Saturday, 30 January 2016

‘Proximity Talks’

When I first heard the expression on BBC World Service news, it conjured a picture of two sulky, sullen infants standing at opposite sides of the room while a referee-ing adult stands between them saying things like ‘Mary. say you’re sorry.’ Mary, looking fixedly at the floor, mutters, just audibly and with obvious insincerity, ‘Sorry’.

‘That’s better, Mary. Now, Johnny, you say you’re sorry too.’


‘What did you say?’ ‘SORRY fuck it.’

‘Now, children, I hope neither of you has their fingers crossed.’ (Both children blush.) ‘I’m going out of the room now, and I don’t want to hear another word.’

Adult leaves, and hostilities continue as before, but more stealthily.

This, it turns out, is almost exactly how it is. One wants to laugh, but then remembers that these children have guns and bombs.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Park Bench Revisited

I see my post about 'Park Bench Therapy' is very popular, especially in Poland. It reminds me of those occasions, typically on long train journeys, in which there is just one other person in one's compartment, whom you know you are never likely to see again. The scenario seems to invite soul-baring; the making of confidences one would hesitate to make elsewhere. This can be as effective, I think, as a session with a psychoanalyst.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Park-bench Therapy

We have all had the experience — needing to rest one’s legs or lungs, one sits on a public bench. Then someone comes along and sits beside one. very often one shifts to the other end of the bench, all too often justified in one’s fear that he’s a loony or an alcoholic who will, if you let him, hoover up all your psychic energy. But sometimes an interesting conversation ensues, in which one, or both, bares his soul to the stranger, with beneficial results.

Somewhere in Africa — Zimbabwe or Zaire (is Zaire in Africa? Am I not ashamed of my ignorance? Yes, I am) — there is a large psychiatric clinic, and it’s not hard to imagine that people — especially those who most need its services — are reluctant to go in. And if, as seems likely, what is offered is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, their reluctance is justified: if you’re not a conventional bore before CBT, you will be if it’s ‘successful’.

This place, however, has ‘discovered’ a cheap effective therapy, one moreover that bypasses the fear of entering the building: they have put a bench outside. Just a bench; I hope it has been left plain and anonymous, looking like and indeed used as a handy place to sit down while strolling round the grounds or having a crafty fag. It is special only in its function:

When you’ve been sitting on it a little while, someone who is in fact a psychotherapist will come and sit beside you and engage you in conversation. Conversation that could be called, or very soon becomes, analytically oriented psychotherapy, which is, provided the ‘Evidence-based Statisticians’ don’t turn up like lepidopterists with killing bottles to ‘prove’ otherwise, the most long-term effective treatment for those in psychic trouble.

I suppose classic Freudian therapists could sit right at one end of the bench while the ‘patient’ lies on it, but probably best is the scenario of two people having a chat after meeting ‘by chance’ on a park bench.

(A small personal note — at my prep school there was a broken-down sofa near the headmaster’s office. You were sent to sit on it if you’d done something ‘wrong’. Sooner or later the headmaster would come out of his office and beat you. But that’s just a personal horror I wanted to get off my chest, or other bodily location. Please try to forget it now.)

A park bench doesn’t cost very much. Probably less than a few packets of Fluoxetine. Indeed, one could quickly be made by an in-patient in occupational therapy, or an out-patient or well-wisher who liked woodwork. Wouldn’t it be great if such benches appeared outside every psychiatric clinic? Cheap, almost free, psychotherapy.

But no; at best the NHS would formalize and ‘Monetise’ it, giving ‘Bench Appointments’ for three month’s time. More likely they’d sneer at the whole idea and continue going to luxury ‘conferences’ where they are persuaded to stuff patients with the latest expensive psychopharmaceutical brain-benders.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016


Sorry not to have written anything recently; as soon as I have something notable to write about I shall do so. Meanwhile, readership has nevertheless suddenly increased: the 'Russians' are reading this blog again. As I explained before, I put 'Russians' in inverted commas because Google still seems to think 'Russia' means 'All the countries of the former Soviet Union, from the Caucasus and Urals to Kamchatka and Siberia.' Anyway, wherever you are, welcome.

