July 31, 2009

Uncle Lars and Marilyn Monroe

My godson Clive has many good qualities, but neatness when little, was not one of them. I suppose this was because, like most young boys, he was a born collector.  Consequently things I found in Clive’s room rarely surprised me.
I could say "never," but that wouldn't be quite true. Once I was surprised when I came across one of Clive's collector's items. It happened one summer evening when I was putting him to bed.
While he was getting ready, I saw, sticking out from under a comic book on the desk, an interesting work of art. It was a glossy snapshot of Marilyn Monroe in the nude.
"Say, where'd you get this?" I asked Clive, holding up the picture.
Clive blushed and, after a great deal of hemming and hawing, finally said, not too convincingly, "I found it on the street."
I gave him a look of disbelief, and then I noticed that the picture had been torn in half and put back together again with Scotch tape. "How did it get ripped?" I asked.  "Somebody tried to take it away from me," he replied.
After a moment, I decided to let Clive keep the photo he had found. After all, he was old enough, and I didn't want him to think there was anything wrong with show­ing what I felt was a normal and healthy curiosity about sex.
Of course, I was not convinced that he had found the picture on the street. You just don't find nude pic­tures of Marilyn on the street, at least not in our neighborhood (at least I never have).
But, since I had no evidence to refute his statement, and since a man is presumed to be innocent until he's proven guilty-even in my house-I decided to drop the subject.
A few days later we were attending Lars' birthday party. Marilyn’s name hap­pened to come up in the conversation-probably because Lars was going to see a screening of “Some Like It Hot” immediately following the festivities.  Naturally, this reminded me of Clive's Monroe photo­graph, and, thinking Lars might be amused, I related to him the incident of finding the snapshot on the desk.
Lars was amused. "Very interesting," he said, smiling. "Are you sure he found it on the street?"  "That's what he told me. Why?"
"Well"-Lars seemed reluctant to say this- "I haven't seen my picture of Marilyn around lately."
"Do you have one, too?" I asked, surprised.  "I had one.  I used to keep it on my desk-for a gag,” he added.

"Do you suppose-?" 

"I don't know," he said.   "I'll look for it this evening."
The next day I saw Lars at the office he confirmed his suspicions. "It's gone," he said. "I can't find my picture of Marilyn anywhere!"
This revelation, combined with the fact that Clive had spent the weekend at Ann and Lars’ place the week-end prior to his finding the picture on "the street," added up to a fairly con­vincing piece of circumstantial evidence.  I could hardly wait to return home to confront Clive with it. When I did, he immediately confessed to taking the picture.
His motive: there was a severe shortage of Marilyn "nudes," that was the word among his friends, and he in order to show them what a big man he was, had said he knew where he could get one. Evidently, he'd had his eye on it for some time.
I sat Clive down, and gave him a long, stern, and I'm sure dull, lecture on stealing. And I concluded by telling him that he'd have to return the picture to Lars and make an apology the next time we got together.
Clive said he didn't mind having to give up the picture (al­though he preferred not to), but he asked if it would be all right to apologize to Lars in writing. He said he was too ashamed to confess to the crime in person.
I told him I supposed it would be all right, and he went straight to his desk and wrote the following note:

I am very sorry I took your picture of Marilyn.
I will not do it again.

He put the note in an envelope, and with it, he enclosed the Marilyn picture and a ten-dollar bill. He didn't explain what the money was for, and I didn't ask him, but I presumed it was for "damages."
When next we met Ann and Lars, Clive handed him the note of apology and asked him to open it in private. Lars promised, but during the ride to the theater he couldn't contain his curiosity. When Clive was gazing out the window, Lars sneaked a look at the letter, and then, with an amused smile, slipped the picture and the bill back into his coat pocket.
Ann and I noticed him doing this, and we figured that some­time before the end of the evening Lars would undoubtedly take Clive aside, give him a kindly talking to about the evils of stealing, forgive him officially, and return the bill to him. But as the evening progressed, nothing like that happened. The ten dollar remained securely in Lars’ pocket throughout the show, and while we were having dinner after. It looked very much as if Lars meant to keep it for good. The affair of the Marilyn picture was now a closed book.
When we were walking to the parking lot, Ann nudged me hard in the ribs and whispered in an annoyed tone,
"Don't tell me Lars going to keep Clive's ten dollar?" 
"I don't know," I shrugged. "Maybe he wants to teach him a lesson." 
"Well, if he does that to Clive after Clive was good enough to give him all the money he's been saving up, I'll never speak to him again," threatened Ann, glaring at the back of Lars' head.
"Clive gave it to him," I said, trying to keep a family vendetta from getting started. "Lars probably doesn't want to hurt his feelings by giving it back."
"I don't care, I never heard of such a mean thing," said Ann."Why, do you know how much ten dollar is? It's a weeks' allow­ance."
"Forget it," I said. "I'll give him ten dollars."
But Ann couldn't forget it. On the way home in the car, she flatly refused to speak to Lars which, true to form, he didn't notice because he was so busy talking himself.
About the only one in our group who wasn't at all upset over the loss of the ten dollar was Clive. He accepted it as a matter of course that Uncle Lars would keep the money, and while we were driving home, he chatted happily in the back seat.
I parked the car and everybody alighted.
While we were saying our assorted thank yous and good-bys just before Lars opened the front door, he took me aside and slipped the ten-dollar bill into my hand, unbeknownst to Clive.
"Here," he said. "Give this back to Clive."
He started to walk toward the elevator, then turned around again and took something else out of his pocket and handed it to me.

It was the picture of Marilyn.

"Clive might as well have the picture, too," he added with a smile. "I'm getting too old for that sort of thing."

Ms. Edna

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July 28, 2009

The Parisians' Paris-Royal Paris

The great cities of the world­ whether they are petrified landscapes of palaces, temples and tombs or living organisms with new developments stretch­ing like tentacles around their hearts, whether they have survived the collapse of empires and the disintegration of cul­tures, or have disappeared under the sands, enjoy only a brief moment of grace. Their days of power and creativity are num­bered, and even the memory of their golden age can be wiped out in a few generations, perhaps by economic change or the death of a builder-king. Athens is still identified with the city of Pericles. Persepolis remains Achaemenid Persepolis. New York has written the story of a now-threatened industrial civ­ilization in great vertical letters across the sky. Leningrad still belongs to Peter the Great, not Lenin. Florence means the Medici. Rome has two faces, one imperial and classical, the other papal and baroque, that face each other across a gap of 1,200 years.

Paris has managed to survive, growing ever more busy, ever more crowded, for 2,000 years. Yet it is no exception to the rule. France's architectural genius finds expression in Ro­manesque churches and Cister­cian monasteries as beautiful as Greek temples, from Bur­gundy to the Auvergne and from the Dordogne to the valley of the Rhone. Yet there are few eleventh-century remains in Paris. There is, of course, the Gothic architecture of Notre­Dame. It is one of the oldest of France's cathedrals; but it is neither the biggest, nor the purest, nor the most extravagant, and others boast more luxuriant stonework and more luminous stained glass. Its rivals in Chartres, Amiens, Rheims and Bourges-all small provincial towns-are more splendid.

During the French Renais­sance the focus of interest shifted from cathedrals to chateaux. Yet, again, it was not Paris but the Loire Valley and Fontainebleau that benefitted from the work of the great builders and the architects they hired. Art-loving visitors to the French capital can see what has survived from the reigns of Francois I and Henri II in a single afternoon.

This is not to say that there were few interesting buildings in the city of their day. The Paris that cost Henri IV a Mass no doubt had a fine flowering of palaces and churches rising above its evil-smelling drains. But what is left of them after centuries of revolutions and property speculation would hardly make Paris one of the world's great cities, architec­turally speaking.

