Thursday, 30 April 2015

Idiopathic Hypersomnia

Sounds pretty impressive. Doctors — at least in England — are many of them still, I’m afraid, among the worst, or best, of bullshit artists: they bamboozle their patients with long words. I suppose it’s some deep-seated insecurity; a secret fear that perhaps being a doctor isn’t such a big deal after all. (And let me say at once that I for one think being a doctor is a very big deal indeed.)

My uncle — I can talk more freely about this now it’s been a couple of years since he popped his clogs — had a tendency to fall briefly asleep at inappropriate moments. Sometimes it would happen in concerts, and not because, like the Mayor and Corporation hogging the front row because they’re obliged to be there but are bored stiff — Tony loved ‘serious’ music; he was president of one of the better provincial orchestras — and then he would snore, and wake up with a disruptive start. Even as a child, in pre-war working-class Hull, he would fall asleep in class, and the teachers were told not to be cross but to let him sleep on — a surprisingly liberal attitude for the time and place.

Anyway, it continued all his life, and he would see specialists about it. He wanted them to prescribe him various speedy drugs to keep him awake, and they always refused, to his indignation. He didn’t know, hadn’t been told, though it was obvious to anyone who had seen the condition in him and others, that he was hypomanic, so that taking speed could be disastrous.

I would sometimes pop in to see him, especially in the last few years of his life, when he was deaf and his spine had crumbled but he would still totter around with a Zimmer frame. I had my own key — he might be upstairs downloading Rachmaninov, he might be fast asleep over a cold cup of tea in the kitchen, and either way he wouldn’t hear the doorbell and it would be hard for him to get to the door if he did.

One afternoon I found him in very cheerful mood: ‘Oh, Simon, they’ve finally found out what’s wrong with me!’ ‘Oh, yes?’ ‘Yes! It’s called — ’ (and here he fished out a scrap of paper and painstakingly read it aloud) — ‘Idiopathic Hypersomnia!’ ‘Well, well, Tony, that is good news; at last you know what you’ve got!’

Of course I didn’t tell him that ‘Idiopathic Hypersomnia’, translated out of the medical miscegenation of Latin and Greek, means ‘A personal tendency to sleep too much.’

Wednesday, 29 April 2015


‘Spokespersons’ are people employed by large organizations — Governments, International Charities, Big Business — to make announcements to the public, usually via ‘The Media’ (newspapers, television, radio). Obviously, they need to be masters or mistresses of at least one language, and to be, like the very few schoolteachers one really liked, good at explaining things.

Until this morning, my favourite spokesperson quotation was by a lady speaking on behalf of the American Government. I can’t remember what it was she was informing the public about, but it doesn’t matter, because she said

‘We shall continue to monitor the situation and to consider appropriate action.’

Until this morning, I said. Today, a spokesperson for the United Nations, referring to relief efforts following the Nepalese earthquake, said:

‘It’s a race against a moving target.’

Monday, 27 April 2015

The Great Stink

In the nineteenth century, when the stench of London’s almost non-existent drains penetrated the perceptions of even the denizens of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, right beside the open sewer of the Thames, the civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette was commissioned to design and build a huge network of underground sewers. With Victorian efficiency he built tunnels tall enough for a man to stand upright in, and the system has remained in use, with routine maintenance, to this day.

However, just recently, there was a serious blockage in Kensington, where the rich people live, served by expensive fashionable restaurants. Workers were sent down to investigate and discovered a ten-ton lump of congealed fat. Comment seems superfluous.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Reports of my Death are Greatly Exaggerated

Thus Mark Twain when newspapers published his obituary too soon.

There is a Norwegian chap called Stavros here in the island. Not his real name of course, but Stavros is easier to pronounce. He is a little older than I am and we both have respiratory problems. Nevertheless we both walk every day — though not, except by chance, at the same time — to the little church of John the Baptist; about a mile there and a mile back. The path passes by the place Fat Maria — a woman of spectacular stupidity who knows, and relays with relish, all the local gossip — keeps her goats, just past the ancient alonia or threshing floors.

