September 20, 2013

It could have been verse.

I too like words, as did Robert Pirosh: (…) “Fat buttery words, solemn, angular, creaky words, spurious, black-is-white words, suave "V" words, crunchy, brittle, crackly words, sullen, crabbed, scowling words.  I too like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land's-sake words.  Elegant, flowery words, wormy, squirmy, mealy words, sniggly, chuckling words.” (…)

September marks five years that I first appeared in this vast digital wilderness where blogs appear and vanish like wind-swept tumbleweed.  Alas, circumstances prevent me from writing, so this will be my last post.  

While this may have been a singular odyssey, its richness and appeal, to my mind, was in the connection to each of you.  When a comment or post came in from anywhere on this planet I marveled at the experience that connected us.  To this wondrous conclave of muse, family, friends and, well, ranters, who filled these pages with insight, inspiration and occasional bile, here are two of the most beautiful words in the English language - thank you. 

Usually it is the patient who is disturbed. This time it was the psychiatrist. "You know," he informed the man on the couch, "you write as if your life depends on every line."

"It does," replied Alan Jay Lerner, and in two words he encapsulated the difference between the epochs of My Fair Lady and, well, today.

Every year extravagant claims are advanced for top tunes. It is a common mistake made by those who confuse jingles with wit and technique with tune. The error is understandable: after all, digital processes and multiple-track devices can now grant any mating yowl the resonance of a late Mahler symphony. Audiophilically, this is the golden age.

Lyrically, however, it is the Styrofoam era. Granted, some pop rhymers have produced indelible phrases. Several of Bob Dylan's works are blowing in the wind, still; Jim Croce's "meaner than a junkyard dog" presents an entire character in five words; Kris Kristofferson's "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" has lost none of its trenchancy. But can anyone remember the second or third lines of these songs? If we ever listened closely we would have to sit still for lines like these from George Michael's "I Want Your Sex":

Sex is natural,
Sex is fun. Sex is
When it's one on one.

Every time I inveigh against the banalities of modem culture, my godchildren point out that top-of-the-chart refrains were never meant to be printed out of context. Examining words without their melodies, they insist, is like taking oxygen without hydrogen and then judging it as water. Perhaps, I reply, but that oxygen was quite capable of sustaining life in other decades. And then I bring my ultimate weapon onstage: the versifiers themselves. Cole Porter's "You're the Top" may boast the most repeated lines in American popular song:

You're the top!
You're the Colosseum. You're the top!
You're the Louvre Museum.

Far fewer know the self-parody:

You're the top!
You're Miss Pinkham's tonic! You're the top!
You're a high colonic.
You're the burning heat of a bridal suite in use,
You're the breasts of Venus, you're King Kong's penis,
You're self-abuse.

This is not to say that the leading songwriters of today are valueless. Paul Simon displays an uncommon literacy and conscience. No one is quicker at seizing buzzwords and catchphrases. In "You Can Call Me Al," for example, he chants:

A man walks down the street, he says, "Why am I short of attention and ... my nights are so long ... who'll be my role model now that my role model is gone? . . . All along there were incidents and accidents, there were hints and allegations ...

This is the lingua franca of contemporary life, and in "Al" Simon shows himself to possess a Panasonic ear. He also exhibits a lazy mind. He has emptied his notebook into his song without bothering to polish the work or even to give it metrical integrity. It is enough, for most of his followers, to recognize the banalities of contemporary chatter. Never mind if there is any sparkle behind the laundry list.

The lyricists of the past were just as voracious in their pursuit of cliches, but they were not content merely to ransack the cocktail parties and gossip columns. They worked and revised and polished their poetry until you could see your face in it. For "The Babbitt and the Bromide," Ira Gershwin produced patter with an intent very much like Simon's. On the way, as Fred Astaire pointed out, Gershwin wrote for feet, physical and metrical:

Hello! How are you? Howza folks? What's new? I'm great! That's good! Ha-ha! Knock wood. . .
Nice weather we are having but it gives me such a pain;
I've taken my umbrella, so of course it
doesn't rain.
Heigh-ho! That's life! What's new? Howza wife? Got to run! Oh my!
Ta-ta. Olive Oil! Goodbye!