The' same is true if one approaches the history of Pari­sian architecture from the other end. The 20th century's con­tribution-even without taking into account the cheap housing projects put up between the wars--consists of towers. Con­troversial constructions like the Montparnasse Tower and the high-rise buildings in the 15th arrondissement and the suburb of Courbevoie may have been made necessary by some momentary diktat, but they are nonetheless unlikely to win the visitor's admiration either by their originality or by their proportions. The architectural character of Paris owes little to those of its arrondissements that have been turned into poor men's Manhattans.

The special atmosphere of Paris depends to a much greater extent, at least for the tourist, on the 19th century, with its Napoleonic fanfares, its commercial and banking wealth, and its prosperous bourgeoisie. This was the city of Baron Haussmann and the Universal Exhibitions. If Pi­galle and Saint-Germain-des-­ Pres, whose attractions are not primarily architectural, are included under this heading, it is probably the most internationally celebrated and admired aspect of the city. This is the Paris of the Opera and of the Avenue de I'Opera, the city of military monuments that preserve the memory of France's brief honeymoon, like the wedding presents in a Victorian house­hold-the elephantine Arc de Triomphe; the Vendome Col­umn, too tall, too heavy and too dark for the perfectly pro­portioned square in which it stands; and Napoleon's tomb in Les Invalides, its porphyry the colour of blood. Like so many others, this honeymoon turned out for the worst. The Second Empire began less brilliantly than its predecessor, but it ended just as catastrophically.

Nevertheless it had the time to transform decisively the centre of Paris, which was redrawn with the ruler and string of Hausmannesque geom­etry. In fact Haussmann, who was Prefect of the Seine under Napoleon III, did the most thorough demolition' job con­ceivable, short of using bull­dozers or heavy artillery. To the present day, the round of grand hotels, theatres and department stores that makes up tourist Paris dates almost entirely from the time of Napoleon III, so Haussmann's work has acquired a certain amount of prestige. But this was achieved at the cost of destroying innumerable noble mansions, middle and working­class homes with facades as living as human faces, sculpted porticoes, delicate wrought­ iron balconies, dormer windows, and pleasant, winding little streets whose charms one can imagine by visiting their sur­vivors, the Rue de la Huchette and the Rue Mouffetard.

Then came the Third Repub­lic, which had the merit-all things considered, it was a merit-of giving Paris its best ­known monument, the Eiffel Tower. We take its existence so much for granted now that we are no longer surprised by the oddities of this strange master­piece of turn-of-the-century surrealism. It is a specimen of abstract architecture, the dream-construction of an en­gineering Facteur Cheval, and there is no conceivable use to which it can be put. It stands like a beacon of the new iron age, gigantic, elegant and slightly ridiculous, and with age it has become as touching as the elevated Metro that crosses the Seine at its foot. The Eiffel Tower is now probably more famous around the world than the Great Pyramid or the Sphinx. When Eisenstein, the Russian film director, passed through Paris in 1930, he claim­ed to have seen two yellowing postcards in a ramshackle isbah on the outskirts of Moscow. Both were French and both dated from the turn of the century. One was a photograph of the Eiffel Tower, the other of La Belle Otero, the most cele­brated Parisian demimondaine of the day. "That's the Czar and the Czarina," the owner of the shack told him respectfully.

The Eiffel Tower, which was constructed to mark the cente­nary of the Revolution of 1789, hardly deserved to be revered by an innocent muzhik as a symbol of autocracy. Its repub­lican credentials are impeccable. Yet it commemorates an event that contributed nothing, ar­chitecturally speaking, to Paris, and which in fact marked the end of the era of privileged grandeur that gave the city its true face. Revolutionaries can do many things. They can end some injustices and create others, lend drama to boring lives, pronounce fine phrases, invoke virtue, cut off heads and win battles-but by definition, they are not builders.

In 1789 they tore down the Bastille, Paris's equivalent of the Tower of London, though its past was less glorious and bloody. Its thick medieval walls would have attracted tourists today, though architecturally speaking their disappearance is no real loss. It is surprising, though, that the mob should have chosen to demolish a prison, when the gaols were to be filled to overflowing in the years to come. Once they had dealt with the Bastille, the victors paid no more attention to architecture except to break up statues in church porches. Their successors of the Com­mune of 1870 burnt down the Tuileries Palace and other noble buildings. They also dismantled the Vendome Col­umn, thus creating a fine opportunity, unfortunately lost, to set it up again in a more suitable place. In short, the revolutions that have shaken Paris have not left much of architectural interest behind them, even taking into account the wall-graffiti that were the contribution of the revolution­aries of May, 1968.

The epoch that, more than any other, gave Paris its at­mosphere, and placed it on the short list of the world's most beautiful cities, in company with the urban masterpieces of Renaissance Italy and the baroque capitals of Europe, lasted for almost- exactly two centuries, from the time when Henri IV established a strong monarchy to the days when Louis XIV surrendered a weak one. The history of France between the late 16th and the late 18th centuries, despite internal unrest in the first fifty years and colonial losses in the last half-century, covers the period when France became culturally and politically pre­dominant in Europe.

The period includes the Trea­ties of Washington, Louis XIV's conquests, the economic pros­perity of Louis XV's reign, and the naval victories of the War of American Independence. It was also the time of Descartes and Pascal, Racine and Moliere, Port-Royal and the Encyclopae­dists, when the salons, courts and palaces of Europe came under the sway of French styles of behaviour and thought. How should we define this period of French preeminence? It would hardly be correct to call it the classical age, for baroque made its appearance as early as the reigns of Henri IV and Louis XIII, and returned in a more restrained form under Louis XV. Nor did the age take all its character from the triumph of the Counter-Reformation, for it was also the age of the Libertines, of Cartesian scep­ticism, and of French participa­tion in the amazing scientific and philosophical breakthroughs of the 17th and 18th centuries. It is better to avoid all these misleading generalizations, and simply note that the great age of Parisian architecture coin­cided with the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV (with, as an epilogue, the reign of Louis XVI)-in other words, with the French monarchy at its zenith and in the early stages of its decline. One must think in terms of four reigns rather than four kings, for they were by no means the only builders of their day. Marie de Medicis, Richelieu, Mazarin, the Regent Philippe d'Orleans, the princes, the great financiers, royal mistresses, nobles and bourgeois -all deserve our gratitude, for they used their wealth-welther ill-gotten, borrowed, inher­ited or earned-to build the Marais and the Faubourg Saint­Germain, architectural museums where today visitors can find something to admire at every step. Paris was, therefore, not the work of a single ruler, like Peter the Great's St. Petersburg, nor of a single architect, like 'L'Enfant's Washington. Instead, it reflects a spirit or style that summed up the effort of the entire nation.

These observations are not intended to take the place of a guidebook, nor do they pretend to be an inventory of all the city's buildings. There is no great need for a fresh descrip­tion of the famous monuments and the great views, and there is such a wealth of lesser trea­sures that are worthy of admira­tion, even after two centuries of demolition, that it would be impossible to describe each one individually.

I shall limit myself to a few general remarks. Compared with the cities of Renaissance Italy and of central Europe, the great originality of Paris lies in the part played by urbanist-architects, who ar­ranged esplanades, avenues, forecourts and formal court­yards into axes of space organiz­ed around symmetrical facades. The new groups of buildings came to look like parks by the great landscape gardener Le Notre, while the Le Notre parks themselves, as at Versailles, looked more and more like town plans, divided into blocks by borders and rectilinear alleys.