Stavros has a Ukranian girlfriend, and they spent the winter in Mariopol, a city not noted for pure air, and Stavros got very ill. In fact, a rumour reached the island that he’d died. Then we heard he would be arriving back in the island on the next day’s ferry, so it was assumed this would be in a box and the sexton hastily dug a suitable hole in the little cemetery just outside the village.

Antonio drove down to meet the ferry and bring the box up, while well-wishers gathered at the cemetery to see Stavros into the earth. Antonio was surprised to see Stavros walking — albeit slowly, with a stick — down the gangplank. They drove up together to the cemetery and there was general rejoicing: it’s usual after a burial for the mourners to go for drinks to a nearby taverna, and of course they all did, the only difference this time being that the late lamented was present in body as well as spirit.

The next day Stavros set out on his usual walk. Maria was sitting on the ground knitting, surrounded by her goats. When she looked up and saw Stavros approaching up the footpath, she gaped, screamed, dropped her knitting, and ran off as fast as her fat little legs would carry her.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

The Invisibility of the Translator

In a way, the fact that people claim to have read Dostoevsky, or Proust, yet know not a word of Russian or French, is a tribute to the literary translator; the Constance Garnetts and Scott-Moncrieffs  whom most readers don’t even notice. Until recently translators, if mentioned at all, were commended for their invisibility, their blandness: if reviewers said anything at all about their work, it was likely to be ‘The translation flows smoothly’, as if a book were a gentle river and never a raging torrent, a cataract, a meandering towards an estuary, a stagnant marsh…

Things are changing, though even now people one had thought intelligent turn out to think that foreign novels get into English without human agency. Yesterday I heard of a corresponding ignorance about interpreting: I was talking with Aris Laskaratos, an Athens publisher specializing in editions in other languages of works by well- (and lesser-) known Modern Greek writers. Aris has sometimes to attend conferences which are addressed by people of various nationalities in their own languages. Off to one side there is of course a row of interpreters with headsets, busily turning the speeches into other languages — believe me, it needs a cool head, mental agility, and great skill in at least the ‘target’ language — and members of the audience too can have headphones and a little thing like a portable radio, with buttons for the language of one’s choice, relaying the voice of the relevant interpreter.

During a coffee-break (it’s always out of the conference hall that the more interesting things happen), Aris — an old hand at such dos — was approached by a less experienced (or perhaps plain stupid) colleague: ‘Tell me, Ari, where can I buy one of those little boxes? I want one for my mother: she watches lots of foreign television, but she can’t understand the words…’

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Poetry is the kiss of death to the blog

As always, my putting a poem or two in the blog, foreign ones to boot, and even writing about them, has caused readership to plummet. Undeterred, today I give you one of mine; one I had forgotten but just found again in a corner of my computer:



Hard to Follow

I’m trying to bury Seamus Heaney.
I’ve dug the hole and put in some carrots —
earthy root vegetable, edible raw —
(potatoes might make a bad impression —
‘Back to the bog, you upstart Mick!’)

But he keeps popping out, smiling, to say
how pleased he is to be back in the soil.
Of course, I realize he couldn’t say
this, or the other, from under the sod.
Still, ‘Yes, yes, Seamus. Lie down now.’
Simon Darragh.
Putting a picture in often rescues the readership figures, so here's one of another Irish writer, J.M. Synge

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

About that French poem, just posted:

Here it is again, in, I hope, more legible form:

Clément Marot

Marot was born in Cahors in 1495, and died — lonely, having been exiled from his native France on suspicion of being ‘sympathetic to reform’ — in Turin in 1544.

At one time I lived in Athens with a French woman. Her English used to make me laugh; my French used to make her cry. We communicated mostly in Greek. At the time it was the fashion among some property owners painstakingly to restore their old neo-classical houses, and among others to tear them down and replace them with something in marble-faced concrete. Many of the houses being demolished had plaster statuary in their porches or gardens, and I would discreetly rescue some of this at dead of night. I got a headless Venus de Milo — I found the head on a later foray — and an elegantly lichen-covered plaster dog, about the size of a fox. This I tottered home with after Jeanne had gone to bed and placed in the middle of the living-room floor, for her to find in the morning, with the following poem copied out and stuck under his front paws:




Damoiselle que j’aime bien,
Je te donne, pour la pareille,
Tes étrennes d’un petit chien,
Qui n’est pas plus grand que l’oreille:
Il jappe, il mord, il fait merveille,
Et va déjà tout seul trois pas.
C’est pour toi que je l’appareille,
Excepté que je ne l’ai pas.

