Friday, 30 October 2009

Chez Muse

Earlier in the month I published a post about Renoir's film La Bête Humaine and my happy discovery on the net of a song from it together with the lyrics. That recording was only one out of hundreds of French songs contained in a remarkable website which offers weeks of nostalgia to any francophile, or at least those who are out of puberty, for most of the songs are old and many of them ancient; some are unforgettable and others are deservedly forgotten; some are sung by famous singers and some by unknowns (outside France).

The site is here, but it is unwise to log on to it unless you have time to spare, for it is difficult to look up a single song: one thing leads to another...
Here are a few. Pour yourself a Dubonnet, light a Gauloise and relax.

Mon coeur est un violon
(both sung by Luis Mariano: I had forgotten how good he was)

Les Feuilles Mortes
(sung by Yves Montand)

Ma ritournelle
(both sung with incomparable elegance by Tino Rossi)

Le café au lait au lit
(written and sung by Pierre Dudan—who he? It's a very silly song)

C'est si bon
(sung by Fernand Gignac, not Eartha)

Les pieds de ma soeur
(sung by Claude Gauthier; exactly the sort of thing one would expect from a 1930s song with this intriguing title)

By the way, the song which I mentioned in a post earlier in the month, which became in French Les Adieux du Soldat, was Silver Threads Among the Gold. It has one of the cheeriest lines of any love ballad: " is fading fast away... "
Here's John McCormack.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A new offer

There has been no announcement yet and details are hard to come by, but experienced kirkwatchers have picked up rumours of a generous offer to be made soon by the Church of Scotland to disaffected Roman Catholic priests, bishops and cardinals.

This will provide a new workplace and community of clerics, where they will be welcomed into a specially-formed subdivision of Eaglais na h-Alba. It will appeal particularly to those who have tired of the constant stream of encyclicals and other kinds of Papal Bull pouring through their letterboxes, or who find popery in general a bit of a turn-off, or who simply want to get married. Open to them there will be, within the Protestant/Reformist/Calvinist/Presbyterian church which traces its roots back to the beginnings of Christianity in Scotland, a new group, to be called NIH (No Incense Here).

One of the difficulties of finding out what the Kirk is up to is that it doesn't have any leaders who can speak authoritatively or, as the new recruits would say, ex cathedra: the Moderator of the General Assembly serves for one year as the public representative of the Church, but beyond that enjoys no special powers or privileges and is in no sense the leader or official spokesperson. The current Moderator, the Right Rev William Hewitt, is online at The Mod's Blog but confines his posts mainly to pastoral chit-chat and not ecumenical matters.

This means that there is no-one in authority who can raise the matter with the pontiff and find out how he feels about it, not that anyone would care very much. Similarly, it is not possible to find out what the consensus is among the Kirk's 1,200 ministers or its 600,000 members. It asserts that it welcomes all from around the world, but there may be many who will be doubtful about the prospect of being joined—let alone being ministered to—by a bunch of newcomers fluent in Latin but unfamiliar with Gàidhlig and knowing nothing of single malts, Burns, or neeps and tatties.

So the offer will not be a completely open one. Likely exclusions are Opus Dei members and anyone under investigation or already defrocked. Certainly, the wearing of red hats will be forbidden, as will the veneration of holy relics, though there might be concessions for those who have their own private collections of such things as the kneecaps of St Boniface, and undertake to do their venerating in secret.

But the greatest controversy is likely to arise over any attempt by the NIH group to adapt their places of worship to their own tastes, and here the rule will probably be nothing gold or fancy and, in general, nothing with which John Knox wouldn't have been absolutely comfortable.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Taking it slowly

Other Men's Flowers is sometimes accused of making up anecdotes about music or the theatre and publishing them in such a way as to suggest that they are true accounts of actual events. In reply to such calumnies I point out that it is not always possible to verify stories that one hears and that if they are good ones it seems a shame not to pass them on merely because they could possibly be apocryphal.

Everything depends on the reliability of the source, of course, and here is a story which is of undoubted authenticity because it was vouched for to me personally by Sir Edmundo Ros, at that time the Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.

