Tag Archives: music

Apostrophising a Turd

Have you noticed how real things eventually turn into musicals? Billy Elliot started life as an indictment of the cruelty and small-mindedness of Mrs Thatcher’s Britain and is now a musical. The last musical that I actually attended was also a Billy, decades ago. It had started life as Billy Liar, a lovely sad film about dashed hopes and chances not grasped. The young Michael Crawford was mugging for all he was worth, which was less in those days. I remember his apostrophising a turd, (‘Sink, you bugger!’), which my Aunty Sheila, with whom I saw the performance, thought de trop. (Actually the last musical I saw, I now remember, was Salad Days, because my godson was performing in it. Thankfully, Salad Days has absolutely no dark antecedents at all – and no turds.) Now we have Made in Dagenham, the struggle for sexual equality in the workplace rendered in song, dance and nostalgic frocks.

Not to mention Carmen on Ice.

It leads you to wonder, as you make your way through life, how your immediate experience might in twenty years’ time be rendered on the Shaftesbury Avenue stage. (I say ‘make your way through life’, although most of the time in my experience life happens to you whether you are making your way through it or not. In principle I like the positive approach taken by the weather-casters who are always ‘heading into Tuesday’ – though when Tuesday arrives one often wishes it hadn’t.)

This thought occurred to me the other day. I had been invited to a preview of a sale to be held by one of the great auction houses. It was of Russian art. Most of my fellow invitees seemed to come either from Russia or the countries formerly nestling contentedly in the Soviet bosom which Mr Putin now WANTS BACK. Most of them were women and they were beautifully made up and dressed – if possibly intimidatingly so, given that it was quite early in the morning. One of them – she was most attractive, in perhaps her early thirties and with extremely large earrings – kept giving me a meaningful look. I was intrigued. Then I noticed that she was giving the same meaningful look to everyone else and indeed to the exhibits. It must have been the first time that some of the dour representations in oils of endless birch forests had been subjected to such a look. But there it was: her face was immutable. The placidity with which she and her fellows drifted around the rooms (or ‘the Rooms’, as they are called in the great auction houses), their extreme elegance and the mask-like beauty of their features suggested a dance – a masque in fact. I thought back to the way Cecil Beaton had dressed My Fair Lady, even more decades ago than Billy, when I was a child and taken for a treat. It was towards the end of that musical’s very long run and it looked, frankly, tatty. But when Beaton’s frocks were new they might have merited comparison with these glorious creatures.

I thought about their husbands. They were much too busy to attend the preview but would no doubt, on the recommendation of their wives and with suggestions from their consultants as to desirable lots and cunning bargains, be at the sale itself. They would be less elegant. Their uniform was newly laundered Levis, open-necked white shirts and blazers. They would hold paddles and thrust them into the air with their stocky little arms. They did not recall Cecil Beaton. They did however suggest a dance. I imagined them stomping round the stage in Indian file. They are chanting sotto voce:

Russian Art and
Works of Art
Fabergé and
ICONS!

The last word is shouted and they all wave their paddles in the air; then sotto voce again for the reprise.

There are the makings of something really positive here. I’ll ask Christies to provide some seed money. Maybe Michael Crawford could be tempted out of his gilded retirement to shout ‘Sink, you bugger!’ at a piece by Chris Ofili.

But to go back to my original point, what on earth do Fabergé and icons have in common, except their lowest common denominator as trophies?

Anyway, I was taking the dog for her walk in West Ham Park the other day and thinking of this. I may even have been muttering under my breath:

Russian Art and
Works of Art
Fabergé and
ICONS!

People do mutter there. It’s all right. Though I should probably have avoided shouting out the ‘ICONS!’ bit at the end. That did raise eyebrows. However, something more noteworthy was taking place and it involved the tai chi man – and music too. For most of last week when sunset came there have been the most ominous sounds and lurid flashes coming from over the Park. Then suddenly they stopped. The next day I inspected the landing strip. It had been erased. All that remained were some scorch marks. The tai chi man had seen off the hordes of Hell.

No one had actually said anything about this. No one was admitting anything. But there as I went past was the tai chi man, surrounded by children. He was not en pointe but standing naturally, with a demeanour of quiet pride. As before, he had one trouser leg rolled up and from time to time a toddler, with its mother’s encouragement, would totter forward to touch his wounded shin, to partake of the virtue that was in him. Someone started to sing and the children took up the refrain. It was Jonathan Richman’s immortal anthem Ice Cream Man, but with new words.

Tai chi man (Tai chi man)
We know so well
Tai chi man (Tai chi man)
Beating down the Gates of Hell
Tai chi man (Tai chi man)
Hear my plea
Going to do the same for me!

The men don’t know, I reflected, but the little girls [and of course boys] understand.

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Immaculate Writing

My fellow WordPress blogger Whistles in the Wind introduced me to the work of Josephine Poole. She is a remarkable writer, so far as I know still alive but largely forgotten; she disturbs neither Kindle nor Wikipedia. She published a number of books for adolescents. They’re tautly written, short and frightening. Intruders come into settled village communities and wreak havoc. Sometimes the intruders are literally diabolical. Usually there is a sensitive adolescent character or two. Sometimes they foil the diabolical intruder, sometimes they become diabolical themselves. The books were written forty or so years ago, and I suspect that the adolescent readers at whom they were aimed were more literate then than they might be now. Anyway I love them. You can find them on Abebooks. Moon Eyes is a good one to start with.

In addition, Josephine Poole wrote two novels for adults: Yokeham and The Lilywhite Boys. These are also remarkable. Unfortunately, when addressing adults, she abandons the tautness of the style that she uses for her young readers. The books are like stories which she has written in her usual concise manner and then splattered with similes and other figures of speech, and lots of adverbs and adjectives. Many sentences require two reads to understand what she is getting at. I think that they are great novels (truly) in search of an editor. Others of course will disagree.

