Friday, May 25, 2007

Hay there

When Arthur Miller was invited to speak there, he asked what kind of sandwich it was. Hay-on-Wye is in fact one of the biggest literary festivals in the world, and is held every spring in a little market town on the Welsh border with England.
The town is called Hay and the river's named Wye. It sits at the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Offa’s Dyke, the ditch that divides England from Wales, runs through the middle of it, so you’re never quite sure which country you’re in - but it likes to think of itself as Welsh and natives call it Y Gelli (pronounced eeGETHlee). And it’s one of the most beautiful spots in Britain.
They call it a market town, but its main market is second-hand books. Hay is one big bookshop, with books occupying any available space: the former castle; a cinema: a chapel; a Victorian military drill hall. Bookshelves line the main street, with honesty boxes labelled ‘Hard backs 50p’. You pay what you like for paperbacks.
Hay has a population of 1300 people and 39 bookshops - that's one shop for every 34 inhabitants. You’ll find bookshops that specialise in anything: books about bee-keeping, about British birds, about WWII medals. One shop sells only new books at £1. Marijana Dworski sells books in Polish.

If that looks familiar, it's part of a post I did last May, updated. Well, it's May again and we're off to Taffyland this morning clutching our 'must find' book lists, for our ninth trip to the Land of our Fathers. (DG was born there and so was my great-grandfather.) The photo's by Justin Williams, who has to be another Welshman.
'My books are the tendrils of my soul', wrote another Riviera writer, Robert W. Service. I'm not sure I know what a tendril is, and even less a soul - but I agree.

Desert Island Disc N0. 7 It’s May 24, my Dad’s birthday. He was my earliest musical influence, but I’ve no idea where his own preferences came from. Neither his class nor his education could have exposed him to much other than Victorian Music Hall (Burlesque): Florrie Forde, Harry Lauder, Sandy Powell etc., and he remained a Music Hall addict all his life, taking my mother and me to one or other of the many Liverpool (and later Blackpool) theatres at least once a week. That’s why I know all the words to songs like Any Old Iron, My Old Man, Oh Mr Porter and My Old Dutch. (I met the Sherman brothers once - the guys who wrote the music for Mary Poppins - who amazingly turned out to be English Music Hall fans. They were massively impressed with my repertoire if not my singing and asked me to write down the words, which finally found their way into an exhibit at EPCOT. Sure beat Supercallifragilistic.)
Dad also loved the musical comedies of his day: Rose Marie, Maid of the Mountains, Student Prince, White Horse Inn and such. But the surprise was that he also knew the works of people like Mendelsohn, Offenbach, and Herman Darewski. We didn’t have anything so sophisticated as an electrically-operated gramophone when I was a kid – in fact we didn’t have an electrical anything – but we would spend hours winding up the old machine and listening to Dad’s records. They would run more slowly as the spring wound down until finally Jeannette MacDonald would sound more like Ronald.
Later, my older brother would get into jazz and the records would be of Louis Armstong, Jelly-roll Morton and Billie Holday - but that’s another post.
One of Dad's and our favourites - we were a railway family and it began with ‘steam train’ effects - was Darewski playing Beyond the Blue Horizon. The train motif was taken up by the orchestra, building up speed and slowing at the end with a steam release like a sigh. Or was that the spring running out? I was later knocked out by the Artie Shaw arrangement, so that's the one I'm taking to the island, to remind me of old Walter tapping his fingers on the sewing machine and listening to his train sounds and the words: 'Beyond the blue horizon waits a wonderful day'.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Lemon envy

Karma citrus I noted a distinct lack of sympathy for our lemon plight last week, so thought a picture or two might be worth – and less boring than – a thousand words. One of these is next door's lemon tree, the other is ours. No prizes.

Phoney war There have been posts recently on the injustice of judging past events by today’s standards. Hilary Spurling calls it ‘cutting the past to fit contemporary orthodoxies’ - you know: Jefferson’s slaves, potato famines, lynch mobs and such. The recent death of Kurt Vonnegut has brought up Dresden again. He built a career on his night there, and I thought I might present another point of view.

