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…

Highlights of Federer’s last match, playing doubles with Rafa Nadal:


* 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.

* * *

Click here for Nicolas Robertson’s outstanding Oulipean anagram series. 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; 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!.

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).

Over on Radio 3, Private Passions (benignly hosted by Micahel 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

Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus

Messiaen’s monumental masterpiece Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus

Stephen Jones: a blog

Vingt regards CD cover

Continuing my series onOlivier Messiaen (starting here, with most links), and following last Christmas’s offering of La nativité du Seigneur, I’m finally immersing myself in the monumental Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus—composed in 1944 after Messiaen’s release from POW camp and during the liberation of Paris.

I find Joanna MacGregor’s notes a useful companion, supplementing the evocative images that Messiaen provides in the score with her own insights as a performer—pointing out flashes of boogie-woogie, Tibetan trumpets, calypso, the fluttering of angels’ wings… And regarding the birdsong that constantly decorates Messiaen’s spiritual vision, as MacGregor observes, in their proximity to God, birds can be gentle, sleepy, cheeky, melodic, hilarious, quarrelsome, triumphant. Too bad Messiaen never got to Spread the Word on Twitter Twitter

He composed the cycle for Yvonne Loriod—her complete recording, with score, is here. Among other pianists, Jean-Rodolphe Kars has a particular affinity with

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A great annual ritual: Wimbledon

The great annual ritual of Wimbledon resumes: drama, Correct Behaviour, pundits, and the classic Vitas Gerulaitis story

Stephen Jones: a blog

Centre Court

The annual Wimbledon ritual is well under way again.

Never mind the tennis, the Beebs’s own line-up is impressive enough—Brits like Trusty Tim, always playing with a straight bat [?—Ed.], and the demure Sam Smith, obligatory Funny Foreigners led by generally lovable but sometimes off-message Mac, wise Tracy Austin and Martina Navratilova, with the ever-hot Pat Cash. It’s entertaining to see how the stalwart female commentators maintain patience with the hapless male pundits negotiating the sexist minefield in the wake of the Inverdale–Bartoli fiasco.

Quaintly more antiquated than the other Majors, it’s a benign celebration for the middle classes (including me—I went to school nearby, and sold ice-creams there). Like any ritual, indeed any performance, Wimbledon confirms Correct Behaviour (not least to keep those errant Foreigners in line); and it will mean different things to different people. But it’s a visual treat, despite the retro ritual costumes; and…

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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.

See also e.g. What I can tell you is this…, and Get a proper speech impediment, FFS.

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.

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. 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 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.

Yet another Peak Week for British shame

Three shameful recent incidents in British politics.

Just when we thought Bumbling Boris could stoop no lower in plumbing the darkest depths of crass insensitivity, he goes and compares Ukraine’s heroic resistance to invasion with the freedom-loving spirit of Brexit.

Poroshenko

Most incisive was the riposte from former Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko, fighting for the very survival of his country. As was observed on Twitter, Brexit does indeed have something in common with the invasion of Ukraine—both being funded by Putin.

BoJo

The day that Boris Johnson’s government showed their compassion for people less fortunate.

What’s more, whereas in other countries the warm welcome for Ukrainian refugees is inspiring—

and indeed, ordinary British people have also shown such humanity—by contrast, the UK government (éminence grise Priti Patel) is living up to its reputation, still doing its utmost to put hurdles in the way of refugees.

Nazanin

In these terrible times, the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from six years of captivity was a rare moment of rejoicing. But soon she had the temerity to open her mouth, prompting a deluge of sexist and racist abuse—from both Tory politicians and their hangers-on (analysis here). In response, Marina Hyde wrote trenchantly as ever:

Many people are simply not happy with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s failure to react to her belated release like she’s just won Miss World in 1957. You know the playbook: deeply indebted tears at a flow volume that won’t disrupt the mascara; silence broken only by a pledge to work with children and animals. British children and British animals, just to be on the safe side. […]

And yet, having spent a lot of time at her press conference yesterday thanking a large number of individuals and organisations who played a part in her eventual release, Nazanin did mention the fact it took just the five successive foreign secretaries before something repeatedly promised to her actually happened. […]

isn’t the whole point about liberating someone from the clutches of some backward theocracy that you don’t immediately then go and tell her to know her place?

And this spoof from the splendid Michael Spicer also hits the spot:

I just think… you need to show a little bit of gratitude to the people who let you come over ‘ere.
Back over here. […]
And why does she look so healthy, by the way? Hostages are supposed to be malnourished and upset—she was glowing and articulate. How do you know she wasn’t just sunning herself for six years, having a jolly? I just think you’ve got to do things in a more British way when you come over ‘ere.
Come back over here.

Even Boris felt obliged to defend Nazanin, despite his form with prolonging her incarceration.

Ding without dong

À propos household appliances, I’ve already regaled you with the saga of my ancient fridge. Now, in another of those “hideous encounters with domestic necessity“, my trusty doorbell is on the blink.

It hasn’t worked for months, even when I imaginatively changed the batteries; so in the absence of a sturdy knocker (cf. Horatio E. Brown, Some Venetian knockers), my rare visitors have been reduced to beating vigorously on my door. Now, working diligently with a fine array of tools, my fine neighbourhood handyman has managed to reinstate the ding, but I still find myself without dong. It makes me feel better that it wasn’t just that I put the batteries in the wrong way round.

Examples I’ve heard of the ding-dong (not to be confused with the polemical ding-dong, nor with Dang in Gujarat and Korea—nor indeed with Dingding, Chinese for Tintin, or Doof-doof) all seem to be standardised at the same pitch, concert F♯–D:

Conditioned by long experience, on hearing the ding one’s ears eagerly anticipate the dong. Thus I can’t help hearing the first pitch as a mi, looking forward to a resolution on do (“do, a note to follow mi“—see Solfeggio). If the first note were a single pitch devoid of social history, one could perfectly hear it as a do, or indeed any other pitch degree.

Brahms 4The two-note motif could be any major third, actually: I doubt if anyone hears it as ti–so or la–fa, or even the fifth and third of a minor triad, as at the opening of Brahms 4—but once my second note is restored, I’m going to have a jolly good try to hear it that way. Were I an Inuit hunter (yeah right), the motif would have its own associations (looks around for doorbell on igloo).

* * *

If you’re really at a loose end (and currently for me this serves as a welcome distraction from trying to get to grips with ritual theory, with all its “redemptive hegemony flapdoodle), the doorbell has an interesting history. Or at least a history. As Wiki helpfully explains, it’s

a signalling device typically placed near a door to a building’s entrance. When a visitor presses a button the bell rings inside the building, alerting the occupant to the presence of the visitor.

