Friday, 31 October 2014


I suppose I was about ten when I first came across the word ‘Chryselephantine’. I found it awesome, in the old-fashioned sense rather than the modern one in which, for instance, my nephews described a curry I had made for them as ‘Ossum’. (I’m pretty sure they meant this as praise.) ‘Chryselephantine’ sent me to my Thorndike Junior Dictionary, where I found that it meant ‘Inlaid with gold and ivory’.

The last limerick was for an animal beginning with ‘D’, so now we shall have one for an animal beginning with ‘E’. (Duh.)


The devious runaway Elephant
cunningly covers his fell intent:
he slyly perpends
a tail at both ends,
so no-one can see where the hell he went.


To avoid confusion, I perpend a picture of the relevant elephant. The object of which it stands astride is a ‘car’:

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Francis Ponge

I am reading, in various English and American translations, the work of the French poet Francis Ponge. It would of course be very bad form to say that it would be impossible to think up a poofier name for a French poet, so I won’t. And he doesn’t actually look at all poofy:


Ponge writes prose poems. What? Surely that’s a contradiction; poetry is the opposite of prose? Well, I can only say read some. Here is an example:


Francis Ponge - Le Pain (Bread)

La surface du pain est merveilleuse d'abord à cause de cette impression quasi panoramique qu'elle donne : comme si l'on avait à sa disposition sous la main les Alpes, le Taurus ou la Cordillère des Andes. Ainsi donc une masse amorphe en train d'éructer fut glissée pour nous dans le four stellaire, où durcissant elle s'est façonnée en vallées, crêtes, ondulations, crevasses… Et tous ces plans dès lors si nettement articulés, ces dalles minces où la lumière avec application couche ses feux, - sans un regard pour la mollesse ignoble sous-jacente. Ce lâche et froid sous-sol que l'on nomme la mie a son tissu pareil à celui des éponges : feuilles ou fleurs y sont comme des sœurs siamoises soudées par tous les coudes à la fois. Lorsque le pain rassit ces fleurs fanent et se rétrécissent : elles se détachent alors les unes des autres, et la masse en devient friable… Mais brisons-la : car le pain doit être dans notre bouche moins objet de respect que de consommation.

(Francis Ponge, Montpellier, 27 March 1899 - 6 August 1988)

The crust on a loaf of French bread is a marvel, first off, because of the almost panoramic impression it gives, as although one had the Alps, the Taurus range, or even the Andean Cordillera right in the palm of the hand.
In that light, an amorphous belching mass was slipped into the stellar oven on our behalf, and there while hardening, it molded into valleys, ridges, foothills, rifts...And from then on, all those clearly articulated planes, all the wafer-thin slabs where light takes care to bank its rays - without a thought for the disgraceful mush beneath the surface.
That cold soggy substratum, the doughy innards, consists of a sponge-like tissue; there flowers, leaves are fused together at every bend like Siamese twins. When the bread grows stale, the flowes wither and shrink, they come apart from one another and the whole thing goes to crumbs.
But let's cut short here. For bread should be mouthed less as an object of respect than of consumption.

(Translated by Lee Fahnestock, The Nature of Things, Red Dust Inc.)


Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Turks, Capitalists, and Dogs

The 29th of October 1923 was the day the Ottoman Empire ended and the Turkish Republic, led by Kemal Ataturk, began. I don’t know how the people who compile lists of historic events manage to be so temporally specific; I suppose various bits of paper were signed and there were pompous ceremonies.

‘Black Tuesday’ came exactly six years later: on the 29th of October 1929, the American Stock Market crashed. I’m not sure I shall ever really understand what economists mean by a ‘stock market crash’, but what it means for normal people is hunger, cold, sickness and misery. It’s called Capitalism.


On to more worthwhile things: we have reached ‘D’ in the limerick series:
Two Dogs talked of Man in the park.
One of them chanced to remark
that their sounds, though inelegant,
seemed almost intelligent —
‘Do you think one could train them to bark?’

(The dog is the one pedalling the trike.)

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Όχι Day

Όχι (pronounced roughly ‘Ochi’, stress on the ‘O’ and with a ‘ch’ like the one in Scots ‘Loch’) is the Greek word for ‘No’. In October 1940 Mussolini asked the Greek dictator Metaxas for permission for Italian troops to at least pass through, and perhaps indeed occupy, Greece, which would inevitably result in Greece’s entering World War II on the Axis side. On the 28th, Metaxas said ‘Όχι’, with the result that Greece became an ally of the Brits, French, etc. against Germany and Italy. Ever since, the day has been celebrated in Greece as the day when Metaxas, for all that he was a dictator, made the right choice.

In every town in Greece there is a parade of the school pupils, dressed in the blue and white of the Greek (originally the Bavarian but we won’t go into that just now) flag. Each section of the parade, corresponding to the different school grades, is led by the star pupil of that grade. There is a similar parade on Independence (from the Ottoman Empire) day, the 25th of March. At the last parade my young friend Anastasia was chosen as flag-bearer for her grade. She is, like all her family except her father, physically rather small, and the flag is huge; she was worried about it: ‘One gust of wind, Simon, and I’ll be swept into the Aegean.’ In the event all went well; here she is, leading her section of the procession:

Monday, 27 October 2014


Here is today’s limerick. We have reached ‘C’, so inevitably it will be about the cat. Specifically, the domestic moggy.


I never much cared for the Cat;
his life seemed so terribly flat:
when not chasing a mouse
he’d just hang round the house,
where he sat on the mat, and that’s that.


