New Orleans brass bands

Eureke 1955
The Eureka band, 1955. Source

Having long rejoiced in the bands heard on the 2 glorious CDs Frozen brass ( Nepal, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Ghana, Surinam, Bolivia, Peru!), it’s high time for me to get a basic education on the brass bands of New Orleans. [1]

The early years
After the Civil War and Emancipation, black civilian bands began to emerge, their style inspired by both European-style military bands and the ring shout of African slaves at the Sunday gatherings in Congo square. Organised by labor unions, social aid and pleasure clubs (the Perseverance Benevolent and Mutual Aid Association was founded as early as 1783), they would perform on parades for feast days like Mardi Gras, and play hymns and dirges on funeral processions.

By the early 20th century, new instruments, sounds, and styles were transforming the musical landscape. Early groups included the Excelsior (1879–1931) and Camelia bands. Perhaps most celebrated is

  • the Eureka brass band (wiki; YouTube topic) (1920–75); here’s a brief clip from 1951:

Excerpts from 1952 to 1963:

Some more footage:

and Westlawn dirge, 1961:

Since the 1960s
By the early 1960s, despite concerns that the tradition was in decline, New Orleans brass bands enjoyed a renaissance, gaining wider celebrity through tourism, heritagification, and touring. As new generations were trained, the stylistic spectrum broadened. Among the more traditional groups:

and

  • the Original Liberty jazz band, founded by Michael White in 1981—here they are in a 2015 recording for Smithsonian Folkways:

  • The Olympia band, led by Harold Dejan and Milton Batiste, was a major training ground.  Here they are in 1982:

Soul Rebels
The Soul rebels. Source.

and by the early 80s, groups were incorporating hip-hop and funk into their repertoire, like the Rebirth band,

Moreover,

For more brass bands, besides Frozen brass, do explore the Balkan scene (under Musical cultures of east Europe), Brassed off, and even the bands accompanying saeta ritual songs in Andalucia; for China, e.g. the Shaanbei big band sound. See also, Trumpets, wind and brass bands, and A jazz medley.


[1] Besides studies like

  • William J. Schafer, Brass bands and New Orleans jazz (1977)
  • Richard Knowles, Fallen heroes: a history of New Orleans brass bands (1996), and
  • Mick Burns, Keeping the beat on the street: the New Orleans brass band renaissance (2006),

note e.g. the Hogan Archive, a CD series from Smithsonian Folkways (e.g. this), as well as articles here and here. This article leads to four videos (starting here) that make a succinct introduction, along with an outline of the style’s rhythmic foundations (NB this virtual exhibition, with great photos and audio reminiscences). 

Wiki articles include
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jazz_funeral
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring_shout
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brass_band#New_Orleans
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_line_(parades)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mardi_Gras_in_New_Orleans.
See also
https://beyondthedash.com/blog/cultural-spotlight/jazz-funerals-a-new-orleans-goodbye/7363.

Trailer for a thriller

TA thriller

Usually I shrug off airline safety videos like everyone else, but for some reason I’m mesmerised by the Turkish Airlines creation, which indeed transpires to be a classic of the genre:

Accustomed as we are In This Day and Age to searching for suggestive clues in tiny scenes, I can’t help regarding it as the trailer for a thriller [*Spoiler Alert*].

The opening—apparently taunting us real, frazzled passengers after we have finally managed to jostle our way on board, searching desperately for a space where we can cram our unwieldy luggage—shows a typically contented nuclear family (man, woman, and young boy) boarding what appears to be a private jet, with no queue at all.

At least, we assume the boy is theirs. The way the woman pushes him “playfully” towards his seat may suggest some kind of coercion; the man, typically, is relieved of tedious “parental” chores by craftily choosing a seat behind them.

They all have the most enormous eyes and pupils—a genetic trait amazingly also found in the flight attendant. In an editorial sleight-of-hand that may confuse, two tantalising scenes (0.31, and 2.31) show cameos of a different mother, with a toddler; and her eyes are suspiciously concealed from the viewer—could she perhaps be free of the outsized-eye syndrome? But is she another member of the international child-trafficking gang?

At 1.00, frustrated by his new domestic routine (even if it’s only a front), the vacuous man, in a vain attempt to flirt with the flight attendant (the frustrated middle-aged husband’s classic cry for attention), attempts a comedy juggling routine with his mobile (cf. Mark Heap, at the end of this clip). When it goes wrong, the attendant ignores his request with a polished, patronising smile; she seems to be a ventriloquist, though we’re not provided with subtitles (“Serves you right, you posh vacuous tosser. Have a nice day!”).

At 1.42 we at last get a glimpse of the only other two passengers on board. One, a shifty spectacled guy in a suit and tie, perhaps a CIA operative, looks round nervously to keep tabs on the cunningly-disguised family.

Besides being suspiciously skinny, the “family” are all blissed out, suggesting massive drug intake—even the captive boy conveys a jovial air, whether he’s been pumped full of heroin or because they’ve threatened him into keeping up the facade.

Even when there’s a SUDDEN LOSS OF CABIN PRESSURE OMG they remain eerily calm. “Oh cool, we’re all gonna plunge to a watery grave trapped in this burning coffin!” (cf. When you are engulfed in flames). The man is clearly delighted to have an excuse to inhale more drugs via the mask. The only thing that does seem to alarm him at first is that he can’t take his cabin luggage full of high heels, sharp objects, and smuggled diamonds with him—but the drugs are kicking in, and he soon regains his composure. If it’s realism you want, try Airplane (“Assume the crash position”):

Or did they know about the fake crash-landing all along—is it an ingenious attempt to escape the clutches of the CIA? I wonder if the elusive Woman with Normal Eyes, with her decoy toddler, will play a crucial role as the plot develops after they are rescued by a lurking mafia gunboat.

Apart from the captive passengers and my own deranged fantasies, one wonders about the psychology of the 1.8 million people who have watched the video on YouTube so far (Roll Over Godard), and the many who comment on it (“What am I doing watching this at 3am in my nan’s house? I don’t even have a passport!”).

I was less impressed by the soothing music, sadly not a taksim on the kanun or a rousing dance for davulzurna—but there I go again, orientalising…

It was less of a challenge to interpret the phrases in Teach yourself Japanese as the plot of a horror movie.

TA’s earlier flight of fantasy is also most creative:

And here’s a cute safety demo from Pegasus:

More muzak: ice-cream vans and garbage trucks

Ice cream van

Further to my post on Muzak, at a certain remove from traditional scholarship on the Great Composers or Daoist ritual, a couple of examples of how ethnomusicology “delights in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”, in the immortal words of John Cleese.

Back in the heady days of the SOAS shawm band, my mate Simon (not to be confused with Philomena Cunk’s mate Paul, bane of many a hapless expert interviewee) took time out from his research on percussion in Korean shaman rituals to undertake a fieldwork project about the music of British ice-cream vans. Like Liu Kuang’s Wall inscription for the Director of the Imperial Music Office in the Tang dynasty, the loss of this work is to be lamented, but Simon recalls driving around in his parents’ Morris Minor with the window down in the peak of summer, listening out for ice-cream chimes:

After picking up the tell-tale sounds, I’d pursue the van until it stopped (if it wasn’t already stationary), park nearby, buy an ice-cream, and hover around until the queue had disappeared. Then I’d approach, briefly summarise my project, and conduct my semi-structured interview—designed to elicit all the van owner’s experiences and thoughts regarding chimes. Only a small minority of owners declined. Most were eager to talk. I remember a couple of responses especially clearly: a huge Italian man threw up his arms and said “Of course I like the music. If you don’t like-a da music you don’t like-a da ice-cream”; another guy said something along the lines of “Honestly, it’s a nightmare. I get home and the tune is still going round and round in my head—sometimes I can’t sleep”. Someone else had removed the usual tinkly ice-cream chime and had rigged up a huge stereo system blaring out jungle music. Nowadays, it seems that the chimes are UK-made [see below], but back then, I remember people telling me that they typically bought Swiss-made music boxes. One man did things rather differently, having a special box made for his fleet of vans that played a Welsh hymn in a computer game beeping kind of style (he was servicing a patriotic rural area in the valleys). The van owners made some interesting comments about territory too—how they would listen out for others’ chimes as they drove around, making sure not to get too close.

A Guardian article by Laura Barton from 2013 reminds us of the distinctive sounds of the British summer, like the low, sweet call of the wood-pigeon and the distant sound of leather on willow. Some history:

The earliest chimes were operated like a music box and fitted with a magnetic pickup and amplifier. It wasn’t until 1958 that transistors transformed the van chime, along with amplifiers that could be fitted to the vehicle’s battery. Traditional British ice-cream vans have tended to use Grampian Horn loudspeakers, angled downwards, towards the road, to diffuse the sound, and though the technology has improved sound quality, the distinctive tinniness of the ice-cream van’s call is largely regarded with affection.

This sounds like a candidate for the nostalgia of Memory Lane UK. Now, indeed,

in a move that has brought jubilation to the ice-cream industry, chimes can play for up to twelve seconds rather than four; and once every two minutes, instead of three. Vans may also now chime while stationary.

YAY! Although this ruling is not actually to be blamed on the bureaucrats of Brussels, it’s just the kind of victory in which the Minister for the 18th century would exult—apparently evidence of the staggering success of Brexit (Yeah Right), liberation from the yoke of Brussels red tape, along with the right to feast on bendy bananas.

As to repertoire, a representative of MicroMiniatures, leading company for the manufacture of the chimes, explained that among the most popular tunes are O sole mio, Greensleeves, and Match of the day, as well as Jerusalem, The stripper (um…), Nessun dorma, Cherry ripe, and Waltzing Matilda (the BTL comments to this 22-minute (!) YouTube compilation open with a list; for further detail, click here).

John Bonar of Piccadilly Whip [Ah, the coy innuendo of British punning!] commented, “We’ve just always used the Pied Piper since the start, so all the vans we order come with that tune. You get pretty sick of it. But whatever tune you’d have you’d get pretty tired of it.”

If you find 22 minutes a tad excessive, there’s quite an array of more succinct medleys on YouTube, such as this:

The sonority makes me wonder if Indonesian ice-cream vans borrow from the gamelan…

* * *

For Taiwan, in a refreshing change from studies of ancient nanguan ballads, another recent Guardian article explores the island’s musical garbage trucks. Recycling (sic) research dating back many years, a recent article by Chinese-music scholar

addresses the topic in detail.

Garbage in Taiwan is at the centre of a musical assemblage that resonates beyond the confines of the nightly waste collection soundscape. Garbage trucks in Taiwan are musical: Beethoven’s Für Elise or Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska’s Maiden’s Prayer announce the garbage truck brigade’s arrival at designated times and places throughout urban Taipei. Neighbours stream into the street for a turn at depositing their pre-sorted waste into the proper receptacles. Taiwan’s semi-tropical climate, combined with a densely situated human population and the presence of well established rat and cockroach populations, makes garbage management a matter of daily urgency.

Guy traced Taiwan’s pop music “from the early 1980s through to the present as evidence of ways in which everyday habits and practices of reckoning with waste have seeped into a wide range of sensibilities”.

Despite efforts to diversify the repertoire, it has remained far more limited than that of British ice-cream vans. A maiden’s prayer was preloaded onto trucks bought from Japan in the 1960s, and has remained strangely tenacious. The other dominant tune is Beethoven’s Für Elise, apparently preloaded onto trucks bought from Germany.  Now embedded in the Taiwanese psyche, the sound of the garbage trucks has been incorporated into modern Taiwanese culture:

And I would heartily concur with

“Whenever I hear Für Elise, I feel like I need to take out the garbage as well.”

To my ears the stark monophony of this limited repertoire sounds more alien, even sinister, than our jovial ice-cream-van jingles—but I quite recognise that they serve different contexts, so maybe I’m just orientalising… And while these instances may be considered muzak in the broad sense of manipulating behaviour, they serve to alert the community—closer to the use of muzak in 1950s’ factories than to the subliminal aural conditioning that anaesthetises us in elevators or shopping malls.

Cf. Thinking outside the (music) box, What is serious music?!, The art of the miniature, and even The call to prayer.

Roundup for 2022!

Like a suburban Sisyphus doing and undoing a jigsaw, having gone to great lengths to mix up the daily sequence of my diverse topics in a stimulating fashion, it’s that time of year when I try and reassemble them into some kind of thematic order (cf. 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021). In September I essayed a handy roundup of roundups, covering some of this ground; and in November I listed Some recent *MUST READ* posts. As ever, in the sidebar you can consult the tags and categories, and even the monthly archive (scrolling waaay down); the homepage still provides useful orientation.

Disturbingly, the items featured below are just a selection, but do click away on all the links…

Perhaps I can begin with a story that combines several of my interests:

While I can’t quite claim to have won the World Cup for Argentina,

and I’m exceptionally fond of

  • Ogonek and Til, for fans of tennis, fado, and Noh drama—wacky diacritics and nasal vowels, with matching anagram and limericks.

Meanwhile I seem to have recovered from being a Ticking Time-bomb:

* * *

China:

And it’s always worth reminding you of my film on the Li family Daoists, and this roundup of posts on them, as well as my work on Gaoluo village.

Tibet (updated roundup), including

I also update my collected posts on Uyghur culture, including

Turkey features prominently in my Roundup of posts on west-central Asia, as I try to educate myself (and even this is only a selection):

leading on to

and William Dalrymple:

Some posts on Ukraine (Applebaum, Snyder, Sands), also linking to

As to other world music,

An Irish music medley, including recent entries:

North Indian music (collected posts):

Jazz (roundup of another extensive series) (Turkish jazz listed above):

And then:

Western Art Music: among this year’s posts on Bach (updated roundup) are

Mahler: my whole series is now listed here, with recent additions

Also

Society, religion, ritual:

A mélange of other topics:

New entries in A Sporting medley include

Drôlerie:

Well, that’ll keep you busy—as a reward, in future perhaps I’ll try posting every three days, rather than every other day, and I might even reblog earlier posts a tad less avidly—not wishing to try your patience (“You must come over and try mine sometime”—Groucho).

In memoriam Bird and Fortune

Bird and Fortune

John Bird died this week, nine years after his sketch partner John Fortune. Having teamed up in the heady days of British satirical shows in the 1960s, they had a glorious new lease of life working with Rory Bremner from 1989.

So to follow the classic “You say potato” sketch (“on the perils of over-reliance on the written text”, as I suggested), here’s a playlist for their George Parr interviews, satirising ministers, diplomats, generals—more apposite today than ever:

Among my highlights there are the Washington diplomat (#2), the Home Office minister (#7), the British businessman in China (#8), and the merchant banker (#14). Alternating roles, they nail the establishment’s inane, complacent sense of entitlement, the blithe insouciance with which they barely bother to conceal the iniquity of their stances. All this can be heard on the lips of many a “government” representative today—this interview could almost be a verbatim transcript of the current Tory position on immigration and asylum:

Or this:

I don’t like the word xenophobic, it suggests irrational prejudice… Of course it’s a Greek word, and I detest Greeks.

The handmaid’s tale, Season 5

Handmaid 5

Just in time for a merry dystopian Christmas (as if Bambi isn’t enough), the latest season of The handmaid’s tale (for the previous series, click here) has just finished airing on Channel 4—ever more relevant not just amidst the struggle of women in Iran and the further curtailment of women’s right in Afghanistan, but closer to home, since the overturning of Roe v Wade.

Series 5 still steers clear of The testaments, Margaret Atwood’s update to her original novel. It hinges on the mutual dependence of June and Serena after they find themselves crossing paths again in Toronto—no longer such a safe haven amidst the changing dynamics of anti-refugee sentiment and murky diplomacy. As June reminds the saintlike Luke,

“America wasn’t Gilead until it was, and then it was too fucking late.”

Developments in Gilead itself now play a subsidiary role, driven mainly by the manipulations of Commander Lawrence and Aunt Lydia, suggesting a more media-savvy image for the Christo-fascist regime. While the constant degradations have long become over-familiar (and I remain dubious about the way both sides sanctify motherhood as the ultimate moral yardstick), the plot remains compelling. The ending is contrived, but I’m still looking forward to the next season…

Some Chinese posters and pinups

In 1993, as I plunged deeper into fieldwork on ritual associations in rural Hebei, while staying at a dingy hostel in Laishui county-town I was struck by this graphic public information poster from the local Public Security Bureau:

Poster LaishuiThis detail is particularly fine:

Poster Laishui detail
Caption:
Don’t casually drop cigarette-butts or rubbish, and don’t spit all over the place;
maintain cleanliness inside and outside the dwelling.

More precisely, and indecorously, I may add that tutan 吐痰 encompasses the staggeringly common habit of emptying one’s throat via the nose onto the ground, generally with a loud and dramatic flourish—a sound that accompanies some of my finest recordings of ritual performance. At the time it didn’t look as if campaigns against the tradition would have much effect.

