Sunday, 28 February 2021

Adventures in Music

I love fiddling about on the piano when no one else is around. Mostly I sight read but just lately I have been trying to learn music off by heart, partly in an attempt to keep my brain in reasonable order, partly out of a misguided and never to be fulfilled dream that one day I will sit down in Euston Station - or somewhere else where they leave rather bashed up pianos for the public to play - and I will put my hands to the keyboard and a stream of wonderful melodic sound will result.

Among the pieces I've often sightread and am now looking at more closely are the oddly named Three Gnossiennes by Satie.

When merely sightreading it was as much as I could do to merely follow the notes. I allowed the instructions from the composer about how to play them to slide by in a blur. Now though I realise that they are quite out of the ordinary and constitute a work of art in and of themselves. They start out normally enough:

but after the first page the composer decides to have some fun:

Are we dealing with instructions about how to play this music, how to live life, or simply the transcript of a few castings of the I Ching, I wonder. Whatever they are, I have seldom read such a charming set of musical notations:

The last of these instructions would be the one that anyone hearing me play would be most keen that I took notice of. 

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Is It Meta

Although I loved it when Thom Tuck claimed that Lion King III was "the most meta thing that's ever been put in front of children", I didn't really have a clue what exactly he meant. While watching this week's University Challenge, I recalled his comment. It seemed to me that what I was seeing might be, if not meta, at least a wonderful example of life undermining art, as one contestant, despite being the only one on the panel who had actually read the work in question, had to appeal to the men around her to explain to her who wrote the book Men Explain Things to Me:

Mostly University Challenge doesn't provide anything anywhere near as amusing, let alone two laughs in one programme, but this week we also had a contestant supply the correct answer, "hoar", and then have to explain to his team mate that he wasn't being silly or applying surprising epithets to her, simply answering the question:

The more usual pleasure of the programme is that it does afford an opportunity for one's partner to demand - and for oneself in turn to demand of one's partner - recognition, if either of us manages to shout out the correct answer to a question before any of the team members do. 

For those in our household who are true blue Australians, rather than half-caste hybrids like myself, there is also the joy of pointing out how the British young don't wash their hair very often and how they also seem to delight in dressing drably. I don't encourage this sort of jeering, although the Australian side of me is unable to disagree.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Heath Robinson Goes to America

There is a young New Zealander (I'm guessing from his accent) who lives in America and devotes his time to constructing machines that make him sandwiches and feed them to him, wash his face in the morning and follow up with lunch and dinner. My favourite is the machine that tidies rooms. You can find videos of all his Heath-Robinsonesque contraptions here.

To my surprise I found out about this person from reading the usually extremely unfrivolous Guardian newspaper.

I swear I will never eat corn on the cob in the old-fashioned way now that I have been introduced to the paint roller and paint tray method

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Diplomacy in 2021

I have been puzzled since this morning, when I read a short piece accompanying a photograph of one of the queen's grand daughters, who has just had a baby. She was pictured with a hairband that seemed to have no purpose, as it was perched on her head but was not holding back her hair. Beside her was a man holding a tiny baby dressed in blue (both were - the baby and the man). The caption identified the man as the husband of the pictured grand daughter of thr queen. The caption went on to supply the information that the man is by profession a Tequila ambassador.

I spent more time than I wished as the wife of a diplomat (I'm still his wife, but he's stopped the diplomatting, praise be to the lord). During all that time, I never met an ambassador whose job sounded half as much fun as Tequila ambassador. Although, I must say, I would prefer to stride about the world on behalf of a bottle of gin or a crate of champagne, if I had the choice of which alcoholic beverages to base an ambassadorial career upon. 

I wonder what the pay is like and whether it comes in bottles or hard cash.

Thursday, 18 February 2021


I posted about my faintly disconcerting initial experience with Random Street View the other day. In that post, I used the word “whirligig” for the first time in my life. I therefore found myself surprised this afternoon, when I encountered this conversation between two Oxford dons in the book I am reading (A Memorial Service by J I M Stewart):

"'The whirligig of time, as Feste says.'

