Some Portuguese epigrams

For Nick—
i
f the reader finds this post a tad arcane, just wait till you see his WAM anagrams…

Further to my little Lisbon jaunt, I’m always disappointed at my total lack of success when I try to busk it in Spanish by randomly adapting Italian—but it’s even more futile to further modify my crap Spanish into bacalhau (sorry, I mean cod) Portuguese.

I soon dispensed with my old Portuguese phrase book (less entertaining, and less sinister, than Teach yourself Japanese)—its very opening phrase suggests a similar deep anxiety about even setting foot outside our own green and pleasant land:

There’s been an accident.

I flew TAP (Take a Parachute). Indeed, the flight prefix is further abbreviated by omitting the middle letter, so not for the only time, I found myself flying TP (Totally Pissed).

Aboard TAP flights, with impressive urbanity in the vein of Mots d’heures, the airline regales the traveller with a pithy and somewhat obscure epigram evoking the saudade of fado. It seems to recall a sad incident in the colourful past of an early Lisbon femme fatale, perhaps of French patrician stock (even a refugee from the guillotine?):

Colete Salva-Vidas sob a Cadeira [1]

I’ve added capitals for clarity, but in order to preserve the ambiguity of the original I have refrained from supplying what seems to be a missing apostrophe—indeed, could it even be an exhortation?

Either way, it is far more evocative in Portuguese than in its prosaic English rendition

Life jacket under the seat.

Cf. Airplane:

Airplane is packed with little visual detail like that, requiring as much long-term revisiting as the Ring Cycle. Even the opening sequence is a too, er, deaf ‘orse.

And I’m keen to dally with Mme (sic) Salva-Vida’s (just as sic) enticing daughters

Rolagem, Descolagem, and (black sheep of the family) Aterragem,

also commemorated in TAP’s onboard annotations. Again, their names are so much less elegant in English:

Taxi, Takeoff, and Landing.

Just had one of those whacky dreams:

In Lisbon, invited implausibly to some suspiciously traditional social event with an old friend, we make our tortuous way there by means of a badly bombed Escher staircase. Arriving unscathed, I mingle suavely with the locals. Pleased with myself for managing to utter a grammatically convincing phase, I exclaim “Progresso!” “Si,” my Portuguese friend nods, “Esta Truro.”

How pitilessly my subconscious satirizes my naïve aspirations to insider status.

 

[1] Cadeira: twinned with Madeira.

Hope for our future

Amidst all the recent plague of misogynistic claptrap—exemplified by the Neanderthal spewings from Tweety McTangerine—all is not lost.

One of the very most inspiring stories of recent months concerned the brilliant ripostes by indignant young female football players at a County Durham primary school to the Football Association’s advice (“naïve rather than sexist”???) on ways of recruiting more girls to the sport. Call me a Guardian reader if you will, but FFS, even The Sun expressed wholehearted admiration for the girls’ protests!

Their letters are just brilliant.

We aren’t brainless Barbie dolls.

Whether or not they’ve read the feminist classics yet (in pretty pink covers, perhaps, FA?), or even listened to Bridget Christie, they’re on the case, making mature cogent arguments way beyond the infantile rants of the leader of the Free World. There’s hope yet.

Kangaroo

By contrast with many stories being published today, here’s an apparently genuine story of the choir of King’s College Cambridge on a tour of Australia, probably in 1980:

On a free day, a few of the more enterprising undergraduate choristers, all dressed up in their fancy Chetwynd society blazers, hired a car and drove off into the outback. Suddenly a kangaroo leapt out in the road in front of them, and they couldn’t help hitting it. Stopping to assess the damage they found that the kangaroo, though unscathed, was dead. With typical Cambridge drôlerie, one of them took off his blazer and put it on the kangaroo so they could take a photo.

At this point, it transpired that the kangaroo wasn’t dead at all, but merely stunned [Altogether now, the parrot sketch—Ed.]. Coming round, it hopped off at high speed into the distance—with blazer, passport, and chequebook, making excellent its escape (in the words of Flann O’Brien).

It was never seen again—though one imagines it telling the tale as it sips cocktails on a Spanish beach…

If anyone can confirm or refine this story, please do!

Em creeps in with a pie

I noted that in Conference at Cold comfort farm (1949) Stella Gibbons predicted the whole Cultural Heritage claptrap. Again long before Jo Brand, she was no less prescient about the comic potential of the pie.

She sends up much of the avant-garde—including (sic) Benjamin Britten, whose Peter Grimes had been premiered in 1945. Here she gives a resumé of Bob Flatte’s new opera The Flayed:

For the benefit of readers who are not familiar with the work of Flatte it may be remarked that The Flayed is typical of his latest and most powerful manner, and deals with the tragedy of two types named Stan Brusk and Em Wallow, living in a Bedfordshire village. Em is Stan’s girl, but he loses her to Bert Scarr when the latter comes to work in the local tanning factory. Stan Brusk is a sadist who derives pleasure from tanning hides and has twice been publicly reproved by the foreman for gloating while at work. In a powerful recitative and aria Stan defies the foreman, describes the pleasures of tanning, and at last falls down exhausted under a vat.

