Bermudas: Eleven Long Shorts
1. Trading Words
The Reader’s Digest said that the Shorter
Oxford English Dictionary has a hundred thousand words, Samuel Johnson’s
forty-one thousand. Shakespeare had fourteen thousand, the average adult has
three thousand, and three-year olds (brain size complete) twelve hundred.
Marianne, our family French doll, had two words (bon jour) and Molly
Bloom could make a single ‘yes’ go a long way.
Multiply these atomic meetings to the nth, and meaningful clauses and sentences begin to crystallise. Patterns can be detected from the syntax. That they are not accidental is evident from the capacity of baby talk to communicate beyond the polymorphous perverse, and reach out to others. Being in the eye of a storm of letters harnesses the wind they begin to stir up. The Roman Catholic catechism talks of exposing yourself to ‘occasions of sin’. This is the opening up of the self to ‘occasions of words’. Goodbye cot bawling, hallo crèche chatter. Chomsky’s experiments on monkeys in the nineteen sixties argued the existence of a universal grammar that determines speech acquisition. Time spent with infants taking their first step in social integration confirms something inherent is at work. Trial and error in language exchange alone cannot account for their rapid progress.
The writer gets the work started by submergence in ‘occasions of words’, at first, to communicate with himself. You need to bring air, and patience, to the plunge and recognise what surprises like a rediscovery, bingo, and doesn’t call for a second thought. At least for the moment. The composed writer finds usages that respond to his innate grammar. In order to fit it to an idea, a clause forms, merging with others, until sentences take shape. Editing them has to be learned. The noise of words around you in childhood, at home, school and the street, rattle the bars of the writer’s cot, play-pin and eventually his desk. Syntactical seesawing, idiomatic echoing, objective correlatives, pathetic fallacies, prosodic devices, hubris vying with self-doubt, touchstones brought into play in organising the words (‘Since these things are beyond us, let us pretend to be their organisers’, says Cocteau).
The inner ear is the decision maker, listening to the permutations and combinations that present themselves. It settles on a formulation acceptable to the organisation. What was initially a lone concern is made to float the idea you need to communicate, not to be framed, but so it’s obviously a clear expression of what you had in mind for others to believe without telling them exactly what it is or how. The cot has done it work. Something exists on paper in a permanent form.
2. Should you take the Genome test?
Genetically speaking between a mouse and me there is scarcely a pipsqueak. The common earthworm is my half-brother. Mice and men share the same basic genes and the creepie-crawly half theirs’. I have a love of cheeses in common with mice. The worm in me is morbidly inclined, but chopped up by the chagrins of life I can put myself together again. However, what determines the crude similarities, and the sensitive differences, between species, is the interplay between molecules composed of two acids, DNA and RNA and, I wonder, if the savants of science are barking up the wrong fig tree? They are dealing with trillions of adventitious roots. It could be that the genes are more the dead-leaves than the fruit and, like ectoplasm with spiritualists, elude holistic analysis. Genome studies will never explain the worm that turns, the mouse that roars and Beethoven.
The boffins should be reading genetics more philosophically. It would broaden the game to return to the Ancient Greeks. For instance, genes could be taken as our body’s recollection. DNA is the fixed record of its past, while RNA is the roving catalyst giving it ideas. The change the ideas inspire can mean disease (recollection gone wrong) or improvements on what went before (a repetition forward, pace Kierkegaard). The reason for this could be the idea has not been properly thought out, and through. Bring on the philosophers.
But, at least, gnomes’ studies have confirmed that in essential matter (or matter of fact) all humans spring from the same loins. The Bible, being less literal, goes further in the book of Genesis. It tells us why, despite so much in common, we are not one big happy family. According to Joab Comfort, ‘Cain killed Abel because the Lord respected the shepherd more than the crop farmer. Thus favouring, by implication, the meat-eater over the vegetarian’. Claude Levi-Strauss wouldn’t go so far. And so, his Tristes Tropiques is a hymn to the homogeneity of global man. It’s not just Rosie O’Grady and the Captain’s Lady that are the same under the skin. But Rosie (South America) is young and the Captain’s lady (Asia) has seen better days.