Thanks for that, wiki (it’s even funnier, with a link defining the word “door”—”a hinged or otherwise movable barrier that allows ingress [entry] into and egress [exit] from an enclosure”). The article goes on:

William Murdoch, a Scottish inventor, installed a number of his own innovations in his house, built in Birmingham in 1817; one of these was a loud doorbell, that worked using a piped system of compressed air. A precursor to the electric doorbell, specifically a bell that could be rung at a distance via an electric wire, was invented by Joseph Henry around 1831. By the early 1900s, electric doorbells had become commonplace.

Bell-pulls

Before electrical doorbells, large houses and estates often had complicated mechanical systems to allow occupants of any room to pull a bell pull and ring a bell at a central bell panel in the staff quarters, to summon a servant.

Note the operative word there (cf. All things bright and beautiful).

Bell pull cartoon

James Gillray, 1804.

Irresistibly evoking the capacious household of the baffling Jacob Tree-Frog, aka The Haunted Pencil or Minister for the 18th century,

bell pulls may be used to summon workers in homes of people who employ butlers, housemaids, nannies, or other domestic workers, [who] and often have a tassel at the bottom.

Owl's bell pull

English readers of a certain age may also associate the bell pull with Eeyore and Owl.

Of course, more artsy sounds have been developed. I’m reminded of Helen Rees’s fine aperçuDoorbells play muzak when pressed”.

Zeng Houyi bells

Indeed, you may recall that I rejoice in the sonorous Chinese surname of Zhong 鐘, “Bell”. Picture a domestic scene in Hubei in the 5th century BCE: whenever someone popped in for a chat with the Marquis Yi of Zeng over a pot of tea and a macaroon, a slave had to notify his master by striking the relevant bell of his immense set of bianzhong with a wooden mallet. Fortunately, of the sixty-four bells, only one is required to create the ding-dong, as each was ingeniously designed to sound two notes a third apart!!!

See also Cowbells: Mahler, Messiaen, and Bill Bailey.

Cultural Revolution jokes

CR jokes cover

While there’s an abundance of collections of satirical stories from around the Soviet bloc (see Hammer and tickle, with further links), I’ve noted the general neglect of the rich seam of subversive Chinese jokes debunking the Maoist decades, and indeed the following reform era. Serving as an outlet to defuse genuine distress, they constitute a major resource for understanding the “sentiments of the people” (minqing 民情).

In a substantial recent post on David Cowhig‘s useful website, he rounds up some fine Chinese sites for modern political jokes—notably this and this. He classifies them under headings such as Gang of Four jokes, dialect jokes, sex jokes, extreme political rituals, and historical revisionism. * Among David’s links are a site for Jiang Zemin and Li Peng stories, with more on the latter here (roughly translated here)—for some choice Li Peng stories on my own blog, click here, here, and here.

Admittedly, some of the stories are for the specialist and are hard to translate effectively, hinging on arcane Chinese puns. This one is worth bringing out when adopting the popular slogan jinburuxi 今不如昔 “things ain’t what they used to be” (as does Li Manshan at the end of my portrait film, from 1.19.20):

One evening the production team held a general meeting, and according to the instructions of the county committee and the commune, the old production-team leader expected the members to severely criticise the reactionary fallacy that “the present [jin] is not as good as the past [xi]”. But all evening no-one spoke up, because everyone felt that the present was indeed not as good as the past, so what was there to criticise? The old team leader had no choice but to prompt everyone: “How can the present be worse than the past? How much does gold [jin] cost a catty? How much does tin [xi] cost a catty?” So commune members came out with their criticism: “What a load of bollocks—of course gold is more expensive than tin!”

生产队晚上召开大会,老队长根据县委和公社的指示,要社员们狠狠批判“今不如昔”的反动谬论。可是开了大半夜,没有一个人发言,因为大家都觉得的确是今不如昔嘛,怎么批判?老队长没有办法,只好启发大家说:“怎么会今不如昔呢!金子多少钱一斤?锡多少钱一斤?”社员们一听,纷纷批判:“真是胡说八道,金子肯定比锡贵嘛!”

This related anecdote also links up with Tian Qing’s wonderful story:

There used to be a famous restaurant called Da Sanyuan in Changdi, Guangzhou. During the Cultural Revolution, it was ordered to change its name to Jin sheng xi 今胜昔 [The Present Beats the Past]. When Hong Kong or overseas compatriots came back to Guangzhou, reading from right to left in the traditional manner, they read the name as “The Past Beats the Present” (昔胜今). So they didn’t know whether they should enter the restaurant.

从前广州市长堤有一间众人皆知的著名酒家 “大三元”,文革中被勒令改名为“今胜昔”。而香港或是海外侨胞回广州时,都按旧时从右到左读法,便把 “今胜昔” 读成 “昔胜今”。搞得他们不知道进去好还是不进去好。

Two stories on blind obedience:

During the Cultural Revolution, there were often mass criticism meetings. One day someone’s father was dragged up on stage and criticised. At the end of the meeting, he was asked to shout slogans to make a clean break with his father and draw a clear line between the two of them. He rushed to the front of the stage and shouted with his arms held high:
“Down with my father! Down with my father!”
At this point the crowd joined in, jumping up and raising their hands, yelling :
Down with my father! Down with my father!

And

The work unit held a meeting to criticise Lin Biao and Confucius. A tenor and a soprano got on stage to lead the audience in chanting slogans:
(leader) “Down with Lin Biao!”
(crowd) “Down with Lin Biao!”
(leader) “Down with Confucius!”
(crowd) “Down with Confucius!”
(leader) “Harshly criticise ourselves and restore propriety!”
(Crowd) “Harshly criticise ourselves and restore propriety!”
After the slogans, there was a brief moment of silence before the leaders spoke. Just then, old Zhang from the communications office rushed out backstage and shouted to the leaders seated on the podium:
“Phone call for Director Wang!”
So the whole crowd followed him by chanting:
“Phone call for Director Wang!”

Just like “Yes! We’re all individuals!” in The life of Brian:


* More generally, in The joys of indexing (a zany read, not least for introducing the Lexicon of musical invective) I outlined some of the main themes among my “Chinese jokes” tag in the sidebar:

Sihanouk

Stories of Prince Sihanouk visiting China, an intriguing sub-genre.

Magic: the ashtray trick

Ashtray
Source.

In the Good Old Days when smoking was compulsory in restaurants, I used to be spellbound by the waiter’s ashtray trick. *

The waiter approaches the table, covers the old ashtray with a clean one (upside-down, to boot), picks them up together, and whisks the old one away while placing the clean one (now the right way up!) on the table with a triumphant flourish.

It may not sound like much, but its trompe-l’oeil was always a mystery that captivated me, a kind of magic. Like sonata form, some might prefer not to analyse its technicalities, and indeed I’ve only just worked it out. I recall admiring it mainly in Greek and Italian restaurants, but it’s clearly part of the urbane waiter’s general repertoire. The smoking ban hasn’t quite rendered it obsolete—now it can serve for an ashtray holding olive stones and pistachio shells [I beg yer pardon?The Plain People of Ireland].

