Tang culture: a tribute to Ren Erbei

Ren Erbei late
Ren Erbei in later life. All images here from this article.

In the course of decluttering my groaning bookshelves, I find I’m not ready to part with my little collection of the ouevre of the great

  • Ren Erbei 任二北, also known as Ren Bantang 任半塘 (1897–1991), [1]

who over his long career shone a light on sources for song, dance, and drama in the Tang dynasty (618–907) through the prism of the literature of the day (for a roundup of my posts on the Tang, click here).

At Cambridge I was introduced to his early writings by Laurence Picken and Denis Twitchett. Laurence was keen to explore such sources, but it was mainly Denis who led me deeper into the complex process of compilation of the musical material in the official Old Tang history (Jiu Tang shu 舊唐書)—notably the now-lost Taiyueling biji 太樂令壁記 [Wall inscription for the Director of the Imperial Music Office] by Liu Kuang 劉眖, a work from the early part of Xuanzong’s reign, before the An Lushan rebellion (755–63).

Denis opened “A note on the ‘Monograph on music’ in Chiu T’ang shu” (1992) with a classic sentence [I’ve converted his original Wade-Giles to pinyin]:

Almost forty years ago, when I was beginning work on my PhD dissertation, I spent many enjoyable evenings reading through the “Monograph on Finance” of the Jiu Tang shu with Piet van der Loon, attempting to relate its text with other Tang period sources, and to see what is possible to deduce about the way Jiu Tang shu was put together over a period of more than two centuries.

YAY, party time indeed! After moving to Princeton in 1980, Denis gave me occasional updates on his work by postcard:

Denis postcard 2b

 

Meanwhile, scholars were studying an extant work from the heyday of Xuanzong’s court, the Jiaofang ji 教坊記 by Cui Lingqin 崔令钦, edited by Ren Bantang in Jiaofang ji jianding 敎坊記箋訂 (1962). Such sources made important material for Laurence’s recreations of Tang court music.

I now look on all this impressive research with a mixture of deep admiration, nostalgia, and relief that I went on to find a very different kind of party. By the early 1980s I realised how the study of Tang music had long been a hot topic in mainland China, and was now reviving vigorously there. [2] So it was Tang music that made the stimulus for my first visit to China in 1986 to study at Peking University under the great Yin Falu; but as I discovered the riches of living folk ritual culture on regular forays to the countryside, I was already in the process of defecting from the silent sources of early history. Though I picked up my own copies of Ren Erbei’s books in Beijing, I soon became a Tang manqué. Still, I continued visiting Laurence to update him on my fieldwork, and Denis kept in touch so we could meet up on his occasional return visits to Blighty.

* * *

Ren Erbei was prolific; most of his later publications were based on research he began before Liberation and pursued under Maoism. Two major books (albeit far from easy reading even for the heavy-duty sinologist):

  • On Tang drama: Ren Bantang, Tang xi nong 唐戏弄 (2 vols, 1958/1982)
  • On Tang sung poems: Ren Bantang, Tang sheng shi 唐聲詩 (2 vols, 1982; see e.g. here and here).

After the end of the Cultural Revolution he finally published his book on Chinese jesters,

He also edited an important collection of lyrics from Dunhuang:

His essays are collected in

  • Ren Bantang wenji 任半塘文集 (2006).

Yet another interrupted career
Whereas before I began spending time in China I had regarded such scholarship as belonging safely in libraries, once I began visiting senior intellectuals I couldn’t help becoming engaged with their life stories and tribulations under the decades of Maoism (see e.g. Craig Clunas on Wang Shixiang, in my post on his wife Yuan Quanyou; cf. Yang Yinliu, and Li Shiyu).

Brought up in Yangzhou, Ren Erbei gained admission to Peking University at the age of 18, embarking on the study of early ci and qu lyrics. After graduating he took up posts in his home province of Jiangsu.

Ren Erbei 1921
Teachers at Yangzhou 5th Secondary School, 1921; Ren Erbei back row, centre.

Following the 1949 “Liberation”, he became professor at Sichuan University in 1951. While constantly beset by political problems, particularly after being branded a “rightist” and “historical counter-revolutionary” in 1957, he still managed to persist in his research despite spending extended periods in detention.

Rehabilitated following the downfall of the Gang of Four, after all his ordeals in Chengdu he was helped to return to his native Yangzhou, taking up a position at the Normal University there in his eighties.

Ren Erbei and wife 1984
Ren Erbei with his wife after their return to Yangzhou, 1984.

He now trained a bright young disciple, Wang Xiaodun 王小盾 (Wang Kunwu 王昆吾, b.1951) (see his tribute, and here), who went on to publish works such as Tangdai jiuling yishu 唐代酒令艺术 (1995) and Sui Tang Wudai yanyue zayan geci yanjiu 隋唐五代宴乐杂言歌辞研究 (1996, following the 1990 Sui Tang Wudai yanyue zayan geci ji 集, co-edited with Ren Erbei). [3]

Ren Erbei’s tribulations under Maoism were no less distressing for being so common, making his scholarship all the more impressive.


[1] Both were hao (“style”) names that he himself chose. His original name was Ren Na 仁吶, while his zi name (given upon maturity) was Ren Zhongmin 任中敏; both the na and min characters (the former of which I learned as nuo) alluded to Confucius’s dictum “The superior man wishes to be slow [na] in his speech and earnest [min] in his conduct”. The main Chinese baike article on Ren (written with impressive candour, with an extensive bibliography) appears under Ren Zhongmin. For further aspects of Chinese naming customs, click here.

[2] How unfortunate that Western and Chinese scholars had been unable to engage in “international cultural exchange” through the Maoist decades, and that Western sinologists had such limited access to Chinese research—rather as Robert van Gulik was largely unable to partake of the 1950s’ renaissance of the qin zither in the PRC(see my tribute to him, under “Interlude: fate and nostalgia”).

[3] While I’m here, I may list a couple of basic sources on Tang expressive culture:

  • Quan Tang shi zhongde yuewu ziliao 全唐诗中的乐舞资料 [Material on music and dance in the Complete Tang Poems] (ed. Zhongguo wudao yishu yanjiuhui 中国舞蹈艺术研究会, 1958)
  • Tangdai yinyue wudao zaji shi xuanshi 唐代音乐舞蹈杂技诗选释 [Annotated selection of poems on music, dance, and acrobatics in the Tang dynasty] (ed. Pu Zhenggu 傅正谷, 1991).

Dream a little dream

Dream

Composing and performing songs is an art—not just in Western Art Music, but in folk and popular genres around the world (cf. What is serious music?!). The songs of the Beatles deserve to be treated with the same seriousness as those of Schubert (cf. Susan McClary); and apart from pop music generally, it’s worth admiring the craft of miniatures such as cartoons, TV theme-tunes, and jingles (for the merits of “analysis”, see the introduction to my Beatles series, citing Mellers and Pollack). 

The exquisite Dream a little dream of me was composed in 1931 by Fabian Andre and Wilbur Schwandt, with lyrics by Gus Kahn. Unlike Beethoven, those guys really knew how to write a tune. A lullaby for parting lovers, it’s been revisited by many singers to different effects that reflect the changing zeitgeist.

Cass Elliott (1941–74, another sadly brief life) made the most celebrated recording with The Mamas & The Papas * in 1968—a time of revolutionary conflict when we have to remember that there was also a mood for such ballads. As she commented,

I tried to sing it like it was 1943 and somebody had just come in and said, “Here’s a new song”. I tried to sing it as if it were the first time.

And it’s magical:

Stars shining bright above you
Night breezes seem to whisper “I love you”
Birds singing in the sycamore tree
Dream a little dream of me

Say nighty-night and kiss me
Just hold me tight and tell me you’ll miss me
While I’m alone and blue as can be
Dream a little dream of me

Stars fading but I linger on dear
Still craving your kiss
I’m longing to linger till dawn dear
Just saying this

Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you
But in your dreams whatever they be
Dream a little dream of me…

Mama Cass caresses the lyrics (“Birds singing in the sycamore tree”…) with dreamy syncopations and triplets, never metronomic. The harmonic progressions into and out of the “Stars fading” section are enchanting. Whether or not listeners are consciously aware of it, various types of modulation are effectively used in pop music. Step-wise shifts are most frequent; but here, after the opening two verses in the home key of C major (with our ears perhaps prepared by the surprising chord at “whisper” in line 2), the second section modulates fluently, exhilaratingly, to A major (from 0.54)—distantly reminiscent of Mahler’s sudden revelation of alpine pastures adorned with cowbells, or an incandescent Messaien meditation suffused with ondes martenot [Steady on—Ed.].