What I have most in common with my fellow man is that I tend to see-saw between two moral extremes, tolerance (‘The virtue of hypocrites’, Baltasar Gracian) and anger (‘The vice of the virtuous’, General Drummond). And when writing, intolerance, particularly to interruption, is on the ascent. I only answer the door when in writerly despair any outside help is welcome. While struggling with the above, I opened to a white-haired Rasta, who blessed me with a wooden cross. ‘My Word is Omega and the Devil’s Zero…’. Having enough of words, I slammed the door in his face, and took the batteries out of my doorbell.
The politics of genetics is not a stranger to the last century. Although genome studies have dismissed the possibility of racial purity, we are all a mixed salad of genes. The notion, for example, of whiteness as uncorrupted form of homo sapiens has been already shown by paleogenetic studies to be an absurdity. He emerged from Africa, and his original characteristics linger on genetically in all humans.
Curiously social categories – black, Hispanic, Irish or Jewish – are more useful medically than the genome cures much flaunted at the outset of the breakthrough. Heredity diseases are largely propagated through intergeneration bias and prejudice, not the genetic composition. It is claimed that in time modifying genes associated with certain conditions should be able to anticipate and possibly prevent them. So far, this hasn’t happened despite the heralding. The answer to my question is surely ‘no’. The real Gen, like Mallarme’s encounter with Nothingness in Tournon, is still in the process of clarification, and will be until the avalanche of data accumulated is classified and interpreted scientifically. Unless you want to worry about your future, keep your money for a better cause thanmaking an unscrupulous entrepreneur rich.
As with almost everything with the explosion of information outlets, false news is rife in relation to the potential of genetic studies. Those tempted to take the test should be aware that grouping people using selective genes in common allied with social and cultural factors is to ignore the vast majority of their genomes. It is currently being used for racist purposes.
3. Poetry Manifesto: Against Mystification and Laziness
The mystification of poetry is a fetish of those who want exclusive rights over its appreciation. Whether they are academics or poets with a syntax to grind it comes to same thing. It’s a hat to don when reading poems publicly, and is intended to exclude those who are deemed not to have the head for it.
Moreover, they have poet’s vines to go with the hat: capes, gowns and flowing scarves. They are entertaining one another, and not poetry.
In the realm of meaning you must always go bareheaded. It’s how we were brought into the world and make sense of it. Understanding requires no dressing up. You’re on your toes, naked and unashamed. Especially with poetry, which ranges from the bubbles at the source of knowledge to the cutting edge of brutal ignorance, and somewhere in between resides the 8th wonder of the world. The bubbles must be chased, the blade taken in the hand, and the wonder basked in.
There is a logic beyond rationalisation. This has always been understood in science. In the 20th century it found its clearest expression with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Likewise, literary logic makes sense, but can’t always be explained, step by step. A leap is required to arrive at an understanding. That is easier to take with the poetry of another age (allowances are made for what we don’t know). Modern poets who are regarded ‘difficult’ because of surface incomprehensions shouldn’t stop you to ask ‘what do they mean?’ The literary logic of, say, Wallace Stevens, Brian Coffey and Paul Celan, is a given. Yet I sometimes pause at a passage that does not sing for me to consider is the poet willing an atmosphere of mystique or false profundity? In the realm of meaning such wilfulness is terrorist camouflage.
Still, will plays a primordial part in the mechanism of making poems. Modes of verse - from traditional prosody to modernist and post-modernist freedoms - have to be studied, understood and applied. Their subversion is key to composing a poem like no other, which is surely the aim. A poem that imitates an existing one is at best an exact copy (pace Borges and Pierre Menard), and at worst a translation that has lost the original impulse, and therefore the poetry. Most writers of poems fail because of reprising, though the result may look like a poem. Looking like a poem is the great delusion of careless readers and would-be poets. (The word ‘poet’ is one I use hesitantly, preferring to use it only for the dead).
All aspirants to poems fail to fail better. And it is honourable as long as they do not fake mystification with pseudo-statements, or work in ignorance of the mechanisms with which verse can be wrought to create something new. By putting on the self-privileging hat of a critic, or saying I’m a poet trust me’, the issue is confused, and elitist evasions are necessary to justify it. That kills the one thing writers and readers are supposed to love and share.