Another innovation followed from this. The planners began to turn their attention from the overpopulated old quarters to the periphery of the city, where there was still virgin land on which to build and layout imposing prospects. The Place Royale (now Place des Vosges, the first Paris square to be planned as an architectural unity, was built in the heart of old Paris, on the site of a gar­den, as were the Palais Cardi­nal (now the Palais Royal) and the small but finely propor­tioned Place des Victoires. But many important buildings were put up outside the old town walls. The hospitals which add so much architectural interest to Paris-Bicetre, the Salpetriere, Saint-Louis (whose courtyard is superb), and above all the Invalides, the most beautiful monument in Paris and one of the most beautiful in the world along with the Place Vendome, the Place Louis XV (now the Place de la Concorde) and the Ecole Militaire, were all laid out on open ground, thereby avoiding the awkwardness of Haussmann's projects, which were hacked out of the living tissue of the city. Among the most distinctive features of royal Paris are the palatial squares, in which the facades of the individual buildings are moulded into a single whole (the Place Vendome could be a courtyard of the Louvre, and vice versa) by means of peristyle columns (for ex-ample, the colonnades of the Louvre and of the Place de la Concorde) and the open space around them, which enables visitors to approach them slowly from a distance. This is true of the Place de la Concorde, the Invalides, and the Champ-de-Mars. The organization of space into symmetrical vistas is the most characteristic trait of royal Paris, and, like all representative architecture, it reflects the society of its day, as it was or as it imagined itself to be.

But the most ambitious undertaking of all was constructed outside Paris, at Versailles, where there was room to frame the royal palace with appropriately majestic vistas. Versailles was a theatrical triumph. Historians point out that the kings of France moved there to escape the political pressures of the tumultuous city streets. True; but they went there to keep their distance architecturally speaking too.

Between the two great symmetrical fans formed by the avenues of the city and the alleys of the park, away from the debris and swarming crowds of Paris, they built the capital of the absolute monarchy over broad expanses where the most elaborate court-coat could swing at ease.

images courtesy of a Parisian friend

July 24, 2009

One piano, one violin, perfect fingers (another musical note)

One of the challenges of child raising which is not included in books on the subject is musicianship, or how to get your little would-be to practice.

It's not included for a very obvious reason: no adult has yet found a way to cope with this touchy problem.

Just how ill-equipped the average parent is to handle this stickler is evidenced by the great number of your own generation you meet at parties who say boastfully, "I took piano lessons when I was a kid, and I can't play a note today. " Actually, they are just being modest. After a couple of drinks, they can usually be coaxed into sitting down at the piano and stumbling through a few measures of one of their old pieces-usually Beethoven's "Minuet in G” or “Für Elise”. When this musical mayhem is over they will then say (if there's anyone left to say it to), "I don't know why I didn't keep my music up."

I, never a member of the "Minuet in G" gang, was determined that Clive (the godson) wouldn't wind up making a fool of himself at parties.

I knew that Clive was gifted, because his grandmother, who used to play the piano professionally, told me so. I remember the night we discovered he was a musical genius. After dinner, and while we grown-ups were having coffee, we heard strange sounds emanating from the piano in the living room. It could have been the cat walking up and down the keyboard. But it wasn't. "It's me, mommy-I'm playing," Clive called out from the living room. "Aren't I good?"

"That's marvelous!" Larissa called back to him. Then to us she added, "You know, he really has a feeling for music-I can tell. I believe he's trying to pick out a song. We must give him lessons!"

"I think so, too," said dad, who was still under his mother's spell at the grand old age of --.

Larissa spent the next week interviewing prospective piano teachers and worrying over which one to take.

Personally, I couldn't see that it made much difference. From what I've been able to observe, most music teachers are strangely similar. They also have a remarkable facility for keeping you completely in the dark about their own playing ability. And they are usually quick to assure you that your child is potentially a combination of Horowitz and Liberace.

Larissa finally decided on Mrs. McGinley, who bustled into the house one afternoon with a copy of “Teaching Little Fingers to Play” under her arm. "Now, if I don't think your boy has it in him to learn, I'll tell you," she said, while Clive was squirming on the piano bench, eager to get started.

I was a little on edge as I waited for Mrs. McGinley to give us her honest opinion. But we needn't have worried. I could tell Clive had made the grade from the smile of pure rapture on Mrs. McGinley's face when the first lesson was finished.

"This young man is loaded with musical talent," she revealed.

"And he has perfect fingers for the piano, too. Would you like to show what we learned today?"

"Sure." Clive placed his right hand on Middle C and rattled off "Up the Hill and Down the Hill" like I've never heard it played before.

"And Clive has promised me he's going to practice every day, so he can get lots of gold stars," said Mrs. McGinley. "Haven't you, Clive?"
"Yes, ma'am. I'll love practicing."

I thought this was just an idle boast, but Clive surprised us.

During the next seven days he covered about a hundred miles on his many travels "Up the Hill and Down the Hill."

Then, he didn't practice quite so hard between the second and third lessons. In fact, several times I had to prod him into practicing.

"I only heard you play 'Scaling the Wall' once today," I told him one afternoon. "Didn't Mrs. McGinley say you should play it three times every day?"

"I played it the other two times when you were out. And it is turning into a math lesson.”

By the fifth week, Clive was making no attempt to deceive us. "Did you practice today?" I asked.

"I couldn't. I had a soccer meeting. Man, I don't have time for everything."

"Gould found time to practice."

"He was in no shape to play soccer."

Clive didn't abandon his musical career completely. Occasionally he'd sit down at the piano-on his way through the living room-and run through "Up the Hill and Down the Hill," for old times' sake. But his burning enthusiasm for the instrument seemed to have expired. Although, he completely took me by surprise, when he played a ‘tortured’ "Für Elise" on my birthday.

After several months, we decided on a more forceful approach. "Your mom and I are going to stop the piano lessons if you don't start practicing regularly," I warned. "How would you like that?" "I'd like it fine," said Clive. That'll teach you to make threatening remarks to children.

"Oh, come on," pleaded mom. "You don't really want to quit, do you? Don't you want to be able to play an instrument?"

"Yeah, but not the piano-I want to play the violin!" he suddenly blurted out. "Then I can be in the school orchestra. They already have a piano player, but they need violins and they'll teach me. And I can carry my violin on the school bus, like the other orchestra kids do."

"You won't have any more time to practice the violin than you do the piano," I pointed out.

"Sure, I will, because I want to play the violin," he said. "I never did like the piano very much."

Clive got his fiddle, compliments of Local 47. The next afternoon he came home from school with the announcement that he had made the School Orchestra. This will give you an idea of the orchestra.

"I think I'll get him a violin teacher, so he can learn correctly," Larissa said. "Clive tells me they don't get much personal instruction in orchestra."

A few days later, a Mrs. Stone came to the house. She was approximately the same woman as Mrs. McGinley, only she carried a violin.

"This young man has splendid fingers for the fiddle," she informed us in a high-pitched voice, after listening to Clive saw his way through one of his orchestra pieces. "And he has a good ear, too."

Under Mrs. Stone's tutelage, Clive made rapid strides. Within a week, he could tune up by himself. Within a month, he could get almost as much resin on his bow as he could on the carpet. And within two months he could hold the fiddle under his chin without using his hands. He could also play one piece-"Dark Eyes" -well enough to make me believe, if I closed my eyes, that I was in a broken-down gypsy restaurant.

Clive seemed well on his way to becoming a pit musician at the Hollywood Bowl, when a familiar problem started cropping up again. One day I realized I hadn't heard the familiar squeaking and scratching of his violin for a whole week. However, this time I decided to put the problem squarely up to his teacher, who at least was getting paid to make a musician out of him.

"Yes, I have a splendid system for making boys practice," said Mrs. Stone after the next lesson, which even she admitted had been a fiasco. "For every day that he doesn't practice, deduct a dollar from his allowance."

''He doesn't get that much," I said.

"I have a better idea," said Larissa. "We'll give him a Dollar for every day that he does practice."

"Make it two and I'll take it," bargained Clive.

For two dollars a session, Clive was confident he could find plenty of time to practice (proof of the power of positive thinking). The time he decided on was early in the morning, before he left for school.