Louis Kronenberger included "The Babbitt" in his Anthology of Light Verse back in 1934, where it sat unembarrassed beside the works of Eugene Field and Hilaire Belloc. That marked the first time American song lyrics were given such status. Since then progress has been intermittent but relentless. In recent years, Oxford University Press has published two highly significant volumes of humorous poetry:
American Light Verse and English Light Verse. Besides the expected Gershwin, the American volume includes lyrics by, among others, Johnny Mercer-not a major name to the digital generation, but a vital architect in the development of popular song. "Blues in the Night" is his (music by Harold Arlen); so are "Lazybones" (Hoagy Carmichael), "Too Marvelous for Words" (Richard Whiting), and "Moon River" (Henry Mancini). The Oxford anthology prefers his antic side and sandwiches him between Theodore Roethke and Peter De Vries:

Glow, little glow worm, fly of fire,
Glow like an incandescent wire.
Glow for the female of the specie;
Turn on the AC and the DC. . . .
Thou aeronautical bolt weevil,
Iluminate yon woods primeval. ...

This is no effete display for a Ph.D. oral.  The Mills Bros. recorded "Glow Worm" and took it to the hit parade in 1951. American audiences were no more elitist then than now; the writers simply had more respect for them.
When Lorenz Hart impudently mocked the hangover of passion, he used Shakespeare's iambs to make his point in lines three and four:

When love congeals,
It soon reveals
The faint aroma of performing seals,
The double-crossing of a pair of heels.
I wish I were in love again.

Here he laments the passage of love:

Once you told me I was mistaken,
That I'd awaken with the sun
And order orange juice for one.
It never entered my mind ....
You have what I lack myself,
And now I even have to scratch my back myself.

In the period when Hart was collaborating with Richard Rodgers, their choreographer, George Balanchine, fantasized about a day when publishers "would print Larry's lyrics without the music as a book of verse or poetry."  And here they are The Complete Lyrics of Lorenz Hart, produced in a large and handsome format by Alfred Knopf.

Alan Jay Lerner, who became the premier lyricist of his time, with such shows as My Fair Lady, Camelot, and Gigi, once analyzed his colleagues: "Frequently, aficionados and practitioners of musical theater play the pointless game of comparisons. Was Ira Gershwin 'better' than Cole Porter? Was Oscar Hammerstein 'superior' to Larry Hart? As I say, it is pointless because they were all master craftsmen, each with an expression of his own. I am exhilarated by the gaiety, style and surprising passion of Cole, overwhelmed by the wonderfully slangy sentimentality and ingenious versatility of Ira, touched by the disarming simplicity of Berlin, and forever impressed by Oscar Hammerstein's dramatic ability. Yet there is a tenderness in some of Larry's lyrics that always catches me off guard and brings a tear to my eye. His wit was delicious. . . . "

It is impossible to imagine anyone's writing that about contemporary lyricists, and it is worth considering why. The IQs of wordsmiths cannot have diminished so drastically since Lerner's time-the man died only in 1986. Were there really giants on the Earth in those days?

Cole Porter, like many another pathological worker, liked to give the impression that he tossed off his rhymes between martinis. In fact, he wrote more than 800 songs under increasingly adverse conditions. His family wealth guaranteed him comfort but not success, and for fifteen years after leaving Yale he was known as the author of flops and fripperies. By the time he was recognized as a master craftsman he was nearly forty and close to the tragedy that was to maim him for life. During a horseback ride he took a spill. The mount toppled on his legs, crushing them. Porter endured more than thirty operations, and he was in nearly constant pain from then on.   Still, he continued to write songs that bore no hint of his anguish.

Porter was lucky in his lineage, but he was more fortunate in his epoch. As John Updike pointed out, the late thirties was a lighthearted era, “a heyday of light verse; there were book reviews in verse, and sports stories; there were droll ballades and rondeaux and triolets.”

