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I repaired my ukulele the other day. The neck had started coming away from the body, so I drilled a hole through the heel and into the top block. I countersank it, bladed in some white glue between the meeting surfaces, and screwed it all together good and tight.
To cover the top of the screw I used a little Sugru. This is a kind of silicone you can buy in small packets. You form it into shape with your fingers, then leave it overnight and it hardens to a tough but flexible rubbery compound that sticks strongly to most things, even plastic.
I used the rest of the packet to improve a vacuum cleaner foot I had bought. It fitted all right-ish, but it was a replacement designed primarily for another model. I formed the Sugru into a collar, covering the gap where the suction leaked.
Hallowe'en in Ballymun
On Wednesday my band Ukeristic Congress played for a festival in Ballymun, an area of Dublin undergoing renewal, having been a byword for poverty and social problems since the 1970s.
Ballymun was the site of seven 15-storey tower blocks built in the 1960s, to rehouse people moved out from conditions of incredible crowding and deprivation in the city centre. At the time the towers represented the best of social housing practice, incorporating luxuries such as central heating, but they have since been recognised as Ireland's worst planning disaster, for lack of amenities such as shops, lack of maintenance to lifts, and general neglect leading to ghettoisation.
Now the towers have been demolished and there is a shopping centre, and that is where we played. The Hallowe'en festival, called Otherworld, publicised us somewhat lazily:
... the Ukulele Congress will be telling us about their nationwide upcoming event/tour.Come on: we are Ukeristic Congress and we are not about to do a nationwide tour, but we have recently been featured on the TV show Nationwide.
The gig was character-building. We were on at 6pm for two hours, outdoors in a bitterly cold wind. We did our bit as folks drifted by, some it has to be said well got out in ghoulish garb. A few stood around or danced a while. In the middle of our set the generator stopped puffing diesel fumes around us from a grating, and closed down for a spell, killing our lights and amplification. I felt more sorry for the acrobats we could see across the way, twirling bravely from a crane, in their skimpy gear.
We went to a lunchtime concert today. The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin's City Gallery, runs a series of free concerts every Sunday at noon; but this one was on Saturday at one pm. I cycled in early and got there before the doors opened, to get the best seats.
Unusually, we had an announcer, Paul Herriott. This is because the concert was recorded recorded for the European Broadcast Union as part of its 'Folk Music Influences on Classical Music Series'.
The performers were the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet with guests. The Vanbrughs are a beautiful quartet, whose purity and co-ordination of sound is truly wonderful. Co-ordination is a favourite theme of mine at the moment, since I began doing a Feldenkrais class once a week. I'll write about that soon. But I've never heard a quartet in which the tone of each instrument passes so seamlessly into the tone of the next. The cellist (Chris Marwood) doesn't do the big cello thing, he just plays directly, rhythmically, meaningfully, and with the warmest tone, it would thaw ice. The viola player (Simon Aspell) has an amazing tone, that simply continues the cello sound upwards in pitch. And the violins (Greg Ellis and Keith Pascoe) match the same ideal. However powerfully they play, they never seem to distort, and their range of expression is wide and detailed. To me they are the ideal quartet.
Today they played a quartet by E. J. Moeran, an English-born composer with an Irish father who lived from 1894 to 1950 and died in the south-west of Ireland having lived there for his last years. Marvellous Vaughan Williamsy folky stuff, with both English and Irish tunes woven in. Before and after that they played two pieces by Niall Vallely, who also joined them on concertina. The second piece, The Red Tree had been commissioned by RTÉ lyric fm (the station recording this concert) and the Cork Folk Festival. It 'draws on the sounds of Irish, African and European traditions for inspiration' -- that's the first time I have seen Ireland listed outside Europe, but we know what they mean.
Niall Vallely also played a few pieces unaccompanied: traditional music from his native Armagh. A stunning player. It is truly amazing what skill can extract from a simple instrument if a player is dedicated to it.
Today we took part in a two-hour Feldenkrais session specially for musicians.
Moshé Feldenkrais was a Ukrainian physicist, engineer and judo master, who rehabilitated himself after an injury to his knee, rather than undergoing surgery. He developed and taught a method of improved bodily mobility through awareness of the functioning of the skeleton. He observed that we habitually move according to a mental image of our body, which can often be an inaccurate model. His goal was "to make the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant".
I have been going to a weekly session with a Dublin teacher for six months or so. I first attended a weekend course in March and immediately afterwards found that I was walking differently, not thumping my heels as I always used to. Our teacher, Abbe Harris, is quiet and very focused: we lie on mats and she puts us through simple (or complex) movements, with long moments of rest between bouts.
