EVERYONE was at the Opera last night. It was the final performance of a magnificent production of Il trittico, Puccini’s triptych of three one-act operas alluding to the Divine Comedy. While I go to the theatre fairly often I hadn’t been to the opera since many many moons ago when I was dating una Italiana who had a taste for it. These days, the Mad Architect is one of the handful of people I tend to go see things with. His tastes are similar to mine but he is easily irritated and always seems to pick a fight with some other member of the general public (or once, on the Eurostar, the barman – but it was actually deserved in that case). This can provide some intense amusement to the observer so long as you are prepared to disown him totally at a moment’s notice (which I have yet to do).
Anyhow, during the first interval we wandered out onto the open terrace – from whence smoking has since been banned – and who should we stumble upon but the charming and deeply fun Valentine Walsh, one of the finest art restorers in Europe, with a relation of hers. Then, but a few seconds later, our own roving reporter Alexander Shaw appeared with an old school friend. As I sometimes point out, London can feel like a delightfully small town. The Spectator’s Rod Liddle and Michael Portillo of ‘Great Railways Journeys’ fame were also in evidence, but we let them be.
But what of the opera? The first act, Il tabarro, is set on the banks of the Seine and was well sung but more than the singing I admired the highly architectural setting imagined by the mononomical set designer ‘Ultz’. (How one both derides and admires the arrogance of arrogating to oneself a single name – but then, like Hitler and Stalin, I myself am often known by surname alone.)
The second one-act opera in this triptych, Suor Angelica, was the real meat. Here is a deeply intense display of love and hatred, sin and repentance, compounding personal tragedy with the reality of mortal sin. Sadly we were deprived of the vision of the Blessed Virgin called for in Puccini’s original but it was surprising that director Richard Jones played the opera’s Catholicism straight and frank, without any of the usual modern snobbish sneering. Ermonela Jaho was powerful in the title role, convincing. Valentine was in tears.
But if Il trittico is like a three course meal then Gianni Schicchi is the delicious pudding. When Buoso Donati dies and leaves all his wealth to a monastery, his eight predatory relatives are forced to call upon the clever peasant Gianni Schicchi to use his worldly cunning to fake a new will. This is Italian farce at its most amusing but also its most beautiful and as Gianni includes the most well-known operatic song in the world – O mio babbino caro – it’s a crowd pleaser as well.
The Mad Architect noted that the English don’t really enjoy opera: they take it far too seriously, whereas the Neapolitans love it and join in the singing, even if they don’t know the words. Alexander thinks the Royal Opera House has become little more than a giant cruise ship for plutocrats and then descended into telling us his plan to sell Deptford to the French (or was it to Hong Kong?).
My only complaint was the surtitles, which often did not match the original Italian. This happens on Scandinavian crime dramas as well, in which non-blasphemous swear words are inaccurately translated as blasphemous English ones. But this is probably some contrived vogue in the realm of translators, that you mustn’t translate things as they are but to something somewhat similar but not quite the same, thus depriving you of the character of the original language.
What’s next on the agenda then? Sometime at the Old Vic, I think, and then something at the Almeida, and later on this year there’s Ryszard Kapuściński’s book on Haile Selassie, The Emperor – “I was working in the Ministry of Ceremonies then, Department of Processions…” – being done in a stage version at the Young Vic.
It is truly a sad thing for a summer to end, and yet it is an inevitable part of the endless cycle of life. July was full of its annual rites: two weeks in Lebanon and then the traditional festivities associated with the return of the OMV contingent from Lourdes — jugs of Pimm’s at the Scarsdale followed by the manic dinner, drinks, dancing, and smoking at Pag’s late into the night. Miss S. had always avoided the Pag’s part of the festivities, decrying it as a futile attempt to prolong the jollity. She decided to come along this year, however, and enjoyed it so much she stayed well past two in the morning. In fact, I think she was still there when I left.
So it didn’t really seem like summer really kicked off until August. (more…)
Early evening sun illuminates the pendentives and architraves of the Maronite church. Discoloured prints of numerous saints — of East and West — crowd one of the few side altars. The Arabic numerals indicate the date of its dedication: 1971 — before the war.
Without internet in a remote village in northern Lebanon, elevation 500 ft, we are cut off from the outside world. Word reaches us of a military coup in Egypt. (I hate missing a coup!) The reactions are a mixture of relief and caution, and a little wonderment at how things must have moved very quickly. Curiosity is sparked as to what else is going on in the world outside Sourat.
Dappled sunlight. Unfamiliar saints. A lizard scurries past, its long processional tail trailing behind it.
D.G. of the Financial Times drops in and brings that commodity we most desire: news from elsewhere. I quiz him on the coup in Egypt, how it played out, how it was orchestrated, and what he thinks of it, but there is little time.
At night, reading Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love on the terrace with a Gauloise and a bottle of Almaza. Two wolves cry in the distance and I remember hearing the snorting of a wild boar a few nights previous. One chased Emmanuel on his way back from ‘the Palace’ (as we have dubbed the Abouna’s house, where the honoured guests stay) and was shot and killed — the photos of the quarry being displayed on an iPhone handed round.
The night is punctuated by the sound of repeated explosions in the distance. Luckily these are fireworks — a particular Lebanese obsession. It seems symptomatic of the Lebanese mentality that — having spent so long being so close to death — it is necessary to celebrate being alive. One may as well have a good time, and the Lebanese are experienced at having a good time.
In the car on the way to the pharmacy, Mahe our indispensable handyman (and a refugee) talks to Niall about Syria. “Syria. Big war. Boom boom. Muslims fight Assad. Assad fight Muslims. Big war.”
BUILD! BUILD! BUILD! Beirut is abuzz with cranes and construction and wood boarding over the site of new projects. That tower wasn’t there last year, was it? No. And doubtless by next year new spires will scrape the sky over St George’s Bay, where the saint slew the dragon. Is he dormant there beneath the waters still? Something lurks perpetually beneath the Lebanon, occasionally raising its head above the surface in open violence. Just then a Hezbollah building in the southern suburbs is bombed. The list of assassinations in this country’s history is long and depressing, from that of Maarouf Saad which (arguably) sparked the fifteen-year Civil War, and of course the former prime minister Rafik Hariri’s killing in 2005. Even since Hariri’s death, no fewer than twelve Lebanese public figures have been assassinated.
Have you ever been to Rafik Hariri’s tomb? It’s a slightly vulgar thing, still shrouded in its temporary marquee, giving it a somewhat transient feel, as if it might up sticks and away to Sidon or Tripoli at a moment’s notice. We nipped in the other day after a trip to the adjacent mosque he had built, completed in 2007 with its brilliant blue dome. The mosque’s design is traditional but not entirely perfect. The massive crystal chandelier hanging from the vast central dome is impressive but perhaps a bit much. Somehow, we are deprived of ancillary spaces: going through the main entrance one feels a certain lack of procession. No narthex, no nave, you just take off your shoes, step through the open doors, and are there. Why not one of those spacious courtyards which grace so many older mosques? Land in Beirut doesn’t come cheap.
Of course, when it was completed it was noticed that the minarets overshadowed the campanile of the adjacent Maronite cathedral, which meant the Catholic bell-tower had to be rebuilt to be at least the same height as the Sunni minaret, or perhaps an inch taller. Just to be on the safe side.