Moving swiftly on, political posters have long been a popular topic, but travelling down to the countryside, some intrepid art historian might care to make a diachronic and regional survey of pinups adorning the otherwise bare homes of poor peasants since the 1980s’ reforms, which cheerfully rub shoulders with family photos, posters of Party leaders, and images of deities like Guanyin. I found this montage on the wall of a home in Gaoluo village around 1993:

Pinups Gaoluo

Pinups often make a drôle backdrop to our portraits of wise old folk musicians, like this 1995 image of vocal liturgist Li Yongshu in Yixian county nearby:

Li Yongshu, Baoquan 1995

Here’s a selection from Shaanbei, heartland of the Chinese revolution, in 1999:

All this by contrast with the god images that adorn the ritual building at New Year—Gaoluo again (see here, part of a series on Ritual paintings of north China):

Gaoluo 1989For more recent Uncle Xi pinups, and incentives to display them, see God images old and new, 2—sequel to an article that features murals adorning kang brick-beds dating from just after the reforms of the late 1970s.

ZQ meinv

The Time Regulation Institute

Time Reg cover

I’ve been delighting in

A fine satire on the alienation of modern bureaucracy, the novel was published in full after being serialised from 1954.

Born in adversity, the narrator Hayri İrdal becomes apprentice to the wise old clock repairer Nuri Efendi, and spends time (sic) performing in improvisatory theatre groups (“I was living in a world of lies and illusion, and that was all I wanted”). Returning to Istanbul after army service in World War One (“four years spent in vain”), he is indolent and indifferent to everything around him. The Viennese-trained psychoanalyst Dr Ramiz, himself “the incarnation of discontent”, relishes his case, but expects more from him:

“I want you to have dreams that are more in line with your illness. Do you understand me? Use everything in your power to have the right kind of dreams.” […] All this contributed to my moving that much closer to bona fide insanity.

Dr Ramiz introduces Hayri İrdal to a coffeehouse, where he delights in telling stories with the regulars, as life was suspended.

New ideas were at first humoured out of courtesy and a slight curiosity, but they would remain unaddressed until the crowd’s ever-vigilant imagination had recast them as pleasantries, thus assimilating them to their own idiom. This is what happened to any attempt at serious conversation.

His family life is unfulfilling:

I detested the life I was living but lacked the strength to start another. I had severed all ties. I had no bonds with the world save for the compassion I felt for my children. I had no choice but to endure it all—or at least tolerate the world around me. The moment I set foot outside I was a prisoner of my wandering and endlessly colluding mind, which led me off to exotic worlds whose enticements beckoned, only to stay beyond my reach.

While he finds further distraction from his ennui in the Spiritualist Society, the model of the ascetic dervishes can’t help him solve problems stemming from his worldly concerns. At last he meets his mentor Halit Ayarci, with whom, amidst much partying, he hatches the concept of the Time Regulation Institute, a nepotistic institution that defines its own function.

At last Hayri İrdal has a “surging sense of purpose”. He spends his early months at the Institute devising platitudinous slogans and exchanging gossip. As Hayit Ayarci impresses his political contacts with arcane colour-coded charts, the Institute goes into full swing, recruiting suitably talentless employees from their relatives and drinking buddies.

Although Hayri İrdal has always preferred a life in which “idleness, or wasting time, is a source of happiness” (in Pankaj Mishra’s words), they devise a system of fines for those whose timepieces are not synchronised with any other clock in view.

When an inspector notified a citizen of his fine, the offender would initially express surprise, but upon apprehending the form logic behind the system, a smile would spread across his face until, at last understanding this was a serious matter, he would succumb to uproarious laughter.

He refines the system by offering a discount to repeat offenders. The staff expands as they set up Regulation Stations, “small roadside posts where ladies and gentlemen could stop in to adjust their timepieces”.

Gradually he eases into his new role:

I began to use terms like “modification”, “coordination”, “work structure”, “mind-set shift”, “metathought”, and “scientific mentality”…

He muses on freedom:

Today we use the word only in its political sense, and how unfortunate for us. […] The political pursuit of freedom can lead to its eradication on a grand scale—or rather it opens the door to countless curtailments. […] I have been made to understand that in our lifetime freedom has been kind enough to visit our country seven or eight times. Yes, seven or eight times, and no-one ever bothered to say when it left; but whenever it came back again, we would leap out of our seats in joy and pour into the streets to blow our horns and beat our drums.

Pondering the ever-growing roster of employees, Hayri İrdal suggests selecting those with experience, “people who have more or less worked for a certain period of time in a particular field”. Halit Ayarci rebuffs this idea:

“To be experienced means to be run down, frozen at some fixed point, and stuck with stagnant ideas. Such people are of no use to us.”

In a satire on Atatürk’s invention of tradition, after Hayri İrdal gives Halit Ayarci an account of the wonders of clock-making, though “never one for reading or writing”, he is persuaded to compose an entirely spurious biography of a 17th-century clockmaker, The life and works of Ahmet the Timely. His patron “was not at all mistaken when he divined the need for the illustrious Ahmet Zamani to have existed”, nor was he wrong when he assigned him to the reign of Mehmed IV.

Although a handful of armchair academics dismiss the work as a complete fabrication, it becomes a huge international success. Still, the enthusiasm of amiable Dutch scholar Van Humbert poses problems.

Finding the tomb of a man who never existed in mortal form is more difficult than you might imagine, as is surviving vigorous debate with a foreign scholar, even with the aid of an interpreter.

As Hayri İrdal becomes a celebrity, his wife joins in the deception with alacrity, embroidering a fantasy of their happy life together, to Hayit Ayarci’s delight:

To him, my continuing doubts about the existence of Ahmet the Timely and my rejection of my wife’s picture of me as a banjo-playing equestrian were all symptoms of the same malady.

“Your wife has presented you as the ideal modern man and still you doubt and deny it all!”

In a satire on the gullibility of the masses, Hayit Ayarci even concocts a successful singing career for our narrator’s tone-deaf sister-in-law:

You say she’s ugly, so from a contemporary point of view she’s sympathetic. You say her voice is wretched, which means it is emotive and conducive to certain styles. You say she has no talent—well then, without a doubt she is an original.

As the Institute extends its global reach, our hero designs a surreal clock-themed building in a satire on modernist architecture:

People moving up and down either wrought-copper staircase would be visible, as they would be encased in glass. I now saw I could arrange them diagonally across the centre of the hall to disrupt the traditional four leaf clover formation. Of course all the pillars—each one a little higher than the next—would be connected by little bridges so as to allow those moving up and down them to cross.

After a fractious final gathering, the Institute is consigned to continuous liquidation.

* * *

Apart from evoking Kafka and Borges, I was reminded of the stories of Švejk and his creator Hašek (whose Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress within the Limits of the Law was designed partly to bolster the finances of the pub where the election meetings were held), as well as Flann O’Brien, with his annotations on the ouevre of de Selby, and his All-Purpose Speech.

The 2013 translation is adorned by an excellent Introduction by Pankaj Mishra (cf. his review). Putting the novel in global context, he reflects on Atatürk’s cultural revolution and the developing world’s “feckless programme of Westernisation” in the pursuit of secular and rational ideals, where “the onwards-and-upwards narrative of progress, dictated by the state and embraced by a gullible people, has contaminated everything.” Adducing Russia, Japan, Iran, China, and India, Mishra notes a “tragic mismatch between the intentions of these hasty modernizers and the long historical experience of the societies they wanted to remake in the image of the modern West”. As in his 1939 novel A mind at peace, Tanpinar suggests the deracine sense of arriving late, spiritually destitute, bewildered by the “tawdry illusions of modernity”. Hayri İrdal—“one of those superfluous semimodern men familiar to us from Russian literature: more acted upon than active, simmering with inarticulate resentments and regrets”—“has a keen appreciation of the absurdities of the self-perpetuating and self‑justifying bureaucratic state that embodies progress and enlightenment in Turkey”.

Gosh—is that the time?

Vassalage

Goulet
The Treaty of Le Goulet. Source.

As an arcane warmup for the France–England match tomorrow: one of my favourite expressions, outstanding in its entitled pomposity, is this description of Teresa May’s Brexit plan from the patronising patrician lips of The Haunted Pencil:

the greatest vassalage since King John paid homage to Phillip II at Le Goulet in 1200.

JRM

The Tree-Frog should know—he was there. Yup, he sure knows how to Get Down with the Kids. So that’s what they teach them at Eton, when they’re not busy hurling racist and sexist abuse at girls visiting from a state school. I wouldn’t know, I only did Woodwork at Skibbereen Comprehensive. *

I’d love to slip the bon mot (oops) into a chat over a pint at the Aardvark and Climbing Boot, but so far even “vassalage” has proved beyond me. Still, it might work as a new model of car (“Tesla Vassalage SR”), or in a catchy pop lyric—an early draft by Ken Dodd, perhaps, interpreted in the suave tones of Wee-Smug himself:

Vassalage

With this government one doesn’t need such a long memory as Tree-Frog, whoever the Prime Minister is this week, presiding over “the greatest fiasco since the day before yesterday”. May we be released forthwith from this Tory vassalage!


* My attachment to Skibbereen goes back to a rainy evening fuelled by inordinate quantities of Guinness on a Mozart opera tour, also memorable for a brilliant story at an Armagh pub session. I briefly flirted with the idea of applying for the Skibbereen Philharmonic, undeterred by the fact that there isn’t one.

Binmenism

Nostalgia 1

A recent Long Read by Dan Hancox in the Guardian gets to the heart of our distinctive British malaise of nostalgia, trumpeted on the Memory Lane UK Facebook page. At the heart of this phenomenon are the “proper binmen” of yesteryear (cf. Lonnie Donegan):

To their admirers, proper binmen embody a lost postwar idyll—and the decline in national character can be seen in the appalling state of their modern-day counterparts, who are rotten in spirit, in character and in service. […]

Back then, in an unspecified period between 1950 and 1980, the binmen were stronger, more hardworking and more polite. Not just that—back then, the binmen were happy. Everyone remembers them the same way: always cheerful, always smiling, frequently whistling. They always had a kind word for you, never complained, and always closed the gate. They took pride in their job, which was hard work, but honest work. These judgments are delivered with absolute certainty. Back then, “They were always a really friendly crowd who you could have a good laugh with,” writes one commenter. “Not like the bin men of today, you are very lucky if they respond to a ‘good morning’.”

The historic shift in bin collection is taken to mark a wider crisis in masculinity. “That is when men were men, not the wimps we have today,” writes one Facebook commenter. “All be off work with PTSD nowadays,” chimes in another. Proper binmen “didn’t care about Health & Safety Shite”, writes another. The plastic wheelie bins we have today—with their emasculating pastels, often colour-coded for recycling, and their humiliating, labour-saving wheels—are just further markers of our moral, social and spiritual decline.

The supporting cast to proper binmen includes proper football man and proper Labour man. The key is noble suffering.

Stern voices have clamoured to remind us that being dangerously cold, being desperately poor and enduring powercuts, broken supply chains, food shortages and cold baths has happened to Britons before, and it would probably do us good, if anything, if it happened again.

Nostalgia 2

Among numerous other fetishes are

One pound notes. Queueing to use a phone box. Playing in the street and yelling “car!”. French cricket. Jam sandwiches. Scabby knees. Skipping. Coal fires. The slipper. The cane. The ruler. Getting a thick ear. Cumbersome lawnmowers. Ink wells. Duffle coats. Tin baths. Marbles. Jack Charlton. Forgetting your PE kit. Bus conductors. Bob-a-job week. Wooden ice-cream spoons. Snakes and Ladders. Ponchos. Beans on toast. Men opening doors for women. Slow dancing to Nat King Cole. Worzel Gummidge. Sweets by the ounce. Icicles hanging from the window frame (“Before central heating!”). Miss World (“All natural. Not a bit of botox in sight”). The power cuts of 1972–4 (“we coped, we were strong”). Scrubbing and polishing your front steps (“That’s when people had pride in where they lived”). Outdoor toilets. Cigarette machines. Flares. Playing in bombsites. Jumping in puddles.

The list could run and run—one might add cheery bus conductors, or the “innocent” sexism of Carry on films and “saucy” seaside postcards, for instance.

As Hancox notes, the rich and powerful profit from the philosophy of “We had it tough. We kept calm and carried on. We didn’t complain. We muddled through. We made do. We mended. It never did us any harm. It made us who we are”.

Underpinning this celebration of suffering is the masochistic idea that it is your individual responsibility—indeed an important test of your character—to withstand ruinous social and economic crises not of your making. […]

Elizabeth II herself was, we can reasonably assume from the tributes which followed her death, a proper Queen. Under the headline “The Queen’s 1950s frugality is key to our future”, one Times columnist praised her for being “naturally parsimonious”, personifying not obscene wealth and the plundered spoils of Empire, but the halcyon moment of High Binmenism, at some point in the 1950s, before the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP. “In this age of Amazon Prime and Kim Kardashian-style super-rich spending, her frugality may seem quaint,” Alice Thomson wrote, “but it feels timely. As the cost of living crisis hits, everyone is looking for ways to cut back, taking a Thermos of coffee to work, eating leftovers for lunch and sewing on lost buttons.” That even a literal Queen has to be explained in this way suggests how deep Binmenism goes.

This indeed compounds our mystifying subservience to the monarchy.

Alongside their mission to excavate the rubble of the past, the Facebook nostalgia communities often pour scorn on the objects and rituals of today’s zeitgeist, in particular the damage done by technology. Computer games, smartphones, social media and TV are seen to create a disenchanted childhood, lacking in imagination, adventure and risk.

Still,

The vitality of the nostalgia industrial complex is a reminder of just how appealing it is to have your private reminiscences, buried memories, and hazy childhood images validated by others—whatever your age. It is a source of comfort to know you are not mistaken, that your version of your life’s story is shared. […]

Our gaze seems to inevitably turn backwards. The politics of the past few years abound with a desire for a return to an imagined, halcyon former version of Britain. This is true of both sides of the Brexit referendum; for remainers, there is often wistful talk of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony or the New Labour period, while Brexiteers look back further into history.

Brexit, like the Memory Lane UK posts, partly speaks to an existential sadness about the passage of time and the desire for revenge on what we imagine it has done to us. You can only take back control if you have become convinced you once had it, and have had it torn from your grasp. […]

Stewart Lee delights in sending up the bendy bananas and Primeval Nothingness to which the Brexiteers long to return. Hancox goes on to cite William Davies on the way people who feel disenfranchised often find solace in nationalism:

The nationalist leader holds out the promise of restoring things to how they were, including all the forms of brutality—such as capital punishment, back-breaking physical work, patriarchal domination—that social progress had consigned to history. For reasons Freud would have understood, this isn’t as simple as wanting life to be more pleasurable, but a deep desire to restore a political order that made sense, in spite of its harshness. It is a rejection of progress in all its forms.

All this can shade into racist memes like attacking the toppling of statues, criticising BLM, and advocating for “proper” history to be taught “again”. At least the current “government” is doing its utmost to restore rationing and poverty—and the return of child chimney-sweeps would doubtless be popular in certain quarters (cf. The Haunted Pencil’s paean to “uplifting” food banks). Our relationship with the NHS, and the migrants who continue to make it work, is another much-discussed aspect of post-war British identity (succinctly, see e.g. this 2008 article).

Hancox cites an LSE report into class identity, which interviewed “successful TV producers, actors, and architects who all brushed aside their own private schooling, housing security, and material privilege to foreground a single grandparent who was a coal miner”.

But he also notes a more tolerant strain of humanist libertarianism, concluding:

It is not good enough to merely dismiss the Facebook nostalgics’ sepia-tinted version of history out of hand, if you care about Britain today. The proper binmen are living inside many of us, pulling our strings and guiding us not just down memory lane, but into the future.

Felicitous conjunctions

Unlike Keith Richards, the figures for my blog are not broken down by age and sex. But WordPress’s Stats do list posts by number of views for day, month, and year—giving rise to some felicitous conjunctions that are Grist to my Mill, recalling Unlikely bedfellows.

Recently I glanced at the daily list to find A tribute to Laurence Picken neck-and-neck with Cunk on Earth, and Taranta, poverty, and orientalism vying with French organ improvisation. In the November stats, Tchaik 6 finds itself sandwiched between Everyday life in a Syrian village and Aboriginal music. In the upper half of the league table for “All Time” views (sic: perhaps since the dawn of human civilisation, rather than the beginnings of life on earth),  Robert van Gulik occupies a respectable position that raises hopes of a Europa League place, but he’s pipped to the post by the Pearl and Dean jingle

Actually, such connections, like apparently random passengers stuck on the Orient Express in the snow, or indeed on the Northern Line, are kinda part of my Masterplan—I do indeed relish making bold leaps in my sequence of posts.

