Monday, 15 August 2016

August the Fifteenth, 1944.

What exactly happened in the upper village square of the Old Village in Alonnisos on the 15th of August 1944[1]? One hears various accounts, but in his commemorative speech this year[2] Doctor Georgios Athanasiou gave a full, clear and reliable account. Georgios has been kind enough to give me (Simon) a copy of his speech. The following is an English précis of the main points of the story:

 The murderers arrived in our island in the early hours of that blood-soaked day, some landing at Mikro Mourtia, others at Patitiri. On their way up to the village they deceived whomever they met by telling them they were ELLAS fighters, and fished for information about the national resistance movement. They wore no German uniforms or insignia.
On arrival in the village, with the help of local collaborators who knew they were coming,  they gathered all the men over 18 years of age into this little space[3]: Maniacally ringing the church bell they brought out everybody and announced that any man who didn’t appear would have his house burnt down and he himself be executed once found. It was now obvious to all that these so-called ELLAS fighters were the country’s enemies: murderous invaders and their Greek collaborators.
Next they read out the names from a list prepared by local collaborators of all those who belonged, or were suspected of belonging, to the resistance. Any who, hoping to escape, failed to answer to their names were pointed out to the murderers by local traitors. Once the deathly catalogue was completed, they stood the victims against the parapet and tied their hands[4] with the ropes from the pack-saddle of a nearby donkey.
During the few terrible moments of the execution, a bullet happened to sever the rope where it joined the last man to the series. Badly injured as he was he jumped over the parapet in a desperate attempt to escape. But the murderers had stationed a machine-gunner on the opposite hill, known as ‘Paliomylos’[5], (Where the restauarant ‘Astrofengia’ stands now) and the escapee was riddled with bullets. Nevertheless he managed to get away and took refuge in the nearby stream-bed known as Lakka. At once the women of the village, risking their lives, ran to give him — what else? Water. The seriously injured in battle always ask for water. After drinking the water he gave up the struggle for life. He was Athanasios  Xydeas, our beloved fellow islander, known as Thanasakis.
As soon as their dreadful crime was over, the German murderers and their collaborators set out for Patitiri where a boat was waiting for their escape. But before leaving local traitors led them to the house of Panayiotis Tsoukanas, near the church of Ayios Nikolaos. Panayiotis had been lucky enough to be out of the village when the roll was called. They burnt his house to the ground. Continuing towards Patitiri they reached, down by the Alonia[6], the house of Georgios Morisis, who had been among those executed. This house too they burnt to the ground.

The Victims:
Michael Kyriazis.
Nikolaos Alexiou.
Nikolaos Florous.
Agallos Anagnostou.
Agallos Agallou
Georgios Morisis.
Athanasios Xydeas.
Georgios Smyrnaios.
A tenth victim was Georgios Syrianos, a left-wing local politician from Volos, who was in Alonnisos at the time.
Two more people should be mentioned:
Yorgos Alexiou, who was fatally injured by the collaborating police officer Kourlos, and died on board a ship bound for Smyrna, where he was buried.
Nikos Athanasiou, a left-wing thinker, who was betrayed by Greek collaborators with the Nazis, taken to Peristera and tortured in an unheard-of manner: a metal band was fixed round his head and tightened with screws until the pain and brain-injury killed him.
From the commemorative speech given by
Georgios Athanasiou, August the 15th 2012.
Editing and translation ©Simon Darragh 2012.

I have had the above ready for several years now, for reading at the commemorative ceremony held each August the 15th here in Alonnisos in the square where the massacre took place. Every year I have asked the mayor for permission to read it. For this I have the backing of Doctor Athanasiou. Every year the mayor has refused permission, on the ‘grounds’ that no foreigners  come to the ceremony anyway.

[1] It is no coincidence that this day is that of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary; one of the most important dates in the Orthodox calendar.
[2] 2012.
[3] The upper village square, known as ‘Copria’ but recently re-named ‘Heroes’ Square’.
[4] That is to say, not only were their hands tied but the men were tied each to each in a series.
[5] ‘Old Mill’.
[6] Circular threshing-floors.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Congress, Alligators, and a Stairway to Heaven