Though not as bad in this respect as modern Greek, French tends to use more syllables than English to say ‘the same thing’. (I hope anyone who has come this far now sees the reasons for the inverted commas). The choice then in translating poetry is between padding, or shortening the lines. Concision being of the essence of poetry I usually prefer the latter. Besides, the difference in syllable-count is reflected in the common metres of each language’s poetry: where French likes Alexandrines and Greek a fifteen-syllable line, the common metres of English poetry are eight or ten syllables long.


I was woken in the early hours by the unmistakable sound of a person tripping and falling heavily onto a tiled floor, followed by a shriek of terror. The astute reader will have guessed what had happened.


New Year’s Gift


Well-beloved girl,
My present for New Year:
A little canine churl
No bigger than your ear.
He’d bark, do tricks, and bite,
Take three steps at one trot,
And all for your delight,
Except that I forgot.

…But I Know What I Like

The other day an Englishman (I think) who is, among other things, a professor of French Literature wrote to say he agreed with much I had said about the business of Literary Translation. Personally I speak French ‘Vachement’; that is to say, much as a cow speaks Spanish. Thus (in true British fashion) totally unqualified, I set about translating a French poem. A mediæval French poem to boot. Here you are:

I'm afraid the poem has come out almost illegible, which may be just as well. It's possible that if you click on it you might be able to enlarge it into legibility.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Is Poetry What Gets Lost in Translation?

Translation versus Translation Theory


I was translating Modern Greek Poetry into English – partly for love of Greek poetry, partly for interested friends – for several years before it occurred to me that my translations might be worthy of publication. To my pleased surprise some of them were, so being a believer in trade unionism, as soon as I started earning money at it and had embarked, at an editor’s invitation, on a book-length project, I joined the TA.

            A little later I attended my first translators’ conference, at (of course) U.E.A. I expected to hear translators reading from, and discussing the difficulties encountered in making, translations of particular works, and indeed there was some of that. But what there was far more of was people – I’m not sure if they were translators – giving long and complicated, though sometimes fascinating, talks on ‘Translation Theory’. Typically, these did not refer to individual works or even individual languages, except by way of illustrative example. Very interesting, I thought; but is it any more likely to make me a better translator than, say, a study of moral philosophy to make me a better person?

            By the end of the first full day of that first conference my interest was fighting a losing battle with bafflement. What was this vast intellectual superstructure for? It didn’t seem to me likely to help in the actual business of translation, indeed I thought that the way it had been plonked down and built up over that business made it a hindrance. In the evening, over a bottle (or two or three) of wine I rashly said roughly this to some fellow drinkers. One or two nodded vigorously but said nothing, but some others got very heated, until one of them got really cross and told me I didn’t know what I was talking about and should shut up. As I was new to the business I suppressed the thought that hitting a raw nerve so quickly and easily suggested I might be on to something. From then on I did indeed shut up, and decided I had better read all I could find on translation theory, and attend (but quietly and deferentially) more translators’ conferences. I would also of course continue translating.

            At the conferences and in the books I found, as before, much that was interesting but irrelevant, and much that was mere intellectual flight of fancy reminiscent of medieval schoolmen. There was a lot of talk about something all translators had surely already long known: the ways in which a word or phrase, when shifted into another language, carries only its ‘literal’ meaning but loses, or acquires quite different, associations for the reader; the related matter of how a phrase, when paraphrased into something that ‘ought’ to mean the same thing (whatever that is) can turn out to mean something entirely different. Sometimes talking and writing about this could get very convoluted; I heard some very tortured and often frankly faulty logic. Not one of the speakers or writers gave any evidence of having read the short works of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell in which the bases of these difficulties had, a century earlier and very lucidly, been exposed and explained precisely and concisely.[1]

            To his credit, perhaps the most famous of translation theorists, after reading a paper on what he called ‘residues’, agreed with me that nearly all he’d just said could be, and had been, explained by the older and more familiar terms ‘Denotation’ and ‘Connotation’; ‘I don’t think it really matters what you call them.’ He went on to tell me jolly stories of a famous jazz violinist to whom I’d guessed he was related.