I wonder who invented the trick. For the most artistic result, identical ashtrays are de rigueur, and since the device itself only became popular in the 20th century, it clearly can’t be credited to Socrates or Confucius, for a change. If only someone had documented early experiments; it’d make a great Tommy Cooper routine. I like to think of young trainees placing the new ashtray on top of the old one, picking them both up, and then nonchalantly replacing the old one on the table; or placing the old one upside-down over the new one, which is then put back on the table, still full… **

I imagine a handsomely-funded research project documenting the trick’s gradual diffusion around the world.

Thinking as usual of the Li family Daoists, Wu Mei hasn’t yet worked it into his routine for the afternoon of funerals (my film, from 42.52). Nor does it appear to have been in the skill-set of Julie Walters:

See also The wonders of juggling; and for more waiter jokes, click here and here.


* For punctuation nerds, Wiki helpfully tells us that the one-word unhyphenated form “ashtray”, rather than “ash tray” or “ash-tray”, didn’t come into common use until 1926.

** My fantasy here must be inspired by Woody Allen’s early “Yes, but can the steam engine do this?” (The New Yorker, 1966; included in Getting even, 1971). Some highlights:

It was just another item in one of those boiler-plate specials with a title like “Historagrams” or “Betcha Didn’t Know,” but its magnitude shook me with the power of the opening strains of Beethoven’s Ninth. “The sandwich,” it read, “was invented by the Earl of Sandwich.” Stunned by the news, I read it again and broke into an involuntary tremble. My mind whirled as it began to conjure with the immense dreams, the hopes and obstacles, that must have gone into the invention of the first sandwich. My eyes became moist as I looked out the window at the shimmering towers of the city, and I experienced a sense of eternity, marvelling at man’s ineradicable place in the universe. Man the inventor! Da Vinci’s notebooks loomed before me—brave blueprints for the highest aspirations of the human race. I thought of Aristotle, Dante, Shakespeare. The First Folio. Newton. Handel’s Messiah. Monet. Impressionism. Edison. Cubism. Stravinsky. E=mc²…

1741: His first completed work—a slice of bread, a slice of bread on top of that, and a slice of turkey on top of both—fails miserably. Bitterly disappointed, he returns to his studio and begins again.

1745: After four years of frenzied labor, he is convinced he is on the threshold of success. He exhibits before his peers two slices of turkey with a slice of bread in the middle. His work is rejected by all but David Hume, who senses the imminence of something great and encourages him. Heartened by the philosopher’s friendship, he returns to work with renewed vigor.

1750: In the spring, he exhibits and demonstrates three consecutive slices of ham stacked on one another; this arouses some interest, mostly in intellectual circles, but the general public remains unmoved. Three slices of bread on top of one another add to his reputation, and while a mature style is not yet evident, he is sent for by Voltaire.

Wacky headlines: a roundup

Bake Off

With the headlines tag in the sidebar already so voluminous, here’s a handy roundup of some of my favourite posts there. After we’ve digested Kate Fox’s insights on headline punning, I propose

cliché

From the Mystic East:

Boris

Others from my own “pen”:

Irreverently,

There are also hours of harmless fun in the “crash blossoms” archive of languagelog.

And I can now offer a recent headline from the Istanbul Bugle, of which I am proprietor and sole contributor—describing the confusion of the Orthodox priest responsible for throwing the Epiphany cross into the Bosphorus, yet unable to locate the incense for the thurifer:

Cross Toss Boss Joss Loss

A stammering Byzantine Iconoclast

Left, cell where Methodios was imprisoned; right, Michael the Stammerer.

In classic guide-book lingo,

No visit to [Istanbul] is complete without a visit to [the Princes’ Islands].”

So we took a pleasant boat trip to the Islands (Adalar, as they’re called with casual familiarity) in the Sea of Marmara just south, long home to Greek and Jewish communities. The jaunt introduced me to the Byzantine (and byzantine) story of Michael II (770–829), who rose through the military ranks to become emperor, continuing the Iconoclastic movement. It was in a dingy dungeon on the island of Burgazada (Antigoni) that he imprisoned St Methodios. As described by Edwin Grosvenor,

In 821 Michael the Stammerer became emperor. Having attained the throne by assassination and violence, he was naturally fitted for the role of bigot and persecutor. With fanatic ingenuity he devised new tortures for the adherents of the icons. Methodios was recognised as their most learned leader. The emperor ordered that he should be struck gently seven hundred times with a whip. The prolongation of the punishment was the refinement of its cruelty. Then, unconscious and apparently lifeless, Methodios was thrown, together with two murderers, into a deep pit at Antigoni. Bread and water were let down daily through an opening above. When one of the murderers died, his decomposing body was left in the pit to render the horrid pit still more revolting. Meanwhile Methodios worked day and night to convert the survivor. Michael died after an eight years’ evil reign, and his son Theophilus succeeded, as iconoclastic but less inhuman.

Methodios was eventually released under Theophilus, but was publicly scourged and imprisoned again before becoming the emperor’s inseparable companion.

Antigoni

The island of Antigoni (Burgazada).

Anyway, although it’s good to know that Michael’s im-p-pediment didn’t im-p-pede his career, he transpires not to be a great role model—it just goes to show that not all stammerers are reticent and benign… But at least I can now add him to my list of famous stammerers from Moses to Marilyn Monroe, and from Deng Ai to Gu Jiegang.

My Turkish vocabulary has hitherto been limited largely to the word inziva “recluse”, some obsolete Ottoman musical instruments, and terms for segments of the Bektashi–Alevi cem ritual, none of which get me very far when I’m trying to ask for a tube of toothpaste. But it has increased with the pleasingly onomatopoeic kekelemek, “stammer”—opening with a fiendish double plosive. For some more staggeringly inappropriate vocabulary, see Language learning: a roundup, notably That is the snake that bit my foot. Cf. Pontius Pilate, and the mad jailers.

Jesus of Benfica: a cautionary tale

*Guest post by Nicolas Robertson
—author of the magnificent series of anagram tales, no less*

Jorge Fernando Pinheiro de Jesus (which could translate as Jesus’s Christmas tree)—naturally known as Jesus, or, to distinguish him, as Jorge Jesus. Born 24th July 1954; prolific Portuguese midfield football player, and subsequently manager, much-remarked-upon hairstyle. Seventeen years as a professional player from 1973 to 1990, when he switched to a managerial career, so at 36 years old (three years later than his homonym).

His teaching life has lasted as long again, but has not been without turmoil. I first became aware of him during good days in his first stay at Benfica (2009–2015), headlines such as “Jesus is very content with his eleven”. One appreciated his constructive use of language: “For me, a manager has no past nor future, he only has past”, “What was Benfica before me?”, “The manager has to see things that no one else sees”.