You can also have private sessions where the teacher manipulates your joints and limbs: these are called Functional Integration, while the classes are called Awareness Through Movement. Basically you learn, by exploring your own movements, to co-ordinate your whole skeleton in the movements you make with one part—obviously a very relevant thing for musicians.
When you put your left hand in, you put your whole self in. That's what it's all about.
I've been teaching a short course in Renaissance music theory to a group of Masters students, in the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama, to give it its full title. DIT stands for Dublin Institute of Technology; this venerable institution covers many branches of learning, and has progressed over the years from being a technical school to full university status, teaching everything from architecture to physics.
I have ten in my class, some traditional musicians, some opera singers, orchestral violinists, pianists, and one organist. They are not obliged to attend and will not be examined or assessed on my module, yet strangely they have attended faithfully since the beginning of term. I pitch it as entertainingly as I can, but I can't help it when I get on my hobby horses such as temperament or the Three Ages of Music. I use my hootoo Entries as lecture notes.
So far I have done five ninety-minute lectures: on temperament, the lute and viol, the three ages, ancient Greek musical aesthetics, and the sixteenth-century rules of composition. The rules were uniform throughout Europe, but the final set were hardly agreed on before they were being flouted by Monteverdi in his 'seconda prattica'. He indulged in ungrammatical dissonances when setting powerfully emotional words, and entered into a public correspondence with a theorist who criticised him for it. The public trembled, and the walls of the city shook?or might have, if Venice had walls.
I turned up today to give my sixth lecture, on Rhetoric, and found that the course only runs to five. One really should remember these things. It won't go to waste, though; I'll rejig the topic for the Bachelor of Music students I take on Friday.
My mother died at the age of forty-three, but had she lived she would have been a hundred last month. My brother decided a few years ago that we should mark her centenary, so we planned and hosted a party in my house, inviting her descendants and those of her sisters. About forty made it, coming from Andorra, Barcelona, Montpellier, London, West Cork and Armagh as well as Dublin.
My mother was the source of music in my family; that is to say my father and his family were not in the least musical. My mother was one of those pianists who could accompany any song as soon as she heard it. She also played Chopin, and the first time my family met the family my eldest brother later married into, she was playing Chopin on a hotel piano. My brother's future sister-in-law heard Mum playing, and said "I can play those pieces, but not the connecting parts between them!"
Mum was a fan of Charlie Kunz, a popular but delicate proponent of the stride bass piano style. I remember her singing 'Lullaby of Broadway':
When a Broadway baby says goodnight, it's early in the morning
In preparation for the party I downloaded the sheet music of that and another favourite song of hers, and sang them twice on the evening: once accompanied on the piano by an old college friend who also played some Chopin (an etude and a waltz) and later with my ukulele and my son on bass. We had other music as well as food and drink and a poem from one of Mum's granddaughters, and we finished with a version of 'When I'm Sixty-four' (because that's what I am) played by the family band: my grandsons on clarinet and cello, wife on flute, daughter-in-law on violin, sister-in-law on viola, daughter, two nieces and niece-husband on viols, son on bass and me on bells.
I had fun orchestrating that piece. The viols gave it a faintly Brandenburg Six flavour.
Four or five years ago I read both of Barack Obama's autobiographical books and was amazed to find myself filling up with emotion. As I wrote somewhere here, it must be the strangest legacy of George W. Bush that he could make a rational, articulate person look exceptional.
Obama is exceptional, of course, but it takes more than that to fight City Hall. The American political world is hard to believe; both Republicans and Democrats are in the pockets of big business, but the Republicans push the corporations' agenda so hard that the Democrats appear liberal by comparison. It is truly stunning how the Right can manage to persuade the Middle that protecting the very rich is a human rights issue.
When Bush pushed through legislation (since rescinded) removing inheritance duties, observers were amazed that the majority would vote for the exclusive benefit of the minority. Is this the acme of democracy? It would be, if the minority in question were the downtrodden, but what could persuade people to cosset the already-cosseted?
In a poll during the 2000 election, people were asked if they were in the top 1 percent of earners. Nineteen percent of Americans said they were in the top 1 percent and another 20 percent expect to be someday.
There's 39% voting to exonerate 1% that they believed they were in, or nearly in. Delusion or what?
The Elephant in the Room
Just one more US Election entry. According to George Monbiot, Barack Obama, who years ago publicly faced the challenge of climate change in full seriousness, soft-pedalled through his presidential campaign, making only one reference to it, as 'a threat to our children’s future'.
Mitt Romney also mentioned it:
In the Republican party platform, “climate change” – yes, in quotes – is mentioned only once, and only to attack Obama for taking it seriously.
Beyond that , it seems, each candidate made one throwaway comment on climate change in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, and that was it. In the debates it was enormously absent.
Big business has an agenda that is not the welfare of humans. Obama knows he cannot kick against big business. This political model is plain madness. How is it going to change?