"Oh, no," I protested. "If he's going to get paid for it, he can find time to practice when the rest of us aren't sleeping."

"He won't wake you up," said Larissa. "He can take his violin to the other end of the house, so you can't hear him."

It seemed logical, until six o'clock the next morning, when I heard someone playing the piano.

"What's he doing that for?" I yelled, jumping out of bed. "He's just using the piano to tune up," said Larissa. "It won't take long."

He barely had the violin in tune when it was time to stop practicing and get ready for school. This went on every day for a week. Finally, I decided to tune his violin the night before. We all slept-in from then on.

In fact, we had a number of brief respites after that. Something was always happening to the violin. At frequent intervals, Clive snapped each of the strings. Then he broke the bridge. After we replaced the bridge, all the horsehairs on Clive's bow snapped. At first he claimed it had happened while he was playing "The Emperor Waltz." But under interrogation he confessed that he'd been using his bow for a fencing foil in a hand-to-hand encounter with Andy, whose weapon was a toy shovel.

The bow snapped while he was trying to parry one of Andy's thrusts. "So it's all Andy's fault," said Clive, logically. "He was playing too rough."

By now I was becoming suspicious of all Clive's "accidents" with his violin. This suspicion was strengthened when I learned that Larissa was still paying two dollars a day even when his violin was unplayable. She refused to believe that such an ardent music lover would stoop to such chicanery as deliberately putting the violin out of commission (Oedipus Rex raising his ugly head again).

Early one morning, I heard some very distressing sounds Clive was playing the piano, and going at it with a vengeance.

“This is not the time to split up your interests. You'll have to decide what you want to play and stick to it. Now make up your mind. What kind of lessons do you want to take?"

Clive looked at me with a completely straight face, and said, "I want to take tennis lessons!"

That ended Clive's formal education in music.
Today when he entertains at parties, he plays
"Up the Hill and Down the Hill" on the strings of his tennis racket.

July 23, 2009

Wolfgang in 'time'.

I am studying the rudiments of music composition. If you live long enough and stay interested you realize just how little you know.
“What composer?” teacher ask
“Bach”, I venture
Teacher, “How about Mozart ”
“Scarlatti”, I suggest
“No, I think you are ready for Mozart ”
“Something more modern”, my last ditch effort
“Definitely Mozart ”, that sounds final
“MOZART, where is the beef?” -
“Well”, he answered, “he composed 21 piano sonatas, 27 piano concertos, 41 symphonies, 18 masses, 13 operas, 9 oratorios and cantata, 2 ballets, 40 plus concertos for various instruments, string quartets, trios and quintets, violin and piano duets, piano quartets, and songs. This astounding output includes hardly one work less than a masterpiece. You think we have enough material to keep us engaged for the next few months?
You know that in his lifetime, his music was considered too modern, too complicated, not sufficiently tuneful, excessively intellectual, and full of abstruse modulations and over-elaborate textures. Contained too many notes, and was too tough for the teeth of the Viennese. Enchanted the ears, offended reason, outraged modesty and virtue, and trampled on sensibilities by promoting vice? It was said that, an unpracticed ear could not follow his works; even more experienced ones needed to hear them several times over. Mozart’s genius, however, can withstand the works of fiction that it has stimulated, from Alexander Pushkin’s (the first to exploit the Salieri slander) to Mr. Shafer’s. His world is a large one, a comprehensive one, open to anyone with ears and a soul; and these next few month surely will be a time when you can drink your fill and still never be satiated.”

Wolfie, here's looking at you, wunderkid.

July 21, 2009

Being There

Travel is like adultery: one is always tempted to be unfaithful to one's own country. To have imagination is inevitably to be dissatisfied with where you live. There is in men, as Peter Quennell said, "a centrifugal tendency." In our wanderlust, we are lovers looking for consummation.

It is our best selves that travel. Only our passport reminds us who we actually are. We go abroad to meet our foreign persona, that thrilling stranger born on the plane. We're going to see everything we have eliminated or edited out of our own culture in the name of convenience: religion, royalty, picturesqueness, otherness and passion.

There's an impostor in each of us why else would we put on dark glasses and try to speak and look like the natives of another place? At home, we impersonate ourselves; when we're abroad, we can try to be what we've always wanted to be. In spite of all the recent talk about roots, many of us are tired of our roots, which may be shallow anyway, and so we travel in search of rootlessness.

Traveling began when men grew curious. The influence of the church, the traditional pattern of life, the lack of money and leisure had all restrained curiosity until the seventeenth century, when under pressure of scientific discoveries, the physical world began to gape open. It was then that people began to travel in search of the profane.

Travel arrived together with sophistication, with the ability to see through or beyond one's own culture, with the modern faculty of boredom. Something of the Crusades survive in the modern traveler only his is a personal crusade, an impulse to go off and fight certain obscure battles of his own spirit.

Of course, one of the most common reasons for traveling is simply to get away. There is a recurrent desire to drop our lives, to simply walk out of them. Expatriates try to do this: they live in a kind of counterpoint "between operetta and quarantine,'" to borrow a phrase from Celine.

When we travel, we are on vacation vacant, waiting to be filled. To get away to a strange place produces a luxurious feeling of disengagement, of irresponsible free association.

And language what a pleasure to leave our own language, with its clichés stuck in our teeth. How much better things sound in another tongue! It's like having our ears cleaned out. So long as we don't understand it too well, every other language is poetry.

Because we travel for so many reasons, some of the contradictory travel writing is like a suitcase into which the writer tries to cram everything. At its most interesting, it's a continual tasting, the expression of a nostalgia for the particular. Travel writing has become a quintessentially modern thing, the present regretting the past.

"I do not expect to see many travel books in the near future," Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1946. Like Claude Levi-Strauss, he saw the world turning into a "monoculture," the sense of place giving way to placelessness. What Waugh didn't foresee was that travel books would change as novels and poetry has, that every slippage of culture would provoke its peculiar literature. He underestimated the variousness of our reasons for traveling.

Bowles said that a country loses interest for him when it no longer has a traditional life of its own and survives only as an attraction for tourists. But this kind of survival breeds a new culture of entrepreneurs and improvisers that has furnished the travel writer with a different kind of local character.

D.H. Lawrence was one of the last of the great romantic travelers. When his Twilight in Italy was published in 1916, a reviewer complained that Lawrence tried to see more than he really saw, "he preferred the easier course of discovering the Infinite." But as Paul Fussell says in Abroad, what Lawrence saw in things and places was the infinite. Lawrence traveled as if he was gathering material for a generalization so great that he was never able to formulate it.  He ,was one of the first to feel Torschlusspanik, the fear of the closing of the door, the end of culture, Nietzsche's stare into the abyss, which stares back. Travel writing is full of elegies for disappearing cultures. As Jules Laforgue, one of the fathers of modern poetry, said, "How picturesque they are, the missed trains!"

There are travelers who specialize in resisting the foreign, culture-mockers like Peter Fleming and Eric Newby. In a poem in her Questions of Travel, Elizabeth Bishop asks, "Have we room for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?" In another poem, she says, "There are too many waterfalls here," expressing a modern traveler's distrust of gaudy otherness. We can expect minimalist travel books, the kind that Samuel Beckett might write. If it hasn't already, travel writing may eventually succumb to a dreadful sense of déjà vu.

When Americans went to Europe for the first time the cultural and historical passion of older countries used to stun them, filling them with sadness, envy, fear, and love. But now we can also see what the inverse can do when other countries no longer have any passionate internal life.

Henri Michaux's Barbarian in Asia, which was published in 1932, opens with an astonishing line: "Imagine a city exclusively composed of ecclesiastics." But now there is little astonishment or naive traveling. As sameness spreads over entire continents, travel writing moves from literary anthropology to ontology-pure being-or to what Raymond Queneau called "ontalgia," a pain in the joints of being. In Susan Sontag's story, "Unguided Tour," her traveler says, "I don't want to satisfy my desire; I want to exasperate it."

Perhaps in the future we shall have to travel like James Holman, who, after being invalided out of the British navy because he had gone blind, set out in 1819 to see the world. Traveling mostly alone, speaking no foreign languages, using only public transport, Holman got as far as Siberia and returned home to publish in several thick volumes all that he had experienced. He rarely felt, he said, that he had missed anything through being blind. (At one point, he met a deaf man and they traveled together.) Since he could not see, people often invited Holman to squeeze things as a way of perceiving them-and this is what today's traveler has to do. He has to squeeze the places he visits, until they yield something, anything.

July 13, 2009

Campo Cestio, Rome

visited today, and yes ‘we stood before their graves just inside the walls of Rome’. No need to invent words to describe what these two ‘gentle’ men could do so much better.

Happy is England
John Keats

Happy is England!
I could be content
To see no other verdure than its own;
To feel no other breezes than are blown
Through its tall woods with high romances blent;
Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment
For skies Italian, and an inward groan
To sit upon an Alp as on a throne,
And half forget what world or worldling meant.
Happy is England, sweet her artless daughters;
Enough their simple loveliness for me,
Enough their whitest arms in silence clinging;
Yet do I often warmly burn to see
Beauties of deeper glance, and hear their singing,
And float with them about the summer waters.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Rome has fallen,
ye see it lying
Heaped in undistinguished ruin:
Nature is alone undying.

note the cat grooming on Shelley’s grave

The cemetery is home to minions of cats

She was by far the loveliest, and new it.

This one reminded me of your insolent barn cat ‘Ditto’

July 12, 2009

Tides that bind…

…for a small flotilla of Londoners, life on dry land holds no charm; they’ve traded flats for renovated house boats moored on the banks of the Thames.

Meeting the neighbours-

A great orange sun is setting over London, staining the river the color of marmalade. It is a Turner sunset. It is also a high tide, at that dangerous moment when the river seems not to know which way to turn. Choppy with indecision, whipped by a breeze, its white horses race this way and that between the city's stone embank­ments as though searching for the right way. At moments like this, you sense the power of the river, the possibility of malevolent intent beneath its ruffled, golden surface.

Between Battersea Bridge and the glittering terraces of Chelsea Harbour, the pastel-colored houseboats of Cheyne Walk screech rhythmically against their mooring pontoons. In the shadow of the South Bank church of St. Mary, which Turner once painted and where the poet Blake was married, a moored squadron of heavy ­timbered Dutch barges creaks against pilings like rhinos rubbing against trees.

Up past Hammersmith Bridge, traditional narrow boats (so called because they are narrow enough to negotiate Britain's seven-foot­ wide canals) huddle together as the river swirls around them, and, farther upstream, a re­stored river lighter (a flat-bot­tomed barge) rises gently but surely past the level of the road as the full tide washes over low ­lying gardens and pavements.

Living with a tide that dis­lodges your home from a muddy bed, tosses it for eight hours, and then lets it sink back into the ooze to tilt a few degrees off level until the next tide surges is not for everyone. But those who choose to live afloat-several hundred, according to the Port of London Authority, which super vises these tidal reaches-are sworn to the water, shrug away any inconvenience, and point to the nesting coots, the crested grebes, and the impertinent cormorants as ample compensation. On the river, they will tell you, your closest neighbors have feathers and the sounds of the city are just a distant hum.
"I've lived on this stretch of the river for twenty-six years," says a retired aeronautical engineer, "twenty ­four of them on this vessel, and I can't think of anywhere I'd like to live more."

The stretch of river referred to is a half-mile terrace of pedigreed Georgian London where the riverside houses have water gates and door boards to keep out high tides, and where the prospect south from their drawing rooms is of the playing field of St. Paul's school in the middle of the city.

The captain cuts a tall, statesmanlike figure in his open ­plan saloon. Its wood-paneled walls are hung with pictures of square riggers, men-of-war, and, in pride of place above the mantel, the his boat a traditional Thames barge. Depicted in an early-nineteenth century scene, it tacks close to the wind, lumbering through the flood, its holds crammed with shell and shot bound for a frigate of Nelson's navy moored in midstream.

"I lived on her for the first two years of my river life," says the captain with genuine affec­tion. "She was launched at Sit­tingbourne in Kent in 1803, two years before Nelson's run-in with the Spaniards at the Battle of Tra­falgar, and was first put to work carrying supplies to the fleet. When I got her in 1984, she was the oldest vessel afloat after the USS Constitution-161 years old and most of that time engaged in commercial trade."

But his stew­ardship of this historic vessel was tragically short-lived. ''Two years after I took possession, she was sunk one night at her mooring-rammed by a Dutchman who didn't hang around to see the damage he'd done. Went down in sixty feet of water. The only thing I managed to retrieve was an old 78 record of Paul Robeson singing 'River Stay 'Way from My Door,'" he says with a rueful smile.

His replacement home may not have its predecessor's history, but it has served its purpose admirably; it is a seventy-five-foot-long, twin-decked, steel-hulled barge that would likely see off the most careless of Dutchmen. When he bought it, also in 1984 ("I wanted a steel boat that was flat, empty, and strong"), he cleaned out the coal debris in its hold, designed and added the superstructure that now houses the bridge like saloon, and converted the space below deck into a series of cabins and offices for himself and his wife, Ann. It is snug and warm ("drier than most houses") and appropriately shipshape. As for disadvantages, he will acknowledge only one: the flood tides that rise high enough to sweep over his carefully tended garden that comes with the mooring. Oh, and the fact that the small island known as Chiswick Eyot, behind which Favorite shelters from the full run of the river, also obscures the midstream course of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Not that that stops them from entertaining family and friends on the foredeck to mark the occasion.

No such obstruction obscures John’s enjoyment of this annual sporting spectacle. From the deck of his Dutch barge he and his wife, Diana, can follow the race from the moment the two crews first appear below Hammersmith Bridge until they round the loop of the Chiswick Reach-a good mile of the four-and-a-quarter-mile course. "There's no better viewpoint, unless you're part of the flotilla of small boats that follow the crews the whole way," says John.
Moored to a pier in the shadow of the celebrated Dove Pub, a riverside tavern that dates from the reign of Charles II, John is spared some of the discomforting vagaries of high and low tides; the barge is far enough out in the stream to remain afloat even in the lowest water. John is a committed river man, and though he may not have spent as much time on the Thames as others, his enthusiasm for a life afloat is infectious.
"There's simply nothing like it," he says. "It was 1949, and I was 7 years old," I remember this old Dutch barge suddenly appearing one morning and tying up close to the house. All I could see or understand was this wonderful barge-all varnished wood and gleaming brass-which I was invited to come aboard to inspect. It was a small boy's dream, and I have never forgotten it. From that day on, I wanted to live on the water."
Johns boat today is a fully operationaI 125-horse­power lux-motor with a bow thruster for delicate maneuvering in tight surroundings. He may not need it on the wide reaches of the tidal Thames, but John is not the sort to limit himself to a single stretch of water. Currently planning a tour of the Continent by barge, he shuffles through a pack of photos in wheelhouse, pointing out stretches of French canal that he has been reconnoitering for his forth­coming trip.

"It's quite remarkable just how far you can travel in a vessel like the this," he says, unfolding a map of inland European waterways. "We can be in Paris in three days, weather permitting, and from there it's take your' pick: south down to the Saone-quite wonderful countryside; north to Helsinki and St. Petersburg; east along the river Maine; or, down the Danube to the Black Sea."