We had arranged to meet G. and the others twenty minutes later at the Grand Café on the Place de l’Étoile, which was a silly idea. A wedding was finishing at St George’s, the Greek cathedral, as we rolled up and we joined in the applause for the happy couple when they exeunted the church. In between, however, we nipped in to Hariri’s tomb, or perhaps shrine is the more appropriate word. It is choc-a-bloc with oversized portrait photographs of the smiling premier in his prime — a mix of political, semi-tribal, and religious devotion. The soldiers guard it nonchalantly and seem glad for some visitors on a Saturday afternoon. One presumes plans are being made for some grand mausoleum to supersed the transient tent with its faint hint of a vagabond yurt. We had to move on to a rather trendy place in Gemmayze, Mo stopping along the way as he ran into friends.
These nuns are magnificent: it is impossible to respect them enough. They do an impossible task taking care of so many physically and mentally handicapped, on very little resources. They take anyone and everyone under their wing — Christian, Muslim, Druze, whatever. Their founder, Abouna Yaacoub (Père Jacques), is up for canonisation and the fruits of his foundation are still flowering. We’ve visited a number of the care homes they run — in Antelias, Dar al Kamar, etc. — and while the conditions are very basic I think the love these nuns have shines through. They have devoted their entire lives to serve these men and women who often, ignored and forgotten, have no one else. They are also completely clued in; you wouldn’t be able to get anything past them. The Mother Superior’s mobile rings, she answers and buzzes off away to put something right.
Arabic is a beautiful language, though at its most beautiful when spoken by women. (But then: isn’t every language?)
“Our relationship to France is completely different. We were never a colony, only a protectorate, a mandate. My grandparents still refer to France as the mother country.” Still, the decline of the French language here is noticeable, as is the concurrent advance of English. The new global tongue dominates billboards and advertisements, not to mention the radio. In some places in the countryside, I’ve seen new streetsigns in Arabic first and English second: no French. (Beirut seems to have escaped this phenomenon).
If Lebanon ever loses the French language, it will lose part of itself. But the Lebanese, who have many admirable qualities, are expert businessmen — merchanting is in their blood — and English is the language of business. Not just business, but culture too: if you’re given a handbill advertising some small art show or exhibition, it’s invariably in English.
An evening party at a family home in Bsous, on the hills overlooking the capital. Everything is simply perfect. R, S, and I sit down amidst the grove of olive trees and immediately a small table with nibbly things is moved to just before us for our convenience. Beer, wine, and merriment flow and while the pool shines glows eerily as the lights of Beirut twinkle before us. Our hosts speak little English but we make do with French. P.A. claims (in that way that he often does) that P.’s father is so brilliant he was Minister of Finance to both Lebanese governments during the Civil War. When was this house built? 1890s? 1910s? It’s hard to tell. It suffered during the war but has been restored well and sensibly. Its location is beyond envy and I only wish we were here during the day to see the view across Beirut to the Mediterranean beyond.
I STEPPED OUT OF the airplane and the long line of the Alps smacked me in the face about the same time as the freshness of the Lombard air. One of the more boring innovations of today’s world are those mechanical arms that stick out of air terminals to usher you from hermetically sealed environment to hermetically sealed environment. (One of the reasons why Bristol Airport is among my favourites, besides being in Somerset, is the total lack of those loading arms.) Landing at Malpensa, I was pleased to step out onto the stairway with the sun behind my back illuminating the glorious string of snow-capped peaks in the far off distance — a reminder that Milan is indeed a different Italy from the hills of Rome or that Greek-speckled island of Sicily. The polizia di frontiera manning the Unione europea queue takes the barest glance at my maroon passport before handing it back with a forlorn grazie and waving me on my way with a nod of the head.
I made my to the train station, bought a ticket from the little machine — brushing aside a little taxi man with a dismissive no grazie — and boarded the treno diretto a Milano Cadorna. I had left behind a rather grey, miserable, and cold London just two hours before and as the Malpensa Express hurtled through tunnel, cut, and way, I’ll confess the tiniest swivel of excitement — augmented by the glorious sunshine — at the prospect of discovering Milan, a city with which I had no previous acquaintance.
Milan boasts one of the greatest railway stations of the world — Milano Centrale — but I was heading into the smaller and more convenient Cadorna station. Alighting the train HM phones and barrages me with information as I confusedly try to stick my ticket into the slot to let me through the barrier oblivious to the words coming at me through my telefonino. Victory — success — I’m through, and agree to phone HM later when I know what’s what.
Finn’s instructions had been to take the Metro to his, but confronted with the cloudless beauty of the sky I found the idea of scuttling about underground lacked any appeal. A walk would do me good. Following the gentle curve of the Foro Buonaparte under the shade of the graceful trees, I took my measure of the city. I hadn’t any idea what to expect, really, but am pleased with what I find. There are awkward post-war modern bits (American bomber crews were not unfamiliar with Milan) but for the most part the city’s architecture betrays a sturdy late-nineteenth-century confidence that’s been sensibly updated to keep with the best of today’s standards. What’s more, the population are a positive adornment to this city: snappily dressed men of business wait at pedestrian crossings while pretty girls on bicycles sail by. The motto of Dublin is the slightly scary ‘Happy is the city where the citizens obey’ — Milan’s might as well be ‘Happy is the city where the citizens dress well’.
I turned onto the via Dante, continued down the Orefici, and was there at the piazza del Duomo, just a stone’s throw from Don Finiano’s. Dropping my things off in the flat, Finn suggests an immediate walk around the middle of town. “Luckily you can see everything here in a short space of time,” he avers with the assurance of his short attention span.
And so around Milan under the blue sky. The Duomo: “It’s the heaviest building in the world!” Still? “Maybe, maybe not.” Through the Galleria, as civilised a shopping promenade as ever existed, to La Scala. “Have you ever been to the opera? Here, that is.” “YES, with the Pogg!” On to the Castle and through its bifurcating series of portals to the park on the other side as Finn explains his various options for after his eventual departure from Milan. Swinging around and down the via Dante again, I run into a shocked Signora Bubesi who had no idea I was going to be around. (HM, typically, told her nothing). I kiss her hello and tell her I’ll see her later on. (We met up the next morning to see ‘The Last Supper’).
A late lunch by the Colonne di San Lorenzo as I offload the latest news from London and receive information, counter-information, and pure speculation about mutual friends and those in the general circle of things.
The sun still shining, we made our way to the roof terrace atop Finn’s flat. It actually belongs to the genial neighbourhood fascist who has allowed Finn the free use of it and emblasoned it with a quote from Mussolini. He once enlisted Finn’s help in carrying to the ascensore a large and heavy bust of Il Duce. The lift is absolutely tiny and just barely held the two of them, Il Duce, and a confused old man heading for the dentist’s office on the first floor. (The dental staff, reassuringly, use the rear balcony next to Finn’s as their smoking area).
Several larges bottles of Nastro Azzurro are consumed before we head back down to the flat to continue with spritz. The glories of spritz! Appropriately it was Ivo who introduced me to the ambrosian concoction — “Mate, try this. You won’t regret it.” — and I’d had Ivo, Hubert, and Callum round for dinner just the Thursday before; a night that rather typically ended with half-remembered lyrics to Irish rebel songs.