Cf. Global audiences, where viewings by country resemble an Olympic medals table. Hours of Harmless Fun for All the Family…

“Making a mistake” in Foreign

Blue kite stillFrom Blue kite (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1993).

With “mistakes” (closely followed by denials—notably Brexit) having become routine under this evil Tory regime, I’m reminded that I’ve always been fond of the Italian sbaglio (verb sbagliare), with the appealingly economical negative prefix s- creating an expressive diphthong. Admittedly in this case a positive version baglio/bagliare is elusive, but it reminds me of other words equivalent to English dis-, such as

  • svantaggio disadvantage
  • sfiducia mistrust
  • scontento discontent
  • sfigato loser
  • scaricare unburden
  • sfiorire wither
  • staccato detached
  • sforzando “with excessive force”—Beethoven’s speciality.

Like I’d know… A suitable aperitivo here is the negroni sbagliato (cf. the Lumumba and cubalibre).

Returning to “mistakes”: in British politics, “misjudgements” that have appalling social and economic consequences can now be casually brushed aside with a patrician air of disdain. In China,  however (as throughout the socialist bloc), “making a mistake” (fan cuowu 犯错误), a catch-all for political, sexual, and indeed clerical misdemeanours, is now used humorously—despite (or because of) its Maoist heritage, with the disastrous personal and familial consequences that could ensue from innocent infringements against the fluctuating political orthodoxy of the day, or entirely innocuous casual remarks—cf. Goulash deviationism, China: commemorating trauma, and movies such as Blue kite and Living. In documents from the Maoist era the term is a sparse hint of such faux pas, as under The Houshan Daoists, requiring us to read between the lines (see my review of the Anthology of the folk music of the Chinese peoples).

A grand slam

Bridge

Just for a change from Daoists, Mahler, and Turkish culture, here’s a delightful bridge challenge!

As you see in my note to Perfection is NOT the word for it, my skills on the baize are rudimentary, having been only modestly maintained on orchestral tours on the back of a bus, suitably lubricated by alcohol. By now I’m even more out of practice than usual, but among a wealth of such problems I find this one particularly charming. Like the abstract beauty of dhrupad, it’s an infinite world.

I can’t see the solution online, but after the opening spade lead from West (almost inevitable, one would think, though it’s the only lead that makes the grand slam possible!) all thirteen tricks must be won in dummy—to which end, declarer must first discard the ❤️A and K on the two opening spade tricks, and then discard all the top diamonds on dummy’s four heart tricks!

Wonderful, eh—pour me another gin…

A Tibetan childhood

*Part of my education in the history of modern Tibet*

Nulo cover

Since I reviewed Shawo Tsering’s “auto-narrative”, I’ve been reading

  • Naktsang Nulo, My Tibetan childhood: when ice shattered stone (English translation 2014, by Angus Cargill and Sonam Lhamo).

Nulo Tibetan cover Another account of the catastrophe that befell the Tibetan region of Amdo, it contains harrowing material of a kind only hinted at by Shawo Tsering (cf. When the iron bird flies).

Remarkably, the original, in Amdo Tibetan (title translated as “Joys and sorrows of the Naktsang boy“), was published in China “for internal distribution” in 2007, near the end of a relatively relaxed period in the region. It was soon pirated widely; versions were published in standard Tibetan by Tibetan exiles in India in 2008 and, in Chinese, in Taiwan three years later—by which time it had apparently been banned in the PRC.

As Robbie Barnett observes in his substantial and typically wise introduction,

As the first uncensored recollection published within Tibet of events erased by a half century of enforced forgetfulness, it epitomised the process of collective remembering that appears to have transformed and energised Tibetan cultural life at this time, fuelling a reemergent and potent sense of nationhood.

Outsiders had little access to the voices of ordinary Tibetans (especially those from the eastern regions) until the 1990s, when accounts of Amdo history since the 1950 Chinese occupation began to surface, led by Charlene Makley, Li Jianglin with Matthew Akester, and later by scholars such as Benno Weiner. Robbie also refers to other Tibetan accounts from the period when Naktsang Nulo’s memoir was published.

Amdo map
Northeastern Tibet, showing places and territories mentioned in the text,
with routes taken by the author to Lhasa, fleeing the Chinese army, and on march to prison.

It’s always important to bear in mind the usages of the word “Tibet”—as ever, Robbie gives a cogent account:

Today, in the era of nation-states, single terms for the whole area are much more in vogue, and the northeastern part of the Tibetan plateau is now referred to by Tibetans most frequently as Amdo, while the name Kham is used for the eastern and southeastern areas. Amdo and much of Kham were not consistently ruled by Lhasa after about 1700, although in brief periods up until the 1930s the Tibetan army was able to regain control of one or other border zone in Kham. In this period most of the numerous localities, chiefdoms, and so on within Amdo and Kham fell under the administration of the western Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan. But Chinese rule in these Tibetan areas was largely nominal until sometime in the late 1950s, as Naktsang demonstrates in his book.

As he explains, exiles and their supporters now commonly use the word “Tibet” to refer to the entire Tibetan snow-land as a political unit, one that was ruled in the past by a single administration. Ironically, by the late 1950s, “facing the experience of invasion, many eastern Tibetans reverted to a probably half-forgotten or perhaps half-invented memory of political unity”.

There are thus at least three Tibets—one recognised by China as the administrative area ruled by the Dalai Lamas until 1950 and limited to the western and central parts of the plateau, another referring to the common cultural and historic heritage found throughout the plateau, and a third implying a single political entity covering all the Tibetan areas. […]

Whether intended or not, the moral logic of his memoir implies a sense of common purpose among Tibetans, irrespective of their location on the plateau, fuelled by their similar experience of Chinese policies in the 1950s.

Robbie reminds us of the seminal importance of Amdo in Tibetan religion, economy, and literature (see e.g. chapters in Conflicting memories).

Born in 1949 in Chugama village in Machu county, Ganlho Prefecture, just east of the Golok region in south Gansu, Naktsang Nulo spent most of his childhood in nearby Chumarleb county, in Yushu (Jyekundo) prefecture of Qinghai province. The memoir describes his early life until he entered school in 1959. For most of his later career he was based in Chumarleb, serving until his retirement in 1993 as an official in the Chinese government, with successive positions as schoolteacher, police officer, judge, prison official, and county leader.

Robbie identifies the significance of the book—in particular the impact of the PLA’s arrival in the area, “the first time that Tibetans there had experienced administration by outsiders at the grassroots level”.

It reinserts long-erased memories into the knowledge bank of younger generations in his community, who until now have had severely limited access to information about their past. And it gives an account, in all senses, of the costs of China’s initial state-building project in Tibetan areas a half century ago: with little comment or condemnation, it records the price paid in lives and lifestyles by the author’s family and community for their incorporation into modern China. It also serves for outsiders as a vivid reminder that events, even those involving widespread atrocities and occurring at pivotal moments in a nation’s history, can be removed from the record in the aftermath of nation-building, lost in the waves of deliberate erasure, ideological preference, and state-driven selectivity that take place at such times.

He contrasts exile Tibetan and Chinese historiography:

The Tibetan version involved much eliding of their complex relations with China in the past, as well as of stark inequities in their social system, while the Chinese narrative involved overlooking Tibet’s history of separate governance, its largely autochthonous cultural and social evolution, and earlier forms of obvious national spirit and belief. These forms of forgetfulness were not equivalent: the Tibetan exiles promoted their version through propaganda and persuasion, often with endorsement from the work of foreign scholars, while the Chinese version of history was implemented more or less coercively. […]

Naktsang Nulo’s memoir provided an account of history that undermined to some extent the versions told by both sides. It did this not by making any statements about Tibet’s political status in the past but by telling that story with some degree of nuance and complexity.

And he elaborates:

My Tibetan Childhood thus represents a moment of coalition between two generations. The older Tibetans, schooled in the necessary arts of silence by their witnessing of numerous state-inflicted deaths and punishments in earlier years, looked across Naktsang’s narrative toward the younger generation, already energised by a growing awareness of a distinctive cultural and religious heritage that seemed to them endangered. The story that it told seemed to say, though not in so many words, that there was a substantive historical basis for the sense of loss and deprivation, and for the feeling that a future had been denied, implicit in the dissatisfactions expressed among Tibetans in the Amdo area, as in Lhasa too, after the turn of the millennium. Before Naktsang’s book appeared, the only knowledge that could have given substantial basis for such ideas would probably have been largely limited to private conversations, smuggled exile propaganda, and ambiguous pop songs about unity, long-lost friends, and separation from one’s homeland. With its patient, detailed, uneditorialised accounting of historical atrocities, seemingly inflicted without reason or explanation by an outside force fifty years earlier, Naktsang’s book provided an intellectual foundation for thoughts and emotions already circulating within his community, a story of the past that made sense of those emotions. […]

In many senses, it is a naive story, the chronicle of a world seen through a child’s eyes. But to readers within Tibet, it was a revelation. It told of epochal events that had rarely if ever been described before in print, and it used a style and approach that ignored the conventions and requirements of history writing in China, let alone in its Tibetan regions.

Thus his child’s perspective is “free of the rituals and requirements of socialist writing practices”. Presented as a story about a boy’s wish to return to his home, the book seems to downplay political messages.

The words “China,” “the Party,” “Communism,” and “policy” are not found in the text. Even the place-names Gansu and Qinghai do not appear, although the action takes place within those provinces; it is as if they have no meaning or significance for the author. There is no reference to class, local lords are not described as feudal, the Tibetan administration in Lhasa is not referred to as a “local government,” exploitation and abuse are criticised in moral terms but not politically, and the concepts of oppression and liberation are not invoked. […]

The teacher in charge of the “Joyful Home” tells the author, “Thanks to our leader, Mao Zedong, we have enough to eat and drink,” just before the famine starts, and again, after the famine has concluded, when the same teacher announces to those who have survived, “Thanks to Chairman Mao Zedong, we will have rice soup to drink, starting tomorrow”. There is no hint as to whether these profoundly grotesque statements should be considered ironic, innocent, forced, or tragic, or even if they should be judged at all. Political terminology has been removed from the text along with judgment, separating it from the body of public writing about history in China. This is thus a book in which what is not said about the past is as important as what is declared.

For more, note Xénia de Heering, “Re-remembering the day ‘times turned around’: the arrival of ‘Chinese soldiers’ at Chukhama in 1958”, Chapter 10 of Barnett, Weiner, and Robin (eds), Conflicting memories: Tibetan history under Mao retold (2020).

* * *

As Robbie notes,

There was clearly little if any presence of Chinese or Hui forces in the author’s area before 1958, even though the PLA had taken over Qinghai nine years earlier, and in most ways people in the nomad areas still ruled themselves.

Naktsang’s early life in his nomad community was permeated by encounters with Buddhist monasteries and lamas. As the family made a 1,500-mile pilgrimage over six months to and from Lhasa, Naktsang gives

an unusually frank impression of life in Lhasa and central Tibet, where the Golok pilgrims are shocked by scenes of utter destitution and by forms of corporal punishment that even they, no strangers to punitive violence, appear to consider extraordinarily brutal.

But on their return, just as he was becoming a monk at the Chugama monastery, his father was arrested by the vindictive head of discipline there and subjected to 1,500 lashes “for what seems to have been a breach of etiquette”.

Until around 1956 the PLA troops were still considered “relatively benign”; when Naktsang was taken to see the Panchen Lama on another pilgrimage to Labrang monastery, it was a PLA soldier who helped him receive a blessing (this was the very Panchen Lama who in 1962 denounced the desperate circumstances of Tibetans in his native Amdo).

But by 1958 tensions were escalating rapidly, and the story becomes ever more harrowing. Back in Chuguma again, a local army was formed to protect the community from the PLA. As Naktsang’s father told him:

Everyone in our chiefdom went to the army as the chiefs ordered. Men over 15 and under 60 have been sent to Sogpo. Our army has already driven out the Chinese land surveyors and killed at least 100 soldiers. But a few days ago all the lamas and chiefs in Tsu were arrested secretly by the Chinese. All the monasteries in the Achong Lhade chiefdom have been destroyed. I heard that about 500 Chinese troops are marching to attack us, and they’ll probably be here tomorrow.”

Recalling his experiences at Labrang, young Naktsang can’t envisage the threat:

I had seen the Liberation Army many times before, when we were staying at Labrang monastery. They had given us beans and candy, and smiled at us as they marched past. Because of that, I had no fear of walking near the soldiers. When the troops arrived at the line of monks, all of them were given darkhas. They applauded in return and handed the darkhas back to the tulkus and lamas.

But as the PLA occupied Chugama, arresting the principal lamas and tulkus, people realised how grave the situation was. As resistance was crushed, in detailed chapters Naktsang tells how the locals were intimidated into destroying their own precious monastery. He now embarked with his father in a group of twelve monks and laymen, including several teenagers (Naktsang was only 10), on another pilgrimage to Lhasa—this time in search of refuge from the Chinese invaders. On their perilous journey they learned of further Chinese atrocities, and were fearful that Lhasa might be in the midst of similar destruction. Along the way they fought off PLA troops; but Naktsang’s father died after being wounded, and the others were forced to surrender.

The final section, “Torture and imprisonment, starvation and survival”, tells of the consequences of that failed flight over the following year, as Naktsang and those around him were integrated into the dominance of the Chinese state.

Nulo Chumarleb

In captivity he was taken under the wing of the kindly lamas Ganden Wula and Sera Lama (“Ganden Wula is respected by the Chinese. He’ll be able to chant rituals—they’ll let him.”). They were taken back to Chumarleb in a group of about 300 prisoners, roped together in lines of six. On the way, in reprisal, Chinese troops cajoled the local crowd into beating the two lamas to death along with four of their followers.

When they arrived at Chumarleb they were thrown into a hole in the prison yard—one of nine such holes, each containing about four hundred prisoners. Five or six died every day. As famine further intensified their desperation (for the appalling devastation in the PRC, see this roundup), after 18 hellish days Naktsang and his older brother were released, staying briefly in the nearby town before starting school, consisting of large tents housing around a thousand children—most of whose parents had been arrested.

The school still apparently functioned quite normally over Chinese [sic] New Year, but three months later food supplies dwindled severely; as they resorted to eating leather and sheepskin, people began to die. Those from erstwhile wealthy families succumbed more quickly; poor children like Naktsang, more capable of fending for themselves, had to dispose of the corpses. Within three months, only fifty-three children remained from over a thousand, and only ten old people from six hundred.

Nulo 1959
This is the book’s only image from the period described in the memoir;
other illustrations show archive photos of Amdo and Lhasa from before the Chinese occupation.

As the famine eased, Naktsang found some of his recently-released fellow prisoners, who took him to herd sheep and calves at the grazing commune where they had been released. On 30th December 1959 he became a student at Chumarleb County School. He ends the book innocuously and astutely:

Now we have grown up and are able to practice our religion and dedicate prayers to him. We are also certain that we will have the chance to return to our native land, and all our relatives will greet us.

Nulo and brother 2012
Naktsang Nulo (right) with his older brother Japé, 2012. Photo: Xénia de Heering.

* * *

In his introduction Robbie Barnett updates the story:

In 2013, five years after his book was published, [Naktsang] wrote a column that spoke out for the first time about the wave of immolations that had swept across Tibet. It was unprecedented in its explicitness. […] We can now see him not as an autobiographer who dared to speak about the past or an intellectual who speaks truth to power but as a strategic communicator and conciliator, an ex-official who pioneered unique pathways by which to negotiate the contours and crevices of the state system in the quest to widen public debate and understanding on topics never previously allowed. Where he had used the convention of childish innocence to enable the act of public recollection, he now uses concession to others’ values to plead for moderation in policy. A project that began as a handing down of the past to coming generations has become a quiet search for ways to nurture a thinking Tibetan public, rich with knowledge of its history as well as of its responsibilities and limitations.

Mahler 9 live!!!

*For an introduction to my whole series on Mahler, with links, click here!*

Mahler 9 concert

Mahler 9 is always deeply moving in concert (I’ve just revised my original post). Last weekend I went to hear the Concertgebouw orchestra playing it under Daniel Harding at the Barbican (reviewed here).

I’ve eventually got used to the Barbican: having negotiated the surrounding concrete jungle, the layout of the hall (at least from the stalls) has a personal feel. And rather than being subjected to the crass materialism of an expensive programme booklet with its glossy ads, we can consult notes online. Better still, just listen

The Concertgebouw has a venerable tradition of performing Mahler; they gave the Dutch premiere of the 9th with Mengelberg in 1918, and it was a core part of their repertoire with Haitink. The relationship continues under Daniel Harding.

