Poetic satire

Of a different type of ingenuity from more literary wordplay is a couplet pasted up at people’s doorways in the Cultural Revolution (my book, p.131).

In one of few ways that peasants could ridicule the rigid political system, some satirized the deprivation of their conditions. A couplet commonly pasted up at the time ran succinctly:

Two three four five, six seven eight nine.

This may not seem like the most inspired piece of poetry, but Chinese is so ingenious—everyone knew that the lack of the numbers one and ten meant that people had no yi (“one,” also clothing) or shi (“ten,” also food).

One of the Daoists pasted the couplet up and was ticked off by the village cadres. Like naughty schoolboys, villagers joked that so-and-so may have written it but someone else had thought it up. But it was engraved in the sullen sardonic hearts of many peasants.

Still, their impotence reminds me of Peter Cook’s comment:

“those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War”.

As today, satirists’ gain is society’s loss…

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:

History, or not

Alan Bennett (for it is he) reflects on his transition from earnest young Oxford historian to star of Beyond the fringe:

I wasn’t getting any better at [teaching], though the celebrity of the revue to some degree compensated my pupils for the shortcomings of the tuition. This period came to an end in 1962, when the show went to Broadway, thus putting an end to my dwindling hopes of being a historian. The rest, one might say, pompously, is history. Except that in my case the opposite was true. What it had been was history. What it was to be was not history at all.

Myles: a glowing paean, or The life of O’Brien

What’s all this fuss about Flann O’Brien, I hear you ask. (One perceptive tribute by Kevin McMahon is penned entirely in the form of a Mylesian pub conversation). [1] Padraig Colman, in a fine series of detailed tributes, sums him up dispassionately as “a morose drunk who led an uneventful life as a senior civil servant in Dublin”.

Well, for one thing, as fellow Flanneurs will know, he was an astute observer of “Poor suffering Hugh Manity”, that’s why. He was a dedicated chronicler of the Hugh Mann condition—a common and distressing affliction. He had a keen ear for the conversation of The Plain People of Ireland, The Brother, and insufferable bores of any Ilk, whether pretentious or just trite. He had the Cut of their Jib, whatever that is. His intolerance of cant (and doubtless Kant) has brought him a cult following [Autospell running amok?—Ed.].

Apart from The Man Who Has Read It In Manuscript, another snowclone that is constantly on the lips of the aficionado is

The Man Who Spoke Irish At A Time When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular.

This meretricious character inevitably takes a bow in the Myles na Gopaleen Catechism of Cliché,

a unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing. Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the public.

Of what was any deceased citizen you like to mention typical?
Of all that is best in Irish life.
Correct. With what qualities did he endear himself to all who knew him?
His charm of manner and unfailing kindness.
Yes. But with what particularly did he impress all those he came in contact with?
His sterling qualities of mind, loftiness of intellect and unswerving devotion to the national cause.
What article of his was always at the disposal of the national language?
His purse.
And what more abstract assistance was readily offered to those who sought it?
The fruit of his wide reading and profound erudition.
At what time did he speak Irish?
At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.
With what cause did he never disguise the fact that his sympathies lay?
The cause of national independence.
And at what time?
At a time when lesser men were content with the rôle of time-server and sycophant.
What was he in his declining years?
Though frail of health, indefatigable in his exertions on behalf of his less fortunate fellow men.
Whom did he marry in 1879?
A Leitrim Lady.
And at what literary work was he engaged at the time of his death?
His monumental work on The Oghams of Tipperary.
And of what nature is his loss?
Well-nigh irreparable.

Looby describes Myles as

a postmodernist at a time when it was neither profitable nor popular,

and McMahon signs off with a flourish:

When did you start reading this stuff?
At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.

(Go, and never darken my towels again—Rufus T. Firefly)

What with our Psalm, and our Sermon, I hereby declare our impertinent sequence of Trois petites liturgies quorate.

OK, watch this, now I’m going to make a subtle transition (and Myles would have relished the voiceover to Away from it all):

Gondolas, gondolas, gondolas. Everywhere… gondolas.
But there’s more to Venice than gondolas […]
We pause to reflect that despite its cathedrals,
its palaces, its bustling markets,
and its priceless legacy of renaissance art,
the one thing that Venice truly lacks—is leprechauns.
[scene changes] But there’s no shortage of leprechauns here:
Yes, Ireland, the emerald island…

Here we are again. Normal service resumed. A critic, and a critic of critics, Flann O’Brien discussed art, music, and theatre acutely—sometimes even more acutely than this:

Literary criticism
My grasp of what he wrote and meant
Was sometimes only five or six %.
The rest was only words and sound—
My reference is to Ezra £.

He would have enjoyed my Heifetz story too.

His Keats and Chapman series is full of shameless yet often arcane puns:

“My dear girl”, he said, “You have been living in F. Huehl’s pair o’dice.”
When she was gone he turned to Chapman.
“F. Huehl and his Monet are soon parted,” he observed.

Some more from Groucho:

“Sir, you try my patience!”
“I don’t mind if I do—you must come over and try mine sometime.”

For all his withering disdain for pretension, Myles’s essays are liberally sprinkled with French, German, and what Peter Cook, in a not-unMylesian sketch, called “The Latin”:

(or for surly purists, the full authentic urtext here).

Nor is the Catechism of Cliché limited to English. It becomes increasingly unhinged (as one does):

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Mulieres eorum.

And one for the Jesuit sinologist, methinks:

Noli me quidere?

In 2016, writing in The Irish Times (since Myles’s day, allegedly an organ otherwise less hilarious than The China Daily), Frank McNally did a rather good sequel on the elections. Indeed, it’s a fun game to play. One day, if you don’t watch your step, I may regale you with my very own Catechism of Orchestral Cliché. You have been warned. [Oh all right then, if you insist—here you are.]

