Monday, 30 July 2007

Top to bottom

In Great Operatic Disasters, Hugh Vickers describes a night to remember at L’Opéra in 1954:

Of all the things that can go wrong with Rigoletto, this is surely the worst, affecting what we might loosely describe as the emotional heart of the entire opera.

At the very moment when the courtiers are brutally mocking him in Act II, Rigoletto’s hump slid slowly down his back. As their taunts increased, the audience was puzzled to see a hunchback transformed before their eyes into a perfectly normal man—except for an enormous behind.

Guy Parsons of Geneva, who witnessed this, assures me, however, that much more entrancing were the baritone’s efforts to push the hump back up again, while singing the great cavatina beginning La la, la la.

Corregiani, vil razza dannata, indeed. As he points out, one would have thought they knew something about handling hunchbacks in Paris.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Still two to come

Last Thursday I had a bet with a friend that before the end of the week at least two out of four words would be used by unoriginal hacks to describe David Cameron’s position, and I won. Yesterday, the Guardian’s Tania Branigan had him as “embattled” and to the New Statesman’s Owen Walker he is “beleaguered”.

Back in November 2005 these two came in handy for Tony Blair as well as the two others I had in mind, and a further couple of useful ones were suggested to me at that time. Commentators on Cameron will no doubt work through all six in the coming weeks.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Finding a faith

My lifelong search for a faith which would not require me to accept preposterous beliefs, which would add a touch of class to ceremonies (marriage, funerals, etc), which would not discourage me from having any fun yet would make me a better person, has so far been unsuccessful.

My observation has shown me that in general the devout are neither happier nor more virtuous than the irreligious. The Society of Friends strikes me as the only sect whose members are actually improved by their beliefs: I have never met, nor can I imagine, a nasty or dishonest Quaker. More, I gather that some Friends (principally in the United States and the United Kingdom) now consider themselves universalist, agnostic, atheist, nonrealist, humanist, postchristian, or nontheist, or do not accept any religious label. This seems sensible, so bully for them; but the need to attend Meetings, which sound tedious and a bit peculiar, puts me off.

Perhaps Shinto is the thing for me. Jeffrey Somers in the New Statesman has described it thus:

Some will know that it is Japanese but knowledge of the subject stops there. This is strange when almost the entire population of Japan, almost 128,000 million people, practise this religion to some extent. Even this is curious because we may discover that almost the same number of Japanese are nominally Buddhist. Most Japanese, then, are followers of two religions and can perceive no anomaly or problem with this.

Ask a Japanese person if he or she follows Shinto and the answer will mostly be no. Ask them to explain what Shinto is about and a blank look will come over them and they will be at a loss for words.

A certain French professor of religion had read most (there are not many) books in European languages on Shinto and saw a need to write his own. Being very intelligent he quickly realised that he would have to conduct his own research in Japan, and went to see the Cultural Attaché at the Japanese Embassy in Paris to ask for some letters of introduction to senior Shinto priests. The attaché was most helpful and the professor flew to Japan.

He realised that it would be good to visit some of the major shrines in Japan before meeting the priests. He did this, and then came the day for him to meet two of the senior Shinto priests. They welcomed him and he thanked them in advance for them agreeing to see him and to answer his questions.

He put his first question: “I have visited already”, he said, “some of the major Shinto Shrines and I would like to begin with a simple question”. The priests nodded. “In every shrine I have visited I have seen a priest or sometimes priests moving around the shrine carrying a carved piece of wood in both hands. Why is this?”

The priest answered, “We do not know”.

The professor was not happy. He said, “Look, this seems to be very common practice and I have come a long way. Can you please consult and find a better answer”.

The first priest spoke with the second priest and then answered, “Well, you see, it is to help us remember something.”

“Good”, said the professor writing the answer in his notebook. “And what does it help you remember?”

“We have forgotten”, said the priest.

I think I would fit quite nicely into that world, but I suspect you really have to be Japanese and I do like to use a hanky.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Top people

Divinely conferred power or talent; capacity to inspire followers with devotion and enthusiasm…..that’s what charisma is.