Jesus 1

Which leads me to an unlikely but striking encounter with the painter Paula Rego at an exhibition of hers in Cascais in 2014, which he later described: “A manager is like a painter. […] Paula Rego said to me there was a figure called Maria and she is crying, and I thought, oh, is she crying? I can’t see anything—but she knew she was crying. It’s like the manager.”

Having passed through Sporting (2015­–18), Al-Hillal (Saudi Arabia, 2018–19) and Flamengo, Brazil (2019–20), where he managed an astounding series of successes, Jesus found himself irresistibly called back to Benfica (a name which sort of means “May it be well”), with dreams of renewed glory. “We’re not going to play for the double, we’ll play for the triple… and we’ll crush them” [vamos arrasar], though he was careful enough to admit “I don’t know what tomorrow will be”.

Jesus 2Jesus in upbeat mood at crucifixion rehearsal.

Things didn’t go too well, on the Second Coming, Covid took its toll (not easy to see how he was more prejudiced than the others, but he suffered: “One day you can think of eleven and the next you’re without three players”. And more went wrong, results weren’t coming, there was disquiet in the plantel. Since Herod (Luis Filipe Vieira, the boss, who’d been to fetch him, the Messiah, from Brazil in his private jet) had just been put away for massive corruption, Rui Costa (choose your own avatar), the stand-in and subsequently elected president—himself a hero as a player—wanted to make his own mark…

Some headlines from this final playout:

Rui accused of not defending Jesus

Soap opera of Jesus creates bad feeling

J. Jesus ever more alone in the Light [Luz, Benfica stadium]

Because here’s the rub: some Wise Men (top brass from Flamengo in Brazil) had come from the East (if you go the other way round) in search of Jesus again—but found him unavailable, or at least hesitant (he was in mid-contract, after all). And they didn’t wait for an answer, but went off to Poland, and behold, they found Paulo Sousa, manager of the Polish national team; he too was under contract, but hey! it’s only money to get out of it…

More headlines:

Sousa contratado, Jesus amuado [pissed off]

Jesus desolado com Flamengo

And then Jesus was sacked anyway—or rather, both sides agreed it would be best for him to leave: “I came thinking I was a solution and not a problem”… Classic “despised and rejected” (even worse, having been eagerly sought)—but being football, and not life, there’ll be a sequel. Meanwhile Jesus has been seen—and photographed, of course—walking his dogs on the beach in Troia, a wonderfully-named peninsular south of Lisbon, no one else in sight. He’s been offered, or his name linked with, several comebacks in various countries, but no doubt he’s being cautious.

So the Second Coming of Jesus to Benfica ended sadly. I was reminded of a story by Borges, Ragnarök. The parallels are not strict, but what if the gods come back and we don’t like them, they’ve lost touch from being too long away, we can’t even understand what they say (Borges), what if (Christian eschatology) He comes back, and it doesn’t work, doesn’t apply, it’s a flop? If I were a god, I wouldn’t risk it. Too late for that lesson, J. Jesus…

(Jesus’s technical assistant, a sort of Peter, is carrying on pro tem. His results so far are more or less like those of Jesus. His name is Nelson Veríssimo (“absolutely true”). He looks like a decent bloke.)

 


SJ: This is a sequel to my post on Jesus jokes. For the Three Wise Men, see here (The life of Brian)—and, more seriously, here. Just as essential reading as Nick’s anagram tales is the ouevre of Patricia Lockwood, also rejoicing in language and the ambivalence of the Christian Message. Click here for a roundup of wacky headlines, and here for more sporting drôlerie.

Barry Cryer

Cryer

The much-loved Barry Cryer, who has died at the age of 86, was a mainstay of the British comedy scene (Guardian tributes here and here; from Mark Lawson, and the splendid Jack Dee).

Best known for his appearances since 1972 on BBC Radio 4’s I’m sorry I haven’t a clue, he provided endless gags for a range of comics from Morecambe and Wise and Les Dawson to Kenny Everett and Rory Bremner, working fruitfully with Ronnie Corbett and Graham Chapman.

One of his own favourite jokes:

A man drives down a country lane and runs over a cockerel. He knocks at a nearby farmhouse door and a woman answers.

“I appear to have killed your cockerel”, he says. “I’d like to replace it.” The woman replies: “Please yourself—the hens are round the back.”

Here’s an audio playlist:

For more giggle merchants, see e.g. Tommy Cooper, Steven Wright, Sean Hughes. For more challenging routines, try Lenny Bruce, and Stewart Lee has his very own tag.

A historic recording

1860

The oldest recording of the human voice is thought to be a phonautogram of the French folk-song Au clair de la lune, captured by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville on 9th April 1860 (see here; not to be confused with the 1913 recording of Debussy’s piano piece).

Having introduced it on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the mellifluous Charlotte Green‘s normally exemplary gravitas was sorely challenged as she heard her colleague Jim Naughtie describing it sotto voce as sounding “like a jar of bees”—one of the great moments on radio:

Corpsing is always wonderful.

Now please can we hear Ms Green’s demure delivery of the words “like a sex machine” while announcing the demise of James Brown?

Unlikely bedfellows

Dipping into the recent edition of the LRB, I described Alan Bennett and Patricia Lockwood as unlikely bedfellows. It’s a term that I’ve also used for

And it occurs to me with Norman Wisdom, Mother Teresa, and polyphony in Albania, as well as Anna Mahler and Groucho Marx

More naturally, one associates Brian with Stewie, and Li Manshan with Andy Capp.

A delightful LRB double act

The 1,001st edition of the LRB features both Patricia Lockwood and Alan Bennett, unlikely but irresistible bedfellows.

I’ve vainly tried to encapsulate the literary genius of Patricia Lockwood here. Her review ponders Karl Ove Knausgaard’s latest weighty tome with typical perception and humour.

I might have met him once. In September 2015 I flew to Norway for a literary festival. Knausgaard was the headliner, but he cancelled at the last minute and was replaced by an Elvis impersonator. […] I went to see his act on opening night: the narrative temptation was too great, and I’m only human. […] At one point he stood and did the hip thing, lit from behind like Christ. I laughed in another language. It was as good as Knausgaard. It was better.

She reflects:

When people dislike Knausgaard’s books, there is often a sense of personal insult, as if they were watching him sit down across from them, tuck a napkin into his collar and make a long meal of their time. But as the worst book of the Bible, Leviticus, tells us: “All fat is the Lord’s”. All your time will be eaten by someone—why not him, who has made such a huge crazy claim on it?

She goes on with a classic one-liner:

Karl Ove Knausgaard was born—just kidding.

She has a wonderful ability to empathise with authors while remaining critical:

Hyperattunement makes you either a weird limp bed-angel, like Proust, or a tense too-ready animal.

Her final paragraph is so wonderful that you’ll just have to seek it out for yourselves. In a crowded critical field that can be summarised as “Knausgaard—WTF?”, Lockwood’s review officially relieves us of the responsibility to plough through his ponderous ouevre. It’s just as brilliant as her other reviews, some of which I’ve listed in my post.

