A deflated pupil

Isfahan cope

Along with my veneration for the Matthew Passion, you may have noticed my cognitive dissonance in confessing to some, um, lighter moments that some musos associate with it—such as Mein Gott, with Always look on the bright side of life as a fantasy encore. Sorry, but here’s another one:

Rehearsing the Matthew Passion in the Albert Hall for an English Concert Prom, during a longueur while the conductor is busy sorting out some point with the continuo, my desk partner leans over to me. I guess she’s going to share some profound insight with me about phrasing, but she whispers me this joke:

What did the inflatable schoolmaster in the inflatable school say to the inflatable pupil?

“You’ve let me down, you’ve let the school down—but most of all you’ve let yourself down.”

Just the kind of thing to get us in the mood for the Crucifixion scene…

I continue to relish this joke—all the more because of the context in which I first heard it. It goes back a long time, and one still hears it regularly; but now I wonder if it still has the same resonance for the younger generation, or if it’s more popular among those educated in posh schools before the 1980s. Returning to The life of Brian, its tone calls to mind Michael Palin’s benign marshalling of crucifixion candidates.

For more stories of musical deviation, see here.

Modulation: Schubert and Coltrane

I used to love hearing the late great Hugh Maguire leading the Allegri quartet in the Quartettsatz of Schubert. It’s the first movement of an unfinished quartet—and if you ask me (as you don’t), it deserves to be a lot better known than the symphony (for which, see Alan Bennett, and the classic Kronenburg ad).

Anyway, I digress, as usual. You can (or could) hear the Chilingirian quartet playing it in Classic quartets at the BBCThis fine performance by the Jasper quartet, from 2009, seems prophetic in its isolation:

Qsatz
On and off, the beguiling little ppp sequence from 2.06 has been an earworm for me over fifty years. Schubert manages to restrain himself (he may just have wanted to get down the pub, as in the Kronenburg ad), but in my head I often find myself taking the sequence on and on [Weirdo—Ed.], imagining playing it on the violin (though it’s just as fun in the lower parts)—it only takes six phases to get back where you started. But OK, probably just as well that Schubert resisted the temptation… 

Giant steps

In a typical segue, I recommend playing this game with pop songs too, like the “I love you baby” refrain of Can’t take my eyes off you (which, like Schubert, knows when to stop). And since jazzers are the True Masters of harmony, here’s Coltrane‘s Giant steps (fast-moving chord sequences shown to your left; for analysis, see e.g. here):

And then there’s the enchanting The windmills of your mind, crafted by varying a single motif.

Of course (my usual reminder!), efficacity doesn’t depend on complexity; in art, folk, and popular genres, pieces can communicate without harmony or modulation…

More Schubert here!

Compound surnames in Chinese and English

Left: Sima Qian; right: Zhuge Liang.

For China, besides my post on alternating single and double given names by generation, there are also some intriguing double surnames, often deriving from northern ethnic minorities.

Of the many that were used in early history, some have fallen out of use, with clans often adopting single surnames—a process that took place over a long period, unlike the rapidly changing fashions in given names. Double surnames still quite common are Ouyang 歐陽, Shangguan 上官, Sima 司馬 and Situ 司徒; less so are Zhuge 諸葛, Xiahou 夏侯, Huangfu 皇甫, Huyan 呼延, and Zhongli 鍾離. Oh, and Chenggong 成公 and Geshu 哥舒.

Left: Ouyang Xiu; right: Zhongli Quan.

The latter surname was Turkic in origin. Among ethnic minorities, longer compound surnames are still common, adapted to Chinese style, such as the Manchu Qing imperial clan Aisin Gioro. But with the Han chauvinism of the current CCP this is changing too—for Uyghur names under the current clampdown in Xinjiang, see e.g. this article.

* * *

For the Han Chinese double-barrelled surnames I can’t discern potential for satire, as we class-conscious English like to do for Posh Upper-Class Twits—whether fictional characters like Gussie Fink-Nottle and Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, and Monty Python’s Vivian Smith-Smythe-Smith, Simon Zinc-Trumpet-Harris, Nigel Incubator-Jones, Gervaise Brook-Hamster, and Oliver St. John-Mollusc:

or real people who really should be fictional, like Jacob Rees-Mogg. There is latitude in the use of the hyphen. Indeed, why stop at two surnames? This wiki article also considers international naming practices, including Germany and Iberia. As Silly Names go, it’s hard to beat Leone Sextus Denys Oswolf Fraudatifilius Tollemache-Tollemache de Orellana Plantagenet Tollemache-Tollemache, British captain who died in World War One. 

Now the Riff-Raff [sic] are getting in on the act too, with young sporting luminaries such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and the wonderful Katarina Johnson-Thompson, who soars high above the recumbent Tree-Frog.

In a rather different category is the litany of middle names for Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson as documented by Stewart Lee, which grows almost weekly.

See here for more on How to be English.