A series of sinuous themes follows, intended to represent the smells from the vat winding over his unconscious body. In the dinner-hour Em creeps in with a pie, which she does not know has been poisoned by the fumes from the vat. Bert Scarr then enters. He and Em sing a duet, in which Bert confesses that he has always had a secret craving to be flayed like one of the hides in the factory and Em expresses her horror and scorn of him. At last she falls under the vat on top of Stan, who recovers consciousness and misunderstands her action. Em, Stan, and Bert are then overcome by fumes from the vat, and dream thy are in Hell.

The Weeping Skeleton’s song which follows has been said to refute, once and for all, the accusation that Flatte’s operas lack light relief. The song may not represent humour as it is generally understood, but to deny that the theme of four minor chords given out in glissando form by the first violin and repeated in fugue form by solo instruments one after the other until it ends abruptly on the drums is expressive of a rationalised and resigned humour (perhaps most akin to irony) is merely imperceptive.

Em recovers first and revives Bert with a piece of the pie. The foreman comes in accompanied by a chorus of Operatives and Tanners and accuses Bert of slacking. Bert, already poisoned, and driven by his neurosis, jumps into the vatful of skins and is suffocated. Em eats some pie and dies. Stan stabs the foreman with his penknife (a present from his mother on his seventh birthday, and symbolizing her neurotic hold over him) and the foreman dies. While Stan is singing the Flagellation Song and driving out the chorus of Operatives and Tanners with a whip, his mother, Widow Brusk, enters. After she has sung an aria in which she confesses that Stan is the illegitimate son of a taxidermist who seduced her in early youth, thus accounting for her son’s sadistic obsession, Stan symbolically attempts to skin her and they both become insane.  The opera then ends. It was to represent English music at the International Music Festival the following year.

Which is as good an excuse as I need to play this:

Downhill: Steven Wright

Before Milton Jones and Tim Vine, but considerably after Hildegard von Bingen, there was Steven Wright, king of deadpan brevity.

Went out and bought myself a decaffeinated coffee table.

With that wording, and his delivery, that version is superior to some that you’ll find online.

This next “joke” is widely attributed to Milton Jones, but I swear I heard it Steven Wright doing it around thirty years ago:

Shortly before he died, my grandmother [pause] smeared my grandfather from head to toe in lard. After that, he went downhill very quickly.

Again, online versions are less well crafted. I distinctly remember the pause—he’s already got the audience thinking, WTF…

Like Daoist ritual, the texts are very fine on the page, but it’s all about performance. So here are some of his classics:

Inevitable further link: Stewart Lee’s routine on the Sardine joke and joke ownership.

An orchestral classic

À propos orchestral humourStewart Lee does a typically labyrinthine riff giving the old sardine joke his signature going-over:

Loath as I am to spoil the fun, in the WAM biz where people used to employ me, this story is famously attributed to the brilliant percussionist and all-round piss-artist Gary Kettel.

A hooliganesque Cockney, Gary was What They Call “a breath of fresh air” in the staid orchestral scene. During Boulez’s golden years at the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducting many challenging works, he much admired Gary’s musicianship, and they formed a charming and unlikely bond.

The version handed down to posterity in the orchestral biz (which beyond Gary’s own recollections has some further effective, if fanciful, detail) goes like this:

Once (this must have been in the mid-70s) he was on tour in South America with the London Sinfonietta, doing the, um, challenging Eight Songs for a Mad King.

So Gary’s at this fancy British Council reception after the gig in Buenos Aires or somewhere, getting quietly pissed in a corner on his own, and this posh bird comes up to him and goes,
“I say, I don’t believe we’ve been introduced—weren’t you playing in the concert? I did so enjoy your delightful rendition of that charming work!” [that’s a nice touch, by the way, if you know the piece, but that’s not important right now]. “Do please remind me,” she goes on, “what was it you were playing?”
“Oh, I fool around a bit on the drums, luv,” goes Gary—”So wot you doin’ ‘ere then?”
“I’m here with my husband.” she replies loftily.
Gary goes on, chummily, “An’ wot does your old man do then, darlin’?”
“My husband’s in oil!” she exclaims, proudly.
Gary goes, “What is he, a fuckin’ sardine?”

I like the details here. And the punchline is a good instance of the importance of the word “fuckin’ ”—not least for rhythm and euphony. The story also reflects musos’ own delight in “deviating from behavioural norms”.

Keen as I am on the ancestry of texts (my book ch.11), just as one does in exploring the relation and transmission of Daoist texts (well, I say “one”…), I wonder: Gary’s not sure, but could he have heard it from Tom O’Connor, or did they both get it from someone else, and so on (zzz)?

The Tom O’Connor version is less personal and less funny—which is precisely what makes it a suitable victim for Stew to mangle, a banal ground-bass lying prone for his endless florid divisions, a Goldberg variations from hell…

For further detail, see How I escaped my certain fate, pp.257–69—by now tuned into the De Selby footnotes in The third policeman, (and here), you will find further verbose and erudite annotations there too.

Learning the piano

By contrast with the Sonatas and Interludes of John Cage, and as part of my occasional series on music acquisition, and also on language learning, here’s Milton Jones:

I used to wonder if, in China, young piano players used to have to learn “Knife and Fork”.

Doubtless a formative early piece for Lang Lang.

For broader perspectives on the learning process in world music, albeit with fewer jokes, see the fine documentary series Growing into music.

With such cultural refinement at the Helm, who needs the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, eh???