Saturday, March 24, 2007

West with the Wagons

Guess I must have boasted about the Riviera weather and am being punished. Last Sunday we lunched on the beach at Cannes and had to cover up lest we fried. Yesterday there were large hailstones on the balcony and our front door blew open during the night and filled the place with leaves. Today we lunch indoors.

A couple of weeks ago we went west - almost what the French call Le Far Ouest - Wiltshire. We were looking for somewhere remote in the hope that it might prove a perfect writing retreat. It is: it’s so bloody perfect that the DG also fell in love with it – so much so that I’ll now have to find another place to write in. Or I can stay home: it'll be quiet there if everyone's in Wiltshire. I’ll tell you how wild this place is: it’s in an English village without a pub. It has a ‘phone box – a lovely old-fashioned red one – but it doesn’t work and there’s no mobile reception. People get lost trying to find you – well, the ones you want to see do. Like the BT man bringing broadband: in order to make a call to find out what had happened to him when he was six hours late, the DG had to drive four miles. And there's no gas - that's proper gas, not gasoline - which there's none of either. But boy does it have stars!
The other day, having armed ourselves with an Ordinance Survey map and a compass, we went for a walk. There’s a ridge about five miles away that’s marked intriguingly on the OS map ‘Danger Area’, which we assumed must mean there’s a steep escarpment on the other side, so we went up there – and came across a tall flagpole flying a faded red flag. Thinking it might carry some political message, we concealed our Daily Telegraph and went closer. The sign read ‘Do not pass this point when the red flag is flying. Do not touch any object as it may explode’.
We had chanced upon an army bombing range. It seems that 250 square miles (38,000 hectares) of Wiltshire, or one ninth of its area, is owned by the Ministry of Defence Estates Department, and that a third of that is used for live firing. As we stood there, a line of army trucks come over the horizon one by one - thought they might get in a circle. The good news is that there’s good mobile reception up there, which is a comfort if you're about to become a practice target for full metal jackets.
At least it explains all those moon-crater-like foxholes that we thought were king-size rabbit warrens; and that frequent crunchy noise that sounds as if some farmer is scaring off rooks with a trench mortar. And why the rents are low.

Canary Island Discs No. 4 This one’s by a French jazz musician called Michel Petrucciani. He died in New York in 1999, aged only 36 – not of an overdose but from a chest infection - before he'd had time to enjoy the fame he deserved. I did a post on him in 2005, a little of which is repeated here – hope that’s not a breach of copyright.
He was about a metre tall, and his normal-sized wife used to carry him onstage like a baby and place him carefully on the stool, whence he could reach the pedals only because they were built up with wooden blocks, and he reached the high and low notes by rolling his body along the stool, sometimes clinging to the woodwork for the long arpeggios. He had forearms like a bricklayer, but a touch like a butterfly: if you ever heard his version of Ellington's 'Caravan', you'd have wished that the Duke could have heard it. He seldom played anything the same way twice, but he would usually open with a quiet Bach-ish fugue, which he would gradually build upon – layering notes on notes and chords on top of chords until he reached a crescendo, before returning, in a very French, Debussy-like way, to a gentle six-note coda. Come to think of it, he barely plays the melody of ‘Caravan - but it's always there in your head.
Perhaps it was because of his stature that he did not get the recognition he deserved until late in his short life. Perhaps, like Charlie Parker, his frantic work rate was in expectation of an early death. I saw him play on the diving platform of an Olympic swimming pool high in the Alpes Maritimes above Grasse, (don’t ask me how they got the Steinway up there); at the Nice Jazz Festival; in a smoky Paris jazz club called Le Petit Journal; and, solo, in a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.
He opened his gigs with his own composition: Looking Up. He is looking up in all his photographs; he looked up, physically, at the world, and metaphorically, despite his debilitating handicap, at life. When my (then) early teen-age son and I once met him at the Nice Jazz festival, son asked him for his autograph. And what an autograph it is! Instead of the usual celebrity squiggle, it is a brilliant caricature of the little giant himself, cherub-faced, looking up, and one word: 'Peace'. Disc No. 4: Michel Petrucciani and Duke Ellington’s Caravan.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The best-planned lays of mice and men...

