A plea to publishers

Ansai 2

I’d like to discuss in-text citations—yeah, funky, I know. I guess this issue has been subject to debate over the years, but (like Brexit) nothing seems to be happening.

I’ve just been admiring an excellent, well-argued book on Chinese folk culture. Having resigned myself to leaping the constant hurdles of parenthetical references, I finally lost it when, right in the middle of a purple passage, I was confronted with an indigestible mouthful:

Ansai1

That’s not just an Olympic hurdle, it might defeat even a motorbike jumper.

Sure, such references may be useful—in the form of notes (and between footnotes and endnotes, the latter make for a more readable text). But please, I really don’t want to choke on Ansaixian Weiyuanhui Wenshi Ziliao Yanjiu Weiyuanhui 1989! When forced to adopt in-text citations I sometimes give abbreviations (in this case, perhaps ASX 1989; in my latest book I often cite the Yanggao xianzhi as YG, though a more pedantic publisher might expect me to pepper the text with a longer citation).

There’s endless guidance about in-text citations, and I’m not going to address house-style here. But even short in-text citations are irritating. I know we’re used to it; often we just get in the habit of skipping over the parenthesis. If you’re interested in following up, then look at the note, FFS. Often the reader won’t be, in which case a parenthesis is seriously tedious.

And while I’m about it, even if we really want to limit our audience to sinologists, Chinese characters in the text are another distraction. Again, it suggests, “Look at me! I’m a sinologist!” Characters are useful; but assuming one gives them on first appearance, then it’s too much to expect us to try and search back for the characters a couple of hundred pages later. The place for characters is in a combined Glossary–Index.

Most authors are happy enough to get their research in print with a reputable publisher. They are helpless victims. But it’s galling that all their hard work in making their text more reader-friendly than their PhDs should be cancelled out by this fusty academic convention. Meanwhile academic publishers don’t care, as long as they fulfil quotas.

Thing is, as technology improves constantly, there’s hardly an economic argument to be made. Such issues are solveable—as long as publishers care whether their authors’ texts can reach out to a wider audience. It suggests that they simply don’t care if all their authors’ hard work is readable (“Hey, no-one’s gonna read this book anyway”); or perhaps that the very hallmark of academic excellence is to be unreadable. Yet distinguished works of detailed research published outside the narrow ghetto of academia provide notes, not in-text citations; and—surprise surprise—such books sell very well.

Academics seem to be getting mixed messages: even amidst all the modern pressures to “outreach”, academic publishing remains a bastion of obscurity. Scholarly prose is quite impenetrable enough already without these further obstacles.

Meanwhile on a blog like this, apart from the luxury of including colour photos and maps, while I do include some notes (and even some in-text citations), it’s a great feeling to be able to provide online links—like the way that de Selby footnotes increasingly take over the text of The third policeman.

Discuss…

My new business enterprise

If my Daoist ritual joke-book (example here) inexplicably fails to soar into the charts (other reviews here), hastening rather than subsidizing my retirement, I have a cunning backup plan—inspired by both Myles and Hašek’s The animal world.

At the entrance to the escalators on the London tube, one often finds a sign that may bemuse travellers, particularly hapless tourists:

Dogs must be carried on this escalator.

This has already been unpacked by generations of drôle pedants before me. The grammar of the sign is nicely explained here:

  1. All dogs should have a chance to go on this wonderful escalator ride
  2. This escalator is for dog-holders only
  3. You can’t carry your pet on the other escalators
  4. When riding with a pet, carry it.

None other than Terry Eagleton drew attention to this in his Literary theory: an introduction, along with classics like

Refuse to be put in this basket.

(YAY! No pigeonholing for me!) See also here.

So here’s my solution (©Stephen Jones 2017), a boon both to passengers and to my own modest bank-balance:

I am designing two booths, one at both ends of the escalator, where you can hire a dog of your choice (selection of breeds available to suit all moods) for the brief duration of the ride, in either direction, returning it as soon as you step off. At off-peak hours I can maintain a skeleton dog-team [fine use of hyphenEd.], with an elaborate Heath-Robinson-esque system of pulleys to whisk an animal speedily to whichever end the needy traveller awaits..

The cost of feeding and training the dogs will be slight compared to the handsome profits to be made from stranded passengers, and should keep me in Bombay Sapphire for years.