Whistles in the Wind warned us of a problem with The Lilywhite Boys. It was published by John Murray, the distinguished publishing house that dates back to at least the Eighteenth Century, that more recently brought us John Betjeman, James Lees Milne and Patrick Leigh Fermor and is now part of the Hachette magazine group. Murrays assigned the book an ISBN number, as publishers do. Decades later they assigned the same ISBN number to Gyles Brandreth’s diaries, which they also published. This was wrong but it happens.

I ordered The Lilywhite Boys on Abebooks. There is a place to add a special message for the bookseller. I always wondered what that would be: ‘Happy Christmas!’, perhaps, or ‘I am allergic to bubble wrap’. Anyway this time I wrote ‘Yokeham by Josephine Poole, not Brandreth please.’

I received the Brandreth diaries of course. I was told that the Abebooks software could recognise a book only by its ISBN number. I got my money back, and the dealer graciously told me that I could keep the book.

I wouldn’t have bought it but I read it: with unexpected pleasure. Gyles Brandreth is my age, we were at Oxford at the same time and it is amusing to read his totally different take on things that happened to both of us. He missed out on Dope, Revolution and Fucking in the Street, not to mention the all-important music of the Sixties, just as I missed out on illustrated jumpers, actresses of a certain age and dear Noel Coward – the Master, you know. I chuckled when I read that, much later in life, he consulted ace lawyer Derek Sloane (sic!)! He entirely fails to remember that this was the same Derek Sloan, a school friend of mine, to whom he had addressed the remark ‘Could you pass the marmalade, please?’ at breakfast in New College in 1968!!! Derek told me at the time! Gyles was so famous! Even then!

One reason why the diaries are so readable is his effortlessly classical style. Apart from the exclamation marks, they are lucidly and grammatically written. He specifically credits his English teachers, but we were all taught like that in those days, if we went to independent or grammar schools. And then it’s in the blood; there is nothing so upsetting as a sentence that cannot be parsed. One of the happiest afternoons of my life I spent in a bar in the West Village with my friend David Attoe, debating over vile American beer whether in Caesar’s ‘I came I saw I conquered’ the clauses could properly be separately by commas.

(The consensus was ‘yes’.)

I thought about this in relation to another blogger, whom I always read: Storyshucker. Stuart M Perkins writes this. As he says in About, he:

is originally from Richmond, Virginia. He enjoys relating his observations of daily life and recollections of growing up in a large family surrounded by cousins and animals.

His stories are wry, well put-together and touching. They are also clear and readable. Recently he got into trouble with some self-appointed member of the grammar police, who was rather rude. His followers piled in to support him and so did I. I thought that since most of what you read on the internet is barely coherent it was absurd to criticise someone with all his good qualities.

Weeks later, the followers continue to pile in. Most of them say the same thing: writing is self-expression; rules are for killjoys. And at this point my hackles start to rise. What do I really think?

Of course writing is self-expression, but publication is for readers, not writers, and readers demand clarity as a minimum and elegance too, if possible.

Clarity without grammar is hard to achieve.

But people who write grammatically but have cloth ears may achieve clarity but never elegance. Compare Simon Heffer, who wrote the Daily Telegraph Style Guide, and Keith Waterhouse and his English Our English and How to Sing It, based on his Daily Mirror style guide. The give-away is usually the split infinitive. There is no reason to avoid split infinitives except that they weren’t possible in Latin – which is no reason. People excoriate split infinitives because they feel they have to take a stand and it’s easy to recognise them. It’s like people who go to the opera: it’s a cultural night out for those who feel threatened by music. Heffer is huffy on the subject of split infinitives; Waterhouse isn’t. Heffer’s writing is accurate but dull; Waterhouse’s sings.

(And so does Stuart Perkins’ and Josephine Poole’s, except when she’s being grown-up.)

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Ciao Bella!

We have a new dog. She is called Bella. That is her name because her old owners delivered her to The Battersea Home for Dogs and Cats already answering to it. This is unlike the previous dog. He had been abandoned in the streets and was wandering namelessly. We gave him a new name because he didn’t like the one that Battersea (then catless) had allocated to him. Even so, we don’t know if she is Annabella or Isabella or even Belladonna or Donna Bella. Sometimes, for reasons that will not require explanation she is called ‘Bella Two-shits’.

I think that she is probably Isabella. I hope so. I had a nice girlfriend called Isabella once.

I thought that I should consult Alfredo, my double the assassin, on the point. When he came through the door Bella jumped up delightedly. Alfredo is a much more contemplative sort since he started his course of kefir with Amy, and he tells me that the nightmares engendered by a life in the assassination trade are gradually becoming a thing of the past. Nevertheless he can still turn on the Italian.

‘Bella! Bella! Ciao Bella! Molto bella!’ he said, capering in the customary bandy-legged style.

‘Woof,’ said Bella.

He appraised her.

‘Good capering,’ he said, ‘for a dog. Strong bandiness too.’

‘She’s a staffy,’ I said. ‘Bandiness is in the DNA.’

‘I think you’re right,’ said Alfredo. ‘Isabella it is. Speaking as an Italian.’

‘An ‘Italian’?’

‘Whatever.’

She is a friendly sort. She gets on well with my mother and she very much likes the Ukrainians who have come to do miscellaneous carpentry and seem to have become more or less permanent members of the establishment. They call her ‘Bellichka’. She likes it especially when they sing. At the start of the troubles in their homeland they sang gloomy nationalistic songs about the house but as spring has established itself more certainly they sing happy songs of renewal. Or so I suppose, since I don’t speak Ukrainian. It is difficult to imagine Mr Putin, the Perpetual President, singing at all, unless it is some dreadful broederbondy sing-song designed for all the KGB boys together. I know which I prefer, and on such simple judgments are political decisions reached.