Above the lock and weir at Teddington, (the name means "tide ending town") and beyond the red Tudor brickwork of Hampton Court Palace, the character of the river and its waterborne residents changes dramatically. Here no tide reaches, and apart from the occasional winter swell from upstream, there is nothing to disturb the gentle rhythm of river life. This is Wind in the Willows country, the same stretch of water that Jerome K. Jerome described in Three Men in a Boat: a sedate, suburban river with wooded islands and graveled towpaths, tidy bungalows and timbered boathouses, where weeping willows drape their skirts on the banks. The hardy, seafaring spirit of the Thames's lower reaches is superseded by certain complacency, its wharves and quays replaced with family-run boat yards and little marinas, its commercial traffic with blue-shawled motor cruisers and assorted weekend pleasure craft of a type that John would likely dismiss as floating gin palaces.

Remarkable is Taggs Island on the approach to Hampton village, not so much for the marvelously eccentric residential craft that crowd its shoreline bow to stern, but for its startling interior, cunningly scooped into two landscaped lagoons. Inside each lagoon, and barely visible from the river, are custom-built houseboats nesting like a colony of giant white swans in their own private bays.

In the heart of London's Maida Yale, within whistling distance of stuccoed mansions, is the barge home Dennis bought. Despite a lifetime afloat as a seaman ("I've been around the world so many times that I'm happy to stay right here"), Dennis is new to the canal, having forsaken a fourth-floor walk-up apartment five years ago on the heels of a heart attack to enjoy life at ground level.

"It's being so close to nature that I love," says Dennis, breaking up some husks of bread for two majestic swans-regular visitors-that have just tapped their beaks on his kitchen window to announce their arrival. Long white necks craning, they gobble up the food he passes to them before the ducks and Canada geese can get a look in.

Beautiful though Denis' section of the canal is, its traditional character has been lost to the passage of time, the days of working narrow boats long overtaken by road and rail. Only a few hundred yards away, however, beyond the willows of Rembrandt Gardens, the real old-world atmosphere is still preserved. You can almost hear the ancient clatter of hooves over cobbled towpaths and the snort of horses heaving their barges that final half mile to the Paddington Basin. With the Westway overpass arching overhead and the rumble of traffic close at hand, it may not be the prettiest stretch of canal, but it's certainly the real thing, with a tang of Dickens as strong as anything in London.

Old Harrovian Andrew and three co-owners have spent next to nothing on their boat in fact, it's almost a matter of principle to keep the expense of maintaining this fifty-year­ old, forty-three-foot narrow boat to the barest minimum. And it shows. The ironwork is rusty, the panels in need of a lick of paint, and the interior every bachelor's dream, with only the bare essentials for a week afloat-a jar of instant coffee, a bag of sugar, and a bottle of Scotch under the sink. But then that's the whole point, Andrew explains. The boat is not just somewhere to live, nor even something to play with. Rather, it's a means to an end.
"It all started in Dubai," he says. "I worked out there for four years and made three very good friends. We promised that when we returned to the U. K. we would keep in touch by using some of our tax-free income to buy a weekend cottage in the wilds of Wales." For one reason or another, the cottage remained empty for much of the time ("too far to go on weekends"). Finally Andrew found the boat and contacted his friends, and a purchase was agreed upon.
"The rules are simple-there aren't any," jokes Andrew, who has just arrived in London and found himself a berth on the towpath beneath Maida Yale's Delamere Terrace. It has taken him five days to bring the boat from its last mooring outside Newbury, a distance of fifty miles at an average speed of three knots ("man's natural pace," he observes philosophically).
"Each of us knows where the key is hidden, and we're all free to take her off if we find her empty. All that's required after use is a tank of diesel, a replacement bottle of Scotch, and a phone call to the lads to say where she can be found." Andrew beams at the simplicity­ and success-of it all.

"I don't believe we'll ever sell her, tramp that she is," he says fondly. "She's a passport, you see. Slip your moorings, and you're off wherever the canal leads you. A weekend, a week, months if you want. Nope, we'd never sell."

And with that Andrew rubs his beard, and heads off into the London twilight to make that all-important call to the lads: "She's back in town if you want her.”

July 10, 2009

The Camargue – Cowboy Country of the Rhone Delta

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"Sand, little maritime trees, marshland, broken and beaten down by the wind, on the un­speakably melancholy expanse! There is hardly a ripple in the flat land. The whole vast empty area speaks with opposing voices of an immense desolation, echoed by the moaning of the nearby waves. Everything is born and everything perishes ceaselessly .... "

The waste land, described here so mournfully by Charles Maurras in his book
Anthinea, is the Camargue: the thinly populated, marshy plain that lies fifty miles to the West of Marseilles, between the mouths of the Grand Rhone and the Petit Rhone. The Camargue has an area of 290 square miles and is not really vast, but its uninterrupted stretches of pas­tureland, marsh and swamp belie its smallness and give one an acute sense of space and solitude. Apart from the Saintes­ Maries-de-Ia-Mer, on the coast, there are no real villages, on­ly odd clusters of houses and an occasional mas, or large farm, evidenced by a wall of trees which shield it from the mistral, the fierce prevailing wind, but otherwise invisible.
There are riding stables ev­erywhere in the Camargue. If you have sufficient stamina, go on a whole day's ride to the forest of Silvereal. This is the best way to see the coun­try, because, on horseback, you can penetrate to the remoter areas where there are no roads. The marshes are infested with mosquitoes and bugs, so it is advisable to buy an insect repel­lent before setting out.
The distinctness of the Ca­margue landscape is matched by the idiosyncratic and inde­pendent character of its inhab­itants-a product of local tra­ditions and a local way of life which geographical inaccessibil­ity for a long time helped to sustain. Today one still has the feeling of being in a separate country. Reference seems to be made only to the Saintes- Maries, Aigues- Mortes and the villages of the neighboring Bas Langue­doc. Arles, so close, is rarely mentioned, nor is the country beyond. Marseilles is only fifty miles away, yet most people seem never to have been there.

Until the 1930's there was no good road from ArIes to the Saintes- Maries, only a rutted track, called the draille, made up of earth and broken rock and obstructed in winter by water. It was a difficult journey, dis­couraging visitors and preserving the area from outside influences.
The paving of the roads to ArIes and Aigues-Mortes open­ed the area to large-scale tourism, and today the Saintes ­Maries is crowded with holiday­makers from May to September. It is not a very attractive town: a jumble of white, box-shaped houses huddle around the for­tress-church; a long bald prom­enade gives enormous provi­sion for parking-and in sum­mer is packed solid; and to the East of the town there is a large camping site. Tourism is welcomed by many because of the money it brings, but the life of the local community goes to ground until the siege is lifted in the autumn. One finds here too, as in so many holiday resorts, the unfortunate by-product of brittle shopkeep­ers and hoteliers. The town seems gloomy in its new-found prosperity and I would not recommend it as a place to stay. The beautiful old town of Aries is only twenty-five miles away and is an excellent centre, not only for visiting the Camargue but for travelling more widely through the rest of Provence. Yet the history of the region is centred on the Saintes- Maries and the town is worth visiting.

There is a legend that, shortly after the death of Christ, the Virgin Mary and her compan­ions in Palestine were put into boats by the Jews and set afloat without oars or sails in the expectation and hope that they would be drowned. One of these boats came to shore on the Provencal coast. Mary Magdalene and most of the other saintly survivors travelled through Provence and further into Europe to preach the Gospel. Only Marie-Jacobe and Marie-Salome, attended by their servant Sara, remained in the village that is now named in their honor. Each year on May 24 and 25, the holy relics of the saints are carried in pro­cession along the water's edge, the priests, townspeople and gypsies walking in separate groups, and the whole assembly accompanied by horsemen.

