses in London’s West End when Oscar Wilde first tried to sue Lord Queensberry for libel and was then prosecuted for sodomy. The play continued to run, but Wilde’s name was removed from the posters and programmes.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany they published a new edition of the poetry anthology used in schools. All poems by Jews had been excised from the new edition; all but one: ‘Die Lorelei’ by Heinrich Heine. Everyone knew this poem, still one of the most popular in the German language; they couldn’t pretend there had never been such a poem. So the Nazis left it in the anthology, but substituted ‘Unbekannt’ — ‘Unknown’ — for the author’s name.

It would be tendentious to draw a general conclusion from these three incidents, so I will:

Oh. Oh dear. I find I simply cannot find a way to express this. (Good Lord, Simon at a loss for words? Whatever next?) I’ll have to put this on a mental back burner and see if it cooks. For now I’ll just say that it’s philistine and reactionary to expunge an author’s name from his works.


Oh yes: today’s ‘Word the English Language could do without’ is Closure.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Further Idiocies by Microsoft

This is very tedious but is unfortunately necessary:
Microsoft cancelled my hotmail address ( To compound the disaster, I then found myself unable to write in this blog, because blog authors are identified by the e-mail address they had at the time of creating the blog. Loss of that email address 'means' that the blog author no longer exists.
I created a new e-mail address, (simondarragh@gmailcom). I told as many people as I could of this, (not very many because Microsoft would not allow me to recover my address list.) Almost at once, Microsoft gave me back my hotmail address. For about half an hour, I had both addresses. Then, the new gmail address mysteriously disappeared. I have been unable to recover it.
Next, my existence as author of this blog was suddenly acknowledged again and I was able to write this and I hope post it on the blog.
Thus the current situation is that, as before Microsoft interfered, I have one e-mail address, (, and one blog, the one you are looking at. I tell readers all this in case they are confused, and assure them that their confusion is as nothing compared to mine. The last few days have been an 'Information Technology' nightmare for me and I have been unable to engage in such worthwhile activities as playing the piano and writing witty things here.
I hope soon to be able to entertain and amuse you all again. Thank you for your patience.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Bravo Microsoft! Another own goal!


Here is the message I have just had to send to most of my e-mail correspondents:

In its latest piece of spectacular idiocy, Microsoft is closing the e-mail accounts of countless people who use hotmail or outlook. The instructions they give for retaining one’s account are complex and intrusive, and don’t work anyway. Today is my last chance to send e-mails, so from now on anyone needing to get in touch with me should use the telephone: 0030 24240 66 202. If ringing from inside Greece, omit the 0030.

Sorry for the inconvenience; it is not of my making.

Simon Darragh.


Let us move on to more congenial matters. I was talking yesterday of my admiration for those of limited vocabulary who practice linguistic economy by swearing a lot. My contempt is reserved for people who use too many, or genuinely unnecessary, or bogus words and expressions. Here are a few such:

At this moment in time. (Why not just say ‘Now’?)

On a daily basis. (Why not just say ‘Daily’?)

Pro-active. (This hideous word seems to mean nothing at all; perhaps just ‘alert’.)

Facility. (American officialese for anything from the Guantanamo torture ‘facility’ to public lavatories.)

Warmer Temperatures. (A favourite of the BBC. Temperatures of course do not themselves have temperatures. You can say ‘Warmer’ or ‘Higher temperatures’.)

There are of course countless others, but just now I fear I must waste time that could be better spent practicing the piano in trying to get my e-mail back.

As the blog is administered by Google it will I hope continue; Microsoft should not be able to get their interfering hands on it.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Another ‘objection’ to swearing.

This one is a favourite among snobbish schoolteachers. They look down their noses and say ‘Resorting to profanity is a sign of a limited vocabulary.’ This is bullshit of course: much swearing shows a wit and imagination almost as great as that of the ‘conceits’ of the English Renaissance Metaphysical poets, and the Scots have a tradition of ‘Flyting’: a great string, often lasting pages or minutes, of highly creative invective.