Criticizing Confucius

Given that this is no time for blind kowtowing before authority—anywhere:

Just as Tang poetry isn’t immune from doggerel, maybe we might unfurl a new, more decorous campaign to debunk the uncritical veneration of Confucius (cf. Alan Bennett).

Noting that “Confucius He Say” 子曰 might be rendered as “So the kid goes…” (“I’m like, whatever”; see also OMG), one could regard the Analects an early pilot for Kids say the cutest things 子曰乖事, or an anthology of pithy bumper-stickers (cf. Gary Larson’s cartoon Confucius at the office—”Looks like we’re in for some rain”).

Here’s one gnomic maxim that does rather appeal to me:

君子不器
The gentleman is not a vessel.

Typically, it’s been subjected to a vast apparatus of scholarly exegesis; I like to take it as a critique of reification, one of the banes of studying music (see musicking), religion (see “doing religion“), and indeed Life… Indeed, maybe the qi 器 there is even verbal: “The gentleman doesn’t reify”? * I would like the quote even more if he had said that women weren’t vessels either—but despite recent defences of Confucian sexism, he didn’t (surprise surprise).

As Confucius said when his disciple Yan Hui ** told him he was taking up stamp collecting,

Philately will get you nowhere

(an old joke that goes back at least to Jennings).

As ever, The life of Brian has salient critiques. Here’s one of the Boring Prophets:

There shall, in that time, be rumors of things going astray, erm, and there shall be a great confusion as to where things really are, and nobody will really know where lieth those little things wi- with the sort of … raffia-work base that has an attachment. At this time, a friend shall lose his friend’s hammer and the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers, that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o’clock.

And indeed the rebuke to exegesis in the Sermon on the Mount scene that opens the film:

I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.
Ahh, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?
Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

See also Alan Bennett’s classic sermon on “My brother Esau is an hairy man…”

 

* Cf. “Gentlemen lift the seat”—as Jonathan Miller observed in Beyond the fringe, “What exactly does this mean? Is it a sociological description—a definition of a gentleman which I can either take or leave? Or perhaps it’s a Loyal Toast? It could be a blunt military order, or an invitation to upper-class larceny.”

** My penchant for Yan Hui derives from the ritual shengguan suite Qi Yan Hui 泣颜回,  a title that alludes to Confucius bewailing his early death (for a gongche score, see here, under West An’gezhuang).

He’s a clever little boy

RM

As if the coup of Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson isn’t bad enough, we have to endure the appalling spectre of his éminence grise the Minister for the 18th century defending it in his suave, patronizing, patrician tones.

The Haunted Pencil’s style reminds me of yet another Monty Python classic featuring John Cleese:

Son: Good evening, mother. Good evening, Mrs Niggerbaiter.

Mrs Niggerbaiter: Ooh, he’s walking already!

Mrs Shazam: Ooh yes, he’s such a clever little fellow, aren’t you? Coochy coochy coo.

Mrs Niggerbaiter: Hello, coochy coo.

Mrs Shazam: Hello, hello… [they chuck him under the chin]

Mrs Niggerbaiter: Oochy coochy [son gives tight smile]. Look at him laughing… ooh, he’s a chirpy little fellow! Can he talk? Can he talk, eh?

Son: Yes of course I can talk, I’m the Minister for Overseas Development.

Mrs Niggerbaiter: Ooh, he’s a clever little boy—he’s a clever little boy! (gets out a rattle) Do you like your rattle, eh? Do you like your little rattle? Look at his little eyes following it, eh? Look at his iggy piggy piggy little eyeballs eh… Ooh, he’s got a tubby tum-tum…

Son [interrupting]: Mother, could I have a quick cup of tea please—I have an important statement on Rhodesia in the Commons tomorrow…

* * *

By now Wee-Smug has joined the Queen and Brian Sewell on my shortlist of readers for a BBC Radio 4 serialization of Miles Davis’s autobiography (“Listen with Motherfucker”).

And here’s a fun party game to mollify your irritation with Pompous Brexit Twats. Whenever you hear them braying some fatuous remark about “taking back control of our borders / laws / own country [blah blah]”, just replace the noun with “bowels”—”we can finally look forward to taking back control of our bowels”, and so on.

Cf. Stewart Lee’s notional cabbie: “These days, you can get arrested and thrown in jail just for saying you’re English” (in my post How to be English). See also his brilliant routines in A French letter and The c-word; and several more fine critiques of xenophobic bigotry under the Lee tag.

Such levity is all very well (cf. Peter Cook on Weimar satire), but this is our country that these Rich White Politicians are smugly destroying, FFS. Soon we’ll be a banana republic without the bananas. But at least they’ll be OUR no bananas.

For more, see What I can tell you is this…

More transliteration

 

LK 3

In the third of a growing series of vividly-written crime stories set among the tribulations of contemporary Greece,

  • Leo Kanaris, Dangerous days (2019),

private investigator George Zafiris continues to tread a murky path through corruption and nepotism amidst a dysfunctional society in crisis. Like Raymond Chandler’s Hollywood (but, pace Alan Partridge, not so like Norwich), Greece makes a fine backdrop to explore moral quandaries.