As to the "disarming simplicity" of Berlin, the man is about as simple as a Byzantine chapel. Back in 1924 he was rhyming "child would" with "wild wood" and "peaceful" with "valise full." He has seen his hundredth birthday, but had he stopped writing at the age of thirty Berlin would have been rich and famous as the composer of popular ditties like" Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "Remember."  Had Berlin begun at the age of thirty and stopped at forty-five, he would have been rich and famous as the composer of melodies for such Astaire-Rogers films as Top Hat. And if Berlin had begun his career at the age of forty-five he would be rich and famous for his indelible Broadway melodies like "There's No Business Like Show Business":

Yesterday they told you you would not go far,
That night you open and there you are,
Next day on your dressing room they've
hung a star,
Let's go on with the show.

Some of the composer's monosyllables seem to carry the clang of the schoolyard. But Berlin and his peers were always acutely aware of something the Romantic poets also knew: English is a language of fricatives and tight endings. Italian, with its large vowels, its as and as and es ending every phrase, is the ideal singer's tongue. The arias of Puccini and Verdi can be boomed in the shower. Henry Purcell's melodies, with their crunching consonants, are confined to the concert hall.

Byron sensed all that back in 1818. His solution was to steal from the Italians, copying their ottava rima, an eight-line stanza with a rhyme scheme of a, b, a, b, a, b, c, c. In Don Juan those a's and b's are diverting, but it is the c, c's that bring a foretaste of American song:

What men call gallantry, and gods call
Is much more common where the climate's

In Byron's day audiences really read poetry. In the thirties and forties and even up to the fifties, they truly heard the messages above the treble clef. Rhymers aimed for thoughts that could be compressed and words that would carry a tune. Much can be done with amore, but what can be done with "love"? Glove, above, shove-the rhymes were used up a century ago. Hence Ira Gershwin's sardonic song:

Blah, Blah, Blah your hair,
Blah, Blah, Blah your eyes,
Blah, Blah, Blah, blah care,
Blah, Blah, Blah, blah skies.
T ra la la la, tra la la la la, cottage for
Blah, Blah, Blah, blah, blah, darling,
with you.

The great ones learned to vault over the iron restrictions of their native tongue, placing the emotion in the middle of the song and the wit in the title and at the close, where punch lines belonged. Berlin wrote of dancing cheek to cheek and changing partners. Porter inquired, "What is this thing called love?" ("Just who can solve its mystery? Why should it make a fool of me?");  he had a call girl chant about "love for sale," cannily putting the emphasis on the antepenultimate syllable:

Let the poets pipe of love
In their childish way,
I know every type of love
Better far than they.
If you want the thrill of love,
I've been thru the mill of love;
Old love, new love,
Every love but true love.

Hammerstein, the ultimate tongue-and-groove craftsman, employed many of the same techniques, but without the panache. The third-generation showman, who worked with two of America's greatest Broadway composers, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, cultivated a personal plainness. He avoided nightclubs, rose early, started work by 9:30, spent the evenings with his close-knit family, and labored for tormented weeks on a single lyric until it achieved the effect of utter spontaneity. (He was then driven to distraction when Richard Rodgers took his rhymes and set them to fluent, soaring melodies overnight.) Hammerstein's love songs are full of expected sentiment and unpredictable attack: not, for example, "How do I feel?" but "If I loved you"; not "forbidden love" but "We kiss in a shadow"; not "We love women" but "There is nothing like a dame." Rodgers's celebrated collaborator has been much maligned for bringing the melodies down to earth-and it is true that once Hart had died they never climbed so high or sounded so fresh. But from Oklahoma! right through The Sound of Music, Hammerstein wrote integrated ballads, waltzes, and character songs that define the essence of theatrical integrity.

Yet even at his finest, Hammerstein lacked the one element that Porter and Hart had in superabundance: astonishment. Students of lyrics have a favorite game, Prediction-calling the punch line before the singer does. In fairness, it can be played only when a song is heard for the first time. The soloist chants a verse that praises a girl's charms, and the student knows at once that the next line will invariably contain the final word "arms." "Witty" bounces down to "pretty," "romance" to "chance," and so on. No lyricist has ever eluded the guessers better than Noel Coward.