'Yes. Do you know what a whirligig is?'

'A spinning top, I suppose.'

'It was a revolving cage for the ducking of petty criminals.'"

I am beginning to think that maybe there is a message that somehow is being conveyed to me from somewhere. 

In the context of messages, I recall the anecdote told to Giles Fraser by Peter Hitchens in the Confessions podcast episode that Hitchens took part in. As Hitchens tells it, a Liverpool dock worker is alone at the end of a shift when he falls and finds himself hanging above the ground, suspended by one hand gripping a girder and nothing else. He calls out, "Is there anybody there?" and a heavenly voice comes back saying, "My son, I am here". The dock worker yells back, "Thank you, lord - what should I do", to which comes the reply, "Let go." The dock worker pauses for an instant and then responds by yelling, "Is there anybody else there?"

Unlike the dock worker, I am not at the stage of rejecting the message that is being offered - I am still trying to make out what precisely I am being told.

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Toy Dreams

It is awfully boring to talk about one's dreams - in my case especially, as I dream almost exclusively about toys I used to have. I have no idea what these dreams could mean in a Freudian sense, in that they seem mainly to be dredging up into my conscious memory things I have stored somewhere in my mind but have to all intents and purposes forgotten about. 

One night recently while I slept, I wandered through a flea market and came upon a tiny china rabbit that I had loved very much when I was maybe four or five. I had not thought about that little figurine for decades, but I was once intensely fond of it. 

A few weeks ago, I dreamt I was sitting outside in our garden in Kuala Lumpur holding a doll called Sarah. I didn't care for that doll. Someone gave it to me as a present and I felt obliged to appear pleased and carry it about with me, but the truth was it held no allure and was in fact something of a burden. The fact that the china rabbit, which I loved, had vanished from my thoughts, while the wearisome doll had not may suggest that I've a tendency to remember unpleasantness more than pleasure - or possibly it is purely due to the fact that the doll appears in a few old photographs, while there are no visual records of the rabbit. 

What happened to it though, the little china ornament - and what happened to all the other tiny things that briefly passed through my life and gave me pleasure but were later lost or thrown away by higher authorities. What happens to all the things that are part of our lives at one time or another but as we move forward through the years somehow get left behind? Do they end up three feet down, buried in the topsoil of the planet or will they be found one day right at the back of a top shelf in a dark corner of a junk shop? 

There is one toy I found never-endingly fascinating and consequently have never forgotten about. I'd like to meet it again, either in reality or in a dream. It was block of wood - oak, I think; it had that rather black grain that oak sometimes has - and it was a bit over a foot long and probably 10 inches high and the width of a shoe box, or perhaps a bit less. It had a gold and black transfer on its side, with the name of the company that made it, but I don't think I could read at the time that I had it. I certainly don't remember what the label said.

You stood the thing on the floor - it must have had tiny feet, I suppose, or perhaps it just stood upright as the bottom of it was flat. The top of it was curved - or domed might be the better word, slightly reminding one of the thin wooden covers sewing machines used to have. Into the top was cut a circular opening which led into a kind of tunnel in the wood. On the narrow side of the block farthest from that circular opening was another circular opening. There were four painted wood cylinders - one blue, one red, one green and one yellow and there was a small hammer or mallet, which I don't remember the details of; I assume it too was made of wood. 

This is how you played with the toy: you put one wooden cylinder into the top circular hole and hit it with the hammer. It disappeared into the wooden block. You did the same thing with the next cylinder. It too disappeared. You repeated the action with the third cylinder and then the fourth. Only when you had hit the fourth, did the first emerge at the other end. Only if you took the first one that had just reappeared and banged it back in at the top would you ever get an opportunity to see the second again. On and on it went.