Ruin an Irish book in one letter

Following my glowing paean to the Great Man, as a belated tribute to the Flann O’Brien Society’s recent competition —and supplementing my efforts regarding Chinese and orchestral cliché (see also Myles tag)—I hereby submit my weighty ethnomusicological ethnography:

The catechism of Clichy: vocal liturgy in a Parisian suburb.

For further scholarly works that I haven’t really published, see here.

A Bach mondegreen

WAM musos tend to pick up a smattering of what Peter Cook called The Latin. So in the spirit of Myles, we may interpret the fifth movement of the B Minor Mass thus:

Algernon was starving and scared as the van carrying gravy mix called round. The incident has been immortalized in many a baroque Mass:

Ate, in terror, Paxo minibus

Actually, like Un petit d’un petit, that’s a soramimi, not a mondegreen. Cf. Gandhi in Mary Poppins (I know, the italics don’t really make that sound any better.) For Sick transit, Gloria, Monday, see here.

Anyway, from ridiculous to sublime—a flippant pretext to extol the glories of Bach:

Et in terra

Not a lot of people know that Bach had a dog called Potentia. Hence the movement in the Magnificat:

Fetch it, Potentiam!

And this is perhaps a suitable place for “Most highly flavoured gravy”, a favourite remoulding of “Most highly favoured lady” by choristers Down the Ages: see here, with a link to Joseph Needham and Cambridge.

You can follow all this up with the mountweazel

The acme of ethnographic authority

If it’s proper language you’ll be wanting, by blessed chance I’ve just come across “The trade”, an early (1940) essay on pubs by Myles na gCopaleen that has found a respectable home in the fine anthology Great Irish reportage.

This is the ultimate insider’s account. Pubs were Myles’s office and his home—seldom can ethnographers have had such an in-depth knowledge of their chosen fieldsite. He shows great sensitivity to change in attire and interior design:

The result is a combination of utility (functional something-or-other architects call it), comfort and restraint—but no pints.

His poignant account manages to be both engaged and dispassionate. Just the opening paragraph is a too, er, deaf ‘orse—sorry, I mean tour de force (blame Keats and Chapman):

In the last ten years there has been a marked change in the decor of boozing in Dublin. The old-time pub was something in the nature of the Augean stable (it is true that Pegasus was often tethered there) with liberal lashings of sawdust and mopping-rags to prevent customers from perishing in their own spillings and spewing. No genuine Irishman could relax and feel at home in a pub unless he was sitting in deep gloom on a hard seat with a a very sad expression on his face, listening to the drone of bluebottle squadrons carrying out a raid on the yellow sandwich cheese. In those days a genuine social stigma attached to drinking. It was exclusively a male occupation and on that account (and apart from anything temperance advocates had to say) it could not be regarded as respectable by any reasonable woman. Demon rum was a pal of the kind one is ashamed to be seen with. Even moderate drinkers accepted themselves as genteel degenerates and could slink into a pub with as much feline hug-the-wall as any cirrhotic whiskey-addict, there to hide even from each other in dim secret snugs. A pub without a side-door up a lane would have been as well off as one with no door at all.

This calls for a song, or two

Gandhi

I don’t mean to go too far down the route of silly puns—there’s a wealth of other sites for that—but in the spirit of Keats and Chapman (see herehere, and here):

There’s this Englishman sharing a train compartment with two young guys from Sweden—Sven, and his friend Olf, who’s dressed in drainpipe trousers and brothel creepers.

After spitting on the floor and sneering at the English guy, Olf goes off to the buffet car to get a can of beer. After one swig he spews it up all over the compartment and lets out a torrent of foul abuse.
“What’s up with him?”, the Englishman asks Sven.
Sven bursts into song:

Rude Olf the Ted loathes train beer.

Oh well, I guess I have to do the old Mary Poppins one too:

Gandhi, with his hunched gait, walked barefoot, so that the soles of his feet became hard. With his frail form, he led a spiritual life, but his diet gave him bad breath. All of which made him (Altogether Now) a

Stoopy calloused fragile mystic, vexed by halitosis.

This week’s dinner-party

Guests for my fantasy dinner-party this week (Friday to Monday):

Jaroslav Hašek, Stella Gibbons, Flann O’Brien, Harpo Marx, Keith Richards, Viv Albertine, Zoe Williams, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Caitlin Moran, Diane Morgan [far-fetched stage name of Philomena Cunk—Ed.], and Bridget Christie.