You all know what a cat looks like and I’m not going to put a picture of one in my blog. Here instead is its mat: a fragment of a Tekke Turkoman tribal rug, made into a cushion cover. As it is a fragment, photographed close up, one can see clearly the characteristic gul: the octagonal pattern that, together with the prominent use of red dye, identifies it even to one as ignorant about oriental carpets as myself as being Tekke. The Tekkes are my favourite carpets; there’s an old worn-out one hanging in my stairwell.

Sunday, 26 October 2014


No-one has complained, so I shall continue with my alphabet of animal limericks. I may have put some of these in the blog before, but this time I shall try to add illustrations.
‘Be kind to the Boa Constrictor.’
Few rules on the ark were much stricter.
A lady-like boa
tried to eat Mrs. Noah —
serves her right — she shouldn’t have kicked her.

This is a Red-tailed Boa Constrictor, so-called because of its red tail. (Duh.)
This is another kind of Boa, and a lady wearing it, drawn of course by the vertically challenged Toulouse-Lautrec. Only now do I see why this kind of long feathery scarf is known as a Boa.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Ardvark? Ardvaark? AARDVARK

Since no-one has complained, I propose to give you the whole of my animal alphabet in limericks, one by one, starting with ‘a’ and ending with ‘z’, (duh) in between posts about other things. By the way, the limerick is one of the few common present-day English language verse forms that is almost entirely accentual; most other common forms are accentual-syllabic.

I didn’t give you a picture of a vulture, but hope to append below a picture of an aardvark or two. I must say they look rather charming creatures. The limerick itself is a useful mnemonic for those frequent occasions when you rack your brain (or is it ‘wrack’?) for the spelling of ‘aardvark’.


The Aardvark said ‘I should regret it if
they don’t put me first.’ (So competitive.)
His primitive ruse
was simply to use
two ‘a’s, then a third. (So repetitive.)

Friday, 24 October 2014


Some years ago I wrote a set of 26 Limericks about animals, one animal per letter of the alphabet. (Yes, my ‘X’ limerick was rather a cop-out.) Here’s one of them; there will be more, whether or not people ask for them:


At a poetry reading a Vulture
said “I don’t care for this culture.
when it comes to the crunch
a dead poet’s lunch —
though of course I don’t mean to insult yer.”


Thursday, 23 October 2014


A while ago a friend asked me how the Enigma code machine worked, and I wrote the following brief account, which (if I haven't already put it on this blog; I don't think I have) might be of interest. Underneath is a blurry photograph of such a machine.

You will have seen photographs, I expect, of an enigma machine. It looks much like a portable typewriter, with keys in the usual (well, German) layout. But where the carriage, roller and paper would be is instead an array of little light-bulbs, each labelled with a letter of the alphabet.

The operator takes his written-out plain text message, and painstakingly types it out letter by letter. Each time he strikes a key, a little bulb lights up. Not of course the ‘Right’ bulb. He writes down the letter-name of the bulb that in fact lights up and proceeds to the next letter, and finishes up with a big jumble of letters, which is the encoded message, which is then sent — usually by radio. Enigma machines are, as it were, reversible, so the chap at the other end, who has an identical machine, types out the jumble, and lo and behold his bulbs light up giving the plain-text original message.

So far, so absurdly simple: a simple alphabetic substitution code, with ‘wrong’ letters standing in for the right ones. The sort of code made up, and easily broken, by a certain kind of schoolboy.

BUT now I come to the all-important wheels: let us consider that non-existent thing, a ‘One-wheel’ Enigma machine. In between the keyboard and the bulbs is a wheel, which is in fact a multi-position rotary switch. Each time a key is struck, the wheel turns round one click, changing all the keyboard-to-light-bulb connections, so that, in effect, one gets a new alphabetic substitution code for every encrypted letter. So even if you keep typing the same letter repeatedly, you get a different bulb lighting each time, at least until the wheel has gone all the way round and is back where it started. Now in fact most Enigma machines had a row of three of these wheels, so arranged that when the first wheel had clicked all the way round to its original position, it moved the second wheel on one click — just like the little number wheels in the little odometer (usually called ‘Milometer’) window on the speedo of your old 2CV and no doubt your new Fiat.

But no problem for the chap at the other end, he just carried on as previously described, and got his plain text back again, provided that both machines started with their wheels set to the same positions. Various ingenious ways were used to tell signallers ‘Achtung! Today’s wheel-positions will be so-and-so’.

Well that’s it really. The Krauts were quite convinced this fiendish code was unbreakable, and that was their undoing: they got lazy and would keep using the same wheel-positions day after day, or making other mistakes. This enabled various brilliant people eventually to break the code, though there always remained the problem (when the square-heads used the machines properly) of working out each day’s wheel-positions in time to decode stuff before the next day, when everything would change again.  

Wednesday, 22 October 2014



‘Pafo’ is doctor’s shorthand for ‘Pissed and fell over.’ ‘Picnic’ is computer nerd’s slang for ‘Problem in Chair, not in Computer’. Pisnib? Problem In Saddle, Not In Bike. Some years ago I set out, heavily laden with luggage, on a longish journey on my Velocette Venom. I’d hardly gone five miles when the bike seemed to run out of petrol, so I reached down and opened the other fuel tap. No go. I shook the bike from side to side and heard plenty of fuel sloshing around in the tank. Then I delved for a plug spanner and checked the spark – yes. Now in my not very long book spark + fuel = engine runs. So I kicked the engine over and away I went.

            A few miles later it happened again. This time I didn’t bother getting the plug spanner out, I just waited a few minutes and set off again. It was a hot day; could the engine be overheating, causing magneto failure? I hoped not.