The Colombian Congress is, it seems, notorious for the frequent absence of its senators or whatever they’re called. So a concerned senator proposed a bill to fine (I suppose dock the generous pay of) the worst offenders. Unfortunately the bill could not be passed, because — er — not enough people had turned up to vote on it.
Other important news is that near Disneyland in America a real alligator made off with a real (well, American) two-year-old, and Led Zeppelin have been accused of pinching the interesting chord sequence from the opening of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ from, I think, a piece by the group ‘Spirit’.
That last item makes me wonder — how much, or how little, of a piece of music makes it unique, mine, copyright-able? Surely there can be no copyright in a mere sequence of chords? Or can there? Some chord sequences are at once recognizable: if I were to write a song using the same sequence as, say, ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’, or even just that characteristic I, III7, VI7, II minor opening, I would at once be accused of plagiarism. But what about the twelve-bar blues sequence? Surely anyone may use that? And how about the descending tetrachord, either in usual or Andalusian form? Is, say, Dylan’s ‘One more cup of coffee for the road’ ripped off from Dido’s lament in Purcell’s Opera?
Sometimes even a single chord can be immediately recognizable, and if anyone else uses it it is regarded as a quotation — think of the Tristan chord, which I wrote about a while ago, and which Britten used very obviously in a jokey context in one of his operas. Should the estates of Purcell and Wagner sue Dylan and Britten?
I don’t think I’m making any special point here; just the general one that things are rarely as simple as the newsreaders suggest.
Here is a stairway to heaven by Bouncing Bill Blake of Bermondsey:

Friday, 10 June 2016

Toilet Training, and Realer than Real

The government of India has been for some time trying to supply lavatories to every house in the country. Of course they didn’t bother to ask their electorate if they wanted toilets in their houses. They don’t. They are turning their toilets into cupboards, and going out to shit in the fields as they have always done. So in its wisdom the government has sent out officials to patrol favourite open-air shitting places and force all who approach to go home and shit indoors.
I am reminded of the old lady in this little Greek island who, some years ago whispered confidentially in a shocked tone ‘Do you know, some of these foreigners actually shit inside their own houses.’

You couldn’t make it up, but it’s true, and perhaps explains why the Lenovo company has just invented a mobile ’phone which takes photographs which, they say, ‘Enhance reality’.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Transport by Tree

Someone appeared in our village today on a wooden bicycle. Almost inescapably for a bicycle of otherwise conventional ‘safety’ pattern, certain parts were metal — it would be hard to imagine, let alone make, a chain and sprocket transmission out of wood, and wooden head, wheel, and bottom bracket bearings in wood might be rather stiff, though perhaps lignum vitae might work — but frame, front fork etc. were all in laminated wood. The weight felt roughly the same as a normal steel or alloy bicycle. It’s made by a company called Coco-Mat; I’ll put in a picture if I can find one.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Robert Schumann

Today is Robert Schumann’s birthday. (Or would have been were he still alive; you know what I mean.) Robert was a bit of a loony and it shows in some of his music, most of which I don’t like all that much; this morning I listened to a sonata of his for violin and piano and I could have sworn I was listening to something by Brahms. (Though I do like Brahms’s music, including his chamber pieces, especially the late ones for clarinet and strings, the result of his meeting and befriending a very god clarinettist, but as so often I have strayed from the point.) My favourite Schumann pieces are his Lieder.
Anyway, in his efforts to improve his piano playing Robert invented and used a device involving weights and pulleys intended to strengthen, or perhaps improve the independence of movement of, the fourth finger, the one next to the little finger. (Just try placing all your fingertips on the table and then lifting the fourth finger without the other fingers moving.) This device screwed up his hands completely and it was his wife Clara who became the great pianist. (When she came to England with Robert and played for Queen Victoria, the Queen tactlessly asked her ‘Does your husband play too?')
Robert is reviled by some feminists because allegedly he impeded Clara’s efforts at composition. I don’t know how much evidence we have for this; certainly very few of her compositions have survived, but of course that is not in itself evidence against Robert.

Anyway, poor Robert became more and more doolally in later life, and threw himself into the river. (Not sure which river; perhaps the Rhine.) He was rescued and spent the rest of his life in the bin.
Here is a picture of Robert and Clara:

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

But Does it Work?

But Does it Work?
In one of his films the character played by Woody Allen is worried about a possible injury to his brain. ‘But that’s my second favourite organ!’ he protests.

Allen is an exception, but in general Americans often manage to combine an excruciatingly embarrassing frankness with a maiden-auntish prudery, and as so often with American’s less attractive behaviours, many Brits are slavishly copying.

Someone in America has just had a dick transplant (the BBC used the cold medical term ‘Penis’, but let us talk like ordinary people), and he happily told an interviewer all about it.