Her predecessor was male. Because they are both staffies, we thought that it would be a good idea to get a bitch so as not to mix them up in our minds. Even so, she sometimes gets accidentally called by the old dog’s name and referred to as ‘he’. Nevertheless it is immediately apparent that they are very different. The old dog came with a range of neuroses, many of which he kept to the end. They indicated a much darker puppyhood than Bella seems to have had. He would get agitated by the appearance of a leather belt, particularly if taken slowly (as, entirely innocently, one does) from the trousers. He had an unnatural fear of sneezing on the part of men (though not women), sudden bangs (Guy Fawkes was always a torment), falling leaves and umbrellas. No doubt a veterinary Sherlock could reconstruct his troubled youth on the basis of these phobias, but what would be the point? Bella, on the other hand, seems well adjusted. Her only worry is to keep the family all together all the time and where she can see us.

She is also refreshingly ungreedy. We have adopted a reward principle involving dog-treats: three for two shits, if you must know. At first she was polite. Then she started declining to eat them, whilst making it clear that the offer of them was most welcome. As Mrs Thatcher would always say to me, it is not the treat that matters but the freedom – the choice – to accept or refuse the treat when it is offered. This morning we were eating, to the accompaniment of hammering noises and Ukrainian minstrelsy in the other room, our usual second breakfast of black bread, gherkins, smoked catfish and green tea: a virulent blend of the latter kindly brought back for me by Amy. (It was China, not Kettering.) I noticed that Bella was perched on the sofa displaying a quiet and polite interest in our food but showing no desire to share it. Any other dog, including our last, I thought, would have been up on the table with his teeth in my catfish as soon as my attention was distracted.

(I say ‘up on the table’ in order not to disturb the even flow of my narrative. In fact we were eating at our state-of-the-art ‘island’, stark modernist white and constructed of new Ideal Homes-approved wonder-material corian.)

Nevertheless the old dog had depths that his successor seems to lack. We used, as persistent readers will remember, to imagine the old dog talking to us. We used to mock his touching though demented delusion that he had written the Ride of the Valkyries, by Wagner, and kept our little family afloat, financially, with the royalties. There seems little risk of Bella’s embarking on such lonely spiritual journeys. At the same time I think that she will probably be spared the anguish that drove the old dog to hurl himself repeatedly from the tops of kitchen dressers in the hope of catching a ceiling-suspended German sausage on the way down, or to attempt to assuage his alcoholism in the consolations of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet.

It takes, as a very wise man once said, all sorts to make a world.

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A bit of high-level intellectual colloquy

‘Fire away,’ I said to Augustus Sly.

‘Montenegro,’ he said. ‘Ah, Montenegro.’

We were in London.

‘Or Crna Gora, as the locals have it,’ he said. His pronunciation was just so.

‘Montenegro,’ I said, ‘since you are interviewing me on the subject, is a boost to creativity. Of course, as a country, you shouldn’t judge it by February. It was cold and it rained. It reminded me of the west of Ireland from the days when I used to go there. In Ireland it rained and the cold got you deep down. Ireland and Montenegro both, you would hunch in front of some electric fan heater so that your face burned and your feet still felt like ice. It couldn’t be as cold as it felt, to judge by the temperature gauge in the hired Corsa: I suppose that it was the damp that got into the house and your bones and could only be dispelled by living there.

‘The difference between Montenegro and Ireland,’ I said, ‘is twofold: the music and the gossip. In Ireland there is always music: furious music through an open door, as Mike Scott says.’

‘Waterboys,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘Just so. Room to Roam. In Montenegro, there’s also always music, but it’s Europop…’

‘Kurd Maverick?’ said Augustus Sly.

‘At best.

‘And in Ireland,’ I said, ‘there are always stories. There’s gossip about the people who live there. So and so has become a lesbian. So and so has become a potter. So and so was JFK’s real father, still alive, by God. Such and such a church is the oldest in Europe, celebrated in poems and songs now lost. In that valley they still talk Latin – away from the incomers and the tourists, of course. In Montenegro there are probably stories too, but they’re lost on me, not having the Serbo-Croatian. So I’m driven to making them up.’

‘Kurd Maverick?’ said Augustus Sly.

‘He’s real, actually – but I have made him do things that he didn’t really do. He’s cool with it. No, I was thinking of Apa’tman, the great Sixteenth Century warlord who put his enemies to the sword and then subdued the nation with the benign aid of kefir, but would not survive a Google search.’

‘Apa’tman,’ said Augustus Sly, ‘is not a happy creation. With respect.’

‘Please don’t say ‘with respect’,’ I said. ‘It nearly always comes across as either rude or smug.’

‘In my case?’

‘Smug.’

‘Apa’tman is wholly unbelievable,’ Augustus Sly said. ‘Like Dame Jenni ™ Murray, another of your obviously made-up characters that you lay on with a trowel.’

‘Do you think,’ I said, ‘that there is a danger of making the whole thing more self-referential that it already is if we continue in this vein?’

‘Were you planning to record our conversations?’

‘This?’

‘Yes.’

‘Post them?’

‘Of course.’

‘That was the plan: if your questions were sufficiently amusing. My readers like nothing more than a bit of high-level intellectual colloquy.’

Augustus Sly studied the end of his pencil. He was on his mettle now.

‘Great Secret Miss,’ he said.

‘Ah. Tricky, that.’

‘Where is it, do you think?’

‘I can’t of course say exactly where it is or it would be inundated by my thousands of Followers, which would spoil its peculiar ambience. Soho, I suppose, with The Kingdom further up towards the Euston Road. It has certain Magic Toyshop qualities, though, hovering between real life and the world of dreams. You may not be able easily to see it from the street.’

‘And Uncle Edgerton…’

‘Everyone hates Uncle Edgerton.’

‘No. No. The whole zombie thing. Fascinating. In a way…’

‘What I felt, I’d been very brave. Credit was due.’