* * *

In a different register, it’s always delightful to read Alan Bennett’s diaries too. A few highlights:

28 March, Palm Sunday. Remember this a propos a joke of Jonathan Miller’s, who, seeing a woman coming back from church holding a cross made of reeds said that it was literally the last straw.

15 April. [Recalling supper with Miller and Philip Roth in the 60s] Talking to Jonathan beforehand, I had made a poor joke about Portnoy’s Complaint being The Gripes of Roth. I’m sure I wasn’t the first to pick up on this, but it was new to Jonathan, so when Roth arrived he insisted on telling it to its subject. Maybe he even insisted on me repeating it myself. I’ve no memory of Roth’s response—unamused, I would have thought—but remember my own embarrassment, as fresh now with Roth dead as it was fifty years ago.

9 September. [Watching the last of David Olusoga’s TV series, he recalls wartime air raids] … But compared with the bombing of Sheffield, say, or Hull, Leeds got off lightly. “The city specialised in the manufacture of ready-made suits and the cultivation of rhubarb, and though the war aims of the German High Command were notoriously quixotic I imagine a line had to be drawn somewhere” (Writing Home).

10 December. [recalling an ungrateful editor at the LRB] Miss Shepherd never said thank you, and nor did the LRB, though it smelled better.

Numerous further aperçus from AB under this tag.

Doof doof

Doof Doof

I was tickled by a recent headline in OK! magazine:

OK

There’s the ultimate DOOF DOOF:

What if EastEnders isn’t real?? Like, if they’re all… acting??

Confession: I’ve never been able to interpret the doof doofs. How do we hear the rhythm—how would you beat time to it? Or is it a free-tempo prelude? I guess most EastEnders fans don’t talk in such fancy terms, so such online talk as I’ve seen is limited to a fatuous debate over how many doof doofs there are (nine, obvs), irrespective of rhythm. More to the point, can people keep a regular beat to it?

We have an Urtext of Simon May’s melody from 1985. The synth drums were added to the opening in 1994, in a version that remained in use until 2009, when he rescored the theme tune to include a stronger drum beat and additional percussion. But I haven’t seen a score for the doof doofs. Because one’s ears (rightly) want it to be a 4/4 bar, like the following melody, somehow I’ve always heard the first three drumbeats as a triplet:

Doof triplets

That’s close—but a more accurate rendition, as I am reliably informed by a talented drummer, is

Doof

That opening syncopation, even before a tempo has been established, must confuse other listeners besides me. Still, EastEnders addicts evidently take it in their stride, like Aretha fans with the triple-time insert in the chorus of I say a little prayer, or Turkish dancers with aksak limping metre—or, now I come to think of it, music lovers everywhere…

The opening of Beethoven 5 may sound to the casual listener like a triplet upbeat—as PDQ Bach observes in his illuminating commentary, “I don’t know if it’s slow or fast, cos it keeps stopping, folks… doesn’t seem to be able to get off the ground” (NB also Creative tribulations).

A comparison that springs to mind (OK, my mind) is the luopu motif that opens and closes the hymns of the Li family Daoists (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.280; examples in our film, e.g. 1.01.56). In this post the motif is mainly a pretext to tell a story about the singularly unimaginative opening of the Beethoven violin concerto on timpani—which would be much enlivened by replacing it with the Doof Doof.

Most rhythmically satisfying of all is the Pearl and Dean theme tune!

Roundup for 2021!

Emma Leylah

As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.

Some essential posts:

I’m going to emulate Stella Gibbons and award *** to some other *MUST READ!* posts too…

China: on the Li family Daoists, recent and older posts are collected in

and it’s always worth reminding you to watch our film

Elsewhere,

Tributes to three great sinologists:

The beleaguered cultures of the

  • Uyghurs (posts collected here) and
  • Tibetans (posts collected here), including

I’ve begun a growing series on Turkey (with a new tag for west/Central Asia):

Among this year’s additions to the jazz, pop, punk tags are

WAM:

Bach (added to the roundup A Bach retrospective):

as well as

On “world music” and anthropology:

On gender (category here, with basic subheads):

Germany:

Italy:

Britain (see also The English, home and abroad), and the USA:

More on stammering:

On a lighter note:

Even just for this last year, I realise there’s a lot to read there, but do click away on all the links! And I can’t resist reminding you of some of my earlier favourites, notably

Ma Yuan

Requiem for a fridge

my fridge

I’ve just said a fond farewell to my trusty Little Fridge, bequeathed to me by my parents in the late 1970s after they themselves had used it for many years. Having had a Jolly Good Innings, it now perhaps belongs in a museum, but I imagine it winging its way to the Paradise of Kitchen Appliances in the Sky, angelically White and Good.

Yakhchal

Yakhchāl of Abarkuh, Iran
—great when you’re mixing caipirinhas, but not so handy for the modern kitchen.

Ice houses were built in Mesopotamia by 1780 BCE, and in China by the 7th century BCE; Persian engineers were building yakhchāls in the desert to capture and store ice by 400 BCE. As often, Europe lagged far behind (see also the wiki article on Refrigerator).

Of course there are older fridges than mine that are still working—like the one from 1949 praised here. But without getting all sentimental or luddite about this Benighted Age of Disposability of ours, it’s satisfying that it’s been able to cater for my modest needs all these years.

Since ordering household appliances is not something associated with someone of my temperament, I am reminded of Alan Bennett’s remarks, as well as Henry James’s “hideous encounters with domestic necessity“. For more household trivia, click here; and on my occasional forays to the kitchen, here. And for less mundane Requiems, see e.g. Mozart and Buxtehude.

Lexicon of musical invective

Slonimsky

You really must read Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of musical invective! An anthology of critical assaults on composers since Beethoven’s time, it cites a wealth of “biased, unfair, ill-tempered, and singularly unprophetic judgements”. *

Having mentioned the book’s magnificent “Invecticon” in The joys of indexing, in various posts I gave quotations from scathing early reviews that Slonimsky cites:

Invecticon

(As the glosses by a Chinese friend suggest, a wacky challenge for language learning…)

* * *

In his thoughtful prelude, “Non-acceptance of the unfamiliar”, Slonimsky reflects on critical incomprehension, under various rubrics such as racism, lack of melody, and noise.

In the minds of righteous reactionaries, musical modernism is often associated with criminality and moral turpitude.

As he observes,

A fairly accurate timetable could be drawn for the assimilation of unfamiliar music by the public and the critics. It takes approximately twenty years to make an artistic curiosity out of a modernistic monstrosity; and another twenty years to elevate it to a masterpiece. Not every musical monstrosity is a potential musical masterpiece, but its chances of becoming one are measurably better than those of a respectable composition of mediocre quality.