"The police had to send a squad car-" begins one of his more outrageous couplets. Can you call the rhyme?

"-When Daddy got fried on Vodka."  

Unlike Coward, Porter, Hart, and others who expressed a bone-deep gaiety in all senses of the word, and unlike Hammerstein, who was inwardly placid, Alan Jay Lerner married seven times and was dogged by ulcers and a fatal streak of perfectionism. He miserably sided with those who believe, as he says in his autobiography, that "lyrics, no less than music, are written to be heard. A lyric without its musical clothes is a scrawny creature and should never be allowed to parade naked across the printed page." I say miserably because he then proceeded to follow that statement by printing thirty-nine of his songs, sans melodies, from "The Rain in Spain" to his salute to Gerontion:

The fountain of youth is dull as paint,
Methuselah is my patron saint;
I've never been so comfortable before.
Oh, I'm so glad that I'm not young any more.

The great lyricists have always taken second billing: Rodgers and Hart, Kern and Hammerstein, Arlen and Mercer. When they shared the last name, George Gershwin came before Ira, and even when words and tunes came from the same man, they were more often listed on song sheets as "Music and lyrics by Cole Porter." Yet the numbers were remembered as much for a single phrase as for a whole melody. The sung genius Dorothy Fields specialized in images that took hold of their audience and never let go. No one who has once heard "On the Sunny Side of the Street" can forget to grab his hat and get his coat and put his worries on the doorstep; in one hit she spoke for an entire post-Depression public-and for anyone today who is young, ambitious, and smitten:

Gee, I'd like to see you looking swell, Baby,
Diamond bracelets Woolworth doesn't sell, Baby,
But Till that lucky day you know dam well, Baby,
I can't give you anything but love.

Howard Dietz, a man who managed to be an MGM executive as well as a lyricist, gave the key to his success in a remark to Louis B. Mayer, who caught him waltzing into the office at eleven A.M. "Pretty late to start work," the mogul growled, looking at his watch. "Yeah," Dietz replied, "but I make up for it by going home early."  Obviously when he got home he churned out elegant and low-down rhymes for Arthur Schwartz, with whom he wrote, among many other songs, "Dancing in the Dark," "Something to Remember You By," "A Shine on Your Shoes," "By Myself," and the classic backstage number, "That's Entertainment," in which Oedipus is recalled as a chap who kills his father and causes a lot of bother.

There are many other craftsmen in the ateliers of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley: Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls),  Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof!), E. Y. ("Yip") Harburg (The Wizard of Oz) j but here I run the danger of making my own laundry list. Besides, only one lyricist today belongs up there with the Pantheon figures, and because of Stephen Sondheim's unique status his opening nights have the quality of a retrospective. In Gypsy, he drove with Porter's poetic license, rhyming "he goes," "she goes," "egos," and "amigos"; and he brought Coward home when a stripper reminded her audience, "Once I was a shlepper, now I'm Miss Mazeppa." But Sondheim's wormwood soliloquy for A Little Night Music was strictly his own:

Isn't it rich, isn't it rare?
You with your feet on the ground, me in mid-air ....
I thought you wanted what I want. Sorry, my dear.
Send in the clowns, where are the clowns?
Don't bother-they're here ....

Occasionally Sondheim gets lost in his own woods; even so, he remains the last of the Broadway giants. If anyone doubts it, let him listen to a smash-hit non-Sondheim show. The Phantom of the Opera is so swollen with self-importance it has not one but two lyricists. Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe have filled Andrew Lloyd Webber's calculated pseudo-romantic music with calculated pseudo-romantic effects, but when it comes to the denouement they resort to this:

Pitiful creature of the night,
What kind of life have you known?
God give me courage to show you-

The last line, anyone? Exactly:

-You are not alone.

Too bad; given the contemporary wordsmiths, there is a lot to be said for solitude. And silence. And memory.

August 22, 2013

Past as Precedent.

“Wer’e blondes out there, man.  Dumb and innocent as the day is long.” 
~American Special Forces “person”, concerning the American presence in Afghanistan.