Monday, 25 January 2016

The Ophicleide

The Ophicleide is a great rasping and farting low-pitched brass instrument — keyed, rather than having the valves of all modern brass instruments except the saxophones (though they are classed as woodwind, for all that they are made of brass — In Romania there exists a wooden soprano saxophone, and I saw one of these in a music shop in Athens shortly after the fall of Ceausescu, when all sorts of weird and wonderful Romanian items were coming into Greece. The shop’s proprietors were intrigued and persuaded me to play a few notes on it; it sounded very strange, though not at all like the clarinet it superficially resembles. I regret now not having bought it, but in the shop there was also a valve trombone, an instrument I love, and if I bought all the instruments I want to my house would resemble Snow’s Hill Manor (see further down) and besides I was in Athens to buy a normal alto saxophone. But I digress, in fact I digress from my digression, but no matter — this whole blog is a farrago of nested digressions) — the distinction between keyed and valved wind instruments needs another essay; back to the ophicleide: Berlioz has a part for ophicleide in his most popular work, the Symphonie Fantastique, but it’s almost always played on the tuba. The excellent John Eliot Gardiner did a recording with a specially assembled orchestra using all the right instruments of the time, including an ophicleide and the full version of the cornet obbligato in the ballroom movement, but a girlfriend made off with my copy of the CD, which is no longer in the catalogues. She almost certainly doesn’t even appreciate what she stole; another reason she is no longer in my catalogue.

I have only ever seen one ophicleide; it was at Snow’s Hill Manor in Oxfordshire or is it Gloucestershire. The previous owner of the place — it now belongs to the National Trust — was a meta-collector; a collector of collections, including one of musical instruments. This ophicleide had a bell shaped like the gaping mouth of a serpent — ‘Ophicleide’ is Greek for ‘Keyed serpent’ though the actual serpent is a quite other woodwind instrument, also keyed. (Is that clear? No of course not; never mind.) Fortunately or unfortunately, the NT wouldn’t let me play the thing, though I do know how to.

I put in a picture of an ophicleide the other day. Here’s another picture of two ophicleides, with two serpents to the left of them. In fact these too are in the Snowshill (as it seems it’s spelt) collection:

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Yet More About Berlioz

I hope all this stuff about the great Hector Berlioz is not boring my readers. Well no actually I couldn’t give a nun’s wimple if it is; what’s the point of having a blog if you can’t write about whatever you like?

Since before the time of Bach, keyboard proficiency, indeed often virtuosity, has been the general rule for composers. In this as in so much else Berlioz was an exception; he couldn’t play the piano for toffee. He could play the flute a little, also the guitar; he had a very nice guitar which had belonged to Paganini, small-bodied as they often were at that time. (Guitars, not Violinists; don’t be silly.) Nevertheless, he knew the abilities and limitations of just about every instrument you can think of, and several that you can’t. In fact he wrote a big (but eccentric of course) book on instrumentation; how best to use all these instruments in orchestral writing. Even so, he sometimes went awry: having just written a long exposed passage for trombone in D flat major — that’s five flats; I think it might have been the magnificent solo at the beginning of the second movement of the Symphonie Fun├Ębre et Triomphale — he panicked and dashed out to accost a passing trombonist and ask if playing it were feasible. The trombonist laughed at him, though not of course in the cruel way Harriet Smithson had done, and assured him that in fact D flat was quite a comfortable key for the trombone; the usual tenor instrument has, as it were, two flats ‘built in’ already. (I could explain that, but it would need a longish essay on the history of brass instruments.)

Among the instruments you probably can’t think of was the ophicleide, which I mentioned the other day. But I think this must wait; I know you have pathetically tiny attention spans. Oh and you like pictures; here is a trombone:




Saturday, 23 January 2016

Off the Rails

I have to interrupt the present series of posts about Berlioz because something one couldn’t make up has just happened in England.

People used to make jokes about British Railways, the national rail network that served the whole of Britain (that’s England, Scotland, and Wales) so well before dear Mrs T. carved it up and sold it to so many different money-making companies that it became impossible to find the one responsible when things, as they always do, went wrong.