Augustus Sly ignored that.

‘The whole zombie thing,’ I said, ‘as you call it. What’s your take on that, then?’

‘Oh,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘Post-ironic anomie. That whole thing. It’s a rather important element of my thesis, actually. Won’t say any more if you’re, you know…’

‘… posting. Of course. Internet piracy. You wouldn’t want anyone else stealing a march.’

‘I’ve been burned before,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘Peer review! Ha! Peer theft more like.’

‘Not on your alablague research?’

‘No. No. A thing on Barthes. Barthes: Roland or Simpson? Peer theft more like.’

‘I’m sorry to hear it. If I do a post about this do you want me to take out the bit about post-ironic anomie?’

‘Yes please,’ said Augustus Sly.

He stared at the end of his pencil again.

‘What will you call it?’ I said. ‘Your thesis?’

‘Before the colon or after?’

‘Ng?’

‘All titles of theses are split about a colon. Pilate Jests: Truth and Lies in the Alablague Blog. Barthes: Roland or Simpson? . That sort of thing.’

‘Is that it? There’s no Pilate in my blog.’

‘No it isn’t the title. That’s a secret. Of course there isn’t Pilate actually in your blog. That would be too blatant a channeling of Master and Marguerite even for you. ‘

Augustus Sly flipped his fingers into aerial quotation marks when he said ‘channeling’.

‘But ‘alablague’’, he went on, ‘ – ‘in jest’ in French; Canadian French anyway – is an obvious reference to jesting Pilate.’

‘Bollocks,’ I said. ‘It’s my surname.’

‘My daughter,’ I said, ‘like you an aspiring PhD, likes to drape her thesis titles around a semi-colon, incidentally, rather than the colon as more generally found.’

‘Bollocks,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘I suppose you’re not telling me the title because of the post-ironic anomie business.’

‘Bollocks,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘I’ll get it out of you.’

He fell silent and ruminated for a moment – figuratively, of course, on account of having only one stomach.

Or so I assume: our acquaintance is still too young for confidences of that nature.

Clearly he was working up to something.

‘Big one,’ he said.

I realised at once that he was not attempting to flatter me by using the vocative case. He meant, ‘This is the big one.’ It was usage I had come across before.

‘Mm?’ I said.

‘Who is Amy?’ said Augustus Sly.

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Bow Bells

One of the few builders on our house who is not from central Europe is Pete the carpenter, who is from Plaistow. He no longer lives in Plaistow but he was brought up a block away. His family moved out to Essex some years ago to make room for the likes of me. He told me of his apprenticeship as a carpenter. (If he had been talking to the Gentle Author his eyes would have been shining but he wasn’t and they didn’t. They were fine eyes for all that: dulled by alcohol, but subtly so.)

We used to go down to the River, he said, where they brought in the timber. It was just down on the quay in Silvertown. They would unload it in a state that it still needed to be seasoned. Magnificent boles presided over the quayside, sometimes for years, pickling gently in the London fogs.

Was it wet from the sea, I asked.

Yes, sometimes the wood had been hauled behind the ships, through the sea.

It stood on the quayside often for years until it was ready to be used for building. Some of the offcuts Pete and his fellow apprentices were allowed to practise on, to learn their trade.

I asked if Silvertown was then still Chinese. It had, I knew, been London’s original Chinatown.

Not really, he said. Most of the Chinese had moved west by then. Driven out by people like you, he said. (Had I been the Gentle Author he would have said it with a twinkle.) There were some food emporia, and behind closed doors there was still opium to be smoked and congenial company to smoke it in.

Not for us apprentices, that, of course, he said.

I thought of Mr Lee and I smiled to myself. Not everything had changed.

Pete the carpenter and the landfall for his timber would have been up-river from the mouth of the Lea, though I suppose that in their day shipments of timber could have come ashore at the old East India Dock. Nowadays containers of MDF are craned over the ship’s rail in Felixstowe.

Musing on this I took the track from the East India Dock to Trinity Buoy Wharf and the mouth of the Lea, which at that point is called Bow Creek. As I say there were signs of Hacknification: a phenomenon still mercifully rare in our part of East London; there is wall art, a giant fish, and when I got to the wharf itself an enclave where young people were enjoying a decent merlot.

This used to be an area of unparalleled squalor, even by the standards to which the Victorian poor submitted. There was a tragedy there, which gives some idea. A pleasure boat was run into by a steamer and seven hundred people were killed: many on impact, but most died because, when they entered the water, so, by a bad chance, did a discharge from a local sewer and they died suffocated by human shit.

There was of course a similar disaster, not so many years ago and further upstream. The Marchioness, another pleasure boat, was struck by a dredger, the Bowbelle, and many people were killed. Because of Health & Safety, however, they died shit-free.

Both stories have great emotional resonance. They disturb the even flow of time. I remember a story of a man watching the Thames and remarking to a friend: “Isn’t this where that pleasure boat sank and all those people were killed?” And the friend looked bemused, because the Marchioness tragedy was to take place a week later.

At the end of the quay there is a lighthouse. This in itself is startling: lighthouses are rare in London, to say the least. It presides over the expanse of the river – considerably greater here than in central London – and the O2, baleful on the opposite bank. I could see people walking on the roof of the O2. Lucky people to be doing so!

Lighthouses too have great emotional resonance.

The door was open and I went in. It turned out to be the home of the Longplayer project. Jem Finer, who created the music for most of the Pogues’ best songs – Shane McGowan wrote the words – has created a very long piece of music. Its performance started with the start of the Millennium and will persist until its end. The sound comes from metal bowls, as used by the Tibetans. You can see them there and they are very elegant. The sequences are created by computers in accordance with Jem Finer’s program. They say that it never repeats, but I’m not sure what that means; obviously some short combinations must repeat. There are strategies to cope with the failure of individual computers or of the electric supply. Sometimes people take over for a bit. You can read about it here.