Frenchtoast called and asked how much do I think the past as precedent?  He was reading “Kim”, Rudyard Kipling’s story of another era of the “great game”, the game of intrigue in the power struggle between East and West. The pieces on the board?  Street urchins, a horse trader, a jelly-backed Bengali, and “a very foolish Sahib, a Colonel Sahib without a regiment….” In that game, nations were the contestants, empires the prize.  Borders were drawn only to be tested, crossed, and redrawn by the victors.

International relations were like that then-  

Today all invasions must be called “temporary.”  They must be justified as hot pursuit, or legitimate and limited retaliation, or fraternal responses to official calls for help from the proper internal authorities. 

The new style of relations between nations is sometimes quite a strain.  One reason is that when the “great game” was abruptly halted and borders were frozen, some of those borders were remarkably arbitrary. In many cases, they were unjust and unrealistic to the point of absurdity.

For example, Israel, a great and ancient nation, had no borders at all.  The world was repeatedly divided by lines drawn in Europe.  That is imperialism’ bitter legacy. 

The suddenly frozen borders were particularly artificial and controversial in the Asian region where the Russians and the English both were building their empires.

The Russians first invaded Afghanistan in 1725. A kind of Afghan national consciousness had just begun to emerge after centuries of domination by Mongol warlords, Persian shahs, and Indian emperors. Then the son of the Afghan leader who had thrown off the yoke of a Persian governor found himself facing an army of Russians moving down from the north. His cousin Ashraf fought off both the Russians and the Turks, but Afghanistan remained unstable. 

Next, a Persian bandit chief made himself ruler over Afghanistan. He was passing through for a raid on India, in which he captured and brought back to Persia the famous Peacock Throne, enjoyed later by the deposed shah of Iran. The Indians whose wealth had been looted harbored considerable bad feeling against Afghans for this. They blamed the Afghans because, after all, the bandit chief was their ruler.

You may be sure it is remembered that the jewels and the throne (formerly treasures of the Mughal dynasty that built the Taj Mahal) vanished across the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. Today's political sympathies in that part of the world, as in other places around the globe, have quite a bit to do with yesterday's memories and conflicts.

By that time, the British were sufficiently well established in India to be alarmed and aroused. Their "great game" of espionage and intrigue used the greed, rivalry, and ambition among Afghan tribes-Barakzai, Baluchi, Pushtun, Ghilzai-to block Russia's designs.

In 1837 the Russians tried again, this time supporting an ambitious Persian ruler who invaded Afghanistan as a first step toward dominating India. The British responded to this aggression by invading Afghanistan also. This launched the first of three British-Afghan wars.

Afghan guerrilla tactics (there were guerrillas long before Mao, Giap, and Guevara) drove the British out with heavy losses. The Russian-backed Persians were repulsed as well.

Bungling the "balance of power" game-setting Afghan tribes against each other may have caused the British failure. But tribal rivalries often broke out without any outside help. This made the Afghans frequently vulnerable to subversion and invasion.

The Russians tried again in 1878. Starting with a successful diplomatic offensive, they persuaded the Afghans to break relations with the British and accept the promise of Russian protection. Taking the old-fashioned direct approach, the British invaded again.  But rather than occupying the country this time, they set up the friendly tribal leader Abderrahman as shah.

Afghanistan was united under him. He negotiated with Sir Mortimer Durand the border, still known as the "Durand line." After a short third war with the war-weary British from 1919 to 1921, Afghanistan gained absolute independence.

But the Durand line was bound to cause trouble. Pathans, living on both sides of the line, wanted an independent Pathan state. This caused friction with Pakistan when, after World War II and the fall of the British Empire, Pakistan became a nation. Baluchis also wanted an independent Baluchistan, but their land was divided by those frozen borders into sections of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.

In 1963 the shah of Iran barely managed to stop a Pakistani-Afghan war over the Pathan quarrel and since it has never been be difficult to stir up these lingering ambitions and dreams.

Meanwhile the Russians never lost interest. Using a variety of tactics from diplomacy to assassination, they brought about shifts in Afghanistan from monarchy with a pro- Western prime minister to monarchy with a pro-Soviet prime minister; then to a republic with that same prime minister in charge. A still more cooperative prime minister followed, and then Afghanistan finally became a puppet regime. Direct rule by Russian invasion was merely the last and not so illogical step.