...gang aft a-gley’, as Burns wished he had said. Now this is not going to be another anti-Scottish diatribe. As you know, I am not prone to racial prejudice of any kind, particularly against Scots. After all, my nominee for sanctification on the next vacancy will be Glaswegian Saint, David Moyes, for the last five years Manager of the Everton Football Club, who rescued them from the brink of disaster to which their previous manager had brought them. (Come to think of it, he too was a Scot, but it did him no harm – he’s now Manager of the Scottish national team.)
It was while listening to one of the BBC’s best news presenters, James Naughtie, (a Scot), interviewing our Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne (a Scot) about his hope that the House of Commons (whose Speaker is a Scot) hasten progress on updating our Trident missiles so that we can kill more people quicker so the incoming Prime Minister (Yes, you guessed) can deny all responsibility – that I realised why I worry about the Great Scottish Takeover.
It’s not because, although they pay the same taxes as the English; elderly Scots get free personal care, while ours don’t; or because Scottish students get free tuition, while ours don’t; or because they get better drugs and health care than we do; or even that they obtain 20% more per person from the State budget. Not at all – good luck to them if they can get away with it. To be fair, they do have colder winters and higher coronary death rates, and they have to eat haggis and deep-fried Mars bars and watch Scottish football.
No, my objection is that the Royal Mint has decided that the £20 note will no longer bear the profile of our beloved Elgar, composer of Stance and Circumpomp and our unofficial national anthem, Land of Hope and Crosby, and whose very name is an anagram of 'regal'.
Elgar is out: in future, the Bank of ENGLAND’s most popular banknote will feature – back-to-back with the Queen - a Scottish bean counter called Adam Smith.

Ethnic cleansing comes to football Isn’t it odd that, having got three English teams into the last eight in the Champions League, they managed to avoid playing each other in the Quarter Finals, thus setting up the possibility of an all-English final in Athens? But then, is there such a thing as an ‘English’ club any more, when, of our top three clubs, one is Russian-owned, and the other two are owned by Americans?
It’s the same with the players: When Arsenal played Philips Eindhoven in the Champions League last week, there was only one Dutchman in the Dutch team – and even he didn’t last the distance. And there were no Englishmen in the English team. You realise what this means: it means that when the Scottish revolution takes place, there'll be no Englishmen here for them to take over. The best-laid plans will have ganged a-gley.

Canary Island Discs No. 3 When I was a kid, our parents took us to Blackpool every September to see the Illuminations - Dad worked for the railway company so got cheap tickets. One of my favourite light-and-sound shows was the one at South Shore baths to a looped tape of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody. Maybe that’s when I started to like Hungarian music.
Years later, I went to a concert given by the New Zealand National Orchestra in Wellington, and they played Kodaly’s Háry János Suite. It was a revelation - they played it again as an encore, and then had to play it again because people wouldn’t let them stop. When I went to the record shop next day, they had sold out.
Fast forward another twenty years and I’m in a restaurant in Vienna the name of which I forget, and a small group of white-haired musicians are playing Hungarian gypsy music. Hearing the unusual sound of the cimbalom, which is featured on the Háry János, I asked them if they did it. It was like asking Benny Carter if he did Body and Soul.
I went back there a number of times – they also served good food - and as I arrived they would strike it up. So Disc No. 3 – for Blackpool when it was a fun place, Wellington, Vienna and the cimbalom, it’s Zoltán Kodály’s Háry János Suite.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

I've started so I'll finish

I’ve never told anyone this before, but this is the new, glasnostic, publish-and-be-damned me. To set the scene – though there’s probably more scene than story - I was in a jazz club that I used to frequent in Paris. It was underneath a bar called ‘Montana’ in a street off the boulevard St. Germain. I had invited a colleague who I knew was a jazz freak, and he had asked if he could bring his thirteen-year-old daughter because she was taking piano lessons and he wanted to try to interest her in jazz. The club’s regular pianist was a great guy called René Urtreger and he was playing some Thelonius Monk. René once toured Europe with Miles. (That’s not relevant to the scene-setting, but some might find it interesting.)
Anyway, Daniel goes up to the bar to order some drinks, leaving me alone with his charming daughter. Now, my conversational capacity with young teenage English girls is limited: with French teenagers it’s virtually non-existent. So I ask her if she’s enjoying the Monk and she says she is. I’m about to start on the weather forecast when René starts to play a piece I know and love, and I say, partly for her education, partly showing off, ‘Ah! Blue Monk’. And she says, quietly, ‘I think it’s Crepuscule with Nellie.
Imagine the Archbishop of Canterbury being told by one of his flock, ‘Excuse me Arch, but I think you’ll find it’s twelve apostles, not ten’. What do you say when corrected in your specialist subject, to which you’ve dedicated a lifetime – and a heap of money - by a French female adolescent?
You say ‘But of course’, of course.