This might have been a conceptual adventure where what mattered was the persistence of the piece over such a long period, rather than the experience of the sound. I went up to the listening area. This is in the top of the lighthouse where once the lamp was. Through the latticed window you can see the O2 and Docklands and you can imagine the music continuing on its placid way when the O2 has flapped away in unseasonably high winds and Canary Wharf has ivy growing up it. And the music itself is beguiling. It needn’t have been but it is. I sat there until the sun started to go down. Then I went home and played it from the website.

I have no idea why a sequence of notes generated by a computer should be so affecting. Maybe it was the lighthouse and the dead pleasure-seekers separated by a hundred years or more. Maybe it’s simply Jem Finer’s musical genius. After all, Fairytale of New York has great emotional resonance too.

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Disappointment in Wigmore Street

I went to the Wigmore Hall with my friend John to see Andras Schiff, the pianist, playing Bach’s English Suites. He is having a season playing much of Bach’s solo keyboard music there, from memory. John has been to a number of the concerts, but on this occasion his partner in this endeavour had been invited to the Christmas celebrations of Bottega Veneta, and so there was a spare ticket.

I had arranged to meet John in a nearby pub. I arrived first and went in. To my horror it was full of Santa Claus. Some Santas were very drunk and were mocking an elf. There was what the packagers of DVDs call moderate violence and language. I was told later that the violence involves throwing sprouts at elves: boiled or fresh according to inclination. Other Santas sat in silence each side of a long table eating their pies. I bought a pint and waited for John outside. The street too was full of Santa. I hoped that there would be none in the Wigmore Hall.

No, it was the usual Wiggie crowd. Bruised by determined and tweeded elbows we made our way to our seats. In the row in front a man had just died but, they said, could not be moved until half time for fear of disrupting the concentration of the artiste.

A nicely-dressed functionary came on stage. Maybe, I thought, he’s come to say that it will be the understudy. No, he told us jocularly not to cough for fear of disrupting the concentration of the artiste.

When we had turned off our mobiles and cleared our throats the artiste himself glided onstage. Mr Schiff’s footwork rivals that of Hercule Poirot; ‘glided’ is the only possible word. Possibly, I mused, ‘Schiff’ (‘ship’ in German, and Mr Schiff hails, against his better judgment, from central Europe) is but a nom de guerre. The effect of gliding was enhanced by a strange jacket, black and buttoned to the collar, resembling nothing so much as that notoriously favoured by the late Mr Nehru, but, as I say, black.

Mr Schiff seated himself, examined his hands quizzically as if astonished, yet again, that such exquisitely sensitive objects could exist in nature, gazed soulfully into where the wings would be if there were wings and not just walls, and started on the English Suites by Bach – from the top, and as I say, from memory.

It was not long before I noticed something very wrong and entirely unexpected. In spite of remembering the notes, and the order in which they were to be played – itself a major undertaking when combined with the other keyboard works by Bach which Mr Schiff had prepared to perform at the Wigmore Hall – he apparently had only the haziest idea of how long each one was expected to last. His left hand trundled away in quite a conscientious way but his right seemed, like that of Dr. Frankenstein’s protégé, to belong to someone else entirely. Complicated bits were rushed, and when they were imminent Mr Schiff would pause for a moment before leaping in. In short, there was no rhythm at all; it was a performance (as Poirot would have put it) embarrassingly clumsy. The many notes constituting Bach’s English Suites unravelled and fell on the ground. Had it not been for the nicely-dressed functionary they might have coughed in embarrassment.

I would not have bothered you with all this if it had been simply a case of a disappointing concert. There have been enough of them, God knows. My problem was that I seemed to be in something of a minority. The audience clapped respectfully if not ecstatically, John was more than enthusiastic and Mr Schiff himself, if the little smile playing from time to time on his lips was anything to go by, thought that he had Bach’s English Suites nailed. I am a fair person and also I hope an analytical one. As great clumps of what in other hands might have been elegant Baroque ornamentation came and went I thought it through. These seemed to me to be the possibilities:

1 Mr Schiff was drunk. That seemed unlikely.

2 I had suffered a minor stroke, which had disrupted my own sense of timing.

3 Mr Schiff meant to play it like that.

Poirot-like I ferreted away and provisionally adopted possibility three. Now certain moral and aesthetic conclusions became possible. Mr Schiff could have played what Bach wrote but apparently thought that it was better to distend it in order to bring out his own ideas of its inner structure. Thelonious Monk after all did just that, to revelatory effect. With Monk, however, the rhythm remained reliable so you could feel the disintegration and reassembly of the tune. With Mr Schiff his oompah left hand was just not enough and it all fell apart.

With Bach, I reflected, you need momentum and humour. Here the momentum went out of the window with the rhythm. As to the humour, Mr Schiff clearly recognised that there were playful passages. He put on a Mr Bean expression for them. The trouble is that he did not actually make them playful.

At half time I explained all this to John. He was so angry with me that he went and hid in the lavatory. The nicely-dressed functionary removed the dead person from the row in front and they resold the seat for the second half at a reduced price. A new tweeded man arrived shortly afterwards, glaring around him and flexing his elbows.

The interval over, Mr Schiff glided back. Another extraordinary thing happened. It started to work. He played Bach’s music and it made sense. There were still some queasily approximate appoggiaturas but by and large it was all quite listenable, in a way that the first half hadn’t been at all. This raised a fourth possibility:

4 Mr Schiff had a nightmare first half but no one much noticed and after a cup of strong coffee it all came good.

Well, better.

Who knows? When we left Santa was still on the street. They had joined forces with the remainder of the Christmas celebrations of Bottega Veneta. As a conga they weaved along Wigmore Street clutching each other’s waists (rough red tunics and little black numbers from Prada alike) and singing the Bottega Veneta house song:

Will you need a bag with that?
Will you need a bag with that?