It is very encouraging, therefore, to hear that according to a recent poll this is the only quality which most people think David Cameron possesses more of than Gordon Brown. Great admiration for it has never been characteristic of the British, as we demonstrated in 1945 when we wisely rejected the most charismatic leader of our country in the twentieth century—to whom we owed an enormous debt—for a man who had no charisma at all. God forbid that Cameron’s undoubted charisma will enable him to lead the Tories to victory at the next election.

I said “leader of our country” because of course the most charismatic of all twentieth-century leaders was not British. It was said that he admired us, but we never really took to him.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Arabian Nights

As the Russian poet in a story by P G Wodehouse would have put it: “I spit me of Harry Potter! Gandalf no good!”

I’ve just been watching Alexander Korda’s stylish 1940 film The Thief of Bagdad. Now that was real magic, oxymoron or no: a glorious reminder of a lost world of innocence and wonder.

A slideshow is here.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Buy one immediately

This sounds ingenious. But what's it for, and how does it work?

Two pairs of first and second legs compromised of angular members having top portions and lower ends, said first and second legs connected at top portions of first and second legs at joints, wherein the joints further comprise pivots, and further comprising spacers located at the pivots, said spacers spacing the first and second legs a predetermined distance apart from one another…

For a fuller description and an illustration, you will have to go here.

[Thanks to Martin G]

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Erethizon dorsatum

Good recipes for cooking and serving the Canadian porcupine are very hard to find, as of course are the creatures themselves if you live in south-east England, as I do.

If you can find one, they are in no way difficult to deal with: a website for (North American) hunters tells us that they “…can be easily killed with a club...” (just like baby seals!), and then you just “slit the belly area, thus avoiding the quills, and, naturally, remove the stomach”. Then you can make Marinated Porcupine Chops (6 chops, a quart of maple sap and 3 fingers of coltsfoot salt), or New England Broiled Porcupine Liver.

Enjoy! as they say over there.

But apparently the really good bit of a Canadian porcupine is the crackling which, according to an early manuscript reproduced by Leopoldt (1976), has a “sapid crispness far exceeding that of pork crackling”. The manuscript gives no recipe, but merely suggests sending it to table with plenty of rice and lemons cut in halves.

Best of all, you can wear the left-over bits.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Irregular Turkish cavalry commits atrocity

Last January I asked if anyone could tell me the source of a delightful poem which somehow has stuck in my mind for years. A kind reader posted a comment giving me a clue that it was contained in a book by Osbert Lancaster called Drayneflete Revealed. I suppose I must have read it in the fifties but anyway I got hold of a copy today and there was the poem.

The book is a parody of an antiquarian study of an imaginary English town and includes notes on some of its eminent residents over the centuries. One of these is a Miss Amelia de Vere, niece of famous (fictitious) poet Jeremy Tipple, and it is she who is supposed to have written the poem. I quote here all that is known of it, which is entitled Lines on the Late Massacre at Chios:

O hark to the groans of the wounded and dying,
A mother who takes a last lingering look
At her infant aloft, understandably crying,
Impaled on the spear of a Bashi Bazook

O see where the vultures are patiently wheeling
As the Scimitars flash and the yataghans thud
O innocent victims, vainly appealing
To dreaded Janissaries lusting for blood.

As Osbert Lancaster comments: “The two opening verses will serve to demonstrate both the fearless realism of the gentle poetess and her exceptional command of local colour, a command the more extraordinary in that she never, save for a brief visit to Tunbridge Wells, travelled more than ten miles from Draynefleet in all her life”.

I wonder if any modern poet leading a similarly quiet life could conjure up with such verve an evocative picture of a bloody 19th-century battle in the Levant.

[More about Drayneflete HERE]

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Two Canadians

As Runyon might have put it, Conrad Black is not such a guy as I am wishing to give the large hallo to. However, it is difficult to ascribe to him the same level of infamy as, say Robert Maxwell, partly because our feelings for investors on the New York Stock Exchange cannot compare with those which we had for the Daily Mirror pensioners. And that ridiculous cardinal's get-up was a splendid effort: one cannot imagine Maxwell ever making himself look quite so silly for our amusement.