A novice BBC announcer, about to make his first important announcement, was expressing his anxiety to an older colleague: "How on earth am I going to get all these foreign names right? I mean, look at this one: Romsky Kirkasov or something... I know I shall get it wrong".

"Don't worry, it's dead easy," said his experienced friend, "just keep calm, take your time, think about what you are saying... RIMSKY... KORSAKOV... and you'll find it will come out easily and absolutely correct."

The novice felt a bit better and went away to practise. Then came the great day when he stepped up to the microphone.....

"Good evening, everyone. Tonight's concert is being given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under their conductor Colin Davis, with leader Paul Beard. The first item on their programme is a descriptive piece from the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan, by Rimsky-Korsakov, entitled.......The Bum of the Flightle Bee."


Saturday, 24 October 2009

Quick question

...and quick answer required.

Suppose you are a manufacturer of wall calendars showing days and dates for twelve months (as calendars do). You have little imagination and always print them with the same picture.

You want to stock up for one hundred years. How many different kinds of calendar do you have to print?

If it takes you more than ten seconds to find the answer, you are probably on the wrong track.

The answer is HERE

Thursday, 22 October 2009

A soldier's farewell to his mother

What is the English title of the old song known to the French as Les adieux du soldat?

It goes:
C'est l'adieu, petite mère
De ton gars qui va partir
Il prévoit la peine amère
Que ton coeur devra souffrir
Mais je sais que ta vaillance
Portera ce gros chagrin
Mets en Dieu ta confiance
Pour garder ton benjamin

...and was originally a poem by Eben E Rexford set to music by Hart Pease Danks in 1872; it has been sung from that day to this by hundreds of tenors and barbershop quartets, and is still a popular peace anthem in Sweden as Varför skola människor strida? (Why do men fight?)

You may think you don't know the tune, but you do, you do. I shall remind you of the English title next week.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Embarrassment for Giuseppe

Went to a violin and piano recital last Friday in a beautiful Georgian church, now an arts centre. The auditorium is huge, so for a recital it can be set out café style; for me, this always contributes greatly to the pleasure of a musical event: resting one's elbows on a table with a glass of wine on it is so relaxing, and during any longueurs it is easy to read discreetly: who is to know you are not enhancing your understanding and appreciation of the pieces being played by glancing at Grove's comments on them?

Actually, at this recital there were no tedious bits: Mendelssohn's Sonata in F minor, which he wrote when he was 16, and Schubert's Duo in A Major are both very lovely. The Elgar sonata with its Brahmsian first movement is rather less so; it has been described as a rich and introverted English piece, and so of course was he.

But I was glad to be reminded that the tempo of its last movement, allegro non troppo, sometimes written allegro ma non troppo, has an interesting story behind its origin. In 1863 Verdi, then at the height of his fame, was given a lavish fiftieth birthday party attended by the Mayor, the Director of La Scala and all the rest of the civic and musical notables of Milan. Sadly, in old age Verdi's mother had taken to the bottle, and all that evening the sparkling Franciacortia had been flowing very freely. Verdi had watched anxiously as his mother became increasingly rowdy until finally she seized a bottle, put it to her lips and leaped onto the table. In anguish, Verdi cried out: Allegro, Ma, non troppo! (Steady, Mother, not too much!).

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Wilbur in France, 1908

No 24 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century

Aug 1908: America conquers Europe in this defining image in the public history of aviation. Wilbur Wright flies past the grandstand at Harandières racecourse to give the first demonstration of sustained and controlled powered flight. The brothers had made few flights since the 1903 triumphs at Kitty Hawk; while this display had a commercial motive it inspired a whole generation of heroic aviators, especially in France. Wilbur died young but Orville lived to hear of the Hiroshima bomb being dropped from an aeroplane.