No-one makes jokes any more; even I could not be as tasteless as that when the cost-cutting money-grabbing of rail companies has caused many deaths, including those of people I knew. But the latest idiocy will only hurt football fans so one may laugh:

A special railway station has been opened to serve a large football stadium in the English Midlands. It was announced today that it will not open when there is a football match as there would be too many people and it would cost too much.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Berlioz, Rude Limericks, and the Ophicleide

My correspondent John Fletcher, who is a professor of French Literature, writes to correct me about that Berlioz symphony: seems it was actually all about a different insurrection; the one of 1830. Sorry about that.

In the same message he mentions a colleague who, in spite of a slight defect in his sense of humour, (he was German you see), was good at making up rude limericks in English. Reading this must have tripped the micro-switch on the limerick engine at the back of my brain/mind, because around 2.30 a.m. when, as usual, I couldn’t sleep, the following popped out:

            A musician who hailed from Madras
            Stuffed an ophicleide right up his arse.
            He suffered for art,
            But his F minor fart
            Was heard right up the Khyber Pass.

Ophicleide? I’ll tell you next time I write about Berlioz, but meanwhile here’s a picture of one:

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Berlioz Continued

I would have said more about Berlioz yesterday, but a couple of friends dropped in for a whisky (or two, or three), so it had to wait.

Berlioz’s memoirs are as interesting as his music. When a centime-less music student, he fell in love with Harriet Smithson, a little red-haired Irish actress in a visiting troupe of Shakespeare players, and proposed to her. With the gratuitous heartless cruelty of her sex she laughed at him; with the petulant hurt pride of his he told her that one day he would win the Prix Du Rome and become France’s greatest composer, and then she would be sorry.

He won the Prix Du Rome and became France’s greatest composer, and she was sorry. He proposed to her again, and this time she accepted him. It would be nice to add “And they lived happily ever after,” but I’m afraid they didn’t.

More later, unless I happen to come across something even more interesting to write about. (The discovery of a new planet doesn’t do much for me; the discovery of a new Bach manuscript might.)

Here are Hector Berlioz and Harriet Smithson:


Wednesday, 20 January 2016


I have just been listening again to a recording by the Odense (would that in fact be Odessa?) Symphony Orchestra of Berlioz's 'Grande Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale', written for the re-interment with honours of some heroes of the French Revolution. It's a work that's not often heard, but is well worth seeking out. You can find the recording I mentioned on YouTube. It is characterised more by enthusiasm than accuracy, but is none the worse for that.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Mr Warder's Electric Universe

My last post was about an extraordinary book published in 1903, in which a Mr Warder presented his 'ideas' about the electric nature of life, the universe, and everything. Since I don't feel like writing about anything much just now I thought I'd give you what might be called the title abstract of his book:
The universe is a vast electric machine or organism creating its
own cosmic force, lighting and heating itself from its own latent
electric fires, and bound together by invisible electric bands pulling
and guiding with the swiftness of lightning, and the power and wisdom
of Omnipotence.
Even the great Nikola Tesla didn't go that far, but then he wasn't merely an armchair scientist; he tried his ideas out. Here's a picture of Nikola, doing just that:

Saturday, 16 January 2016

A Little Learning…

…is a dangerous thing, or at least a misleading one. Among the odder items in my current reading is a book called ‘The Universe a Vast Electric Organism’ by George Woodward Warder, published in 1903.

One early evening Mr Warder called in his servant to light the gas-lamps. In walking to the lamp the servant deliberately shuffled his way across the thick carpet and then, instead of lighting a match, simply held his finger close to the gas jet, whereupon a spark jumped across the gap and lit the gas. Using his little learning, and no doubt observing other phenomena of what those with a little more learning know as static electricity, Mr Warder set about writing this extraordinary farrago of speculation.

In a way of course Mr Warder was right: the universe is full of electricity, because it is composed of atoms, and round the nuclei of atoms whiz electrons, which can be dislodged by, say, shuffling across the carpet. Being now a touch short of electrons, the servant was in a state of electrical tension; tension that was relieved when he brought his finger to the gas-jet, which, being connected via its pipe to that huge reservoir of electrons the earth, made good the shortage by sending some spare electrons across the gap; their rapid passage heated the space in between sufficiently to light the gas.