But anyone who doubts that Black richly deserves his sentence—or possibly a stiffer one—has only to assess his character by looking at the unsavoury bunch he used to hang out with, which apparently included Princess Pushy, Henry “Peace Prize” Kissinger and The Iron Lady. With friends like that, he must surely be the kind of man who should get at least twenty years in the slammer.

It is refreshing to turn our thoughts to another flamboyant Canadian magnate, though sad to learn that ‘Honest Ed’ Mirvish has died this week. He was 92, suggesting that his recipe for a long life—Keep breathing—worked better for him than it does for most people. The store in Toronto which made him a multimillionaire followed the policy expressed in the title of Jack Cohen’s autobiography: Pile it high and sell it cheap. Tesco later changed their approach, but Mirvish never did. He opened Honest Ed’s Famous Bargain House with the slogan: Our building is a dump! Our service is rotten! Our fixtures are orange crates! But!! Our prices are the lowest in town! Serve yourself and save a lot of money! and the store carried on that way.

Ed is one of the few Canadians ever involved in English public life who is remembered here with admiring affection. He saved the Old Vic from an uncertain future when, in 1982, to the delight of many, he outbid the unattractive Andrew Lloyd Webber for it; he then poured huge sums of his own money into it for fifteen years until he could no longer support the theatre’s losses, and sold it to a trust.

His death had already featured in an advertisement for the Toronto store: “When Ed dies, he would like a catered funeral with accordion players and a buffet table, with a replica of ‘Honest Ed’ on it made of potato salad”.

Let us hope his wishes will be carried out to the letter and that everyone has a good time. Such an occasion would put to shame all the lavish parties on which Conrad Black spent millions of other people’s money.

Ed got a CBE, but Conrad got a peerage.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

How does it go, now?

It's profoundly irritating when you have a tune on the brain and can’t get rid of it, or when you know a tune well but don’t know what it is.

Even worse when you like a tune but can’t call it to mind when you want to. I have an excellent memory for tunes, a singularly useless attribute since I can’t sing much though I enjoy a good hum, but there is one which somehow won’t stick; sometimes it comes to me and I retain it for a while, and then it’s gone again and I have to ask people to remind me of it. Few can.

The tune is nice, though if you see Les Parapluies de Cherbourg it gets a bit wearing when it goes on and on. Now, God bless YouTube, I have realised that whenever I forget it I have only to click here and I can not only hear it but see a clip of the 21-year-old Catherine Deneuve as the 16-year-old Geneviève lip-synching ably to the voice of Danielle Licari, and there’s another here showing the poignant ending of this lovely sentimental operetta, with the umpteenth reprise of Michel Legrand’s tune.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

A literary partnership, almost

I had not known, until I read it in a book review the other day, that Prosper Merimée once proposed marriage to Mary Shelley; she was presumably a Miss Wolstencroft at the time. Odd, because she eloped with Percy Bysshe in 1814, when she would have been 17 and Prosper only 11. Perhaps this was just a giggle between a couple of teenagers.

Anyway, it is interesting to speculate how, if the proposal had been accepted, it would have affected 19th century literature. Would they have discussed their work together and influenced each other so that Frankenstein would have made his experiments in Seville and Carmen would have worked in the Ingolstadt cigar factory?

Or would the marriage have been such a jolly one that neither of them would ever write anything? That would have been a pity.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Shakespeare knew grammar

I have been reading—or rather leafing through, for it has 850 pages and I am already behind with the week’s newspapers—a book by Clive James called Cultural Amnesia. It is a lament for the loss of learning and reason in the form of over a hundred essays arranged around celebrities, intellectuals, tyrants and writers. I had never heard of about two-thirds of these, which shows that even if I had actually read the book I would be quite unqualified to review it.

I used to enjoy James’s TV reviews but nowadays find him unlikeable, too clever by half and faux modest about his undeniable erudition (it seems he can no longer read Russian fairly fluently or get through a simple article in Japanese: lamentable!). While setting out to write something which the blurb asserts is ‘poetic in its language, magisterial in its scope and courageous in its defence of the human spirit’ he indulgently allows himself lengthy diversions on subjects that amuse him; there is a long piece about Richard Burton’s haircut in Where Eagles Dare, a page about how Joan Crawford replied to fan letters and why Greta Garbo never did. and a lot of stuff about Coco Chanel. In all these ramblings he clearly intends to make serious sociological points but that could have been done less obscurely without the gossip. No wonder the book took him nearly forty years to write.