But OK; people with small vocabularies often do swear a lot. Perhaps they haven’t had the dubious linguistic ‘advantages’ of schoolteachers. So they use the few words at their command to their full capacity, and good for them. I am thinking of the army mechanic leaning into the open bonnet of a truck: a passing officer says ‘I say, sergeant, what seems to be the trouble?’ The mechanic raises his head and says ‘Fucking fucker’s fucking fucked.’ Brilliant. With one word and its cognates, he has explained not just that the truck is seriously damaged, but also just how he feels about it.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated

Those are the words of Mark Twain when he was disconcerted to find proleptic obituaries in the newspapers.
Here in this little Greek Island we have just had a similar story. A rumour circulated that a Norwegian chap, a well-known local character, had died, and that his body was being brought back to the island for burial. The local gravedigger at once dug a new grave, and friends, foreign and Greek, assembled at the graveyard, bearing flowers and saying how sad they were to hear of the loss. Meanwhile someone drove down to meet the ferry, just arriving, and arrange transport of the coffin up to the hilltop village.
But there was no coffin aboard. Slowly the news filtered back to the assembled mourners. The rumour had been false, so everybody retired to the nearest bar. Long may Stavros live.

There are two further more general reasons for celebration today: one is that today is Buddha's birthday. That is to say, the birthday of the Buddha's best-known avatar, Siddartha Gautama. I think I've got that right, but what I don't know about Buddhism would fill several large volumes.
A good single volume introduction to Buddhism is that of Christmas Humphreys. Humphreys was an English high court judge: it was he who, in one of the most grotesque miscarriages of justice in the twentieth century, condemned poor not-very-bright Timothy Evans to hang for murders in fact committed by his Landlord, John Reginald Christie. Evans was, much later, pardoned. Much good that did him; they had already hanged him.
The other cause for celebration is that today is the anniversary of the death of Margaret Thatcher.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Acute Shortage of Blog

Apologies; I have been travelling in a leisurely way (leisurely-ly?) from England to Greece. Once settled, which should be in about two days, I shall again treat readers to my usual pedantry.
Oh and by the way, 'Acute' is not, as many people seem to think, a synonym for 'severe'.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Unnecessary Language


I wrote yesterday about ‘Language’, meaning rude words, swearing, etc. This opens a very large can of worms and I hope to write more on the subject in the next few days.

I have sometimes worked as an external examiner, marking literary translations from English to Greek made by students taking an MA in literary translation. One student submitted her translation from American to Greek of a script by Quentin Tarantino. In her footnotes she explained that she had removed all the ‘Bad language’ as it was ‘Unnecessary’.

In Tarantino’s work swearing is of course not only necessary, it is essential; indeed if you took out all the ‘bad language’ there wouldn’t be much left. Besides, ‘faithfulness’ — whatever that is taken to mean — is the first duty of a translator; it is no part of her job to impose her prudish opinions on the work she is translating.

I gave her a very low mark.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014



A fairly well-known poet told me that once when he went to talk to a class of English pupils their teacher took him aside first and said ‘We don’t like poems with language in them.’ By ‘Language’ this moron, this disgrace to his profession, this stunter of children’s minds, probably meant ‘Rude words’; ‘Swear words’: good old English words like fuck and shit and cunt. Short of summary execution it is difficult to know what to do with ‘teachers’ like that, but one approach might be to nod in agreement and then — poets being by definition experts in the use of words — read the pupils a selection of ‘rude’ poems to which the teacher could not reasonably object. Poems such as the following, usually attributed to John Wilmot, Lord Rochester:


Base metal hanger by your master's thigh!
Eternal shame to all prick's heraldry,
Hide thy despisèd head and do not dare
To peep, no not so much as take the air
But through a button-hole; but pine and die
Confined within the codpiece monastery.
The little childish boy that hardly knows
The way through which his urine flows,
Touched by my mistress her magnetic hand
His little needle presently will stand.
Did she not raise thy drooping head on high
As it lay nodding on her wanton thigh?
Did she not clap her legs about my back,
Her porthole open? Damned prick, what is 't you lack?
Henceforth stand stiff and gain your credit lost,
Or I'll ne'er draw thee, but against a post.


That’s all right isn’t it, teacher? No ‘Language’ there, is there?