The “Stars fading” section is a gem in itself. After the chromaticism of the opening two verses, its rather brighter mood, over layers of honky-tonk piano and wordless chorus, far from sounding brash, only enhances the song’s overall intimacy. With more lazy triplets, I relish the descending minor 7th leap (from high so to low la) at “linger on dear” and “linger till dawn dear”, framing more sensuous lingering on the last word of “Still craving your kiss“… And then, to signal the return to the home key, the harmony shifts back with “Just saying this“—first (1.13) beneath a descending semitone in the vocal line, then the second time (2.18) with dreamy wide leaps.

It’s all complemented by the arrangement, with the first bass entry slipping in for verse 2 (Cass responding with a funky rhythmic emphasis on “kiss me”), the nostalgic-pastiche piano interlude and coda, as Mama Cass becomes subtly more jazzy and energised… Every detail is perfectly calibrated to the dream.

* *  *

Going back to quirky original versions from 1931 transports us to a different era of dance music—when the singer was subsidiary, providing an interlude between the main instrumental sections. Here’s Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra:

And here’s Wayne King, introduced by some wacky chinoiserie at the very start (in homage to the organum of the sheng mouth-organ?!), with Ernie Burchill singing:

BTW, it’s fun to invert the chronology of these early recordings, imagining them as a post-modernist ironic take on Mama Cass’s song by the Michael Nyman band.

We can only hear early music with our modern ears; and how we respond to music over time depends substantially on the persona that we impute to the protagonists. Still in 1931, by contrast with those versions, Kate Smith (cf. By the Sleepy lagoon) performed the song with an impressive rhythmic freedom, and the band arrangement is also effective, already breaking out from the starched corset of the foxtrot:

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded it in 1950:

(Several YouTube uploads mistakenly attribute this to Billie Holiday, but alas she doesn’t seem to have recorded it—now that would have been amazing!)

Doris Day (1957) is even dreamier:

Now here’s a thing. For the “Stars fading” section, versions so far modulate upwards by a minor 6th—pleasantly novel, but not radiant like the major 6th modulation of The Mamas & The Papas (a stroke of genius that I surmise we can attribute to Papa John Phillips). And in earlier versions, for the first appearance of the line “Dream a little dream of me” the vocal line has risen brightly (mila–so); but as a later generation perhaps found this too soupy and saccharine, it was discarded, instead falling from a flat mi to re.

Just a few selections from numerous later covers. Anita Harris in 1968, almost contemporary with The Mamas & the Papas’ recording, sounds rather too four-square to my ears. Enzo Enzo recorded a French version, Les yeux ouverts, in 1990; Tony Bennett and k.d. lang sang it in duet in 2002; and the 2013 Robbie Williams cover (with Lily Allen) is in thrall to The Mamas & The Papas.

While there is much to savour in such renditions, the more I listen the more infatuated I am by the dreamy mood of Cass Elliott’s version, with her rhythmic variety, and all the subtle tweaks of the arrangement in timbre and harmony that make it so very enthralling.

And the song keeps inspiring younger musicians—such as Andrea Motis with the Joan Chamorro Quintet (see here, and here):

Other popular songs in similar vein that feature in my wide-ranging Playlist of songs include You’re my thrill, Moon river, I sing a little prayer, You must believe in spring, Comment te dire adieu—and a wealth of Beatles ballads. For dreams perhaps not envisaged by Gus Kahn, click e.g. here and here; see also Aboriginal dream songs. Cf. Bach as bandleader and arranger.

For Augusta!


* Pedants’ corner (cf. my notes to Morris dancing and Messiaen’s transcendent éclairs; see also Punctuation for truck drivers):
I don’t really Hold With the ampersand, which has a whiff of the corporate (the “vast emporium, one of these appalling achievements of our modern craving for the huge, the immense”, as Henry James characterised the Army and [sic] Navy Stores), but here, while curious, it’s correct… I also make a copious exception for G&T.

Some unlikely Turkish vocabulary

4

From my plethora of posts on west and central Asia over the last year, you gather I’ve been spending lengthy periods in Istanbul. However, I seem to have obstinately resisted making any effort to acquire even the most basic language skills, like a sunburned expat wolfing chips on the Costa de Sol.

Ageing Weirdo’s Hard Drive Full

Entirely unsullied by grammar, my Turkish vocabulary is not just paltry but a tad selective. These gnomic vignettes, containing virtually my entire lexicon, are unlikely to feature in a phrase-book of essential items for the traveller (cf. That is the snake that bit my foot):

fal, manav (lokma), ezan, iskele (akbil!)—köşk sema (Aşik Sucu)—zurna, kanun

This (notional) scribbled schedule reminds me that after a coffee-reading * I have to drop in at the grocer’s to pick up some fruit offerings—coinciding with the call to prayer—and not to forget to take my travel card before boarding the ferry, en route for the belvedere to attend a ritual dance led by the celebrated dervish water-seller, and then to shop for a shawm and a zither.

Yet somehow such unpromising ventures result in a two-volume magnum opus (“bawdy swaggering outrageous best-seller“—The Istanbul Bugle), a commentary to the recluse’s stammering discourse on the Divine Love of Sufi mysticism:

Inziva aşk kekelemek muhabbet (çifte kitap).

See also my roundups of Language learning (notably Nick Robertson’s ingenious exegesis of arcane anagram tales, and That is the snake that bit my foot) and Wacky headlines.

 


* Like Chinese dundian (stay at a selected grass-roots unit to help improve its work and gain firsthand experience for guiding overall work”), fal is another of those succinct words whose English definition might be somewhat laborious: “fortune-telling by means of interpreting the grounds at the bottom of a cup of coffee”…

Some non-Daoists

Daoism and Zen have long made trendy, exotic tags to subsume various activities, or non-activities.

Some volumes, like The Tao of Pooh, are pleasantly tongue-in-cheek, with a certain underlying value; and I’m partial to evoking Zen myself in the magic of Rozhdestvensky and Ronnie O’Sullivan. But nothing beats a startling recent letter to the FT:

Daoist letter

This preposterous idea had already been expounded in a 2020 review of The crown. So on behalf of the Wisdom of the Mystic East, I feel obliged to state the bleedin’ obvious: if you’re the Queen, then waving and shaking hands while wearing a hat and liking horses really doesn’t count as Being a Daoist. Just because British law prevented Queenie from wielding any influence on government, the fact that inaction was central to her “success” doesn’t make her a Daoist Sage Ruler, FFS. Like, hello?

“The sovereign must be empty of all desire, all thought, and all intentionality […]. A person without qualities, they offer no hold to others, for they are nothing but the mirror reflecting nothingness.” These precepts are oddly reminiscent of the Royal Family’s lifestyle.

OK… so we’ve been queueing overnight in the rain to pay homage to a person without qualities…

Freed from mundane worries (like affording the weekly shop, finding the rent, catching the rush-hour bus to a poorly-paid job, or struggling to book tickets for a budget holiday with the kids), One can put One’s feet up and watch Eastenders over a G&T in the knowledge that One will continue raking it in (helped by a creative accountant and valuable contacts) without having to do a day’s work in One’s entire life.

JRM
Another non-Daoist—“the physical embodiment of arrogance, entitlement,
disrespect, and contempt for our parliament”. See also Tory iniquity: a roundup.

Boris on beachSadly, we perhaps need to list some other pastimes that don’t necessarily qualify for the status of “Daoist”:

  • Hanging around on a street corner with a fag dangling from your mouth
  • Pottering around in the garden (with some noble exceptions)
  • Sunbathing on holiday (even while serving as a government minister).

Cf. “I didn’t know we ’ad a king—I thought we were an autonomous collective”. For the Brexit ideal of nothingness, see Stewart Lee.

Beethoven’s melodic gift—yeah right

Beethoven wasn’t big on tunes; but melody wasn’t really the point.

In some ways we might see him as a precursor of minimalism. Too young to know any better, I immersed myself in his music through my teens; but later I tended to steer clear of his music, with honourable exceptions like the late quartets. For the thoughtful Susan McClary, he’s the supreme perpetrator of sexual violence in music.

To be fair, the 7th symphony is exhilarating, both to play and to listen to—DO bask in Carlos Kleiber‘s performance! As I comment in a note there, it seems unlikely that Wagner’s authority for calling the symphony “the apotheosis of the dance” was based on years as a regular on the Bayreuth clubbing scene.