Mahler’s most monumental symphonies often stand alone, but some conductors such as S-Simon and Salonen (see under The art of conducting) like to precede them with a suitably challenging overture. So the concert opened with the UK premiere of Rick van Velhuizen’s mais le corps taché d’ombres for harp and strings.

In Mahler 9 the orchestra sounded just fabulous, a perfectly blended ensemble. Though, remarkably, there were a few empty seats (I mean, I love Strictly, but really…), after a long, reverent silence the performance inevitably got a standing ovation. Never miss an opportunity to hear the symphony!

Mahler 9 end

Lest you suppose I’m carried away by Western Art Music (as indeed I am), it’s still worth consulting What is serious music?!.

More gems from Cambridge sinology

CHC

Apart from feeling mildly guilty at defecting from Tang history, another spinoff of my current decluttering is rediscovering random notes from my time editing and indexing volumes of The Cambridge History of China. I’ve already listed some jocular citations from Han and Tang history, so here’s a sequel with gems that I may not have sneaked into the indexes.

Vol.1:

derivative ideas 693
gibberish 692–3
no-ado 693
nudism 833
Other, A.N., as consort of Wu-ti 174
pedantry, academic 758
reality: Hsün Yue criticises 806
supreme nothing, spiritual nothing 839

Vol. 3:

An Lushan the Man
beauty, no harem
cleavage
climax, early
horse-dung
Liang, Later dynasty; Liang, Even Later dynasty
nincompoop, feckless
nonentity, pliant
obsequiousness
riff-raff
wife, monopoly tax

* * *

Maspero

Meanwhile, here are some out-takes from my index to the 1981 English translation of Henri Maspero’s Taoism and Chinese religion:

Divine Man
euhemerism, naïve
Eating Filthy Things
forgetting the body
hairdressers
Heavenly Kitchen
heavy breathing
ho-ho
hot breath
knitting, spontaneous
latrines
massage
orgies
Purple Dame
pustules
sitting down and losing consciousness
Transcendent Pig
vermin, buried in

* * *

I also discovered some more drôle pronouncements on Tang music—we can probably hazard a guess at their author:

“Secular, amnesic, notational dyslexia in the reading of post-13th century flute notations of Tōgaku pieces”

—apparently “people forgetting how to play old scores”:

Perhaps this was a piece in which interest was quickly lost, a piece picked up as an item of temporary fashionable interest, but for which no interest remained after the Chinese court itself had lost interest following the An Lushan rebellion.

Giggle we may, but this was just the kind of analytical detail on the Tang repertoire that I found so fruitful—in the days before my epiphany among the peasants of dusty north China villages.

Nature makes regular guest appearances:

The process occurs, however, no matter what the fermented vegetable substrata may be; and the title is not to be regarded necessarily as referring to wine from fermented grape-juice.

And

There can be no gainsaying the powerful atropaeic significance of the wild duck in East Asian folk belief.

On my penchant for wacky indexes, see The joys of indexing; Lexicon of musical invective; and my draft index to Nicolas Robertson’s outstanding series of anagram tales. For my early spoofs on Tang poetry (“precocious signs of the pointless inanity that was to distinguish my later writings”), click here. And do read Denis Twitchett’s informed spoof on An Lushan, and the faqu series (under A Tang mélange).

Some recent *MUST READ* posts

Cetegories

The *MUST READ* category in the sidebar directs you to some of my more worthwhile posts whose topics deserve to be savoured and shared.

Here’s a selection from recent entries, on a variety of themes:

  • The sceptical feminist, Janet Radcliffe Richards’ 1980 masterpiece, argued with dispassionate philosophical clarity, and still highly relevant despite some period features
  • Some Kurdish bards: politics, gender, and heritagification—epic tales of love and war, plangent kilam laments, with some fine recordings, archive and recent
  • Ogonek and Til—for fans of language, tennis, and fado! Wacky diacritics and nasal vowels in Polish and Portuguese—with matching limericks, and a bonus entry for Gran visits York….

  • Bach in an empty forest: a mesmerising mile-long xylophone in a Japanese forest, the wonders of a Bach cantata, Myra Hess’s wartime National Gallery concerts, and Takemitsu’s early alienation from Japanese musical traditions
  • Dream a little dream: interesting as it is to listen to earlier and later renditions, Cass Elliott’s 1968 version is enthralling—with the most radiant modulation ever!

  • The kiosk in Turkey and Europe: late-Ottoman mansions in Istanbul—the ancien régime, a haunted house, women’s changing status under the Republic, and shanty-town migrants; followed by some European kiosks, with cameos from The fast show and The third man
  • Mahler: a roundup!!! The definitive voice of our age—the symphonies, as well as chamber versions, and piano rolls; quintuplets and major 7ths; Alma and Anna
  • Ray Man, pioneer of Chinese musicking in London: social and musical change in the UK, Hong Kong, and mainland China—with homages to the Cantonese music scene and the early days of Ronnie Scott’s in Gerard street.

I’ve grouped these posts in the form 3+2+3, in the hope of encouraging you to revisit my post on aksak additive metres!

For an earlier list, click here.

Tickety-boo

India
Source.

While emojis like 👍 and ❤️ have partly relieved us of the necessity to create new verbal expressions for approval, one may feel a certain nostalgia for bygone expressions like spiffing, ripping, top-notch, hunky-dory, and tickety-boo.

While the quaintness of such jovial expressions harks back to a broader class-base than the world of Jeeves and Wooster, I suppose they are now usually heard on the lips of a rather educated latter-day generation, with varying degrees of post-modern irony—including both rabid bendy-banana nostalgists and the “Guardian-reading tofu-eating wokerati”

The origin of tickety-boo is unclear. Though there doesn’t seem to be a written example before 1939, it appears to go back at least to the early 1920s—probably RAF slang, perhaps a combination of “that’s the ticket” (early 18th century) and “peek-a-boo” (or at least “boo”).

But there’s also a suggestive derivation from Hindi ṭhīk hai, bābūit’s all right, sir. * This would make it one of a whole host of words adapted from Indian languages, popularised by way of the British empire (cf. Hidden heritage).

This elliptical first draft for a film script conjures up a picturesque gathering, setting the scene before introducing the host and his guests, their sporting pastimes followed by a sumptuous buffet:

Dinghy and catamaran on atoll; loot thug in choky. Cushy veranda of jungle bungalow (lacquered teak, calico palanquin, juggernaut; chintz cot, patchouli): Blighty mogul (mandarin) in pukka cashmere pyjamas.
[The guests arrive:]
Lilac cummerbunds (doolally!), khaki dungarees, pashmina (shawl), bangles with bandanas. Jodhpurs for polo and cheetah gymkhana.
Tiffin (kedgeree with chutney) and tank of punch; candy and cheroot—tickety-boo!

Cf. the Venetian language, Some unlikely Turkish vocabulary, and The kiosk in Turkey and Europe. And do relish Nicolas Robertson’s remarkable anagram tales! The linguistic reversals of Armstrong and Miller are also very drôle—see Textual scholarship, OMG.


* An alternative derivation from French, offered in the wiktionary entry, is also attractive: ce que t’es beau (“how beautiful you are”). Cf. “toodeloo”, said to be a corruption of tout a l’heure—even more quaint is toodle-pip.

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. But for a really funky ostinato, how about Herbie Hancock?

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.

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).

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 god retires

Federer 2

As the divine Roger Federer retires, Barney Ronay has come up with an unbeatable entry for Pseuds’ Corner: *

His backhand was frankly ridiculous, overblown, hilariously good. This, one thought, watching that thing—the flex of the knee, the flourish of the wrist—is a kind of artefact, a European cultural treasure, like a Bach cantata or a complete acorn-fed Iberian ham, the kind of backhand a power-crazed Bond super villain might try to steal from its laser-guarded case and transport to the moon.

And he’s right, of course—while other players achieve greatness by sheer brute force, Federer’s grace as he glides around the court is supreme.

Requiring less athleticism, but just as poetic, is Ronnie‘s elegance around the baize. For more on snooker and tennis, including Cocomania and A playlist for Emma and Leylah, see under A sporting medley. My Bach retrospective has links to the cantatas…


* Pipping to the post cake baking as creative inspiration for Renaissance music, and my own likening of Stewart Lee’s reformulations of previous work to those of Bach and Miles Davis.

An Irish music medley

Irish session 2

Adding to my handy roundup of roundups, as the Irish tag has become unwieldy, here’s a selection of my dabblings in Irish music, which feature some exhilarating tracks that will brighten your days.

lnfCiaran Carson’s exquisite Last night’s fun has inspired several posts, including

And this charming recollection, told to me at a session in an Armagh pub, has a Carsonesque lilt to it.

i got further into the swing with

To whet your appetite, here’s an irresistible playlist:

See also under Indian and world fiddles. And while I’m here, may I remind you of the great Flann O’Brian (more under Myles tag), and various fine Irish jokes such as these.

Ogonek and Til

For Nick

Allow me to introduce Ogonek and Til, feisty yet (you guessed it) flawed protagonists of my forthcoming crime drama series, as they embark on the hazardous trail of a dastardly ring of international diacritic smugglers…

ogonek

As an avid tennis fan, without being too perfectionist I’m not alone in musing gingerly over how to pronounce the surname of the magnificent Iga Świątek, currently sailing serenely (Serena-ly?) towards the final of the US Open. She gives us a handy lesson:

So the lowly diacritic squiggle indicates that the a sound is both closed and nasal. It’s an ogonek (“little tail”)—which leads us to the mystical realms of Elfdalian, Kashubian, Lithuanian, and Navajo (see here, and here)! To think that I still rather resent having to go to all the faff of inputting grave and acute accents in French, and such non-national fripperies…

Readers with a penchant for Igor Stravinsky anagrams will note that while the cast of the brilliant Gran visits York includes such redoubtable characters as Sir K.Y. Groins-Vat and Kirsty Garvison, one absentee from the urtext is the arcane exhortation

V.S.—or try sink, Iga!

It belongs with those weird dreams common to musos and sportspeople (“unqualified, ill-prepared, running out of time, wrong uniform, lost”). On the eve of yet another crucial Grand Slam match, the Polish star finds herself on stage (quite likely in her tennis outfit) playing percussion in the The Rite of Spring, only to see a prophetic instruction from the composer (revealing a rare aptitude for self-parody): either whip the page over, or just create a noisy diversion with all the pots and pans that surround you!

* * *

ao

Which reminds me, in Portuguese (cf. my paltry dabblings here), I do feel we Brits might make a little more effort in adding a nasal quality at the end of the ão sound in São Paulo (the diacritic on ã being a til, for which English has adopted the Spanish word tilde)—as in

  • não (no)
  • mão (hand)
  • pão (bread)
  • cão (dog)
  • limão (lime, for that caipirinha party)
  • canção (song)
  • Japão (Japan)
  • João (“John”).

Plenty of material there for a couple of niche limericks, to join Myles’s tribute to Ezra £; Alan Watts on Salisbury/Sarum; The young man from Calcutta; The young man from Japan, and The old man from Peru [typical bias against the middle-aged woman—Ed.]. Something like this, perhaps:

There was a young man from Japão
Who fed his cão pão with limão
Waving a mão, he burst into canção
Until João came up and said “Não“.

Estêvão, Çisiq 2022.

Note (cf. Mots d’heures: gousses, rames):
The scene is a dingy immigrant enclave in Coimbra. Despite his eccentric choice of dog-food, the enterprising oriental subject of this ditty seems to have been sufficiently au fait with Iberian folk idioms to experiment in combining the Noh-tinged (Não-tinged?) saudade of fado with the palmas of flamenco; perhaps it was the casual co-option of such percussive accompaniment that so offended the purist killjoy João.

Noh drum
Source.

Recently another interpretation of “Waving a mão, he burst into canção” has been proposed (Acta Musicologica Asiatica-Iberica, LXXIII.2, 2021), which would bypass both fado and flamenco: it may rather depict the haunting kakegoe cries of the Noh drummer as he slowly lifts his hand to bring it down resoundingly on the tense skin of the ōtsuzumi. Although “raising” might have been a more precise verb than “waving”, the burghers of Coimbra might well be alarmed to hear such an alien sound echoing through the cobbled alleys of their hallowed university town.

* * *

Composing a limerick for Iga is more of a challenge:

There was a young star named Świątek
Whose talents spread way beyąd tech
When it comes to the tennis, she sure is a menace—
To play her it’s all hands ą deck.

Sure, the stress-patterning doesn’t quite work: in line 2, it would be helped by an accent on beyond, though that requires knowledge of some spurious back-story whereby Iga has already been spotted as a promising software programmer; and there’s nothing to be done about the final line. But hey… I am proud to announce that my effort was runner-up in the prestigious 2022 Świątek Limerick Contest—in which I was the only entrant… But go on, why not join in too? Hours of harmless fun for all the family!

Iga
“YAYY!!! I’ve got a limerick!!!”

And now I’m already honing my entry for next year’s contest:

To Iga’s fine surname Świątek
I once tried adding a “zee”, ą spec
But that wouldn’t work—I felt such a berk
And now her name’s in neą—Heck!

Again, this falls down on stress-patterning. In line 2 (please excuse my unusual lapse into American English), my misguided spelling was of course Śzwiątek.

* * *

For some Turkish diacritics, click here; and for Nicolas Robertson’s outstanding Oulipean anagram series, here. See also Language learning: a roundup. For more practice with Polish names, and some amazing music, see Folk traditions of Poland; Polish jazz, then and now; Madonna pilgrimage in Communist Poland; and Polish migrants to the USA are among the cast of Annie Proulx’s splendid ethnomusicological novel Accordion crimes. For the Portuguese footballer Jesus, click here. For more ą, sorry I mean on, both football and tennis, see under A sporting medley—including this tribute to the multicultural musical heritage of Emma and Leylah. See also Oh Noh!, featuring Brian and Stewie; and for the clichés of blurb-writing, click here.

Buses—red, green, yellow

red and green
The bus on the left isn’t ripe yet.
Images here courtesy of Augusta, now a diligent chronicler of the 94 route…

The 94 bus has already made several cameo appearances on this blog (e.g. here, and here).

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

As the fleet plies its trade between East and West, like a medieval caravan along the Silk Road weaving its way through the bustling markets of oases like the fabled Bush of Shepherds [That’s enough now—Ed.], I now notice the appearance of several green buses.

While red buses have long represented a stereotypical image of London, green only penetrated central London quite recently. At first it was intended to blend in with the leafy prospects of the suburbs (see splendidly nerdy sites such as Friends of classic London buses of the Fifties, and this; for the changing shades of “Lincoln green”, and even “Chiswick green”, see notes 2–4 here).

green bus
Note: this blog cannot take responsibility for the fidelity of colour rendition in these images.
Or for anything, ever. Source.

And now yellow too! Admittedly, such a radical innovation is spurred by the mundane rules of commerce, rather than the pure aesthetic inspirations of yesteryear. But surely this is just the kind of diversity that Brexit was supposed to eliminate… At least they’re bendy bananas. Of course, among the innumerable political deceptions of recent times, the red bus has also been used, infamously, to parade a fairytale promised land for the NHS. Going well, is it, then?

See also Thankyou Driver!. For another exotic bus route, click here.

Medieval jazz

jazz bass

This image, from the fun Twitter account weird medieval guys, appears to depict an early musical experiment that—once they worked out how to attach the strings—was eventually to mature into the jazz bass solo.

Paul Chambers
Paul Chambers, bass player on immortal albums like Blue train and Kind of blue.

That reminds me of the classic marriage guidance story, and Woody Allen’s catalogue of mythological beasts. See also under A jazz medley, including Mingus; and Another unlikely invention. Cf. Medieval helpline, and for a fine put-down of our own experiments in playing medieval estampies, A music critic.

China has always been part of…

Further to the Pelosi Imbroglio [1970s’ Manchester prog-rock band—Ed.], the brazen fatuity of the Chinese Foreign Ministry evincing the “38 Shandong dumpling restaurants and 67 Shanxi noodle restaurants in Taipei” to prove that “Taiwan has always been part of China” (“The long lost* child will eventually return home”) has been gleefully ridiculed on Twitter (I’m so gobsmacked that I’m not even going to bother inserting a hyphen in “long lost”). Twitter promptly became full of such logic as

  • Beijing has always been part of America:

  • and indeed, China has always been part of Kentucky:

  • The meme also gave rise to “Paris has always been part of Tibet”:

There’s no end to this: it could run and run.

I have to say, there are some fine historians in China—but the apparatchiks at the Foreign Ministry are clearly not the sharpest tools in the box. On the other hand, they can spew their idiocies with impunity to a captive audience—autocracies didn’t get where they are today by being rational (cf. Stewart Lee’s taxi driver). Did you know that the word gullible is not in the Chinese dictionary?