All? Well, not quite all. Not once did news announcer mention, interviewer ask, or transplantee tell us what is surely the most important thing about a dick, the thing we all want to know, the thing no-one mentions.
(I wanted to add a picture of an erect dick, but it seems such pictures are regarded by the internet as pornographic, and I don't feel like looking at pornography just now.)

Monday, 16 May 2016


Today is the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement.

The what? Well, much as the Americans find it more convenient to fight their wars on other people’s territory, so the French, English and Germans fought much of the First World War in the Middle East. When the Germans and their allies were defeated and driven out of the area, the French and English agreed to carve up the area between them.

The leaders of the various Arab, Syrian etc. nations, such fierce but honest, loyal and honourable people as Feisal of Iraq, having been promised their independence, felt betrayed. (Gosh, really?) T.E. Lawrence felt himself forced into the rôle of betrayer and freaked out completely.

Now of course the Middle East is ruled by America, with France and England as its pawns or cat’s paws, but the whole ghastly mess stems from Sykes-Picot.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Only in Hampstead

Recently a friend was walking through NW3 -- where the middle-class intellectuals live -- and overheard a child ask 'Mummy, is there a silent "T" in "Lego", like in "Merlot"?'

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Opera for Greeks

Over Easter I was talking with an Athens publisher, and he told me that he has been unable to find any Greek guide to the plots - silly as most of them are - of well-known operas. He commissioned me to write such a guide, in English, which he or a colleague will then translate into Greek. Here is a sample which I wrote this morning:



Many consider ‘Cosi’ the finest of Mozart’s operas, despite the spectacular silliness — some would say vicious misogyny — of the plot, by Mozart’s favourite librettist Lorenzo da Ponte.

Two young men, Guglielmo and Ferrando, are boasting of the sterling qualities, especially the faithfulness, of their respective girlfriends, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. (It doesn’t really matter which is which, as we shall see.) Enter their cynical older friend Don Alfonso, who laughs at them and makes a bet that, provided the two young men follow his instructions, he can prove the girls faithless. They accept enthusiastically.

The scene changes to the boudoir of the two sisters, who are drinking hot chocolate served by their maid Despina. They too are telling each other how wonderful Guglielmo and Ferrando are.

Enter Don Alfonso, bringing terrible news: Guglielmo and Ferrando have been called up for military service; they must set off at once to fight the Turks, or perhaps the Albanians. Enter the young men; there is a tearful farewell. They leave, ostensibly to board their ship. Dorabella, Fiordiligi and Don Alfonso sing the trio ‘Soave sia il vento, tranquillo il mare’ (May the winds be gentle, the seas calm’) It is typical of Mozart that the hidden pretext for this heartrendingly beautiful trio — there is rarely a dry eye in the house — is a cruel practical joke.

Don Alfonso, having first suborned Despina into helping him with the ‘joke’, leaves the sisters to their sorrow. The down-to-earth Despina suggests they ‘divert’ themselves with a little flirtation during their beloveds’ absence; she is roundly rebuked by the indignant Dorabella and Fiordiligi.

Nevertheless, Don Alfonso brings in two eligible young men, apparently members of the occupying Turkish (or perhaps Albanian) forces, but in fact of course Guglielmo and Ferrando in disguise. There is a socially awkward tea-party, and eventually the two ‘Turks’ declare their love for the sisters. They are angrily rejected, and go to claim their winnings from Don Alfonso, but he says they haven’t tried hard enough. The men return to the girls and, in ‘despair’, ‘take poison’. They are revived by the ‘Doctor’ (Despina of course, whose disguise includes a grotesque high-pitched croak). The kind-hearted women relent slightly, and it is with very mixed feelings that, quite soon, each young man finds that he has succeeded in seducing the other’s girlfriend.

A double marriage is arranged, presided over by the ‘Notary’, (the disguised and croaking Despina again of course) but at the last moment Don Alfonso rushes in, telling the ‘Turks’ to hide because Guglielmo and Ferrando have returned from the wars.

