Saturday, 28 February 2004

Art for the inartistic

Anyone seeking fulfilment as an artist but handicapped by a total lack of talent should study the works of Goswell Frand.

Tuesday, 24 February 2004

Grinding small

I once rebuked a friend for misquoting the line about the mills of God, but was chastened to find on looking it up that I had quite the wrong idea about the source: Blake, I had vaguely thought, or 1st Corinthians, or something of that kind. Not at all: the line is from a translation of the Sinngedichte of Friedrich von Logau ("Gottesmuhlen mahlen langsam...."). How about that?

And how many people know the terrifying second line?
Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small;
With patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all.

....and if you say it out loud, tum-ti tum-ti tum-ti tum-ti, you can tell that the translator was Longfellow, as in: And the gentle Mudjekeewis/Raven head submissive bowed/Takes her hankie very slowly/Blows her nose exceeding loud.


Saturday, 21 February 2004

Yes, it's from Tannhäuser

For most of my adult life I have had a tune on the brain. I don’t hum it incessantly, but it is always there, lurking behind my conscious thoughts, and often when I feel like a bit of a hum it is this tune that comes out.

It’s a nice tune, slowish and a little melancholy, and it goes: “Da dee da dum, da dada dee, dee da dee DUMM ….” That’s just the first bit, of course.

Now, there are three remarkable things about this tune. First, everybody knows it. Second, nobody knows what it is. Third, everybody thinks he knows what it is.

When I first asked someone the name of it, about 25 years ago, I thought I had found the answer straight away. “Ah, sure and I know it” he said (his name was O’Connell), “it’s a song about the Donegal Mountains. John McCormack used to sing it.”

“Oh, right,” I said. “Come to think of it, it does sound Irish.” But when I mentioned it to an Italian friend, he said, “Irish? Nonsense. It’s obviously Neapolitan.” He la-la’d a bit and, no doubt about it, it was Neapolitan. It positively reeked of garlic. And there you have the terrible thing about this tune. It is all things to all men; every language seems to fit it with equal felicity. It could be anything.

I tried it on a Russian friend ; he knew it, of course, and when he hummed it, balalaikas accompanied him, icy winds whistled across the steppes, and in the simple melody there was the sadness of a million dispossessed kulaks. Then again, my grandmother said it was one of Marie Lloyd’s biggest hits.

So it went on, for years and years. One day an erudite friend would say, “Well, it’s Hugo Wolf, of course. Try the Spanisches Liederbuch". The next, a less erudite friend would be convinced it was from a late-night revue he’d seen the previous week.

Then, at last, quite recently, I got it: a man told me that is definitely an old Basque cradle song. This sounded improbable enough to be true and, further, he knew some of the words (in Basque, if you please!).

So that’s that. But one problem remains: BBC radio hardly ever plays a Basque number, and nobody I know listens much to Radio Basque, so where did I and all my friends hear the wretched tune in the first place?

Personally, I still think it might be a 16th century English madrigal. Anyone happen to know the origin of a thing that goes “Da dee da dum, da dada dee ….”?

Thursday, 19 February 2004

Sayings of the week

"I don't know what statements these folks have attribulated to me but I sure as hell didn't make them." - George W Bush

"I am not altogether against sin." The Archbishop of Canterbury

"I did once make a mistake: I thought I was wrong, when I was right." -Tony Blair

Wednesday, 18 February 2004

Style Guide

Here is a selection from an advice list for journalists that circulates in the United States. Its origin is unknown, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist William Safire certainly contributed to it.

1...Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
2...Prepositions are not good words to end sentences with.
3...And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
4...It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
5...Avoid clichés like the plague.
6...Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.
7...Be more or less specific.
8...Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
No sentence fragments.
10..Contractions aren’t necessary and shouldn’t be used.
11..One should never generalise.
13..Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
14..Eliminate commas, that are not necessary.
15..Never use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice.
16..Kill all exclamation marks!!!
17..Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
18..Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place and omit it when its not needed.
19..Puns are for children, not groan readers.
20..Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
21..Also, if you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
22..A writer must not shift your point of view.
23..The passive voice should rarely be used.
24..Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
25..Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
26..If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
27..Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
28..Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
29..Always pick on the correct idiom.

And here is another of my own:
30..Quotations should be both correctly attributed and apt, or, as Goethe put it, “Während des Aufenthaltes in den Stationen ist die Benützung des Abortes nicht gestattet.”

Tuesday, 17 February 2004

I was so young, and so terribly, terribly talented

Noel Coward’s memoirs don’t quote some of his best lines, perhaps because they are apocryphal:

Now tell me, Mr Coward, is it true that you actually have champagne for breakfast?
Doesn’t everyone?