Dress optional. 1859 for 1900. That gives them 41 years.

It might be churlish of me to worry that Hašek and Myles might not shine in a large mixed group. But hey, it’s a fantasy.

A sequel to Keats and Chapman

exit

One that Myles should have said:

I once saw a party from Bilbao get stuck in a revolving door.
Hence the saying, Don’t put all your Basques in one exit.

There are several versions of this, but I like this one as it also reminds me of the Czech definition of a Hungarian:

Someone who enters a revolving door behind you and comes out in front of you.

See also here.

Kangaroo

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 around 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, propping it up so they could take a group 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!

For an intriguing parallel from David Sedaris, see here. Further musos-on-tour stories (under WAM humour tag) include LOOK!, An orchestral classic, and The Mary Celeste.

A major contribution to civilisation

It seems that, like the Bolton Choral Society in their own chosen métier, my goal of Encapsulating the Intricacies of the oeuvre of Flann O’Brien recedes ever further.

Ian Sansom reflected on his mixed success:

Imagine: you’re better than James Joyce; you end up like Miles Kington.

I take the point, but for many fellow-Flanneurs it may not seem germane. Myles’s oeuvre is Sue E. Generis (if he didn’t say that, then it must have been me), self-standing—which, allegedly, is more than he was.

How can I have been so remiss as to neglect Timothy O’Keefe’s edited volume Myles: Portraits of Brian O’Nolan (1973)? Fortunately, my old friend Rod (himself an honorable, nay upstanding, member of the Royal Society of Flannologists) has stepped into the unsavoury breach of my Stygian ignorance [Hope we wiped his feet afterwards—Ed.], drawing my attention to a fine reminiscence therein by Niall Sheridan:

His interest soon shifted to a suggestion of mine—the All-Purpose Opening Speech. This was to be one endless sentence, grammatically correct, and so devoid of meaning that it could be used on any conceivable occasion: inaugurating a President, consecrating a Cathedral, laying a foundation-stone, presenting an inscribed watch to a long-standing employee. This notion delighted him, and he decided it must be given to the world, translated into every known language. If nation could speak fluently to nation, without any risk of communicating anything, international tension would decline. The Speech would be a major contribution to civilisation, enabling any inarticulate lout who might lever himself into power to emerge (after a brief rehearsal) as a new Demosthenes.

I was to make the original draft in English. Denis Devlin was to undertake the translation in French and Brian himself would do the Irish and German versions.

I can remember only the opening portions of the Speech, which ran (still incomplete) to some 850 words:

“Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, and reluctant as I am to parade my inability before such a critical and distinguished gathering, comprising—need I say—all that is best in the social, political, and intellectual life of our country, a country, I may add, which has played no inconsiderable part in the furthering of learning and culture, not to speak of religion, throughout all the lands of the known globe, where, although the principles inculcated in that learning and that culture have now become temporarily obfuscated in the pursuit of values as meretricious in seeming as they must prove inadequate in realisation, nevertheless, having regard to the ethnical and moral implications of the contemporary situation, etc, etc, etc.”

When the translations had been completed we had a reading in Devlin’s home. Any rubbish can be made to sound impressive in French, and Denis had produced a superb version, rhythmic, mellifluous and authoritative. It conveyed (to our delight and amazement) even less meaning than the original.

Brian (who delighted in the simplest sleight-of-hand) whipped a walrus moustache from his pocket, fixed it under his nose and read his Irish version, in a wickedly accurate impersonation of our Professor of Irish, Dr Douglas Hyde, later the first President of Ireland.

“What do you think of that?” he asked, looking from one to the other.

Denis told him that he admired his brio but deplored his occasional slurring of consonants. I told him that listening to his delivery was like wading through warm stirabout at one’s feet.

Undeterred by this mixed reception, Brian quickly replaced the walrus moustache with a toothbrush affair and poured out his German translation in imitation of Hitler at a Nuremberg rally. As he ground out the Teutonic gutturals, spitting and snarling in comic menace, he knew that he had made the hit of the evening.

Actually, if the speech wasn’t already in use then, it has since become entirely standard.

Talking of inarticulate louts levering themselves into power, this seems all the more necessary in our own fractured age.

And vis-à-vis my own Catechism of Chinese Cliché, must I now gird my loins for a Chinese version of their fine creation?

