Wednesday, 30 May 2012

This way up!

So then. Her Majesty the Queen is celebrating her Diamond Jubilee, as are many of her happy subjects. This means that flags are flying wherever you look. And this disturbs me. Not because I don't agree with flag-flying - the town I call home is looking very festive - but because so many of the flags I've seen have been flying upside down.

I read somewhere the other day that 99% of British people are oblivious to the fact that it is possible to fly the Union Flag the wrong way up. But possible it is. As my husband says, it is typically British to have a flag that is so complicated and so subtle, and so easy to hang upside down.

The history of the Union Flag is the history of the United Kingdom, and helps explain its complicated design. The current design dates back to 1801 and the Act of Union, which merged Great Britain and Ireland. Up until this point, the flag had consisted of the red cross of St George, representing England, and the diagonal white cross of St Andrew, against its blue background, representing Scotland. With the Act of Union, the red diagonal cross of St Patrick was added, to represent Ireland.

In heraldry terms, the flag is blazoned Azure, the Crosses Saltire of St Andrew and St Patrick, quarterly per saltire, counterchanged Argent and Gules, the latter fimbriated of the second, surmounted by the Cross of St George of the third, fimbriated as the saltire, which is lovely, isn't it?

Here is the Union Flag the right way up:

The crucial thing about the flag is that the broader of the two white diagonal stripes should be uppermost when attached to a flag-pole. Simple. It follows that the broader of the two white stripes should be on the left when the flag is, say, hung in a shop window (Hexham sweet-shops, opticians, takeaway bakeries, purveyors of objets d'art, pubs and travel agents - this means you!).

This is the flag displayed upside down:

It is a subtle difference, but doesn't it just somehow look... wrong?

Traditionally, flying the flag upside down was a distress signal. It is also seen as 'lèse majesté' (from the Latin laesa maiestas, meaning 'injured majesty'). In other words, it's just not good manners. The shop-keepers who are flying their flags upside down as a mark of patriotism are, strictly-speaking, being a little rude to Her Majesty. If we're going to get all patriotic, surely we can at least do it the right way up?

I have been wondering about solutions to this problem, and ways of ensuring our national flag is always displayed correctly. I came up with my own design. Here it is:

The upper half represents the usual colour of our sky, whilst the lower half represents our green and pleasant land. Simple, honest and easy to get right.

I'm joking, of course. But one thing that did catch my eye yesterday as I walked through town was a string of Union Flags with a picture of the Queen in the middle. Aha. You'd have to be a real idiot to hang those the wrong way up. So, between us, my husband and I (!) have come up with this re-design of the Union Flag, as a fool-proof alternative to the current one. A small change. Effective though, I think.

Whatever you're planning to do on the forthcoming special Jubilee Bank Holiday weekend, I hope you have a festive time, and get to eat lots of cake and drink lots of lemonade, and, most importantly, that the sun shines on you!

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Shine on... Stan and Ollie

Our household was blessed with good fortune last Christmas, when Santa Claus delivered a boxed set of Laurel and Hardy DVDs. My husband was already familiar with a lot of their work, but I must admit that I - to my shame -  knew very little about them. This stain on my character has now been well and truly erased, and how grateful I am.

The breadth and versatility of their comedy is brilliant. Much of it is pure slapstick, but watch closely and you realise how well-planned each move was - everything looks like an accident, obviously, but it must have been carefully choreographed to have achieved this effect.

And there is a cartoon feel to much it, too. It comes as no surprise when, for instance, Stan tries to light a fire in Ollie's fireplace with a can of petrol and a match, that, rather than being blown to smitherenes he emerges with a few patches of smoke on his face. Like Tom and Jerry, the pair are indestructible.   

Even if some of the devices they use become familiar - the car/boat/piano which we know will be reduced to a mangled wreck before the end of the scene; the bar of soap/chunk of ice/carpet sweeper on the floor which we know someone will step on and be thrown across the room or down the stairs - they remain funny. In fact, being able to anticipate what is about to befall the hapless but well-meaning pair, just adds to the enjoyment.

But what has touched me most in learning more about them, is the depth of their friendship. According to Stan's daughter Lois, the pair were closer than brothers, and would even celebrate Christmas twice - once with their own families and then together! Every action, and reaction, every expression and every look to camera, is so well-timed it could only have been achieved by two people who knew, respected and loved each other thoroughly.

Stan and Ollie have been a pretty constant presence in our lives for the past two months - it's a big box of DVDs! - and so what better way to spend my birthday last week than to visit the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Ulverston, Cumbria?

The Museum started life as the private collection of Bill Cubin, and was originally housed in one small room. The collection was occasionally opened for private viewings, and the Museum first opened to the public in 1983. As the collection grew and grew, it was decided that larger premises would be needed. And so the Museum opened at its new home - on the stage of Ulverston's Roxy Cinema - in 2009.

Now the Museum is run by Mark Greenhow, Bill Cubin's grandson, one of whose earliest memories is of watching 'The Flying Elephants' on his grandad's old cine projector.

Mark offers a very warm welcome to what he describes as 'the family business', and the first thing he invited us to do when we arrived was to watch a film! He led us to a cosy, 15-seat cinema and we happily settled down to watch 'Towed in the Hole'.
In the cosy cinema

The Museum is an absolute treasure trove of Laurel and Hardy memorabilia. Through information panels, photographs, letters, and even furniture rescued from Stan Laurel's birthplace when it was renovated, we can follow the lives of the pair, from childhood right through their careers.