I’ve cited Kanaris’s vignette on Mount Athos in Blood and gold. For more on communicating in Greek, see Bunnios.

One vignette in Dangerous days reminds me of quaint Chinese transliterations like Andeli Poliwen (André Previn), Kelaimeng Feilang (“Clermont-Ferrand”, all the more reminiscent of a pseudo-Sanskrit Daoist mantra when preceded by Aofoni, “Auvergne”), or tuzibulashi (toothbrush, or “rabbits don’t shit”). As George walks through central Athens pondering the intricacies of the cases confronting him, he takes in the Greek versions of film-stars’ names appearing on cinema billboards:

Tzonny Ntep, Tzoud Lo, Kira Naïtely, Kim Mpazintzer.

Of course, English orthography is on a sticky wicket here: there’s no more reason to be perplexed by “Naïtely” than by “Knightley”, or a host of other English words like “Cholmondeley”“hiccough” or indeed “one”. Cf. Monty Python:

“Ah, no. My name is spelt  ‘Luxury Yacht’ but it’s pronounced Throatwobbler Mangrove.”

Great works missing the crucial element

Munch

The current Munch exhibition at the British Museum includes his 1892 sketch for what soon became The scream(my title: People taking pleasant stroll). This suggests further drôle potential—such as

  • Leonardo’s charming landscape Just got a text from Mona Lisa saying she’s held up in traffic
  • Vermeer’s early sketch Girl not wearing any earrings (“Oops, forget me turban too—What Am I Like?!”)

and of course The last-but-one supper, without the kangaroo:

And then there’s the ouevre of Alphonse Allais (see The world of Alphonse Allais, “translated” by Miles Kington), including a totally white canvas called Anaemic young girls going to their first Communion through a blizzard, and a red composition entitled Apoplectic cardinals harvesting tomatoes by the Red Sea (the latter an early version of the popular Explosion in a tomato factory at sunset). Such experiments were yet more radical than that of Monet’s Rouen cathedral in the morning fog (see also “F. Huehl and his Monet are soon parted“).

Further suggestions welcome.

For Chinese poetry, I think of the popular Tang genre “On visiting a hermit and not finding him in“. And on the musical front, there’s a popular series called Music Minus One, providing recordings of the accompaniments to famous pieces of chamber music, jazz, and so on without the solo part, to help soloists practise. Some Wag once gave me a blank CD entitled Music Minus One: the Bach partitas for solo violin.

I still await a response to my requests for versions of Das Lied von der Erde without the mandolin, L’enfant et les sortilèges without the cheese grater, and the finale of Éclairs sur l’au-delà … without the triangle.

On a rather different tack, note the mini-museum for gerbils under quarantine. See also The global art market.

* For some musical screams, see my posts on Sibelius 7 and notably the horrifying sequence in Mahler 10.

A Confucius mélange

To complement my little series on Shakespeare (like I’d know), there’s now a quorum of Confucius quotes:

with the related

and at a tangent,

See also my Daoist adaptation of “selling the Three-character scripture at the door of Confucius” (preaching to the converted, as we might say).

A justly neglected composer

Somewhat less well known than Haydn and Beethoven is a composer immortalized in yet another Monty Python classic:

The final “of Ulm” is brilliantly chosen, the place-name both niche and monosyllabic (unlike “monosyllabic”).

Good to see Johann rescued from the obscurity that he so richly deserves (contrast Vernon Handley). His absence from the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians urgently needs correcting.

His name is reminiscent of a ritual title for a Daoist priest—like that of Zhang Daoling, handed down in the Li family (my book, pp.11–12; film, from 2.48):

IMG_1031 - Version 2

 

Ancestral Master,
Heavenly Worthy of the Grand Ritual
who Supports the Teachings of the Three Heavens,
Assists the Numinous,
and Embodies the Way.

 

 

Actually, that’s quite a succinct one: appellations to the Daoist gods, recited (mercifully fast, by contrast with the slow hymns) in the course of rituals, are lengthy (see.e.g. here), and ritual titles still handed down today to household Daoist priests in south China upon their ordination may be a mouthful too.

John Cleese’s interview technique is perhaps a less probing model for the fieldworker than that of Peter Cook.

All this long before Stewart Lee made a whole art form out of trying the audience’s patience.

Creative tribulations

I don’t know what you see in that piano…

Further to Monty Python’s take on speech impediments, the process of artistic inspiration is not always smooth:

I’ve provided the subtitled version to allow us to practise our Spanish (cf. the Greek subtitles for Shoeshine Johnny).

The process of creativity is constantly mediated by—oops, better go, the chambermaid‘s just arrived.
Among many Monty Python clips on here, I think of the Sartre sketch, and the brilliant Away from it all.

Pontius Pilate, and the mad jailers

pilate

Hot on the vertiginous goose-stepping heels of Gepopo

In my series on stammering I’ve already covered Michael Palin’s authentic depiction in A fish called Wanda.