For another logic bypass, see Tucker Carlson on racism.

In memoriam Richard Taruskin

Taruskin
Photo: EMTA, Estonia.

Richard Taruskin, who died last week, was a great musical guru, his polemical and compelling prose deconstructing both the modern “classical” scene and the early music movement—which he realised was another manifestation of post-war modernity. Writing in a period when “classical” music was becoming ever more marginalised, he paid great attention to both politics and performance, connecting social and musical change rather as in ethnomusicology (cf. Bruno Nettl—who also saw the wider picture in integrating the WAM scene into musicking around the world).

See Alex Ross’s tribute in The New Yorker, and the NYT obituary.

Taruskin covers both modern and early scenes in The danger of music and other anti-Utopian essays (2009), which I outlined in this essay. He’s always my first port of call for insights into modern WAM. I’ve cited his views on Messiaen in The right kind of spirituality?, and in posts on Ives, Krenek, and Korngold.

I suppose I’m quite relieved that his attention was never drawn to my lengthy reflections in What is serious music?!, where I set forth from his stimulating views. Anyway, he got me thinking there, as always. For critiques of Taruskin’s ouevre by Susan McClary, click here, and John Butt, here.

Whether or not you go along with his verdicts, his writing is always engaged and invigorating. Now I really must get round to reading Text and act (1995).

Line judges

line judges
My Brilliant Friend Augusta always has a lot to explain to me when I visit her in Kuzguncuk—even including the laws of perspective. Now that she’s braving the English “summer” and my lowly Chiswick hovel, I’ve been inflicting Wimbledon tennis on her. She’s game, and can basically follow what’s going on (cf. The first snooker commentary). However, at one stage, noticing the three statuesque people lined up at the back of the court, she asked,

“What are those people doing standing there?”

It does indeed look rather as if they’ve adopted a crafty method of gatecrashing, having failed to get tickets. They don’t seem to be enjoying it much, though—the severity of their demeanour, their identical clothing, and their limited range of robotic movements, suggest a Kraftwerk tribute act, so one keeps hoping they’re about to burst into song.

Kraftwerk
At least Augusta didn’t ask how another ingenious spectator has managed to wheel on a high chair and park it right in the middle of the arena to watch the match. They even get to sit down—such brazen effrontery.

umpireSource: wiki.

Such are the kinds of challenges that face us in seeking to interpret the rules of Chinese ritual zzzzz (cf. Nigel Barley among the Dowayo).

For more on tennis (as well as football, rugby, snooker, and archery in Bhutan), see A sporting medley.

Desert Island Discs

Plomley

Writing in the LRB, Miranda Carter gives a thoughtful and entertaining survey of the history of Desert Island Discs.

Conceived in 1941 by Roy Plomley (as the weekly broadcasts still continue to remind us), its reassuringly familiar format has borne witness to changing times and tastes. We can hear 2,360 episodes online:

Over seventy years, the language with which we describe ourselves, and expectations about what it’s acceptable to reveal in the public realm, are audibly mapped.

Plomley was straight-laced, tight-lipped, “congenitally reluctant to pry”, In the early days “the musical choices were criticised for being too highbrow—”no Bing Crosby, Deanna Durbin or Joe Loss”, and this remained so until the 2010s [?].

Desert Island Discs’ biggest ever record is Handel’s Messiah. Until 2010 the most frequently played composers were Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, and the most popular non-classical record was “Je ne regrette rien” sung by Édith Piaf, which hobbled in at 27th in Desert Island Discs’ all-time top hundred. My hunch is that this classical skew came about partly because Stoppard was right—castaways wanted to look cultured—but also because most people’s pool of familiar classical music is much smaller than their pool of familiar popular music, so the same classical tracks have been chosen over and over, while votes for contemporary songs have been more thinly spread across many more records. Only after 2010 did the Beatles enter the top three, largely because, I think, classical music has become less important as a signifier of classiness.

Indeed, the show reflects the society’s whole demotion of WAM and the acceptance of other ways of being. Still, it’s good to find the slow movement of the Schubert string quintet and the Terzetto from Così fan tutte among the most popular classical choices.

When the BBC switched to recording on tape, which could be edited before going out, scripts were no longer needed. “It was a great improvement”, Plomley remarked. At last the series could be put “properly to work to fulfil its function of revealing character”. Not that this actually happened. More space was allotted to speech, and the castaways began to talk about their careers. Yet Plomley, always genial and irreproachably polite, refused to probe. Any sign of emotional revelation sent him charging in the opposite direction. […]

Thatcher [1978]: When you’ve problems there’s nothing like close relatives.

Plomley: Your forebears had been craftsmen and tradesmen, one was an organ maker?

And with Liberace, cast away in 1959:

Liberace: I am very happy with my success, but I look back at former times when I enjoyed simple pleasures that I can’t seem to enjoy now.

Plomley: Right. Let’s have record number four. […]

Still in the 1960s,

the audience kept listening, comfortable with the level of formality and lack of disclosure. […] Respondents said they liked Desert Island Discs’ safe atmosphere and lack of aggressive, intrusive questioning. […]

But change did come. Thanks to the archive, you can hear it happening. It was brought in not by Plomley but by the guests themselves, as a new generation of castaways—younger, more candid—began to appear among the worthies and elderly comedians.

As to the luxuries requested, besides booze, inflatable dolls began making an appearance:

Ronnie Scott asked for a Faye Dunaway doll, though Plomley persuaded him to take a saxophone instead.

I note that John Cleese was allowed to take Michael Palin with him, on the condition that he was dead and stuffed.

As the rest of the media became more aggressive in the pursuit of celebrities and their secrets, Desert Island Discs seemed as safe and as relaxed as anywhere on air.

After Plomley died in 1985, Michael Parkinson took over for a mere two years, unjustly criticised for being too intrusive, asking more probing questions and getting more personal answers. This was the first time castaways listened to their choices during the show. Under Sue Lawley the programme

became the most quietly subversive and consistently exposing interview show on TV or radio—a considerable achievement as celebrity was becoming ever more tightly mediated. […] It’s no accident that it was on Lawley’s watch that castaways began to cry.

And she reversed the forty-year policy of avoiding politics and controversy.

Kirsty Young

Carter considers Kirsty Young, who presided from 2006 to 2018, the best presenter in the programme’s history—more like a therapist. The current incumbent Lauren Laverne is “warm and cheerful”:

A harsh critic might say that the programme is now closer to the Plomleian era than it was under the three presenters in between. Laverne doesn’t challenge her guests’ accounts of themselves; obvious plugging is more detectable. But it may be that this merely reflects another shift in the culture. The celebrity interview is no longer the occasion it once was. The internet has created innumerable routes by which the famous can control and curate their own exposure. One unguarded public comment can result in online pile-on and career suicide. Say the wrong thing on the radio these days, and you may wish you really had been washed up on a desert island.

For a variety of posts on Watching the Engiish, see under The English, home and abroad.

* * *

Meanwhile Eric Coates’ theme tune By the Sleepy lagoon [Bognor] has remained unchanged, a reassuring comfort blanket.

I’ve referred to the programmes of Klaus Tennstedt and Sophia Loren, Gary Kasparov and Elif Shafak (more unlikely bedfellows), as well as Cate Blanchett.

Over on Radio 3, Private Passions (benignly hosted by Michael Berkeley) allows for more of both narrative and music—and the range of the latter is almost as eclectic. Among guests whose choices have inspired me are Philippe Sands, Camilla Pang, Piers Gough, Anne Seba, Vesna Goldsworthy, Natalie Haynes, and Mark Padmore (whose own singing, quite rightly, is a popular choice of many guests).

I can’t narrow possibly down my own playlist of songs, and it doesn’t even include Mahler symphonies or Messiaen

Dancing on the grave

Barley grave cover

  • Nigel Barley, Dancing on the grave: encounters with death (1995).

The innocent anthropologist is cited so often in my posts on fieldwork that I’ve awarded Barley his own tag in the sidebar.

Since much of my work in China consists in documenting funerals, it makes sense for me to seek perspectives from around the world. While bearing in mind the more abstruse ritual theories so lucidly introduced by Catherine Bell, Nigel Barley is always immensely readable. With typical humour, he surveys the variety of ways of viewing death and dealing with it, which are such an idée fixe of anthropology. Citing the major players such as Malinowski, Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, and Bloch, he refers to a range of field reports.

Like detective fiction, it is not surprising “that Western anthropologists have sought, in funerary practice, the sense of an ending that would solve and interpret all the vicissitudes of life”.

Yet interest in “belief” may simply be a largely Western obsession. In China great concern with a common ritual response has gone quite happily with an overwhelming disregard for similarity of belief: it does not matter very much what you think you are doing as long as you do it like everyone else. It is left to a small number of foreign and local experts to worry about ideas.

On this most unpromising basis, different peoples have raised up complex and tortuous rites that are elaborated into true works of art.

(Cf. Geertz, and A flawed funeral.)

Indeed, Barley countenances the view that the fieldworker’s presence at funerals may be

a marker of the predatory nature of all research or the role of the anthropologist as undertaker and embalmer of moribund cultures.

(cf. my note on “re-hearsal”!).

He considers the public expression of grief. The performance of wailing (not only in cultures like China but in early modern rural Europe) seems to be largely a matter of etiquette. Other behaviours are diverse too: the firing of guns and beating of drums, or the widow “showing her appreciation of the mourner’s sympathy by brave but tight-lipped hand-grasping through a soggy hankie”. And “around the world, grief is as likely to find expression in verbal artifice and poetic fireworks as mere noise or stillness of sound or motion”.

By contrast with our own funerals, where “a blanket of straight-laced formality covers all”, in many cultures merriment and jokers are common. As the Nyakyusa of Malawi told Monica Wilson:

We talk and dance to comfort the relatives. If we others sat sad and glum then the grief of the relatives would exceed ours. If we just sorrowed what depths of griefs would they not reach? And so we sit and talk and laugh and dance until the relatives laugh too.

But Barley also unpacks the double-edged nature of joking at funerals, “walking a line between aggression and solace”.

In the writings of anthropologists on the sociality of African death, the triumph of the group over the individual is an endlessly reiterated theme that amounts to little more than an urging of the sick to “lie back and think of Africa”.

He considers the Mexican Day of the Dead, at odds with the Catholic church’s urging of “respect” and sobriety—not unlike the English wakes that were finally driven underground by the Puritan dictatorship. And he notes the “joke slot” in modern British rituals, which for our mortuary practices may occur in the disposal of the ashes. Perhaps Always look on the bright side of life hadn’t quite caught on; now it seems to have replaced Abide with me in popularity.

Barley intersperses his forays into diverse cultures both with reflections on his own English upbringing and with notes from his fieldwork in Cameroon—such as the classic story in The innocent anthropologist:

“What happens to a man’s powers/soul/spirit after he dies?” I tried querulously, like a vicar hoping to get a current affairs discussion going at a youth club. They ignored me. Then one young man turned round and snapped, “How should I know? Am I God?”

In another bold attempt to elicit origin myths among the Dowayo, Barley talks with the local schoolteacher. The conversation turns to Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel:

“And Europeans?” I asked. “White men like myself. Where did they come from?”

He appraised me coolly. “I have studied the Bible in great depth, monsieur. As far as I recall, there are no white men in it.”

In English it’s common to avoid the word “died” by euphemism and a proliferation of terms; not just “passed away” (to which I’m allergic) or “gone to meet his maker”, but “take an early bath” and “hear the final whistle”, not to mention the rich lexicon of the Parrot sketch. The Layli of Bolivia say that a dead person “has gone to cultivate chilli pepper”.

Barley pics

Barley notes change, including the way that Chinese paper artefacts for burning keep pace with the latest consumer luxuries. Discussing the goods buried with the dead, he finds that such practices

do not necessarily translate easily into beliefs about the material needs of the dead or any surviving spirit. In a move that would drive anthropologists to distraction, pilgrims to the grave of Andy Warhol have taken to stacking it with unopened cans of Campbell’s soup.

He mentions the zombies of Haiti (cf. Zora Neale Hurston), “ghost marriages” (for China, see here, under “Excesses”), and the smashing of pots (cf. “smashing the bowl” at Chinese funerals: my film, 1.16.49). He introduces notions of kinship, gender issues, the siting of the grave, “bad deaths”, and political funerals—including those of state socialism:

While the incorruptible body might be seen by the peasants as a continuation of the traditional veneration of saints’ relics, the Soviet leadership seems to have urged its interpretation as an anti-mystical act, an engaging and debunking of the church’s claims of saintly preservation, neatly showing ritual’s ability to transmit two totally opposed messages at the same time.

The book ends with a useful bibliography and index.

* * *

Xingyuan 2011 female kin

To return to Chinese village funerals, held over two or three days, I remain impressed by their ritual exuberance and complexity; the differentiated attire of the kin, the shawm bands, firecrackers, communal meals, female wailers, the ritual sequences of the Daoists, the skits of itinerant beggars, the pop band on a stage outside the gate (for the latter, see my film, from 30.32). Young urban educated Chinese returning for the funeral of their grandparent will find all this remarkable too.

At the grave
My Daoist friends are bemused by my accounts of the perfunctory nature of our observances in England. Having observed as an outsider, Barley gives a personal account of his own father’s funeral. He remarks on the motley outfits, the architecture of the crematorium, the “witness” who spoke instead of a parson (“his model was a press conference”);

I felt angry at the hypocrisy of it all. We were colluding in a dishonourable pretence and we knew it. […]

The dull emptiness in your stomach is called grief. But grief isn’t the right word. It’s a sort of cocktail of acrid emotional pollutants of which the strongest element is surely guilt. Guilt for sins of omission and commission or perhaps simply when there is an emotional vacuum, nameless guilt just floods in to fill it up. Part of what we feel for our loved ones is a sort of addict’s dependence. Presence may not bring ecstasy but absence is unbearable. […]

I think there were hymns, but not the comforting meaningless hymns from school that carried feelings of nostalgia. In these, although the tunes were familiar, the words were wrong, all too spiritually correct and involving no allusion to a transcendental higher God. I had an intensely irritated feeling of being interfered with. […]

A trapdoor opened as in pantomime and the coffin disappeared. […]

At the house was an embarrassingly small group of largely unfamiliar relatives, a parody of kinship, testament to the failure of the Western family. The symbolism of the cold meats was horribly obvious.

“Dreadful,” one said with clicking false teeth. “When I were a lad there’d be horses with black plumes. What did we get this time? A bloody van. Not a hearse. A van like we were going to a building site. It’s not right.”

He also notes that Western funerals,

stressing as they do the uniqueness of the dead, deal heavily in separation and liminality but have very little to say about reintegration, leaving the mourners high and dry in their grief and the dead with nowhere to go.

In rather similar style, Kate Fox also interrogates funerals in Watching the English.

There are few rites of passage on earth that are as stilted, uncomfortable, and excruciatingly awkward as a typical English funeral.

The rituals “are just formal enough to make us feel stiff and resentful, but also informal enough to expose our social dis-ease”.

We are expected to say solemn, earnest, heartfelt things to the bereaved relatives, or respond to these things in a solemn, earnest, heartfelt way if we are the bereaved.

But not too heartfelt. […] Even those family and friends who are genuinely sad are not allowed to indulge in any cathartic weeping and wailing. Tears are permitted; a bit of quiet, unobtrusive sobbing and sniffing is acceptable, but the sort of anguished howling that is considered normal, and indeed expected, at funerals in many other cultures, would here be regarded as undignified and inappropriate.

And for once, our default mode of humour seems inappropriate; we “put on a brave face”. Fox gives a quaint list of the “optimum tear-quota”, classified by gender, affinity to the deceased, and age. She also observes class differences—with working class, lower-, middle-, and upper-middle classes, and upper class all having their own preferred ways of performing funerals.

Even the “outpouring of grief” (considered “un-English”) that followed the death of Princess Diana was marked largely by the typical English behaviour of “quiet, orderly, disciplined, dignified” queuing, and flowers; tears, but no wailing.

Fox may have exaggerated some of this for effect, but such critiques seem legitimate coming from cultural insiders. As she herself observes, self-deprecation is a major trait of the English; a Dowayo or Chinese ethnographer might be disturbed by aspects of our ritual behaviour, but I doubt if they would analyse it in quite the same way. Of course, these are not level playing-fields.

Anyway, while the laments of Barley and Fox strike a chord, I find myself surprisingly reluctant to indict the stoic stiff-upper-lip funerals of Middle England, or at least the mourners. Yes, our “blanket of straight-laced formality” covers drabness, repression, embarrassment—but a certain kindness is also notable. We too build on the cultural norms of our heritage. This may not be a grandiose anthropological insight, but people do their best in the circumstances.

Drawing a line

BoJo

Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson and his cronies have been at the clichés again.