            Then there was the person who read a paper on the translation of jokes: like others I’d gone hoping to hear a few, but no chance: she sat firmly behind a desk from whose surface she never once looked up as she read the dull paper in a dull monotone. No jokes, and no hint on how to translate them. The essence of translation is communication.

            It’s not always like that of course: sometimes things happen at conferences that are far from translation theory, and so more helpful. These are most often outside the conference rooms, but, staying with jokes, there was the workshop given by a lady who translates the ‘Asterix’ books, who set us to actually translating jokes. Best of all was the lady who had had the job of translating Monty Python scripts for Swedish Television. Significantly, she started – after playing ‘The Liberty Bell’ on her cassette machine – by saying that she ‘Knew nothing about translation’: she went on to prove, hilariously, that she knew a great deal about translation; she just didn’t know she knew it. That’s my point: one doesn’t need to.

            I don’t go to translation conferences much now, and am more selective in the books I read about translation. Nothing I ever heard or read – and it was a lot – did anything to modify my original tentatively held idea about translation: that it is, above all, an intuitive process, and the gift for translation might be related to, but is distinct from, gifts for foreign languages. First you translate, then, if you like, you can theorize.

            I don’t think translation theory is a complete waste of time except, paradoxically, for the practising translator. Translation theory is fascinating and gives us interesting ideas, some of which may be genuine insights into the ways languages work. It might even bring illumination to a translator who is puzzled about what he or she has just done – after it is done – but I think more than a small dose of it is likely to make him or her into a worse rather than better translator. I’m afraid this is already happening; sometimes in reading recent English translations of foreign novels I am brought up short by chunks of inelegant writing showing the marks of ill-digested theory.

            The relation between translation and translation studies is like that between music and musicology. One can be a practising musician or one can be a musicologist, and indeed many people, finding they had only small talents for music making, have become fine musicologists. And some good musicians also do some musicology, but that this makes them better performers is doubtful. What is certain is that all the musicology in the world will never make you into a musician. As a famous opera singer said, ‘Either you got the voice or you don’t got the voice.’


©Simon Darragh 2009.

[1] I particularly recommend Frege’s Über Sinn und Bedeutung, which can be found in various English translations, usually with the title On Sense and Reference.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Dives of Beirut (again).

Yesterday I gave you my English translation of a poem by Cavafy; a poem that might be said to sit on some critically-imagined border between his Historical Poems and his Naughty Poems. I didn't however give you the original Greek, which was remiss of me; one should always be able to see the original even if one doesn't know its language. My excuse is that I was very tired. Here it is, scanned from my copy of the complete, or at least the canonical, poems; the first book I bought in Greece: (the second was a Greek-English dictionary).

Friday, 17 April 2015

In the Dives…

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


The above is my translation of a poem by Cavafy. It was not included by the young Greek girls who read some of Cavafy’s poems, in both the original and in David Connolly’s excellent new English translations (published in Athens by Aiora), so I was going to read it, in both languages, myself, but somehow there wasn’t time. So, since it has been a few days since I wrote a blog entry, here it is now. And here’s a picture of Cavafy himself; ‘The old poet of the city’, as Lawrence Durrell called him in his Alexandria Quartet:


Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Gone to Psychiatrist: Your Dinner is in the Washing-Machine

Just as Jews have a special license to make Jewish jokes — they always know the best ones — those who are or have been ‘Mentally Ill’ (Madness is not an illness; it is just madness) are allowed to make jokes about it.

I soon got the hang of it in my first mental hospital. We would surround the shy, nervous new admission in a friendly way: ‘So. D’you like it here?’ ‘Oh. Yes, yes…’ they would reply eagerly. ‘Then you must be mad’ and we would all fall about in the special cackling laughter one hears in such places, in which they would usually join. Only very rarely would they burst into tears, in which case we would of course comfort them, if not with apples, then with the tea and sweet biscuits which are always in endless supply in mental hospitals.

Mad people are usually neither stupid nor wiltingly hypersensitive. On the contrary, madness tends to affect the above-averagely intelligent, and you’ve got to be pretty robust — mentally if not physically — to survive it.