The 1st movement eventually gets going with a wacky motif (the mot juste) on flutes:

B7 flute
My idea of a tune, by L. Beethoven *
(aka “A stack of poppadoms”—cf. Berlioz)—
not to be confused with Taco taco taco burrito or Papa papa papa papa papapa

Beethoven clearly reckons he’s onto something here, as he wastes no opportunity to repeat it, sometimes even on a different note (YAY! And again, yes I know that’s the point…). In the coda, after the bass section treats us to ten more bars of it, against a deep pedal point on E they start grinding away on a chromatic motif (now using all of three notes—I say, steady on!) (cf. Unpromising chromaticisms), like a dog with a bone:

B7 ostinato

OK, this whole build-up is glorious…

Even in the slow movement, Beethoven holds out against giving us a Proper Tune (Viola Grade 8—cf. Viola jokes and maestro-baiting):

B7 slow

The Plain People of Ireland: Begob—this composing lark, it’s a doddle

The finale is obsessive too—without venturing too far into the art of conducting, Kleiber is exhilarating, highlighting its mechanical drive without making it seem too brutal. It opens with more minimalism from the hapless basses:

B7 finale

The violin, um, theme that it accompanies does have a lot of notes (progress), but unless conductors go to considerable lengths to adjust the balance, Beethoven’s instrumentation often drowns out the melody with manic off-beat sforzandi:

B7 finale violin

More unlikely chromaticism from the basses (another pedal point in the service of an exhilarating climax):

B7 finale bass 2

The symphony, built around ostinati, might be considered a response to the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution—returning to Wagner and clubbing, maybe it’s the apotheosis of the techno garage trance dance.

I must confess that my musical examples above are no more successful in encapsulating Beethoven’s genius than were the Bolton Choral Society in summarising Proust

I’m very fond of the story about the opening bar of Beethoven’s violin concerto; just as drôle are his Wimbledon debut (“the second tune, which Beethoven said on his arrest was ‘just a harmless bit of fun’…”) and Creative tribulations. And do listen to PDQ Bach’s stimulating take on the 1st movement of Beethoven 5!

For an enchanting antidote, see Dream a little dream


* On a technical note, this rhythm can easily slip from

B7 rhythm right
into

B7 rhythm wrong

In my experience, even with experienced orchestras this can catch on quite often; it’d be interesting to listen out for how often this happens in performances and recordings.

Cooking with Suella!

Obviously, my roundup of Tory iniquity was never going to be able to keep up. I was hoping to allow the revamped “government” some peace to enjoy their honeymoon, as they gaze mistily into each other’s eyes, lips spittle-flecked with venom. But as a self-confessed member of the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati™, I already find myself unable to resist outlining some aspects of the current clusterfuck.

Just when we thought the Tories couldn’t possibly make themselves look any more ridiculous, last month’s “Home Secretary” followed up her repulsive “dream and obsession” Rwanda speech (see e.g. here and here) with another unhinged meltdown—introducing an intriguing culinary theme.

SuellaShortly before Suella Braverman fell on her sword (not for being an authoritarian law-breaking racist bigot, but on a “technicality”—rather like Genghis Khan being unable to pursue the sacking of Europe due to an unpaid parking fine), in what turned out to be the last rant of her brief office she listed those responsible for the Just Stop Oil protests:

“It’s the Labour party, it’s the Lib Dems, it’s the Coalition of Chaos [Hello?], it’s the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati, dare I say, the Anti-Growth Coalition that we have to thank for the disruption that we are seeing on our roads today.”

 Good name for a band, actually:

Besides Yvette Cooper’s cogent riposte, James O’Brien unpacks Braverman’s scapegoat agenda with typical zest, asking “who they’re going to turn you against next”:

They can’t do Brussels, they can’t do unelected bureaucrats, can’t do immigrants… refugees is tricky, cos you just keep giving money to Rwanda, despite the fact that they’re not actually taking any… […] Single mothers just doesn’t work any more, the world has moved on, the nuclear family is in retreat […] Cyclists isn’t gonna work… What’s left??? Who on earth are brain-dead, Brexit-supporting Tory politicians going to pretend are your new enemies, in the hope of distracting you from the chaos and catastrophe that they continue to inflict upon your country?

Following on the heels of “PC gone mad“, the right-wing backlash against “woke” (“an awareness of injustice and the determination to do something about it”—see e.g. here and here) has been gathering steam, or hot air. Since this Sinister Cabal was exposed as the “Anti-Growth Coalition”, Twitter (“sewer of left-wing bile”) has been enjoying listing its members, such as this:

the AGC (“who are they exactly?”)
Labour
the Lib Dems
the SNP
militant unions
vested interests dressed up as think tanks (!)
talking heads
Brexit deniers
Extinction Rebellion
lefty lawyers
lefty nurses
lefty traffic wardens
lefty quantity surveyors
the Archbishop of Canterbury
all teachers
Sadiq Khan
the BBC
cyclists
anyone who criticises the Royals
Meghan bloody Markle
flexitarians
magicians
flamingos
bus drivers who change shift—but not at a terminus
Gary bloody Lineker
people who watch mini-series on Apple TV
triple-cooked chips
anyone who played recorder at school
mime artists
the Dutch
people who turn the corner of the page over when they’ve finished reading
cockapoos
anyone who’s had a temporary tattoo
owners of more than three hardback cookbooks
Pisceans
anyone who got a Blue Peter badge
the Keto diet plan
Mumford—AND Sons
people who keep the ramekins from Gu puddings
cellists
anyone who says “ooooh” when a birthday cake goes past them in a restaurant
dressage fans
smashed avocado
the Tombliboos
people who only like tennis when Wimbledon’s on
Scouts
the left-handed.

Mystifyingly, not only did Ms Braverman receive an education, but she’s a Buddhist—which sounds a bit foreign to me (and in this case is certainly dodgy).

Since she is blessed with such media-savvy charisma, we can look forward to her glossy cookbook (cf. Prick with a Fork). It will surely be a best-seller—if anyone can still afford books, or food; and the spinoff prime-time TV series will also be compulsory viewing [sic: legislation being hurried through Parliament]—if anyone still has a TV and can afford to switch it on.

lettuce

We can expect a wilting lettuce to form the basis of many recipes. But one dish that won’t be featuring is the delicious mapo tofu. Though basically white, it’s contaminated by suspicious-looking black beans and subversive Green leeks.

mapo tofu

Despite the current Tofu amnesty, * with such a ringing endorsement, sales will be soaring—outranking even hummus and avocado, traditional dog-whistles for the anti-woke brigade.

For more on cuisine, click here and here.


* Among many others, Michael Rosen has taken up Tofu-gate with a vengeance:

The worry for parents is that our children or teenage offspring might find their way to Tofu, perhaps without realising it, thinking that it was perhaps halloumi or feta. Some catering outlets serve it up in soup where it is concealed behind noodles. Please be careful out there.

and:

We need to go above and beyond Tofu-eating and consider the possibility of the Tofu-mentality: people who may not eat Tofu but have a Tofu mindset. They are a danger to the state because of their latent Tofu-ness.

Cunk on Earth

Cunk 1

I’m delighted to find a new BBC TV series from Philomena Cunk (aka Diane Morgan), the “Landmark Documentary Presenter”, with her distinctive style of forensic investigation:

  • Cunk on Earth (available here for the next year).

Again, among targets that she sends up are the documentary format, her own persona, both elite and popular cultures, and indeed human history itself.

In the beginnings opens by exploring the achievements of early humans:

One thing they did invent was fire, which allowed them to see at night and kept them warm, tragically prolonging their already tedious lives.

Having conquered numbers, humankind moved on to something even more boring, by inventing writing.

The Ancient Greeks invented lots of things we still have today, like medicine and olives, and lots of things that have died out, like democracy and pillars.

And another invention:

Philosophy is basically thinking about thinking—which sounds like a waste of time, because it is.

On Pompeii,

Thanks to the volcano, we know everyday Romans had grey skin, were totally bald, and spent their time lying around inside their shockingly dusty houses. But it also preserved glimpses of how sophisticated Roman life was, with creature comforts like indoor plumbing and cunnilingus.

In Faith/off the intrepid Ms Cunk covers religion.

What’s ironic about Jesus Christ becoming a carpenter was that he was actually named after the two words that you’re most likely to shout after hitting your thumb with a hammer.

She perks up with an entirely gratuitous plug for an all-inclusive five-star resort near the temple of Kukulkan, “the last word in luxury”.

Islam represented a radical break from previous religions, because the buildings it happened inside were a slightly different shape.

And she asks

Why can’t the religions all learn to live together in peace, like they do in Ireland?

In The Renaissance will not be televised Ms Cunk sets the scene:

It’s the year 1440 (not now, but then, in 1440).

The historic present has always Got my Goat too.

Gutenberg’s press was the first of its kind in history—except Chinese history.

This is Florence—the Italians call it Firenze to try and stop tourists from finding it. […] Florence might look like a pointless mess today, but in the 15th century…

On the Mona Lisa:

Just looking at her prompts so many questions. Who is she? What’s she smiling about? Is she holding a balloon between her knees? And if so, what colour is it?

Cunk 2

Turning to the New World,

After arriving in America to forge a life of honest hard work and toil, many of these colonists quickly discovered they couldn’t be arsed, so they stole people from Africa and made them do it instead.

Eventually Washington won, becoming America’s first president, the single most revered role in the world until 2016.

Rise of the machines opens with a succinct recap:

Last time we saw how the Renaissance turned Europe from a load of mud and parsnips into a posh resort full of paintings…

Introducing Manifest Destiny, she helpfully explains:

Americans back then weren’t the humble unassuming people they still aren’t today.
[…]
The North asked the South what kind of America it wanted to live in—one where white people leeched off other races while treating them as inferior, or one where they pretended they didn’t.