            When it happened again after another five miles I happened to be on a very quiet stretch of road, and I noticed a gentle hissing sound. Oh, no; not a puncture too? The hissing subsided but the tyres seemed fine, so off I went again.

            And it happened again. This time I simply sat on the roadside bank, lit a cigarette, and had a think. (It is not yet as widely realized as it should be what a disastrous effect the current disapproval of smoking is going to have on Man’s inventive capacities.) There was that hissing again. I prodded the tank bag. The hissing stopped. I re-arranged the tank bag so that it no longer covered the little hole in the fuel cap. Problem solved.


Simon Darragh.
This is actually someone else's Velocette Venom; I can't find any pictures of the one I used to have.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Lost Translations

Here's another piece, also written about the same time as yesterday's, and an expansion of some of the things I said there.
Lost Translations


Tavernas offering ‘Kokovan’, tomato paste labelled ‘Oleaginous product’, supermarkets with ‘Incredible Prices’ and – my favourite – a neon sign in Piraeus above a ‘Bar for Semen’. These are some of the little things that persuaded me to become a translator. A much larger thing was a love of Modern Greek poetry. The greats – Cavafy, Seferis, Elytis – had already been done, very well, by Keeley, Sherard, and Connolly, but when I found the fascinating sailor-poet Kavvadias, Alan Ross of London Magazine was enthusiastic. Incidentally the London Magazine remains, under its present editor Sebastian Barker, hospitable to Greek writing in translation. Having published a few of my translations in the magazine, Alan asked for an article about Kavvadias for a special Greek issue, and went on to suggest a volume of his writings in my translations. No money of course, and publication would be dependent on a grant. When it came to permission, I was met by a stone wall: the Greek publisher, after ignoring several letters, finally referred me to the author’s niece, who held the copyright. I went to see her, several times. Each time she claimed to be enthusiastic, and each time she came up with some strange new difficulty. Her trump card was insistence on publication by Faber: ‘After all, they publish T.S. Eliot, and my uncle was at least as good as him.’ Finally Alan lost patience and went ahead anyway. The book got a short review in the TLS, cribbed almost entirely from my introduction, then sank like a drowned sailor-poet, though it’s still available from Enitharmon, London Magazine Editions having died with Alan.

            But I now considered myself a literary translator, joined the Translators Association, handed out business cards, and waited for commissions. I’m still waiting. The only time I’ve been paid for my translations was when the magazine ‘Agenda’ did a Greek issue. This was very pleasing for the contemporary Greek poets involved, one of whom wrote thanking me for ‘liberating’ his poems ‘from the unbearable loneliness of Greek.’

            The last time I checked the figures, the proportion of books published in England that were translations from other languages was about 2%. The corresponding figure in other European countries is 10 or even 20%. Now and again an English publisher will send me a parcel of recent Greek literary fiction, asking my opinion. A few of these books turn out to be very good, so I recommend that the publisher commission a translation, not necessarily by me. I get paid about £50 a book for giving my opinion, and then hear no more. Often when I get in touch to find out what has happened, the person who sent the books has moved on, and no-one knows anything about it.

            Yet Greek writers themselves are clamouring for English publication. If I hadn’t already known this, it was brought home to me very firmly indeed during a three day conference in Athens, when the Greek Ministry of Culture wined and dined assorted English publishers, even taking them on a cruise of the nearest islands. I went as representative of London Magazine. I was even given a badge saying so, which badge I had eventually to remove for my own safety: I was besieged by Greek writers – at least some of them good writers – trying to thrust their manuscripts into my arms. They’d all been published in Greece, but felt like big fish in a small pond.

            Publication in English is the holy grail for Greek authors. The excellent Soti Triantaphyllou went so far as to write one of her novels in English simply to achieve this, yet her great work ‘The Pencil Factory’ remains, in spite of my earnest recommendation to Harper Collins when they sent it to me, unavailable in English. I have often translated work published in Greek simply because I thought it good, and then been unable to interest any English publisher.

            So what is a translator to do? Well, first of all, he or she will need another, paying, job. I have earned my living as a plumber and electrician, and occasionally as a go-between for English speakers who can’t understand Greece, Greek, or Greeks. But whereas people will eventually pay for plumbing and electrical work, they are reluctant to pay someone working his archidia (that’s a Greek word) off translating, interpreting, and being a cultural intermediary, even though I spend many long hours talking to Greeks over glasses of ouzo. (This is called ‘research’; essential if one is to keep up with the rapidly evolving vernacular.)

            Something is wrong somewhere. English publishers are wary of translations; ‘They don’t sell.’ Well, no, not if they represent only 2% of output… Yes, of course, publishers are in the business of selling books, so must give the public what it wants. They might perhaps reflect that it’s unlikely to want what isn’t available.

© 2007 Simon Darragh.

Monday, 20 October 2014

A Day in the Life of a Translator

I wrote the following piece seven years ago; it might still be of interest.
Translators from language A to language B need to spend time in the countries of both languages to keep abreast of sometimes quite rapid linguistic change. In my case A is Greek and B English, so much of the time I’m in a small Greek island, my arrival in which actually pre-dates my becoming a literary translator by a couple of years. When I first went out there it was just to get away from Thatcher’s Britain for a week or two, but I was promptly offered a job with a local builder and soon found myself learning the Greek for such important things as ‘Cement’, ‘Six-inch nail’, ‘Plank’, ‘Not like that you English idiot’ and ‘Time for an ouzo’. Nothing in particular was calling me back to England, so two weeks became two months, and the next year I was back, armed with a Greek-English dictionary and the complete poems of Cavafy. These, a Greek girlfriend, and necessary communication with employers and shop-keepers soon got me fluent in Greek, and then someone in England asked me to translate his Greek grandfather’s autobiography. It was a daunting task, but I enjoyed it, the final result was accepted and published, and lo and behold I could call myself – after joining the Translators Association – a professional translator.