He cites George Bernard Shaw, writing in 1910:

It is not easy for a musician of today to confess that he once found Wagner’s music formless, melodyless, and abominably discordant; but that many musicians, now living, did so is beyond all question. […] The technical history of modern harmony is a history of growth of toleration by the human ear of chords that at first sounded discordant and senseless to the main body of contemporary professional musicians.

* * *

Slonimsky suggests parallels with critical reactions to other modernist trends, including painting, women’s suffrage, and science. Another well-covered topic that he also addresses is outrage at the rise of jazz. As early as 1899 the Musical courier exclaimed:

A wave of vulgar, filthy, and suggestive music has inundated the land. Nothing but ragtime prevails, and the cake-walk with its obscene posturings, its lewd gestures. […] Our children, our young men and women, are continually exposed to the contiguity, to the monstrous attrition of this vulgarising music. It is artistically and morally depressing, and should be suppressed by press and pulpit.

He cites the Most Reverend Francis J. L. Beckman’s address to the National Council of Catholic Women in 1938, in line with Nazi assaults on “degenerate music”:

Jam sessions, jitterbugs, and cannibalistic rhythmic orgies are wooing our youth along the primrose path to Hell!

Back in 1805, the waltz attracted similar opprobrium:

Waltz is a riotous German dance of modern invention. Having seen it performed by a select party of foreigners, we could not help reflecting how uneasy an English mother would be to see her daughter so familiarly treated, and still more to witness the obliging manner in which the freedom is returned by the females.


* Slonimsky acknowledges an 1877 antecedent in Wilhelm Tappert’s generously-titled Ein Wagner-Lexicon, Wörterbuch der Unhöflichkeit, enthaltend grobe, höhnende, gehässige und verleumderische Ausdrücke welche gegen den Meister Richard Wagner, seine Werke und seine Anhänger von den Feinden und Spöttern gebraucht worden sind, zur Gemütsergötzung in müssigen Stunden gesammelt.

Cf. Some German mouthfuls, and A justly neglected composer.

Veiny, weedy, wiki

Li He poem

South Fujian is all the rage. In a recent post on Language Log the illustrious Victor Mair, querying the dominance of Modern Standard Mandarin, gives two Tang poems in Southern Min (Hokkien) pronunciation, also common in Taiwan. *

As if the vibrant expressive culture of south Fujian weren’t enough! People from the north of the province must be disgruntled—like those from north Jiangsu, or indeed north England.

A comment on Victor’s article suggests an analogy between the Chinese topolects and the diverse evolution of Latin pronunciation around Europe.

By the Middle Ages no one tried to pronounce it the way it had been pronounced in the days of Julius Caesar and likewise no one worried too much that it was pronounced differently elsewhere in Europe. Then came the 20th century and, for the first time ever, schoolchildren were taught to pronounce Latin in a conjectural reconstruction of “proper” ancient pronunciation rather than whatever living evolved topolectal tradition had been handed down to them.

Note further comments under the post. In particular, a substantial wiki article details changing fashions in the English pronunciation of Latin.

* * *

For all its flaws, Wikipedia has become established as a useful reference point; after all, weighty earlier encyclopedias are far from perfect, and wiki can be constantly updated. It even polices itself, as in articles like these:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reliability_of_Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_and_fact-checking
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ideological_bias_on_Wikipedia

As Caesar himself observed prophetically (already toying with various styles of pronunciation), online encyclopedias can be textured yet ineffectual:

Veiny, weedy, wiki

For punctuation nerds, the wiki entry on the pithy dictum even notes the comma splice or asyndeton.
Cf. the Gandhi song from Mary Poppins, and Ate, in terror, Paxo minibus. See also Peter Cook’s Miner sketch (“I might have been a judge… but I never had The Latin”), under Myles: a glowing paean—along with

Noli me quidere?
Tang

and

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Mulieres eorum.


* A handy nearby rabbit-warren for some intrepid readers to disappear down is the reconstruction of early Sinitic—again, see Victor Mair (e.g. here) and wiki.

Wonderful world

Yet another entry in my series on Interviews:

Don’t know much about history,
Don’t know much biology.
Don’t know much about a science book,
Don’t know much about the French I took…

—Thank you very much Mr Cooke, now perhaps we might focus on your particular areas of expertise…

Don’t know much about geography,
Don’t know much trigonometry.
Don’t know much about algebra,
Don’t know what a slide rule is for…

—Well Mr Cooke, I must say you’re very modest—such a disarming interview technique! We quite appreciate that you “don’t wanna get into specifics“. Indeed, I know I can speak on behalf of the board in saying that you seem ideally qualified to assume the post of Dean at the Donald J. Trump Academy of Arts and Sciences.

This video montage takes the idea further:

I’m most taken by the languid, dreamy cover of Sandy Lam 林憶蓮, with the subtle eastern flavour of its harmonies underpinning the pentatonic melody—and she adds a telling further verse:

Don’t know much about the Middle Ages
Look at the pictures and I turn the pages
Don’t know nothing about no Rise and Fall
Don’t know nothing about nothing at all…

which surely clinches the deal.

Cf. Replies from the Complaints Department.

A mélange of playlists

Still delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, by now I’ve compiled several playlists for diverse genres, mostly containing listening guides with Society and soundscape in mind:

Playlist

  • Chinese folk music (in the sidebar, scrolling down below the image gallery—with commentary here) including the Li family Daoists, the Gaoluo ritual association, searing shawm bands, and numinous recordings from the Zhihua temple (1953) and Xi’an (1961)
  • An eclectic Playlist of songs, with Billie Holiday, fado, Bach, Amy Winehouse, Purcell, Michel Legrand, Mahler, Nina Hagen, Ravel, Aretha Franklin, Barbara Hannigan, and more
  • Links to a varied selection of north Indian ragas, including “diatonic” (Yaman), “minor” (Kafi Zila), pentatonic (Malkauns), with augmented intervals (Bhairav), the beguiling Marwa (“A major over a C drone”)…

  • A series on the great Beatles albums, with the aid of Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack
  • Feminist songs, including You don’t own me and I will survive
  • see also Punk: a roundup

There must be well over a hundred posts there for you to relish—do click away on all the links!

Thankyou Driver!

Bus 1962

“Male bus driver and female conductor chatting by their bus;
both are recent recruits from the Caribbean”.
Photo: Henry Grant, 1962.

When passengers get off the bus (or “alight”, as the quaint officialese term has it), I’m surprised how often I hear them calling out “Thankyou Driver!”.

To their less confident, silent fellow-passengers the parting salutation, flaunting a sense of etiquette, may seem like a rebuke. One might suppose it to be one of those hallowed customs trumpeted by the Brexit brigade, like queueing, child chimney-sweeps, and bendy bananas; but it’s only since the 1980s, when drivers had to fend for themselves without a conductor, that it has become possible to thank them audibly.

Little did I know that it has become a common topic of debate, with its own meme. A 2018 Guardian article on the topic prompted 1,380 comments! Like Life, It’s Complicated, with no simple divide between the courteous and the callous.

