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 civilization

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 civilization, 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

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 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.

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.