I’ll just pour myself a little more spritz. Oh very well, a full glass, must make up for the ice after all. The genial neighbourhood fascist pops round (in a black shirt, of course) and says hello as we discuss the possibilities of what to do for the evening, the sun having set over the course of the spritz being consumed. The Pogg goes onto Skype and summer plans are discussed for after Finn and Nick’s great Rome-to-Somerset motorbike expedition. We prefer Malta but the Pogg objects and absurdly suggests Isola d’Elba instead. What?!? We’ll see. Wherever the axes of price, sun, and proximity to water converge is where we’ll end up.
And again through the streets to the rather swish place atop that department store on the Piazza Cinque Giornate. After a Moscow Mule and something to eat, a cigarette on the smoking balcony. Looking out towards the city’s western flank and the night sky above it, we gaze downwards and watch the trams sleekly gliding through the piazza before turning our glance towards the appartamenti around the piazza. A surprising number are strangely dark for this time of night and we infer they’ve been bought by dodgy types as tax dodges or money-laundering manoeuvres.
Eventually we end up by the Colonne di San Lorenzo again, crowded with giovani as well as the occasional sketchy foreigner offering to sell you drugs. No grazie. Somehow we find ourselves chatting away with a group of people into the night. Finn, who is fairly fluent from living here, is mistakenly impressed by my knowledge of Italian, which confuses me since — unlike Irish, French, or Afrikaans — I’ve never studied it. A weekend in Milan, however, is enough to convince me it’d be a worthwhile endeavour.
And, having whiled away in conversation, at some unknown hour the police arrive to gently encourage everyone along their way, and returning to the various places from whence we came, we dispersed into the night.
WHAT WOULD it be like being a reindeer herder in Lappland? The perpetual attraction of some mode of living other than that which is immediately at hand lurks somewhere in human nature, especially at one might be described as the points of transition in life. But then, when properly considered, life itself is one permanent transition period. Indeed, not just life, but perhaps all existence, as I am discovering in the Purgatorio. Having breakfast in Oxford the other day I was informed I should read the Divine Comedy, as Dante’s ideas about the natural order of the universe supposedly coincide with precisely with mine. A few days later, as the sun was shining and giving us a delicious foretaste of spring, I decided to walk across Green Park, up Duke of York Steps, and over to the Piccadilly Waterstones to pick up a copy and have been duly transfixed by it. I am totally ignorant of theology and philosophy, all of which goes completely over my head, but I phoned up Rob, who’s properly clever, and he averred that Dante’s conception of order is based on Aquinas, and Aquinas is absolutely correct, so apparently we’re all quite sound. (Which is a relief). (more…)
Me (Cusack, interloping friend of the family)
Garabanda (Tom, paterfamilias)
The Turkey (Joseph)
It was the strange clicking sound emerging from the engine of the Renault Espace that started us off on our journey. We were off to pick up Piccolo Giuseppe from Heathrow, where he was returning from his school skiing trip to Jasper in Alberta, and from Heathrow to whisk him, and ourselves, off to the country for Christmas.
Alexander had, according to Garabanda, insisted on debating the meaning of the universe until 2:00am the night before upon returning from the Oratory Christmas Spectacular, with the excuse that, spending the next week or so in Somerset, someone had to drink the wine before it went bad. I suggested it was a legitimate cause, but Garabanda pointed out no like offer was made with regard to the eggs or milk.
Mildly perturbed by the clattering click, Garabanda nonetheless steeled himself and surged forth westwards towards the great flight-harbour of Heathrow. There we disembarked the auto, Alexander and I seeking early morning comfort in the form of cappuccinos while Garabanda searched for the bog. We stood there awkwardly at that point where Terminal 3 regurgitates its arriving passengers disapproving of the sad and haggardly appearance of the frightful arrivées emerging from the sliding doors.
“I have to say,” asserted Alexander, with the slight diffidence earned by being an elder brother who attended a much more minor public school, “you can always tell the Etonians, so we just need to look out for when they start appearing and then we’ll find Joseph“. And sure enough, there was the Turkey himself. We went and exchanged the usual pleasantries of inquisition — How was Canada? What was the snow like? Did you sleep on the flight? — before wondering where on earth Pater Reverendissime was. Then we found Garabanda, one eye on his Morning Office, the other earnestly scanning the arriving folk, clearly unawares that his youngest had already passed through.
Back on the road. Where are the cupholders in this thing? We hadn’t finished our cappuccinos. What films were on the flight? Was Canadian skiing better than skiing on the Continent? Why on earth didn’t you sleep at all on the flight? What timezone are you in mentally now? Is that clicking sound getting worse?
Garabanda’s concern increases. More money than is perhaps ideal has already been invested into the maintenance of the Renault. Resolute though the Garabanda is, one could sense the irritation tinged with regret involved in his very practical choice of motor vehicle.
Reading Services. Perhaps we’d better stop and get this looked into. A phonecall to the Automobile Association. We’ll send a man round. I whip out the Irish Times (the previous day’s, I’m afraid) and grow increasingly concerned about the deleterious effect the new property tax will have on The Old Country. We keep our eyes peeled for the yellow AA van, and one duly arrives but the Garabanda goes forth to meet it and discovers it is not the one for us. Conversation probed the depths of the current situation in Europe before the right yellow AA van arrived. The nice man peeked under the bonnet, the engine was run, the sound was observed, and we were solemnly advised not to continue the onward journey to Somerset. A flatbed would be sent to pick up both the Renault and ourselves. It could be an hour and a half before he arrives, but he’d phone 15 minutes before to alert us.
“You know, I have to say, this is just typical. You buy French, you get French.” Alexander, it’s worth pointing out, does work for the Eurosceptic party in Brussels. The Turkey flapped his wings about gobbled a bit. Garabanda continued with his Office. Eventually the Boys decided to make an attempt on the conveniences provided, chiefly WH Smith and Burger King. Alexander searched in vain for the Economist, so he bought a harmonica instead (plus Scientific American). Joseph and I went for the Burger King option. And four crowns please. We all sat silently in the belly of the Renault, wearing our paper crowns as the rain gently pattered on the suitably inspected and bureaucrat approved shatterproof glass.
Eventually the flatbed found us and we found the flatbed. The Renault was moved onto its new perch and we all climbed into the surprisingly spacious cabin of the flatbed. A very rainy and peaceful journey on to Somerset continued, and I think all three of us lads in the back caught a bit of shuteye or two, though Alexander at least feigned reading his scientific magazine.
Closer to the destination, we were alerted to the updated plan of battled: Finnian would meet us at the lay-by just past the end of the lane and carry us on to the Farm, while Papa und Driver et Renault would head onwards to the Renault garage in Bath. As we approached, we sighted Finnian in the drizzle waving a property-for-sale sign up and down mechanically to catch our attention. The Garabanda gave orders to alight the flatbed and we duly alighted the flatbed.
Finnian’s car is decorated with silver tinsel in the festive spirit of the season. “Finnian, did the Pogg do this?” “Mate, the Pogg isn’t even around! Aw the Pogg, so Podgey-Pog, the Pogg!” Martina (pronounced podge) doesn’t like being called the Pogg because she finds it dismissive, but it’s quite obviously a term of endearment, and besides, it requires an article, which denotes her importance. The Pogg is the Pogg.