Now all this remained most mysterious until various pioneers started making their researches, which with any luck were rather more rigorous and a little bit less fantastic than Mr Warder’s. The trouble is, between about the time of Benjamin Franklin and the time of the great Nikola Tesla, the field was open to all sorts of entertaining loonies whose minds were so open their brains had dropped out.

Never mind; it’s all good harmless fun. And perhaps in fifty years people will laugh about what we currently ‘know’ about electricity: “‘Electrons’ indeed!”

Here’s a more spectacular example of a discharge of static electricity:


Friday, 15 January 2016

Greetings to readers in ‘Russia’

Forgive the inverted commas; I shall explain. The Google blog system allows me to see, day by day or week by week, where my readers are, listed by number of people (or number of times the blog is looked at — it could be one person, many times a day) per country. Quite suddenly over the last week or two, lots of people in what Google calls Russia are reading this blog, even though I have been too busy with other things to write many blog entries. It also provides a little map of the world, with the countries shaded in progressively darker green according to those numbers. But Google seems to have an outdated view of what ‘Russia’ is — the dark green stretches from west of the Caucasus all the way to the straits separating Asia from Alaska, and including many central Asian countries that are not in fact Russia. ‘Russia’, for Google, seems still to mean ‘The Former Soviet Union’. Hardly surprising from an organization which pretends not to have heard of intellectual property rights and whose founders don’t know how to spell ‘Googol’.

Anyway, greetings to you all. Keep reading, and I shall try to post items that may interest you.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The First Greek Detective Story

I am currently translating into English ‘The Notary’ by the Greek writer Alexandros Ragavis. Set and written in the early nineteenth century, about the time of the Greek war of independence from the Turks, the story takes place in the Ionian island of Kephallonia. A fairly complicated plot involves faked wills, murder, night escapes on horseback or by boat, and a last-minute rescue from the gallows. In this it resembles the roughly contemporary stories of Wilkie Collins and Sheridan Lefanu. For all the complications of an antiquated style of Greek, Kephallonian dialect and the sprinkling of Italian words typical of the Ionian islands, I’m finding the story gripping. It will be published by the excellent small Athenian publisher Aiora, which specialises in Modern or near-Modern Greek classics, both poetry and prose, translated (usually with the original on facing pages) into various other European languages. But first I have to translate it; a slow and difficult job.

Here is an only slightly relevant picture of a 1919 meeting of ‘Parnassus’; a Greek literary society. If you know the Greek alphabet you might be able to puzzle out the names of those present.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

BBC English

BBC English — the English spoken by the BBC’s announcers — has from the first days of broadcasting been recognized, both in Britain and abroad, as the standard; held up as an example for learners. Teachers of English as a foreign language advise their students to emulate what they hear on BBC World Service, to which I myself listen every morning that short wave reception allows it. Here, for instance, is an example from this morning’s news bulletin:

‘Of course, the Mexican government will want to big up his capture.’

Friday, 8 January 2016

The Second Amendment

Just as thirty children trying to get on with their studies can have them disrupted by one ill-brought-up brat clamouring for attention, so the rest of the world has been distracted from its serious concerns by the Americans squabbling over their lethal toys.
There has been much talk of the second amendment, which most people seem to think enshrines ‘The right to bear arms’. Those five words are usually the only ones quoted.
But what does the second amendment actually say? Absurdly for a document that has the same status for an American redneck as the Koran has for a Muslim fundamentalist, there seems to be no recognized Ur-Text for the American constitution: one can choose between several versions. Sure, most say more or less the same things, but lawyers and killers thrive on the ‘More or less.’
The version given in Akhil Reed Amar’s huge and authoritative study ‘America’s Constitution’ is:
‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’
That, in spite of the extra capitals and over-punctuation typical of the ill-educated, is crystal clear: the right to bear arms is conditional on the need for a militia. But America now has a police force, (albeit one that keeps shooting unarmed black people, but that’s another story). It no longer needs — as it may have done when the second amendment was first written — a militia.