Some doctors and even psychiatrists seem not to know this, but nursing staff always do. When I was in the psychiatric ward of a large general hospital in Southend (don’t ask) but was allowed out provided I didn’t stay away too long, I used to tell the nursing staff ‘I’m going for a walk to the end of the pier.’ (pause for effect.) ‘When I get to the end, I plan to turn round, and walk back here.’ They liked that.

One day while I was in that same hospital the blood-donor van came and set up shop next door. I went along to give my half-litre and the nurse who was taking it asked where I lived. ‘Well, just at the moment, in the psychiatric ward next door.’ ‘Oh, what for?’ ‘Suicidal depression. But don’t worry, I’m not about to kill myself right here.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I don’t mind if you do, because then we could have all your blood.’

Monday, 13 April 2015

Pots and Kettles

In the USA, a white policeman can abuse, beat up, and even shoot to death a black man, claim he was acting in self-defence, and get away with it. Only if someone has caught the scene on video will he be in trouble.

The USA authorities send people they suspect of planning terrorism to other countries, to be tortured by other people. It does however keep a special enclave in, of all places, Cuba, where it imprisons people without trial or even charge and practices ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ (that’s what torture is called when Americans do it) on them.

In the USA, people are framed for murders they didn’t commit, kept under sentence of death for as long as 28 years, then, following an absurdly delayed retrial, released. (That’s black people of course.)

Now, President Obama — the token black Uncle Tom the USA has chosen to ‘reassure’ its people that all is well — has deigned to make friendly overtures to Raoul Castro of Cuba. He’s hoping to talk to him about Cuba’s human rights record.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

The Invisible Poet

The less visible the poet, the more visible (and so often the better) the poetry. A week or two ago I gave here an example of a poem by our present Poet Laureate, and compared it with an extract from a poem by an earlier Laureate. Now that might have been unfair; it may be that the Carol Ann Duffy poem I quoted was not one of her best, and it may be that the Tennyson verses were among his best. I should perhaps have expressed my dislike, indeed disapproval, of Duffy, and my admiration for Tennyson in more general or abstract terms; the sort of terms a really good critic (which I don’t claim to be) might use. I remembered however that TS Eliot had said what I should have liked to say, and far better than I could, but I couldn’t remember just where he’d said it. This morning I came across it again, in his collection of essays ‘The Sacred Wood’:

‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.’

Saturday, 11 April 2015

A Movable Feast

No, not a picnic basket, nor Hemingway’s book about Paris. ‘Movable Feast’ is the Christian church’s term for a festival whose actual date varies. Easter is such a feast, and not just because it has to fall on a Sunday, and Good Friday has to be (duh) a Friday; that would limit the variation to a week, but it’s much wider. I can’t claim to be in on the arcana of the calculations; the protestants and Roman Catholics have one way of working it out in common, and the Greek Orthodox another one entirely. As for the Old Calendarist Orthodox, no doubt they have their own way too.

Orthodox and Protestant/Catholic Easter coincide once every four years; this year Orthodox Easter is a week after Protestant/Catholic, but sometimes the difference is as much as a month. Whenever I ask anyone how Orthodox Easter is calculated, he or she says ‘Well it’s got something to do with the moon’, but they don’t say what. This year, however, I find a clue in my Greek diary: Orthodox Easter coincides with the start of the last quarter of the moon. Now when the last quarter of the moon starts, it rises at midnight. (Proper, sidereal midnight, i.e. half-way between sunset and sunrise, whatever the clock says.) And in the Orthodox tradition, the resurrection of Christ is celebrated, with much ringing of bells, fireworks, and in some parts of Greece gunshots and even sticks of dynamite tossed playfully about, on the dot of midnight between Saturday and Sunday.

Here — yes, I know I’ve put it in the blog before — is Piero della Francesca’s painting of the terrifying original event:

Friday, 10 April 2015

Our Noble Boys in Blue

I never thought the day would come when I had a word to say in favour of mobile phones or ‘Social Media’ such as Facebook. Now it has.