Mr Munro in London received this card from J. T. Morgan in P.O. Seine, probably his first glimpse of a wonder of the age. Wright was showing the paces of the Flyer in the most advanced country in aeronautics at the time.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Getting down to it

The other day Prince Philip gave an interview celebrating the 50th anniversary of a Design Council prize which bears his name, and it was good to see that age has not diminished his notable lack of discretion.

The duke said that the quality of design had in some areas declined, and he picked television sets as an example. Harking back to an age when the sets were simple, he said that nowadays to work out how to operate a TV set you "practically have to make love to the thing".

And then he went on: ..."so you end up lying on the floor with a torch in your teeth, a magnifying glass and an instruction book".

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Sold down the river

The expression probably first appeared in print around 1837: it was applied to slaves who had been troublesome to their masters in the northern slave states and were sold into much harsher conditions in Mississippi. Since P G Wodehouse used it figuratively in 1927 it seems to have established itself permanently as a boring old cliché pointlessly replacing betrayed.

Sad to see it appear twice in the Guardian last Saturday, applied to football fans who were deprived of a television viewing of England's World cup qualifier, and to the English hacker who was refused permission to appeal to the supreme court against his extradition.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Who is this man?

...and what's his game?

For weeks now my tracker has been telling me that a Mac user whose ISP is based somewhere near Dartford in Kent has been a persistent visitor to Other Men's Flowers.

Most of my visitors have found the site by accident and move on very quickly, never to return, but this one (let us call him Arthur, though of course she may be a Winifred) seems to have been devoting a substantial part of his spare time over the past few weeks to splashing about in its turbid waters. Last Saturday, for example, he was here at mid-day for 16 minutes, at 1.30 for 54 minutes, at 3.22 for 67 minutes and at 5.16 for 60 minutes, having visited a total of 61 pages.

Do I know him? What does he want? Why, after all those hours of reading, has he no desire to make any comments? Did he arrive one day by chance, set himself the challenge of finding something interesting somewhere among its 230,000 words and is now determined not to give up until he does?

One possible explanation is that some sinister agency is paying him to read every post in the hope that he will catch me out publishing sedition, treason, filth, or incitement to murder. If so, then clearly his employers have so far been disappointed; this is nice to know, though slightly worrying, for if his visits suddenly stop I shall suspect that he has reported on something reprehensible I have written and it is only a matter of a day or two before my door is smashed open and heavily armed men burst in, shouting at me to lie down on the floor.

So, Arthur, if you do simply get bored and decide to cheese it, please drop me a line and tell me.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

La Bête Humaine

Zola's 1890 novel has been much filmed but the only memorable version was made by Jean Renoir in 1938; this greatly simplifies the plot and updates it to the 1930s. Jean Gabin plays the engine-driver Lantier, and it was said that Old Stoneface and his fireman spent much time rehearsing on a real engine so that the footplate scenes would carry conviction, which they certainly do.

It's not the all-time great film that the corny trailer says it is, but it's a thumping good melodrama. Lantier has a strange quirk which causes him to become homicidal at times of stress, or through frustration. He tries to sublimate his desires by being passionate about locomotives, as so many of us did when very young, but this doesn't really work; he becomes enmeshed in some splendidly sordid murders and finally kills himself by jumping out of the cab as the train speeds towards Paris. The fireman stops it and sadly walks back to find the body.

Zola's ending to the story is rather different. The train is carrying troops towards the front at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, and a fight between Lantier and his fireman breaks out; both fall to their deaths as the train full of happy, drunken, doomed soldiers hurtles driverless through the night.

There is one sequence which I could watch over and over again. They are holding a Railwayman's Ball, and there is much jollity in the dance hall while Lantier is strangling his mistress Séverine (Simone Simon) elsewhere. The scene cuts between the murder and the dance hall, where an orchestra is playing a waltz accompanying a man who is singing, beautifully, a song I have loved for years. His name was Marcel Veyran, but although he was a well-known actor/singer he was uncredited in the film and I could not find a recording. However, to my huge delight I have just found the tune—Le P'tit Coeur de Ninon—on the net, being sung in much the same style by Réda Caire.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

A bad night at the opera

Except when they are selling cars, post-war Germans have generally played down their reputation for efficiency, not wanting to be associated with a characteristic to which the adjective "ruthless" has sometimes been attached (in the case of the Nazis, inappropriately: ruthless, yes, but also outstandingly incompetent). Nowadays, the Germans are known to be efficient and generally nice with it, but like to exhibit occasional failings so as to avoid the stigma of unlovable perfection.