Stella is stellar

In my somewhat implausible online egg-and-spoon race, Miss Stella Gibbons remains neck-and-neck with Li Manshan and Myles.

I’ve finally got round to reading her little-trumpeted* sequel to Cold comfort farm, Conference at Cold comfort farm (1949).

(*Little Trumpeted could be one of her local rural names, like Howling and Mockuncle Hill. Bill Bryson is a clear heir to this niche fetish, with his predilection for [real] names like Seething, Wrangle, Nether Wallop, Thornton-le-Beans, Shellow Bowells, and so on.)

In Conference, written at a time when Britain was going through a revolution in the aftermath of devastating war, with social justice briefly in the air, and in certain circles also cultural innovation,  Flora revisits the farm some sixteen years after her earth-shattering initial stay, once again putting things to rights.

The book satirizes both the avant-garde and (some five decades in advance) all the Intangible Cultural Heritage flapdoodle—at a time, remember, when it was neither profitable nor popular (indeed, Stella’s mockery of pretence was akin to that of Myles). A few gems:

Hacke, with his sculptures Woman with Child and Woman with Wind.

And Messe: “Of course, I don’t put him within miles of Peccavi. I should put him somewhere between Pushe and Dashitoffski.”

There’s even a dodgy Oriental Sage.

Meanwhile, Reuben reports to the ever-sane Flora on the visit of a Mr Parker-Poke from Th’ Ministry :

“He—he did say as I were niver agricultoorally eddicated.”
“I am very sorry, Reuben.” Flora laid her hand upon her cousin’s for a moment. “No, you are not agriculturally educated; you only know how to make things grow.”

Shades of the Great Leap Backward?

*.* *

Who ever supposed Stella was a one-trick pony (and I didn’t say “filly”)? Never seduced by the blathering blandishments of Bloomsbury, Not For Nothing has she been Dubbed [sorry—there’s another one for the Catechism of Cliché, or Molvania] the Jane Austen of the 20th century.

And now there are all her other novels, long neglected, for us to read too.

An orchestral classic

Gary

Gary Kettel.

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 master-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 années dorées 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 (see this story).

The version of the sardine joke 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.

For another reception story, see here, on George Brown pissed at a reception in Peru.

The Catechism of Chinese Cliché

Praise within China for the Li family Daoists came in a report following our 2012 tour of Italy, published online in the regional capital Datong. Written in bold red characters in the style of a report on a bumper harvest in the Great Leap Forward, here’s an excerpt:

cliché

Recalling Myles and my very own Catechism of Orchestral Cliché, this inspires me to pen a Catechism of Chinese Cliché:

What kind of response did they evince in their audience? Would it have been sullen and apathetic, by any chance?
No. It was warm and enthusiastic, Begob.

What did the performances achieve?
They consolidated the friendship between the Chinese and Italian Peoples.

Surely they did more than consolidate it?
OK, they developed it too.

And what was the art of Chinese Daoist culture able to do where?
Be magnified 弘扬 and promoted 宣传 in a foreign country.

Just in a foreign country?
Oh all right then, you win—on the soil of a foreign country.

So what did the performances receive from the Italian people?
A good assessment and high praise.

And what did the tour do for the entire group?
Um, it encouraged and stimulated their trust and determination to revive our Chinese Daoism.

So since their return, what are they now doing?
They are gradually perfecting and elevating their art.

Is that all?
[grits teethThey are developing and strengthening it too. Do give it a rest.

The report also contains a resounding clarion call:

This is the pride of us Chinese People! The pride of the Chinese Nationality! It is the pride of us Shanxi people! The pride of Datong people! More precisely, it is the pride of our 300,000 People of Yanggao!

I’m not entirely taking the piss. A report like that, however comical and cliché-ridden it may seem, evinces genuine feelings. Even if such terms are alien to peasants like Li Manshan, some people do use them, and most can; and it’s a useful skill for us outsiders to deploy them in suitable contexts.

Also, such coverage subtly, um, Consolidates the reputation of the Li family and Daoist ritual in north Shanxi. What it doesn’t do is make local patrons and audiences value their rituals as much as pop music.

BTW, the article is quite right to observe that “More precisely, it is the pride of our 300,000 People of Yanggao”. Still, it uses the duplicitous Chinese media title for the Li band, “Hengshan Daoist Music Troupe”—which I take to the cleaners here.