Tonight´s post comes from Spain.
We are visiting our younger son, his wife and their daughter for the weekend. They live in an apartment in the centre of Madrid. We left our home by the blue bus around 2 pm and arrived by the yellow bus from the airport in Plaza de Cibeles around 8 pm. The flight is a small part of the operation; we arrive in Dublin airport with an hour and a half to spare so we can have a decent lunch (Diep Noodle, a Thai restaurant) before going through security and up to the gate.
Our granddaughter is two-and-a-half, and has plenty of English; our son is a TEFL teacher and he plays with her and reads to her in English, and she is perfectly receptive to that. Our daughter-in-law is from Madrid but spent several years in Ireland, working for a language school, where they met. Her English is fluent and that´s what they speak at home. Tomorrow we will go out to a tapas bar with her parents, and then we will see how my Spanish lessons through the earphones walking the dog in the park every day are paying off.
A Lazy Day
Breakfast lingered late, and then, after a few runs through The Rainbow Connection on guitar, a shortish walk brought us to coffee with a croissant which stretched to two o'clock, when we met our co-grandparents and had lunch in two different tapas bars. The first was the one they had planned to take us to, but it was full, so we made a reservation there for later and went to have our first lunch in the second bar, in Plaza Del Rey. This was salady and delicious, with patatas bravas and Spanish beer. I tried out a phrase from an old Linguaphone course: 'La cerveza es buena para los alemanes, pero nosotros españoles tomamos vino'. Went down well enough; my comprehension is certainly a bit better than last time and I could make a few relevant comments as well. We were surrounded by goodwill so everything went down well.
Leaving the second bar and returning to the first, our reservation didn't seem to count for anything. Who ever heard of reserving a place in a bar, anyway? But we (or the Spanish members of our party) remonstrated stoutly, and while we were doing so enough people left for us to find space inside, standing at the very short bar. It is called Cisne Azul, the Blue Swan, and specialises in mushrooms, cooked on a hotplate by a Chinese or Vietnamese-looking chap, very expertly. He was also grilling steaks and black puddings, turning out food at a prodigious rate.
I couldn't identify the mushrooms but they were gorgeous. We also had bread, more beer, and asparagus. I had to avoid the third helping of mushrooms because they were done in the house special style, swimming in duck liver paté. Spain is not vegan-friendly; even the first two plates of fungi were served with fried egg in the middle, which they break and dip into the yolk. That doesn't bother me, I can avoid that; contamination is not an issue for me.
We wandered home, picking up a few bottles of wine on the way, in time for a cup of tea and some cartoon DVDs, and a game of Scrabble. We do work assiduously at our relaxation.
The Rainbow Connection
Tried out The Rainbow Connection on banjo and guitar. My elder son gave my Madrid son a banjo this year, and he is gradually coming to grips with it. The hardest part of practising music is opening the case. But no hurry. It sounded great and the experience was encouraging. It's a tenor banjo; I would have gone for a five-string, but actually the tenor is more versatile. It can be played with fingers or fingerpicks or a flat pick, and it can be done in non-brutal fashion. Gently.
I have a particular fondness for rainbows. I had an enlightening relationship with a rainbow while cycling through the dusk and rain in Sweden once. I noticed how stable it remained, however I jigged around on my bike, and thought 'If this is a subjective experience, it is a very reliable one'. Even before that, one of my first hootoo Approved Entries was Rainbows End. I quoted Kermit in that without paying proper attention to the full words of the song, but posting the words and chords last week on the Uke Ireland Chords & Tabs page I couldn't but notice that I had misrepresented the little green guy. I thought he said 'Rainbows are … just an illusion' but no, he was on my side all along. I've rectified that now.
That's one thing I love about publishing on the web: you can revise endlessly. Particularly here in hootoo, where the Editors are prompt and understanding. Chapeaux!
Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jog
Back in Dublin with twenty minutes to spare, to slip in today's blog.
I'm going to spend some of each day sleeping from now on. The journey couldn't have been smoother and I snoozed for most of the three hours on the plane, but I'm well whacked.
Mild chaos of the kind we are used to at the blue bus (Aircoach) stop at the airport. No notices up (our city buses now have electronic screens on poles to tell you what is coming, and how soon) but a helpful guy was there to answer all the questions put by perplexed travellers. As we went to mount the right bus eventually, the driver said the tickets should have been punched by him two feet away (we had bought returns on our way out). Helpful guy tore lumps out of the tickets at, no doubt, the critical spot.
Back across dear old dirty Dublin. The Irish Times we bought in the airport told us that the referendum on children's rights had been passed in our absence, but that only 33% of the electorate voted. The Noes claimed a resounding 42% of votes cast, which means I suppose that the Yeses won a paltry 58%. Court cases threatened.