            My day starts gently at 9 a.m., listening to the BBC World Service on an ancient valve-operated communications receiver – the only thing that can get it in these parts. Nothing to make me laugh today, except the usual extraordinary contortions of the Athens correspondent doing his best to mispronounce all Greek words. The Beeb evidently has a policy of employing foreign correspondents who are completely ignorant of the local language.

            Around ten I totter out of bed and go straight to my desk to check in the cold light of day how the last couple of lines of a poetry translation, completed late the night before with whisky glass to hand, looks now. It seems very good: there is something alarming about this; somehow one expects things written under such conditions not to stand later scrutiny, yet they often do.

            After breakfast – Marmite is a comfort for the Englishman abroad – I take one of the motorbikes down to the harbour. First stop is ‘Technokids’ where I catch up on e-mails. Someone is asking for 850 words on the life of a translator, to be delivered by yesterday if not sooner. There’s £50 in it so I say yes.

            Next stop the Post Office – deliveries to my village were abandoned after one day owing to the absence of street names and the unreadable – if you’re Greek – addressees names. Two packets for me, one large and one small, also a month old London Review of Books. Post in the Northern Sporades is like buses in London – nothing for ages, then a whole bunch. Hence the term ‘Sporadic’.

            Time for an ouzo and mezé, so I take my post to the waterfront café. The smaller packet is a thin book of Greek poetry, sent by the London Magazine, whose editor would like to see English translations of one or two poems. They look difficult and obscure, with many archaisms of vocabulary and grammar, but I’ll certainly give it a go; I’ve never forgotten the time a Greek poet wrote to thank me for ‘liberating’ his poetry ‘from the unbearable loneliness of Greek’ when some of my translations of his work appeared in another English literary magazine. The larger packet is four Greek novels sent on by an English publisher – would I read them and report on their suitability for translation? £35 a report, though with the odd proviso that I don’t bother to report on any that seem no good. To judge that I’d surely have to read the thing, but then not get paid for doing so. Oh, well; since most people don’t get paid at all to read novels I’ll do it, especially as one of the books is by the excellent Soti Triantaphyllou, who recently caused a stir by saying she was so fed up with the failure of English language publishers to commission translations that she was thinking of writing her next book in English.

            Back home in the afternoon I slog away – desk piled high with dictionaries – at the next chapter of a ‘novel’ – actually a thinly disguised autobiography – by the Greek poet/sailor Nikos Kavvadias. As usual, after three hours of this I have a list of a dozen doubtful or totally unknown words, so I stop and cook myself some dinner.

            After dinner, off to Panselinos – Full Moon – for a nightcap or two, not forgetting to take my list of strange words. There will be one or two ex-sailors among the local habitués, and in return for a whisky or two there’s a good chance they’ll enlighten me about Greek nautical slang. This is called ‘Doing research’ and is much the most enjoyable part of a literary translator’s otherwise lonely life.


©Simon Darragh 2007.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Ban this Book!


I have had an e-mail from PEN, of which I am of course a member, as all writers should be, asking for my support in a protest against the proposed banning of someone or other’s memoirs. (Albert Speer’s, Auntie Ida’s — it doesn’t matter whose, the principle is the same). Naturally I support the protest — there are never any grounds for banning a book. The purported grounds this time are that publication might cause psychological distress to someone or other. (Again, it doesn’t matter who.)

If we are to ban a book because it might cause someone psychological distress, then we shall have to ban everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the present day. I myself am caused psychological distress by the books — one can hardly call them works — of Jeffrey Archer. Should they therefore be banned? Actually, come to think of it …

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The 48

The other day I mentioned Bach’s ‘48’, also known as ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’: a set, two books of 24 each, (duh) of preludes, each with an associated fugue, for keyboard instruments. So a total of 96 pieces, each of which can stand alone. Why, apart from sheer creative exuberance, of which of course he had plenty, did Bach do this? Was there some special reason? Yes. You see, up to the time of Bach, it was not possible for any one clavier to play decently in all the twenty-four keys — twelve major and twelve minor — possible in western music. If your clavier sounded pretty much in tune in, say, C, it would also be fairly good in the closely related keys of G and F. But if you ventured into, say, A, it began to sound a bit off, and if you had the temerity to try B or D flat it would sound dreadful. Tuners would ask their clients what were their favourite keys, and would tweak their claviers to suit.

But then some ingenious people came up with a way to tune a clavier so that, although no key was absolutely perfect, the ‘offness’ was fairly distributed between the different keys, and only people with very discriminating ears could hear anything wrong, and you could play nicely, on any one instrument so tuned, in all 24 keys. This was a great advance, and Bach celebrated the fact with a set of twenty-four preludes and fugues. Not content with that, he wrote book two, a second complete set. Hence the 48, which has become a standard part of the keyboard repertoire. All pianists aim to reach a level where they can play them all, and many pianists have made complete recordings — the whole 48 will fit onto two CDs, but at the cost of playing some of them at, in my opinion, too high a tempo. I have in my CD collection two complete recordings, both excellent: Keith Jarrett’s, made in 1988, and Angela Hewitt’s, made ten years later.