Following the Civil War,

Now Lincoln was President, at long last slavery was abolished, and replaced with simple racial prejudice.

Turning to recording,

Thanks to Edison’s pornograph, classical music could now bore an audience of millions.

Cunk 3

She returns to the theme of femininism, on which she has already established her credentials;

Finally, with the vote, women could choose which man would tell them what to do.

Besides her collaboration with Charlie Brooker, in the final episode, War(s) of the World(s)?, “it’s easy to see why” she’s an admirer of the ouevre of Adam Curtis. Turning to Russia, Tsar Nicolas

was allowed to rule the country like a dictator, which I’ve been advised to say isn’t how Russia works today. […]

A world like this, where the masses toil for pennies while a tiny elite grow rich, seems so obviously unfair and unthinkable to us today. We can scarcely imagine what it must have been like.

Cunk 4

As to 1950s’ America,

Adverts were so influential that it made viewers at home want to be the sort of person who bought things too. They’d work hard to get money, to buy a car, so they could drive to the shops and buy more things, which they’d have to pay for by going back to work, which made them miserable, so they’d cheer themselves up by going out and buying more things, which they’d have to work to pay for.

On the birth of popular culture:

Unlike normal culture, which was paintings and Beethoven, this was stuff people actually enjoyed.

For decades, pioneering black artists had steadily built on each other’s work to develop an exciting new musical form for white people to pass off as their own.

Moving on to the technological revolution, the Apple Macintosh was

the world’s first inherently smug computer.

And

smartphones revolutionised the way people interact, by providing a socially acceptable way to ignore everyone around us.

But we’re not lonely—thanks to social media, it’s quicker and easier to bond with millions of others over something as simple as a cat photo or the ritual shaming of a stranger.

* * *

Cunk interview

Dr Shirley Thompson’s musicological expertise somewhat under-used
in fielding fatuous questions like
“Would it be fair to say the Rolling Stones were the Beatles of their day?”.

To help her unlock the mysteries of human civilisation Ms Cunk consults a range of academics, asking penetrating questions like “Why are pyramids that shape—is it to stop homeless people sleeping on them?”, “Has a mummy ever ridden a bicycle?”, and “Is there a Great Roof of China?”. Scholars such as Jim Al-Khalili, Douglas Hedley, and Ashley Jackson manage to keep a straight face, even as she disputes their so-called expert views with stories about “my mate Paul”, recommending them helpful YouTube videos wat ‘e sent ‘er. The Cunk interview is fast becoming the hallmark of the public intellectual; and I now feel that it should be a compulsory ordeal, a rite of passage for any aspiring lecturer. As Rebecca Nicholson’s review observes:

You could spend a lot of time wondering whether the interviewees are in on the joke or not; if they are in on it completely, it ruins the gag, which surely works best if they think Cunk is deadly serious. The same is true for viewers, in a way. If you look closely enough, you can see that there’s a formula: compare old thing to new thing, ask anachronistic question, wait for baffled response. In both cases, though, I don’t think it matters. None of the academics seem to think they are being mocked, nor are they trying to be funny; likewise, it’s so hilarious and well-written that if you can occasionally see the bare bones poking out, it isn’t much of an issue.

The interview in Cunk on Shakespeare, where she quizzes Ben Crystal on a list of words that Shakespeare, er, might or might not have made up, remains a great favourite of mine:

cuckoo?
ukulele?
omnishambles?
mixtape?
sushi?
titwank?

This series has a new, mystifying musical leitmotif, introduced by fine links such as

Descartes inspired an intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, during which metrosexual elitists published essays that expanded humankind’s horizons in a manner that will go unmatched until the 1989 release of Belgian techno anthem Pump up the jam… [cue music].

Philomena Cunk attains a level of vacuity with which no-one outside the current government could compete. Too bad she’s over-qualified to serve as the next Prime Minister.

Roundup: Tory iniquity!

Just when we thought this shower couldn’t possibly get any worse, they’re really surpassing themselves, with a new crop of evil self-serving xenophobic bigots! So I was spurred on to add a new tag Tory, from which I offer some highlights:

BoJo

Many posts were “inspired” by Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson:

Another regular exhibit in the horror-show is The Haunted Pencil (aka Minister for the 18th century), who now offers unwelcome continuity:

Shading off into Brexit:

More from the brilliant Rachel Parris:

And to introduce a gory new chapter in the omnishambles,

These posts are but a modest footnote to the brilliant dispatches from John Crace and Marina Hyde.

Attending Greek liturgy in Istanbul

Greek church for blog

Having been impressed by Epiphany at the Greek church near the iskele ferry in Kuzguncuk, recently we got to attend Sunday service at the main Greek church further up the main street (for a fine study of the mahalle‘s multi-ethnic past, see Nostalgia for cosmopolitanism).

Greek church

The Greek population of Istanbul (like other ethnic groups there) having progressively dwindled since the early 20th century, only special feast days attract more than a very few worshippers from around the city.

One might just find the service a sad illustration of the decline of Greek culture in Istanbul, but it made me think. While I’ve long been alienated from prissy, drab Anglican worship, turning as an outsider to Orthodox liturgy (or to any ritual and musical tradition) I’m not in search of the exotic, but I’m drawn to it as if it’s a mystery, not in the sublime sense but like a thriller—trying to work out what’s going on, to decipher its rules.

The distinction between emic and etic perceptions comes into play. Rather than the more spectacular rituals that often attract scholars and visitors, stimulating their mystical romanticism, it’s good to attend normal services to get an impression of ritual as routine. As with the rituals I’ve frequented with Li Manshan’s Daoist band in rural China, one begins to perceive that for those attending it’s partly an obligation, and that for the ritual specialists, to some extent “it’s just a job” (more radically, Frits Staal described ritual as “meaningless”; cf. Catherine Bell). Of course, in both cases there are elements of duty to tradition, even faith; but any “meaning” we impute must be broader than mere doctrine, involving changing social perceptions.

In church the liturgists and assistants do their job unfussily; as in Britain, the little congregation goes through the motions with greater or lesser commitment—it’s a weekly duty. Devout spiritual feelings can’t be taken for granted.

In China, conversely, where the Gaoluo village Daoist/Buddhist ritual association often seemed to be going through the motions, attending vespers in the house church of the Catholic minority there I was struck by their intensity and solidarity, apparently a result of their outlaw status since the 1949 revolution. But whereas the Chinese village Catholics maintain their faith tenaciously, the Greek urban Catholics are a tiny minority overwhelmed in a sea of Islam.

Catholic vespers
Vespers in Gaoluo, 2001.

As to soundscape (the major vehicle for expressing whatever “purpose” there may be to ritual!), the Greek liturgists chant in monophony, with occasional organum, conscientiously alternating solo and choral sections. The tinkling of the thurifer, with the smell of incense, adds a further dimension—which to me remains transporting, though again that’s perhaps not the point.

And without being at all hung up on “living fossils” or Ancient Wisdom, I am somehow inspired by being reminded of a world beyond the dominance of the three-minute pop song, just as the sound of the Muslim call to prayer does more insistently, more publicly (and also routinely). Whereas the silences between phrases of the call to prayer are part of its magic (again, a magic that is not necessarily experienced), in church the liturgy is more continuous; even in melodic material, it reveals a different world from that of the call to prayer or ilahi hymns, though the latter are largely diatonic too.

See also Society and soundscape, and From the holy mountain.

A world tour!!!

The quest for the exotic—and Marrakech.
For another numinous London transport hub, click here.

Having regaled you with several stories of the 94 bus, gateway to the Mystic East (links here), I can now show my versatility with an encounter on another bus.

On Monday, en route to my daily swim, I climbed aboard at Chiswick High Road to find an old codger [Around your age?—Ed.] [Look, I’ve warned you about this—SJ] shouting loudly and somewhat menacingly at his fellow passengers: *

“If anyone’s going all the way to Hounslow Bus Station, just be aware that it takes about two and a half hours! It goes All Round The World!”

Wow, just imagine—the souks of Marrakech, the oases of Central Asia, the fabled Machu Picchu… and all for the price of a bus ticket to Hounslow. Who needs eighty days—I mean it’s not like there can be that much to see (cf. “I mean, what is there in Greece?”). More gazing at flowers from horseback. Anyway, rather than taking the opportunity to bathe in the limpid blue waters of Tianshan Lake, I got off up the road at the pool as usual. **

I won’t divulge the bus route, lest it become wildly over-subscribed.

See also Thankyou Driver!.

Stein
“Typical! You wait for days and then two come along at once!”
Sir Aurel Stein’s travels on the Silk Road, 1914 (click here).


* For another bus rant, see my BTL comment here.