All the major parties supported a yes vote, to improve the treatment and rights of children in the state. Naysayers said 'Do you really want the state to be in control of family life? This undermines parents.' Basically, it's meant to.
You could say it's all part of a fiendish conspiracy to make the people lose faith in democracy. Feed them intractable questions that can't really be answered in a yes/no referendum, repeat till thoroughly bothered, and hope that the people will start saying 'You decide—this is too hard for us.'
Must guard against getting habitually annoyed. There will be plenty of annoying stimuli, many of which I can do nothing about.
I think I have a flu. I was cooking up a sore throat on the way to Spain but it didn't materialise and I thought I was through it, but I just had this knocked-sideways exhaustion and it is still with me. Lie low and take it handy.
I got up early to take my wife to teach recorder in her school up the Dublin foothills (they're not really mountains, but it's great to have them). Not a peep out of the car, so she had to take a taxi, just a few miles. A nephew was coming by to give me back a viol bow I'd lent him, and we did jump-leads with instant success. The back door of the car had been left not entirely closed over the weekend and the interior light had drained the battery. My nephew came in and I had a go on a strange instrument he had made: a violin on the body of an old VHS cassette player. It needs amplification, but it works. He is the epitome of a nutty inventor, though very practical too. He works with companies saving seeds from old apple trees and the like, and he is very self-sufficient, living in the West.
My number one son turned up at the same time and helped jump-start my car. We had some white tea and lively chat, then I headed up the mountains to collect our lovely Lily from the kennel where she'd been staying the weekend.
A Day in Bed
Today I am posting from my phone for the first time. I have been lying low, surfing the net and reading the news, playing games and generally doing all the things I can do on my phone, which must be about one percent of the things a person can do on a phone.
For me, science fiction was complete when we got Skype.
However I do intend to get up and take my viol class tonight. I was thinking of cancelling last night's class but didn't, and in the event the class went extremely well. A good sleep in the afternoon set me up well and I worked them hard. Four women of between sixteen and indeterminate years, three indeterminate. We played Coprario and Bartholomeus Praetorius. Viol players have their own pantheon … I daren't leave this page to insert a link, so the curious reader will have to type 'Viols' into the h2g2 search box for my Entry.
I only hope that what I've been flattened by isn't contagious. Perhaps I should warn my victims: tonight it is one woman of indeterminate age, one about my age and two a little younger than me.
I drove my son to the airport today in his car which is big enough to take his bass in its flight case. He's off to the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, where a Dublin group, The Crash Ensemble, are the featured performers. They have been rehearsing like mad things, culminating in nine hours yesterday, to do three different concert programmes in the next three days.
Here they are in action. Starts quite lyrical actually, before it gets manic.
No time, must post.
My other band, Aisling Out Walking, are on the boards again tonight, in the Millennium Bar in Parkgate Street, at 9 o'clock.
Parkgate Street is a very special part of Dublin. It leads from the North Quays to the main gate into the Phoenix Park. At 1752 acres, this is one of Europe's largest enclosed recreational areas in a capital city. It is something all Dubliners are proud of (mostly they will simply tell you it is the biggest walled-in park in the world, which may have been true once). It contains the Zoo, the President's House, and the residence of the American Ambassador. It is also home to a herd (herds?) of deer, and a favourite place for joggers, kite and hobby plane fliers, and strollers.
There are many gateways into the Phoenix Park, and apart from Parkgate Street they all look alike. I got comprehensively lost one night driving home through the park; I took a wrong turn—I don't know how, since the way through the park from the Cavan road is straight through—maybe I had got lost already and came in the wrong entrance. I found myself coming out in a totally unfamiliar area, along Blackhorse Avenue, a place I had heard about but never seen. One can remain incredibly ignorant of one's own home town.
The Millennium is a small and friendly bar, and when we play there we don't need to turn our volume up very loud at all. It is close beside the historic Collins Barracks, which is now a branch of the National Museum of Ireland. It is also close to the Ashling Hotel (that name spells out for non-Irish readers the pronunciation of the name Aisling) which was home to Ludwig Wittgenstein for most of 1949; the hotel was then known as Ross's.
Viols at Kimmage
Tomorrow we will play viols in Kimmage. I play more or less regularly with at least four different viol groups, two of them my weekly classes, and one the family consort who played at my Mum's centenary party. My Mum was never to know that she would have a viol-playing son, let alone four viol-playing grandchildren and two spouses.
The Kimmage group is convened by another chap about my age who started playing the viol in John Beckett's class in the Royal Irish Academy of Music. Paul became a close friend of John Beckett's and travelled to Germany with him to visit the haunts of Bach. It is John's class (now two) that I continue at home; I was his successor for thirty years in the Academy, but privatised the class four years or so back, giving the students a better deal .