But he was already on the case of various types of imp-p-pediment with Monty P-Python, as in the iconic Pontius Pilate scene (taking the pith) in The life of Brian:

Michael Palin also does a great turn as the benign schoolmaster:

Returning to s-s-stammering, still more disturbing are the cameos from the mad jailers (this time played by Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle)—hideously well-observed, right down to the stamp of the foot to force the word out. In the first scene here, they taunt the ever-well-meaning Palin; and the second (from 2.07) is the coup de grace, with the jailers nonchalantly reverting to fluency once alone together—reminiscent of Larson’s cows:

Some stammerers may find that tough going, but I’d suggest it’s all part of chipping away at the iceberg of fear.

One of the benefits of group speech therapy sessions, however excruciating, is to watch one’s disfluent speech played back on video, so as to observe all the ways in which we sabotage the whole vocal apparatus—extreme tension of the lips and throat, holding the breath, futile movements of eyes, hands, and body, and so on. Disfluency takes many forms. Sufferers are often so trapped in desperate attempts to avoid stammering, and their audiences so trapped in embarrassment, that neither may have a clear idea of what exactly it is that is preventing them from uttering the word. The crucial first stage is monitoring.

And a further technique is for the sufferer to imitate such features deliberately—choosing a consonant on which to tense the mouth and lips, repeating it quickly or slowly with varying degrees of tension, even reproducing the way we backtrack and then start over, deciding how many repetititititions to do. Varying the severity of the block like this can create the precious experience of having control over one’s speech for a change. And then (maybe) one can insert “easy stammers”, and if not actually refrain from stammering, at least be aware of some options.

It’s easy for you to say that, SSSteve…

Anyway, far beyond its niche exploration of speech impediments, The life of Brian is brilliant! More insights, on the uncritical veneration of sages, here.

Vesna Goldsworthy

I was drawn to Vesna Goldsworthy’s 2005 memoir Chernobyl Strawberries by her wonderful contribution to Private passions—a valuable companion to the book (Hold the front page! Books are silent! For Serbian soundscapes, see here).

Originating as a record for her young son through the trauma of her cancer treatment, the memoir is whimsical and full of insight—both about her early life in Yugoslavia before it was torn apart (she wonders if it was an accident that her country and her own body were disfigured so soon after each other) and her identity in her adopted home in England since 1986, caught between cultures.

As usual, I read the book partly with the experiences of Chinese people in mind. Goldsworthy’s description of her father’s attitude to her youthful flirtation with palaeography reminds me of the Chinese retreat into history:

Only my father saw some consolation in the fact that it was the kind of work which was unlikely to lead to imprisonment. There seemed to be nothing remotely political in transcribing thousand-year-old prayers, whereas as a media star I was likely to shoot my mouth off sooner or later.

Even so,

In fact, while it was highly unlikely that a palaeographer would end up in prison or without a job, as had been known to happen to the critics of contemporary literature, my father was wrong in thinking that the vellum-bound world was apolitical. You could say, for example, that a manuscript was “probably Bulgarian” or “possibly twelfth-century” and cause an international dispute of major proportions…

Among vignettes on the fates of her forebears, Goldsworthy gives fine insights into the society of Belgrade through her youth (when she was “optimistic, ambitious, invulnerable, and in some ways insufferable”), the nuances of class in a classless society—not least the three rings of schools (her own lycée “educated some of the most intelligent and most fashion-conscious young people east of the Iron Curtain”):

In our senior common room new members of the Communist Party represented a more raggle-taggle selection than before. Some were visibly keen, some rather diffident, some were obvious (clever-clogs, careerist with a bad sense of timing, those who carried a briefcase to school, prominent members of youth organizations, children of well-known communists who could hardly refuse to join), some rather less so (ditzy girls from old families who had fallen for the old hammer-‘n’-sickle chic, the school poet, the fourth-grade hunk, a good third of the school basketball team, encouraged to join as role models and highly visible because they were all six foot six and chewing gum). Working out which members of the teaching staff belonged to the party, information you wouldn’t normally have been privy to as a student, was part of the privilege conferred by this particular entry into the adult world.

The heightened sensibility towards dress-sense also reminds me of Maoism:

Many of our professors addressed us with “Colleague”. Others used “Comrade” or “Miss”, according to whether they were communists or bourgeois recidivists. Forms of address provided an easy way of knowing individual political allegiances. It was useful to be able to distinguish Comrade Professors from Mr or Mrs Professors in order to know whether to cite Lukacs or T.S. Eliot. Although one could often tell the two groups apart simply by the clothes, it was not always safe to make hasty assumptions. Suits, ties and moccasins mostly belonged to comrades; tweed jackets, turtle necks and shoelaces to Mr and Mrs, but safari suits could go both ways, and were surprisingly popular in the early eighties.

And even furniture:

I felt that, through furniture, I had a special path to understanding the world I came from. Whereas in the West the inexhaustible variety of interior design often manages to obscure surprising degrees of conformity, the enforced conformity of the society I grew up in concealed a bunch of eccentrics and sometimes downright madness. While the wives were crocheting, madmen were busy plotting Armageddon.