** Seriously though folks, around the late 1990s, when we London musos still had quite a bit of work, I got a phone-call from an orchestral fixer: “Steve, can you pencil in a big world tour for next year, second half of September to late October, Bach and Handel programme with the choir… Starts in the Far East, then round Australia, west to east coast of the States, finishing up with European capitals and the UK”. YAY, I thought.

Couple of months later, phone rings again: “Hi Steve, just to update you, it’s looking like the tour’ll begin on the 28th September, and we should be back in London by 18th October.” Um, OK…

Later in the year (with undiminished enthusiasm): “Steve, we’ve just got those dates confirmed—it’s now going to be one concert in Singapore on 3rd October, and then Birmingham on the 8th.”

This was nearly as tempting as a Messiah in Scunthorpe for a jolly good tea—but it was a harbinger of the state of many an orchestral diary (cf. Perfection is NOT the word for it).

A Tibetan life: the winding road

*Part of my education on modern Tibet*

Shawo

translated by Hannibal Taubes in the promising new journal of Tibetan studies Waxing Moon, makes a significant addition to our understanding of Tibetan people’s lives.

It’s the “auto-narrative” [1] of Shawo Tsering (1932–2015), a high-ranking regional leader from the Tu (Monguor) minority in the Repkong (Chinese Tongren) district of Qinghai province—part of the greater region of Amdo, an increasingly prominent focus of Tibetan studies (cf. Conflicting memories; for further leads, see under Labrang 1; see also When the iron bird flies). Written in Chinese, it was edited by local historian Zhao Qingyang and published in 2010.

Benno Weiner provides an Introduction, noting ways in which authoritarian states manage memory and history, and the various forms of “unofficial memory” circulating just below the surface of state historiography (cf. my China: memory, music, society). He unpacks the agendas of the series of local “cultural and historical materials” (wenshi ziliao, where Shawo Tsering’s account was published) that thrived irregularly in the PRC (cf. Paul Katz on Wenzhou).

The translator’s own introduction is lucid. Tibetans who have fled into exile have written numerous accounts of the iniquities of Chinese rule, but while publication is far more strictly controlled within the PRC, as Hannibal observes,

Students in a class on Chinese or Tibetan history should be exposed to the forms of moral-historical discourse produced by the CPC for and about itself, and have an understanding of how those Chinese, Tibetans, and others who serve the PRC justify themselves as ethical actors. For better or for worse, people like Shawo Tsering made China and Tibet what they are today, and they will shape these nations’ futures; their experiences are correspondingly important. Students should be schooled in the “hermeneutics of suspicion” necessary to read such texts, including the ways that subtle forms of criticism and dissent are coded within the “public transcript” of authoritarian states. In point of fact, Shawo Tsering himself explicitly warns us to read his own words critically. Of a speech he was forced to make in 1978, he comments: “In fact human affairs are always like this. You can’t say what you want to say, and you must say what you don’t want to say—this is what’s called ‘words that violate the heart’ (Ch. wei xin zhi yan).”

Despite Shawo Tsering’s frank account of the Maoist cataclysms between 1958 and 1978, “the fundamental legitimacy of PRC rule on the Tibetan plateau is never questioned”. Still, scholars of the PRC are used to reading between the lines (see my review of the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, and under Yang Yinliu). Shawo Tsering’s account of his life from the 1930s to the 1990s subtly challenges “some of the fundamental discursive pillars upon which the post-Mao narrative of Amdo’s incorporation into China rests”.

Hannibal provides most useful summaries before each chapter.

Chapter 1, “A childhood of many difficulties”, covers the period from the early 20th century to the 1949 Communist victory in China, with complex power relationships. Major figures include the controversial Muslim leader Ma Bufang, and the Tibetan monk, reformist educator, and modernist politician Sherap Gyatso.

In Chapter 2, “Setting out on the revolutionary road”, Shawo Tsering recalls the early years of Chinese occupation until 1958, when he became a prominent cadre under the new regime, serving as a “crucial linguistic and cultural bridge to the complex societies of Tongren”. He married with a grand ceremony, headed educational work in the county, and became vice-director of the prefectural Bureau of Culture and Public Health.

As Hannibal writes,

Shawo Tsering’s narrative journey towards “liberation” climaxes in his 1956 interview with premier Zhou Enlai, a scene that perfectly encapsulates the mixture of cult of personality, religious fervor, patronising cultural essentialism, Marxist developmentalism, resource-colonialism, and rhetorical CPC assumption of the imperial mantle that characterises the Chinese Communists and their relationship with Tibet.

Nevertheless, Shawo Tsering’s account is not entirely sycophantic. As is typical in such PRC publications, he refers to negative or politically sensitive events obliquely, and criticises state actions by praising people or policies that he feels resolved such problems.

Chapter 3 relates his bitter experiences of the “leftist storm” between 1958 and the end of the Cultural Revolution. As monasteries were closed, revolts broke out and labour camps were filled; Shawo Tsering’s assessment “is given force by the fact that, while imprisoned himself, he was given the task of reading out the verdicts and sentences”. Amidst heavy loss of life, the Great Leap Forward led to severe famine. He recalls that during his imprisonment from 1958 to 1962,

my family had experienced unimaginable change. In 1959, my three sons all contracted infectious measles. They were not able to see a doctor. One after another they were carried away by the god of death. In 1960 a natural disaster occurred. There was no grain harvest. During the hardships of that time, my mother, wife, and little brother all left this world. Another younger brother had only been able to escape starvation because he was studying at the prefectural teachers’ college. My little sister recalled to me the scene of my mother’s death: When my mother died, my sister was laying in her arms, but how my mother died, how her body was carried away, these things my sister was unable to remember. After my mother’s death, my sister had become an orphan, begging for food every day at the doors of village houses.When I heard how each member of my family had cruelly perished, when I saw the scene of cold desolation before me, all of my spirit collapsed. It was as if I’d suddenly lost consciousness, and become a man made from wood. I spent over a month at home. Many people from the village came to see me, telling me how my family had died, as well as who else in the village had passed away, so and so, and so and so, and on and on.

Further campaigns culminated in the mass hysteria of the early Cultural Revolution, whose vicissitudes he also recalls in detail.

Chapter 4 describes Shawo Tsering’s later career, from being rehabilitated in 1979 to his retirement in 1995. Charged, “quite simply”, with the rebuilding of Amdo, he became “an indispensable figure in restoring some legitimacy” to the Party’s attempts at post-Mao good governance. As the monasteries began to re-open, he hosted the 1980 visit of the Panchen Lama, and confronted practical problems. He led a Tibetan opera troupe on a tour of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

In Chapter 5 he reflects on his life after retirement, and outlines the fortunes of his family. Again, Hannibal provides useful context. 

By its final pages, the book has revealed itself as an extended plea to a Sinophone audience not to allow the catastrophes of Mao’s reign to happen again—in this moment, the composite narrator Shawo Tsering speaks with a moral and historical authority that is both Tu, Tibetan, and Chinese.

Two years before the account was published in 2010, new protests had erupted in Lhasa and throughout the Tibetan plateau. Tibetan-language education had already begun to be replaced by Chinese. Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, the climate has deteriorated drastically. As Hannibal concludes,

The Tibetan regions generally have seen growing surveillance, militarization, media censorship, and arrest and intimidation of activists. It is unlikely that Shawo Tsering’s frank discussion of his experiences between 1958 and 1978 would be published in the PRC today.

With his detailed footnotes, Hannibal’s translation contains a useful glossary and bibliography. It’s a fascinating story that requires us to abandon simplistic views of Tibet’s modern history.


[1] I note that the Chinese zishu (“auto-narrative”) often has an element of “confession” from the Maoist era—cf. Kang Zhengguo.

The films of Yilmaz Güney

Yol

Kurdish actor and film-maker Yilmaz Güney (1937–84) was prolific, despite being constantly in conflict with the Turkish regime as a result of his leftist sympathies for the subaltern poor and his highlighting of Kurdish issues (see e.g. wiki, and this review of his ouevre, both providing useful references).

Having admired his film Law of the border (1966—see Early Turkish verismo), I’ve been exploring his work a bit further. Hope (1970) was regarded as a Turkish equivalent of Bicycle thieves.

The theme of rural Kurdish blood-feuds continues in The herd (1978), but as Güney extended his sympathies to the plight of the urban poor, I’m struck by Zavallılar (“The fall”, 1974; literally “The poor”), the stories of three men fallen on hard times, driven to destitution by cruel fate. Here it is, alas without subtitles:

But most impressive of all is Yol (The road, 1982) directed by his assistant Şerif Gören while Güney was in prison. Jailed in 1972, soon after his release in 1974 he was sentenced again for shooting a judge to death. He managed to keep working on projects from prison, and after escaping in 1981 he took the negatives of Yol to Switzerland, editing it in Paris. The film was banned in Turkey until 1999.