Peter Ustinov saw this diffidence manifested when he was directing an opera at the Hamburg Opera House, then the most technically advanced opera house in the world. There, whole sets wait at an enormous structure beside the wings and slide into place at the touch of a button. The technicians were quite incredibly efficient and yet there was one man who was totally hopeless. With him, everything went wrong. He dropped a hammer from the flies, narrowly missing the Stage Director's head. Whole sets fell down as he approached. The computerised lighting track went bananas and darkness fell over all.

Eventually Ustinov asked him to explain exactly who he was and why they kept him on. "Ah, you see, they keep me here to humanise themselves."

An admirable reply, but surely there must be more to it than that? Ustinov went on to ask, "But why do you in fact make all these incredible mistakes?"

"Ah, you see, it's a long family tradition."

"What ? You mean there are more of you, a whole family?"

"Oh yes, you should have seen my father. He was Stage Director of the Klagenfurt Opera and he made the most incredible mistakes, much worse than anything of mine. But, one day he achieved the impossible: he got it all right. The opera was William Tell, very much the thing for Klagenfurt of course, and watching from the stage manager's place in the wings he could see that all was perfect—all the sets in place, the chorus in position, the animals behaving, the prompters ready to prompt, the singers singing and the orchestra (audibly) playing."

"So what went wrong?"

"Oh, just one little thing—the curtain wouldn't go up."

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Towers of London

This was the name of a company started in 1946 by Harry Alan Towers, producer of cheap films, horror movies and soft-porn, and his mother. In 1961 he had appeared before a US grand jury on five counts of violating the White Slave Traffic Act; it was alleged that he had transported his mistress to New York for the purpose of prostitution, though she told the FBI that he was actually a Soviet agent "providing the Russians with information in order to complmise certain prominent individuals". Anyway, he jumped bail and returned to England to continue his productive, successful, and (the word must be used here) colourful career.

He recently died aged 88, still working on a film of Moll Flanders for which he had co-written the screenplay with Ken Russell; it stars Lucinda Rhodes-Flaherty in the title role, supported by Steven Berkoff and Barry Humphries in drag. This I wouldn't mind seeing, as well as some of his early TV movies, which included one with Basil Rathbone as Scrooge and one with Marius Goring as The Scarlet Pimpernel, but I am not particularly sorry that I missed the five which starred Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu.

For all the sleaze which often surrounded him, he was able to attract big name actors. His company sold various syndicated radio shows around the world, including The Lives of Harry Lime with Orson Welles, Horatio Hornblower with Michael Redgrave, and a series of Sherlock Holmes stories featuring John Gielgud as Holmes, Ralph Richardson as Watson and Welles as Moriarty. It is pleasant to imagine these three great men jostling each other round the microphone.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Return of Pooh the Hundred Acre Wood. Well, he never went away, really: the last line of The House at Pooh Corner is : "... in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing".

Anyway, the title of a book being published tomorrow suggests that there has been at least a temporary (well, eighty-one years, actually) absence. The Milne estate has authorised a lifelong fan, David Benedictus, to write a new series of short stories. The cover adds to his name to those of A.A. Milne, E.H. Shepard, and Mark Burgess; happily, from the cover illustration it looks as if the latter's drawings, pastiche though they may be, pay proper homage to Shepard's originals, and we may hope that the text is no less admiring of Milne. Certainly, neither will owe any debt to Disney's charmless fat yellow blob in a red T-shirt.

E.H. Shepard's Pooh Bear at ease in the Hundred Acre Wood.

[Note: Since I wrote the above, the book has been published and reviewed to general acclaim. The US initial print alone is 300,000]

Friday, 2 October 2009