Goldsworthy describes the schism (and occasional blurring) in poetic circles between bohos and suits, and her own youthful “Penelope poems” about the female who waits ( the waitress) for an absent male, often with pseudo-religious powers.

During the endless family debates over her choice of outfit for a major poetry-reading in honour of Tito (“a strange form of necrophilia”), her sister mumbles “peasant”:

She used the feminine form of the noun. There was no doubt that she had me in mind. Only peasants wrote poetry anyway. (The word peasant, with its full power of character assassination, is not readily translatable into English. It was neither here nor there as far as the real peasantry were concerned, but a poisoned dart if directed at a Belgrade student of letters).

She goes on to reflect on the Tito cult:

The longer it was since his demise, the more there was to celebrate. Like the widow of a murdered Sicilian Mafia don, the country clung to his memory in an incongruous mixture of mourning and décolletage, as if knowing that a collective nervous breakdown would follow once the ritual was no longer observed.

Meeting her future husband, “I was ready to follow the boy to the end of the world, to England itself if need be.” * After reaching Heathrow,

Only minutes later, I was on the Piccadilly line—the Ellis Island of London’s huddled masses—with a copy of the London Review of Books.

In Private Passions Goldsworthy recalls the abundance of classical (and other) music in the Yugoslavia of her youth. And when she moved to England, her friends and family were horrified, asking, “How could you move to a country where there is no music“? So it’s suitable that her Slavic-tinged playlist ends with Purcell’s When I am laid in earth.

As befits an erstwhile poet, her use of English (her third language) is delightful. Like many foreign authors (from Conrad and Nabokov to Elif Şafak, or for China, Yi-yun Li and Xiaolu Guo), she finds that writing in English affords psychological space:

I have fewer inhibitions in English—perhaps because for me it doesn’t quite carry subcutaneous layers of pain. In fact, I sense—however irrational this may seem—that the I who speaks English is a very subtly different person from the I who speaks Serbian and the I who speaks French. That, perhaps, has something to do with the old chameleon tricks or the nature of the language itself. At any rate, the English speaker is a bit more more blunt and a bit more direct than the other two. She is and isn’t myself. She takes risks and admits to loss.

In Chapter 4 she reflects on the hereditary aptitude of her homeland for poetry:

In the four years between my move to London and her death, Granny wrote to me only once. It was a short letter, penciled in a deliberate hand clearly unused to writing. She reminded me to visit my parents regularly and urged me to behave in a way which would not dishonour my lineage; no laughing in public places, no loud conversation, modesty in dress and in everything else. Granny wrote as though she was worried that, away from my father and my tribe, I might be in danger of succumbing to some ungodly excess. In her world, Montenegrins who lived apart from their tribes were notoriously prone to prodigal or licentious behaviour. Her prompting came not because she lacked confidence in me, but because she clearly believed that this was what a letter from a grandmother to her granddaughter should be like. It wasn’t the place for frivolities of any kind. Although written in continuous lines, her latter was—from the first word to the last—a string of rhythmic pentameters, the verse of Serbian epic poetry.

As she calls her sister’s answering machine in Toronto to leave messages in “Granny”, adopting an asthmatic wheeze to let flow a torrent of alternating complaints and endearments, she reflects,

The language of my dead grandmother brings to life all our lost homelands, yet no book has ever been written in it. This is the language I lost when I chose to write in English.

Always reflecting on the subjectivity of memory, she has drôle comments on her new jobs in London.

I loved the prospect of boredom. Growing up in Eastern Europe was a powerful vaccine. I had gone through eighteen years of socialist education, learning when to say yes and when to keep quiet, in preparation for a job in which I’d be underpaid and under-employed. Where I came from, such jobs—usually in very nice places—were often described as “ideal for women”.

Reading news bulletins at the Serbian section of the BBC World Service through the traumas of war, she observes how her “RP” broadcasting voice differed from her “real” Serbian (inner suburban stresses, corrupted English slang), ** which had itself become a museum-piece:

My mother-tongue, meanwhile, remained firmly locked in its mid-eighties Serbo-Croat time-capsule, a language which officially doesn’t even exist any more.

 And then the straitened conditions of academic life:

Daughter of a self-managed workers’ paradise, I excel at my job. I criticize and self-criticize, I censor and self-censor, I compose self-assessment sheets about self-managed time, I sit on teaching and research committees, I attend meetings and take notes, I know that literature has hidden and insidious meanings. […] My communist upbringing, my upbringing in communism—to be able to live with myself without believing in anything I say, to be able to accept things without asking too many questions—has certainly stood me in good stead throughout my working life.

In the art of the long meeting, British university workers easily outdid anything I’d encountered in my socialist upbringing. The sessions were often longer than the communist plenaries, the acronyms just as plentiful, the put-downs just as complicatedly veiled in oblique metaphor, the passions just as high, even if the stakes were often infinitesimal.