And his literary judgement is often at fault; he believes that Evelyn Waugh was funnier than P. G. Wodehouse, an aberrant view surprising in a competent humorist such as James used to be.

Nevertheless there are nuggets to be relished. Here James kills the myth that ‘genius operates beyond donkey work’—that Einstein was no better at arithmetic than we are, that Mozart didn’t bother with the rules of composition, that Shakespeare didn’t care about grammar and that just because Picasso sailed through art school doesn’t mean that anybody can sail past it. On the contrary, he points out, Einstein could add up, Mozart would not have been able to break the rules in an interesting way unless he was able to keep them if required, and:

..Shakespeare, far from being careless about grammar, could depart from it in any direction only because he had first mastered it as a structure. Moreover, unless we ourselves know quite a lot about how grammar works, there will be severe limits on our ability to understand what he wrote, especially when he seems to be at his most untrammelled. Take a single line from Henry V:
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester.
Here is a whole story in eleven syllables, but unless we grasp how an extremely compressed sentence can be put together, we won’t get the story out; and if Shakespeare had not grasped it, he would not have been able to put the story in. Though they might look like it at first glance, “ill” and “white” are not a pair of adjectives. “Ill” is an adverb, modifying the verb “become”. If this is not realised, the meaning is reversed. If Shakespeare hadn’t realised the fundamental difference between an adjective and an adverb, he couldn’t have written the sentence. A good actor will help him make the point, by emphasizing “ill” so that its effect carries over to “become”. But it is quite easy to imagine a bad actor missing the point, and conveying the impression that ill white hairs make a fool and jester look good, or, even worse—two errors for one—allowing it to be thought that ill white hairs have turned into a fool and jester. This latter kind of misapprehension has become especially likely in recent times. There are now a whole generation who have never become required to understand the verb “become” in any other sense than the one for which I employed it in the preceding sentence: in a previous generation they might have heard a fragment of popular song (“Moonlight Becomes You”) and realised that there is another sense.

All that is a bit wordy but the observation is a salutary one. James hangs it on a peg provided by a quotation from the philologist and essayist Pedro Henriquez Ureña: Great art begins where grammar ends.

Friday, 6 July 2007

We need some new clichés

In most episodes of any UK soap, one line of dialogue will crop up whenever some dramatic event is unfolding and its purport is unclear: “Woss goin’ on?”, someone will certainly say.

And it's expected that people in British cop series will take the trouble to address the investigating officer by his rank: “Please sit down, Chief Superintendent”, or “Am I a suspect, Detective Inspector?”

Movie and TV clichés are a rich field, and Mark Gamon has a comprehensive list of them, including such favourites as:

All beds have special L-shaped cover sheets which reach up to the armpit level on a woman but only to waist level on the man lying beside her.

When paying for a taxi, don't look at your wallet as you take out a bill—just grab one at random and hand it over. It will always be the exact fare.

Television news bulletins usually contain a story that affects you personally at that precise moment.

Mark invites contributions to the list, particularly in such categories as British Movie Cliches, Auteur Movie Cliches, Broadway Movie Musical Cliches and Television Drama Cliches' (including the hitherto-unexplored category 'UK Soap Cliches').

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Foaming pud

The first edition of the late Alan Davidson’s wonderful Oxford Encyclopaedia of Food (1999) is still available at a reduced price from Amazon and elsewhere so there is no real need yet to go for the second edition, though this has been scrupulously expanded by Tom Jaine. The first edition has this about syllabub (or sillabub):

… a sweet, frothy confection which was popular in Britain from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and has since been revived in a small way as a dessert.
The origin of the word ‘syllabub’ is a mystery. Lexicographers find no compelling reason to accept any of the explanations offered so far.

Originally syllabub was a drink with a foamy head, but the foamy part was the object of chief interest and later became the main element. It has often been said that the primitive method of making syllabub, ensuring a good foam, was to partly fill a jug with sweetened, spiced white wine or cider and to milk a cow directly into it. When this technique was critically examined and subjected to experiments by Vicky Williams in 1996, it was found to be unsatisfactory, and it began to seem doubtful whether it had ever been a common practice.