4. New Writers Press meets Big Business: Dublin, late 1970s
One afternoon a stretch limo pulls up outside the Smith’s slum cottage. It fills the back alley, darkening the front room. The chauffeur knocks on the door, and through the window, he can be seen standing in the permanent puddle Irene Smith cultivates because she speculates inner-city tadpoles would make fine frog soup.
‘The doctor would like to speak to Mister Michael Smith’, the chauffeur announces, and ushers in a little man, weighted down by a Brown Thomas Crombie coat. Without taking off his slouch hat, he extends a felt-gloved hand to Michael, ‘Ryan, Tony’. Under his arm, he carries a leather-bound gold-rimmed folder. ‘My poems which I would like published. They are small things but they will give people pleasure. Do them and I’ll put your press on a proper professional footing with an office and secretary and you won’t need to do a thing except the poetry.’
He disappeared in a puff.
Michael looked at the poems (‘The sentimental side of a ruthless tycoon’), and sent Doctor Ryan a one-word telegram. Irene said, ‘You fool’.
A folly of unpayable bills marked the end of the New Writers Press as a business.
And so, Irish poetry was to marginalize outside influences. The ‘reach for the shovel’ tendency retained its hegemony.
Tony Ryan’s doctorate was honorary (perhaps for his economy airlines contribution to global warming).
5. A Free Dinner
I took the bus for a lunchtime roast at Clontarf Castle. Partly out of nostalgia. My brother-in-law, Tom, and myself ritually went there on my annual visits. He was a formidable trencherman to the last. Meat and two vegs was his pleasure.
As usual it was packed with senior citizens dressed to the nines, undeterred by wheelchairs and drips. I asked the porter where the dining hall was. He directed me to the first floor. And forgetting it wasn't France (where the first floor is not on the ground), I didn’t climb the stairs but slipped into a banquet room with hundreds of people eating at long tables. When the maître said I could join any of them, I asked if I could have a quiet corner because ‘I needed to think’. He gave me a sympathetic look and led me into a side-room.
I remembered Clontarf Castle is self-service. A waiter stood by the food and explained it was a beef stew with roast potatoes. I filled my plate. There was wine and sparkling water on my table, and he poured a glass of each. I observed the people at the tables, and noted that they were by no means all the leisured retired. There were young people but no children. They were very animated, talking and laughing, and indeed the wine was flowing. I read my book and when a waitress came around with a coffee and teapot offering me a choice, I asked her if there were puddings, and she said no.
When I went to pay the maître was puzzled, and then whispered, 'Do you realise it's a funeral party. It’s free'. I offered to contribute, but he demurred that it would be easier to leave it be. I asked the name of the deceased in order to say a prayer. Adjoining the castle there is a small cemetery. I went in to search out a fresh grave. but the most recent was in 2004. And then I noticed the inscription, ‘Maureen Potter O'Leary, a great trouper, reunited with her Jack’. I was back at the pantomime at the Gaiety Theatre with Jimmy O'Dea. Maureen Potter’s last laugh is being the last grave in St John the Baptist’s.
6. Security Fodder
Dublin Airport, Sunday morning, 7 September 2018.
There is a world war on in all stations of transit, from airports to donkey rides. We, the transients, are obliged to be on the side of the vigilante army and, as raw recruits, are trained by ordeal, suffering endless roundups, ritual humiliations, and without a medical. The uniform is an expression of stoic acceptance. The hope is on demobbing to arrive in a safe haven.
Our army outnumbers the enemy by one to millions, but they have the power of being invisible. Once the foot soldiers begin to think they do not exist, an explosion is reported in some distant place and the vice grip of the security forces is almost welcomed. The search for the enemy is complicated by the fact that their invisibility is more apparent than real and, since nobody knows who they are, everyone is under suspicion, particularly the troops of tourists, migrants and other nomads. We are the enemy within.
Today my bags were turned inside twice, and sent back for further inspection. A heat spray for my bad back, was confiscated, and a toothpowder send for tests. I was body searched and taken into a cubicle I thought to strip but it was only to open my travel-clock which was ticking. I awaited clearance dehydrated as all fluids are forbidden. Except sweat. Although I had come two hours before boarding the gates were due to close in a half-hour. I contemplated the security of the virtual battle zone. Cyberspace is a phoney war as you can decide to conscientiously object by doing without something or employing mercenaries if unavoidable. Here on the ground you are thrown into the breach and there is no escaping. Unless you had a heart attack. I can hear the siren and everybody throwing themselves on the ground. It would make the news.