Paul has a post in a college in Kimmage, where he hosts us for a monthly meeting on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon while there are no students around. Tomorrow we will be four, and the menu will almost certainly include some Jenkins, a favourite of Paul's as he was of John's. I enjoy playing Jenkins too, though my teacher José Vázquez still refuses to rehearse or perform his fantazies on the grounds of their diffuse nature; you can't easily make decisions about dynamics, articulation, all the usual features of expression, since each part seems to have a different direction for much of the time. There is not enough overall thrust to decide on. His other pieces, the Royal Consorts for instance, José performs happily.
Jenkins composed through the greater part of the seventeenth century, a time when the arts were becoming dominated by the single highlight, the building of well-defined climaxes. Elements wandering off on their own business is more of a fifteenth-century aesthetic.
The St Matthew Passion
I am sporadically practising a piece for a concert taking place next March.
The viola da gamba solo in the bass aria 'Komm Süsses Kreuz' in Bach's St Matthew Passion is one of the most difficult pieces I have come across. I have played it twice or three times before in performances, and I want to get into good training for the next one. The Passion will be presented in Templeogue, Dublin, before Easter, the season for Passions. It will be conducted by an extraordinary young man called Killian Farrell. I played for him last year when he did the other great Bach Passion, the St John, while still a schoolboy. His rehearsing was if anything more impressive than his conducting on the day, which was flawless; such security in the score, and with the forces, was worthy of a very mature professional.
The reason why the solo is so demanding is curious. People tend to think it was written that way to match the painful task of accepting crucifixion: 'Come, sweet cross'. The going is rocky, with the bow required to skip repeatedly, in no time, from the lowest to the highest strings of a seven-string bass viol. However I read somewhere that it was originally written for a bass lute, on which large skips are no trouble at all: thumb-finger-thumb-finger.
At Köthen, Bach had worked with an exceptional violist, Christian Ferdinand Abel, to whom a technical challenge was a welcome puzzle, and probably Bach could play the viol himself (he was of the last generation of town musicians who were expected to be skillful in keyboard, string and wind playing). Bach was fond of giving wind players parts with no place to breathe, giving singers agile figurations suitable to violins, and generally asking a lot of his performers.
As well as playing fast notes and chords skipping all over the instrument, the solo must be played very loud, or it gets lost in the texture. Not for the faint-hearted. The first time I had to play it I broke the neck of my viol a week or so before the concert, opening the case when it had not been secured by the strap around the head. Bang, it went, on the floor, and it was in two pieces. At that time I didn't know of another seven-string in Ireland. I brought it to my repairer who said, 'Yes, I can mend that, but not this week as I'm going to London. But here's what you do—'.
I took off the fingerboard, drilled through the heel and top block, screwed it back together, with some glue for good measure, replaced the fingerboard, restrung it, and next day continued my practice.
I am writing this rather than tidying my study. It seems I would do anything rather than tidy my study.
I did a bit of tidying this morning, and the top of my filing cabinet is now nude and gleaming. I achieved this by playing a game with myself. I set my timer for ten minutes, did ten minutes of tidying, then reset it and did ten minutes of work, and so on. In this way I passed a few productive hours until coffee time. Well, actually it may have been just one hour, because after a few frenetic sessions of each I mysteriously found myself doing something that was neither tidying nor work, namely subediting an Entry for hootoo.
The frenzy was fine, though. When the bell sounds you have to stop in mid-tidy or mid-work and change over. You find yourself hurrying to get a bit finished, and at least until the system collapses you are working (or tidying) with great gusto and verve.
Enough procrastination. Time to reset the clock.
Every day, more or less, my wife and I play Scrabble after lunch, with our cup of coffee.
I have the original family set, and it's almost as old as I am; not quite a first edition, but dated 1954. Whenever a letter goes missing I make a new one; I have plenty of maple hanging around from my instrument-making days. I plane it to the right thickness, cut out the tile, round its edges with a file and polish it up with emery paper, then mark it up with indian ink. A few years ago I went over all the letters and scores that were worn away, blackening them with a laundry marker pen. That was a bad idea. The ink spread and made a mess of the lot. I was mortified, but after a while you get used to anything.
Our games last between twenty and thirty minutes, and we rarely score less than six hundred between us—often over seven hundred, and occasionally over eight hundred. The revelation, that Scrabble games need not take hours, came about thirty-three years ago when we had a visitor, Tony Hewitt-Jones, who was over from England to examine for the Associated Board. He simply had to have a game every day, but it never lasted longer than half an hour. He played quickly, not caring who scored high or low; when your opponent plays quickly you soon fall into step, as it is clearly rude to agonise over your moves when he doesn't.