Mr Coward, I’ve written a five-act play in blank verse. Would you care to read it?
Madam, I would rather be thrown, naked, into a vat of boiling pitch.

Uncle Noel, what are those doggies doing?
Well, you see, darling, the doggie in front has been suddenly struck blind and the doggie behind has very kindly offered to push her all the way to St Dunstan’s.

His better-known bits of repartee, about gherkins, and where to stick Bonnie Langford’s head, don’t come over well in print. I mean, it’s the way he told ‘em. The same goes for the version of Let's Do It which he sang in Las Vegas. I can only remember:
     Martians, I trust, do it,
     Ernest Hemingway it....

Monday, 16 February 2004

An exercise in futility

Review by William Guipe in West End Weekly:

When Façade was first performed, Edith Sitwell declaimed her poems through a megaphone from behind a screen. In the new production of Istvan Groyer’s Melamine-Faced Chipboard which opened last night at the Alice B Toklas theatre, a clever variation of this arrangement keeps the cast behind a screen but reverses the megaphone: they cannot be heard, but can hear every word spoken in the audience. A further neat twist is that the man who works the lights (or rather, light) is prominently placed and fitted with a lapel microphone, so that as he fumbles incompetently with the console his muttered obscenities resound throughout the auditorium.

   The play is, of course, about incomprehensibility and the total futility of all forms of human intercourse. Nine Bulgarian dyslexics gather together in a disused boot-polish factory and ruminate about their ailments and their relationships. Enmities develop, alliances form and collapse, wild schemes are mooted, argued over and finally abandoned. All this comes across more powerfully than in any previous production of the play I have ever seen, the point – or lack of point – being magically reinforced by the complete invisibility and inaudibility of the actors.

   I was pleased to have the opportunity of seeing this fine piece performed by what may, for all I know, be an excellent cast, and to realise that its previous obscurity (it flopped in Florence and was booed in Budapest) was undeserved.

   I urge you to go and see this play before it closes on Saturday, though you will not find this easy because the Alice B Toklas is very difficult to find even for those who know Hoxton well. If you have to give up the search, you may comfort yourself with the thought that this is just what was intended, a wry comment on the theme of the play: we cannot locate, we do not know why, and trying to find out is, ultimately, futile.

   Groyer always said that he was trying to offer an experience which is totally inaccessible not just to the uncultured but to everyone including intellectuals, thus demonstrating that the idea of any kind of thought or emotion being transmitted from one person to another is a dangerous myth, and that the medium is the message only in the sense that neither has any significance whatsoever.

Saturday, 14 February 2004

Character reference

Dear Sirs
In reply to your query, I am happy to confirm that I have been acquainted with the above for more than twenty years and am therefore well-placed to know that in Arthur Pritchard an ugly, vicious exterior conceals an ugly, vicious nature.
The nicknames by which his disgusting band of intimates know him – Plugface Pritchard, Arthur the Almost Human, Old Slobberchops and so on – are quite inadequate to describe either the repulsiveness of his personal appearance or the unique bestiality of his character and habits.
I would unhesitatingly recommend Arthur Pritchard for any position for which degeneracy, extreme turpitude, blatant immorality and total disregard of ordinary decent standards are the prime requisites.

Yours faithfully

[I don’t know if he got the job. If it was a senior position at Conservative Central Office, he probably did.]

Tuesday, 10 February 2004

Urban pot-holing

Last summer I was invited by some friends to join them on one of their week-end explorations of the Huddersfield sewers. Not very enthusiastic at first, I came back convinced that here is the ideal way to fill those dull days after Cowes, for it is in late August – especially after a dry summer – that many municipal sewers are at their best and offer the most exciting possibilities.

I am told by experienced égoutistes that even the greatest of English drainage systems cannot compare in charm and variety with those to be found on the Continent, particularly in Bulgaria and Northern France. Be that as it may, much excellent sport is to be had within fifty miles of London at such places as Slough and Hitchin, though these popular centres are usually very crowded in the season and one may have to wait one’s turn at the manhole.

If you can go further afield it is worth trying one of the towns on the Adriatic coast, where many of the best hotels have private manholes and some even rent interesting routes for the exclusive use of their guests. Personally, I would prefer to stay in one of the modest pensions which cater for students with limited resources, where in the evenings there is much good talk of sluices and grease-traps.

Beginners should join one of the organisations affiliated to the Fédération Internationale des Amis d’Ecoulement Souterraine, the sport’s governing body. Membership of a recognised club will get you a discount on the tolls which many astute local authorities are now charging and which can make even a simple underground trip quite expensive.