It seems fair enough when one leaves by the door where the driver sits (cf. the ticket-collector in Alan Bennett’s Sermon). When boomed from the distance of the middle door, more timid souls may find it unseemly—almost virtue signalling, drawing attention to oneself as a pillar of the community. *

It’s also regional. Popular in Scotland and north England, it’s common in Australia too; the article has some comments on bus protocol elsewhere, such as in Germany, Spain, and Russia. One BTL comment noted:

I used to thank bus drivers when I lived in a city where that was a thing people did. For now, I live in a city that mercifully rejects small talk and the forced emotional labor of giving and accepting thanks (New York)—so I no longer do.

It’s not just used by Little Old Ladies, though from my limited sampling in London it does tend to be more of a Woman Thing (statistics, please—“broken down by age and sex”, like Keith Richards). I can’t find the source of the poll showing that 82% of people (“more than 15,300”) thanked the driver, but I’m incredulous.

Don’t Get Me Wrong, I’m all for a bit of personal contact. Maybe it’s the physical distance between them: while the greeter’s boldness impresses me, somehow the use of “Driver” makes it less personal, drawing attention to the grubby contractual relationship. Of course one thanks people face to face, people with whom one has had a certain amount of contact—like a taxi driver, or a doctor. But in other routine exchanges with public (or private) servants, one doesn’t say “Thankyou, Handyman” or “Thankyou, Hedge-fund Manager”.

It seems a bit patrician to me, like a greeting to Staff—the kind of patronising remark that Jacob Tree-Frog ** makes to one of his chauffeurs on the successful completion of a charabanc outing, rather as he dismisses one of his butlers or scullery maids from his August Presence.

In the event that the passenger actually knows the driver (“Thankyou, Bob”) then it’s fair enough. To me it suggests that the driver had made a special diversion to deliver them safe and sound right to their front door, and is going to hop out and take the shopping in for them too.


* Rather like clapping the NHS, which nurses and doctors came to see as a “hollow gesture” compared with, like, supporting fair pay or even following public health guidance—see also here.

** In the latest instalment in JRM’s mission to remind us that he is a fatuous, dangerous lunatic, he explains why Tory MPs don’t need to wear face masks in the Chamber:

“We on this side know each other” and have a “convivial fraternal spirit.”

WTAF???

Dang: Gujarat and Korea

Stewart Lee’s recent playlist for Songlines is just as wacky as one would expect. Although I have to mark him down a bit for going down the hackneyed route of Ali Farka Touré and Ry Cooder, he roams the clouds from Shirley Collins and Laura Cannell to Ethiopian jazz. Like Moriarty pursuing Holmes to Tibet, just when I thought I was catching up on jazz behind the Iron Curtain, he’s outwitted me again—Dang!

[And I like to think that “Stew” himself might interject:]

Funnily enough, Dang is a region of Gujarat famed for its dance. These dancers are accompanied by rousing shawms:

which are also heard here:

Pawari dance

And beat this for a wind instrument—the pawari (cf. pāva and satārā):

Here’s a Dang pas-de-deux:

And in ensemble:

All this is remote from the ethereal world of north Indian raga.

* * *

The music of Dang is not to be confused with Dangak, which is the Korean equivalent of Japanese Tōgaku [Oh, right you are—the Plain People of Ireland]. Both genres are obscurely derived from the music of the Chinese Tang court, and both are largely marginally preserved today through museumification—far from the lively Gujarati folk scene. BTW, the population of Gujarat is larger than that of (South) Korea!

Thankfully (did I say that?), only two pieces survive, Nagyangch’un (Chinese: Luoyang chun 洛陽春, a title not in the Tang Chinese repertoire, FWIW):

and Pohŏja, which is the Chinese Buxu 步虛, Pacing the Void:

The hyangak repertoire is native to Korea; here’s Sujecheon:

and P’yojŏngmanbangjigok:

These genres in turn are not to be confused with a-ak, the Korean version of the Confucian yayue 雅樂:

Turning to ritual in living society, mudang shamans are active, as in this ritual filmed in Seoul:

And we might even consider the tang-ki 童乩 self-mortifying spirit mediums among the Hokkien in southeast China (Ken Dean) and Taiwan (David Jordan). For links to posts on Chinese mediums, see here.

* * *

Anyway, all that was meant just as a little preliminary aside—sorry, got carried away (What am I like?! LOL). Throwing pursuers off the scent, what I’m trying to get round to is Stewart Lee’s choice of Ethiopian jazz. But to cite the Plain People of Ireland again, here’s me bus, so I guess that’ll have to wait for another time [Later: here’s the post]… Dang.

With thanks to Simon Mills

The gig

James Reese Europe. Source: wiki.

Long before the “gig economy”, the term gig was widely used in circles such as jazz and WAM. I’m fond of the story about the late lamented Linda Smith chatting with her mum.

The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians gives a succinct, dry definition:

a term commonly applied to a musical engagement of one night’s duration only; to undertake such an engagement.

Wiki elaborates:

Gig is slang for a live musical performance, recording session, or other (usually paid) engagement of a musician or ensemble. Originally coined in the 1920s by jazz musicians, the term, short for the word “engagement” [?], now refers to any aspect of performing such as assisting with performance and attending musical performance. More broadly, the term “gigging” means having paid work, being employed.

More detailed is this discussion on stackexchange, referring to the Word detective site.

I associate the term particularly with freelancers. A Messiah in Scunthorpe for a jolly good tea is a gig of sorts, but so is a Matthew Passion at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. I wonder when WAM musos, ever keen to deflect pomposity (cf. Viola jokes and maestro-baiting), began using the term.

But (apud Word detective)

Every job is a “gig” today.  Calling your job a “gig” is a way of saying “I’m not really emotionally invested in my job, which I find boring and soulless, and I’m only doing it so I can act/write novels/play jazz saxophone on the weekends”.  And it’s not just laconic “baristas” at Starbucks.  I’ve heard corporate lawyers describe their positions as “gigs”.

Commonly cited is a 1926 Melody maker article, whose byline reads, “One Popular Gig Band Makes Use of a Nicely Printed Booklet”. But The jazz lexicon goes further:

According to jazzman Eubie Blake, bandleader James Reese Europe used the term in its jazz sense as early as c1905; widely current since c1920.

While the use of the term in the jazz world since the early 20th century is widely attested, there are many interesting suggestions about its earlier usage, which remain controversial. The Oxford English dictionary suggests (*Sexism watch!*):

The meaning of the term “gig” is transferred from the deprecatory term for a “flighty girl” and subsequently indicates anything which whirls, or is dangerous or unpredictable.

Word detective has more, alas without giving a source:

The first incarnation of “gig,” around 1225 [?!], was to mean “a flighty, giddy girl,” although this sense may well have been based on an earlier sense of “gig” meaning “something that spins or whirls” (as later found in “whirligig”).  The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that “gig” may be onomatopoeic or “imitative” in origin, meaning that the word itself was meant to suggest something small that whirls.  This sense of “gig” later came to also mean “an odd person, a fool” as well as “a joke” or “a state of boisterous merriment and fun” (“in high gig”).