I was sitting in the back of a small car with my brother – at the time, an adventure in itself for two Liverpool kids. The lady in the passenger seat said to the driver ‘It’s started then’, and he said quietly ‘Oh, has it?’ ‘Yes, 11 o’clock’, she said.

They were talking about the Second World War. It was September 3rd 1939, and we were evacuees, being sent away to avoid the bombs that everyone thought would soon start dropping on Liverpool.

But for almost a year there were no bombs – they called it the ‘Phoney War’ - and eventually the countryside began to pall. We city kids began to miss our cinemas, theatres and above all our football idols at Goodison Park and Anfield; and our parents began to tire of spending their weekends trekking off to visit their evacuee kids, often in two or more different locations. We began to drift back, and by the next September we were back at our old schools.

Then the Real War started. In the next two years, the Luftwaffe raided Liverpool more than 500 times, killing more than 3,000 people and destroying a quarter of a million homes. It culminated in May, 1941 in what came to be known as the ‘May Blitz’ when, for eight consecutive nights, from midnight to dawn, the city was pulverised by bombs and mines of every kind. Every night, as darkness fell, the streets were packed as people tried to get onto trams or hitch rides out of the city, and each morning they returned to see if their homes were still there. In Anfield cemetery on May 14, 67 years ago tomorrow, 1,000 unidentifiable bodies were buried in a mass grave

The house of my schoolmate across the street was hit, killing the whole family; our local station where my Dad worked, and the church where my parents were married, were flattened; Dad’s parents’ home was destroyed and they were found weeks later in separate hospitals 35 miles away and never saw each other alive again. After this Dad decided he had to get us out and applied for a transfer to a tranquil seaside resort 50 miles away. But by the time we moved, the raids had stopped.

Thus, although I was evacuated twice, I never missed a single Liverpool air-raid. But I don’t regret that. There was something unforgettable about that period of our lives - the fellowship, compassion and humour of the people of my natal city that made me proud to call myself a Scouse. Yes, Vonnegut was right: war is hell. But Britain didn’t start it, and there were many reasons - at the time - why not many tears were shed in Liverpool for Dresden.

Desert Island Disc N0. 6 It’s important, as a young parent, to believe that you are the sole influence on your children’s development, and that Darwin was nuts. I remember when, although a congenital jazz fan, I decided not to expose my kids to jazz lest they become similarly afflicted. When driving the car - the only place where very young kids are exposed to music since families clustered around the radio – I would give them only gentle classics: Ferde Grofe, Tchaikovsky – that sort of thing. And it worked – they loved the Grand Canyon Suite. ‘Put the donkey music on, Dad’, they would say cheerily on our way to church (I decided I ought to expose them to that, too – but it soon turned out that they only came for the Dunkin’ Doughnuts afterwards.) I started to picture my children as students, queueing up outside the Albert Hall to hear Mahler and Harrison Birtwhistle.

Then one day they caught me listening to Sonny Rollins playing St. Thomas and they never went back and I realised it’s all in the genes.

Then at some point you notice that the roles are reversed. Your son gets into the car outside school, and within one nanosecond his cassette (remember them?) is in the machine and you're listening to Huey Lewis. Then I was picking him up from school for his first gig - at Covent Garden. (No, not the Opera - he was playing alto in a bar down the street.) About the time he should have been joining the Boy Scouts he was introducing me to unpronounceable Bolivian folk singers, but then settled down to the likes of James Taylor whom I could at least understand.

One day he mentioned the Loose Tubes. The name implied tone-deaf adolescents with amps and acne, but then I saw them – at Ronnie Scotts – and my life changed. New (ie. non-jazz) instruments, new music, new arrangements. No one had told them that big bands had not been financially viable since Duke Ellington. (They probably knew but didn’t care.) The leader and main composer was a kid called Django Bates – obviously someone whose father had played Hot Club de France records in the car. They broke up after a year or so and most of them are now leading smaller, more economic groups of their own.
Amazon has only one Tubes record. They were meteoric: they didn’t burn for long, but what a light it was! That’s the choice for No. 6: The Loose Tubes and Delightful Precipice. (A synonym for a cliff?)

