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.