While we’re about it,

What is the Venice of the East?
Suzhou, if you must. Like Balham is gateway to the south.

Note also clichés of Chinese art and music, as well as the fine parody Eat, pray, self-love: my lyrical journey through the heart of genocide country.

The Catechism of Orchestral Cliché

As threatened, here is my very own niche sequel to the Myles na Gopaleen Catechism of Cliché—another penetrating piece of WAM ethnography, if I may say so.

On what descending act of flagellation will you see me?
The downbeat.

And not long afterwards, at what reduplicated den of refreshment?
The double bar [“Sounds like my kind of place”, nods Myles.]

On the reasonable assumption that the imbibing of a certain liquid refreshment will be de rigueur there, what is your only man?
A pint of Plain. [I don’t mind if I do.]

Where, you ask me, can I come and do a Messiah next Monday night?
In Scunthorpe.

And what is there not?
A fee.

But what will there be, pray?
A jolly good tea [scowls].

And upon what nocturnal occasion will it be all right?
On the night.

At what relative labial experience did the Maestro take that Scherzo?
Quite a lick.

And if I ask you, from what angular body-part does the Maestro not know his arse?
His elbow.

Finally, where is there a cheque?
In the post.

* * *

Meanwhile, for the classicist (manqué or otherwise), another (“real”) entry from the Catechism of Cliché:

Quando timeo Danaos?
Et dona ferentes.

The enticing Dona Ferentes, along with Timothy Danaos, also play a cameo role in At-swim-two-birds, where they are the two Greek lawyers at the trial of Dermot Trellis [any relation to Ivy?—Ed.] for authorial autocracy . Non-nationals?!

Temperament and savoir-faire

Whenever I surprise myself by somehow getting my head around some arcane (to me) computer technique—like a screenshot, or a widget (What kind of language do you call that, ask the Plain People of Ireland), I recall Alan Bennett’s 1984 diary entry:

1 October, London. I mend a puncture on my bike. I get pleasure out of being able to do simple, practical jobs—mending a fuse, changing a wheel, jump-starting the car—because these are not accomplishments generally associated with a temperament like mine. I tend to put sexual intercourse in this category too.

A Pint Of Plain Is Your Only Man: Addendum

To Alex,
for pooling his version of The interview,
as well as for his so-called “simple” cuisine.

I rather hoped I had Succeeded in Encapsulating the Intricacies of Flann O’Brien’s Masterwork in one succinct yet definitive post, as in the Proust sketch:

But far from it—like The third policeman, all this flummery is inevitably fated to continue ad infinitum.

I note that A Pint Of Plain Is Your Only Man [A POPIYOM? Not a poppadom, anyway—Ed.] is also a topic for dogged doggerel in At-swim-two-birds (pp.77–80):

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night—
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.

By God there’s a lilt in that, said Lamont.
Very good, said Furriskey. Very nice.
I’m telling you it’s the business, said Shannahan. Listen now.

When money’s tight and is hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt—
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say that you need a change,
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.
[…]
When food is scarce and your larder bare,
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare—
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.
[…]
If he knew nothing else, he knew how to write a pome. A pint of plain is your only man.
[…]
Excuse me for a second, interposed Shanahan in an urgent manner, I’ve got a verse in my head. Wait now.
What!
Listen, man. Listen to this before it’s lost.

When stags appear on the mountain high,
With flanks the colour of bran,
When a badger bold can say good-bye,
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN!

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

Flann

For a Parisian deviation, see here.

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”. For anyone not O’Fay with O’Brien (as the Great Man must have said somewhere?), here’s a little resumé, before you plunge into sundry other posts under the Myles tag.

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.

For my own tributes to the Catechism style, see here, here, and indeed here.

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?
Tang.

And, for the Indologist, no trawl through the Milesian ouevre would be complete without

Ubi nemo mi lacessit (inquit Gandhi)?
In Poona.

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. Now I’ve even penned a Catechism of Chinese Cliché. Is nothing sacred?]

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. Still, it is pleasant to imagine the travails of the Chinese translator of these great works.

Flann O’Brien 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. And even interviews with people who knew him, 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. Note also the egregious Flann O’Brien society, with its weighty bibliography.

A successor to Myles

Talking of Brief encounter, Trevor Howard also appeared, remarkably, in the title role of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (Vivian Stanshall, 1980)

—yet another gem that I missed at the time.