His periods in captivity partly inspired the screenplay, which portrays the stories of five prisoners given a week’s home leave in the aftermath of the 1980 Turkish coup, travelling back to their troubled lives in rural south Anatolia to perform traumatic family duties. As this NYT review comments, the film portrays Turkey as one large prison, oppressed not only by political tyranny but also by superstition and bigotry. You can watch it without subtitles here, but it’s well worth buying the DVD: *

Güney’s final film Duvar (The wall, 1983)—recreating a Turkish prison in Paris (interview here)—again uses the metaphor of incarceration. It becomes progressively more involving, with a remarkable manifesto for Kurdistan in the riot near the end. This version is again without subtitles:

For more on Kurdish culture, see under my roundup of posts on west/central Asia.


* The effective soundtrack to Yol is by Zülfü Livaneli, who himself spent periods in jail before going into exile in 1984 (see e.g. his novel Serenade). His song Kardeşin Duymaz, pleading for Greek–Turkish coexistence, is heard at the climax of the TV series The Club.

China: One Second

One second poster

I’m probably not alone in harking back to the early films of Zhang Yimou, rather neglecting his ouevre since then. While he later turned to glossy big-budget blockbusters, he still made more affecting films like Not one less (1999), The road home (1999), and Coming home (2014).

I admired his recent film

Set in the sand dunes of the barren northwest during the later years of the Cultural Revolution, it was filmed in Dunhuang (for Li Ruijun’s movies set in Gansu, see Fly with the crane and Return to dust, the latter post suggesting further links on life there).

One second scene

Described as Zhang’s “personal love-letter to cinema”, One second has thus been likened to Cinema paradiso, but while both are set against the backdrop of a repressive regime, Zhang’s film is more permeated by pain. The main character is a fugitive from a state labour camp, desperate to catch a tiny glimpse of his long-lost daughter in a newsreel. His quest is hindered and helped by a young orphan urchin girl and “Mr Movie”, the projectionist responsible for the mobile cinema touring the desert towns; after the rather farcical mood of the opening sequence, their changing relationships become quite affecting. Most poetic are scenes of the villagers mobilised to clean and restore the damaged celluloid—a metaphor both for individual striving and for the herculean yet largely futile mass projects of Maoism.

Like Return to dust, the film has also fallen foul of the censors, despite international acclaim. Sensitivities perhaps concerned the Uyghur issue, as well as renewed caution about exposing the indignities of the Cultural Revolution. However the film has been re-edited, it looks to navigate political anxieties rather cleverly—the ending, as hope dawns with the collapse of Maoism, is almost saccharine. But as Cath Clarke observes in her review,

With all the tinkering and tweaks, what censors haven’t been able to expunge is the torment and suffering on the face of Zhang Yi’s political prisoner; this is a deeply felt film, grief and pain go to the bone.

I got to watch it on Mubi. Here’s a trailer:

The kiosk in Turkey and Europe

kosk

The other day a further excursion around Kuzguncuk inspired me to reflect on the changing lives of its dwellers and the diffusion of the kiosk.

More grandiose than our humble kiosk, the Turkish köşk (a word itself borrowed from Persian kūshk) may denote a pavilion, gazebo, summer-house, pleasure palace, villa, or indeed belvedere (Chinese guan 觀, as in my own fantasy address “Priory of the Azure Cloud Bottle within the Belvedere of Tenuous Obscurity”).

Among several examples in the Topkapi Palace are the Tiled Kiosk and Baghdad Kiosk; many more köşks can be admired elsewhere in Istanbul; and such structures are dotted around the former Ottoman empire.

On the Asian side of Istanbul near Kuzguncuk are several fine köşks from the late Ottoman era, set in sylvan groves overlooking the Bosphorus. Two of them lead me to stories that encompass the Ottoman ancien régime, a household embodying the changing status of women under the Republic, and post-war Black Sea migrants in shanty settlements.

The Abdülmecid Efendi Mansion (wiki; more detail here) was gifted to the Prince by Sultan Abdülhamid in 1895. Abdülmecid (1868–1944), “the last Ottoman caliph”, was also a student of Western Art Music and a gifted painter—he depicted salon life at his köşk in the painting Beethoven in the harem (1915):

salon 1915

Abdülmecid (right, in pasha uniform) listens to his Circassian wife Şehsuvar Kadınefendi playing violin, Hatça Kadın (Ofelia) on piano, and his son Ömer Faruk on cello.
One of the other two women may be his third wife Mehisti.

Abdülmecid went into exile in 1924, living in France. His mansion is currently open to the public for the Biennale, hosting an imaginative art exhibition.

The Cemil Molla Mansion (see here, and here) lies just above the main coast road towards the bridge and the Beylerbeyi Palace. It was redesigned around 1895 by the Italian–Armenian architect Alberti at the behest of Cemil Molla (1864–1941), minister and cultured confidant of Sultan Abdülhamid. It was even connected to the Beylerbeyi palace by a tunnel.

Cemil Molla mansion

Lavishly furnished, the mansion was equipped with electricity, central heating, and a telephone—at a time when such luxuries were the exclusive preserve of the Yıldız Palace. The new köşk made an elegant retreat for the pastimes of Cemil Molla with his wife and children, and their English and French governesses. The children not only studied the Qur’an (Cemil Molla sometimes served as imam at the Üryanizade Mosque) but also learned solfeggio; dignitaries and philosophers assembled for elegant soirées, as the air filled with piano and oud, Baudelaire and gazals—just the type of gathering that musicians like Tamburi Cemil might have frequented.

Left: Cemil Molla köşk, interior; right, from The shining.

Upon the founding of the Republic in 1923, Cemil Molla went into retirement. After his death in 1941 the mansion was confiscated by the State Security Department. [1] It was soon thought to be haunted, * with his ghost wandering in the gardens—“disconsolately” being the obligatory adverb here. Later buyers have felt unable to occupy the mansion, with the Nakkaştepe cemetery nearby. The story cries out (spookily) for a movie screenplay, like a Turkish version of The shining—with an eery soundtrack of taksim on kanun, and Ravel’s La valse, echoing through gilded salons adorned with sepia family photos… This brief introduction to the mansion has some of the ingredients:

* * *

To augment the story, with the encyclopedic Kadir Filiz we accompanied his neighbour, the sprightly Fatma Hanim (“Lady Fatma”), [2] to revisit the slopes where she had made her home. Her account takes us on to the migrations of the post-war period.

Fatma H and Am for blog
Fatma Hanım with Augusta.

Fatma Hanım, now in her mid-80s, is one of those delightful grannies whom one dreams of meeting—we only had to mention a single keyword and she came out with a whole stream of reminiscences.

She comes from the Black Sea town of Boyabat in the hills south of Sinop, just east of Kastamonu. After her husband Ilyas was sent to Istanbul on military service around 1959, he managed to stay on there; soon after he paid a visit back to Boyabat, they returned to Istanbul with their first baby—the first of four.

Their new home was a gecekondu shanty-settlement just behind the Cemil Molla mansion. The land was owned by a Greek boss, who ran a pig farm and slaughterhouse as well as a gazhane factory producing gas. (His son Emil became a great friend of the popular gay singer Zeki Müren.) Fatma recalls life on the estate, in the heart of nature, as paradise—though she was shocked by the informality of the Greeks, with the men wearing shorts… She pointed out the trees she had planted herself.

Ilyas was a gardener on the estate, while Fatma worked as housekeeper for a lady who lived in a relatively modest yalı house on the coast just along from the Cemil Molla Mansion. In a most intriguing digression from the köşk, Fatma’s employer was none other than Sare Hanım (Sare Mocan, Sara Okçu, 1914–2000). This leads us to a complex family history that I can’t even begin to get my head around…

From a distinguished Ottoman family, Sare had been abducted on horseback at the age of 15 by Sefket Mocan, grandson of Sefket Pasha, and was later married to him. Her (much) older sister Celile (1880–1956), a painter, was the mother of the left-wing poet Nâzım Hikmet (1902–63; see also under Sabiha Sertel), and over his long years in prison Sare often visited her beloved nephew there.

Left: Sare Hanım in the 1930s, “the first woman to wear a bikini and trousers”
under the Republic. Source.
Right: Nâzım Hikmet with fellow inmates, Bursa Prison. Source.

Sare went on to become a modern cosmopolitan belle; she even flirted with the idea of becoming a Hollywood movie star. After divorcing Sefket she moved back into her family’s Bosphorus yalı; she remarried, and divorced again. Cemil Molla’s family also had a yalı below their köşk, so they were near neighbours.

Sharing the house with Sare was her niece Münevver Andaç (1917–97). Münevver had fallen in love with Nâzım Hikmet in 1949 while he was nearing the end of a long imprisonment, giving birth to a son and marrying him after his release in 1951—but he soon had to go into exile in Moscow. Prevented from accompanying him, she moved in with Sare; under surveillance, Münevver left for Warsaw in 1961 with her two children before making her home in Paris. Sare’s niece Leyla had also married, but moved back to the house after separating from her husband.