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My Double, the Quite Important Assassin

I mentioned in the last post my double, the quite important assassin. I had not thought about him for some months and that night I did so. I was lying awake in our room in Rob’s farmhouse in Portugal. It was still very hot, but the windows could not be opened for fear of mosquitoes and I found it hard to settle. Next to me the better half was re-living in REM sleep an altercation that she had had with a traffic warden in which the latter had come off second best.

I mused that mosquito is the Portuguese for mosque, or possibly the other way round: that mosque is the Portuguese for mosquito. That was the association with my double: a mosque, in its English meaning, being the scene of one of his most audacious coups.

You might have thought that Bi and Large would have been a more congenial theme for a nocturnal musing, but I hadn’t actually seen them; they were described to me by Rob and the better half, who may have made the whole smutty story up just to get me to the beach.

In about 1960, when the Neapolitan ruffian, no doubt a very junior operative in a large operation, probably indeed little more than a bambino with skinny wrists, originally removed my passport from my father’s Daimler there would have been no occasion for me and my double ever to come across each other. We would have come and gone about our respective businesses and across our borders and no one would have noticed that our passports were, apart from our photographs, identical. Furthermore, as he was to tell me, he used my identity only on important occasions, when acting actually en assassin, keeping five or six Italian passports and other pieces of documentation asserting his citizenship of various other European nations, for more everyday use.

Computers changed all that, of course. During the Nineties I started experiencing delays at passport control while the official checked pieces of paper. Then one day some ten years ago I was summoned into the Little Room.

The Little Room! Fortunately this was not the first time I had been there and I had some idea what to expect. A year or so earlier the better half and I were asked into the Little Room at JFK. Three uniformed Puerto Ricans fingered the triggers on their Lee Enfields (or whatever is the American equivalent) while a young man browbeat the better half and demanded to know her ‘feelings for these United States’.

She said that her feelings were extremely positive and eventually they let us go, though only after she had been required to spit on a photo of Mr Putin which they kept for that purpose and on which the perpetual president’s unwholesome features had inevitably become tarnished by repeated gobbing – and possibly worse. I could see that they were about to require me to do likewise on a representation of Her Majesty, but I fixed them with a look and they backed off.

As we left, the three Puerto Ricans took out their frustrations on some rats which were disporting themselves in the corner of the Little Room, killing five and winging three more.

Anyway, on the second occasion I was by myself, I did not have the better half to protect and it was not at JFK but somewhere half-way civilised: Port-au-Prince, if memory serves.

Fortunately or otherwise, Caribbean French is not one of the dialects in which I am more than adequately versed. No doubt much went over my head. Certain words, assassin, meutre and famille, kept recurring. Specific questions as to my whereabouts on particular dates were fired at me, and with my computerised diary I could give them comprehensive answers. I could see that something bothered them. They kept staring at a photograph and shaking their heads. I could see it on the desk, upside down. Suffice to say that it was not of a pale Englishman.

At last they let me go. Out of pure spite they made me spend the rest of the night in their gaol. The heat and the stench were appalling, but, to be fair, some of the airport hotels around JFK are not of the sort to which one would willingly return.

I resolved to find this man who had caused me all this trouble and – who knew? – could cause me so much more.

From the far reaches of the house came sounds of plumbing’s being exercised. Since Joca has no opposable thumb it must, I reasoned, be Rob having a pee and flushing. I settled into my pillows ready for a treat.

Rob’s house has no mains supply and no well; the water is provided by a Mr Franklin, who has a truck with a tank on the back. Mr Franklin is Portuguese but his name presumably reflects an Anglo-Saxon entanglement at some point in his family’s past, just as men who live in Norfolk are often called Mr Rape or Mr Pillage or some other surname indicating Viking origins.

The water poured into the system from Mr Franklin’s tank en route for Rob’s cistern en suite. A series of rhythmical lurches marked the entry of the water, its being detained by minor airlocks and its overcoming them. Then a series of bass notes sounded, like the opening moves of a cathedral organist embarking on a toccata and fugue. I strained for the last, a very low B Flat which I knew from experience to expect. It was almost too low and too grand to be actually heard: only felt. Finally there was a series of glissandi, caused presumably by the action of air on the pipes as they filled up with water and emptied again. These were of an unearthly beauty, at once sensual and as formal as Bach.

Occasionally during the daytime the loveliness of the sounds would tempt me to flush the lavatory twice, but if I put my hand out to do so I would as often as not feel Joca’s minatory nip at my ankles: Mr Franklin’s water was not a luxury.

Settled as I now was in my bed I felt no such temptation. I was perfectly happy. Bi and Large and my assassin, my double both deserved further consideration, but that could wait until the morning. Finally, I slept.

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A Late Night Prom

I went to a late-night Prom. It was to be two pieces by Frank Zappa, an orchestral arrangement of G Spot Tornado and The Adventures of Greggery Peccary, an orchestral transcription of a player piano piece by Conlon Nancarrow and Philip Glass’s tenth symphony. It was to start by at 10.15, after the main Prom, which was to be a feast of English light music, and finish by 11.30. I like brief concerts, possibly because I’m shallow but maybe because it’s nice to reflect on what you’ve heard before the great orchestral crescendos have beaten out of you any wish to reflect on anything. I particularly like late-night Proms, which are usually half-full at best and promenaders wander around the arena, apparently half asleep but many of them visibly on the pull.

I got there very early as I had to collect my ticket from the ticket office, which closes at nine, so I went to a bar and nursed a pino grigio (small) and a roll and inspected the crowd. At first blush this was distressingly full of old hippies. Many of them sported Frank Zappa t-shirts necessarily of some antiquity, though none that I could see celebrating Frog Hollow Day Camp; many were making the most of not enough grey hair. But then there was half time for the main Prom and we were swamped (as Mrs Thatcher once put it in a different context) by enthusiasts for English light music in search of alcohol. They wore twin sets and decent tweeds and although they stared at us with incomprehension I couldn’t help noticing that they shared a taste for the pino grigio (small). Then there was an announcement – ‘Take your seats for the Dam Busters March’ – and off they trotted.