I was released with a warning to change my clock to digital, and made the flight on the last call. The emergency demos used to be ignored. Now everybody is on the edge of their seat. Having being ticked off for not tying my safety-belt, I was seditiously satisfied to note that two sharp scissors in my shoulder sack were not detected either by screen or hand search. But I wouldn’t be cleaning my pipe or nails mid-air. Cruising at ten thousand feet or so, I notice the potbelly of my neighbour and wonder about bomb mules.
Only on reaching home could I relax. Then I turned on the radio…a suspected bomb was exploded in Dublin Airport. A false alarm…. a victory for security.
7. Storage Space July 2nd 2018
Christianity’s cradle is empty. Dead babies fished out of the sea have been thrown back. The latest crusade against the Moors under the ensign the War against Terror has moved to migrants. Mean-spiritedness prevails, as counter-productive regime changes, neo-colonialism, ethnic cleansing has produced mass nomadism. The flight of victim peoples to the relative safety of the West has panicked well-off European countries. Nobody wants them. Let them drown. Borders are closing. Good people who welcome the migrants smoothening their way are criminalised in France and Italy.
The Syrian civil war is in dangerous of renewing the Cold War with Isis as the third force. Russia, Hungary, Poland, Italian are reverting to dictatorial type. Democracy is producing leaders who don’t believe in it or international law. Trump in America touts anti-migrant paranoia as a re-election ploy and Netanyahu in Israel is trying to provoke Iran into war. While Russia is oiling the clogs with fuel power.
What has happened?
One notable change in my lifetime is the normalisation of materialism. When I was growing up the word meant amoral bourgeois greed. My father used the term as a deadly warning unless it was dialectical. Now it’s meaning has been reversed. Consumer values are the lynch-pin of triumphant Capitalism. It is not bourgeois anymore. Everybody is a materialist. We possess things: partners, children, dogs, houses, cars, tablets, smart phones, objects ad infinitum. And nobody is going to take them away from us. Possession is all. And anyone outside the family tribe than risks it is the enemy.
While globalisation continues to gain ground, nationalism is driving democracy into a hole of its own making. Grab and keep are ruling the world. Protectionism is fighting it out with free-trade. And it’s a losing battle. Resentment breeds selfishness, and cooperation between countries in urgent matters that affect everybody is eroding. Alliances are splitting up and reforming as economic forces to exploit the weak. The environment is being let go to hell and the planet is imploding. The ultimate war is likely to be fought to protect a way of life that is suicidal.
What has happened to enlightenment? Indeed, evolution?
Artificial intelligence notions are threatening to reduce the human race to a point that a mutation backwards is possible. Are we on the cusp of becoming our own dinosaurs, through a combination of climate change, and brain-damaging technology? Mankind, the creator of sublime art, literature, science to sublimate the reality of our ignorance, is certainly regressing. The comfort of possession is consuming our capacity for harnessing knowledge for our betterment.
I’m growing old in an age that I don’t see as mine. Everyday something comes up that seems a loss. I once thought that Delmore Schwartz was worthy of divorce for throwing out the piano to make way to shelve his books. Today I learned bookcases are a thing of the past. Lofts are closed spaces for security reasons. People have no place to keep books, and so they dispense with them. Children will grow up without the feel of paper which releases the mind. Plastic dictates will be their lemming cry.
And then, here in Bras de Venus, I’ve noticed here in cafes pet dogs are given more attention than people, even babies. And, also that, smartphone screens are favoured over face-to-face encounters. What is big is eating. Talk is about food, dogs and selfies (laughter). The political consequences of this make a perverse sense. The town is expected to vote en bloc for a dubious lawyer who is Marine Le Pen’s partner to be the next mayor of Perpignan. I want out but have nowhere to go…
8. Representative People and Kierkegaard (Trivia Chronicle, 2006)
Soren Kierkegaard’s only political tract, The Present Age, On the Death of Rebellion (1846), appeared as a pseudonymous review of a novel believed to be fictitious, subtitled as one of several postscripts said to be buried in a vast tome about Adolph Adler, a long- forgotten Danish divine who created a one-man sect. Wow! What was he trying to hide?