Drawing a line under”, rather than referring to accountancy, reminds me of rubber bridge (which, you may well say, identifies me as a Posh Twat eligible for a safe Tory seat). But speakers of Plain English, even the fabled Plebs, seem to have been bamboozled into forgetting the language, wherein—and this is “not rocket science”—when you draw a line under something, you underline it. For the sake of emphasis.

Among those who would have been happy to draw a line under past indiscretions are Stalin, Mao, and Jack the Ripper (cf. the Piranha brothers).

So, “getting behind the programme”, here are just a few of the Tory crimes that we are asked to draw a line under:

—oh, and Brexit, with all its “opportunities” (YAY! Bendy bananas!).

So now The Suspect is keen to Get on with the Job [of destroying British society]; nothing will deter him from delivering [poverty, degradation, and early death] for the British people.

I’m sure I have an ally here in the spectral figure of the aforementioned Haunted Pencil, who is such a stickler for correct usage.

Here’s a short film on The life and lies of Boris Johnson:

I do realise none of this does any good, as long as his party (sic) keeps floundering in its own morass of moral turpitude.

More under my roundup of posts on Tory iniquity.

Another unlikely invention

tobacco

Sir Walter Raleigh smoking a pipe and being doused by a servant who thinks he’s on fire.
Wood-engraving, mid-19th century. Source.

Talking of inventions (the sandwich, the telephone), one of Bob Newhart‘s classic sketches features Sir Walter Raleigh on the phone to the head of the West Indies Company in London, trying to plug yet another of his wacky ideas:

This post on the introduction of tobacco to England has some charming vignettes, such as

The Great Plague of 1665 saw tobacco smoke widely advocated as a defence against “bad air”. Indeed at the height of the plague, smoking a pipe at breakfast was actually made compulsory for the schoolboys at Eton College in London.

See also under You say tomato.

Small—Far away

Europe is all very well, but the Asian side of Istanbul is really quite enough.

When I do venture to cross the Bosphorus, being aboard a boat still gives me a buzz—my first time afloat since looking after Li Manshan and the Daoists in Venice in 2012.

Yusuf painting

The centre of the world, by renowned Kuzguncuk artist Yusuf Katipoglu (1941–2018).
Üsküdar on right, Kuzguncuk on left.

us on boatReturning to Üsküdar the other afternoon, as landmarks gradually became visible I was trying to recognise its mosques from afar. I was on the lookout for the Yeni Valide Camii (1703)—where we had previously admired a double ezan call to prayer—and the charming little Şemsi Paşa Camii (1581) on the coast; perhaps even the Atik Valide Külliyesi (1583) further up the hill. But at first I couldn’t quite make out any of them.

Uskudar mosques

Şemsi Paşa Mosque (right), Yeni Valide Mosque (left).
Not actual size (Discuss).

I made some fatuous remark like “The big mosque looks very small”, whereupon my Wise Companion Augusta patiently offered me a lesson in perspective not unlike that of Father Ted to Dougall:

Augusta promised me the mosques would soon look bigger—and as if by magic…

In art, the development of perspective is commonly associated with Renaissance Italy (Brunelleschi, Piero della Francesca, and so on). BTW, for China, do read the fascinating article by Hannibal Taubes on the use of perspective on temple murals and opera stages in rural north China since the 19th century!

OK, we’re not talking Art here, more the disconnect between my eyes and brain. Like hello?

For a return match, see Line judges.

Station art, and the NHS

mural

For some reason, Sudbury Town tube station doesn’t seem to attract such throngs of tourists as the Sistine Chapel.

The station’s recent ceiling murals have been cheering me up during three months of anxiety. All of a sudden my tongue became partially paralysed, which led to me having a series of MRI and CT scans; meanwhile my mouth gradually returned to normal. While surgery on my brain or carotid artery have eventually been discounted (which is always nice), something weird is evidently going on with my blood circulation. If I haven’t already had a stroke, I’m clearly at risk of one now; at one stage a doctor described me as a ticking time-bomb, though by now I seem to be ticking more gently. Rather than more drastic interventions, I’m grateful to be prescribed daily aspirin, which I regard as a kind of post-prandial espresso shot. Still, after this brush with mortality I’m feeling frail and wary.

Consultants seem rather intrigued by what seems to be be a rare problem: I’m not sure whether to feel proud or alarmed. Whenever I see a new doctor I hasten to explain that my speech impediment is, um, normal. Brain working all funny, speech slurred—in my case, how could one tell the difference?! While my tongue was on strike, eating and drinking were something of a challenge (“Do you drink a lot?” “No, I spill most of it”).

On the plus side, my hospital visits have at least got me out of the house. It’s been a pleasure to experience the architecture of various parts of London that I might not usually think of visiting. A particular hail to the 44 bus, which kindly takes me all the way to my scans, virtually door to door (Thankyou Driver, as I never say).

ST tube

And en route to the main hospital I’ve been charmed by Sudbury Town tube station (redesigned in 1931 by Charles Holden), with its recent Pleasure’s inaccuracies ceiling murals by Lucy McKenzie—see here, and here, as well as this short film:

Sudbury Town even has a branch of the Barham Community Library, with a rather fine collection of second-hand books and CDs, next to Nikki’s coffee bar. It’s an oasis of culture…

Alas, in between my first and most recent visits to Sudbury Town this platform billboard has disappeared:

cognac

Indeed, my journey starts at Chiswick Park, another Art Deco station:

Chiswick Park

For more on murals, see Michael Palin’s Sistine Chapel story, a fantasy Coronavirus mural (Appendix here), and the Chiswick Timeline project; for variants of Leonardo’s Last Supper, click here and here. And numerous posts here feature murals in China (type “mural” into the sidebar Search box).

Following John Betjeman, among those who explore the unlikely architectural delights of suburban London are Iain Sinclair (London orbital, 2002)—a lively contributor to the LRB—and Joshua Abbott (here, and here). For tube stations, see also here.

Anyway, everyone I’ve seen at the NHS has been wonderful: kind, thoughtful, efficient. They deserve far more than a token clap (see note here, and again under Thankyou Driver).

Chinese peasants, for whom health care is less accessible, might pledge a vow, redeeming it by sponsoring an Offering ritual. The Sun dance of Plains Indians is also occasioned by vows. Indeed, Italians in Harlem commonly made vows for good health in the context of the Madonna cult. Me, I’m just happy to resume regular swimming, the occasional G&T,

and visits to Istanbul—from where, greetings!

The darker angels of our nature

Katyn

The Katyn massacre.

Steven Pinker, The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined (2011) is a hugely ambitious book, that has been praised and criticised in equal measure. I’ve cited it in n.2 of my post on Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, where I noted Ian Johnson’s discussion of figures for deaths under Stalin, Hitler, and Mao.

Pinker cover

In over a thousand pages, Pinker argues—quite against intuition—that violence in the world has vastly declined over the long sweep of world history, and that “we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence”.

Among his explanations for this, based on the research of many scholars, are the decline of warfare and the rise of the modern nation-state; commerce (other people becoming more valuable alive than dead); the spread of Enlightenment values (not entirely limited to the Western world) of literacy, reason, and empathy, along with greater legal protection for women and children and the abolition of slavery and sadistic punishment. In detailed sections on the “Long Peace” after World War Two, and the “New Peace” since the end of the Cold War, Pinker claims that civil wars, genocides, repression by autocratic governments, and terrorist attacks have declined throughout the world. He even claims that the two world wars of the 20th century were spikes in the major downward trajectory.

From the FAQs on his website:

How do you define “violence”?
I don’t. […] I focus on violence against sentient beings: homicide, assault, rape, robbery, and kidnapping, whether committed by individuals, groups, or institutions. Violence by institutions naturally includes war, genocide, corporal and capital punishment, and deliberate famines.

Major related issues such as instability, insecurity, exploitation, migration, and injustice are not part of his remit, although one might surmise that Pinker also considers these to be in retreat under the march of progress, following Norbert Elias’s theory of the “civilizing process”. But their notion of moral progress, according to a useful critique by John Gray, is “wishful thinking and plain wrong”. And as colonialism spread, Enlightenment values didn’t preclude massive slaughter.

Isn’t economic inequality a form of violence?
No; the fact that Bill Gates has a bigger house than I do may be deplorable, but to lump it together with rape and genocide is to confuse moralisation with understanding. Ditto for underpaying workers, undermining cultural traditions, polluting the ecosystem, and other practices that moralists want to stigmatize by metaphorically extending the term violence to them. It’s not that these aren’t bad things, but you can’t write a coherent book on the topic of “bad things.”

Pinker does, however, discuss “evil” in several sections. He considers not just death tolls but psychology and individual propensity for evil, siding with Hobbes. From a distance, today’s media exposure brings us an acute awareness of violence; but beyond (notionally) “peaceful” Western societies, countless lives around the world are also affected directly.

While he doesn’t neglect the societies beyond Europe, or the violence of colonialism, reviewers have criticised his Western neoliberal agenda (cf. his 2019 book Enlightenment now, even more harshly reviewed).

Pinker adapts a table from Matthew White’s “(Possibly) the twenty (or so) worst things people have done to each other”, noting that “when you scale by population size, only one of the 20th century’s atrocities even makes the top ten”.:

Pinker 1

Pinker 2

But despite Pinker’s assembly of a wide range of disciplines, and many favourable reviews, criticisms won’t go away.

Wiki can be really useful (cf. Veiny, weedy, wiki); its substantial article on the book makes a good introduction. Much discussion has been quite vitriolic, as outlined in the article under “Criticism”. See e.g. John Gray’s review here. For statistics, note Pasquale Cirillo and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Having attempted to respond to FAQs on his website, Pinker goes on robustly to refute such criticisms—which, however, are based not merely on our widespread sense of the violent nature of the modern world, but on sensitive statistical analysis.

Darker angels cover

In particular, I’ve been reading the 2018 book The darker angels of our nature: refuting the Pinker theory (ed. Philip Dwyer and Mark Micale), which disputes Pinker’s arguments in detail. Among its eighteen chapters are essays on the nature of violence in history, human rights, archaeological evidence, medieval history, Russia, Japan, British imperial violence and the Middle East, indigenous peoples, sexual and racial violence, and the environment.

As the editors note,

The problems that come up time and again are: the failure to genuinely engage with historical methodologies; the unquestioning use of dubious sources; the tendency to exaggerate the violence of the past in order to contrast it with the supposed peacefulness of the modern era; the creation of a number of straw men, which Pinker then goes on to debunk; and its extraordinarily Western-centric, not to say Whiggish, view of the world.

Quite so: Pinker’s argument for long-term moral and material progress seems to play into a Western liberal mindset that sees things as “getting better all the time”.

Among topics for discussion, the authors observe that far more people died in the aftermath of the civil wars that proliferated during the “Long Peace” of the Cold War than during the conflicts themselves; and they query Pinker’s view of modern human trafficking as minor compared to the Atlantic slave trade. Still, the criticisms in The darker angels of our nature have in turn been criticised.

In a 2017 post Pinker addresses the apparent recent upsurge in violence around the world, with further graphs.

Of course it’s important to note (as historians do, indeed) the violence of ancient and medieval societies, and the growth of “Enlightenment values”. And while Pinker recognises types of violence that don’t necessarily lead directly to death, such social/economic systems are not within his remit. He does at least discuss famine in several sections.

Deaths of non-combatants increased hugely from the first to the second world wars. In the FAQs, Pinker describes the comment “I’ve read that at the beginning of the 20th century, 90% of deaths in warfare were suffered by soldiers, but at the end, 90% were suffered by civilians” as a “bogus statistic”—but his reference there (to pp.317–320) doesn’t seem to apply to the edition I have. Meanwhile, Gray specifies:

Around a million of the ten million deaths due to the first world war were of non‑combatants, whereas around half of the more than fifty million casualties of the second world war and over 90% of the millions who have perished in the violence that has wracked the Congo for decades belong in that category.

While statistics, and their interpretation, may be disputed, there are interesting perspectives here. It’s salient to evince the massive slaughter of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition (for which he cites Rummel’s huge overestimate of 350,000 deaths), genocides in south and north America, Ottoman pogroms, and so on.

For China scholars, the death toll of the An Lushan rebellion (755–63) is another case in point. Again citing Matthew White, Pinker describes it as “the worst atrocity of all time […] that resulted in the loss of two-thirds of the empire’s population, a sixth of the world’s population at the time”, a figure that he notes is controversial—a great understatement. Historians attribute much of the apparent depopulation to the reduced efficiency of the census system and the removal from its figures of various occupations no longer to be taxed, and White later revised the death toll down from 36 million to 13 million; still, even the lower estimate is proportionately far higher than any of the disasters of the 20th century. Also on White’s list are the Mongol conquests (coming second), the fall of the Ming dynasty (4), the Taiping rebellion (10), the mid-20th century civil war (21), and the Maoist era (11).

* * *

However we attempt to digest these emotive and portentous squabbles, perhaps we can both acknowledge the violence of the past and find causes for long-term optimism while neither encouraging complacency nor scaling down our search to reduce all the ongoing disasters and injustices of our own times. As Pinker himself would recognise, even a detached observation of long-term decrease in violence will be scant consolation for the millions around the world still dying violent deaths or leading lives of severe insecurity. At least his work stimulates a thought-provoking debate.

What’s the craic?

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

Craic pub

I’m always intoxicated [Now read on—Ed.] [That’s enough of your lip—SJ] by the mood of Irish music, with its elusive, swirling, heterophonic (or even monophonic) melodies offset by jagged syncopations, any rare hints of harmony serving merely to remind us that it’s a mere modern trinket to which its unruly contours can’t be reduced (see e.g. More early music).

* * *

Around the world there must be many terms evoking the special atmosphere of entering deeply into the spirit of musicking; I think of flamenco duende and fado saudade—both with a strong undercurrent of loss. In more celebratory vein, an Irish expression much bandied nowadays is craic, the convivial mood sparked by getting together in company (cf. buzz, vibe, groove). I suppose this kind of atmosphere is the goal of most social gatherings where music is likely to be a catalyst, like Moroccan ahouach, Mediterranean festivals, or weddings anywhere. How good it is to have an all-encompassing term that stresses the wider context of sociability—including drinking, joking, musicking together! Significantly, in WAM, whose pundits have worked tirelessly to claim autonomy from mere human interaction, I can’t think of such a term—ideas welcome.

Irish session 2

Sitting around the table, taking turns—like in Shanghai silk-and-bamboo teahouses.

So impertinent non-nationals like me have become familiar with the nation of craic; but sure enough, it’s yet another of those fabricated traditions—in which the Irish are complicit, to boot. Kevin Myers has described it as “pseudo-Gaelic”, a “bogus neologism”.

The word crack (derived from Middle English crak, “loud conversation, bragging talk”) is recorded in Scotland in the 16th century in the sense of chat, news, or gossip; and it was common in north England and Scotland in the 19th century, sometimes with hints of musicking. These senses of the term entered Hiberno-English from Scots through Ulster, and were then borrowed into Irish, with a reference from 1929 and rural citations from the 1950s. In Dublin, the great Flann O’Brian used the word in articles collected in The best of Myles (1966).

The Gaelicized borrowed spelling craic is only documented from 1968, and it was reborrowed into English later still. The glorification of craic as a “specifically and quintessentially Irish form of fun” is even more recent. Critics have accused the Irish tourism industry and the promoters of Irish theme pubs of marketing “commodified craic” as a kind of stereotypical Irishness. For Kevin Myers it “coincided with the moment that Irishness became self-conscious, winsome, stylised, conceited, boastful”. In his 1999 book Companion to Irish traditional music, Fintan Vallely suggests that the use of craic in English is largely an exercise on the part of Irish pubs to make money through the commercialisation of traditional Irish music; he never heard the word spoken in Dublin until the late 1980s. He notes that Ciaran Carson (based in Belfast) was enraged by the spelling craic. Do read this excellent article by Donald Clarke!

Of course, we can’t specify the spelling when uttering the term (now that would make conversation a fine pickle), but just as I was about to try adopting it, I now think it’d be prudent for me to refrain from doing so. Still… it does sum up a feeling that is much needed.

While, um, craic has to be experienced in company, even audio recordings of live concerts can sometimes hint at the jubilation of the event. Here’s a playlist for the CD Dear old Erin’s isle: Irish traditional music from America (Nimbus, 1992—a companion to the 1991 Fiddle sticks: Irish traditional music from Donegal, also wonderful):

Following Last night’s fun, on a linguistic note: #3, with Liz Carroll on fiddle, consists of an exhilarating sequence of reels with magnificent titles: Drying out, Crush cars, The lost Indian; and Séamus Eagan’s flute solo (#6) is The wee bag of spuds. Such creative titles are conspicuously different from those of non-nationals like Messrs Messiaen and Boulez.