We have been suffering from ‘Indignation Fatigue’: the scenario in which in America a white policeman abuses, beats up, even kills an unarmed black man, tells self-justifying lies when and if called to account, and is completely exonerated has become so common that our indignation centres are having to take a little rest; we just think wearily ‘Oh, God, not again.’

But just recently, witnesses have been filming such episodes on their mobile phones. They then post the film on a ‘Social Medium’ such as Facebook, where, as they say, it ‘goes viral’. (This curious and unpleasant expression just means ‘becomes popular’, ‘is looked at by many people’: I suppose you could say that Michael Jackson, for instance, or a royal wedding, ‘went viral’, unless of course you prefer to speak good English.) When this happens, not even the people who are supposed to police the police have the chutzpah to pretend to believe the policeman’s story, and they have to actually seem to punish him. Now, if you’re a white policeman and you shoot a black boy taking soft drinks and crisps home to his parents, you may get your wrist slapped and be told not to do it too often.

Only, of course, if there is evidence, such as a video recording, that can’t be ignored: ‘Mere’ verbal evidence from a dozen bystanders will be discounted — especially if they are black — in favour of the policeman’s story. (That happens in England too, as I know to my cost).

It’s shocking, but we have to accept it: policemen will misbehave, and then tell lies about it, unless the rest of us watch and record what they are doing. Journalists — the good ones anyway — have always been guardians of our liberties. Now we see that so, too, are mobile phones and Facebook.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Comrade, Can You Spare a Kopeck?

The first responsibility of Alexis Tsipras is of course to the people of Greece, who have suffered nothing this bad since the wartime occupation by Germany, when all the food, not to mention the gold reserves,  were taken to the Fatherland.  If the richer countries of Europe which welcomed Greece with open arms when it suited them won’t help now, then of course Greece must look elsewhere. News media in those richer countries have been somewhat sniffy about where she is currently looking; they don’t like it and they point out that Russia too has what are euphemistically called ‘Economic Problems’. However, shortage of money is not actually among those problems. I don’t think Frau Merkel has actually seen the beggars huddled shivering in Athens shop doorways during what has been an unusually long and wet winter; any decent person who has will be thinking ‘Good luck, Alexi.’ And if it gets up the noses of Frau Merkel and President Obama, then frankly so much the better.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Land of the Free

Radio news in the last few days has been telling us about the chap who was wrongly convicted of murder thirty years ago, and has only just been released following a retrial. This was in — where else? — the United States of America. He has, it seems, spent 28 years on what is called ‘Death Row’: the row of cells in many American prisons set aside to house those whom the authorities intend, one day, to kill.

I heard reports on BBC, VOA, DW, and even Radio Japan. Not one of them mentioned the chap’s skin-colour. Why indeed should they? What could it possibly have to do with his guilt or innocence? Even so, I must admit to idly saying to myself ‘I wonder if he happens to be black?’ The man himself later confirmed, in an interview broadcast by the BBC, that he is in fact black, that he was black at the time of his arrest, and that he was fitted up because he was black.

For a man who has spent half his life in prison — for anyone  — he is a remarkably calm, clear speaker, and seems, as far as one can tell from a radio interview, to be what some of us would call ‘A decent sort of chap’. He suggests that America should set its own house in order before criticizing the human rights records of other countries.

Most remarkable of all, he says he is not angry. Well I for one am bloody furious.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Ousiastic Metaphor in Early Cinema

I expect most readers know what a metaphor is. But ‘Ousiastic’? Well I admit I just made the word up, though I felt confident it must already exist. However I find it’s not in the Oxford Dictionary. I derived it from the Greek ‘Ousia’ which means ‘substance’, so if something is ‘ousiastic’ it’s an actual thing, and not ‘merely’ an idea or some other abstract entity. Now a metaphor is something verbal; we might be talking or writing about actual things, but the metaphors we use are figures of speech. By  ‘Ousiastic Metaphor’ I mean using an actual thing in place of some other thing that we can’t or won’t use.

Slipping on a banana-skin was a trope of early silent comedy films. Some chap is strolling along the street and suddenly he whips out a banana, eats it, and tosses the skin over his shoulder. Someone else comes along, steps on it, and falls over. This joke became standard and was repeated right up to the days of Woody Allen: in one of his films there are giant bananas, about six foot long, and sure enough Woody Allen eats one and drops the skin, and we are all laughing proleptically because we know that any second his pursuers will slip on it.