The gypsy pilgrimage, in hon­or of St. Sara, has become more of a carnival than a pious renewal and affirmation of identity. During the week pre­ceding the festival, the streets and cafes are thronged with musicians, singers and dancers. Families play together: a father accompanying his son, his wife sitting next to him with a baby in her lap. Sometimes there are so many groups playing together in the same bar that the music merges or collides. There is an atmosphere of spontaneous gaiety and the flamenco music is often of a very high standard. The greatest champion of the liberties and traditions of the Camargue was Folco de Baron­celli, Marquis of Javon. He recognized that the primary manifestation of a people's identity was its language, and for nine years he and the poet Frederic Mistral brought out a Provencal-Ianguage newspa­per. He was also a rancher, however, and, finding that he had not enough time for both occupations, he gave up the paper to devote himself to his bulls and horses and to the conservation of the traditional equestrian and popular sports of the Camargue.
By the 19th century, the Span­ish bullfight to the death had been introduced into the region, and the prefects recommended that all the sports with the bulls should be stopped. Baroncelli reintroduced the abrivade and the course libre at the beginning of this century. His fight to sustain the Provencal language failed, but the games still con­tinue in summer and autumn at the village fetes in the Bas Lan­guedoc, and certainly a tour of the Camargue would be quite incomplete without seeing them.
Each morning of the fete, the gardian-the rancher's employ­ee who has permanent respon­sibility for the care of the herd -and the "friends of the ranch," local amateur riders, go out into the meadows to bring the animals into the village. The rider's equipment is distinctive: a short saddle with a high pom­mel and cantle, so that he can sit tight; caged stirrups to keep his feet secure; and a long pole like a trident, the implement he uses for prodding the bulls.
Most of the riders wait to one side of the herd, while the gardian and several companions select the bulls which are to be taken. The animals are gregarious and recalcitrant, and it requires con­siderable skill to separate them from the herd, but once detach­ed, the bull is surrounded by the horses and one by one the party is assembled. The riders now form a tight ring round the bulls and ride into town.
Meanwhile, the spectators run for their cars and the procession begins. It is traditional for the young people of each village to attempt to distract and upset the horses in any way they can, in order to open the circle and enable the bulls to escape. The sight of these boys demonstrat­ing their pedestrian gallantry at a backwards trot or canter, while the horsemen strive to retain control of the bulls, who for their part are doing their best to get out, is picturesque and exciting.
On the morning when I watch­ed the abrivade into Aimatgues, tempers became a little frayed and it seemed that the trident might perhaps be employed on the young men rather than the bulls; but the riders kept their cool and there were no escapes and no casualties. The abrivade was boxed in before and behind by a line of cars, all hooting, the passengers shouting encour­agement, advice and abuse. Immediately in front of the riders was an old saloon car, its top cut off to provide an ad hoc truck for twenty young aficionados. It was painted in a medley of glaring colors and covered with recommendations regarding different brands of pasfis. Its horn blared out the first two bars of a tune.
As the riders appeared in the avenue approaching the village, the people went wild, young men rushing towards the animals and shouting. One heroic youth managed to seize a bull by its tail and immediately a dozen others fell upon the animal, holding it fast. A moment of great rejoicing. A rope was then tied around the bull's horns and it was allowed to run free among the crowd. The vil­lagers fled: a scene of mass terror with everyone hurtling for cover as fast as he could go. After this euphoric interlude, the beast was driven by the horsemen into the narrow bar­ricaded street leading into the arena, and the abrivade was over. Young and old now repair­ed to the cafes and the heady smell of aniseed spread across the village.
The course libre takes place in the afternoon. A bull is releas­ed into the ring wearing a ribbon between its horns and the raze­teurs, men dressed all in white and equipped with a small metal rake attached to their knuckles, attempt to remove it. The amount of money to be paid to the successful man is an­nounced over the loudspeaker, augmented periodically by dona­tions from different local per­sonalities or organizations; but if the ribbon is not seized within a certain time, a fanfare sounds and the fight is over. The raze­feurs are agile and daring, reg­ularly leaping clear over the surrounding fence to escape in­jury. The spectacle does not have the glamour of Spanish bullfighting nor the special aura that comes from its to-the-death confrontation. But the course libre is a sport which, nonethe­less, requires considerable cour­age and skill, and one full of a certain charm and innocence.

Henri Aubanel, the son-in-­law of the Marquis de Baroncelli, is one of the ranchers who are fighting to maintain the cult of the bulls. Like Baroncelli, he regards the traditional sports as the valid expression of the beauty and poetry of his coun­try, and he too has dedicated his life to their conservation. He and his family live for their animals. "I provide sixty abri­vades a year and there are sev­eral others who do as much," he said, "but it is difficult to survive. There are no financial rewards because we very rarely kill the bulls. The cultivation of rice and the vine has taken up a lot of pasturage and the spread of game reserves for hunting is a worse threat. As for the games, some of the young people today are hostile. Perhaps they think that they represent an established order that they want to pull down. Flour and plaster have been thrown in the horses' faces and we have had difficult and even dangerous incidents. If there was a serious accident, the games might well be sup­pressed. Wherever industry is introduced, local traditions die, along with local initiative."
The jeux de gardians are anachronistic. They do belong to another age. They are non­productive and inefficient. Would not a truck provide a more satisfactory mode of transportation for wild animals than the abrivade? But these traditional games possess a rare nobility and beauty and it would be a tragedy for the Camargue if this vital part of its heritage was lost.

sorry friends, I had to re-post 'something' or 'someone' ? messed with the posting. Once more, for my dear friend Ms Edna.

July 02, 2009

Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness

When Thomas Jefferson came to Paris in 1788 to negotiate the peace treaty that established the independence of the United States, he made a close study of the works of his fellow architects.
He acquainted himself with the neoclassical designs of Ledoux and Devailly, and admired Gabriel's collonnades in the Place de la Concorde and the Petit Trianon at Versailles.
He also made frequent visits to the marchands-merciers-the forerunners of the antique dealers and decorators of our own day-whose premises for the most part were on the quays of the Seine.

He found there furniture made by the best-known cabinetmakers, picture frames gilded on the spot, clocks, busts (some of them from the atelier of Houdon), sumptuous wall hangings made at Lyons in the style of Philippe de la Salle, and even simple cloth printed at the Jouy manufactory near Versailles.

Schooled in simplicity by English master craftsmen and architects and by a Puritan upbringing, Jefferson was not attracted by all the surface glitter of an artificial and precious society. He liked beautiful proportions and fine materials (though this did not prevent him from buying a beautiful gilded drawing-room suite covered in silk).He was to realize his ideal of unostentatious elegance and subdued dignity later at Monticello, his house in Virginia, and, later still, in the White House. So it came about that the Louis Seize style has continued to be the official style of the United States almost to the present day; it can still be found in the embassies and great banks that have resisted the taste for abstract and even Pop decoration.

Jefferson gave Benjamin Latrobe the job of carrying out the plans which the French architect L'Enfant drew for Washington. He himself was one of the most elegant of the neoclassical architects, as his design for the University of Charlottesville shows. Thus a simplified Louis Seize style flourished in the United States until about 1825. Furnishings and silverware remained under English influence; on the other hand, tapestries, wallpaper and porcelain usually came from France. The French liberal émigrés, such as Talleyrand, Chateaubriand and the Marquise de la Tour du Pin, who were so warmly welcomed in America, and did much to make their style current in the years when relations with England were still strained. However, the French Empire style had little influence, and the English Regency style was de rigueur until about 1840. The Louis Seize manner became heavier in the Victorian era and then sank into pastiche-to this we owe the smaller version of the Place de la Concorde in Philadelphia, and Doris Duke's house in New York, the exact replica of a house in Bordeaux; but it remains the style of people with social pretensions, and French decorators have exported miles of Louis Seize paneling, generally stripped, to form a background for hundreds of Impressionist paintings and countless bergeres and console tables, the latter regilded for town houses or painted in monochrome for the country. The Louis Seize style, then, is the mark of good taste, while Louis Quinze can be, well, nouveau riche, for it is not so well adapted to the simplicity welcomed by the founders of the Republic.