The review is nearly ninety pages long and, although Kierkegaard was writing about the mid-19th century, it’s a case of Jules Michelet’s ‘each epoch dreams the next one’. What he saw previews the 20th century. He predicted the material gains of the masses due to the industrial revolution would be manipulated by the powers-that-be to prevent a revolution. Action would be replaced by reaction. Through the media, advertising and public relations a reflective society based on celebrity would emerge. Submitting to reflected ‘glory’ would be the lot of the majority. The lives of representative people (ranging from royal families to fashion ikons) would be proxy for their own. In effect he anticipated fan culture.
Kierkegaard’s evidence for this idea was elliptical. He knew of Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, been taken up by Phineas T Barnum. Old Brass Mouth, as he was called, with the bearded lady, Cardiff giant, Fiji mermaid and General Tom Thumb, had vulgarised representative people, and his circus was abominated as tasteless exploitation. And so, bringing in a famous artist, that everybody wanted to sing like, was an attempt at respectability. It failed as Jenny baulked at becoming Snow White.
Phineas T Barnum got Kierkegaard’s idea upside down. The Dane would have seen the ‘freaks’ as the audience and the gawkers as the exhibits. Most notably in the tragic case of Phineas Gage, the railway worker who at twenty-five had a three-and-half foot bolt stuck in his brain after an explosion while fitting tracks (1848). He survived with half a face and an open brain for nearly thirteen years. Barnum exhibited him, bolt and all. He became as notorious a figure in mid-19th century America as the Bearded Lady, General Tom Thumb, and, indeed, Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, not as a freak of nature but as a deadly warning of the risk railway workers were taking. In a better world he would have been a harbinger of health and safety.
That Gage was in sound mind was considered a medical miracle. Henry Bigelow, a surgeon from Harvard, examined him over a period of several months, taking innumerable measurements. His contribution to the zoning of the brain for mental characteristics was to introduce a symptom-based method of studying it. Nathaniel Hawthorne who, like Edgar Allan Poe, framed stories around scientific experiments, used Gage’s experience in a famous story in Twice-told Tales, but altered the details. The protagonist became a clergyman compelled by unknown forces to wear a black veil. Hawthorne’s emphasis was the effect on others of his change of face. A good man was seen as the devil incarnate.
In the 1990s his name began to appear in the neuropsychological literature as an early example of someone whose personality changed after a serious accident. Antonio Damasio in his Descartes’ Error (1994) used him to launch his theory of ‘developmental sociopathy’, which promoted the idea that the brain and the mind are one and the same, and so mental illness is a consequence of physical defects. Damasio’s presentation of a brain-damaged specimen from the past may have been designed to give historical depth to his bold assertions. His version of the Gage case has been reviewed by the medical historian Zbigniew Kotowitz, and shown to be an opportunist misreading of the documentation.
It is evident from three contemporaneous medical reports that Gage’s life, rather than his character, changed after the bolt shot through his head. As in the Hawthorne story, it was others who changed in relation to him. By all accounts Gage was just a man desperate for work who, because of his face, could only get it in a freak show, until a benevolent farmer facilitated his escape from the prurient public eye by giving him a job in his stables. Even before his accident, the intelligent and resourceful Gage (he was already a foreman), was a gentle, shy young man, not known to have a girl-friend. As a representative person he existed only as a freak or case-history to prove a dubious hypothesis. Pop stars are often similarly misrepresented. Thus, their high suicide rate.
In French the word ‘gage’ means ‘a forfeit’. Gage wasn’t taking any chances with the human race. Apart from his mother, he couldn’t trust anybody not to laugh at him, or turn away in disgust. Though he didn’t mind amusing his sister’s children when they were small. He spent the rest of his life with horses. They had no problems with looking him in the eye. No doubt his life had been changed for the worse, but it was the same Phineas behind the black veil.
9. Eur-in: Ireland’s Antidote to Brexit
16th January 2018
Brexit is attempting to put history in reverse. De Valera* tried it with Ireland: the ‘comely maidens dancing at the crossroads’, the economic war against England, language revivalism, and tying the Church to the State (or was it the other way around?). These retrogressions did nobody any good. Poverty lead to mass emigration, mainly to England. The English tabloids though banned were sent in the post with money home. Ireland became more English than it ever was due to the cross-flow for work and holidays.