It’s hard to classify—a Spike Milligan remake of Last year at Marienbad?

That was inedible muck. And there wasn’t enough of it.

Worthy of the great Flann O’Brien is the line

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

Along with punk, the film was part of the rich tapestry of British culture at the time (please be upstanding for God save the queen)

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!”

<OMG GUESS WHAT I’M DOING LOL>

Alternatively one could wear a boxing glove on the right hand, or a glove puppet, making suitably cute gestures to reflect the changing moods.

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…”):

More organology

Erqing and WM

Household Daoists Wu Mei and Erqing on guanzi oboes. From my film.

After my little outline of vocal styles, to be further amazed at the infinite creativity of human beings, do check out the Sachs–Hornbostel (or should I say Hornbostel–Sachs?) system of classifying musical instruments.

Also fine, with instructive illustrations, is

  • Geneviève Dournon, “Organology”, in Helen Myers (ed.) Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The new Grove handbooks in music), pp.245–300.

Based on the Dewey system, and constantly subject to fine-tuning, it may seem a tad hardcore, but we’re still allowed to use the common terminology (flutes, drums, and so on)—all this just helps when we need more precise definitions. It may be old hat to ethnomusicologists, who continue to deepen the topic in study groups, but it’s worth adding to the armoury of, um, scholars of ritual… Taxonomy, after all, is among their basic concerns—from zhai (“fasts” or “retreats”) and jiao (“offerings”) to yin mortuary rituals and yang rituals to bless the living (also equivalent to “white” and “red” rituals), and the Li family’s tripartite classification of funerary, earth, and temple scriptures (baijing, tujing, miaojing) (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.25).

BTW, the double-reed guanzi, leading instrument in the ensemble accompanying north Chinese ritual, is a descendant of the ancient bili 篳篥, a pre-Tang immigrant from the “Western regions“—though perhaps not France. It is related to the Armenian duduk, which is so much better known (“Innit, though”, nodded The Plain People of Ireland). Sachs-Hornbostel distinguishes cylindrical and conical bores (zzz)—though that is a complex issue, explored by Jeremy Montagu; but it doesn’t seem very instructive about the difference between oboes like the guanzi and duduk (with lipped reed, overblowing at the twelfth) and shawms (with reed enclosed in the mouth, overblowing at the octave), which is so crucial in north China.

For further useless facts about Chinese instruments, see here. And for another candidate for the Sachs–Hornbostel system, here.

Yet more French letters

Female musicians, Tang Dynasty. Note konghou harpist, rear right.

Further evidence that my taste for drôlerie chinoise is far from recent: a spoof I wrote while helping Laurence Picken with his extraordinary research on Tang music—which I elaborated with another Cambridge mentor, the great Tang historian Denis Twitchett. The genre of faqu 法曲 (“dharma pieces”) has indeed been the (serious) object of scholarly attention. Reading this now, I find the fluency of my affectionate pastiche of academic style somewhat disturbing…

Informal communication with Dr T.H. Barrett [1] has suggested the possibility that faqu may actually mean “French pieces”. Study of a recently discovered and as-yet-untranscribed score from Dunhuang for “hand-wind instrument” (perhaps a kind of manually operated keyed chordophone) entitled Dunhuang shoufeng qinpu 敦煌手風琴譜 reveals a colophon dated 1st April 895 (lunar calendar) which contains references to a certain “Master Ma” (Mashi 馬師), or as we might say, “Chevalier”. The authenticity of this score is no longer in doubt. It includes many faqu, besides one title, Zhena legelede li’a 柘拿樂葛樂德篥阿, [2] evidently a transliteration from a language of the Western Regions (xiyu 西域), but otherwise unattested in Tang sources.

The contacts between the Tang court and the Western world are by now well documented. We find frequent references in Tang anecdotal sources to “strings of onions” (congchuan 蔥串), [3] often in connection with men with a certain type of moustache that became highly fashionable under the emperor Xuanzong, riding carts described as “self-propelling” (zixingche 自行車), [4] and clad in close-fitting garments with black and white stripes (a variant of the yinyang symbol?), as well as floppy caps known as beilei 鞞儡.

The French letter: a rejoinder
Further evidence of the Gallic influence on early Chinese musical culture is to be found in the ancient institution of the fashu 法書 (more recently faxin 法信) or “French letter”, a kind of prophylactic talisman deployed in ancient Chinese households in the hope of avoiding unfavorable consequences.