Swiftly through those country lanes — I had forgotten how fast Finn drives — around this bend and that and then with surprising speed we find ourselves at the Farm. Alexander and I hop out of Finn’s car as the Ming rushes out: Joseph has an orthodontist’s appointment in Bristol that must be kept. Inside the house, Callum calmly appears in the kitchen to bid us welcome in his fashion.
We sit around drinking a pot of rooibos inexplicably brewed in a French press and so tasting slightly of coffee. We hear a car purring up the gravel drive and sure enough it’s Ivo. Banter.
Porridge for breakfast. My love of proper porridge is such that I’m certain there must be a Scottish peasant or two in my ancestry. This morning’s porridge is taken with weapons-grade Iranian honey. How it ended up in Somerset, I’ve no idea.
Expedition to Bath. Alexander off for a haircut, Finn to seek some parfum for the Pogg. I potter about the architecture section of Waterstone’s with Callum, looking at big picture books of Edwardian houses. Eventually we all reunite and head to the nifty little café with pretty girls behind the counter, but its too crowded so we foolishly sit outside in the cold with our ciders.
The evening: a drinks party in the new wing of the Museum. We enjoy a fair amount of champagne and keep our eye on the Turkey to make sure he doesn’t overdo it. Banda whips out his sketchbook and takes down a face or two. Popping outside for the cool fresh air of winter, we are surrounding by a bizarre artistic installation of flowing fiberoptic lights in changing colours. When the moment comes, the party dissembles with surprising swiftness, and we return home for dinner.
Ming, Garabanda, and Woogy head off for Midnight Mass at St. John’s in Bath, but the rest of us are die-hards for Downside. We arrived around 11:20 with the abbey church mostly unfull. Alexander grabs his own seat to be alone with this thoughts while Finn, Joseph, and I grab three seats halfway down the still unfinished nave. The Turkey grins and whips out a flask… of orange juice. I nip over to St. Oliver’s shrine to get a prayer in.
Ivo arrives with father in tow and Hubert too. Says the women of the family abandoned them and opted for the following morning instead. Rupert and fam also in evidence a few rows behind us. Lord Hylton with his great big beard! He looks like Professor Alembeck from King Ottokar’s Sceptre.
A few carols before midnight, then finally the Mass itself begins. The Abbot processes down the nave in his finery, but looks a bit weary. Poor man: he hasn’t had an easy time of it. The church is glorious though, and glowing. Strange how it feels so like home returning to it. I didn’t even go to school here!
After Mass, see Dom Philip Jebb, still going, and surrounded by those paying him their respects. Then to the lower ref for some hot chocolate. Banter amongst the lads. Chat with Hubert about Irish republicanism. Gives me the name of a book to read. Hubert and Papa McG head home but Ivo decides to get a ride from us so he can stay longer. At Easter we went for a proper wander and Ivo regaled us with fond tales of naughtiness from school days.
We’re the last to leave as a monk urges us homewards. Apologies, apologies. Absolutely dark outside the looming abbey church as we make our way to Finn’s car. Alexander says we’re like German peasants departing midnight mass in times medieval. Ein extra potato to celebrate the feast he suggests, and a lemon curl on the fire to bring at least a bit of festivity to our grim, miserable lives.
The ancient former housekeeper arrives and tea is served beside the fire. Finnian always interrupting with questions and rude points. She turns to him and in her peaceful, elderly tone says “You always were the worst one!” Finnian is pleased as punch by her remark.
Having filled up at breakfast, we enjoy a simple brunch before Joseph and Finn are dispatched to steal mistletoe off a tree in the neighbouring farmer’s field. After surviving a barrage of rotten apples, I join them, and then Alexander and I go on a little journey up the hill and down further east and then back home along the lane.
After some time sitting around, Hein joins us and we go for another expedition: Ming, Garabanda, Callum, Finn, myself, Joseph, and Hein. Up the hill, looking out over the valley, and discussing various plans.
Back at the Farm we enjoy the most delicious foie gras in the universe — the fruit of Hein’s own labours — consumed joyfully along with a number of bottles of champagne.
Christmas dinner: the succulent turkey, fully stuffed, the sausages and bread pudding, carrots and brussel sprouts, and all manner of deliciousness on hand. The conversation excellent as always, with periodic bouts of violence breaking out in Joseph’s neighbourhood, likely instigated by Finnian.
Hein had brought along another creation: a Russian cake made with some sort of crackling ingredient that made such a noise and danced around on your tongue when you consumed it. Theatrical and tasty. In tribute, we listened to the Red Army Chir singing the Song of the Volga Boatmen, and then Garabanda suggested Glenn Miller’s version, which was enjoyed as well as the homemade elderberry gin was passed around.
Awoke to the sound of guns. Boxing Day shoots about the valley. Porridge for breakfast, and for lunch cockaleekie soup followed by cold turkey and stuffing.
We knew the McG’s were scheduled to come round at 4:00, but Finnian whimsied an impromptu trip into town to ‘hang a Pret’, so Joseph and I joined. Ming tired to stop us, saying the McG’s would be arriving at 3:00-3:30 but we spied what seemed an obvious subterfuge. In town, Giuseppe was sent out as footman to fetch three cappas while Finn and I waited in the car. Then we sent him to Starbucks so as to launch a scientific inquiry into the respective qualities of Pret cappuccino versus Starbucks cappuccino.
We were back at 3:12 and sure enough Clan McG arrived in two sorties starting at 3:31. (In the intervening period Finn had tied string to the empty paper cup that had contained his cappuccino and hung it from the Christmas tree — thus giving literal truth to his expression ‘hang a Pret’). Hubert, Ivo, Papa McG, and I discuss Scottish and Irish politics, and history, and de Valera, and the War, and the general scheme of things. Had a chat with Christabel about Roger Scruton’s Modern Culture and she persuades me to read it again even though she finds it “too right-wing and conservative”. (Bloody art school’s gotten to her).
Finn and Ming off to Dorset for the evening. Alexander, Callum, Joseph, Tom, and myself settled by the fire and watched Istvan Szabo’s film “Sunshine”. Could be vastly improved with a bit of editing, but for such an ambitious project it works better than one would expect. Midway through we broke out the Zwack Unicum and sipped it through the remainder of the film.
A simple supper followed by a quiet evening. A bit of piano from Tom, then Callum. Alexander retired early following a vain search for his book on nationalism in Silesia. I suggested he read the biography of Hansel Pless. Fr Rupert gave me a copy when I was on my way to South Africa but, much to my disapproval, it was lost by the South African Post Office en route to New York. Luckily I had finished reading it during one of the more grey weeks of winter in the Cape.
Retired myself to pack my bags, as I had to catch the morning train back home to London.
Jolly time. Christus est natus.