Friday, 17 October 2014

To Boldly Split Infinitives

The early episodes of the TV series ‘Star Trek’ were well worth watching for the hilarious way they presented American ideology: the unshakeable American conviction that it is not just their right but their duty to ensure that all life in the universe is conducted according to the mores of small-town America. Each episode was preceded by the same voice-over, which contained what soon became the English-speaking World’s most notorious split infinitive, ‘To boldly go’. Indeed, when Penguin brought out a new edition of Eric Partridge’s (I think that was his name) ‘Usage and Abusage’, the cover design was:

            To boldly go?

            To go boldly?

            Boldly to go?

 The thought police, who have evidently never read Shakespeare or indeed any other great English language writer, try to tell us that splitting infinitives — that is to say, putting a word, typically an adverb, between the ‘to’ and the verb stem, is not on, not done in the best circles. Nonsense of course: if it sounds natural and the meaning is clear, go ahead and split your infinitive. In fact, sometimes it’s a good idea to carefully do so, to neatly avoid ambiguity.

At this point I was planning to judiciously quote a little bit of what Kingsley Amis had to entertainingly say on the subject in his very last book, ‘The King’s English’, but I find that he discusses the whole thing far better than me, so I decided to painstakingly scan the entire passage and to carefully paste it in here:

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Off with her Head!

On the 16th of October 1793 Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine. As John Donne said, any man’s death diminishes me, but one rather feels that in this case the loss was small. In fact almost unnoticeable: notoriously, she was the original airhead; there was just nothing there.

What about her most famous remark, ‘Let them eat cake’? Doesn’t that suggest at least a wickedly witty cynicism? Well, it might in someone more knowledgeable. But, told that The People had no bread, she probably just remembered her own childhood: when the baker hadn’t called at the palace by breakfast time, the nursery servants brought in cake instead. Couldn’t the proles just ring the bell, and tell their servant girl to fetch some cake, as nanny did? Necessity is the mother of invention, also of imagination and even simple curiosity. If you have never suffered from want, you’re unlikely to know or care what goes on outside the palace walls.

By the way, it’s not true, as people like to imagine, that Monsieur Guillotin was later hoist with his own petard, so to speak: like almost everybody else, he did get into a bit of trouble during the Terror, but he didn’t lose his head.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

How quickly or slowly should we play Bach?

Today I want to talk of tempi; one of the many things seldom if ever marked in Bach’s actual manuscripts.

In the case of the suites — for solo instrument with or without keyboard accompaniment, for chamber group, or for the small orchestras of the period — we sort of know the tempi: suites are sets of separate movements, perhaps as many as a dozen of them, each based on a popular dance of the period, and in an order dictated by convention. We know, even if Bach hasn’t written it at the top, that next comes, say, a sarabande, and a sarabande is very slow and stately. A gigue — jig —is fastish, jolly and bouncy. And a menuet or minuet, in triple time, is somewhere between staid and sprightly.

But what about the great keyboard works, not usually based on dances? The two- and three-part inventions, and the huge set of preludes and fugues known as the forty-eight? These are the basic classics of the keyboard repertoire and we would like to know — should we play this or that one quickly or slowly?

In my opinion — and it’s not based entirely on my own lack of keyboard dexterity (I’m working on it) — all the recordings take them too fast, especially the preludes. Everyone positively gallops through the D major prelude from book one of the forty-eight, but if you take it slowly you can bring out the sheer lyrical beauty of the perpetuum mobile melody with its falling sevenths; a beauty that is lost when the thing is played at breakneck speed. Besides, if you take it fast, you’re going to find yourself in trouble in the last few bars, where the note values are halved; in effect a doubling of tempo.

What I’d like to hear is a recording of the whole double set, taken really slowly. True, it would probably need four CDs instead of the usual two — (that couldn’t be the reason, could it? Could it?) — but it would be well worth it.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

1066, 1964, 2014.

Abysmal ignorance now being cool and smart, it may no longer be true, but at one time even those like myself who were quite useless at history knew one date — 1066; the Battle of Hastings. It seems it was fought on this day, the 14th of October. It was the turning point in the Norman Conquest; our King Harold got an arrow right through his eye, which surely killed him, though there were rumours of a mysteriously one-eyed mendicant turning up in a monastery a few years later.

I used to have a T-shirt with the picture from the Bayeux Tapestry of poor Harold getting it, and the slogan ‘I spy with my little eye something beginning with A’. Actually the Bayeux Tapestry doesn’t show that particular incident at all.

On the 14th of October 1964, Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

And on the 14th of October 2014, a group of what both the BBC and the VOA called ‘Leading Catholic Bishops’ (I think they meant Roman Catholic) said that their church would henceforth encourage a ‘More positive’ attitude to gay people. Had that vicious mad cow Margaret Thatcher succeeded in her efforts to make the ‘Active promotion’ of homosexuality illegal, we might now be witnessing the amusing scenario of Roman Catholic Bishops being prosecuted for their moral depravity. Though come to think of it…

Monday, 13 October 2014

Written Music

I mentioned the other day the difficulty I had been having in finding the actual written music, the score, the notes, whatever you like to call it, of a piece of music a friend has to learn to play on the piano. These days, to most people ‘Music’ means sound recordings. PCs come equipped with a folder called ‘My Music’ and if you try to throw it away it keeps reappearing. Whatever you put in it is assumed to be a sound recording, it tries to play it, and it takes some ingenuity to convince the computer that actually what you want to keep there is copies, usually in pdf, of printed music. Internet searches for music always offer recordings first, and seem surprised and confused if you try to say ‘No, I mean music, dammit, notes on paper.’ Learning to read music is no longer a standard part of people’s education, and the ability to look at a piece of music on paper and ‘see how it goes’ has become rare, which is a pity as it opens a whole world of enjoyment.