After a flurry of backstage quick changes, ex-notary Despina brings in ex-Turkish soldiers Guglielmo and Ferrando. During the joyful if anxiety-ridden reunion, one of the men ‘happens to find’ a marriage contract on the table. The enraged Guglielmo and Ferrando confront the penitent Dorabella and Fiordiligi, but once the girls have confessed to their faithlessness they are forgiven; after all they are only women, and ‘Cosi fan Tutte’.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016


Some popular musician whose stuff no-one really liked drops dead in the lift (!) of his vastly expensive house, and everyone rushes round with flowers and protests that he was a great influence on the development of popular music (though I hated his stuff) and they ‘feel’ quite devastated by his death and must weep publicly and ‘show their sadness and respect’. Not a word about the technicalities if any of his music.
Or a mathematician succeeds, after years of struggle with notebooks and log tables and differential calculus, in proving, say, Fermat’s last theorem. He is interviewed for Radio or TV. Is he asked ‘What does Fermat’s last theorem state?’ or ‘Give us the outline of your proof’? Is he heck. The interviewer is asked ‘Well, it must have been an emotional moment when you heard you’d got the Nobel. Tell us, how did you feel?’
Who (with more than two brain cells) give’s a nun’s wimple how he ‘Felt’. Feelings are neither here nor there; they are private and should be kept so; any interest in other people’s ‘feelings’ is impertinent and prurient. They don’t matter; they get in the way of what really matters. Cease this vulgarity; engage brain.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Easter -- A Martian View

It has been Greek Orthodox Easter. The Paschal lamb (in fact a goat) is slaughtered, roast whole on a spit, and eaten; the best wine is opened and drunk, loud music is played, people gather and talk, or rather bellow at each other; all these things to gross excess.

Sometimes, after a drink or two, or when feeling especially exasperated, I whisper confidentially to someone what torture I find the whole business. They whisper back ‘Actually, so do I, but you have to do it.’ I’ve had that secret, sotto voce, corner conversation with so many different people, on so many Easters, that I have to begin to wonder — is it possible nobody in fact enjoys it, that everybody is pretending?

At midnight on the Saturday, after we had been deafened by a friend’s double-barrelled twelve-bore loosed off in a vaguely upward direction, and the dogs and cats had been reduced to abject terror by the fireworks outside the main church, we settled down to eat our Mayiritsa — a soup made from the liver and intestines of the goat. Yes. As we did so, a friend — he publishes Greek poetry in English translation, so is clearly a daring man — said quite openly, fully in the hearing of the rest of the company, ‘Simon, you must realize we don’t do all this for amusement: it’s a duty.’ No-one contradicted him.

So the visiting Martian anthropologist will have to report back: ‘The humans are all masochists: they spend their special feast days doing things they really hate doing, and woe betide anyone who doesn’t frantically pretend to be having a lovely time.’

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Something Rich and Strange

Shakespeare died 400 years ago this week. His writings, and tendentious fantasies about his life, are being celebrated, especially in Stratford-Upon-Avon. ‘Celebrated’ here means in most cases ‘Made accessible’, and ‘Made accessible’ means in all cases trivialized.

Shakespeare was a Poet and Playwright. You do not alter so much as a punctuation mark in a poet’ work. Plays are to be performed: people who have been bored sick at school when made to read Shakespeare’s plays (I was one such) very often change their minds completely and enthusiastically once they have seen an actual and at least competent performance of one of his plays (The RSC often really screws up I’m afraid, especially in its Stratford productions. Amateur or school productions are often better).

But isn’t the language ‘difficult’? Well, yes, if you’re not used to it. And present mores seem to dictate that if something’s ‘difficult’ then it should be either abolished or simplified. God forbid that anyone should be asked to make the effort of reading, with someone who already knows and understands Shakespeare’s writings, say, one act of a play, or two or three of the sonnets. It might take as long as a couple of hours, but I guarantee — I’ve tried it with several not-very-well-educated young people — that the result would be an ability to understand at sight or hearing most of what Shakespeare wrote.

But you don’t think it’s worth the effort, do you?

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Google rips off writers

As a professional writer I want as many people as possible to read my stuff, but (except when I myself choose to make something freely available) I do expect to be asked, and even paid, when people want to copy it. Contrary to popular opinion, writers do not live entirely on fresh air.

I am therefore a member of the Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society, which supports writers by, among other things, collecting photocopying fees from libraries and universities and sending it on to the writers. Once a year I get a very welcome cheque for somewhere between £50 and £100.

Google, it seems, does not give a nun’s wimple for the rights of authors, though it is happy to make large sums of money out of their work. I thought the following item, from the ALCS’s newsletter, deserved a wider audience, and where better to put it than on a blog that is run by Google?


ALCS News Bulletin: April 2016

Google wins book scanning lawsuit


The US Supreme Court has ruled in favour of Google in a copyright infringement case filed by The Authors Guild that has spanned eleven years.