But hold on: how often, in real life, do people eat bananas in the street, and then toss the skin down? How often do people then slip on them? Are banana skins notoriously slippery? (No, they’re not actually: try to slip on one.) What is slippery and often found on pavements is something else entirely: dog shit. People regularly stand in it and often slip over. But dog or indeed any kind of shit, like primary and even secondary sexual organs, are things whose existence the Great American Public prefers not to acknowledge; only very advanced modern films allow them.

So there you are: the old silent comedies used banana-skins as an ousiastic metaphor for dog shit.

(The difficult-to-make-out black and white picture is a still from a Harold Lloyd film, said to show the first recorded example of the banana-skin joke.)

Friday, 3 April 2015

Bach’s Two-Part Inventions for Keyboard

When I go to hear a performance of the two-part inventions — or more likely select a recording to listen to, since I live too far away to get to a live performance — it is Bach I want to hear. That may seem just a touch obvious. What I mean is, my main interest in the performer is in his or her ability to play the pieces well, and not in his personal eccentricities. Many performers, including some of the best, feel an urge to hum or drone along with the music. It’s understandable, but I’d like them to refrain from expressing that urge. Having worked as a recording engineer, I know that it’s easy to place the microphones in such a way as not to pick up odd noises from the performer, and — especially nowadays — not all that difficult to edit out any that get through. But such is the vulgarity of modern taste that people actually want those noises, and I have seen mikes deliberately sited to pick them up. A really quite good professional pianist — she is more Mozart than Bach, and plays his sonatas with the respect they deserve — to whom I mentioned this said ‘Oh, I think it’s all part of the Glenn Gould Experience.’ (Glenn Gould is a particularly bad offender, and actually I don’t even like his interpretations, neither of Bach nor Mozart.) But I don’t want ‘The Glenn Gould Experience’; I want the Bach Experience. And the same goes for Beethoven and Schubert. Here of course the best player is or was Alfred Brendel, who understood especially Schubert’s  music better than Franz himself. Unfortunately in his later recordings he had a tendency to hum along, and the crass people in charge of recording mixed this intrusively into the final records. The ‘Alfred Brendel Experience’, if that’s what you want to call it, is well worth having, and is available in some recordings — sound and video; his facial expressions are priceless — he made in Salzburg some years ago. But when he’s playing Schubert’s piano works — which he does better than anybody; if the B flat Deutsch 960 is too daunting then at least try to hear one of his recordings of the G flat major impromptu — it’s Schubert I want to hear, not Alfred Brendel humming.

But back to the Bach two-part inventions. I was listening to an hour or two of recordings by various people last night. The very best of the four or five I have of  the F minor — for my taste one of the loveliest of the set — is by a little girl of I would guess about thirteen. She has the skill and talent to play it really well, and the humility to know that — like Glenn Gould, who doesn’t know it — she is insignificant next to J.S. Bach.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

April Fools!

Well, only a little bit. That photograph yesterday of Nikola Tesla apparently calmly sitting and reading a book while a spectacular artificial lightning display zapped about him was in fact a double exposure. But I have seen some genuine photographs of him standing with one hand on the top of one of his large ‘Tesla Coils’ (a sort of high-frequency transformer) and allowing absurdly long arcs, sparks, ionized electrical discharges, whatever you want to call them to pass over, under, and even through him with no apparent ill effect.

Tesla had an endearing taste for the spectacular and showy, and an imagination guaranteed to cause the people he talked to, especially Patent Office officials and potential business partners, to think ‘We’ve got a right one ’ere’ but this could be misleading: he had a knowledge and understanding of complex electrical matters such as the behaviour of multi-phase alternating currents in inductive and capacitive circuitry that would put the most advanced physicists to shame, and many of his ingenious inventions became essential to modern technology.

No picture today; I drank too much a couple of evenings ago before I was well enough to do so and am very tired.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Nikola Tesla

Who? I will tell you in due course. Meanwhile, remembering I've been ill and am only slowly recovering, I'll just show you a picture of Nikola relaxing with a book in his lab.