WE START OUT at the usual Italian place, PH’s stammtisch despite his complaints that they’re stingy and never bring you a limoncello at the end of a meal, as is custom elsewhere. The usual verbal briefings are exchanged, updating each other on the scheme of things and the general banter. It’s warm enough to sit outside, which allows us the luxury of a cigarette with our coffee as we cast aspersions on passing strangers. This quickly moves on to casting aspersions on mutual acquaintances (we will not call them friends!) and extrapolating therefrom more general condemnations of the heresiarchs and heretics of our day (chiefly: liberals, Modernist clergy, fops, les Brideshead affectés, users of inappropriate typefaces, and all people who take life too seriously).
After the postprandial coffee, we head on to Doyle’s but, just as we arrive, Brian gets in touch directing us elsewhere. We meet up with him and his three friends on the street but PH and I do not take a shine to Brian’s temporary entourage and secede from the party. Where to? Lincoln’s Inn, end of Nassau Street. (more…)
HOW MANY COUNTRIES have you been to? As for myself, not many, perhaps a dozen, although I’ll concede that that dozen is spread over four continents. I know people who have been to two or three times as many countries as I have, particularly if they’ve travelled through the Continent, where you can notch up several in a single day. My travel plans tend to be those of saturation rather than spread: I visit places and start relationships with them and then keep coming back.
And how do you decide that you’ve “been” to a country? There are various methods of determination. (more…)
I have been spending the past few days in a flat at the corner of Holland Park Avenue and Portland Road, in this verdant corner of the capital. The flat is clean, capacious, and handsome, but terribly modern. Indeed, it is so modern that it will soon be old; it will not exhibit the old age of the time-honoured and true, but rather the tawdry oldness of what had only recently been new. Pedantic students of interior design will study photos of it and discern “2008 I’d say… no! 2009!” But for now, it is still new, still fresh, and so, like a tomato fresh for the plucking, we will enjoy it while its moment is precisely appropriate.
Until now, I hadn’t much knowledge of this part of London, but find it a happy place to be in August. The weather has been mild and kind, and I spent part of the afternoon reading de Maistre — the St. Petersburg Dialogues — in the formal garden in Holland Park. The avenue itself is tree-lined, or rather tree-engulfed, such is the plentiful shade, and has a small selection of cafés: the Paul boulangerie which is becoming omnipresent, and the Valerie patisserie, both chains. Cyrano, at No. 108 Holland Park Avenue, is much preferred, and I decamped there for a light breakfast with a copy of the Scotsman from the local newsstand (the one on Ladbroke Grove, rather than the smaller one by the tube stop) while avoiding the miserable Irish cleaning lady who returns the modern flat to its pristine whiteness every Thursday morning.
Then to the Royal Academy, for the Waterhouse show. What an interesting artist! His earlier works so precise in detail and, for lack of a better word, academic. Yet in his later pieces, you can find a certain willingness to obfuscate, perhaps an admission that reality is not quite so precise and that the most accurate portrayal of reality requires a few lines to be blurred. Faces, and indeed all forms, remain clear throughout, but the architectural coldness of the earlier works on display gradually evolves to a more fluid depiction of Greek mythos and Keatsian tales. Waterhouse can vary in his details from the almost photographic to verging on impressionism in a single painting. Was that his intention? It was certainly the result.
My viewing companion — an old university friend — and I agreed that throughout all the themes portrayed by the artist one can’t help but feel an overwhelming Victorian-ness. Is this ex post facto because we know Waterhouse to be an High Victorian artist, or is there actually some inherent quality in the works that calls to mind that era? Very difficult to say, but those in London should not miss this exhibition of a popular yet under-appreciated artist — the Jack Vettriano of his day.
Who is in London in August anyhow? The text messages sent out, and their replies promptly received. “I’m in Geneva! Will be in Luxembourg next week if you’re on the continent.” I am not and will not be on the continent. “I have been unexpectedly called to Africa.” Well I’ve just come from there, though not the Sudan thank God. “You’re welcome to come to Gozo between the 5th and 15th for a pleasant, quiet holiday.” I will have returned to New York by then, alas. “Am up north in Lancashire; you’re welcome to come and visit, sample our recusant history!” Just haven’t got the time, alas.
But while many have escaped for the month, many yet remain. An afternoon drink at Rafe’s, with Fr. Rupert and Alex Williams. The Carlton is being refitted, so it was drinks at the East India Club instead with another university friend, during which we concur that office jobs are the absolute pits and we should have studied agriculture with the country girls at Cirencester rather than getting tawdry MAs in Scotland. There is no greater affirmation of the consequences of original sin than the omnipresence of the 9-to-5 office job.
Astute observers of this little corner of the web (if indeed we can use the plural for such a subset of the earth’s population) will recall an incident over two years ago now in which a certain Jack Russell terrier became rather more involved with my lower leg than I had envisioned was ideal. The dog, which goes by the name of Cicio Stinkiman, had noticed me playing with the only seeing-eye-dog in Scotland that knows how to genuflect and resented the attention I was paying to the bitch, to whom he obviously professed some attachment, ran up, and bit me in the calf.
You can imagine my surprise when I learnt that the beast in question is actually now not only living in London but actually residing in the Oratory. Indeed I saw the beast from a distance while waiting on Brompton Road for the Friday evening mass last week. His owner graduated from university (in Scotland, like all the wisest people) two years ago now but his mother banned poor Cicio Stinkiman from the German palace he might otherwise call home, perhaps informed along the voluptuous grapevines of Europe of the horrendous incident in which the beast had taken an unwelcome interest in my lower leg.
I am being far too unfair to poor Cicio, for he did apologise, and looked up at me with terribly apologetic eyes. Admittedly, that might’ve been because his master stood nearby holding a rolled-up copy of the Catholic Herald most threateningly. Still, pity the poor ignorant beasts. They have no conscience, and thus no real malice. Only we humans, with the freedom we abuse so easily, can claim that dubious achievement.
Nothing ever happens in New York, or at least nothing when compared to Edinburgh, London, or Paris; this is my perpetual complaint. But when it rains, it pours, and so it was last night. Not only was it press day, the busiest day of the month-long cycle of creating each issue of The New Criterion, but then the evening beheld both “A Festive Evening Celebrating the Mission of the von Hildebrand Project” at the University Club and “The Reception and Dinner to Present the Medal for Heraldic Achievement” at the Racquet & Tennis Club. The simultaneous events were organized by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project and the Committee on Heraldry of the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society, respectively.
A rarely-assembled fun crowd was promised at the von Hildebrand event, but nor was the presentation of the G&B’s medal a common occurrence (there have been only three awarded to date) so I simply resolved that I would do my best to attend both. (more…)
SITTING PROUDLY ON the corner of 74th Street and Third Avenue, J.G. Melon is one of those splendid establishments that make living in New York tolerable. It has a distinct 1930’s feel to it, despite only dating from the 1970’s, which speaks to the taste of its founders. I remember a very jolly gathering there in the winter of our last year in high school; Will, Caro, Scott, Emma, her mother “Momma Kate”, as well as her aunt who still lives in a townhouse nearby (and, as is typical of New York, is currently entrenched in a legal battle with neighbors over an obtrusive wall). It was a splendid evening, boisterous, lively, and full of good conversation, and a window was even broken, though thankfully not by our merry band.
