learning french and clarinet-player nat

The attempt to escape involves an overhaul in the ability to speak French. Having the usual English education, I can normally understand what’s written down in French but I have no understanding at all of idiom, let alone slang. So, to Foyle’s bookshop, where there appear to be three possible books. One encourages learning idiomatic French, one encourages the use of slang and the third is frankly obscene. I have bought the first book, partly because you get a free CD. It is written by an American, who is evangelical about the French and their ways as contrasted with the Americans and theirs. She tells us with some satisfaction, for instance, that the French for American coffee is ‘jus de chaussettes’, which I think translates as ‘sock juice’.

Then, getting into her stride, she launches into a test on French table manners. Do you for example take the fork in your right hand and transfer it as required into the left or do you take the fork in your left hand and transfer it as required into the right?

I do very badly in her test. I am all right with the wine but my grasp of the rules for the hands is an embarrassment.

Your hands should be visible at all times, she warns. Yes, I’ve seen French movies. I know what happens under the table when hands are permitted to escape the iron restraint of etiquette.

When I was at school Management started to worry about the little boys’ grasp of table manners generally, and particularly concerning hands. A notice was pinned, ex cathedra as it were, to the board. It contained our instructions as regards table manners. Unfortunately, in its zeal, Management, as so often, had misplaced its ‘not’s. Item 1 read:

Hold bread in hand except when conveying it to the mouth.

When Management, everywhere, then as now, is not misplacing its ‘not’s it’s capitalising them. Don’t you hate that?

Do NOT hold bread in hand except when conveying it to the mouth.

Don’t shout! I didn’t get it wrong the first time, you did.

And anyway you’re dead now.

When I was at school the least grubby hands, if one excludes the Senior Common Room, were those of my friend Nat. He was always immaculate, and brought an élan to the wearing of the school blazer that the rest of us could only admire. He played the clarinet in the school jazz band. I still have a shellac record in which his elegant account of the Dixie phrasings of Jimmy Noone contrasts with my clumsy attempts to master the school tenor saxophone.

He once gave me a transistor radio. It was the first I’d ever seen, and since this is many years ago it was made of bakelite. I still have it. The volume, like lungs, has suffered with age but listen carefully and you can still hear faint echoes of Radio Luxembourg and Voice of America.

Anyway, after several decades, Nat has re-emerged on the internet. After a distinguished career as the managing director of what we are now encouraged to call a ‘major telecom’, he too has escaped and can be heard playing the Dixie phrasings of Jimmy Noone in Tokyo nightclubs. There are clips on You Tube. If you knew his name you could find them.

Nat always championed ‘cool’, long before the word got its present overtones. He designed a book on the subject.

My evangelistic American tells me that the French for ‘cool ’is ‘chouette‘. Curiously, it means ‘owl’ too.

Reading: Moving On by Larry McMurtry. What a long book. I am not yet totally engaged but there are seven hundred pages or so to go.

Bought and listened to: Scandalous by Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. This is much applauded but to me is disappointingly neat and clean. Also it sounds rather too much like the Rolling Stones of the Exile on Main Street era. I suppose that Black Joe Lewis is entitled to pilfer the store that the Rolling Stones took from. Then again, Austin Texas, where they come from, is about as far from Chicago as Deptford. Then, then again, Sir Mick Jagger has always seemed to me at least as much Vera Lynn as Muddy Waters.

And what about Jagger banning Keith Richards from coming to some Stones reunion and getting a presentation certificate, because he disparaged Jagger’s penile dimensions in his book? I’m on Mick’s side. It may or may not be tiny, we cannot know, but it ill becomes a commoner to cast aspersions on one whom it has pleased Her Majesty to raise up.


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