South American getaway

Butch

At Cambridge in the early 1970s, as a counterpart to my studies of Chinese culture (here, and here) and WAM, movies also made an important part of my education. At some remove from the arthouse European films that were all the rage was the outlaw movie

  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) (wiki; see also e.g. here).

Despite mixed reviews, the film soon became a huge hit. Besides Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the title roles, Katherine Ross appears as Etta Place, following her part in The graduate. She went on to star in the sequel Wanted: the Sundance woman (1976). And Hill used the Newman–Redford partnership again with The sting (1973), with a Scott Joplin soundtrack.

The soundtrack for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid (playlist) is by Burt Bacharach, whom I revere eternally for I say a little prayer. Robert Redford was not impressed by Raindrops keep falling on my head, sung by B.J. Thomas (“What the hell is that song doing in this film?”)—despite its wonderful major 7th leap:

A scene that undermines the pomposity of soundtracks in traditional Westerns is South American getaway, with the Ron Hicklin singers in fine form:

The disembodied audio is here, so as to focus on the musical artistry of the alternating zany and nostalgic passages, and that major 7th leap again (0.28, 3.18). They might have come up with more imaginative instrumental bridges, but hey. And this is clearly not the time for ethnographic study of musicking in Bolivia

Another scene that remains with me is “Can I move?”:

which somehow for me evoked Kyūzō in Seven samurai (rather than anything in the remake The magnificent seven), and now even reminds me of the importance of context in folk musicking

The shagbut, minikin, and Flemish clacket

Shagbut

Following my April fools roundup, Nicolas Robertson (creator of the outstanding Anagram tales) fondly recalls a spoof on the Third Programme of BBC Radio, first broadcast in 1968:

The authentically po-voiced announcer’s introduction to the organological details of shagbut, minikin (played by Tatiana Splod), and Flemish clacket recall the mountweazel and the spoof entries of the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians.

Recreating early music does indeed require the modern musician to learn many unfamiliar techniques—a challenge that the pioneers of the movement were not always able to meet. These instruments have been obsolete since the early 16th century, “and of course there are those who hold the view that it would have been rather better if they had remained so”.

Bosch

After tortuous preparation, eventually—and perhaps regrettably—the Schola Polyphonica Neasdeniensis is (almost) ready to perform the newly-discovered Haro! Poppzgeyen ist das Wieselungslied by Hucbald the Onelegged of Grobhausen. The YouTube illustration of Bosch is aptly chosen.

We apologise to listeners for the technical hitches in the performance. These were partly due to the fact that Mr Turvey and the Schola Polyphonica got stuck in the lift, actually…

Early music has provided a rich source of humour; from this index of WAM drôlerie, see e.g. Mein Gott, A Bach mondegreen, Early music put in its placeThe Mary Celeste, and A music critic.

I haven’t yet succeeded in finding the audio for another Radio 3 programme, first broadcast on April Fools Day:

Parenthesis

Extensive as the BBC Sounds archive is, this is a lacuna that begs to be filled, like Compton Mackenzie’s talk on his meeting with Henry James.

A paean to the fry-up, and the music of time

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

LNF

Ciaran Carson’s Last night’s fun is a constant delight—one of the great books about music (for more, see Carson tag).

The chapters are named after, and inspired by, the title of a particular Irish tune. In Boil the breakfast early Carson sings the praises of The Fry and depicts a fantasy of the perfect Belfast café.

If traditional musicians are engaged with constant repetition and renewal, infinite fine-tunings and shades of rhythms, variations on the basic, cooks are even more so.

He recalls the excitement of discovering the vocabulary for eggs in a New York diner:

A: How do you want your eggs?
B: Well… fried, I suppose.
A: What do you mean, fried? You want basted, over-easy, sunny-side up, over-hard, or what?

He soon graduates from the attractive-sounding but wobbly sunny-side up to over-easy. Indeed, “even the Irish fried egg has many schools of thought”. One thing always leads to another:

Then we engage the wider lexicon of “The Fry”, where the possibilities become Byzantine. Some exclude fried mushrooms or potatoes, say, from their definition of The Fry, as being side issues—distractions from the matter in hand. […] Sometimes I am attracted to the Puritan ideal of bacon and eggs, nothing more, nothing less. [For less, see here.]

By a meandering route involving two more tunes (The Kylebrack rambler and The Galway rambler, aka The Kylebrack), Carson recalls a story:

Then there was the café you always found by accident, above a haberdashery or alterations shop. The door that led upstairs was innocent of any label or description of the premises above. * You sat at the white-linen-covered table, and the table silver glinted with a sudden tang of memory; you knew you’d been here many times before. Waitresses in black stockings and little frilly caps appeared to serve you. There was a little scalloped butter-dish, silver slat and pepper cellars; toast came in a toast-rack. Besides the silver tea-pot was a jug of just-boiled water. The fry arrived on thick white wide-rimmed hot delph plates—“Mind the plates”, the waitress said, as she dished them out as if she were dealing cards. All the hands were flush: the famous Dublin Hafner sausages, the exotic Free State bacon, the coarse fat-spotted black pudding, the unctuous creamy texture of the white. The eggs wobbled and glistened their glazed orange yolks. […]

You sat at the window above the hum and buzz of the street below. At first you gulped and chewed and then decelerated as you realised that your hunger would be perfectly assuaged. Then you could eat contemplatively, picking bits and choosing bits you thought would make an interesting ensemble. You craned your neck occasionally like some astronomer, gazing downwards at the Milky Way of interweaving passing heads. The chinking noise of cutlery and crockery cut through the muted traffic noise. You pronged the last inch of Hafner’s sausage on to a tiny toast triangle that you’d custom-cut, and married it to the last remaining quarter of an egg yolk. You ate these morsels in one forkful. Then a gulp of tea. You settled back contentedly. An enormous cut-glass ashtray came from nowhere. Plates vanished, and you put your elbows on the table and lit up. The bill came in its own good time, unhurriedly. You looked with some amazement at the spiky old-fashioned Staedtler HB pencil-writing, quoting price current in the Fifties. You paid the carbon-slip. Then you descended to the mundane busy street. Absorbed into the crowd, you let yourself be taken by its flow, and became another corpuscle in its bloodstream.

We would spread the word about this last word of an eating-house. No-one ever found it, nor could we again when we determined that we would, because the universe is often stumbled upon by accident, or visualised in dreams. Only when the stars concur do we arrive. We stumble through the patterns of the Kylemore and the Kylebrack and we wander through the icons of the city, touching them in well-worn reliquary places. We are on a pilgrimage, and yet we do not know it…

We are fragile, and it is the morning after; rather, it is early afternoon, and we have settled in a dusty sunlit corner of the empty pub. Our talk is desultory till we think to play a tune, and we are all reluctant. Yet we start because we have to. And somehow, two bars into it, we sense each other’s playing in the way the Zodiac arrives at planetary conjunctions, and we can do more than play the pattern out. And though the stars, by now, are out of line with what they were two hundred years ago, we too have been moved, or have been moved to know that until now we had not played this tune. We did not know its beauty, nor had we realised the marks of other hands that knew it, and had passed it on to some they hoped would eventually manage to figure out its gorgeous shape. We repeat this same tune many times, and about the twelfth or thirteenth time, we know it’s time to stop, since we have gained a century in those few minutes of horology. Then we were like some watchers of the skies, or we had gazed at the Pacific for the first time, and we were silent as we contemplated time in all its mirrored constellations.

* * *

Boil the breakfast early is a reel, perhaps best known in versions by The Chieftains—here they play it live in 1981 at a BBC session:

And here’s John Whelan with friends in a medley opening with The Kylebrack:

Another title that reminded me of Li Manshan and Li Bin is Ask my father.


* Cf. my version of the touring musos’ fantasy. See also Health-food options, and even, if it’s Daoist ritual yer after, Pacing the Void.

Chinese ritual, theatre, and folklore

MSQY

One of the most valuable resources on local Chinese ritual is Minsu quyi 民俗曲藝 (“Journal of Chinese ritual, theatre, and folklore”), published since 1980 by the Shih Ho-cheng Foundation in Taiwan (see this introduction by Paul Katz).

At first the reports concerned local traditions around Taiwan itself, but as the liberalisations in the PRC gained pace, ritual practice revived spectacularly there, and local cultural workers (as well as overseas scholars such as Kristofer Schipper, John Lagerwey, and Ken Dean) were able to do detailed fieldwork on the mainland. So from 1991 this major expansion in geographical scope was reflected in the journal’s coverage—although the project’s origins led to a focus on south China (Fujian, Jiangxi, Hunan, and so on), with rather occasional excursions to the north. The leading light was C.K. Wang, who began early in recruiting local scholars to such research, becoming editor-in-chief of the journal in 1989. Many issues were devoted to particular themes, such as Nuo masked drama, Mulian operas, and Hakka musicking.

MSQYCS

The publisher soon began supplementing the journal with over eighty extended monographs (Minsu quyi congshu 民俗曲藝叢書), again mainly on local traditions in Fujian, Jiangxi, Hunan, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Zhejiang. This in turn led to a major separate series on household Daoist altars, the Daojiao yishi congshu 道教儀式叢書.

Under new editors, since 2002 the journal has continued to publish major articles. The website has detailed tables of contents, and useful sidebar tags.

Perfection is NOT the word for it

Felix cover

A fine new addition to the ethnography of Western Art Music * is

The title alludes to Sir Claus Moser’s diplomatic backstage words to an ageing diva. Both wise and delightful, the book is generously laced with deviant orchestral stories, but it’s much more than that. The blurb hardly does justice to the serious wider issues that Felix covers:

Orchestral life in Britain is thriving and anarchic, in turns chaotic, hilarious, and brutal. ** Perfection Is NOT the word for it is a personal, and mostly affectionate, account of life amongst the extraordinary characters who lead their over-stressed lives in this unusual world, surrounded by music but driven by everyday anxieties, and always defying the best efforts of administrators, bureaucrats, and conductors to tame the unruly beast which is a professional orchestra.

Felix makes a most sympathetic narrator. An orchestral and chamber bassoonist of note (possibly top C, as in The Rite of Spring), he has the rare distinction of having graduated to the role of managing some of the leading early music bands that have shaken up the scene since the 1970s. So while orchestral musos tend to take a dim view of administrators, Felix has the advantage, or misfortune, to have straddled both sides of the fence; he adopts the “poacher turned gamekeeper” metaphor, and one thinks of the common transition from football player to manager.

Chapter 1 opens with a priceless, if harrowing, blow-by-blow account of his first encounter with Pierre Boulez in 1972 upon being summoned at short notice to dep for a rehearsal with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (his very first professional gig, to boot)—an ordeal which becomes ineluctably more excruciating. After this it may be hard to hear the divine slow movement of the Brahms 1st piano concerto with the same ears. Unlike the viola player singled out during a Mendelssohn rehearsal, Felix didn’t even manage a pithy riposte.

Although his ordeal at the hands of Boulez was exceptional, musicians are keen to get revenge on their overlords by maestro-baiting, of which we are treated to several examples. He also has some good instances of corpsing.

There are cameos from the renowned clarinettist Jack Brymer (an incident that precisely parallels one about the conductor Eric Leinsdorf) and the then rather less renowned Tony Pay (cf. this story). As on tour, and with my fieldwork in China (e.g. here), Felix delights in chains of stories. Alcohol, soon to be a pervasive theme of the book, enters the fray with the BBC’s principal horn Alan Civil—and one might add the wealth of stories about trumpeter John Wilbraham.

The pressures of touring were alleviated by excessive drinking. Felix pays tribute to the “sublimely gifted” violinist Alan Loveday, stories about whose travails with alcohol became legendary. On tour with the Academy of St Martin-in-the Fields (in which Felix played for fifteen years), conductor Neville Marriner had to lock Alan into his hotel room every evening—ensuring that he never once made it onto the concert platform, thus achieving “a feat that many musicians would think ideal, a tour without concerts”.

Loveday

Alan was a talented bridge player, a taste that Felix shared. ••• He eventually took the road to recovery. He was keen to take up period-instrument performance, but never got round to it—as Felix observes, “if sober, he could have brought great critical credibility to this new world”. Felix’s tribute to Alan’s eccentricity and deep love of music leads him to stories about the iconic Francis Baines.

After this heady introduction to the orchestral world, Chapter 2 “An Oxford overture” returns to Felix’s upbringing with a perceptive account of the “tremendous intellectual intensity” of the post-war years there. Second of five children, he was deeply grateful for his education at the Dragon School (“a culture of kindness, politeness, and humanity”, enriched by its bizarre collection of characters on the teaching staff). Less happy at Winchester, he managed to leave school at 16, with the support of his wise mother. In the holidays he attended National Youth Orchestra courses.

Reading between the lines, it must have been through the rational enquiry of his distinguished philosopher parents that he acquired a seriousness and vision that his initial career as bassoon player was unlikely to satisfy. Sitting in on their dinner parties, he also inherited their taste for wordplay.

In Chapter 3, suitably titled “Five in a bar” (which is quite drôle enough without venturing to Tchaikovsky, Brubeck, and Balkan folk music), Felix recalls his happy, if blurred, days in the Albion Ensemble, a wind quintet seemingly modelled on the Famous Five—making a welcome occasional relief from the fraught struggles of the orchestral world. Felix opens the chapter with the convoluted story of a live broadcast for US TV.

It was soon after this lamentable episode (perhaps even because of it) that the Albion Ensemble’s capacity for resilience and self-preservation came to the attention of the British Council.

The quintet was now despatched to “countries in which self-reliance and an ability to deal with the unexpected would be at least as important as giving concerts”. Their adventures began with a five-week tour of the Far East. In China they learn the perils of official banquets (inexplicably, the quintet’s minders didn’t think to introduce them to their counterparts among household Daoists in the north Chinese countryside). In South Korea their provincial travels are given an extra edge by having very little idea of where they were supposed to be when, or how to get there. The quest for alcohol becomes ever more compelling. In the Philippines they succumb in turn to a gory bout of food poisoning, as they pass a hospital bearing the name of “The Antenatal clinic of the Immaculate Conception”.

Chapter 4, “Trials and errors”, takes us to the early music movement (note the work of Richard Taruskin and John Butt), in which Felix played a major role both as player and manager. The 1980s were a golden age for London’s freelancers, stimulated by the new CD format, film sessions, and touring; still, Felix was feeling the fragility of freelancing, “a house of cards which could collapse at the slightest unfavourable gust”.

Inspired by the innovations of Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, and Brüggen, he now expanded into “period instrument” performance. We find erudite notes on reviving the French bassoon that had lost out to its German counterpart; and on pitch standards adopted by the movement (a=415 being a fair compromise for the wide range used in baroque times, whereas a=430 for the classical era was a concoction imposed by Decca at an Academy of Ancient Music meeting).

Felix spent a period on the Music Advisory Panel of the Arts Council, entrusted with the task of finding a niche for WAM in a diverse market, which gave him serious reservations about box-ticking PC and committees’ fear of elitism. I’m sure he could offer a detailed critique of my own argument in What is serious music?!; indeed, my global view is All Very Well, but promoters inevitably find themselves having to fight for their particular corner of the bazaar.

Meanwhile he took a correspondence law course. Felix and his wife Julie eventually mastered the invidious competition for adoption, learning to guess the expected answers to rigorous questionnaires.

In Chapter 5 Felix recounts the invention of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment from 1985 (I was glad to learn that it was Chris Hogwood who coined its alternative name Age of Embezzlement). As Felix reflected,

London’s freelance musicians had achieved a remarkably dominant international position in period instrument performance but were now in danger of becoming stuck at their current level of (relative) mediocrity.

The various orchestras were closely identified with their founders (Hogwood, Pinnock, Gardiner, Norrington, and so on), but the pool of performers overlapped. “Our owners/proprietors were building international reputations based on the numerous recordings which we, the humble workers, had been making for them”. Meanwhile there was no platform in London for the great continental directors like Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, Brüggen, and Kujken; moreover, the scene, dominated by “semi-conductors” (in Norman Lebrecht’s fine term), was closed to “real” maestros from the modern symphonic world who might offer new insights into the repertoire, like Charles Mackerras (for whose splendid anagram, click here), S-Simon Rattle, and Mark Elder.

This led to the forming of a new orchestra that would engage its conductors, not the other way around. The financial challenge was daunting. But the success of Rattle’s concert performance of Idomeneo in 1987 led to an annual summer residency at Glyndebourne, and record contracts were soon secured. By 1988 Felix found himself managing the orchestra, negotiating projects with institutions like the South Bank Centre and the Proms while attempting to entice the busy continental maestros who had originally inspired him. 

Left, Frans Brüggen; right, Trevor Pinnock.