The U.S. had, of course, inherited the British mantle as leader of the West. American diplomatic efforts to loosen Afghanistan's tightening bonds with the Soviet Union were going so well that the American ambassador was kidnapped and killed.

With all this history on record, the surprising thing to me is that Washington is always so surprised by the latest invasions-especially as the CIA always knows.

Remember Frenchtoast, the Russians are masters also at chess, the game of great patience. If the horses are finally out of the barns, we should remember that Russia first began tampering with the door in 1725.

August 12, 2013

Hiding in plain sight.

Madrid is one of the most unexpected and sparkling cities you can visit in Europe. Elegant and somewhat austere, with big traffic from avenues well-regulated, not really a park city (despite the big Parque del Buen) but it is definitely the city par excellence of the great museums, classic or contemporary.

The pink marvel of the Prado is one such fundamental stop, one unmissable destination when ‘in town’ and for me, it is room 37, and the Condesa de ChinchónShe was one of Spain’s unseen Goyas until acquired from the Rúspoli family for a ‘king’s ransom’. 

The countess, a fashionably dressed young woman, sits in a chair to have he portrait painted.  She is almost a contemporary of Gainsborough’s feathery beauties and Ingres’s icily flawless grandes bourgeoises.  But attractive as this girl is, the painting does not flatter; it arouses unease.

Her isolation is what you feel first: her chair is surrounded by darkness.  Under the blond fringe, her dark eyes are apprehensive; her hands are clasped anxiously over the gentle swell of her belly.  Painted by Goya, the greatest painter of an age of anxiety in which the civilized assumptions and institutions of two centuries crumbled.  “The sleep of reason produces monsters,” he wrote, and, in all but the charming rococo work of his youth, chaos, dread, and fear throng the shadows, sometimes assuming monstrous shapes and faces.  Our own age produces little that Goya did not envision.

María Teresa de Borbón, 15th Countess of Chinchón, who had been encouraged by Queen Maria Luisa of Parma and by opportunism to marry Manuel de Godoy, the Prime Minister, in a marriage of convenience.

August 09, 2013

Tally Ho!

Let's have fox hunting in London, says Boris.

Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, would like to introduce fox hunting in London to deal with the growing problem.

He realized that the idea would cause "massive unpopularity" among animal lovers but said "I don't care. I'm pro liberty and individual freedom. If people want to get together to form the fox hounds of Islington I'm all for it.”

Careful what you wish for…

July 22, 2013

Oxford grays.

“I saw the spires of Oxford
As I was passing by,
The gray spires of Oxford
Against a pearl-gray sky.”

~Winifred Mary Letts

On a rare summer afternoon, when the sun falls lovingly on storied spires, Oxford takes on a regal hue-a gold as rich as memory.  But it is not in such a light that the university is remembered by the legions of poets who have trod its manicured quads.  They almost all chose another hue, a gray that pays homage to silvered spires, medieval stones, a favorite author’s hair?, and the venerability of a seven-hundred-plus-year-old bastion of learning.

DI Robert Lewis: Life born of fire. I bet that means something in Latin.  
DS James Hathaway: What makes you say that? 
DI Robert Lewis: This is Oxford. Everything always means something in Latin.

Oxford is not a college town — it is the college town. Its namesake university’s 38 colleges are so steeped in scholarly history they make Harvard and Yale seem like baby-faced freshmen. To wit: Oxford’s New College was last considered “new” in the 14th century. Even the obsolete term “New World” is newer.
To underline this point, the city contains the famous Bodleian library, the research library of Oxford University, whose present buildings can be traced back to 1602.

DI Robert Lewis: Have you learned nothing from this case? Books are bad for your health.
DS James Hathaway: Not if you just read them.

The famous Library was well endowed with grotesques and gargoyles, but they were crumbling badly. In 2009, nine new gargoyles were unveiled.  A contest was held for school children to design new gargoyles around the theme of myths, monsters or people that had a historical connection with Oxfordshire during the last millennium.