I know it must have been that long ago, because our youngest was about five or six at the time. Tony was practising around the house for an an upcoming audition for a Gilbert & Sullivan production. After hearing him singing his aria several times here and there with resounding conviction, Sam asked us with wide eyes 'Is he really a pirate king?'
We play an open-book game of Scrabble; the well-worn Chambers is always on the table, and we are permitted to check for a word before committing ourselves. Chambers is the one, as it defines more words than any other domestic dictionary. Worst of all is the Shorter Oxford, which disdains many common words borrowed from other languages. I use my SOED as the Arbiter of Correctness, and it sits in pristine condition in a glass-fronted cabinet in my study. By contrast I have had to repair the spine of my Chambers with heavy tape, and it is now covered in stout brown paper, marked THE BOOK.
One day, trawling through M, I came upon the word Mumpsimus, defined as:
n a view or opinion stubbornly held, even when shown to be misguided; a person holding such a view, or one adhering stubbornly to old ways. [An ignorant priest's blunder (in an old story) for L sumpsimus, we have received, in the mass]
We all know a few of those. I looked for the story, and found this:
According to the tale, there was once a medieval monk who persistently said a phrase in the Latin Eucharist wrongly, either because he was illiterate and had learned it that way or because it had been transcribed incorrectly in his copy. Instead of “quod in ore sumpsimus”, he would say “quod in ore mumpsimus”. Now sumpsimus is Latin for “we have taken” (the full phrase means “which we have taken into the mouth”), but mumpsimus is just nonsense.
I just love stumbling on that kind of treasure.
AustralityFor Cathay I can't say I'm inclined
To set forth, for the Afric, the Ind
Or the twin twirling poles—
These were never my goals:
I prefer to bestir in my mind.
We visited old friends today who have moved to Australia on retiring. They were back in Ireland for two months, still having business to tie up; he is editing a forthcoming Encyclopedia of Music in Ireland to which I have contributed a few paragraphs. We only caught up with them now that they have less than a week left before catching the long plane home.
He is Irish but she was born in Australia, and they have moved there partly to be near her aging mother, as well as partly to escape the north European winter. Her mother, now 85, is Russian; one day during the war she was seized as she worked in a field, and transported to Poland without being given time to say goodbye. In a work camp she met and married a Polish man, and after the war was over they left for Australia as soon as they could.
Our friends married in 1975, in the first civil ceremony I witnessed in Ireland. It was faintly hilarious: civil marriages were still very rare at the time, and the registrar was obviously ill at ease. The wording he used was rather like the Anglican wedding ceremony with key words omitted: 'We are gathered here in the presence of ... each other, to join these two people in ... matrimony' is how I remember it.
They love living just north of Sydney. They know and like all their neighbours and have easy access to the outback, the sea and the city. There is less classical music going on there than in Dublin, they say, but plenty of other activity. The visual and other performance arts are vibrant, and there is a varied diet of opera. They constantly try to persuade us to visit them there, but I don't think it's going to happen. We flew to San Francisco once, which was enough tearing around the globe for one lifetime.
A Ticklish Business
I think I am through my mystery illness. The main symptom was thorough lassitude, a strong weakness, that had me flattened for a day and not at my best for a week.
I'm feeling much more full of pep now, though two nights ago I woke at two-thirty with an almost irresistible tickle in my throat, prompting me to cough in fruity paroxysms. I like to play a game with such coughs, and deny them an outlet. I lie still and resist. I observe the tickle as it turns to a sharp needle. Interesting, I think, as though it were happening to somebody else. My breathing becomes affected, I feel hotter, beads of sweat appear round the head. I don't always win, but I keep the coughing that gets through to a minimum. I—this is becoming gross, you may skip the rest if you are feeling squeamish—I have a feeling that the tickle is located in my phlegm, which I try to draw up into my mouth by exercising muscular tongue manoeuvres. After a while I have to go and drop a collection into the loo. Its texture is indeed slightly gritty.
Amazingly, this seems to work. The threatened cough never developed, and I had a clear night last night.
I have bought myself a copy of Vladimir Nabokov's Collected Poems. They are just as I had hoped: fresh, imaginative, vibrant, memorable. They are linguistically exploratory while remaining unexperimental, comprehensible, in recognisable forms. I hate most poetry but I love these.
I read Lolita many years ago and thoroughly disliked it, while acknowledging that something very brilliant was being put over. I promised myself to come back to Nabokov and the impetus came when a friend of my son's, Si Schroeder, lent me his Pale Fire. This is a slim but dense volume: it is built around a 999-line poem in a sub-Robert Frost vein, but the real novel is in the footnotes. It must be a contender for the title of 'most unreliable narrator': the poem is presented as written by an American professor of English, and edited by a Russian emigré colleague who is (it emerges) utterly delusional, and thinks it is all about him. A tour de force.