It fascinated me. The impossibility of ever assembling the original four cylinders outside of the block of wood again was frustrating, puzzling and therefore wonderful. The mystery of how the cylinders could be sliding down vertically but end up coming out of a tunnel horizontally is still absolutely and totally beyond my understanding. It is one of the most interesting objects I have ever owned. It seems to me that it taught a child a lot about life

When I asked my mother about this toy the other day, she said she couldn't remember it. "No, I don't remember the toy", is what she said, "but I know you enjoyed hitting things." 

I think that reply pretty exactly captures the nature of our relationship. 

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

A New (to Me) Voice

Probably at any time I feel excited and pleased when I discover a writer that I like. But at the moment, when it isn't easy to enjoy the company of others face-to-face, it is a special pleasure to find an articulate personality whose voice one can enjoy on paper. 

The writer in question today is called Rivka Galchen. She's been active for ages but I only found out about her when I opened the latest issue of the New Yorker, to which I have had a subscription for years, but which lately I have been thinking I should give up on. Despite one or two tiny jarring notes - ("I was born, somewhat randomly, in Toronto" - who isn't born anywhere "somewhat randomly"; "I've long held the believe that being a fan or a cheerleader of New York is ethically and aesthetically dubious" - cut the pomposity and prissiness [which she almost immediately does, thank heavens]) - Galchen's piece on her neighbourhood in New York changed my mind; if there's more of this kind of stuff, I'll be a happy renewing subscriber. The article is exactly the kind of thing I have always loved about the magazine, but I thought had disappeared - a conjuring of a place, descriptive, thoughtful, full of the best kind of charm. To be given a portrait of a part of a faraway city is especially beguiling at a time when travel isn't allowed. 

If you are curious to read it yourself, here is the link.

I also liked this by Galchen, and I thought this was a reasonably intriguing short story that she managed very well (although the apparent almost total social isolation of the "dusty librarian" character is maybe not quite convincing enough, which is not to say I could possibly rival the cleverness of the thing.)

Sunday, 14 February 2021

It Wouldn't Work in Gloucestershire

On our way to Vienna at Christmas, we decided to spend a few days in a remote cottage in Austria, to ensure that, if by chance we were carrying some special Hungarian viral vestiges, we would give them a chance to be quarantined out of us before inflicting ourselves on the citizens of Vienna.

The cottage was absolutely charming, provided you love Austria and the Austrian approach to rural interior decoration as much as I do.  The aim is gemutlichkeit (nearest approximate meaning is coziness) and one could safely say that if you want to achieve gemutlichkeit, every last trace of the impulse to minimalism must be banished from your mind. 

The main thing to understand is that, if there is a spot on a wall that is empty, it needs to be filled - possibly with an old sieve or a bunch of dried corn cobs. If you have a hall table that already has paintings all over it, it is imperative that you add a little flowered bucket to put pens in and an old ceramic cake container to hold visiting cards (and, while on the subject of cards, here is quite an amusing story). If it's a choice between a plain lamp hanging from the ceiling and an old oxen yoke to which two gingham, lace-trimmed lamps have been added, it isn't really a choice at all. If a bedside table doesn't have an implement from the 19th century for pulling teeth - possibly, (at least I hope so), the teeth of horses - you'd better go out and get one. If a corner stands empty, find a piece of wood that appears to have a cricket bat attempting to emerge from it and prop it up there. If the front hall looks a bit bare, add an old piece of fleece-preparing equipment - and don't leave it alone, for heaven's sake; throw in a tub full of old pinecones. A pretty wall cupboard surrounded by small pictures, isn't nearly enough, when you can add some bits of a disassembled church organ over the top. A beautiful heavily painted cupboard can only be improved by plonking some jugs on top of it. One decorative ceramic tobacco pipe is not nearly enough when you could have fifteen or twenty. And when it comes to heating, why have a plain radiator when you could have a tiled green dalek? 

It all works beautifully in situ. But no, it wouldn't work in Gloucestershire.