Once the designs were chosen it took over two years to complete the carvings by local sculptors, and the children had a hand in crafting the final product. Be sure to watch for them when you visit and keep you looking up at the symbols, emblems, motifs, animals, and demons clinging to the roofs and walls of Oxford buildings. The stonemasons, both medieval and modern, used their imaginations and humor in creating hundreds of amazing stone carvings. Bring your binoculars.

The number of famous people that have studied and done research at Oxford University, is as you might imagine an extremely long list that includes J R Tolkein (author of The Lord of the Rings) and of more recent relevance, Tim Berners-Lee who is credited for inventing the Internet…imagine that on your CV!

DS James Hathaway: You know what one of the Inklings is meant to have said when Tolkien started reading them 'Lord of the Rings'?
DI Robert Lewis: Oh, spare me, Sergeant; I've had enough of imaginary worlds.
DS James Hathaway: You'll like it, sir; I promise.
DI Robert Lewis: Go on then.
DS James Hathaway: They said: "Not more flipping elves!" Except they didn't say 'flipping'.
DI Robert Lewis: [laughs] I like it...

Personally, I love to ‘tour’ the city and its hidden gardens, picturesque gates, and its old and new architecture.

DS James Hathaway: Well, Caesar was killed by a group of conspirators; gota check Brutus, Cassius, Casca...
DI Robert Lewis: This is Oxford, not ancient Rome.
DS James Hathaway: They're easily confused, sir.

A long time Oxford resident, Colin Dexter has the curious distinction of having made his home city one of the fictional murder capitals of the UK. He has slaughtered more than 80 people in his Inspector Morse stories, turning the dreaming spires of Oxford into a kind of academic killing fields. Tourist buses regularly bring Morse fans on a guided tour of the locations of his stabbings, stranglings and poisonings.

DI Robert Lewis: [Over the phone] I'm not stirring on Sunday for anything less than murder.

On to new Endeavour(s) 

July 13, 2013

Who is going to drive you today?

“Took me three years,” said John. “Only three or four years ago. Before that I worked for my dad.” We approach Shepherd’s Bush, go round the roundabout with the white and blue water tower. “I couldn’t get decent work. The pay’s not great doing this, but the freedom’s all right.” I say the hours must be good; you can work when you want to. “But I never see my wife. I’m always out in the nights, ’cos the fares are much better. The days, I prefer. Better when you get a long fare.”  I’m coming from Heathrow to town. “It’s easier at night. Less bloody idiots.”  A minute later, two schoolgirls run blind across the road, shrieking with laughter. “Apart from them, mind,” he shouts, shoving his hand on the horn. “Watch yourselves, ladies!” And he shrugs. “But what can you say? We’re all young once.”

What’s your favorite thing about London?

“It changes by the week. It used to be Whitehall, down there. I like Smithfields right now. Not much fare up there, though. You’ve got to keep that in mind.  Waterloo Bridge, you see everything – Westminster at night, all the City, Canary Wharf at the north side.  Albert Bridge lit up like a fairy. And it’s on the way home.  The passengers who chat to you like you’re a proper human being. Thank you for that, love.”

You're welcome. 

(See Sherlock, you should have paid closer attention.)

July 09, 2013

While the going was good.

I was warned, and I knew that starting July 1 all travel would explode with screaming children and overall airport hell.

I hate modern holiday travel and decided to stay the summer in the flames of Los Angeles not moving ‘till the beginning of September — when everyone else has returned in a heap at home.

Summer travel is hot and tough and you have to be in fighting shape to withstand it. The endless security lines, the highway back-ups, the screwed-up restaurant reservations... Even if you already have a chic summer rental in Provence or in East Hampton, or a yacht in St. Tropez, or a suite on the Seaborne, nothing can make me want to withstand the rigors of just getting there! Except ...a complete disconnect-a retreat.  A fast from food, people, media and technology.

I am not talking about a destination spa vacation (too much of a commitment) or a weekend ‘get away.’ The latter reeks of Vegas, booze, strippers and Cirque de Soleil. I realized that nobody ever returns from a summer jaunt feeling refreshed or revitalized. Who can honestly say that after a trip that includes standing at any baggage claim carousel?