Millions of books were copied by Google without prior permission as part of a digitisation project that allows small extracts of the works to be viewed online. This led The Authors Guild in the US to file its lawsuit in 2005.

Following the rejection by the courts of a proposed settlement and years of subsequent litigation, in October 2015 the appeals court ruled that Google’s activity fell within the ‘Fair Use’ doctrine prescribed by US copyright law. Given that the case involved copying on a grand scale by a large, commercial organisation, The Authors Guild hoped that the US Supreme Court would review the ruling. However, in its final decision yesterday, the Supreme Court resolved not to review the case.

Google has denied any infringement throughout the case, claiming that its digitisation project fell under ‘fair use’ of protected works and that it served the public interest. The Authors’ Guild has always expressed its concern that Google did not seek prior permission of the authors concerned and has long-argued that the project undermined authors’ ability to make money from their works.

Responding in a statement to the US Supreme Court ruling, The Authors Guild called the decision a “colossal loss” stating that authors should be paid when their work is copied for commercial purposes. The Guild vowed to continue to monitor Google and its library partners to ensure that the fair use terms acknowledged by the decision are not abused.

Mary Rasenberger, Executive Director of The Authors Guild commented: “The price of this short-term public benefit may well be the future vitality of American culture… Authors are already among the most poorly paid workers in America; if tomorrow’s authors cannot make a living from their work, only the independently wealthy or the subsidized will be able to pursue a career in writing, and America’s intellectual and artistic soul will be impoverished.”

Owen Atkinson, Chief Executive of ALCS, commented on the ruling: “The digital environment provides unprecedented opportunities for accessing published content, creating new value for distributors and consumers. This is a success story written by authors and yet they are fading fast from the narrative. A fairer, more balanced approach is needed, one which recognises that content creators, such as authors, are the only truly irreplaceable link in the digital value chain.”


Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Logical Mr Carroll

Lewis Carroll, real name Charles Dodgson, has several direct or indirect claims to fame or, some would say, notoriety. He is best known now as the author of the ‘Alice’ books, written to entertain Alice Liddell, the little daughter of Henry George Liddell, who was the co-compiler of the still standard huge English dictionary of Ancient Greek (Henry, not Alice. (Duh)). Carroll was a very fine photographer, and many of his photographs are of little girls not wearing very much. In this post-Freudian witch-hunting age this excites great suspicion among the prurient, though I don’t think anyone at the time thought there was anything odd about it. Certainly Carroll himself would have been horrified and disgusted at the suggestion there might have been anything sexual (as of course there was) in his interest. We now know of course — and the really suspect people are those who strenuously deny it — that all human relations have a (perhaps unacknowledged) sexual element.

Anyway that’s more than enough about that. Carroll / Dodgson lectured at Oxford University in Mathematics and especially in logic. Some of his more elementary work in logic had much of the wit of his stories and verses; here is an example:


(a)  All babies are illogical.

(b)  Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile.

(c)  Illogical persons are despised.


As the subjects of this puzzle are people, we take the universe as the set of all people. We will rewrite each statement in the puzzle as an implication. First we define simpler statements,


B : it is a baby
L : it is logical
M : it can manage a crocodile
D : it is despised ,


where “it” in this context refers to a general person. Then the three statements can be rephrased as


(a)   B → ~L : If it is a baby then it is not logical.
(b)   M → ~D : If it can manage a crocodile then it is not despised.
(c)   ~L → D : If it is not logical then it is despised.


Our aim is to use transitive reasoning several times, stringing together a chain of implications using all the given statements. We have an arrow pointing from B to ~L, and likewise an arrow pointing from ~L to D; thus we are able to start with B and arrive at the conclusion D. However, the second statement is still not utilized. But since any implication is equivalent to its contrapositive, we may replace the second statement with its contrapositive D → ~M. Then we get the transitive reasoning chain

B → ~L → D → ~M .

We reason that if B is true, then ~L is true, hence D is true, and therefore ~M is true. Our ultimate conclusion is the statement

B → ~M : If it is a baby then it cannot manage a crocodile .

In ordinary language we would more likely rephrase this answer to the puzzle as

“No baby can manage a crocodile.”

Alternatively, we could write the answer as the contrapositive statement

M → ~B : If it can manage a crocodile then it is not a baby.

The translation into words then would be something like

“Anyone who can manage a crocodile is not a baby.”


This is perhaps his most famous photograph of Alice Liddell.


Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Jacqes Lacan

Today is Lacan's birthday, or would have been had he lived that long. He was born on April the 13th 1901.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The Panama Papers

That’s the catchily alliterative name that has been given to the huge collection of documents (not as a rule in fact in paper form) leaked from a law company in Panama; a company whose registered office is in fact in one of those ex British colonies that have long experience of devious financial dealings.

The papers reveal corruption, money-laundering, the usual trappings of grotesque greed, in ‘high places’. There have been cries of outrage, demonstrations in the streets, calls for enquiries, and resignations of ‘important’ people in all the countries affected.

All but one. In the U.K., which the documents show to be one of the most unscrupulous of all states, there have been nothing but shrugs of indifference. Why? Well, as with so many of the nastier aspects of Britain, it is the legacy of Thatcher and her toadies. Thatcher — and let us not forget that Britain is a fairly democratic country, so Thatcher was in power because the British people wanted her in power — had no real sense of right and wrong. If something was profitable, it was right; the notion that something could be profitable but wrong would have seemed to her a simple logical contradiction; the words ‘Right’ and ‘Profitable’ were virtually synonyms. The only values were monetary ones.

Lots of people have been saying ‘I’ve done nothing wrong’. No, of course they haven’t. “What do you mean, ‘Wrong’? I made a big profit!”

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

‘What Are Years?’

I mentioned the other day that among my current bedside books is/are the collected poems of Marianne Moore. I said that she’s supposed to be good, and so I’d persevere with reading one poem a day, but up to now her poems seem to be slight and whimsical; little sketches provoked perhaps by oddities found in her own bedside bookshelf.

But now, suddenly, with the poem ‘What Are Years?’, the title poem of a 1941 collection, she seems at last to be saying (or writing) something worth hearing (or reading). The poem is similar to, but better, less blatant than, Spender’s ‘I think continually of those who were truly great.’

I have not yet read further in this collection, but it’s been worth all the preceding stuff to come at last to this fine poem.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

The Viola

The other day I said some things that might be misinterpreted as derogatory towards that lovely instrument the viola. In many ways the Cinderella among stringed instruments, it has very few well-known solo works in its repertoire: the best known are Berlioz’s ‘Harold in Italy’ and the concerto by William Walton.

I don’t know if it was a guilty conscience that prompted me, but today I listened to Mozart’s ‘Sinfonia Concertante’ — actually a concerto for violin and viola, demanding a greater rapport between the two solo instruments than in an extended operatic duet — twice; once after breakfast and once after dinner. I’m afraid that as it was on my watch-sized MP3 player I no longer know whose recording it was, but it was a very good one.

The work shows the viola at its best. I said viola players are odd: perhaps they are, but perhaps their oddity consists in an unfashionable humility; a lack of the desire to be the big solo star; a willingness to co-operate with other players and not try to outshine them. Perhaps it’s viola players who really hold string quartets - the single malts of serious music -  together.

Or perhaps it’s just that the Sinfonia Concertante is one of Mozart’s greatest orchestral works. Anyway, anyone who ever felt or said anything ‘witty’ about the viola (the difference between it and the violin is that it takes slightly longer to burn) should listen — twice a day — to this work.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Cigarettes are Sublime

That’s the title of a book I read a year or two ago; a paean to cigarettes written by someone as a prelude to giving them up. Full of descriptions of the pleasures of smoking and vignettes of well-known literary and artistic smokers, it had of course the opposite effect on me. But following the recent trauma of a haemopneumothorax and the horrific hospital treatment needed, I’m making some effort to reduce my smoking. By dint of giving all my cigarettes to a couple of friends, with instructions to bring me one or two several times a day, I’ve got it down from 25 – 30 a day to 10 – 12. Much of the time it’s a matter of having a cigarette on the desk beside me, and saying to myself ‘No, I won’t smoke it yet; I’ll wait until the next cup of tea or shot of ouzo.’ This ability to defer a pleasure is generally regarded as a sign of maturity, of grown-upness. But I don’t actually rate grown-upness at all highly: I find the spontaneity, the lust for immediate gratification, of the very young far more attractive. Still, so far I’m not doing badly, but then I’m still feeling weak and fragile; I fear it may creep up again when I’m feeling better.