Then there was that one Saturday during the summer when a young lady and I went to the Metropolitan to see the Byzantium exhibit which had received much praise. We duly made our entrance donation, obtained our little ‘M’ tags, and then asked a guard, “Could you point us to the Byzantium exhibit?” “No can do, boss. Closed yesterday.” Brilliant. We had a trawl through the Greek and Roman galleries anyhow (the old Greek and Roman galleries, that is, not the new Greek and Roman galleries that everyone raves about), had a quick (overpriced) drink on the rooftop sculpture garden, and dropped in on the Astor Chinese Court in recompense for missing the glories of Byzantium. Anyhow, leaving the Metropolitan we immediately decided to escape the sun to J.G. Melon’s for a stiff drink and a late lunch and it was the most delicious and satisfying repast you could’ve dreamed of at that precise moment.
I could go on and on, but suffice to say that J.G. Melon’s is a place of happy memories, as is the Upper East Side in general. That neck of the woods was our particular stomping ground towards the end of high school and the first years of college during the breaks, until the gradual dissolution and dispersal of the East 86th Street Conspiracy. I don’t see much of the East Side anymore. Since I began working in the city I have generally avoided staying within its bounds any longer than necessary before skipping back to the lush green quietude of Westchester. Nonetheless, one has to be social from time to time, and its not as if the company of friends is a loathsome burden.
Still, when I suggested to a friend that, it having been over a year since our graduation, perhaps a drink was in order, and she agreed and asked where we should enjoy our cold beverage of choice, I thought “Why not J.G. Melon?” Miss Breed had never been, and so I had the added privilege of introducing someone to one of our favorite little institutions. As I said, I don’t see this neck of the woods as often as I probably should and, inadvertently arriving at Melon’s with time to spare, I decided to head over to Second Avenue to revisit some other old haunts.
During high school we spent hours and hours at Taja, a Moroccan lounge/bar, sipping cocktails, conversing, and getting to know the immigrant waiters from the Maghreb, who were all very happy to be in New York and not Fez or Marrakech, and learning about the utterly different world from which they sprang. There was also Sultan, the Turkish restaurant right next door to Taja, which was always pronounced SULL-tan, not sultin, probably because our circle was mostly composed of diplobrats, the sons and daughters of the New York diplomatic corps. “Mehmet” and “Omar” (names changed for security’s sake) were brothers and the sons of Egyptian diplomats. I remember them bringing a Californian friend to Sultan once, who instantly fell in love with one of the belly dancers who danced there three nights a week. So far as we know, nothing ever came of it. I also remember dining at Sultan with seven or eight of the Bronxville/Fordham Prep circle and for some reason we all decided to order apple martinis to accompany our food (which, by the way, was superb).
Having, as I said, time to spare, I strolled over to Second Avenue to revisit these haunts of my youth and turned at the corner where Baroanda (where they never let us drink) sits. Heading down, I expected to see Sultan and then Taja its happy neighbor, but no. Gone, all gone. Not just closed, but demolished, half the bloody block. These sites of happiness and drink, of conversation and argument were completely destroyed, without a trace of the joy they once provided us. In their place, an empty hole for now, but soon an ugly glass-plated skyscraper full of three-bedroom apartments (for vulgar financiers no doubt). I must take a note of when that shiny edifice will be topped out, so I can go and spit on its foundations.
I HAVE ALWAYS loved the rain, but even higher than rain ranks its offspring, the thunderstorm. From the gentle rolling in the distance to the quite-close strikes, there are few meteorological occurences more dramatic and enjoyable than the clash of thunder and the flash of lightning. This morning I was wakened by the clap and patter of the storm outside, and by the sudden presence of my dog. The poor beast has no appreciation for such weather, and was attempting to gain admittance to the underside of my bed. He was thwarted by the presence of the Encyclopedia of New York State, Tintin: The Complete Companion (by Michael Farr, leading Tintinologist of the English-speaking world), a coffee table book of a Dutch master, and a few discarded copies of the Irish Times with the crosswords half-completed. Sobbing and crying, he gave up and left to find shelter elsewhere.
It was quite a storm, however, and there was no rail service into Grand Central for much of the morning because of flooding along the line. When the MTA finally announced that service had been restored, I went down to the station in town and caught the 9:45 to the city. As one might expect, it was exceptionally crowded and I was forced to stand, leaning uncomfortably against the wall at the back of the train car while I tried to read Rodolfo Fogwill’s Malvinas Requiem (o en castellano, Los Pychyciegos, 1983).
It took forty-five minutes to reach Grand Central instead of the usual thirty-one and the relief upon entering that cool marble temple was dissipated (as it always is, but particularly this morning) by descending into the depths of the subway. I made my way, as per usual, towards the 4/5/6 but found the steps down blocked and an MTA employee standing in front. “No trains?” “No trains.” Blast. Well, I’ll just have to take the shuttle over to Times Square and then the N/R/Q/W down to Union Square. Then the harsh crackle of the station loudspeaker “There is no Times Square shuttle service. No shuttle to Times Square.” Very well, I’ll take the 7 to Times Square instead, and descended myriad other stairways to the platform of the No. 7 train. The 7 must be the deepest line in all Manhattan! It was like falling down into Wonderland to get to it. Anyhow, hopping off the 7 at Times Square, and heading towards the N/R/Q/W platforms, there was a sight of much disappoinment. It’s not the fact that the N/R/Q/W platform was crowded per se but that there was a crowd waiting to even get down to the N/R/Q/W platform. I quit! I decided to ascend to street level, summon a taxi, and get to work the easy way.
Ascending the escalator out of the Times Square subway station, I remembered a time six years previous. Elena Fichtel and I had gone to one of the giant multiplexes on 42nd Street to see “The Others”, a psychological suspense film. There was one very quiet and tense point in the movie where Nicole Kidman holds a glass lamp and look towards the staircase of the grand, dark country house her character inhabits in the film. She believes she has just heard the sound of running feet on the floorboards above when she knows no one could possibly be there. She just glances at the staircase and nothing happens. However there was a very quick change of perspective, and even though nothing happened in the film, the suddenness made Elena elicit an almighty shriek of horror. Her’s was the only one, and the entire jam-packed cinema erupted in laughter at her. It was a truly classic moment.
After the film we ran to the subway, hoping to get to Grand Central in time to catch an advantageous train back to Westchester and make it home for dinner, and it was the very entrance we entered then that I today egressed and made my way to Broadway. A whole mob of people had the same idea as me and were waiting at the side of the Great White Way, forlornly hoping that an empty cab. Weighing my chances, I figured I’d just walk down Broadway from 42nd Street to Herald Square on 34th and pick up the N/R/Q/W there. I should mention at this point that the morning storm had gone completely and had done nothing to lessen the extraordinary temperature, which was certainly in the 90s. Very uncivil of Mother Nature.
I walked down the shady side of Broadway. A Vietnamese woman rested on a crate at a street corner and fanned herself with a nonchalance indicative of her ancestry. A young boy strode determinedly up the boulevard, finger in one ear and cell phone to the other, disputating with (one presumes) a parental figure on the line. A Belgian-looking man bedecked in Venetian red trousers walked fastidiously in the same direction as I. Finally, through Herald Square (which, by the way, has been done up very nicely with those little Parisian chairs and tables akin to Bryant Park) and to the subway entrance. Flooded. Just a few inches, but I was wearing sandals. (Sandals? In the metrop.? It’s summer! And they are sandals of substance, I assure you.) A clever girl in wellies was undeterred. Luckily, another entrance around the corner provided the necessary access.