It’s happening! The paperback is happening – or at least it looks like it’s about to happen. Those good folks at Amazon are announcing the forthcoming release of Riviera Writers Two – which is the same as Riviera Writers One but with a new cover, a ludicrously reduced price and my name at the top instead of squeezed in as an afterthought at the bottom.
After all, no one could doubt the integrity and efficiency of the great Amazon Brain Forest – why, aren’t these the same people who send you sticker books with the stickers already stuck in, and tell you they don’t have a particular DVD - then, when you’ve been out and bought it in a shop, (remember them: S-H-O-P-S?), send it to you and charge your card?
Anyway, this is the NEW cover.I don’t know where you stand on the commercial exploitation of bloggery but I’m also going to try to put it on my profile if I can handle the html bit. How about that? – WORD didn’t put a wavy red line under ‘html’...

Canary Island Discs 2 It was the autumn of 1960 and I was living in Sydney. I didn’t know anyone and was much more shy than I am now. So life was what the French call Metro, boulot, dodo – commute, work, sleep. I was alone from 5pm one day until 9am the next, and - with the exception of playing football for Greenwich on Saturday afternoons – all weekend. The friendly glad-handing Aussie in the tourism commercials is an extinct species in Sydney.
I noticed in the Morning Herald an ad about a concert by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It sounded interesting at first – I’d heard of them, and, having spent the previous three years in a small town in New Zealand’s South Island in which the National Orchestra performed one gig a year, felt I should take advantage of the opportunity. The only problem was that there was some guest conductor I’d never heard of, and he was conducting a programme of his own works. Not very promising, I thought - but better than going home to my bedsit in Manly, where my landlady laid out the breakfast trays the previous evening, so that by morning your breakfast was covered in ants. (I used to squash them in a ring around the side of my plate as a gesture of disapproval, but then she asked me if I had a problem about ants in my food, because they were quite harmless. She came from Papua, New Guinea and apparently thought that ants added a healthy shot of protein to the morning Wheaties.)
So I went to the concert – and still haven’t recovered. The name of the composer/conductor was Aaron Copland and the piece of music that changed my life was Appalachian Spring. It says so much to me: America, spring, wide open spaces and starry skies that you rarely see in crowded, light-polluted Europe. Although I owned it as a 33rpm and then as a CD. it’s one of those works - like the 1812 Overture - that should be he listened to live, and preferably in the open air. I watch out for it every year when the summer Proms programme comes out, but it’s never there. But I can tell you, Plumley, Lawley or whichever adverb runs it now, that if Appalachian Spring is not on my island, I’m not staying for the next eight records. I‘ll do a Steve McQueen and jump aboard the next passing inner tube.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Canary Island Discs: Record No. 1

When we were on our desert island last month, internet-rationed, bereft of Sunday Times and Sky Sports and with the radio only in Spanish and German, I pined for Radio Four: John Humphrys and the Today programme were never so sorely missed. (He has been on the show twenty years last month. Congratulations, John.)
But it wasn’t just Humphrys – I yearned for them all: Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue; Just a Minute – even The Archers, which is about as bad as it can get you.
Songs of Praise apart, Desert Island Discs is the longest-running show on radio. I used to listen to it when Roy Plumley’s plummy voice used to say – over Eric Coates’s Sleepy Lagoon - ‘Each week we ask our guest to tell us which ten records they would like to have with them if they were marooned on a desert island with only a gramophone and an inexhaustible supply of needles’.
Finding myself similarly marooned - and without a single needle - I started to think which ten records I would choose. It’s not as easy as it sounds: you have to balance the relative importance of, say, taste, nostalgia, image and repeatability. (Chancellor of the Exchequer Ken Clarke chose all jazz, and some rock singer chose ten records of himself.) But in the end, nostalgia usually wins, which I guess puts family top of the list

My numero uno? (I'm getting ready for Liverpool v. Barca tonight.) I have to confess I’ve never owned the disc in question, or even consciously sought to hear it, but the Irish national anthem always sends me on a furtive tissue-quest. My mother was Scouse-Irish, and on occasional Sunday nights our little house would rock to the Gaelic music on Radio Eireann, to which my mother, aunts and assorted expatriate Micks would dance, or sometimes sing along to Paddy McGinty’s Goat or Rafferty’s Motor Car. We kids were usually in bed at the time, and heard, rather than saw, the ceilidh, but my mental image of the scene - somewhere between Riverdance and Gaelic football - may not be far wrong. The signal for the end of the evening was the midnight time signal followed by what I used to think was a jolly nice quickstep, but is known nowadays as Amhrán na bhFiann, the Irish (Republican) national anthem.

So it means a number of things to me: childhood, home, parents, brothers, summer holidays in Drogheda or Cork and ‘Oh-oh – we're going to be thrashed at Rugby again’.