Now seems a good time to express my heartfelt thanks to the many people who have given me the benefit of their advice — usually in the form of a long highly didactic lecture that brooks no interruption — on exactly how to give up smoking. It really is most generous of these people to offer — no, to press upon me — their help, especially as in not one single case did I have to go to the trouble of actually asking for their valuable opinion.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Wagner Can Damage Your Health

It is usual on April the first to write spoof news reports and I suppose blog entries. But when the president of the United States visits the country where he keeps a special prison for torturing people and berates that country for its human rights record, then a few days later as the president of the only country that has ever actually used nuclear weapons waxes indignant because a small country on the other side of the world seems to want to have such weapons itself, it’s hard to know what is truth and what spoof.

Meanwhile in England a viola player is suing his orchestra because his hearing has been permanently damaged: it seems the conductor had seated the violas too close to the brass for a performance of something by Wagner.

Actually I do sympathise, even though the only times I have ever played in orchestras it has been in the brass section: sometimes on trumpet, sometimes on horn. Horn players can have almost the opposite problem to our violist: the horn has the reputation of being the most difficult of all instruments and certainly if you hear a cracked note from an orchestra it is likely to be the horns. For technical reasons, the same fingering can produce many different notes on the horn, and it’s only by very fine lip and breath control that one can select the right one. If the conductor puts the horns too close to the timpani, the shock-wave from a goodly drum-bash can be picked up by the bell of the horn and be sort of hydraulically concentrated as it travels through the several metres of brass tube to emerge in a puff that can blast the player’s lips right off the mouthpiece. (That is not, by the way, the reason horn players stuff their right hand up the bell.)

Still, viola players are always odd. Look at a photograph of any string quartet: I guarantee that the one who looks weirdest is the violist.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

The First Rule of Surgery

Ask any layperson ‘What must the surgeon be careful to check before he sews the patient up again?’ and you will of course get the reply ‘That he hasn’t left anything inside.’

Yesterday our local doctor cut me open again, because when I was in hospital recently for a minor operation, the surgeon — yes, left something inside. It was only some old stitches but it was enough to cause the wound to suppurate and need urgent medical attention. I was surprised such things could still happen, but the doctor said ‘Oh that’s nothing Simon; the other day a surgeon left his mobile phone inside someone.’

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Melanie Klein

Today is Melanie Klein's birthday, or would be were she still alive. (She was born in 1882).
Melanie who? It's possible that the only Melanie you know of is the one who made that wonderful song 'Brand New Key', (You know, the one about bicycles and roller-skates.) Melanie Klein was a psychoanalyst who developed the theories of Freud in her own sometimes rather strange way, with her ideas on 'Projective Identification' (now generally accepted by nearly all psychoanalysts) and the 'Good' and 'Bad' breasts (not quite so generally accepted.) Her great achievement - she shares the honours with Freud's daughter Anna - was to show that, contrary to the beliefs of many in the psychoanalytic movement, even very young disturbed children could be helped by psychoanalysis.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

A Book at Bedtime

That was the title of a BBC programme on, I think, Radio 3. They had decided that 11 p.m. was the correct bedtime for decent God-fearing people, and so for fifteen minutes each evening someone would read the next chapter of the current book.

For myself, I have deliberately made my bedside bookshelf short, so as to avoid teetering piles of half-read books. Current contents are:

1) ‘Music in the Castle of Heaven’ by John Eliot Gardiner. This has to be the best general overview of Bach’s life and works ever published. Gardiner conducts performances of Bach that are about as ‘authentic’ (given that of course we have no actual contemporary recordings) as they could be, thus enabling us to hear the works with almost the freshness and surprise with which people heard their first performances. Unlike so many ‘serious’ books about music, which proclaim with pride their ‘freedom’ from ‘technical jargon’, this book is not afraid to use some; it assumes the reader has some knowledge of music and wants to learn more.

2) ‘The Motive for Metaphor’ by Henry Seiden. This is a collection of very brief — two or three pages each — essays on individual poems or poets written from the point of view of a psychoanalyst. Ever since Freud himself, psychoanalysts have acknowledged that many of their insights have been anticipated by poetry. It is a much less demanding book than that description might suggest; indeed I’d have preferred something a bit deeper.

3) Η Μενεξεδένια Πολιτεία (The Purple City) by Άγγελος Τερζάκης. A novel, set mostly in Athens, about an unsuccessful lawyer and his family. It was a present from a friend, but recommended by another friend, whose other recommendations I have not usually liked. But reading it is of course good for my Greek, and I am less than half-way through; let us hope it improves.