One of the things with the Proms is that you feel that you can rely on their playing to time, because they have to conform to the schedules for Radio 3. This concert however was rather ramshackle. It started late and involved massive changes on stage between each piece. To avoid our getting bored when this happened a man came on stage and talked to the conductor. Each of them had been provided in advance with a microphone but regrettably not a tie. The man who wasn’t the conductor got quite excited about the title of G Spot Tornado. No doubt he had prepared, dispassionately in his study, a selection of knowing remarks specially for the purpose (‘Zappa hits the spot!’) but they were delivered so lasciviously that I was concerned that he might have a heart attack on live radio. When he crashed to the stage and had to be carted away, I imagined, the promenaders, even though a second-string crew as it was only a late night programme, might chant in unison, ‘Heave!’.

As it went on the concert got more and more behind schedule.

Zappa presided at the end of his life over the orchestration of G Spot Tornado, written for and originally realised on synclavier, and it was wonderful: worth alone the cost of admission as they say. I’m less sure in principle about the Nancarrow orchestration. The piece was written, pre-synclavier just as the synclavier has itself vanished in favour of ever more sophisticated synthesisers, for player piano. Part of the point was that it was precise, inhuman in spirit and impossible for human beings to play. Maybe it was exactly the same with G Spot Tornado. I suppose that the difference was that Nancarrow never approved any such adaptation. He probably never thought that it might be possible. Just as Jessica Ennis can do things undreamt of in the thirties, when Nancarrow, if not the littlest certainly the most tonally adept hobo, was hopping on and off his boxcars, so can today’s orchestral musicians. Anyway, it was marvellous to hear.

Musicians filed on and off stage and more chatter ensued. One doesn’t want to dwell on what might have happened out of our sight but your man not the conductor now seemed to regard G Spot Tornado with a certain ex post facto melancholy.

They addressed the next piece, Philip Glass’s tenth symphony. They instructed us to regard it as if by Schubert. This was a bad sign, I thought, and I was right. What a parade of self-satisfied inanity. Half an hour of it too. What a waste of a perfectly good orchestra. Philip Glass wrote some quite good chamber music in the seventies and he should have left it at that. Some senior apparatchik at the BBC should have made the throat-cutting gesture and said, ‘Cut the Glass’, because what with all the chatter we were fast approaching last-Tube time and there was still The Adventures of Greggery Peccary to come.

And very good it was too, except that everyone was looking at their watches and when it was over we all leapt as one music-lover to our feet and hurtled head down for the Underground.

On the District Line a young man came up to me.

Are you wearing nail polish? he said.

Not at all.

I’m very drunk, you see.

I understand.

Could you possibly just nod your head? Just minimally?

Of course.

And I did. He beamed. His friends roared with laughter. We all shook hands.

But back to the concert – where my thoughts went as we ventured greenly past the City and into the old East End. What had been the point? What justified the long delays, the dash to the Tube, the hippies with their t-shirts and the man with the microphone but no tie? What justified having to listen to vacuous old Glass? The point of Greggery Peccary is largely the words, which were inaudible in spite of being intoned by a man, we were told, from Radio 4. What I really wanted it know was if they still, thirty-five years later, worked, or whether like so much from that era they had crossed the line into blether. I still don’t know.

The man with the microphone but no tie told us that the piece came from the album Studio Tan. Only up to a point of course: it came from the meisterwerk Läther, and only when the record company turned that down was it released on Studio Tan as a makeshift second best.

But isn’t the name a clue? Studio Tan: not live: not the Albert Hall: best that way: get the CD.

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Democratic Music

The English language, as the better half and I often agree, is a wonderful thing. You might think that a brass band was just like a steel band but mellower, or, if you were of a literal turn of mind, yellower, but you would be wrong. You would be very misguided if you drew similar conclusions as regards a band of gold.

These rather trivial thoughts went through my head as I watched a series of performances at Music for Youth’s National Festival in Birmingham last week, some of them performances by steel bands; the brass bands were in another part of the festival and a different hall. Setting a steel band’s equipment up on stage takes a certain amount of time, unlike a brass band which only requires chairs, so while I waited I permitted myself a second train of thought.

Steel bands are the most democratic of musical enterprises, because no one has the tune. The players each have a limited number of notes available on their pans and strike them at the right point, just when the tune has need of them. Then someone else does the next note. People who carry tunes, on the other hand, often develop undesirable habits involving grimacing and the tossing of hair. Jazz trumpeters and first violins in string quartets are particularly given to this; lead guitar players notoriously so; meanwhile the other players look grimly supportive. With steel bands everyone is in it together.

This steel band was particularly good. It was a youth group from Tyneside, thousands of miles from the tradition’s roots. The music ebbed and flowed and there were sudden magnificent crashes. Then, as the final climax approached, there was a fire alarm. Apparatchiks ran into the hall clutching their walky-talkies with one hand and making throat-cutting gestures to the band. It has to be said that their behaviour did not fall far short of grimacing and hair-tossing. Certainly they were enjoying making their throat-cutting gestures much more than listening to the music.

Such was the shock that some of the band wept briefly, before recovering their cool. We all went and stood in the sunshine and then went back in and they played it again. The smell of recently-charred concert hall, incidentally, was conspicuous by its absence, but better safe than sorry.

This throat-cutting gesture is a strange thing. I remember it on one of the two occasions when I was interviewed on the radio. I was sitting companionably at a table in Broadcasting House across from the interviewer and with a microphone in between; I was in full flow. The interviewer was making supportive gurgles and then did the throat-cutting gesture. The combined effect of gurgling and throat-cutting was so macabre that it brought me up short, which I suppose is what she intended.