Then, of course, minutes waiting on a stiflingly hot subway platform. I processed up and down the platform very slowly, feeling that if I stood still I might not budge again. Office-types in suits held their jackets over their shoulders and wiped the sweat from their brows with hankies while a fat black woman sat silently on a bench, shaking her head with dismay at the temperature. After what seemed like eons, the Broadway Express rolled into the station and I was swept away to Union Square in a fine, cool, air-conditioned seat. Exiting the subway into the farmer’s market in the square, I passed the Belgian-looking man in red trousers. We had made it there in the same amount of time, but I had a comfortable air-conditioned seat much of the way. (Or so I rationalized).
By the time I arrived at my office it had been a full two hours since I had left the comfort of my home! Nonetheless, I enjoyed the morning’s storm as I lay comfortably under the covers in my room. The pitter-pat on glass, the sudden flash, and the anticipation finally quenched by the rolling boom. When we were children, we always counted the seconds between the flash and the boom and multiplied it by some magical number to discover how far away the lightning struck. When we were younger than that, we believed that thunderstorms were when the angels and demons were bowling. And whenever a storm cleared, I thought to myself “Oh good, the angels won again”.
EARLY YESTERDAY EVENING I found myself on the West Side and with a bit of free time, so I sauntered down Broadway to Columbus Circle to finally investigate in the flesh this great public place after its complete rehabilitation some two years ago. I am happy to report that the Circle’s refurbishment is quite a successful one. My only reservations were minor details, but as these were all done in an extremely simple and smooth modern style, they are much less objectional, and perhaps serve to focus attention on the sculptor Gaetano Russo’s splendid monumental column from which Cristóbal Colón, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Viceroy and Governor of the New World presides over the grand plaza consecrated to his memory.
Colón’s name is rendered on the monument as ‘Cristoforo Colombo’, which seems appropriate since the monument was paid for by public subscription raised by Italian-Americans, and it is commonly assumed that Columbus was Italian. He may have been Genoese, Catalan, Portuguese, or Corsican, but he described himself as being from lands under the rule of Genoa, which lends significant credence to the Genoese and Corsican theories. In Spain, however, he is apparently Spanish, or so one daughter of Iberia, the wife of a frequent reader of this little corner of the web, informs us. The happy couple were strolling through Columbus Circle recently and the good lady was shocked to discover the purported Italian origin of the man who brought Christianity to the New World. After all, Spain’s national day — the Día de la Hispanidad — is October 12, the day in 1492 that Columbus first set foot in the New World. (In woebegone Venezuela, the vulgar socialist dictator has proclaimed October 12 as the Día de la Resistencia Indígena, or Day of Indigenous Resistance, and the Columbus Column in their capital city of Caracas was toppled on that day in 2004).
Anyhow, not only was the good lady was shocked at our monument’s proclamation of the Discoverer’s Italian-ness but the combination of that with the presence in Columbus Circle of the beautiful U.S.S. Maine Monument led the observer to conclude that the public plaza should be instead be named “Anti-Spain Square”. It was the disastrous sinking of the Maine, after all, which led to the Spanish-American War, the result of which was America’s most unfortunate and regretful act of taking Spain’s empire off her hands. (Contrary to Mr. Kipling’s idealistic urging of America to take up the imperial mantle in his poem ‘White Man’s Burden’, this turned out to be a fairly good deal for the Spaniards, and a very poor deal for the peoples of the United States).
Politics aside, I enjoyed the few minutes during which I ruminated in the square (or circle, if ye be pedants). I recall many years ago the debate surrounding how to improve Columbus Circle that there was a near-universal desire for there to be more trees but that the very shallow depth between the street surface and the subway below presented difficulties in this regard. The redesigners have solved this problem by encircling the center of the circle with a raised ridge, on which are planted a number of trees which, we trust, will be even more appreciated as they mature. The raised ridge, which features jets of flowing water around the inner circle, also serves to innoculate the center from the noise of the traffic which, the Circle being situated at the confluence of Broadway, Central Park West, Central Park South, and Eigth Avenue, is considerable.
And so, I judge the new Columbus Circle a success, and I am happy to the report that the American Society of Landscape Architects concur, having awarded it their General Design Award of Honor. Another random fact which surprisingly few people know is that Columbus Circle is the spot from which distances to New York are numerated, akin to Moscow’s Red Square and London’s Trafalgar Square (if I recall correctly).
LEAVING COLUMBUS CIRCLE, I sauntered back up Broadway to another of Manhattan’s engaging places, Lincoln Center. Critics accused the architects of the performing arts complex of cribbing off of Rome’s E.U.R., but one wishes the three halls facing Lincoln Center’s plaza had the same crispness of those modern Roman structures. The thirty years between the E.U.R. of 1930s Italy and the Lincoln Center of 1960s New York were years in which the quality of modernism declined just as greatly as its supremacy increased. Despite this, the plaza of Lincoln Center is one of the most successful public places in Manhattan. I have often lamented the absence from New York of the open piazza so common on the Continent. This plaza competes with Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace as the best example of the type in Manhattan.
The plaza is raised above the neighboring Lincoln Square (one of the many triangular squares created by Broadway’s healthy disregard for the grid) and is reached by a gentle rise of stairs. Viewed from the square it appropriately seems like a stage upon which all our great dramas are played. The dance of the New York City Ballet in the State Theatre on the left, the music of the New York Philharmonic in Avery Fisher Hall on the left, and in the center, the Metropolitan Opera in the Metropolitan Opera House; the greatest opera company in the Americas, not to mention one of the best in the entire world. And from the hour of seven or so on the evening of performances, the three arts mix and mingle in the plaza as attendées wait to meet their companions and enter whichever of the respective halls they are to spend the evening. Some jealously preserve a seat of honor on the rim of the central fountain, while others hide from the elements (the beating sun, the heaving rain) in the shelter of the arcades, while still more meander slowly to and fro around this piazza dell’arte.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the elders of Lincoln Center insist on erecting temporary stage structures in the middle of the plaza, partially obstructing the fountain, during the warmer months when, above all other times, it should be open for all to enjoy. The creators of Lincoln Center conceived of the obvious desire for outdoor performances during the summer, and so they built the bandshell in Damrosch Park in between the Opera House and Avery Fisher Hall, just diagonally adjacent to the plaza. Surely the plaza is meant to be an open space where all the events can mix, blend, interact, influence, before finally separating into their appropriate places. If there are to be outdoor performances, hold them where they were meant to be, and if that place suffers from some malfunction of design, then redesign that place rather than rudely interjecting a particular event into what was meant to be the public square for all.