By 1993, amidst difficult decisions over the orchestra’s personnel, Felix had to resign. From 1995 he managed the English Concert, which he found himself having to re-invent, as described in Chapter 6. Under the benevolent Trevor Pinnock the orchestra had thrived, but their recording contract was soon to expire, and another identity crisis loomed. Whereas Felix’s challenge at the OAE had been to create a clear and sustainable identity after a frenetic set-up, here the issue was the mirror image: “how to create a new and exciting identity for an already-successful organisation in danger of being overtaken by younger competitors”. But, as he reflects, the two orchestras did have one thing in common: neither had any money.

The English Concert had a remarkable success in staging Haydn’s puppet opera Philemon und Baucis. Here Felix gives another nice aside on the history of marionette theatre in England and on the continent; and he notes the relatively recent tradition of orchestral string sections using the same bowings.

Felix wrestles with fiendish logistics for the US tour of the Brandenburg concertos. At post-concert receptions he finds himself in the role of grown-up, nervously observing the players’ antics, with which he is all too familiar. Organising a Matthew Passion tour around concerts in Spain presents further scheduling challenges. Much as we love the bars there (and I, at least, love the flamenco), travelling around is indeed gruelling, as a later “tour from hell” confirmed (for the steady erosion of touring, see note here).

AM&RP

With Trevor Pinnock retiring, and the inspired leader Rachel Podger also leaving, Felix was delighted to find the equally prodigious Andrew Manze to direct the band from the violin. Rachel and Andrew’s Bach double at the Proms is one of my most treasured moments; and on tour, apart from his inspired playing, while we were waiting at Chicago airport Andrew told me one of my very favourite stories, which you can find here.

But while Felix envisaged a return to baroque music, in which the English Concert had made its mark, Andrew was now keen to pursue the fashion for a later repertoire, as he began to set his sights on conducting. With the 2008 recession causing further problems for festivals and promoters, Felix moved on again. Meanwhile his swansong on the bassoon came when he too achieved the ideal of appearing in an orchestra without having to play in it, miming in costume for a TV re-enactment of Handel’s Water music in a barge on the Thames. ****

Chapter 7, “Double bar: when the music stops”. After leaving the English Concert, Felix worked to find funding for some other projects—including an unfulfilled plan to restore the Notting Hill Coronet cinema to its original function as a music theatre. The building turned out to be owned by the Elim Church, whose largest congregation was at the Kensington Temple nearby—prompting another fine graffiti story. But by this time Felix was seeking a path away from the world of music. Having long served on the Music Advisory Panel of the Radcliffe Trust, he now joined the board of trustees, soon becoming chairman, still devising new projects. Again he offers thoughts on the bureaucratic dangers of the “Age of Regulation”. *****

It’s such a pleasure to read Felix’s memoir, by turns revealing, wise, and hilarious—sometimes all at once. Rush out and buy this book!


* Note e.g. Christopher Small’s Musicking, and Bruno Nettl’s Heartland excursions; see also Professional music-making in London (Stephen Cottrell); and for New York, Mozart in the jungle (Blair Tindall). Cf. Deviating from behavioural norms (links there including the kangaroo and sardine stories; more in the WAM category under “early music” and “humour”), and Alternative Bach.

** For punctuation nerds: as is my editorial wont, I supply the Oxford comma in such lists—all the more suitable given Felix’s background (albeit depriving us of the pleasures of formulations like “I would like to thank my parents, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Madonna”).

While I’m here, the absence of an index is most regrettable (see The joys of indexing). I hereby provide a sample, should my services be required for a future edition (cf. my draft index for Nicolas Robertson’s magnificent anagram tales, and even that for unlikely place-names to find in a blog dominated by Daoist ritual):index 1
index 2
*** Bridge made another pleasurable pastime for musos on tour, playing on the back of a bus, and at airports—again suitably lubricated by alcohol. As Felix has learned to his cost when I partner him across the baize, my bidding skills are far inferior to his; month after month he patiently talks me through the fiendish opening bid of the multi 2 diamonds, knowing full well that I’m never going to get the hang of it (cf. A grand slam). You gather, of course, that my review of this book is informed by having played a minor role (again, allegedly, not always entirely sober) in many of the musical débacles that Felix evokes.

**** In my own early days depping for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, they would occasionally find they had booked too many extras, so they had to pay me not to play the violin—which, as my colleagues would agree, was most worthwhile (cf. “We are very lucky that your violin was broken”).

***** In a Coda from early 2018, Felix explains in apparently rational detail his support for Brexit—a choice that mystified most of his friends (cf. The C-word). Instead, here his readers might prefer a survey of changes since the 1960s to the hand-to-mouth existence of orchestral players (for whom Brexit is the latest disaster), and the gradual transition from the “knit your own yogurt” ethos of the early pioneers to a more polished “Chanel No.5” style—an account that he would be well placed to write.

 

 

My World Cup debut thwarted

Stadium

A sporting variation on the musician’s recurring dream:

Out of the blue, I’m summoned to join the attacking lineup in England’s “bid” (As They Say) for the football World Cup. Everyone seems to consider this fair enough—even though in the dream I am my real age now, no longer a sprightly youth. After brief, jovial greetings from Raheem Sterling and Wayne Rooney, I suppose I’m expecting a bit of team training, some practice to slot me into the manager’s master-plan—but there’s no time for any of that. Anyway, how hard can it be?

So after making my way—entirely alone—to the stadium (possibly the Nou Camp in Barcelona), I find myself adrift in the labyrinthine changing rooms, which seem to be full of a motley crew of podgy kids from amateur teams. I wander around frantically trying to locate a room for the England team, and to find the team kit. With time getting on, I look up to see the clock fast approaching the 8pm kick-off, and over the tannoy I hear the sound of the national anthems prefacing the match. Still dressed in my everyday garb, I search desperately for the way onto the pitch.

As usual, I woke up before the dénouement.

Unqualified, ill-prepared, running out of time, wrong uniform, lost—precisely the traits of my dreams as a musician. There’s not even any great anxiety involved: the path to failure unfolds with “all the inevitability of Greek tragedy”.

For a similar dream involving Iga Świątek and Stravinsky, see Ogonek and Til. Cf. somewhat less dystopian fantasies on Lisbon, Mozart opera (note the Larson link!), and Tibet. See also From the archives.

Women in early Irish music

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

Kenny

Before the 1970s, women’s role in the transmission of traditional Irish music was only sporadically on public display. This lacuna, common around the world, is made good in

She went on to develop these themes in her book Trad nation: gender, sexuality, and race in Irish traditional music (2020).

Focusing on the period from 1890 to 1970, Slominski returns women to the historical narrative by exploring the “disjuncture between the documented public activity of women traditional musicians in early 20th-century Ireland and their subsequent erasure from the narrative of Irish traditional music history” (I gave a succinct introduction to studies of gender and music under my second post on flamenco).

In Irish music a few such women “were visible nationally or internationally, and tend to be remembered as extraordinary rather than exemplary”; many others were once known but have since been mostly forgotten outside their families and immediate communities. A third category was “an unknown and possibly significant number of women musicians [who] occupied social positions that rendered them invisible to the musical public sphere”. And a fourth included the “second-degree visibility” of mothers remembered as tradition-bearers whose names now appear mainly in connection with their sons.

Encoded in these categories is an unspoken assumption that traditional music’s historical gaze still belongs to male musicians. With rare exceptions, Irish traditional music’s texts have all been written by men, and the brain trust of the tradition still rests with its “gentlemen scholars.” Thus, nearly all the accounts and recordings we have of pre-1970 women musicians come from male authors, interviewers, and collectors.

Idealised women commonly appear in the media of the day as metaphors for the Irish nation:

Personifications of careworn Mother Ireland and long-tressed Erin linked homeland and hearth, and invariably cast the nation’s men in the roles of hero, protector, and dutiful son.

More promising are the biographical profiles by Francis O’Neill in Irish Minstrels and Musicians (1913), even if he still largely conforms to the feminized personifications of the nation.

Slominski cites Habermas’s distinction between the “public sphere” (a forum for the shaping of state policy) and the “public” activities of the street; indeed, the public house was the domain of men.

The fiddler Bridget Kenny (“Mrs”) was daughter of piper John McDonough. In O’Neill’s account:

 Devotion to art does not appear to have unfavourably affected the size of Mrs Kenny’s family, for we are informed she is the prolific mother of thirteen children. Neither did the artistic temperament on both sides mar the domestic peace of the Kenny home, and, though the goddess of plenty slighted them in the distribution of her favours, have they not wealth in health and the parentage of a house full of rosy-cheeked sons and daughters, several of whom bid fair to rival their mother, “The Queen of Irish Fiddlers,” in the world of music.

Alas, I can’t set much store by the 1898 recording here, billed as her playing The high road to Galway—surely the playback speed is far too fast, and the pitch correspondingly too high?!

From a poor family, Mrs Kenny became a street musician, an “urban busker”. But O’Neill also stresses her success in music competitions. Her talents were recruited by the nationalist movement.

The dominant narrative held that pipers—whether common men or gentlemen—had once been respected members of society, but that the occupation and its practitioners had fallen into disrepute.

O’Neill again, describing the period following the great famine:

Changed conditions, lack of patronage, and other well-understood causes, forced this class of minstrels, many of them blind, to take to the highways for support—a form of mendicancy which brought their once honoured calling into disrepute.

A 1912 story:

The poverty-stricken piper became an object of contempt, and the contempt was naturally extended to his instrument, the cause of his indigence. It is only a few years since a friend of mine, a good fiddler, who expressed an intention of learning the pipes, was told by his relatives that if he did so disgrace himself he need never show his face at home again! Small wonder that the pipes ceased to be generally played just as the language ceased to be spoken and so many of the old customs to be observed! The race of “gentlemen pipers” had died out and no respectable person would touch the instrument.

If social disapproval fell upon men who made a living from playing the uilleann pipes (cf. shawm bands around the world), it was much worse for the women who did so from “dire necessity”, often after being widowed early. Among instances cited by O’Neill are Mollie Morrissey, May McCarthy, and the blind Nance the Piper.

By the early 20th century, piping was becoming a somewhat more respectable occupation for women, mainly by virtue of nationalist rhetoric.

Cultural nationalist beliefs in the early 20th century helped create an environment in which some parents allowed their daughters to learn the uilleann pipes, teachers agreed to teach them, and some newly-formed pipers’ clubs allowed women members.

Morrissey and McCarthy are portrayed as “young, graceful, and mild-mannered”. This account comes from 1905:

I give you an interesting portrait of Miss Mollie Morrissey of Cork, fideogist [player of the tin whistle?], harpist, pianist, violinist, bagpiper and stepdancer, at the age of fourteen. I venture to say that not many Irish colleens can boast of such a long list of accomplishments, but such are the attainments of this little girl, whose charming and unassuming manner has endeared her to all who know her. She is the youngest and most proficient female piper in Ireland, playing the famous Irish melodies with great expression, and is also a correct exponent of dance music. [….] The clever little artiste is decorated with many medals, won at competitions in piping and step-dancing, and at last year’s Oireachtas she carried off first prize in female hornpipe dancing from all comers, her graceful carriage and movements combined with precision being much admired. [….] Miss Morrissey got a special invitation […] to attend a reception during Pan-Celtic week, which she could not accept on account of being indisposed at the time.

As Slominski observes, her role here is merely to decorate the public practice of Irish cultural nationalism.

Unlike his accounts of male musicians, in which he uses nouns like “piper”, “fiddler”, “musician”, and “composer”, O’Neill’s profiles of these two women pipers rely on words like “learner”, “artiste”, “performer”, and of course, “daughter”, “girl”, and “colleen”.

For such women, even as they depended on musicking as an occupation, music was portrayed as a mere “accomplishment”, an accessory. This at least made them seem less threatening. “By considering a women’s musicianship peripheral to her identity, any expectation that she would continue playing through her adulthood was removed”—although they often did.

Farr

Finally Slominski contrasts the lives of Galway flute-player Mary Kilcar (c.1890–?) and fiddler Lucy Farr (née Kirwan, 1911­–2003). Mary’s playing was confined to the household, while Lucy took part in public musicking quite late, after reconnecting with her musical upbringing.

Mary was a spinster (as one said then) who lived with her sister. Their background seems to have been comfortable, and Mary may have had some formal education in music.

As a single and ageing woman in the socially conservative years of the Irish Free State, Mary would have been symbolically invisible: she was neither a mother nor a maiden in a society whose metaphors of nation defined the behaviour and aspirations of real women. However politically and rhetorically invisible, Mary’s position as spinster was legible within rural Irish society. The combination of her musicianship and her marital status, however, was not.

In a 1987 interview, Lucy recalled:

And there was a lady in the next village, and her name was Mary Kilcar, and she would be—when I was 20, she’d be about 40, and she played a flute, and—though she was never part of the scene in my young days— she never—women didn’t come down into the houses where the men were. You’d hear Mary Kilcar playing the flute inside in her own house, but you’d never see her in any house where there was music. And so one day, I was walking around, and I knocked at the door. “Oh!” she said, “Lucy Kirwan! Come in!” “Well,” I said, “I’ve come in because I’m playing the fiddle, and we’ve all heard you playing outside, but you never come to our neighborhood dos.” “Oh,” she says, “They wouldn’t have women—they wouldn’t at all them dos.” I said, “Well, we do, I do.” “Ah, but you’re living in the house where it is. I couldn’t, I couldn’t do that.”

As Slominski comments,

Lucy’s status as maidenly daughter of a musical father placed her, a future tradition bearer, on the receiving end of borne tradition. As a spinster, however, Mary was a transmissive dead end. […]she does not fit into the category through which most women musicians of her generation are remembered: as mothers who pass tunes down to their sons. […] For single women like Mary Kilcar, bodies out of reproductive circulation also meant tunes out of circulation.

Lucy moved to London in 1936, and after her marriage she only re-engaged with the music of her youth from the late 1950s (see this fine article). Although she enjoyed greater access to the musical public sphere than Mary, even in comparatively progressive London in the late 1960s she too described the discomfort of going out to sessions alone.

Here’s a short film:

* * *

Lucy Farr mentioned sessions with the fiddler Julia Clifford (1914–97: wiki, and here), who also moved to England:

Another musician who moved to England in the 1950s was the Irish traveller Margaret Barry (1917–89), a singer and banjo player. Here’s She moves through the fair:

and the first part of a documentary:

Now I’d like to learn more about early women harpers, singers, and dancers, and the challenges they faced.

Click here for Séamus Ennis playing the uilleann pipes and telling an almost related story.

Mahler swings!

Adagietto 1

Adagietto 2

I yield to no-one in my veneration for Mahler 5, some great renditions of which I’ve provided here—irreverently introduced by a version of the symphony’s opening trumpet solo on rubber chicken…

In distressingly similar vein, I’ve just had a vision of how Mahler might have revised the sublime Adagietto had he lived through to the 1930s (as he should have done) to arrange it as a catchy up-tempo number for a New York swing band, with blaring horn section (led, perhaps, by Buck Clayton) and zany syncopations, largely dispensing with the sentimental appoggiaturas.

So here’s my preliminary draft of the melody on horns, leaving you to fill in the boogie-woogie bass-line, drum-kit, and funky sax harmonies—it works even better with the hushed original opening bar and a half:

Adagietto swing

Actually, Mahler’s choice of key works well for jazz winds, making one suspect that the original was just a preliminary sketch—after all, if you’re writing a slow love song for strings, whoever would plump for F major rather than E major or F♯ major?!

As to tempo, one might regard the two versions of the Adagietto as the opposite of what happened to the music of the Tang court after it was exported to Japan, where it began a long process of retardation.

Resting caseThe big-band arrangement would also suit a turbo-charged Balkan brass band like Fanfare Ciocârlia. I can’t take responsibility for my wayward visions, but I realise WAM purists (bless) may be alarmed. Conversely, composers from Bach to Mahler did often creatively recycle their previous work. Bach has inspired a wealth of jazz and world arrangements; and folk and popular musics were intrinsic elements in Mahler’s sound world (see e.g. under the 4th symphony). I rest my case.

As I observed with reference to the musician’s fantasy of performing Always look on the bright side of life as encore to the Matthew Passion, we come to accept such cognitive dissonance. Or at least I do.

Not merely as an attempt to redeem myself, now we must go back to Mahler’s original version—within the context of the whole glorious symphony. I’m also constantly amazed at the second movement, its turbulent trauma punctuated by the hushed cello recitative.

You can find links to my series on Mahler here—extending to chamber arrangements and Mahler’s own piano rolls. Among many movies that incorporate the Adagietto, do watch Tampopo! And here’s a roundup of my series on jazz. For the “Ming-dynasty bebop” of the Hua family shawm band in China, with A/V and analysis, click here.