Left: Sare in old age, surrounded by her mementos
Right: the green yalı on the Bosphorus.

So the female household where our eloquent guide Fatma Hanım worked for over thirty years sounds like a microcosm of women’s changing status under the Republic (for more, see Midnight at the Pera Palace).

Returning to Fatma Hanım’s own story, in 1992, after the notorious campaign of Istanbul mayor Bedrettin Dalan to destroy the gecekondu shantytowns, thanks to Ilyas’s honest reputation he was able to buy an apartment in the Kuzguncuk mahalle itself for a good price, where he and Fatma have lived ever since.

* * *

Turkey being Umlaut Heaven, ** when diacritically-challenged infidels adopted the word köşk they didn’t quite know what to do with the vowel (for my wacky fantasy on diacritics, click here). Somehow our borrowing in English isn’t quite how I’d expect the vowel to behave (says he, sipping coffee in his pyjamas while plucking the lute), although I don’t know how we could have done better—”kosk” wouldn’t have worked, anyway. ***

In 18th-century Britain, Ottoman architecture enjoyed a vogue thanks to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (see under Hidden heritage).

Fast Show
Another British homage to Ottoman culture.

Our modern kiosk is far less grand. It might serve as a bandstand, or more often a little stall selling newspapers, cigarettes, snacks, and so on. We don’t seem so good at them in Britain—the garden shed, immortalised by Jessy on The fast show (cf. Rowley Birkin QC), is quite a comedown.

But I do enjoy a good French kiosque or Italian (um) edicola, and I recall some fine examples around pre-1990 central and east Europe—where the vogue had begun with King Stanislaus I (1677–1766) of Poland; for me, the kiosks of East Berlin, Prague, and Budapest were part of the Iron Curtain mystique, with the buzz of street life.

Thrd Man kiosk

With All Due Respect to Ottoman architecture, perhaps the most iconic kiosk is the one in the middle of an eerily desolate Viennese square in The third man, accompanied by Anton Karas’s zither.


[1] By 1942, with the grossly discriminatory Wealth Tax (evoked in the Turkish TV series The Club), the brunt of the burden was to fall on Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities. For Istanbul during World War Two, see Midnight at the Pera Palace.

[2] In the more personal honorific style of Turkish relationships, Kadir and Augusta address her as Fatma Abla (“Elder Sister”) or Fatma Teyze (“Auntie”).

* The Cemil Molla Mansion is listed among the Top Five Haunted Buildings of Istanbul!

** Funny how “umlaut” doesn’t have an umlaut, eh. It seems that Turkish hardly needs a term to specify the ubiquitous dots, üzerine çift nokta koymak (“put a double dot on it”) being a tad over-generous. BTW, I’m very fond of the Hibernian umlaut, which I finally mastered on a tour of the States with a Scottish cellist, whose frequent refrain was “Shall we go and get some füd?”

*** This rather reminds me of my sample sentence of English borrowings from the Venetian language:

if you read in the gazette of the imbroglio over an arsenal of contraband artichokes; and if you’ve ever been quarantined after zany scampi and pistachio marzipan in the ghetto, or worn sequinned pantaloons to a regatta…

George Melly owns up

Owning up cover

George Melly (1926–2007) was one of the great characters of the London trad jazz scene.

He described his early escapades frankly in

  • Owning-up (1965),
    a most delightful and perceptive memoir (cf. Lives in jazz).

Forced as he was at prep school to listen to the cricket on the radio,

even now the sentence “and we return to the studio” holds an irrational beauty.

Very often the announcer, in a suitably apologetic voice, would introduce a record by Ambrose and his Orchestra or Roy Fox and his Band. At this, the headmaster, with the hysterical violence which characterised all his movements, would push back his chair and attempt to silence the ancient set before the first note.

If, as usually happened, the switch came off in his hand, he would drown the music, as he fumbled to replace it on its axle, by shouting “Filthy jazz!” at the top of his voice.

Sitting po-faced under a sepia photography of giraffes in the East African bush, I would mentally add jazz to Bolshevism and the lower classes (“Spurni profanum vulgus”) as things I was in favour of.

At Stowe he discovered little cells of jazz lovers, and he heard Bessie Smith’s classic Gimme a pig-foot and a bottle of beer for the first time.

All over wartime Britain the same thing was happening. […] Suddenly, as if by spontaneous combustion, the music exploded in all our heads.

After Stowe he joined the Navy as an ordinary seaman, taking his gramophone and records on board ship, dreaming of New Orleans. In this same period his other interest was Surrealism, and after demob he began working for E.L.T. Mesens in his newly-opened London Gallery. Eventually he got to hear live revivalist jazz, as trad was known then. Hanging out at Humphrey Littleton’s weekly sessions, he began exploring clubs in the suburbs.

I resolved to become an executant. Too lazy to learn an instrument, I had decided to sing. *

He went to Eel Pie Island on the Thames to hear Cy Laurie’s band:

After I had drunk several pints at a bar half painted to look like the window of a Spanish Hacienda, I asked Cy if I could sing. He couldn’t think of any excuse so I did.

He soon found his groove—in John Mortimer’s words, “singing with the raucous charm of an old Negress, so easily attained by those educated at Stowe”.

Melly and Mick
George and Mick.

As he teamed up with Mick Mulligan, his work at the gallery suffered: “what had been vague inefficiency turned into inspired anti-commercial delirium”. He notes the conflicting credos of trad jazzers and beboppers (the latter being the main topic of my series on jazz):

The revivalists began with the old records, and only learned to play because they loved a vanished music, and wished to resurrect it. Depending on their purism, they drew a line at some arbitrary date and claimed that no jazz existed after it. The modernists did this in reverse. Nothing existed pre-Parker. […]

Very slowly things changed, initially on a personal level. The two schools began to meet socially to argue and listen. Eventually some of the traditionalists became modernists or mainstreamers, and others began to realise that Gillespie and Parker, Monk and Davis were not perverse iconoclasts but in the great tradition, and the modern musicians stopped imagining that bebop had sprung fully armed from the bandstand at Mintons, but had its roots in the early history of the music.

The contrasting ethos was also displayed in the two camps’ sartorial tastes, with George soon creating his own distinctive style.

He branched out from his early homosexuality, with no moral decision involved. After years of patient suffering, his landlord served him with a brilliant eviction notice:

… I have endured your drunken and dissolute ways, your wanton waste of light, gas fire, hot bath water, horse radish, beans, lavatory water, your assumption that my library was yours… I never reproached you when you made this house a doss for band boys and barrow spivs, nor when you plastered the walls of a lovely room with obscenities and childish scrawls…

As the band began making a name, they traveled to seedy suburban jazz clubs via second-hand car lots on bomb sites, and set off on tours of the provinces.

After one session George was head-butted by a young thug wielding a bottle.

I was anaesthetised by fear. I subconsciously did the only thing that might work and it did. I took out of my pocket a small book of the sound poems of the dadaist Kurt Schwitters, explained what they were, and began to read. The book was knocked out of my hand, but I bent and picked it up again, and read on:

langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
Ookar.
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
Ookar.
Rackerterpaybee
Rackerterpaybay
Ookar.
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
etc.

Slowly, muttering threats, they moved off. I can’t explain why it worked, but I suspect that it was because they needed a conventional response in order to give me a going over. If I’d pleaded or attempted to defend myself, or backed against the wall with my arm over my face, I think I’d have had it.

Leading lights on the scene included Ken Colyer, purist stalwart of the trad jazz church, and Humph, who George recalls listening to a modern jazz record and then turning away with the remark, “Back to sanity and 1926!”.  In later years on I’m sorry I haven’t a clue Humph would introduce his deadpan put-downs of the show’s long-suffering pianist Colin Sell by intoning languidly, “Listeners may be interested to know that…” 

The Mulligan band performed for the 1951 Festival of Britain (cf. Stella Gibbons), “that gay and imaginative flyleaf dividing the grey tight-lipped puritanism of the years of austerity from the greedy affluence which was to come”.

Mick had a “pathological hatred of rehearsal”. This story of a banjo player, a “kind-hearted formidable pissartist”, takes me back to our ordeal playing Handel in Göttingen:

The replacement of a broken string was a comic performance in itself. He would hold the banjo about two inches from his nose and with slow glassy-eyed deliberation fail time and time again to thread the new string onto the key. Eventually by the law of averages he succeeded, tuned his instrument with conscientious precision and then, often only a bar or two later, another one would snap.

As George lost his job at the gallery, his sexual education continued in a world of scrubbers (see below), knee-tremblers, and bunk-ups. The band turned professional (using the word loosely), playing all over Britain in dance halls, whose décor he evokes poetically. It was a relief to play in jazz clubs. He pays homage to the transport caff; while some were disgusting, “with congealed sauce around the necks of the bottles and pools of tea on the table with crusts of bread floating in them”, others had gleaming juke-boxes and pin-tables and fruit machines, clean tables, and hot, edible food. Such caffs provided

a few minutes of light and warmth in the dark cold hours between leaving the dance hall where the old caretaker and his one-eyed dog snooze over a tiny electric fire, and climbing into bed in the London dawn, grey and shivering from lack of sleep.