In Bach’s day, composers usually put down just the notes and little else, but nearly all modern editions of his music come with markings of phrase, tempo, dynamics etc. These are often of doubtful authority; usually just the ‘authority’ of playing traditions, which change. When, like me, one is merely an elementary piano pupil, it is as well to take the teacher’s word that, say, passages in quavers ‘should’ be played non-legato and ones in semiquavers legato. But I sometimes waste half my weekly lesson arguing with her, telling her I prefer it like this or that, and why not? I usually back down, telling myself I can play it as I like once I have learnt to play it at all.

I can’t just at the moment find an example of Bach’s original manuscripts for, say, his two-part keyboard inventions, which I am currently struggling with, but here is how he actually wrote the Kyrie from the great Mass in B minor. There’s nothing there but the notes themselves:

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Don’t Shoot the Pianist; She is Doing her Best

The schoolteachers here seem to cultivate an almost preternatural ignorance of all subjects except their own speciality. Fair enough, they should not be required to teach subjects in which they are not experts, but one might expect them to have a layman’s competence in other subjects. At the moment, certain subjects — including ones necessary for university entrance — are simply not being taught at the gymnasio, the intermediate school. Now I’m afraid that in England most pupils would be only too delighted by this, here pupils actually want to be taught those subjects. So the other day, in protest, pupils fitted padlocks to the school doors and refused admittance to staff. They then occupied the school overnight. Yes, it has to be said that this was partly a prank — though as Oscar Wilde said, some things are more than a duty, they are a pleasure — and an extra day off school, but some at least really care about these things. The E.U.’s punishment of Greece for its economic faults is, as usual, hurting the most vulnerable.

Another case of a teacher being ignorant of all but her own subject has just arisen on an individual level: the 17th of November is ‘Polytechnic Day’, on which we remember the brave students of the Athens Polytechnic who were killed for resisting the Papadopoulos dictatorship. One of the teachers here has decided that on that day pupils will gather at the Town Hall to sing a song relevant to the occasion. ‘Oh, and you can play the piano for it!’ she added to a pupil who is learning to play. She is not a music teacher, but surely she should know better than to think that it is just a matter of sitting down and playing. Quite apart from the fact that the Town Hall piano is a crime against music and virtually unplayable even by an expert, where is the music, meaning the written notes? And what are the chances of a comparative beginner being able to learn it in time, even were we to find the music, which is proving elusive? (The internet has not really helped, because however you hedge a search about with words like pdf, partitura, notes, written music etc., search engines insist on assuming that what you ‘really’ want (because it’s what most people want) is a video of someone singing the song, or at best a set of guitar chords.) And anyway, as I suggested above, the ability to just play a tune after one or two hearings it is rare, and usually possessed only by a kind of idiot savant who can’t read music and knows nothing of keys and harmony, but can nevertheless keep a pub entertained all evening, vamping away at all the old favourites and often, on request, new tunes. It’s not usually something even an advanced serious learner can do.

Which reminds me: such a chap was thumping away in the pub when a customer, looking over that way, noticed the pianist’s flies were undone. ‘Dear me,’ he thought; ‘I’d better discreetly tell him.’ So over he goes, leans down, and says quietly ‘Do you know your flies are undone?’ ‘No, but hum a few bars and I’ll try and fake it.’


Friday, 10 October 2014

The Saint Louis Blues

It’s now a hundred years since W.C. Handy wrote the thing, and it remains the number that springs to everybody’s mind when they think of ‘The Blues’.

Yet it isn’t even, technically, a blues, except episodically. It’s something much more complicated, as anyone who’s tried to play it will know. One section is even in a Latin American rhythm instead of the standard duple or quadruple beat of the classic blues. Classic blues has (have?) a formality far greater than that of, say, sonata form; greater even than fugue. Oddly, (if you’re not a musician), it is this very rigidity of form that makes it just the thing for easy improvisation: one knows exactly when the harmonies will change, and what to. The clumsiest jazz player can play a twelve-bar blues at a comfortable tempo all night long, and probably will if you don’t stop him.

In those hundred years there have of course been many hundred recordings of the Saint Louis Blues, and all different. By far the most remarkable remains the one made in January 1925 by the greatest of all blues singers Bessie Smith. I first heard it, with the force of revelation, when I was sixteen, and it still amazes me. Bessie Smith is accompanied by Fred Longshaw on what record labels usually call a harmonium, but is in fact an American Organ. (Both are keyboard reed instruments running on foot-operated bellows and often used in country churches — the difference is that in the harmonium the air is sucked through the reeds, and in the American Organ blown, which allows for greater dynamic range.) Oh, and the cornet obbligato is played by the 24-year-old Louis Armstrong.

Thursday, 9 October 2014


Hallowe'en - All Hallow's Eve - is, at least in the Church of England calendar, the 31st of October, and there is a number of traditions - not very Christian - associated with it. That night, ghosts are said to walk abroad, especially in churchyards. People like to fool around, having parties and dressing up in ghosty stuff, and of course the Americans have corrupted it into an opportunity for children to be more than usually nauseating so that they have to be bribed with sweets or money to go away.
It's  a while until Hallowe'en yet, but to get readers into the right mood, here is a couple of skeletons, from the British Museum's collection:

The one on the left is, apart from the wonky left knee and the dislocated jaw, that of a fairly normal human.
The one on the right is that of a prominent Conservative Cabinet Minister.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Unacceptable Face of Capitalism