On my visits to Germany I constantly giggle at Myles’s Buchhandlung service:

A visit that I paid to the house of a newly married friend the other day set me thinking. My friend is a man of great wealth and vulgarity. […] Whether he can read or not, I do not know, but some savage faculty of observation told him that most respectable and estimable people usually had a lot of books in their houses. So he bought several book-cases and paid some rascally middleman to stuff them with all manner of new books, some of them very costly volumes on the subject of French landscape painting.
I noticed on my visit that not one of them had ever been opened or touched, and remarked the fact.
“When I get settled down properly,” said the fool, “I’ll have to catch up on my reading.”
This is what set me thinking. Why would a wealthy person like this be put to the trouble of pretending to read at all? Why not [pay] a professional book-handler to go in and suitably maul his library for so-much per shelf? Such a person, if properly qualified, could make a fortune.

Tweety McTangerine take note…

And we haven’t even discussed At-swim-two-birds or The third policeman, Begob. Here one may even detect a certain affinity with Cold comfort farm. As Myles observed,

It goes without Synge that many of my writings are very fine indeed.

I can only deplore the paucity in his oeuvre of allusions to fieldwork reports on Daoist ritual. And vice versa.

He survived longer than Hašek, but drank himself to an early grave (“But it’s not even closing time yet!”, I hear him exclaim) in 1966—sadly not in time to reflect

If I had all the money I’ve spent on drink—I’d spend it on drink.

A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man

There are some nice radio and TV tributes online, like

and the only filmed interview with the Great Man, here.

One last time—Altogether Now:

At what time did he speak Irish?
At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.
And of what nature is his loss?
Well-nigh irreparable.
So what capital adornment do I take off to him?
(It’s your turn.)

[1] Other discussions include https://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2011/04/06/the-best-of-myles-by-flann-obrien/ and Robert Looby at http://www.ricorso.net/rx/az-data/authors/o/OBrien_F/xtras/xtra5.htm

Concert etiquette, and auditions

À propos Ravel’s Piano concerto for the left hand: two-handed pianists soon got in on the act, though how to occupy the spare hand must take some thought. In This Day and Age one imagines young pianists saying,

“You know what’s so great about the concerto? You can text your mates while you’re playing it!”


In Certain Quarters such behaviour might go down like a one-legged man at an arse-kicking party.

Conversely, watching people texting with two thumbs, I think of the mbira.

While we’re on deficiencies in the limb department, apart from the one-legged men in The third policeman, this classic audition springs to mind (Tarzan, “A role that is traditionally associated with…”):

Vera and Doris

Further to Igor Stravinsky (“Gran visits York”), here’s Alan Bennett again (Writing home, p.30):

During the [1963] run of Beyond the fringe in New York, Dudley Moore and I took refuge from a storm in the Hotel Pierre, where we were spotted by an assistant manager. Saying that there had been a spate of thefts from rooms recently, he asked us to leave. A small argument ensued, in the course of which an old man and his wife stumped past, whereupon the assistant manager left off abusing us in order to bow. It was Stravinsky. We were then thrown out. I have never set foot in the Pierre since, fearing I might still be taken for a petty thief. Dudley Moore, I imagine, goes in there with impunity; the assistant manager may even bow to him now while throwing someone else out. Me still, possibly.

And then (2010):

I tell John Bird the story of Dudley Moore and me seeing Stravinsky and his wife Vera in the Hotel Pierre in New York in 1963, saying how the name Vera has always seemed to me to humanise Stravinsky. “Not so much as Stockhausen,” says John. “His wife’s name was Doris.”

Now, I’m not so humourless that I can’t see how Vera and Doris (“wives”) are funnier than Igor and Karlheinz (“Great Composers”). Noting that the English have been making light of Storm Doris this week, this brings me to hurricanes.

In the USA, for many years hurricanes bore only female names. The male meteorological community found female names

appropriate for such unpredictable and dangerous phenomena.

Pah! In the 1970s the growing numbers of female meteorologists began to object, and since 1978 onwards male and female names have alternated (Yay!). Nor are they expected to suggest menace, like characters in a horror movie. Fleur or Katrina might be femme fatales, but Tammy and Bob are homely, and Nigel nerdy.

However, in the US people may prepare differently for storms depending whether they bear a male or female name. Hurricanes with female names cause significantly more deaths—apparently (by contrast with that idea of “female menace”) because people perceive them as less threatening, leading to less preparedness and thus causing more damage. You can’t win…

BTW, please can we stop making out that countries and ships are feminine?! Otherwise we’re lucky in English not to have to worry our pretty little heads about gendering nouns

The “case for the defence” shoots itself in the foot most messily in this breathtakingly Neanderthal quote from “Rear Admiral” Francis D. Foley—from 1998, FFS! This is known in Chinese Partyspeak as “negative teaching material” (fanmian jiaocai). If it came from 1698 I might reluctantly, um, consider it within the cultural context of the day; but this is indeed the cultural context that afflicts the USA at the moment. Too bad Foley (apparently the Benny Hill of the US Navy) is no longer with us—he would be a shoo-in for the post of Gender Equality Adviser in the new US administration. But amazingly there are plenty more where he came from, eager to fall on their flaccid pork swords before the Amazon hordes of the “liberal media”…

“No sensa humor, these wimmin…” Never mind Bridget Christie—even Foley’s junior contemporary Stella Gibbons would have given him a piece of her dainty mind.

This is a battle that is important to pursue, like “actress”, “chairman”, and “ballerina”—however the “PC gone mad” cabal may splutter.

Doh a deer, a female deer—but that’s not important right now”, indeed.

I rest my case.