Traditionalists [5] might evoke the sacred power of music and the jiefa 節法 or “rhythm method”, [6] but more pragmatic counsel, favouring foreign and commercial expansion, and under the influence of Buddhist philosophy, gave rise to the “French letter”.

This popular device was available as early as the Tang dynasty in the form still to be found in temples today, the fawu liutong chu 法物流通處 or “Durex machine”. Although nowadays more innocuous material has replaced the original merchandise, the original meaning of “French thingies” (fawu) is clear. The phrase liutong is somewhat arcane: liu implies dissemination, and tong some kind of intercourse, so one might expect tongliu as an early form of resultative verb—thus, perhaps, “French thingies for penetration and ejaculation”.

Faqu tu
Yet another Gallic connection appears in the instrument fajue 法角 “French horn”, often supposed to refer to a kind of conch sounded in ritual. [7] Recent scholarship suggests that jue was often used metaphorically in the Tang, having once been associated with the debauchery of the notorious Zheng and Wei 鄭魏 kingdoms—the latter also known as “Wei-Hei”. Thus it had the connotation of “horny” or “lascivious” music, as in the term jueshi 爵士, once “gentleman of rank” but by the Tang, “jazz” or “jazzer”. The term dejue 得角 “obtain the horn” is also found in the Dunhuang MSS, apparently referring to a desire for imminent fulfillment; not can this be limited to exclusively religious fervour.

The well-known notational technique of denoting rhythm by means of dots to the right-hand side of the note (again referring to the above jiefa “rhythm method”) is also found as early as the Dunhuang pipa score. Known as pangdian 旁點 “a bit on the side”, this practice is thought to have been inspired by the ancient French penchant for extra-curricular activities, or gewai shi 格外事.

Moreover, the ambiguity in Tang scores between jue 角 and yu 羽 modes (Aeolian and Dorian respectively, differing only in the sixth degree of the scale) may also be traced to the innovative cultural influence of the French. The term yu is in fact an abbreviation of yulong 羽龍 or “feathered dragon”, a mythical beast said to appear upon rendition of this mode (cf. Hanfeizi), and this was soon formalized into what we now know as the “feather boa”, and used in the celebrated Huntuo 褌脫 or “Removing the Drawers” dance, itself remarkable for its ambiguity between jue and yu modes. Thus the apparel used in this ancient French ritual dance gave its name to the mode most often used to accompany it.

For a sequel, see here; and for more Tang drolerie, here.

 

[1] In the Aardvark and Climbing Boot, 14th October 1985. Just before closing time.
[2] For the reconstructed Tang pronunciation of this enigmatic title, see Karlgren, Grammata Serica Recensa. Can the resemblance to Je ne regrette rien be fortuitous?
[3] Alternatively, some commentators have construed this phrase as indicating the Congling 蔥嶺 range in Central Asia. Indeed, the recent excavation of a large hoard of 7th-century snail shells from this very region makes the siting of a French colony there highly plausible.
[4] Thought to refer to a mystical “journey of the spirit”: see H. Maspero, “Le voyage dans le monde intérieur et la difficulté de trouver un endroit pour le parking”, T’oung Pao 27 (1913), pp. 856–979. For a similar view of the spiritual propensities of this means of conveyance, see Flann O’Brien, The third policeman.
[5] On the conflict between rival factions under Xuanzong, see The Cambridge history of China, vol.3.
[6] See Jones, “Time gentlemen please: the bell as colotomic indicator in Chinese ritual music” (for further articles I haven’t really written, see here).
[7] Cf. the hujia 胡笳 “barbarian pipes”, another import from the Western regions. 2019 update: in an apparent nod to Goodness Gracious Me, it has recently been “proved” that the ancient Gauls came from Hunan—where Daoists still use both a conch and a curved ox-horn 牛角 (popularly known as kaluosa 咔螺薩, a more durable form of the French croissant) to great effect in their rituals. Indeed, will Chinese scholars now “prove” that Charlemagne 沙了蠻 was a Tang vassal?

1990 Daoist

 

A music critic

estampies

Talking of free-tempo preludes

Many years ago (indeed, “more years ago than I care to remember”—a new entry in the Flann O’Brien Catechism of Cliché), we were in a London church, recording some exquisite medieval instrumental pieces called estampies. They are said to have spread through Europe by way of the Crusades, and have been recorded by worthier musicians than me, often with Middle Eastern style in mind. I was on rebec (“What does that even mean?”).