4) The Summer 2015 issue of ‘In Other Words’, the journal for literary translators. My delay in reading it is not entirely due to it lateness in reaching me; I read the thing more out of duty than for pleasure. An unwieldy parasitic superstructure of ‘theory’ has been erected on top of the real business of literary translation by people who write dull articles and who (most of them) can’t translate for toffee. There is usually little of interest or use to actual translators, but there are sometimes exceptions, not least on the rare occasions they deign to publish something of mine.

5) ‘An Introduction to Music’ by David Boyden. This is the textbook we used when I was training to be a school music teacher. A general history of so-called ‘Classical’ music from the middle ages to the early twentieth century, with some theory and consideration of things like sonata form. Not quite as superficial as the title suggests.

6) Marianne Moore’s Complete Poems. There are about 250 of them and, poetry being the single malt of literature, I am reading them at the rate of just one a day. Eliot thought highly of her, but I find her pretty impenetrable, mainly because her poems seem to rely on special knowledge, usually something she has read. The notes sometimes give details of this reading, but poems really have to grab you before you look at the notes. I shall persevere; she’s supposed to be good and it’s probably my fault I don’t much like her stuff.

7) ‘My Teaching’ by Jacques Lacan, translated into English by David Macey. This is supposed to be Lacan’s most accessible work, which doesn’t bode well for his others. I’m never sure about Lacan: most of the time he seems to be, like so many other 20th century French intellectuals, a pretentious bullshit artist. But reading him one has the suspicion there might be something there. At his best, he seems to be saying opaquely and gnomically (perhaps poetically?) exactly the same things that Freud said with admirable clarity a hundred years ago.

Oh, and then there’s my Kobo, which is an Amazon-free version of the Kindle. I keep putting more and more stuff in it, mostly downloaded free from Project Gutenberg. Among other things I’m reading Rebecca West’s novel ‘The Judge’: her analysis of the thoughts and behaviour of her characters is almost as detailed (and sometimes almost as tedious) as Proust’s.

Monday, 28 March 2016

The Brontë Sisters

I’ve just remembered another anecdote of the Brontë  sisters. It seems two of them were out walking one Spring day during the lambing season, and one remarked to the other ‘Aren’t the little lambs sweet!’ ‘Yes,’ replied the other: ‘especially with mint sauce.’

These are the Brontë sisters. I’m pretty sure the one on the left with the weird eyes is Charlotte; not sure of the other two which is Anne and which Emily. The brother Branwell is not present, which is probably just as well by all accounts.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

A Terrible Beauty is Born

W.B. Yeats had, unsurprisingly, a complex attitude to the Easter Rising and Irish Nationalism in general. He loved Ireland, but like so many lovers thought that gave him the right to mould her to his heart’s desire.

Of his many poems around the subject, ‘Easter 1916’, whose refrain I quote above, is the best-known and is being bandied about this centenary Easter. Less well-known, except for its final line, is this one:


Incidentally the horrors of over-specialization are nicely illustrated by a woman I met who was doing a degree in ‘Colonial Literature’ or some such, with special reference to Chinua Achebe’s novel ‘Things Fall Apart’. She had no idea where Achebe had got his title, and seemed indeed to be rather vague about who Yeats was. (By the way, I have no degree in any kind of literature, and having met people who do have one, I think I prefer to do without.)

Saturday, 26 March 2016





IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.

Having organised and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and through her open military organisations, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, having patiently perfected her discipline, having resolutely waited for the right moment to reveal itself, she now seizes that moment, and, supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe, but relying in the first on her own strength, she strikes in full confidence of victory.

We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people. In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the last three hundred years they have asserted it to arms. Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State, and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.

The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.

Until our arms have brought the opportune moment for the establishment of a permanent National, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women, the Provisional Government, hereby constituted, will administer the civil and military affairs of the Republic in trust for the people.

We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God. Whose blessing we invoke upon our arms, and we pray that no one who serves that cause will dishonour it by cowardice, in humanity, or rapine. In this supreme hour the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.

Signed on Behalf of the Provisional Government

Thomas J. Clarke,
Sean Mac Diarmada, Thomas MacDonagh,
P. H. Pearse, Eamonn Ceannt,
James Connolly, Joseph Plunkett


A Nation Once Again

It is 100 years since the Easter Rising in Dublin. That was ruthlessly suppressed of course, with hasty trials and many hangings. Among those imprisoned, though he escaped hanging, was Eamon de Valera, who later became Prime Minister of the Irish Republic.

The struggle for a united independent Ireland is not over: the province of Northern Ireland, often incorrectly called Ulster, is still part of the United Kingdom.