Several travel agents offer inclusive tours at around £600 per person for ten days, visiting two or three of the outstanding Continental systems, with guides and equipment provided. One particularly enterprising trip being offered this year at £625 takes you along nearly 130 miles of sewers in Rouen, Le Havre and Dieppe, much of the way through pipes only eighteen inches in diameter.

Monday, 9 February 2004

Slow Man at the Keyboard

In 1982 I bought myself a Sinclair Spectrum and was hooked for ever. Years later I discovered that you could actually do quite useful things with a computer, but in those early days I was very happy to devote hours of my time to writing, laboriously in Sinclair Basic, programs which did nothing very much.

The one which I considered the pinnacle of my achievements was called BOUM!: you typed in your name and age and after a bit of chat it told you how many heartbeats you had had since you were born, then it beeped the old Charles Trenet song at you (Boum! Quand notre coeur fait Boum……..) and the words in French, with accents, appeared on the screen while a little red heart bounced along the lines fitting the words to the tune.

When, after a couple of months of slaving at this every night, I first ran the program and it worked, I felt, like Churchill in 1940, that my whole life had been but a preparation for that moment, and was disappointed when nobody fell about with admiration for my little red bouncing heart.

But I continued playing contentedly for many hours a week. I never liked computer games much, probably for the same reason that I never liked real games – because everyone I knew always beat me. But children who thrashed me at Ping had no desire to write silly pointless programs, so in that field I kept well ahead of them.

Then in 1984 I persuaded my employers to let me buy an ACT Apricot computer for my office: an elegant black thing it was, with a mammoth 256KB of RAM, 20MB Winchester Hard Disk, 12” monitor, Superwriter and Supercalc. (I still have it and no doubt it still works, but I know that if I tried to use it I would be constantly reaching for a non-existent mouse.) I built a padded hood to try to subdue the racket made by the daisy-wheel printer, but it was still deafening, so I had to get a dot matrix printer as well; this made a nasty buzzing sound and produced horrid blurred print.
All this lot cost £5,316.

This meant that I then had not only the evenings and weekends but also the working days to play computers, so I leapt into MSDOS with delight and had fun with batch files and all that sort of thing. Also, by the end of 1985 I had launched into what passed for DTP before DTP was invented. There was something called Managers’ Alphanumeric General Interface Code (MAGIC). You typed your text into your word processor interspersed with codes, rather like HTML tags, such as [m18][f24][s14][d18]; this one means 18 pica measure, Garamond 14 points with line space 18 points. Then you sent the file to photo-typesetters and if you were lucky back came the artwork ready to send to the printers.

Obviously, this was a fairly laborious procedure, but I produced such things as 120-page handbooks with it for a while until eventually DTP software and desktop laser printers arrived and life became much easier. By 1987 I had acquired a PC (in those days they were called "IBM-compatible") running the appalling Windows 2.0 (it was clear to me that this Windows thing would never catch on). I also bought the first non-Mac version of Aldus PageMaker (now owned by Adobe and no longer being developed) and an early version of Excel.

That was the last sea change in my relationship with computers. Since then it has just been more of the same, really; over the years I have bought perhaps 25 PCs, some for my office, some for me (and my wife) and some on behalf of a dozen charities with which I became involved. I got them from a variety of suppliers - international, national, local - and reached one conclusion about dealing with computer firms: that computer engineers are, on the whole, honest, friendly and good at what they do, while computer salesmen are, on the whole, arrogant, stupid and incompetent.

In the last few years, of course, the internet has arrived and this is now a major source of pleasure for me. I have made a few websites or webpages - for myself, for a charity, for an arts group, for a house to let, for a caterer, for a café, for a dramatic soprano. I am not much good at these - I can only do very simple ones, very slowly - but this modest skill is in demand because I don't charge anything.

And I typeset small publications with dear old Pagemaker 6.5 and make little databases with Excel 2002 and, of course, I've got bloody Windows XP.

But what's the use of all that hardware and software if it will not run BOUM! with its little red bouncing hearts?

Sunday, 8 February 2004

Forgotten poet

The quadricentenary of the birth of the poet and dramatist Edmund Crowsely (1604-1643) seems to be passing quite unremarked, even in his native Whitby. It is true that his plays have been, deservedly, almost forgotten, with the exception of the comedy Merry John Tickle, but perhaps it is time for a revival of his tragedy Follow The Turtle To My Father's Tomb, which contains some of the loveliest lines in all post-Shakespeare seventeenth-century verse, such as:
The single thought is licens'd in the mind,
And of this confidence is passion made.

Sunday, 1 February 2004

Passing Out

Passing Out Parade: Mons Officer Cadet School, 1952