Right in the middle of a take, an irate elderly janitor burst in to subject us to a withering tirade, exclaiming:

“Are you gonna give it a rest? It just goes on and on. I mean, it’s not as if there’s any MERIT in it…”

We decided against inviting him to write the liner notes for the CD.

For other scathing reviews, see here and here.

Get out of my garden

Here’s a typically tenuous connection with ritual. On the subject of transmission, this piece from Stewart Lee is rewarding as ever:

—as well as his still more thoughtful reflections in How I escaped my certain fate, pp.136–42, 169–76. One of the many delights of this masterpiece is the way that scholarly footnotes often take over, like Flann O’Brien‘s arcane annotations on de Selby in The third policeman.

Another Czech mate

Further to my Czech mentor Paul Kratochvil:

Hasek

Along with Flann O’Brien, high on the guest list for my fantasy dinner-party would be Jaroslav Hašek— “humorist, satirist, journalist, anarchist, hoaxer, truant, rebel, vagabond, play-actor, practical joker, bohemian (and Bohemian), alcoholic, traitor to the Czech legion, Bolshevik, and bigamist”.

Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk has long been popular in China. Cecil Parrott, its English translator, also wrote a biography of Hašek’s “bottle-strewn life”, The bad Bohemian. Former British Ambassador in Prague, Parrott effortlessly avoids betraying any sympathy with Hašek’s reprobate behaviour. As he explans in the introduction to his translation:

His next escapade was to found a new political party called The Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress within the Limits of the Law […] publicly debunking the monarchy, its institutions and its social and political system. Of course it was only another hoax, designed partly to satisfy Hašek’s innate thirst for exhibitionism and partly to bolster the finances of the pub where the election meetings were held.

Among his many japes, his short-lived editorship of the journal The Animal World was curtailed after he published articles about imaginary animals.

Dangerous herds of wild Scottish collies have recently become the terror of the population in Patagonia

Thoroughbred werewolves for sale

Newly discovered fossil of an antediluvian flea

And his hobbies combined:

Everyone who votes for us will receive as a gift a small pocket aquarium.

Svejk Chinese

Gratifyingly, The Good Soldier Švejk clearly appeals to Chinese sensibilities; it was translated, and the 1956–1957 Czech films were dubbed into Chinese:

Alexei Sayle wonders if the Czech regime knew what they were doing promoting Švejk, since its message hardly supports the ideals of socialist conformity. Though it became popular in many languages, I suspect there’s something about it that appeals in particular to Chinese people—an antidote to compulsory patriotism? The Chinese translator dutifully portrays it as a tirade against imperialism, but it surely spoke to The Common Man (Flann O’Brien’sThe Plain People of Ireland”) oppressed by the destructive irrationalities of a newer system…

The Chinese version of Švejk’s name (Shuaike 帅克) is perfect. It drives me to a little fantasy.

* * *

À propos, Milan Kundera’s 1967 novel The joke is a brilliant treatment of the indignities to which traditional music and culture in Moravia were subjected under Communism, with clear echoes of China and its “Golden Age” myth (my book pp.343, 371–2; see also “heritage” tag, and for elsewhere in east Europe, here). See

  • Michael Beckerman, “Kundera’s musical joke and ‘folk’ music in Czechoslovakia, 1948–?”, in Mark Slobin (ed.), Retuning culture: musical changes in central and eastern Europe, pp.37–53.

… This is why Tereza, when she met the chairman of the collective farm at the spa, conjured up an image of the countryside (a countryside she had never lived in or known) that she found enchanting. It was her way of looking back, back to Paradise.
[…]
The state supported folk music and festivals in an attempt to show, quite simply, that in this “people’s paradise” the folk, at least, were alive and well.

Even in cases where local cultures have not been remoulded by the state, scholars may unwittingly impose their own agendas…

 

Family history

Overheard (allegedly) by Flann O’Brien:

“D’you know, Geoffrey, only last night I learnt many interesting things about my family. D’you know that my great-grandfather was killed at Waterloo?”

“Rayully, sweetness, which platform?”

The golden head was tossed in disdain.

“How ridiculous you are, Geoffrey. As if it mattered which platform.”