Nabokov specialises in unattractive heroes. Perhaps his only uncompromised hero is his father, the hero of Nabokov's autobiography, Speak, Memory. The Luzhin Defence is a fine study of paranoia, seen from within, with stunning conviction; King, Queen, Knave is a conjuring trick, a mystery murder novel with no murder and no mystery; The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is narrated by a brother of the eponymous hero, who (it emerges) has no brother. That last one is a kind of review of Nabokov's works to date; there is strong autobiographical material in all his books.
I haven't read them all yet, and have been putting off going back to Lolita; his late novel, Ada, is almost equally unsettling, an account of a delightful affair between the insufferably smug narrator and his young cousin, who (it emerges) is his full sister. By far the most attractive to me is Pnin, about another Russian emigré in an American University. Pnin is presented as a buffoon, but (it emerges) he is, like W. S. Gilbert's MacPhairson Clonglocketty Angus McClan, the only true and honourable character in the story.
My bass-playing son was in the band backing Camille O'Sullivan tonight in the Olympia Theatre. I was half thinking of going along, but we had had a good viol session with my wife and daughter and niece and her husband in the afternoon, and no-one else felt like going out on a dirty damp night. Then my son rang asking could he borrow a music-stand light, so I cycled in with one and stayed for the show; he had a ticket for Box no. 1 for his wife, but she didn't want to come out either. How blasé we musicians are. So I sat in Box no. 1, right on the corner of the stage.
Camille does cabaret, some contemporary songwriters like Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and some songs from the thirties, forties and fifties. She has a special thing for Jacques Brel. She comes from Cork but her mother is French and she can sing in French, Flemish and German. She is a complete drama queen and the stage is her playpen; but most of all she has an enormously flexible and expressive voice, low and sometimes husky, marvellously sure of pitch but not addicted to correctness. She makes every song entirely her own. She also likes to do the daring thing, like putting down the mike and singing not only unaccompanied but unamplified. She sometimes sings a song sitting on a swing hanging from the flies, or standing on a smallish round table. Her stage is littered with toys, currently dominated by glowing rabbits.
I think she works in England mostly now, but she always returns to do shows in Dublin, and no doubt Cork as well. She sang four rather good songs in a film that got lots of stars in reviews but seems to have sunk without trace since it came out in 2005, Mrs Henderson Presents.
The Stag's Head
This being the last Monday of the month was a Stag's Head night. It's an open mike night for ukulele players that has been running for three years at least. At first it was held in the Shebeen Chic, a pub that has since changed its identity. It had a certain tatty charm, a downstairs bar with a tiny tarted-up stage, but its disadvantages were serious. There was a trad session going on upstairs, just above our stage, and they tended to thump their feet on the floor when things hotted up. Also people used to drift down to buy drink, and pay no attention to the singers at the other end of the room. I found that by eyeballing the offenders and singing directly to them I could sometimes shut them up, but you don't want to be doing that all the time.
About two years ago we moved to The Stag's Head, and things became much more agreeable. We have a room upstairs to ourselves, and everyone who comes along comes either to sing or to listen. The room (called 'The Parlour') has a wonderful acoustic for singing, and we don't need to use a mike. It must be rare for a musical night in a pub to command rapt attention, with no chat going on at all.
The night used to be organised and supervised by Nora, a Basque girl, but shortly after moving to The Stag's Head she asked me to take it over, so I've been in charge ever since. I ring ahead to remind the bar staff that we'll be in, turn up at nine, and set up a list on a clipboard so people can sign up if they want to sing. Only once did nobody turn up: the last Monday of December last was St Stephen's Day (Boxing Day) so I moved the session to Tuesday 2nd January, avoiding New Year's Day. I had a quiet room to practise in all to myself. This year the last Monday of December is New Year's Eve, so we are just going to skip directly to January 28th.
Normally we get between a dozen and three dozen people there, over half of them players. There are some stunning singers that knock the breath out of your body, and some mumblers, and often some who write their own songs. The ukulele is amazing, you can fit it into any genre at all.
Here's what I sang this evening: The Rainbow Connection, 1990 (Loudon Wainwright III), Putting on the Ritz, Lullaby of Broadway, Blue Skies, and a few snatches of Tom Lehrer, including In Old Mexico. At the end I asked Stephen Cummins to take over from me as curator for the next while, and he agreed. Hooray. Off the hook. I was becoming bossy, I can relax a bit now.
How I went Vegan
Five years ago, in 2007, a friend gave me a book called The China Study by T. Colin Campbell. The author described his life as a nutritionist, working in the Philippines for the US Government, doing lab experiments and publishing in the top peer-reviewed journals, and finally being chosen to conduct an enormously privileged and far-reaching study of lifestyles and health right across China.