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Back to the Sun

So you think it’s an easy life? Arriving back, it takes us a whole ten minutes to get acclimatised: enter, open shutters, put table, chairs and parasol on balcony, unpack, wire up laptop, take bottle from ’fridge, grab binoculars, sit on terrace and study the boats. It’s sunny now but it has been very wet here and the lemon trees are grateful: being in pots they’re very dependent on kind persons giving them a drink. (Like their owners.) Not sure how this works but they’re currently carrying the puny remnants of last year’s miserable crop, plus lots of blossom promising a good harvest this winter. Frustrating thing is that whichever window we look out of – left, right or in front – are huge lemon trees, groaning with crops that will never get harvested, but are tantalisingly just out of reach. So we have to buy lemons at the shop. I thought I’d tell you all this ‘cause I’d hate you to get the impression that it’s all cakes and ale around here.
And that’s not all: I’ve managed to forget the USB device that controls the wireless mouse and keyboard, so have to use the fiddly laptop I/O facilities. Yes, I know I can pop down to the shop and buy another keyboard – but it will be a French AZERTY keyboard, with three functions to every key and all the keys the wrong place. So there’s my excuse for a brief blog and low productivity.

Ségo and Sarko There’s only one topic of conversation here. Everyone asks ‘Who do you think will win?’ It’s the Deuxième Tour of the présidentielle today – the Second Round of the Presidential Election - with the socialist Ségolène Royal (Ségo - see post Nov 17) in a run-off against Nicolas Sarkozy (Sarko) the conservative – and favourite. Actually they’re both ‘neos’ now because this is the round in which they try to grab the votes that were wasted in the first round in this eccentric electoral system. So Ségo set out to get Bayrou’s (centre-left) voters and Sarko went after Le Pen’s (almost as far right as an American Democrat) voters. So in the past week the whole thing has moved right and it’s all anti-immigration, anti-Europe and anti-union; and the Messiah is – and this’ll kill ya – Margaret Thatcher!
Not a word is being said about what will happen to the incumbent, Chirac. Will he lose his Presidential immunity and be indicted for the alleged skull-duggery when he was Mayor of Paris? No one‘s talking, but I think he’s made a deal somewhere.

Canary Island Discs No. 5 I’m heading west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on my way home from work. I’m slightly earlier than usual because it’s the day of the Katherine D. Markley school concert. KDM was similar to most American elementary schools – the kids learned about Davy Crockett, Paul Revere and all fifty state birds. But there was one big difference: Mr Miller. Mr Miller was an enthusiast - he taught music and led the school orchestra and the school military and dance bands, and as his name might imply, he was a Glenn Miller fan.
Unlike my kids, my own musical ineptitude was that of a tone-deaf mule. I preferred drums because the harmonics were unchallenging, you could make sticks out of meat skewers and drum on Mum’s sewing machine. (Never got along with the cymbals though.) I got the level of coaching that I deserved, and could only ever play one tune: Over the Rainbow - probably the result of a long-forgotten passion for Judy Garland or because I loved that octave leap at the beginning.
On this occasion Mr M announced that my daughter, who played in the orchestra, would be playing a flute solo as a surprise for her Dad. It was a surprise all right. I still have that huge disc the size of a flying saucer on which my daughter plays Over the Rainbow, but, this being a digital world, it’s unlikely that a desert island will have a diamond stylus. So for my Canary Island Disc No 5 I’ll have to settle for Judy’s version.
To recap:
Disc 1. Amhrán na bhFiann, the Irish national anthem, (to remind me of my mother, whose birthday is today).
Disc 2. Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.
Disc 3. Zoltán Kodály’s Háry János Suite.
Disc 4 Michel Petrucciani, Caravan.
Disc 5 Judy Garland, Over the Rainbow

This keyboard’s driving me mad – that’s all folks. Except to say, for those who care, that unless they are beaten by Chelsea by more than 10 goals next week, that EVERTON are in the UEFA Cup. Watching the level of French opposition tonight - Marseille - they should do well.