Ivan Day crowned the debate on this particular question by a technical and historical survey of the whole subject of syllabubs, now the locus classicus. He acknowledges at the end of his essay help received (presumably on the particular question of direct milking) from cow 53 at Thrimby Manor Farm, Cumbria, as well as the illumination provided by the numerous 17th- and 18th-century authors whose recipes he cites.

I am keeping for a later post some notes from the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Food on the cooking of Canadian porcupine crackling, a subject dealt with sketchily, if at all, in modern cookbooks.

Monday, 2 July 2007

My talks with the famous

There can be very few people who ever had, within a week, a meaningful conversation with the late Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington and another with the late Arthur Michael Ramsey, the one hundredth Archbishop of Canterbury.

l. to r.: Ellington, Ramsey

I am not among this fortunate band but while travelling in the Far East back in the sixties I very nearly was. This is how it happened, or rather how it didn’t happen:

Spotting Duke Ellington in the departure hall of Bangkok airport, I felt impelled to accost him and tell him how much I had always admired Mood Indigo. Then I realised that this would hardly be an adequate basis for a stimulating discussion, that in the middle of an exhausting tour he would not enjoy a chat with a total stranger who would have nothing of much interest to say to him, and that he was accompanied by some grumpy-looking heavies who looked unlikely to welcome me to the group. So, probably wisely, I resisted the impulse and we went our separate ways; I shall never know whether an exchange of views with the great man would have been fun or not

Then, a few days later, I was walking down a corridor in the Okura hotel in Tokyo when I saw coming towards me the Primate of All England, a genial-looking fellow, impressively be-gaitered and with a relaxed air, possibly having just completed a productive day at some ecumenical conference. We would pass each other just by the entrance to the bar; I was on my way there, but he was probably not (though you never know with archbishops), and it struck me that it would be a friendly and perhaps welcome gesture to say to my compatriot, “Would Your Grace care to join me for a quick one?”.

I suppose I imagined that over a gin-and-tonic for me and some suitably prelatic tipple for him I might recount an amusing incident I had witnessed in the Ginza the previous night and tell him what I was doing in Japan (selling dyestuffs, actually), while he would be happy to bring me up to date with all the latest gossip from Lambeth and maybe put my mind at rest about a few doctrinal issues which had long been bothering me.

But it was not to be; by the time all this had gone through my mind we were already passing each other; he gave me an affable nod and was gone. Running after him and grabbing him by the arm might have led to an unseemly scuffle, so I abandoned the idea, went into the bar and ate a whole dish of nuts with my lonely drink.

I did not realise until years later just what I had missed through my slow reaction. Ramsey was the last of the stylish As of C, though perhaps not quite in the same league as John Whitgift, who had the job from 1583 to 1604 and used to travel to Canterbury with a retinue of 800 horsemen; he was a real class act, unlike his modern-day successors. Ramsey clearly had a bit of charisma, but after him there was Coggan, said to be orderly and punctual but otherwise unremarkable, Runcie, who officiated at the marriage of Charles and Diana (despite suspecting privately that they were ill-suited and that their marriage would not last but not having the nerve to say so), then the fatuous Carey, who smarmed over Charles and Camilla and secretly demanded the release of Pinochet, and now under the mitre there is a little bearded Welsh fellow called Rowan Atkinson or something like that.

P.S. No wonder the Church of England is in terminal decline; the omens are not good. Future Archbishops of Canterbury will be selected from among its top bishops; the Daily Telegraph always finds space for their loopier pronouncements, and reported yesterday:
The floods that have devastated swathes of the country are God's judgment on the immorality and greed of modern society, according to senior Church of England bishops. One diocesan bishop has even claimed that laws that have undermined marriage, including the introduction of pro-gay legislation, have provoked God to act by sending the storms that have left thousands of people homeless.
The Rt Rev Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle, argued that "…We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation… The sexual orientation regulations are part of a general scene of permissiveness. We are in a situation where we are liable for God's judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance."

[It is not known whether these views are also held by Carlisle City Council's Chaplain, but it seems likely that they are: he is called Canon Pratt.]