In the nineteen-sixties isolationism waned with De Valera’s power, and the Republic of Ireland modernised enough to attract foreign investment and join the European Union (1973). The country prospered beyond its wildest dreams. Irish emigrants returned, often with foreign wives. Migrants from all over the world flocked to work in Ireland. This proved an opening to the world that brought so many benefits, from food culture to the secularisation of Irish law. Narrow nationalism was in the past. The Republic distanced itself from what was happening in Ulster, except when peace initiatives began to take shape.
The financial crisis of 2008 was realistically faced by a country that ‘remembered the famine’. Now Ireland has a growth rate that is the envy of Europe. It’s not a boom, but a boon. The materialist excesses of the so-called Celtic Tiger moderated. Migrants too remember bad times in their country of origin, and largely chose to remain.
Like the Normans in the 15th century who were said to become more Irish than the Irish themselves, most migrants have integrated. An outstanding example is in sport where the standards have risen to world level. Sampling the astonishing sporting achievements in 2018, one can see the influence of sprinters from Africa, rowers from Eastern Europe and so on bringing new skills to the indigenous young. Second in the world in rugby wouldn’t have been possible without foreign engagement.
This weekend the four Irish provinces qualified for the quarter-finals of the European Cup. I listened to the Munster match on Radio Eireann’s Saturday Sports. The game kept being interrupted by bulletins on the English Football Premiership. I know since the sixties English soccer is more popular than the Irish equivalent. Not least, because that is where Irish players end up if they’re any good. The English accent of the commentator irritated me, but I noted that he had an Irish name. Sport breaks down frontiers and unites ancient enemies. The current captain of the English cricket team is Irish bred, if not born. In a fortnight the Rugby Six Nations begins. Ireland will be represented as usual by players from all four provinces, including Ulster UK.
The manner that Munster beat Exeter (9-7), the current champions of England, was just like the glory days of the English game when they always beat Ireland by kicking their goals. While Exeter played with heart and passion that characterised Munster before they went South African. This turning upside down of rugby tradition was aided and abetted by four southern hemisphere players with the English team and three British-born players for Munster (desperately seeking Irish antecedents). And so, Exeter exits fighting from the European Cup, gallant losers.
Note * De Valera
I look into my heart and see a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live. With the tidings that make such an Ireland possible, came to our ancestors fifteen hundred years ago promising happiness here
10. Closing Down the Sound
Lionel, who prepares local specialities at the high-class grocer, tells me he organises musical evenings in his village. Last week it was an Irish traditional group. He was intrigued by the bouffeė de farine (the flour puff) that rose from the fiddle. It was, he intimated, like Lila Kedrova’s aura of powder in Zorba the Greek (1964) which made Anthony Quinn swoon.
The tête-à-tête takes place while he is preparing me a poulet roti, and beyond the limits of language (neither of us, strictly speaking, has the other’s). Understanding is mediated by a choir of assistant angels who render other customers invisible, and body language made more comfortable by the unexpected presence of Lila Kedrova. Lionel knows all about self-raising flour, and the violin is my instrument.
Violinists rosin the bow to soften contact with the strings. Without it, the catgut would screech and the hair scrape until it breaks. The rosin comes in a cube wrapped in yellow felt, and powdering was one of the pleasures of my childhood: you plane a groove with bow strokes until it glints like barley sugar.
I’ve never seen the Lila Kedrova puff at a classical concert. Over-rosining the bow leads to harmonic skids with unscheduled octaves. Pipsqueaks. Serious string players tend to err on the side of caution and the friction between bow and gut can split hairs. When this happens mid-performance it’s as though a hair has been caught in the violinist’s teeth. The flick of the little finger flossing it into oblivion is an exquisite moment.
In Ireland, neo-traditional fiddlers (classically trained) put rosin on the strings. This closes down the sound into a gritty gripping crunch, fashionable in post-modern fiddling. The grinding downward-pressure of the bow produces the grunge of powder. The restricted sound ballasts the rhythm in high-speed jigs and reels. Where the tune is not secondary to the bobbing beat it does not work. I tried it once with a slow air and the dry bow scratched the fingerboard, like skiffle, tearing the heart out of ‘The Red-Haired Man’s Wife’. You could dance to it, but only through clenched teeth.