Anyway, I soon found myself again musing on musical matters in circumstances where no alternative was available.

Last Saturday night there was a terrible commotion in our block of flats. It was mainly shouting and screaming but as the evening wore on there were also sounds of revellers being unwell. It was a very noisy party but not a particularly musical one. It went on until five in the morning. To be fair, though, if it hadn’t been so hot the windows would have been shut and some of the sound would have been muffled.

Actually our windows seem as if they had been designed to magnify the sound below. The other evening the local drug dealer was standing underneath shooting the breeze (is that the expression?) with a friend. We heard every word. He was complaining about how hard it was to make a living as a drug dealer in these terrible times. Sometimes goods were ordered and the orders were cancelled; sometimes payment due was not forthcoming.

Maybe it is because I am black, he said with a sigh.

But I digress from the party. We thought that up to a point revelling could be put up with on a Saturday night. However by mid-evening on Sunday there were ominous signs of party-goers, like the crows, gathering again. The better half met one of them. He said that he was from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as was his host. His host had just celebrated a birthday and had decided that a two-night celebration was appropriate, although only special guests would be invited to both nights. These favoured ones had gone home to watch Andy Murray on television and change their underwear and were now back for more.

The better half told me that the young man brought this helpful exposition to an end with a proposal of marriage.

Shortly afterwards a limousine arrived and the host came down to greet it. Out stepped five statuesque young women. He kissed each one, a tribute that they accepted regally. Then they all progressed inside. Who are they? I said to the better half. (We were at the gate as they arrived so that she could smoke her after-supper cigarette.) Are they his sisters? Will they sing in close harmony, do you think? Will they burst out of a cake?

Um, said the better half, with the intonation of one who has seen the world.

But five! I said, weakly.

Later that night I lay awake and listened to the sounds. The better half snored gently beside me; she is not musical. It was West African music and it sounded live. First the drummer and the bass player set up a groove. There were guitar and keyboard solos, planned improvisation or merely interjections. Sometimes nothing would be going on at all except the regular beat of the high hat. From time to time there were women’s voices – maybe the glamorous women from the limousine, but, no, probably not.

Like the steel band, it was democratic music, whether it was live or recorded. The musicians were diligently combining to justify the drummer’s groove, and there was no grand-standing.

Or so it sounded as I lay three-quarters asleep with several walls in between.

As I say it seemed to be live. But it’s hard to believe that they found room in one of our dinky little flats for a band and a party, though who knows? This time it was a serious party, no one spilled outside to smoke on the lawn and no one was obviously unwell. I slipped off to sleep before the end and by morning it was as if it had never happened.

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Gas Bills are the Healing Force of the Universe

I am a trustee of a charity which makes opportunities for young people to perform music. The authorities by and large can take or leave the making of music by young people but they are determined that I should not take advantage of my position to abuse the children sexually. There has never been the ghost of an opportunity to do so even if I had wanted to, but it is a not unreasonable concern. There has after all been too much of that sort of thing.

So five years or so ago I filled in a long form and the charity parted with a sizeable fee. The questions on the form sought partly the sort of identifying information that would enable the authorities to track me on the Home Office database, if I were there to be found. Partly, however, it consisted of questions designed to trick you. By what previous names have you been or are you called, it asked. Those filling in the form with half an eye on the television might without thinking volunteer ‘Tony the Television Presenter’ or ‘Cardinal Charlie’. And then they’d be in it.

I didn’t; I concentrated and answered sensibly and truthfully and in due course I was approved.

But – five years or so on, the authorities started to worry. Has he lapsed? Better check again, they thought.

So I again filled in the form, with the same information. With what exotic handle have you scoured the internet for kiddy porn, they demanded – but subtly, so I wouldn’t catch their drift; with what nom de guerre have you prowled the tuck shops of our land seeking those with whom to interfere?

None, I replied.

There was however one new thing that they wanted.

Give us, they said, a copy of a recent gas bill: from Eon as it might be or the endearingly witless British Gas: we are platform- (as it were) neutral, they said

I was stumped. What did they want a gas bill for?

Possibly, I speculated, some thorough if – alas! – belated forensic investigation of Mr Savile’s caravan has revealed Baby Bellings galore but no Calor Gas bottles. Is it a question of the gas ring that didn’t roar in the night? Is there a natural incompatibility between his revolting behaviour and the comforting aroma of North Sea Gas?

Or maybe, I thought, the authorities have taken the bull by the horns and put something in the gas supply without telling us, like bromide in soldiers’ tea, and are anxious to establish that I am getting my fair share. Decades ago, in the first flowering of feminism we learnt that all men were rapists. Now perhaps they have decided that all men are pederasts, but that they will take drastic and universal action to stop them doing anything about it. They will, in short, gas us for the good of us all.

The incomparably great jazz musician Albert Ayler said, Music is the Healing Force of the Universe. Our authorities seem to have concluded, Sod music, but North Sea Gas is certainly the healing force of the universe.

Either way I was delighted to confirm my consumption of this beneficent facility. There has after all, as I say, been too much of that sort of thing and we have to act together to stamp it out, at whatever personal cost.

So with the satisfaction of a job well done I put the whole thing behind me.

Imagine my surprise then when a few days later I applied to a landlord to rent one of his flats. We are moving house and we need somewhere to live while building work is done on our new house. He presented me with a long form and relieved me of a £300 fee.

And I shall need a copy of a recent gas bill, he wheedled.

I was astonished, but I kept my cool.

Eon or the notoriously incompetent (I was losing patience now) British Gas? I said.

We’re platform-neutral.

He sniggered.

I sighed and let him have it. It was the same one actually.

But it does not engender confidence in the new flat. What on earth has been going on there?

We will be turning the mattress over, for sure.

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