As a result I immediately took on the vegan diet. I don't call myself a vegan except as a shorthand in restaurants: I eat vegan. I have a nephew who is vegan and he won't wear leather or drink Guinness (it's clarified by a process using isinglass).
One result that kicked in straight away, and remains just as strong, is that everything I eat tastes wonderful. I suspect that I have always had a problem with digesting protein; as a schoolboy I never knew what it was like not to be constipated. Campbell's agenda in the Philippines was largely to get more protein into the people's diet, but he soon observed that the diseases were hitting those who had protein more than those who didn't. He questioned the accepted wisdom, arguing that protein has to be broken down into its components before the body can use it at all, and all the components are available outside protein.
Of course such a strong recommendation has its attackers too, who point out that the culprit in Campbell's decisive experiments was not protein in general but casein, the dairy protein. Even if they are right, I've become happy with my lifestyle and won't change back. I am spared gout, which is in my family and which I had started to suffer. I am also spared hangovers. And fortunately all forms of booze, other than cream liqueurs which I can do without, are plant-based.
My interest in food is minimal. When I'm alone I tend to eat whatever is in the kitchen, uncooked if I can get away with it, and usually walking up and down rather than sitting at the table. Fortunately my wife, my daughter, and her partner, currently staying with us, all cook brilliantly and imaginatively, so I lie low and am thoroughly spoiled.
I have been given, and have even bought, attractive cookery books, and I really do mean to get around to opening some of them. But, you know the way, there is always something more pressing to do, even if it is pure procrastination.
I have however developed a line in soups.
We both teach music at home, but one day a week my wife teaches all morning in a primary school. My job is to have lunch ready, and soup it is. I start by chopping an onion and frying it slowly in a large soup pan (sweating, I gather, is the word). Then I see what is in the fridge and vegetable baskets, and chop and add them, in order of cooking-time. A potato is good, so is a parsnip, carrots are a regular ingredient, beetroot occasionally, courgettes often, butternut squash, broccoli, tomatoes, passata from a tin, not all at once, but a selection of whatever comes to hand. As they gradually submit to the heat I add in pepper and salt, cumin, turmeric, oregano, tarragon, a pinch of chilli, thyme, or perhaps a random find in the spice cupboard. Hot water on top, boil, liquidise. Never fails.
Last time I found a cooking apple and bunged it into the mix (peeled and cored of course); I was apprehensive about that, and actually tasted the soup before serving it up. It seemed to be lacking something; my perception was that it was too trebly, not enough bass notes. Without hesitation I fired in a good shot of soy sauce, and it did the trick. Another famous soup was born.
So either I am wrong to think that I have no talent for cooking, or I am mistaken in thinking that it is a mystical intelligence possessed by a chosen few. Maybe it's just a doddle after all. I resist that conclusion strenuously.
The Whole of Philosophy
The question came up yesterday, on another thread here, of living in the present. Icy North brought up the Spirit of Christmas Present in Dickens's Christmas Carol as an example of 'someone who lives in the now. He has no concept of past or future. He just enjoys the moment.' Icy commented, 'I sometimes wish I could be like that, unencumbered by either regret or trepidation.'
As Hamlet said, there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. We burden ourselves with worries about the future and regrets about the past.
But the whole of intelligence lies in foreseeing possible futures. This is the gist of Stephen Pinker's book How The Mind Works and Dan Dennett's Consciousness Explained—two evolutionary philosophers whom I admire and read avidly. Even animals, who have no words for them, have concepts of what is possible, what is likely, and what's not worth pursuing. In hunting they calculate trajectories, so as to intercept them. Humans' future-projection capacity is so highly developed it makes us stand out from all the rest, to the extent that we now dominate the globe.
Of course that entails problems and woes; how could it not? A helpful ability can become an obsession, and we can lose our grasp on the present by thinking too much. The whole of philosophy, or at least of wisdom, it seems to me in a blinding flash of insight, is seeing that this is the case, and getting the balance right. That's it.
That's All, Folks
I've been a contributor to and follower of h2g2 for ten years now; according to my Personal Space in Brunel, my page was created on 8 November 2002. For readers from the future, when Brunel will be no more, that used to be one of the skins available in the old days.
I rather love this site. It has really been a home to me. Just as Daniel Barenboim says about music, it's a paradox that something that shows you the world can also be a refuge from the world.
I have written Entries here that I use every year as lecture notes, as I see I have mentioned above, on the fifth of this month. I suppose it's inevitable that I will repeat myself in conversations increasingly from now on. Looking over last year's November blogs I am surprised how little I have returned to the same topics—though both then and this year I began with repairs to ukuleles. Well, they're important to me.