Since the close of the 18th century, Americans celebrated in the political, literary and social worlds have come to Europe in search of luxury, refinement, and curiosities they could not find at home.
But they, in their turn, have given the Europeans lessons in common sense and simplicity: from Jefferson to Calder, from "The Fall of the House of Usher" to "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." On occasion, you will find on this blog essays speculating on these exchanges.

July 01, 2009

Upstream life on the Thames

It’s not much of a river by world standards, God knows. It’s little more than two hundred miles long, and its downward slope is no more than 350 feet from its source to its final sluggish spewing into the sea. For much of its length, it maunders and mazes without much incident or drama. And, as one might expect from its shyness and ordinariness, it’s born in obscurity with something of an identity problem. The Rencomb Brook, the river Churn, the river Thames, then the Isis: for miles of its flowing-until it reaches Abingdon, downstream from Oxford-it does not even seem certain of its own name. And neither of its two suggested birthplaces can give it much cause of confidence, since one is in the middle of a traffic intersection near Cheltenham, and the other is no more than a slight staining of water in a field near Cirencester-observable, in the snow, about one winter in three.
Yet it is the river that one sustained and watered the world’s greatest port and was for centuries the most important trade highway in Britain. All around and along its banks were fought the battles that have shaped the national character, for control of the river, of its bridges and fords and reaches, has historically meant control of the land.
Boudica fought the Romans beside it. Edmund Ironside fought the Vikings under King Canute. Alfred held it as defensive line against the Danes attacking from the north. And the Normans, who came conquering from the south, had first to cross it and then secure it with castles at London, Windsor, and Wallingford. A hundred or so years later, Richard I foolishly gave away his rights to the river in return for a small amount of cash from the Corporation of the City of London; his brother John was forced to come to terms with his rebellious barons (the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede) in a meadow beside it. Four and a half centuries after that, it still remained at the heart of the struggle between autocratic king and people, as Royalists and Parlamentarians fought for its fords and cities from Newbridge to Brentford to Kew.
All the way along its wandering course, from Lechlade, where it becomes navigable, down to Teddington and then London, are the ruined monuments of this long battle for power: stone henges and causeway camps, hill forts and fortified abbeys, castles and palaces and Iron Age settlements. It's not for nothing that people are still given to saying thoughtfully of the river, as they look down into its eddies from the gardens of waterside pubs at evening, "Ah, well, that's liquid history, isn't it?"
This is not, I should say, how it appears from the water. The river, in its upper and middle reaches at any rate, is countrified and domesticated, more a leafy rural lane than any arterial highway. Between Lechlade - where Shelley, on an outing, wrote his "A Summer Evening Churchyard, Lechlade, Gloucestershire,"- and the city of Oxford, there are just two villages, seven pubs, eleven locks, and one boatyard. Granted, one of the pubs is the Perch near Godstow, where, one afternoon in 1862, a mathematics lecturer from Oxford first told a young friend the story of Alice and her adventures in Wonderland, and granted, one of the village houses is the beautiful Kelmscott, where William and Jane Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti lived in a curious menage between 1871 and 1874. What you will see around you on a day in summer is little more than banks fringed with poplars and aspens, weeping willows, alders, chestnuts, and beds of osiers and floating in and out below them, swans and moorhens, ducks and dabchicks, with an occasional kingfisher or heron thrown in.
You will also, of course, see boats. Since Edward the Confessor first granted the right of public navigation on the river almost a thousand years ago, Thames boats have played an essential part in the life of the English, both at work and at play. The lightermen and watermen of the City of London (the truck and taxi drivers of their age) were organized into guilds by the time of the battle of Agincourt. And it's plain from the old private boathouses that remain upriver from the city (at Syon House, for example) that the possession of a passenger boat was, in its day, as important to the time-pressed, out-of-town executive as is that of a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce today.
It wasn't until the nineteenth century -and the arrival of the railroads-that the Thames began to take on its modern boat happy character. When it lost its role as an exclusive watery motorway, it became instead a democratic suburban playground. Country villas began to curl out from London, first to Putney and Hammersmith, then to Staines and Maidenhead, Marlow and Mapledurham. Yacht clubs were founded the world's third oldest is at Surbiton. A yearly regatta was started in 1839 on the first straight stretch of the river at Henley. And a few years later, rowing eights from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge started doing battle in the annual Boat Race between Putney and Mortlake.
The river began to churn with paddle steamers and excursion boats, some of them festooned with bunting and boasting brass bands, like the one that took cockneys from the East End of London to Greenwich every Tuesday after Whitsun, laden to the gunwales with sandwiches and stout. Stockbrokers, lawyers, doctors, and members of Parliament took to the river, too, in punt and skiff and motor launch-each group with its favorite inns along the middle reach. And the image of the river as a place for fun and sport developed, as memorialized (in their different ways) by Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, and Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat.
The steamers and excursion boats that plied the river have mostly gone now. (The British now take excursions to Calais and Boulogne rather than to Greenwich and Kew.) But the passion for messing about in small boats persists. Today there are more than thirty thousand registered for use along the length of the river. And you can see them every day in summer negotiating one or other of the forty-four locks that control its flow; getting entangled in the lines of anglers fishing sedately for roach and bream; hanging back for the oarsmen and women who swish past them at Oxford and Radley and Putney Hard; or just put-putting idly under the eyes of tourists, through medieval towns like Abingdon and Dorchester, or farther downriver past Cardinal Wolsey's red-brick masterpiece, the old royal palace of Hampton Court.
It is only in London proper that the boats disappear. Indeed, from the last lock at Teddington to the big container port at Tilbury, in the estuary where Elizabeth I once harangued her troops, a curious stillness and silence now seems to inhabit the river, as if it were waItmg for something to happen.
There was a time, of course, when this part of the Thames hummed with activity. The docks of the city were full of Yankee clippers and South Sea schooners, Russian barkentines and Australian packets, mahogany ships from Honduras and whaling barks from the Hudson Bay. There were barges, lighters, and water taxis everywhere on the river, and docks piled high with hides and oakum, spices and wine. But all the hustle and bustle has gone now forever. There are few watermen left even though six of them still race each year from London Bridge to Chelsea in a race set up by actor Thomas Doggett in 1715.
It's as if the Thames in London lost its' meaning with its livelihood; as if Londoners decided to turn their backs on their own local waterway at the time in the 1850s-with the invention of the lavatory-that it became little more than a running sewer. Still, even here there are signs of life. For the lower (London) reach of the Thames, shorn of its port traffic, has at least been made clean again, and today salmon and sea trout are running where the merchant ships once anchored. With the building, too, of the Thames Barrier-out in the estuary-the threat of floods in the city, caused by rising tide levels and subsidence of the land, has been staved off for the immediate future. And there are even suggestions that London's population is beginning to move into new configurations is beginning once again to learn how to live on and with the river.
Many of the old warehouses, custom sheds, and breweries around Tower Bridge have been converted into offices and apartments. A number of the huge old docks were turned into marinas crowned with skyscrapers and high-rise housing blocks. Even the old water taxis have returned, ferrying financiers to the City and newspapermen to their new headquarters away from Fleet Street in Wapping and the Isle of Dogs. There's a new airport in the Docklands, a new railway, a new berthing for cruise ships.
But ... I don't know. It's certainly good that ruined areas of the city have been reclaimed. Still, I'm afraid that, unlike the Thames upriver, riverside London has gradually turned into an amenity only for the rich. The children of the dockers who made the lower reach what it was have been pushed from their neighborhoods, taken over, little by little, by those who can afford the values-property and otherwise-of this modem age. Perhaps this is the only way to revivify Old Father Thames, to make it fit for tourists and I stockbrokers. But I hope not. For it has always been a people's river. And no matter the difficulties, it should remain so.
Blissfully floating, Angela & Charles

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