None of the terms for her status quite fit:

Unlike my ancestral matriarch and so many others in the part of the world where I came from, I have never been a refugee. I am not an exile. Not quite an expatriate either: that term seems to be reserved for those coming from lands which are more fortunate than mine. A migrant, perhaps? That sounds too Mexican. An emigrée? Too Russian.

Getting to know her father-in-law,

I suddenly grasped the sheer luxury of being a British male in the twentieth century. Every conceivable counter-argument notwithstanding—and I know there are many—the picnic rug on the moral high ground still came in khaki and red, the colours of his beloved regiment. My father-in-law stood on the high ground, wielding a pair of secateurs, chopping, felling and dead-heading, without a care in the world.

Yet she notes parallels between his nostalgia for a vanished Indian colonial past and her own experiences, “linked by a homesickness which doesn’t make sense”. At his funeral she reflects:

I can’t bring myself to sing at an Anglican funeral, just as I couldn’t—were it an Orthodox one—wail as my female ancestors were expected to. In Serbia old women were sometimes even paid to mourn. They walked behind the coffin in the funeral procession and celebrated the dead in wailing laments delivered in rhythmic, haunting pentameters. I am stuck somewhere between the singing and the wailing, speechless.

And this isn’t the end of the book, but it could be:

I wish I could say—as people sometimes expect of cancer survivors and immigrants alike—that I am grateful for each and every new day on this green island. Ask me how I am today and chances are that I will respond with that very English “Mustn’t grumble”. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t. Which doesn’t mean that I am not grateful.

 

* Cf. The life of Brian, where Brian’s mother Mandy recalls a youthful fling with a centurion: “Nortius Maximus his name was. Promised me the Known World he did…”

** “fensi” meaning pretentious rather than just “fancy”, cf. the recent Chinese zhuang B.

 

Critics rebuked

Apart from John Cleese’s main ouevre, he  can be entertaining on the page too. This article, reflecting on four decades of “mixed (in the technical theatrical sense of ‘extremely bad’)” reviews from The Spectator, is a fine rebuke to his critics. Just as yet another well-deserved tribute to Michael Palin (new patron saint of stammering) comes on BBC TV, Cleese’s self-review is fun:

John Cleese is a remarkably talented individual, of an admirably humble disposition, and a rare sweetness of temperament, who continues to tower over his contemporaries, especially Michael Palin.

I’m also most enamoured of “The Zagreb Bugle”, and I eagerly await a review of my own film in this illustrious fantasy organ. Cleese’s comments on cultural pundits remind me of the biting satire of Stella Gibbons, in works like Conference at Cold comfort farm—not least her brilliant “Em creeps in with a pie“.

Mein Gott

I’ve already offered one Crucifixion joke, and you can find more online. The devout may wish to look away now.

Musos often tell this one, a true story about a performance of the Matthew Passion in Bristol, and an extreme instance of corpsing. I’ll refrain from naming the performers, though I do rather feel they deserve to be immortalized rather than crucified (not a choice vouchsafed to Our Lord).

As the Jesus du jour (fortunately this was a scratch gig) wailed an anguished cry to his Father:

Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?

on declaiming the first cry of “Eli“, he spontaneously essayed an extra dramatic flourish by giving a resounding stamp with his foot. Finding the effect rather pleasing, he followed it up with another stamp on the second “Eli“.

This already had the other soloists, seated nearby, struggling to hold it together— it was even funnier considering that Jesus, up there on the cross, wasn’t exactly in a position to stamp his foot. But when it came to the evangelist’s turn to translate Jesus’s words (That is: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) to the same melody, for scrupulous accuracy of live reportage what else could he do except stamp again in his two equivalent cries of “Mein Gott“? The performers now totally lost it.
Lama 1

Lama 2

It strikes me that this may be even funnier the more deeply we engage with the anguish of the scene.

For good (or bad) measure, an encore of Always look on the bright side of life seems appropriate:

For more cognitive dissonance, see A deflated pupil.

At such moments, it behoves me to stress that the Bach Passions are among the great monuments of Western civilisation…

French taunting

It’s been a while since we’ve had any French drôlerie (try A French letter, and the series on the Tang faqu). So it’s high time to remind ourselves of the classic scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Food for thought on the Brexit debate? And for aficionados of Chinese ritual, note the long trumpet near the opening.

For the taunts of cheerleaders at archery festivals in Bhutan, see here.

Ambiguity

On syntax, in cases like these it can be tricky to surmise whether the opening adjective should apply to the first noun or to the following adjectival noun–noun pair. Some may be clarified by means of a judiciously-placed hyphen, but that would spoil the fun:

  • Vibrated concrete manufacturer
  • Missing intelligence officer
  • Edible oil merchants—and indeed Crude oil merchants
  • Used car dealer
  • Small business adviser [peering over desk]
  • Great Queen Street
  • Hot bread shop
  • Swiss watch maker
  • Fat free yogurt
  • Overweight lorry driver
  • Affordable housing shortage [one for conservative governments, confident that we—or rather they—can indeed afford a housing shortage]
  • Wild goose chase [man, that was one wild goose chase],

as  well as this literary contribution:

and the classic

  • Fine tooth comb,

and perhaps even

  • One trick pony [How many trick ponies?].