Is there an acceptable one? I hope the author (artist, whatever one says) of the cartoon below won't mind my blatant breach of copyright in posting here his excellent cartoon. As I found it on the internet I assume it is already in the public domain and that he has been paid for his work. It caught my eye because it mentions two of the worst offenders: Microsoft, whose stranglehold on the computer operating system market means we are all but forced to use a system that is merely a cheap rip-off of the earlier excellent Macintosh system, (Macintosh thenselves, ironically, gave up the struggle long ago and made their later systems mere copies of that copy) and Starbucks, which is corrupting the vestigial English taste for real coffee. A friend of mine recently, for the first and of course last time, bought an alleged cappuccino in a branch of Starbucks and took it back because she assumed they had simply forgotten to put any coffee in. 'No, that's how people like it,' she was told.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Dead Poets

The English poet, and translator Into English of German Poetry, Michael Hamburger, died a couple of years ago. He was after all in his eighties, but even so it was a great loss. I think 'Wild and Wounded' was his last book; here is a review I wrote for, I think, the London Magazine:



Michael Hamburger, ‘Wild and Wounded’ Anvil, 84 pp., £7.95


Anyone lucky enough to have heard Michael Hamburger reading his own poems or his translations of others’, or talking about poetry and translation with asides on the idiocies of twenty-first century society, will think ‘Wild and Wounded’ — it could be a Tom Waits song — an appropriate title for this eightieth birthday collection. Yeats hoped to be remembered as a ‘Foolish, passionate man’; Hamburger will be remembered as combining passion with an incisive analytical intelligence which gives his English versions of such difficult poetry as Paul Celan’s their unmistakable authority.

All translators of poetry must themselves be — more or less — poets, and in Hamburger’s case it is more rather than less, as he has shown with earlier volumes and a Collected of ten years ago. There have been several other volumes since that Collected, and I would particularly recommend ‘Late’, an extended meditation on matters autumnal.

What is particularly striking about the poems in this collection is their similarity to those of Gerard Manley Hopkins. For all that it is now 160 years since the birth of Hopkins, his idiosyncracies of alliteration, assonance, and particularly syntax have resisted absorption by twentieth-century poets; any attempt at imitiation comes out as parody. It takes a poet of maturity and great technical skill to take these things and make them his own, but just as the last chamber works of Schubert show the influence of the late Beethoven quartets yet are quintessential Schubert, so these poems keep reminding us of Hopkins while being unmistakably by Hamburger. If for nothing else — and there is a great deal else — then the poetry here will be remembered for its successful coming to terms with that strange and difficult work with an ease and naturalness that were perhaps what Hopkins was desperately seeking.

Like ‘Late’, ‘Wild and Wounded’ is valedictory, perhaps ominously so, indeed the last poem is called ‘Ave Atque Vale’. One hopes Michael Hamburger will be with us for a while yet. English letters — German too — will be poorer for his passing.

Simon Darragh.

Monday, 6 October 2014

The Platonic Heaven

Plato believed that heaven must contain the ideal versions — the Platonic Forms — of everything on Earth. He ran into problems when someone asked about such things as mud and hair (It seems he found hair repulsive, indeed rebarbative) and he didn’t mention second-hand bookshops, perhaps because the codex — the form of book we are used to — had not yet been invented. However, if there is a second-hand bookshop in heaven (and if there isn’t I’m not going; not that I’m likely to be invited) it must surely be something like Leakey’s in Inverness, a postcard of which I have just received:


Sunday, 5 October 2014

Lightning Strikes Again

It is said that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. There is actually no special reason why it shouldn’t, and indeed there is a house near mine here in Greece that has been twice struck by lightning while I’ve been here; local people tell me there have been other strikes there before. Electric charges seek the best and quickest route to earth, so if something pokes up above its surroundings it’s likely to get struck by lightning. That’s why it’s not such a good idea to shelter from the storm under a lone tree in the middle of a field. So in fact lightning is really quite likely to strike in the same place twice.

Following my first post about lightning, my most faithful reader has written in with some questions, which I shall now try to answer:

Does that mean that electric lights make a tiny noise all the time? What causes the high-pitched noise that bulbs sometimes make, just before they stop working?

That’s two questions. To the first: Well no; normal or traditional light-bulbs, in which electricity passes through a thin wire (the ‘filament’), thus heating it up, don’t make a noise, or shouldn’t. It’s when electricity jumps across a gap that you get a spark, and as I said lightning is just a very big spark. To the second: If a bulb makes a high-pitched noise just before it burns out, it’s probably because the filament is already broken, but the electricity is managing for a while to jump across the break, thus making continual mini-lightning until it gives up.


Is it true that the number of seconds in between thunder and lightning is the distance in miles of how far away the centre of the storm is? (Because light travels faster than sound?)

Something like that. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second, so we can forget the time it takes to reach us. But sound travels much more slowly. I can’t remember its speed, but indeed the time between the lightning flash and the sound it makes — the thunder — does enable one to work out how far away the centre of the storm is.


I didn’t do the cat experiment (you probably knew I wouldn’t). Am I right in thinking that the electrons would jump from any knuckle that was near her nose, not just to one connected to the body doing the stroking? Why nose rather than, say, tail?

Well yes I suppose any knuckle, or better still the central heating radiator or other large metal object, should the cat be close enough to it, would do nicely. And the nose is just more fun for cat-surprisers.


Negative electrons jump from earth to the cloud (to restore the balance with the positive charge of the molecules’ nuclei, that I understand), so I would have thought that the flash of lightning went the same way (i. e. upwards), but you say the reverse in para 3, or that it doesn’t matter. I thought lightning conductors on tall buildings funnelled the lightning safely down to earth, but if the electrons are travelling up towards the clouds, surely the surge of power would go the same way? I don’t understand.