Airports are notorious for being unpleasant. But there are a few that stand-out in my mind. The arrival hall at Calgary International Airport is one.  Both fun and educational.

I am a pill when it comes to travel as you can see. I only desire an absolute ‘Stop the World I Want to Get Off’ moment, or nothing. I say: to be constantly everywhere is to be nowhere ... and exhausted.

So, where do I go?  The Central California Coast between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. I can get to Carpinteria in the blink of an eye and it always feels vintage California and very ‘under the radar.’  And yes, I don't run into any bling and glitz.

The days vanish in a blur of reading, hiking and most of all sleeping to the sound of the ocean which is better than Ambien. That hypnotic thunderous sound of waves took me in and under, and frankly I don't remember much of anything.  Imagine having such a front row seat to nature without a single wail from a distant toddler. I can hear and smell the waves at all times. The ocean becomes a backdrop. The smell of iodine, seaweed and eucalyptus is like no other and heals me instantly. The sound is nature's original white noise. 

In spite of the fact that I stopped all calls and the laptop remained unpacked I found out all the news fit to print or stream through a few neighborhood market excursions (some shoppers thought they spotted Edward Snowden on the beach). Ah, small towns ...the real CNN of life.

Back home. It is hot!  No problem ... I am relaxed, centered, clean, clear, aroma-ized, freshly flip-flopped ... and ready to listen to a stream of messages demanding I get my lazy *** in gear.  Ah well, home again.

July 02, 2013


 ‘The report of my death was an exaggeration’.  ~Mark Twain

I have described London more often than I can remember and have never felt that I got the city, or its people, right-it is, I think the most unfathomable of them all. 

I was sitting in a coffee shop waiting for a client when a tall elegant man in ‘high middle age’ walked stiffly in and ordered a cup of coffee.  He wore a hat tilted over his brow.  He looked as if he had enjoyed perhaps rather too good a dinner the night before, and he emanated an air of unconcerned, if not actually oblivious, composure.  I put him down for mildly eccentric and thought to myself that only in London could one still see such a genial figure, at once so urbane and so well, well-used, more or less direct from the eighteenth century.

When the man walked out he stopped at my table, tipped his hat, smiled, and left.

‘Know who that was?’ asked the proprietor.  ‘Of course’, I replied, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.  

safe 4th 00✗ツ

June 27, 2013

Short arms and deep pockets.

Like many Scotsmen, or perhaps it's just chaps in general, Alistair doesn't see the point in getting new things when he already has a whatever-it-is that is perfectly serviceable. Sound reasoning. 

So when we found ourselves standing on the dock waiting for the ferry to Iona, it was the coldest November on record full of the slate-grey stair-rod rain which usually welcomes folk to Scotland,  Alistair squelched off and reappeared in a second-hand full-length Driza-Bone, towering above the crowds like a jackaroo in exile.  He was giddy with the thrill of purchase.  "It's an amazing coat, look these straps go round your legs for riding and if it snows it just slides off this cape thingy.  And the best thing…" he fished about in the ridiculously huge pocket.  Out came a half-bottle of peaty, okay Oban single malt, whose smoky scent will forever take me back to that squally day of tilting ferry, ferrous skies and above all, the kind of easy rolling laughter that dances on the edge of everything when you are happy and let loose on a bottle of whisky early in the morning.

Alistair’s phone dates from the last century, just.  He has tried to teach us to be proud of sentiment and frugality.  So, a tape keeps the battery in place and he never gets a signal anywhere.  It has almost a decade's worth of photos on it and every morning he clicks the noisy buttons to read the newspapers online.  He says, "This is all I need, look at this, I'm reading newspapers across the world from bed.” 

This week, after a long trip, in Edinburgh, in a taxi, the phone fell out of a hole which had inexplicably appeared in “The Coat” pocket.  It was returned, hurrah for honest cab drivers, to Alistair, but had been sat on by a passenger and may be beyond repair. He is inconsolable.  I've just put a bottle of Oban on order.

safe weekend  00