Thursday, 7 January 2016

Well-known Poet's Scandalous Youth

John Lucas, himself a poet, and proprietor of the admirable Shoestring Press, (all the more admirable for having brought out a couple of my things), has just written a book on George Crabbe. I’ve always thought Crabbe tedious; he wrote long poems about village life and, with very few exceptions, anything much longer than a page isn’t really poetry; it’s verse. But if John thinks Crabbe worthy of a book then I should investigate, so I climbed on a chair to reach the ‘C’s in my poetry shelves. I found just one little paperback, published in 1886 by Cassell. There is an introduction by Professor Henry Morley, and this contains a startling revelation — one that might partly explain why Benjamin Britten and E.M. Forster were so interested in him — about the time Crabbe spent apprenticed to a G.P.:

‘Crabbe swept out the surgery, carried out medicine, and slept with the ploughboy.’

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

The Sixties

I grew up in the sixties, which started in about 1964 and lasted almost until 1980. I very much recommend my friend Jenny Diski’s book on the sixties, called (duh) ‘The Sixties’.
It has been memorably said of the sixties that if you can remember them, you weren’t there. Not quite true; the point of the remark is that we were all so stoned out of our skulls that much of what we remember may not ‘really’ have happened, and much may really have happened that we (perhaps mercifully) can’t remember.
One of the many good effects of the sixties for those who survived them is a familiarity with drugs, especially the psychotropic ones, both ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’. An intelligent and responsible veteran of the sixties (and there are lots of us) could safely be given a copy of the Merck Index and a prescription pad and allowed to medicate himself and selected friends. We know what we’re doing: if we didn’t we’d all have been dead long ago.

So I can tell you that it’s a myth that you ‘shouldn’t’ drink alcohol while taking powerful prescription drugs; that they don’t mix. Bullshit. They mix as well as tonic (or angostura bitters) with gin. That even goes — with a few exceptions, such as those prescribed against Helicobacter pylori, the cause of stomach ulcers — for antibiotics. What actually happens is that the alcohol makes the drugs work better, or at least more quickly, and vice-versa. It is only a pusillanimous and moralistic medical fraternity, afraid we might overdo it or worse still enjoy ourselves, that tries to tell us otherwise.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Absence of New Posts

Once again, sorry not to have written anything here. Fact is, that in spite of more than fifty years experience riding motorcycles, I have crashed three times in the last three weeks, and quite apart from the (minor) physical injuries, I am very shaken and have been unable to do much at all; not even piano practice, though that is, partly, another story.
Anyway, meanwhile here is a picture, taken many years ago, of my very favourite motorcycle; one I built myself from the bits of several. (Nevertheless it is in fact a standard model; the Velocette Venom Clubman.)

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Human Rights in Cuba

In a couple of months, if all goes according to plan, President Obama of the United States will be visiting Cuba. ‘It is thought’ (as the BBC and even the VOA so cautiously put it) that Obama will urge an improvement in Cuba’s human rights record.
Yes indeed. There is a concentration camp in Cuba where people are held indefinitely — often for many years; some have died in captivity — without trial; without even any specific charge. They are kept in small cages rather than ‘proper’ cells, and they are relentlessly tortured to extract ‘confessions’.

This concentration camp is in Guantanamo Bay. That’s in Cuba, but it’s not controlled by the Cuban Government. It belongs to the American Government. The prison, its officers, its torturers, are American.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Bravo Microsoft, Another Own Goal

Happy New Year, everybody.

I’m sorry about the slight shortage of blog posts recently. It’s not because I’ve had nothing to say, (that’ll be the day), but largely because Internet Explorer (A Microsoft product, and the default web browser in computers using Windows) suddenly, without warning, became incapable of opening my blog in such a way as to allow me to edit it. Reasoning that even Microsoft, which shows a remarkable indifference to the wishes of its users, must surely by now be aware of the problem it has made, I reluctantly accepted the ‘Upgrade’ to I.E. 11 with which it has been for some time importuning me. This made no difference, except of course for causing various system conflicts. (Par for the course for Microsoft Updates.) So I investigated various online fora and found that, as expected, people all over the world have been having the same problem. No-one, least of all Microsoft, has found a cure. The usual advice on these fora is to use another web browser, and this I now have to do.
In general, Bill Gates and his Microsoft are the worst thing that has ever happened to computers.