That’s two questions. When we see a lightning flash it’s not really the electrons we see but rather the air, which has been heated white-hot by the passage of the electrons. And indeed I suppose you can say that the lightning flash goes from earth to ground, though in fact I suspect that there’s a sort of very rapid to-and-fro movement. I did in fact make one or two corrections to my post in an after-thought called ‘Oops!’

The electric charge on a body tends to spread itself evenly over the surface, especially if the body is roundish. It tends however to concentrate on any pointy bits. So a big roundish thing could build up a huge charge, so that when it finally discharges it can cause quite a bit of damage. From a pointy thing it will discharge sooner, and so at a lower voltage, and so cause less damage. And the lightning conductor can be on the building rather than (somewhat inconveniently) on the cloud, because a positively charged cloud passing over, say, a church tower is, electrically, equivalent to the tower’s having a negative charge. If you look carefully at the picture in the previous post you will see that the lightning hitting the top of the Eiffel Tower is a lot ‘thinner’ than the fat distant strike which was presumably to some less pointed object. The Eiffel Tower must surely have a lightning conductor on it.

Readers will have gathered that science and technology are among my interests, though I have many others. Here is something I am working on just now that combines a number of my interests:


Saturday, 4 October 2014

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.

Perhaps Dr Johnson was wrong, perhaps things have changed, perhaps most writers are blockheads, perhaps all three.

What about selling, as opposed to writing, books? Well, I can remember when bookshops were run and staffed by people who were more interested in books than money. Nowadays of course, with few exceptions, it’s the opposite. Waterstone’s, which is very often the only bookshop you can find because the little ones have been eaten up by them and Amazon, is sometimes infuriating and sometimes hilarious in its sheer ignorance of books except as money-making devices. Some examples:

When the philosopher Richard Wollheim, under whom I’d studied at London University, died, I went to Waterstones to get his posthumously published partial autobiography ‘Germs’. I asked an assistant who spoke very little English; she was a healthy sporty-looking young German woman. ‘Is a sports book’ she said. (Not a question, a statement.) ‘Oh no,’ I said; ‘not at all.’ ‘Yes, is a sports book.’ Becoming a little impatient I said ‘Well all right then, show me.’ She strode over to the sports section with me meekly following and triumphantly pulled out the book. I didn’t argue; I’d got the book I came for, which is an achievement in Waterstone’s.

Waterstone’s keeps ‘The History of Paisley Design’ under ‘Northern Ireland Politics’.

The Times Atlas of the World is, they think, what they call a ‘TV Tie-in’.

Marco Pierre White’s cookery book ‘White Heat’ is in ‘Engineering’.

Best of all, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ comes under ‘Self-Help’.


Friday, 3 October 2014

Woody Guthrie and Little Nell

Perhaps because everyone said I ‘must’ read him — and when I hear the word ‘must’ I ‘moularono’[1] — I never read Dickens when I was young, but I’m making up for it now, and probably enjoying him all the more for coming to him late in life.

But even now, when I hope I’ve learnt that being told I ‘must’ do something is not always a good reason to refuse, force of circumstance played a part: just as, about thirty years ago, I was ‘forced’ to try Jane Austen again by being stuck in Bangla Desh with nothing to read but ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (which I had been quite literally forced to read at fourteen at school, presumably in an attempt to make me as philistine and oafish as my teachers), so, about twenty years ago, I was ‘forced’ at last to read Dickens by being stuck in an empty Greek village with no book but ‘Great Expectations’; surely Dickens’s masterpiece.

I had to give up ‘David Copperfield’ when the hero — and all too evidently Dickens as well — got infatuated with some totally vapid girl living in Highgate. (In my experience that part of London specializes in such creatures) and now I’m trying ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’. I can only hope Little Nell will turn out to be less emetic than the nauseating young women in some of his other novels. As Oscar Wilde said — I’m quoting from memory so this is inexact — ‘He must have a heart of stone who can read the Death of Little Nell without laughing.’


On this day, the third of October, in 1967, Woody Guthrie died.



[1] Literally ‘Do a mule’ — a Greek verb, meaning obvious to anyone with experience of the beasts.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

John Wilmot, Lord Rochester

The above-named seventeenth century gentleman wrote poetry, much of which people found shocking at the time; some still do. Here is an example:




Fair Chloris in a pigsty lay,

Her tender herd lay by her:

She slept, in murmuring gruntlings they,

Complaining of the scorching day,

Her slumbers thus inspire.


She dreamt, while she with careful pains,

Her snowy arms employed,

In ivory pails to fill out grains,

One of her love-convicted swains,

Thus hastening to her cried:


Fly, nymph, oh! fly, e’re tis too late,

A dear-loved life to save:

Rescue your bosom pig from fate,

Who now expires, hung in the gate

That leads to yonder cave.


My self had tried to set him free,

Rather than brought the news:

But I am so abhorred by thee,

That even thy darling’s life from me,

I know thou wouldst refuse.


Struck with the news, as quick she flies

As blushes to her face:

Not the bright lightning from the skies,

Nor love, shot from her brighter eyes,

Move half so swift a pace.


This plot, it seems, the lustful slave

Had laid against her honour:

Which not one God took care to save,

For he pursues her to the cave,

And throws himself upon her.


Now pierced is her virgin zone,

She feels the foe within it;

She hears a broken amorous groan,

The panting lover’s fainting moan,

Just in the happy minute.


Frighted she wakes, and waking frigs,

Nature thus kindly eased,

In dreams raised by her murmuring pigs,

And her own thumb between her legs,

She’s innocent and pleased.