THIS PARTICULAR EVENING it was into Avery Fisher Hall for a performance of the New York Philharmonic, now in its 165th year. The program was Rossini’s overture to Semiramide and Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 in D major (D.500), with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 5 in F major (Op. 76). Riccardo Muti wielded the conductor’s baton and the result was definitely less than was expected. I had only heard Muti’s conducting on the radio in passing and, while admittedly not devoting much thought to it, he seemed a fairly capable conductor. In person, however, he left much to be desired. Rossini’s overture was merely lackluster but Schubert’s symphony was actually surprisingly poor. Perhaps the worst thing was observing Muti in action, for the man looked like an utter fool. His conducting seemed unnatural, choreographed, even foppish. And those ridiculous jestures towards the first violins! I wanted to slap the man, and I shouldn’t be surprised if the violins wanted to themselves. Towards the middle of the Schubert symphony, I began to think of the man as a proper ass, the tails of his evening jacket acting the part of hind legs. My only solution to the St. Vitus’s dance on the conductor’s dais was to shut my eyes and imagine that I was there in the Austrian capital in that autumn of 1815, after the chancellors and ministers of the crowned heads of Europe had departed the Congress of Vienna when peace and order were plotted, in the home of Otto Hatwig where (scholars posit) the work was premiered.
The friend I accompanied that evening actually knows about the inner workings of music (I am actually an ignoramus on the subject, and simply like what sounds good to me) and agreed completely with me on the subject during the intermission. Luckily, the Dvořák fared better, but one had the niggling suspicion that this was the Philharmonic working its magic in spite of Mr. Muti, rather than at the command of his baton. My knowledge and appreciation of Dvořák has slowly grown, from that first passing fondness we all have for his Symphony No. 9 “From the New World”. My appreciation for the Philharmonic grows, when I see they have printed in the program that Mr. Dvořák was born in Mühlhausen, Bohemia, rather than the more modish style of “Nelahozeves, Czech Republic” that would find favor elsewhere.
Perhaps I am too hard on Mr. Muti. Perhaps he and the Philharmonic were simply not a good fit for eachother. At any rate, I shouldn’t complain as one doesn’t often get box seats to a sold-out performance with every seat in the hall occupied (though, to be honest, the sound is better down in the orchestra seats). But how I wish I could have seen von Karajan while he was alive!
After the baton had finally fallen for the night, my friend and I had the same stroke of genius at exactly the same moment and decided to head up to good old Café Lalo, but unfortunately everyone else had the same idea (Saturday night? Lalo’s? What did we expect?) so we comforted ourselves with a pint or two at the Parlour instead.
THE RECENT UTTERANCE of most grievous blasphemies against the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin by a member of Senator John Edwards’ presidential campaign team sparked great scandal, much compounded by the Senator standing by the offending party after the affair erupted. While she has since resigned, one wonders in what jurisdiction her comments, posted electronically on the internet, were made. Blasphemy remains a common law offense in New York, while one suspects it is almost as rarely enforced as those as-yet-unrepealed Plantagenet-era laws requiring all free-born Englishmen to practice archery weekly.
The blasphemy case which obtained the greatest reknown in these parts took place in December of 1810. A man (we will not call him gentle) by the name of Timothy Ruggles was brought to court in Salem in Charlotte County, New York. (Or, more properly, Washington County, as that particular bailiwick, originally named after the patron of the arts and Queen Consort to King George the Last, had been rechristened after a George of more recent popularity). Ruggles, anyhow, had made grievously blasphemous utterances against Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin which do not bear repeating (but which the inquisitive and hard-stomached scholar can find in the appropriate academic sources).
Ruggles had reckoned himself a “free thinker” and the townsfolk made haste to ensure he would be, at the very least, an imprisoned one. Found guilty in the Court of Oyer and Terminer of Salem, he was jailed for three months and fined $500. The blasphemer appealed the conviction, his lawyer arguing that there was no specific statute against blasphemy in the State of New York. The great James Kent, Chief Justice (and later Chancellor) of New York whose Commentaries on American Law earned him the worthy cognomen of “America’s Blackstone”, however, upheld the blasphemy conviction, citing blasphemy as a threat to morality and public welfare and “offence against the public peace and safety”. Would that such was the case today!
IN THE MIDST of the frigid cold, I found myself (a fortnight ago) having a meander around the old Ward estate in New Rochelle. I was very glad that I had brought my walking stick along, as most of the old paths were covered in frozen snow. Without the aid of it, I most certainly would have slipped and cracked my head. A good few nooks and gullies had filled with frozen snow and water, to the extent that some small trees were eerily half-submerged in white. In a clearing amidst the barren trees, the old house sits, boarded-up and somewhat neglected. Despite being surrounded by sheets of ice, I circumnavigated it, and gave as good an inspection as I could before the cold bade me onwards, and back home.
Just as I reached the edge of the estate by the old forge, I came upon an old man with a giant of a beast that may very well have been the Hound of Cullen. My presence was acknowledge by a great loud bark, one of such ambiguity as to leave me guessing whether it was of welcome or suspicion. The old man promptly leashed the enormous beast. “No good out there today,” he said. “Expect it’s all frozen over”. “Yes, quite,” I tersely responded, my mind still arrested by the Hound of Cullen. (The reader will recall that only the week before, my right calf had been the object of a terrier’s affections). “Better in a few weeks,” the Old Man said in aspiration. “Hope so”. Realizing my own terseness, I expressed my wish that the Old Man and the Hound of Cullen enjoy the remainder of the afternoon, and, the wish having been returned in kind, I proceeded home to the warmth of my own abode.
RATHER APPROPRIATELY, the landlord of our pub has been appointed Grand Marshal of the town’s St. Patrick’s Parade, which will duly be held tommorrow. Monsignor Doyle even appeared before mass last Sunday to solemnly announce the honor to the assembled faithful, citing this public citizen’s good works (among them, sending food over from his rather capable kitchens when the rectory cook is away).
I recall, with fondness, Mr. Fogarty’s ardent protests (consisting primarily of a shaked fist and some strongly-pronounced verbiage) when the village police, in a fit of overzealousness, erected checkpoints at every neighboring intersection to the pub, stopping every single passing automobile and “breathalyzing” the driver thereof. Needless to say, many a car was left on the village streets that night, including that of yours truly. Irritatingly, it was already winter, and I had to make the uphill walk home in the cold. Also, while traversing the hockey field behind the school, I was forced to climb over a fence in order to evade a skunk. We were not impressed by the village police that night, and heartily concurred with Mr. Fogarty’s protests. No doubt he will do a good job of waving to the assembled Gaelry, compulsively bedecked in the Arran jumper and ceremonial sash which are typical of St. Patrick’s Day Parade Grand Marshals past and present.
Does this position confer, we wonder, a certain suzerainity over the town’s Irish-Americans?
THIS EVENING WAS SPENT, happily, in front of the fire, perusing the Encyclopedia of New York State given to me by Col. & Mrs. Cusack, my aunt and uncle next door. It is a worthy companion to the equally weighty Encyclopedia of New York City (an updated edition of which will appear next year). Between stoking the flames and letting the dog in and out of the house, I learnt about agriculture in Westchester (over 2,000 farms in 1850 but only 91 today), almshouses, art collecting, Austerlitz (pop. 1,453), aviation, bagel production, the Bahá’í faith (“white Protestants remain the principal source of converts”), and Ballston Spa.
PERHAPS I WILL go wander around the old Ward estate again when I return from the city tommorrow. The ice will surely have melted by now, but then tonight’s rains might turn it a bit muddy. On the other hand, I’ve only gotten as far as Ballston Spa in my latest perusal of the Encyclopedia. Very well, I intend to do both (and will likely end up doing neither).