A letter to the leader of a quartet belongs in this category too.

Recent news items have featured

  • Huge face database
  • Infectious disease expert
  • Racist dog whistling, perhaps owned by
  • Rightwing beer magnate:

Welcome to our theme café, Sir and Madam, I’m Fido, your racist dog waiter for this evening, and I’ll be whistling your favourite racist ditties for you to sing along to—specials on the board, and a fine selection of craft rightwing beers. (Did you just see that Pekinese? I dunno, they come over ‘ere… Woof! LOL—What am I like?) Perhaps I can warm you up by warbling The Stammering Coon.

This almost leads us towards silly headlines (some early classics here; and hours of harmless fun in the “crash blossoms” archive of languagelog):

  • Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim
  • Prostitutes Appeal To Pope
  • British Left Waffles On Falklands

And this, from Terry Jones and Michael Palin, no less:

Front raps

Some punctuation might help here:

Come on England

And a related case, under “Document design matters” on Twitter:

Document design matters

See also Publicity.

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.

More fieldwork tips

The Police squad series builds on Airplane the way Don Giovanni builds on Le nozze di Figaro.

An idée fixe that often comes in handy during fieldwork (see also under Themes) is

In rural China the etiquette of exchanging cigarettes and lighting up for each other is an important skill for the fieldworker to acquire, confirming social bonds (my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.24). Generally, when two or more men meet they compete to be first to get their offer accepted. The first offer is vehemently rejected; the giver is then obliged to insist until the cigarette is reluctantly accepted. The word thankyou is never used. Some shoving may be involved. Then the two compete to be first to proffer a light; as the recipient lights up, he expresses appreciation by touching the lighter’s hand with the little finger of the hand holding the cigarette, and the man with the lighter takes care to keep the flame going as he lights his own. I learn to emulate Li Manshan’s ritual of reluctantly accepting a cigarette, his frown, his look of confusion—“What is this funny little tubular object that is being offered to me, and how should I react?”

With the Li family Daoists we’ve developed a classification of cigarettes according to price, which varies widely. Using the class status language of land reform, we call the posh brands “rich-peasant fags”—the cheaper ones are for wannabe poor peasants like me.

Police squad provides another useful idée fixe on the importance of local knowledge in fieldwork:

The Greek subtitles inadvertently add a further Pythonesque touch. Though perhaps less so if you’re Greek.

My current favourite fieldwork tip heads this post.

More fucking gondolas

MP

Another gratuitous spinoff from the Li band’s trip to Venice (cf. Scunthorpe and Venice, and indeed Venice: daily life in a theme park—oh, and Some Venetian greetings!):

A lesser-known gem of Monty Python is Away from it all,

with all the lovingly recreated stereotypes eventually exposed in the escalating breakdown of John Cleese’s voiceover.

… the one thing that Venice truly lacks—is leprechauns.

Bulgaria gets a candid assessment too:

Hard to believe, isn’t it, that these simple, happy folk are dedicated to the destruction of Western civilisation as we know it…

Several of us recall seeing this in the cinema as a trailer before The life of Brian.

For more travel clichés, see Molvania, and China–Italy: International Cultural Exchange zzzzz.

Just a harmless bit of fun

mp

Only more serious scholars of the Python oeuvre may be aware of the LP Another Monty Python Record (1971), packaged as “Beethoven Symphony No.2 In D Major”.

The album contains some of the great classics (Spanish Inquisition, Spam, and so on)—”But That’s Not Important Right Now“. Here I’d like to highlight its “serious” liner notes on the back, which eventually degenerate into a commentary on Beethoven’s Wimbledon debut.

After a lengthy and erudite account of the composer and the symphony, little comments begin to slip in inconspicuously:

The important part of the first subject is Beethoven’s almost disdainful use of the high lob, forcing Hewitt to play right up to the net.
[…]
In all the Allegro is a compact and closely argued musical proposition, which would have been impossible on a hard court.
[…]
The second tune, which Beethoven said on his arrest was “just a harmless bit of fun”…
[…]
Beethoven now goes on to Forest Hills for the American hard court championships, and if this boy can repeat the devastating lobbying and volleying which he has shown on grass, but at the same time control his tendency to swing away on his second service and backhand returns, he could earn his position as No.2 seed behind the burly Roger Chopin of Puerto Rico.

For creative tribulations, see here; and for a justly neglected composer, here

Some harmless run-ins

Even in my early days of fieldwork, accompanied as I was by trusty colleagues from the Music Research Institute in Beijing, the cops rarely took much interest in me.