He evokes the cellar clubs of Soho, frequented by taxi-drivers, clip-joint hostesses, waiters, small-time criminals, and jazz musicians. In 1952 at their basement club in Gerard street, Mick and George organised all-night raves—a term which Mick apparently coined with his manager Jim Godbolt. George traces the ebb and flow of the revivalist scene, with vignettes on the motley crew of aficionados who kept the flame burning.

Soon after their coach crashed in the Lincolnshire night, Mick dismantled the band, offering to manage George as a solo singer. Changes were afoot in their corner of the jazz world. Ken Colyer came back from New Orleans “like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the Law”. Humph “was in full revolt against his revivalist past”, eventually settling for mainstream, the small-band jazz of the late 30s–early 40s. Cy Laurie’s cellar club in Windmill street did well, his all-night raves more financially viable than those of Mick and George, before he went off to India on a Quest for a different kind of Truth.

George was ecstatic to hear Big Bill Broonzy at the Conway Hall, the first American jazzman to appear in England after the war (cf. Ronnie Scott and my Chinese-music mentor Ray Man getting to hang out with their American idols in the early 60s), though he found Alan Lomax’s lengthy introduction paternalistic. The visit featured memorable all-night sessions, and on Big Bill’s trip to Liverpool he stayed with George’s parents.

By 1955 Mick couldn’t resist returning to the fray, and George couldn’t resist singing with his re-formed band, staying with him for the next seven years despite other tempting offers. He relays a story from clarinettist Ian Christie:

Mick was very drunk and playing a solo. His control was minimal, his head entirely empty of any constructive ideas. His timing gone. All he could do was blow unbearably loudly, his neck swollen, his eyeballs popping with effort. Ian listened with irritation. When somebody is playing as badly as that it reflects on everybody in the band. Finally Mick finished his thirty-two bars of nothing, and waved his bell in the direction of the trombonist to tell him to take the next chorus. He turned to Ian, his face running with sweat:

“All the noise and vulgarity of Freddy Randall,” he said, “with none of the technique.”

Although jazz and WAM may seem far apart, such hooliganism, like the antics of the band on the road, reminds me of the orchestral scene in the 70s, complete with intemperate excess and practical jokes (see Deviating from behavioural norms!). With the personnel of Mick’s band constantly fluctuating, George gives affectionate portraits of its miscreants’ foibles.

By 1954 Chris Barber was taking over the mantle of Ken Colyer on the trad scene. But just then

a whole new world was in the process of being born, and we were entirely unaware of it. I can’t remember the first time I heard the word “teenager”. I don’t know at what point I began to take in the teenage thing. I doubt many other people can either.

They decided Rock around the clock was a drag, and were underwhelmed by Elvis. But what was changing was the new group identity of young fans. George became aware of the trend through meeting Tommy Steele on a transmission for the embryonic medium of television. Later, sharing a bill with him, he realised what a huge youth following Tommy had, their “orgiastic cries of worship” foretelling the death of jazz. Still, they managed to ride the storm, playing for loyal jazz club audiences. George also notes the rise of skiffle, revived yet again by Ken Colyer, making a star of Lonnie Donegan.

On a Scottish tour in 1955 George got married. He had just done a lecture at the ICA in London on the subject of “Erotic imagery in the blues” to a mixed audience of earnest ICA regulars and his own unruly mates. Generously fortified by gin, and diverging from his well-prepared script, he delivered a rather incoherent attack on the ICA itself, referring to it “with a certain lack of originality” as “Institute of Contemporary Farts” or, to relieve the tedium, “Institute of Contemporary Arseholes”. Finally, as the staff stacked up the chairs, with George insensible, his supporters unstacked them (which could surely have been billed as a work of performance art in itself). In response to outraged coverage of the event in the Melody maker, George

wrote in defence citing Dada and Rimbaud, but leaving out Messrs Gordon and Booth, which was perhaps rather unfair.

After a sympathetic account of the early breakup of his marriage, George describes the exhilaration of hearing Louis Armstrong on his first visit to London in 1956. As American jazzers began touring England more often, George found a particular affinity with bluesman Jimmy Rushing. With Mick’s band they toured with Big Bill Broonzy, as well as Sister Rosetta Tharp, who to their relief turned to be quite a raver.

As to George’s own showmanship on stage,

The general feeling in the band was that my poncing about had become a bit much.

On the road they made “an increasingly dull noise”; but his old jazzmate Wally Fawkes (whose sketch of George adorns the book cover) now asked him to write the dialogue for his popular Flook cartoon in The Daily Mail. This regular income boosted his unpredictable earnings.

Ever alert to language, he notes the transition from “mouse” to “chick” to “bird”, terms whose sexism is hardly redeemed by being well-meant (cf. Words and women). He gives an expansive sociological definition of the term “scrubber”. Whereas in the later Beat world it came to mean a prostitute, in his early days on the road it denoted a girl who slept with a jazzman for her own satisfaction as much as his. Each had their own catchment area, and they tended to specialise in men who played a particular instrument. **

Around 1960 trad jazz enjoyed another vogue, with Mr Acker Bilk rising to fame, prompting George to further unpack the changing scene and deplore the turgid banjo (cf. the rise of the bouzouki in rebetika). He recorded LPs and EPs, and appeared solo on TV as compère and performer, “looking camp as Chloe”.

In Liverpool, doing gigs at the Cavern, they find Beat groups beginning to appear—including one called the Beatles.

By 1962 Mick’s band had agreed to disband again. George, no longer dependent on singing for his supper, found a long-term partner in his wife Diana.

At the time of writing rhythm and blues is taking over from Beat.

His benign conspiratorial chuckle translating onto the page, Melly’s sensibility is so contemporary and his style so candid that it’s hard to believe the book was published as early as 1965. He pursued the musical upheavals of the time with Revolt into style (1972). In Rum, bum, and concertina (1978) he recounted his earlier days in the Navy. 

Of course, even in later years he could never resist camping it up for an audience. Here he is live with John Chilton’s Feetwarmers in 1983:

And he stars in the evocative documentary Smokey dives: jazz faces and places (2001):


* George’s speciality in singing, unsullied by instrumental skills, reminds me of my time at meetings of the Gaoluo village ritual association, with trusty liturgist Shan Yude’s constant self-deprecating lament, “I can’t play wind instruments, I can’t play percussion…” (wo you buhui chui, you buhui da 我又不会吹,又不会打), which I used to impersonate rather effectively to the amusement of his colleagues. They would have enjoyed George’s company too.

** This calls to mind an American groupie friend from my days in the opera pit in Verona, who had a fetish not just for trombonists but for bass trombonists—which one might suppose to be setting rather a high bar. Having already got nine under her belt (the mot juste), I used to tease her whether she could succeed where Beethoven and Bruckner had failed. A couple of years later, back in London I received a triumphant postcard inscribed with the single word “TEN!”

A medley for Einheitstag

garden rock

My current sojourn in Istanbul happily coincided with another fine reception at the German Consulate on a balmy late summer’s evening, to celebrate Einheitstag unification day on 3rd October.

I’m all for a bit of Einheit, * particularly over copious wine and a varied menu in a sumptuous garden. In the Consul’s welcoming remarks he expressed solidarity with Ukraine, followed by personal solo renditions of both German and Turkish anthems sung by a Turkish staff-member. A local rock band then struck up—while I am no authority on these new-fangled Popular Beat Combos, a Good Time was had by all.

garden rock 2

One could also soothe the ear by taking refuge in the salon inside to hear the versatile Consul on flute, accompanied by the radiant Augusta Tickling the Ivories most appealingly. She then offered a medley that included Hildegard Knef (Angela Merkel’s choice for her farewell ceremony, along with Nina Hagen), some Kurt Weill, a song from Marlene Dietrich’s Lola, and Francis Lai’s exquisite Plus fort que nous.

piano

For more on the events leading up to Einheit, see Deutschland 89; the biography of my orchestral colleague Hildi (parts 1 and 2); and other posts under the GDR here.

Given the recent regression to 1950s’ deference back in Blighty—the kowtowing of once-critical people to power and privilege, military pomp and Christian values, forming an orderly queue in one last swansong of Einheit before we all succumb to hypothermia and starvation—and the spectacular dog’s dinner that the Tory “government” is making of absolutely everything, surpassing even its own high standards (see also Get a proper speech impediment, FFS, and Drawing a line), I really should have availed myself of the Consulate visit to seek political asylum there…


* Not to be confused with the metaphysical quest, sent up by Woody Allen in a notional adult-education course list (“Spring bulletin”, in Getting even):

Manyness and oneness are studied as they relate to otherness (students achieving oneness will move ahead to twoness).