My baragouin (‘The strange French of foreigners, always good for a laugh’ Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des Idees Recues) has its store of choice argot: for example, chouette for superb, though superbe would do fine, ficelle for string rather than the common corde. I chose baguette for bow with Lionel. The correct archet escapes me and, at first, he thinks I’m talking about French bread. But I compromised my gestic principles to make myself clear, cradling my arms and wriggling my wrist.
Lionel’s main bow to his strings is words that are roughly shared with English (farine for flour, bouffeé for puff), and, I begin to notice, he conducts the conversation with an imaginary baton (also baguette in correct French), slowing it down when it becomes clunky, speeding it up when something heartfelt needs to be expressed. For instance, he performs the Lila Kedrova puff with a back-hand. And, when I begin to lose him on the difference between rosining the bow and the strings, sign language comes to the rescue. A mutual mime obviates a barrage of words. Our duet in semaphore is in perfect accord.
While rotating the spit as the chicken sweats off its fat, Lionel, considered my suggestion that the fiddlers are neo-traditional at the Irish session (boeuf to him, a jam session is an ox in French).and demurs, ‘Yes. This combo is from Perpignan’s Conservatoire. Bourgeois-bohemians, bobos, slumming it. But I’m fairly sure the rosin was on the bow and not the strings. They played reels like sardanes, the stately Catalan prance. None of your wild Irishry. I’d like to hear the real thing, neo or not’.
I said I would lend him a tape of a Cork boeuf my brother Michael had sent me. Rory Gallagher was a nice note to end our free-range exchange. He strummed the violin underarm like a guitar. The sound puffed a Lila as it double-stopped. Rosin under the nails or his cigarette. An impatient customer jumped in to ask if his fowl, volailles, had been tested for avian flu, and Lionel joked a reply, which I didn’t quite get, although it was flatteringly intended for me. The words vol, fly, and flu, grippe interplayed in it bilingually. The finicky customer didn’t laugh, and Lionel threw up his arms and chicken-flapped.
11. In Memory of Ely (1904 – 2019)
Not the Last of Ely Buxeda (2013)
Ely Buxeda, the oldest saxophone player in the world, is giving his farewell concert for the residents of the Maison La Retrait in the Place Castellane. Everybody wears hats for it. The evening is crackling with electricity. The Pyrénées are spoiling for a storm.
In his baggy white suit and Stetson, Ely wanders in amongst the dancers, soothing the air by harmonizing with his greatest hit, ‘It’s a Wonderful World’, sung from the bandstand by his adopted great-grand daughter, who has frizzy black hair, matching complexion and a swinging delivery. One day she will miss him, as we all will, but not yet.
The clochards on the balustrade await the dregs of the aperitifs. Their dogs don’t bark when Ely plays, De la douceur, de la douceur. If he had demons, they have long been appeased. ‘If you have tears to weep, put them off to tomorrow’. And for Ely there are no tomorrows. He lives in the present when playing. His adoring, and adorable, singer now swings into ‘Oublie, Oublie Loulou’ in waltz-time so that Ely can dwell over his blue notes and she can give each word its due. It’s a song about the need to forget your mistakes.
The darkening sky is less ominous as the street lights come on, and apart from the humidity, and the seagulls shrieking in the port, it would be the nice September evening it was meant to be. The residents sit on the wooden tribune that circles the dance floor. Like the anxious parents of debutants, they observe the dancing couples, who are mostly their visitors, and old enough to be grandparents.
A few residents prance in the shadows. Bernard, the Maison beggar, dances with a bottle. Madame Désastre, smoking her cigar, corkscrews the Twist (there goes another ankle, I think). Children, hearing the music, join in scattily, not respecting the rhythm. A clochard rock-and-rolls with his dog. Ely flutes a musical wave to these wayward spirits.
An ancient couple from the Maison take the floor, fox-trotting very correctly. They stop by Ely and the three briefly sway together. But he has music to make, or make-believe, and raising his hat to them to reveal a bald head so white it’s almost indecent. He returns to the platform to blow one last, last note, and it lingers until any applause is pre-empted by a roll of thunder.
As the heavens rain hailstones everybody who can runs. Wheelchairs skid Maison-wards. Ely walks.