In one county south of Beijing the local constabulary reluctantly decided not to throw me out, allowing me to continue innocently “collecting folk pieces” with the stern warning

“Do not investigate anything not within your sphere”

—which I later adopted as the title for the Coda of Plucking the Winds[1]

Grateful though I am to them, with their own undoubted experience of local society, for attempting to help me define a workable scope for my studies, Confucian and Maoist thought alike support a basic tenet of ethnomusicology, that musical culture is intimately related to the society which nourishes it:

Music! Music! Is it nothing but the sound of bells and drums?—Confucius

There is no such thing as art that is detached from or independent of politics—Mao Zedong

However, it was not the moment for me to offer them a lecture on the principles of ethnography.

* * *

Whenever practicable, I stay in the villages with my local hosts. When I do have to stay in a town, there is usually a cheap hostel available where no-one cares much about regulations. On another occasion in the early 1990s, arriving in a little town, I spent the day with my Chinese colleague visiting a couple of fine ritual associations, recording them and chatting affably. That evening we settled into a wonderful clean hostel, recommended by our musician friends and costing about 40p a day, and next day after more excellent fieldwork we were having a cheap lunch of noodles when the cops arrived.

Brusquely telling me I wasn’t allowed to stay in accommodation not earmarked for foreigners, they whisked us off by car to the county-town, without even allowing us to finish our noodles. Blimey, I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition… Deposited at the police station, the machinery of local bureaucracy swung into action; the county mayor was summoned back from Tianjin, and a private meeting was held for several hours while they decided what to do with me (“Should get away with crucifixion—first offence”). The main purpose of this exercise was surely to give the massed officials an excuse for a vast banquet.

Meanwhile the young cop guarding me happened to be keen to learn some English, so I obligingly helped him pronounce some choice phrases like “Fuck” and “Bunch of wankers” (which, naturally, I explained as meaning “How do you do” and “Welcome to our country”), which I made him repeat in loud and confident tones till they echoed across the courtyard. A visit to the loo revealed a huge pile of ancient turds that had surely been accumulating—like Chinese culture, indeed—since the Ming dynasty.

The meeting broke up in time for them to all go off for their banquet, and the police chief came in with severe demeanour to explain that they had no choice but to expel me from the county forthwith. Not that I wanted to share the banquet—in fact the very threat of a banquet with them would have been enough to hasten my departure—but having not eaten since my noodle lunch was interrupted, I was getting a tad hungry, and the prospect of driving a distance before looking for a transport caff was not enticing. Not to mention the fact that the hostel we had been expelled from was comfortable, the town was charming, the food fine, and the music promising.

The police chief went on to explain that they were responsible for my safety: local hostels might be unsafe, and I could be robbed—or worse. That, he claimed, was why I should always stay in the county-town where the outrageously-over-priced high-class hotels apparently catered to my needs and guaranteed my safety.

I was quick to point out that this was far from the case: whereas in the countryside we are always looked after by wonderful hosts, and indeed the town hostel was a model of civilized hospitality, I knew from occasional stays in fancy urban hotels that they are hotbeds of vice—with drug deals and gambling rings, ladies of the night phoning to offer relaxing massage, you name it. Surely they wouldn’t wish to consign me to such dens of iniquity? As the police chief assured me this was not the case on his beat, I congratulated him sarcastically for being in charge of the only town in China free of such vices, and took my leave. “Welcome to our country”.

Back in Beijing, the story was lovingly retold at the Institute, boosting my street-cred.

 

[1] For Chinese translation, see “Qiewu jinxing zhishenshiwaide yanjiu” 切勿进行置身事外的研究 [Do not investigate anything not within your sphere], Zhongguo yinyuexue  2005/3.

The Three Wise Men

congshu

Fieldwork reports on local Daoist ritual continue to amass. Note the growing series Daojiao yishi congshu 道教儀式叢書.

In my book I described the main instigators of this impressive movement—C.K. Wang, John Lagerwey, and Lü Pengzhi—as a “holy trinity”. Then I thought maybe that should be the Three Pure Ones (Sanqing 三清)—but actually (since they are not so much objects of veneration as witnesses to marvels), a better metaphor might be the Three Wise Men:

“…Creeping around a cow shed at two o’clock in the morning? Doesn’t sound very wise to me…”
“We were led by a star!”
“Led by a bottle, more like!”

(Sorry, can’t help it…)

Now I’m wondering if they had a list, perhaps from Fortnum and Mason—how embarrassing if they’d all brought myrrh. “Sorry, your choice is already taken, please choose gold”.

For related irreverence, see Jesus jokes; or for a seriously good article, here.

Muzak

Ethnomusicologists, aspiring to some pseudo-scientific objectivity, tend to put their tastes on hold—for like John Cleese in the cheeseshop sketch, we “delight in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”.

Football songs, Bulgarian wedding laments, ice-cream-van jingles, Demis Roussos, world accordion conventions, even Beethoven, all are grist to our mill.

My esteemed colleague Helen Rees, in a fine outline of the Chinese soundscape, wrote:

Doorbells play Muzak when pressed.

I like that—I play Muzak when pressed too.