This sense leads to an etymology from “giggle”, having some fun.

Source: wiki.

By the late 18th century, gig commonly referred to a light, one-horse carriage, popular in New Orleans; by extension,

The thought is that black musicians, in order to avoid being arrested for playing on the street, would instead play jazz on the back of carriages or trucks.

I’m most attracted to two possible musical derivations from gigue (jig), or geiger fiddle. GIG has also been claimed as an acronym: God Is Good, or Get It Going.

Stackexchange thickens the plot bewilderingly by citing the Dictionary of American slang (1960):

gig n1 A child’s pacifier or any object, as a cloth square, spoon, or the like, used as a toy; any object to which a small child is attached and with which he likes to play; any object treated by a child as a fetish; a gigi or ju-ju. Orig. Negro slave and Southern use. From “gigi,” the word is very well known to about 35% of the population, unheard of by the rest. 2 [sometimes taboo] The rectum. From “gigi.” Used euphem. by some children, as part of their bathroom vocabulary, but not common to all children. Used by some male adults [taboo] as a euphem. for “ass” in such expressions as “up your gig.” 3 [taboo] The vagina. From “gigi.” Not common. Prob. Southern use. 4 A party, a good time; esp. an uninhibited party; occasionally but not often, an amorous session, necking party, or even a sexual orgy between a man and a woman. c1915 [1954]: “Cornet players used to pawn their instruments when there was a lull in funerals, parades, dances, gigs and picnics.” L. Armstrong, Satchmo, My Life in New Orleans, 100. 1958: “Life is a Many Splendored Gig,” a song title. 5 A jam session ; a jazz party or gathering of jazz musicians or enthusiasts. Orig. swing use. 1920 [1954]: “Kid Ory had some of the finest gigs, especially for the rich white folk.” L. Armstrong, Satchmo, My Life in New Orleans, 141. 6 Specif., an engagement or job for a jazz musician or musicians, esp. for a one-night engagement. 1950: “If I ask you to go out on a gig, it’s thirty-five or forty dollars for that night.” A. Lomax, Mr. Jelly Roll, 204. 1954: “On a gig, or one night stand.” L. Armstrong, Satchmo, My Life in New Orleans, 221. 7 Something, as a jazz arrangement, that is satisfying or seems perfect. Orig. swing use. 8 A fishing spear; a pronged fork as used for catching fish, frogs, and the like. 1946: [citation omitted]. 9 An unfavorable report; a demerit; a reprimand. Army and some student use since c1940. The relations, if, any, between a child’s pacifier or fetish, the rectum and vagina, a party, a sex orgy, jazz music, a pronged fork, and a reprimand are most interesting, and lie in the field of psychology rather than of etymology.

Limits to my versatility

wheat

Possibly confused by the broad range of topics that I rashly attempt to cover (China, punk, ritual, Mahler, gender, Bach, and so on—see e.g. my roundup for 2021), Academia.edu just emailed me to ask, somewhat hysterically,

Are you the Stephen Jones who wrote “Evaluation of winter wheat breeding lines for traits related to nitrogen use under organic management”?

Now, just when you thought there were no limits to my versatility (as in “Is there no beginning to your talents?“), I may have fingers in many pies, but that’s not one of them. Nor, alas, have I ventured into millinery or playing guitar with the Sex Pistols. And it’s fair to say that these career paths will remain safe from me. The closest I get to evaluating wheat is slurping noodles with Li Manshan.

And now they’re asking me if I am the author of “Mutant mice that display early ageing-associated phenotypes”. Where will it all end, I wonder.

For some other articles I haven’t really written, click here; for fictitious early signs of versatility, here; and for variations on “You think I know Fuck Nothing, but I know FUCK ALL!”, here. The enquiry also reminds me of a question for Alan Bennett after a lecture he gave at Oxford on Richard II: “Could you tell me where you bought your shoes?”.

Rāg Vindaloo

With apologies to my esteemed mentors…

swanee kazoo

Jugalbandi duet, rāg Vindaloo.

While I very much hope that my series on north Indian raga will encourage you to absorb the melodic and rhythmic intricacies of all the individual items, I’ve reached a point where a certain levity is called for.

In classical treatises rāg Vindaloo is described as a raga for dusk, shortly after opening time; the Portuguese etymology perhaps explains its saudade mood (though fado only seems to have taken root in Goa). To the great relief of mehfil aficionados, the raga is rarely performed today.

Scholars have recently questioned the authenticity of a ragamala painting depicting an obese balding accountant in a pink sombrero, bedecked in opulent wombat furs and clutching a gaily-coloured [can of] Kingfisher, his sumptuous belvedere adorned with a garden gnome.

Questionably, Bhatkande classified rāg Vindaloo under Paneer thaat. It had already appeared by the 18th century in the bold attempt of picaresque, nay swashbuckling, adventurer and arms-dealer Lord Auberon Cholmondeley-Smythe to codify the repertoire, notwithstanding his comment in the Prefatory Observations that “it all sounds the same to me, this Indian music”.

PPIn dhrupad renditions the nomtom syllables tiddley-pom and poppadom are prominent. As to arohana and avarohana patterns, whereas in ascent flat and natural re, ga, dha, and ni, natural and sharp ma may be sounded interminably and apparently at random, in descent all notes are avoided entirely. In the gat, a common phrase—alluding to rāg Madhuvanti, * and later adopted by Henry Mancini—is

Sa, Re ga, Ni Sa Re ga dha Pa, Sa ga Pa Ma,

with a descending anuraṇana “resonance” on the cadential note.

In lengthy alap expositions, the phrase Ni dha pi serves as a cue. The tempo picks up upon the entry of the pakhavaj drum; the rhythmic cycle prescribed in early sources is chapati tāl with 792 mātras. But even in the more leisurely conditions of bygone courtly performance, no-one ever managed to get through even one whole cycle; so more often used in modern times is the challenging dintāl consisting of only one beat, subdivided 2 3 3 4 2 3, the first beat of the 3s marked with a cheery wave of the hand—a subtlety only revealed since the advent of slow-motion technology.

As a legacy from the days of the Raj, the raga is sometimes played in jugalbandi duet with swanee whistle and kazoo, hastening the audience’s departure.

* * *

For instructive multi-cultural exercises in solfeggio, click here. Cf. the spoof entries for the New Grove dictionary; for spoofs on early Chinese history, see Yet more French letters, Faqu tu 2, and More Tang drolerie. Cf. The ascent of Rum Doodle.


* In a vain attempt to redeem myself, for the sake of including some genuinely wondrous dhrupad in this post, here’s Zia Mohiuddin Dagar playing rāg Madhuvanti on rudra vina: