Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Problem Of Books

I went to Waterstones in Liverpool last week with a good friend of mine, who really understands these things, and bought a good dozen novels (or should that be a dozen good novels?), Modernist and, well, plain modern (Jasper Fforde – whose books should be read by all book lovers). They’re still on my desk. I have nowhere to put them – the shelves are full to bursting and the top of the set of bookshelves in my room is covered with box files labelled with such terms as “City Administration”, “Arch. Plans”, “Grain” etc.). I am also starting to let this buying thing get out of hand – so after my binge of Monday evening I swore never to do it again resolved that, as a penance, I am going to do ten Good Works: in other words, I will read them all before I set foot in another bookshop (incidentally, the night after I made this resolution I dreamed I went into Oxfam, bought an armful of books and then, gripping my head in horror, screamed, “But my PROMISE!” – “Catholic” guilt clearly at work).

The list is rather fun: thus far I have read the first Daisy Dalrymple (my review, were I to write one, would read, “Engaging characters and good period detail,” but wouldn’t add much else, I’m afraid); and a short collection of Orwell essays, entitled Books Vs. Cigarettes. The latter was exceedingly good, but rather than writing a straight review, I have thought up a more amusing tribute – well, amusing to me, at least – which is to take at least some of these essays and, in a manner of speaking, update them and see if his arguments stand up in the 21st century. I shall be doing this over a few months, I expect, but look out for the first in a week or so’s time.

Next on the list is E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, a very slim Modernist sci-fi. I look forward to it.

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The Strange Case of the Haunted Piano

Working in a shop that sells pianos, one is gradually inured to the musical endeavours of small children. Not for us a joyous rendition of 4’33”; instead we are generally treated to some of Stockhausen’s less poetic creations, sometimes accompanied by parental entreaties of, “Be gentle, Molly!” and “Careful, Henry!” but, more often than not, completely disregarded by the supervisory adults (who seem strangely seasoned to the musical inventions of their infant prodigies – much as if they worked in a music shop, in fact). Thus it is, thus it will ever be.

And so it was that, at around four in the afternoon, as I was on the way out of the door to fetch some milk for our afternoon tea, I was unsurprised to hear another Mozartian genius hammering away at one of our pianos – the very expensive one which lives by the door. We had had a large family in the shop only minutes before, playing away at the pianos, strumming the ukuleles and generally bustling loudly around; but they had left. Thinking that one might have been left behind, I turned to see if I recognised the child. Only, there was no child. There were, in fact, no children in the shop at all – and yet the piano was playing on, a Stockhausian (to coin a term) rhapsody that used the whole range of the piano keyboard, and which was being produced by no human hand…

This is the point where I should point out that my shop sells only digital pianos – and digital pianos have a recording facility as part of their basic software. Still, it took an unreasonable amount of time for me to realise that the piano was not, in fact, haunted, but merely playing a repeat of some long-forgotten work that had been accidentally recorded onto its memory drive – and it was with great pleasure that I informed my colleagues of the arrival of our piano’s unexpected supernatural guest, and to watch their faces as they, too, realised that there was no child in the shop. “How is it doing that?” was their wondrous cry. In our defence, it was the end of a Saturday.

Disappointingly, by the time I had come back from the grocer with the milk the piano had been exorcised, and the ghost lingered no longer. But it was fun while it lasted.

Review: RLPO and Alexander Shelley in Strauss, Brahms and Elgar

While I was in an thus-far unnamed northern city on my NotARealBusinessTrip, I took the opportunity of going to a concert given by the local orchestra, known only by the secretive title of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (I wonder where they’re based?). The choice of concerts was excellent – Tiny Thing Helseth (as she is commonly known among my musical friends – poor girl, she can’t help having a Norwegian name that sounds funny in English, and she really is a super musician) or some turn of the century romantic orchestral masterpieces. I opted for glorious technicolour over dazzling brass, and went for the Strauss, Brahms and Elgar – and it was certainly worth a lot more than the extraordinarily cheap student tickets (seven pounds a pop, any students out there who might be travelling up north).

First on the programme was Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan (here if you want to listen). Composed in 1888, when the composer was just 24, it was exceedingly popular from its first performance onwards, receiving at least 600 performances in just 24 years. It isn’t quite a tone poem in the manner of Till Eulenspiegel, since it has no detailed plot; instead it is inspired by the verse-drama by Nikolaus Lenau and gives a series of glorious episodes from the drama, depicting Don Juan’s seductions and triumphs and ending in his demise in a dual (is this the place to point out that you pronounce the title Don Huan, like the Spanish do, and not Don Juwan like a vast number of idiotic musicologists? No? Oh well – you know now).

I have to confess, the piece was new to me, and I couldn’t have chosen a better performance to introduce me to this impressive piece of late German composition. The orchestral colour was splendid, with extremely subtle dynamics and tremendous texture. The RLPO are clearly very comfortable with the piece and their enjoyment was plain to see. It was an absolute treat, and the beautifully balanced entry of the four french horns towards the end made me smile with sheer delight. Special mention should go to Thelma Handy, the orchestra’s leader, who performed her solos with great delicacy. All in all, a piece with aplomb (which always makes me think of lead, though the word, like the performance, is anything but leaden).

Next on the programme was the Brahms Double Concerto; rather a contrast to Don Juan in that it was Brahms’ last orchestral work, and naturally shows a great maturity of style. It was premiered in 1887 by Brahms’ great friend Joseph Joachim, the violin prodigy, and the cellist from Joachim’s string quartet, Robert Hausmann, a very eminent performer himself (Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, Brahms’ Cello Sonata No.2 and Stanford’s Cello Concerto were all dedicated to him), and was by way of being a peace offering between the composer and his virtuosic friend, who had fallen out some years earlier. It is a glorious work (and I say this as one who is not Brahms’ greatest admirer) with a dramatic opening theme, a relaxed and romantic second movement and a finale that is guaranteed to get the heart racing.

Here I have to admit, the orchestra fell a little short of my expectations. As often seems to happen in performances of concerti, the strings in particularly lacked attack and the orchestral passages felt a trifle unenthusiastic. However, the attacca missing from the main body of the orchestra was more than made up for by the soloists. Sister and brother duo Mari and Håkon Samuelson were absolutely stunning in their performance and played with enormous vitality. That’s not to say they lacked subtlety – there was colour aplenty and the piano passages were extremely tender. I think the familial relationship had a great deal to do with the complete togetherness of the performance – there are bars where the theme passes between cello and violin, and in those moments the two instruments sounded as one – extraordinary. The amusing faces soloists are wont to make when playing concerti disappeared quite early on into the performance as the Samuelsons got stuck into the serious business of playing.

The orchestra’s muted colour came into its own with the second movement, though sadly it felt at times rather like they were playing by numbers – the phrasing was slightly lacking, though the brass and woodwind were superb. The final movement, however, was ace – plenty of attacca, drama and colour throughout and my heart was pounding with excitement as the movement raced to its climax. The audience was evidently as enthused as I was, for the applause went on long enough to permit an encore – Passacaglia by Mr Mumblemumble (a very eminent composer) for violin and cello duet. Utterly precise, brilliant duet playing – divine. I would recommend going to see these two up-and-coming performers if ever you have the opportunity.

The orchestra were back to full form with the Enigma Variations (first part here). The actual Enigma is still unknown – and Elgar gave no clues beyond saying, “No – nothing like it,” to any attempt at guessing it – but the Variations are charm itself and an eloquent expression of Elgar’s distinctive style. They are all depictions of various friends of the composer, and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered so…what’s another word for charming? They really are just delightful! I was expressing the idea to my colleague that musical jokes are seldom as funny as the composer wants them to be (the great exception being Hely-Hutchinson’s highly entertaining little setting of Old Mother Hubbard, which had Abi and me shrieking with laughter), but I definitely cracked a grin and even chortled at several of these lovely variations – “Troyte” in particular made me laugh. I have scribbled all over my programme in great appreciation of the RLPO’s handling of the music, mostly words such as “super!” “smashing!” “oh, the wind!” (and I’d not even been eating curry), and, quite frequently, “brass!!!” (did I mention how simply sublime the RLPO’s brass were?), but I think the best compliments must be reserved for the percussion. It’s not often one gets to describe a percussionist as “tender”, but the RLPO’s timpanist (who, I am utterly thrilled to say, rejoices in the name of Neil Hitt) was just that – delicate, precise, and absolutely brilliant. The rest of the percussion (sadly not all of them are listed on the website, so I can’t be entirely sure who it was I saw) were similarly divine.

All in all, this was a hearty performance and I would be glad to recommend the RLPO, the Samuelsons, Strauss, Brahms, Elgar, late 19thC music in general, Liverpool and, most importantly, the Philharmonic Dining Rooms (known locally as The Phil and purveyors of a rather fine selection of beers and cider; they also have possibly the country’s only listed urinals, which are closed for an hour every day so that ladies may come in and view them). My enthusiasm at the evening was such that I had another pen-clothing interface during the applause and covered my final remaining clean pair of trousers with ink. Never let it be said I did not suffer in the service of others. I am now home and the kittens have been trampling over me in an effort to persuade me never to leave them again. Bless their little hearts.

ETA: I have since found out via Auntie Google that the Passacaglia was not by Mr Mumblemumble at all, but by Handel. I suppose I should have known that, really.

Funny Business

I am on a Business Trip.

I know I am, because I’m in a swanky hotel, with a telly over the bed and an oversize shower and air conditioning and an up-to-date modern boot comb and an automatic hedgehog polisher and all the other mod cons. And today I was on a Course, learning about copyright (the creator has automatic copyright, so plagiarise this blog if you dare) and bibliographic software and how to bind my thesis using only garden twine and a pocket knife, which is definitely Businesslike and a solid sort of thing to be doing. And when I walked through the hotel door I was asked, “Are you here for the Conference?”. I felt slightly guilty to admit I did not know what Conference this was, but still, it proves I’m doing a convincing impression.

Otherwise, it does not feel entirely like a business trip. For one thing, I have only had one coffee today, and that was in my hotel room and not “grabbed” from a nearby Cost(mega)bucks, along with an over-priced muffin that tastes of thick syrup wrapped in paper. Besides that, I did my usual absent-minded thing of leaving an uncapped pen on my knee, which has resulted in an ink-trouser interface, to the sad detriment of the only neat pair of trousers I had brought with me (I have ruined more pairs of trousers this way than I care to enumerate). This leaves the problem of what to wear to my other Important Event, the teaching of cuneiform to a large group of schoolkids tomorrow. I suppose it’ll have to be jeans, which is not a very Businesslike thing to be wearing to a teaching event, but my only other other trousers are…well, covered in ink stains (see above) and I am therefore rather limited. And d’you know, it would also have made me feel more like a modern BusinessPerson if I had realised that this wretched teaching event was tomorrow, and not Thursday as I had originally thought. Cue much frantic scrabbling to finish preparing all the relevant material and having it sent to be printed by the departmental coordinator. Goodness knows how I didn’t notice that the 15th is tomorrow, not Thursday. I must have been looking at last year’s calendar.

All of which leads me to suspect that I am not really on a Business Trip. Modern BusinessPeople aren’t covered in ink, starved of caffeine and still using last year’s calendar. I sincerely doubt they are weighed down by the eleven full price Modernist classics they bought instead of dinner last night. I suspect them of having sharp suits with creases and suchlike, maybe wearing tie-pins like the chap who was running the course (now he was terribly smart. I thought librarians were supposed to wear jumpers? Yes I think in stereotypes, SO WHAT?) and eating swanky food in the hotel restaurant. My hotel doesn’t even have a restaurant!

And BusinessPeople all use language like “I want everyone to give 110%” (a mathematical impossibility); “blue sky thinking” (not much of that in the North-West, let me tell you; more like “grey drizzle thinking”); “we need to be growing my business” (seriously, when is somebody going to tell them that “grow” is not a transitive verb?); “leveraging our synergies” (dear God, what does that actually mean?*).

To be fair, I often use language that not many understand (enclitic copula, anyone? Yes, that’s a perfectly clean term!), but that’s subject-specific grammatical jargon, not meaningless twaddle. Incidentally, I am reminded to inform you that it is funny if you say of a friend’s party, “It was a terribly sedate affair.” Apparently people don’t talk like this any more (hence the blog’s subtitle, of course). So maybe I shouldn’t be commenting on other people’s use of language. But I digress.

All of this brings me, in roundabout fashion, to The Apprentice. I don’t watch television but as far as I understand it, The Apprentice exists solely to parade a bunch of wannabe comedians before a public ready to be amused, with the best comedian being picked at the end to work for a chap called Lord Sugar, a cuddly, teddybear sort of a name if ever there was one (that, or perhaps he was the CEO of Tate and Lyle?). Well, that’s how I read it, anyway. I’m absolutely certain that they can’t be serious. Anyhow, I am reliably informed that the Guardian does a terribly jolly liveblog during the show, which is even funnier than the comedians themselves and might afford some amusement. For those who are keen on internet memes, there’s even a pairing of candidates with their cat lookalikes (I know, I know, I promised no cats). I’m not particularly convinced by the wigs (and some of the cats look pretty weird as well, ba-doom-ching). Anyway, I hope some of you enjoy those two links. As for me, I’m off for a pizza, and then I’ll be curling up in bed with Daisy Dalrymple (there’s nothing between us, honest!), so will take this opportunity to wish you well and goodnight.

*This phrase will be shortened in all forthcoming posts to WTAW, or “What the actual what?”

Starting A Blog and Plugging A Guest Post

Well, as Eccles almost said, “Everything’s gotta start somewhere,” and my blog starts here. Or, at least, it would be starting here if Little Cat weren’t trying her very best to help me – which, of course, involves her trampling over the keyboard and generally getting in the way. Incidentally, I’m trying to persuade her to learn how to pose as the cat from the Cabaret du Chat Noir, but she’s not really taking the hint. But I digress.

A new blog, much like a new story, seems to fill one with trepidation. Will there be enough material in my life, enough ideas in my brain, enough wilfulness in my lower left leg to set out regular blog posts before my readership? Will there be a readership? Will I realise in time and with regret that a blog, like a dog, is not just for Christmas? Will I take it out for walkies even when it’s raining? Will I remember to buy the biscuits it really loves? Will I ever start making sense for long enough for the blog not to stop making sense?

I have begun this project thanks to the work of my good friend Abi (my fingers automatically typed that as my book friend Abi, which is incidentally very true), whose blog So This Is School has greatly impressed me. She offered me a guest post which I accepted with trepidation – no, you’ve used that once, Finn – apprehension, perhaps; that is, until I began to write it and discovered I was having the most tremendous fun. I thought, “I know! I’ll start one of my own!”. Famous last words…

So what, then to write about? My life is, as I have intimated in the subtitle to this selfsame blog, a singularly sedate affair. I don’t have adventures – at least, not in the flesh (my mind has been known to perform terrifying acrobatics on high cliff edges, but that’s not the stuff of blogs either). I don’t have children, who seem to be a source of continual amusement to many parents of my acquaintance, and Big Cat and Little Cat tend to spend all their days lying under the bed, under the armchair, under the sofa or, on occasion, under each other (a tessellation worthy of A.K. Dewdney (like M.C. Escher, only less famous)) and as such do not often afford great amusement. What, then, can I write about?

The answer is simple, and comes in the form of the old adage oft quoted to writers: Write about what you know. I know a lot about several things: music is one, though for some reason I never feel qualified to talk about music, which is slightly absurd. Writing is another; not the process of being published, though I am learning more every day, but the process of producing fiction, and non-fiction, is quite familiar to me. Cats, I know about but don’t intend to blog about; as a student of Mesopotamia I always like to distance myself from anything to do with Ancient Egypt. But I do know about Mesopotamia and, oddly, the 1920s – I’m writing a series of novels set during the 20s/30s, and as such have picked up a mass of random knowledge which I am always keen to share. Incidentally my blog title, outskirtsofthetwenties, can refer both to the 1920s (see above explanation) or the 2020s, that is, BCE – the reign of Ibbi-Sin, last king of the Ur III dynasty and my Specialist Subject (I’ve started, so I’ll finish). So I intend to write about one, some, or all of those, though possibly not all at once.

So, having piffled on for a good six hundred words, I shall open my blog. I have drowned out my original intention, to post a link to my guest post on So This Is School, in half a century of witter, but I’ll link it anyway. Farewell, and happy hunting!