Posters, letters and a wealth of memorabilia

This gem of a museum has been beautifully and lovingly put together, and if ever you're near Ulverston, do consider a visit. I think there is a strong possibility that you'll come away with a smile on your face.

And while you're in Ulverston, there is also a Stan Laurel Trail, a short walk around Ulverston, which takes in, amongst other sites, Stan Laurel's birthplace at 3 Argyle Street, and Graham Ibbeson's beautiful bronze statue of the pair - complete with Laughing Gravy the dog - outside the Coronation Hall. A trail leaflet is available from the Museum.

Graham Ibbeson's statue of 'The Boys'...

... complete with dog!  

There is lots more information about Laurel and Hardy on the official Laurel and Hardy Website. It pretty much goes without saying that this site is well worth a visit. Letters from Stan is a fascinating and touching site, too.

Before I go, I'll leave you with this YouTube clip. It features the impromptu dance sequence from 'Way Out West', to the music of The Avalon Boys.

I think this is exquisite. I like the improvised yet precise nature of the choreography, and the casual expressions on The Boys' faces - they seem to be dancing for their own carefree enjoyment, not for our entertainment.

But most of all, there is an unmistakeable affection that shines out here, a palpable sense of contentedness, of two close friends enjoying the simple pleasure of each others company. This, for me, is the essence of Laurel and Hardy's timeless appeal.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Septimus Appleby's Lesson in Flight

Well, we're rapidly drawing to the end of another year, and I have achieved my customary level of controlled chaos in preparing for the festivities. The Christmas tree (this year we're calling him Fred. What do you mean, you never give your Christmas tree a name?) is sitting in a bucket of water on the patio waiting to come indoors.

Incidentally, I had an interesting chat with the man at our lovely, family-owned garden centre yesterday. I asked him whether he was sure the tree would be happy outside until we were ready to put it up, before realising that trees usually live outdoors, rather than in centrally-heated houses, and that bringing trees indoors is actually quite a bizarre thing to do, if you stop and think about it. So, let's not stop and think about it.

There is snow falling as I type this, and I have a Ted Heath album of Christmas carols playing on iTunes - talk about Nostalgia - so I'm starting to feel a bit Christmassy now. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for visiting my blog during its first year, and to say that I hope you'll return in the New Year, when I hope to be able to post more frequently.

Wherever you are, and whatever you're doing this Christmas, I hope you'll be safe and happy. And may 2012 bring with it a host of good things for you and yours.

Now, in a spirit of looking forward to a new year, and new beginnings, here is a short story, which I hope you'll enjoy.

Merry Christmas!  

Septimus Appleby's Lesson in Flight

That New Year's Eve, over his customary glass of sherry, Septimus Appleby made two resolutions. Firstly, he would build the first pair of truly functioning wings in the history of human endeavour, and then attempt flight in its purest form. Secondly, he would teach himself Spanish. He was painfully aware that one of these projects would be much more challenging than the other: he had never had a natural aptitude for languages.
    The next morning, he pinned an invitation to witness his maiden flight, to the parish notice board at the edge of the village green. It was a bright, frosty morning, and his slender fingers prickled with cold as he pushed in the drawing pins, one at each corner of the neat piece of card.
    'Good morning, Mr Septimus Appleby. Happy New Year.'
    Septimus Appleby looked down at the familiar, earnest face, with its big brown eyes framed by thick lashes.
    'Happy New Year, Kevin.'
    They shook hands, and he noticed that the little boy had fastened his duffle coat unevenly, so that there was a spare toggle at the top, without a loop to accommodate it.
    Kevin stood on tip-toe to read the notice on the board, his lips lightly shaping the words he found there. His breath hung on the cold air in a visible cloud, and Septimus Appleby pictured a happy dragon, full of youthful curiosity.
    'Where are you going to fly to, Mr Septimus Appleby?'
    'Spain, I think. Eventually. I shall buy a little house and live out the rest of my days there.'
    'Couldn't you go in an aeroplane?'
    'Yes, I could do. But where would be the challenge in that?'
    The smile on Kevin's face seemed to say that he could appreciate that point of view entirely, and his eyes were bright with imagination.
    'May I help you build your wings?'
    'It will be a pleasure to have your company.'

As he walked home, Septimus Appleby pondered on how people would react to his announcement. They would think he was mad. Of course they would. Some of the villagers might even worry about him. Mrs Robinson, Kevin's mother, for instance. It couldn't be done, could it? The scientists said so. If it could be done, someone would have done it by now.
    But 'the scientists', some of them, had claimed that the bumblebee should be incapable of flight, hadn't they? And look how wrong they had been on that one. He would ignore what everyone else might think. All it would take was imagination, hard work and a little faith. 'Where there's a will, there's a way.' That's what Molly had always said, and Septimus Appleby was determined to prove her right.

Septimus Appleby's shed, always a hive of industry, was especially lively on the following afternoon. The walls of the shed, usually bare, were now crammed with postcards of mythical birds, and pictures of old flying machines; the air was sweet with the scent of sawdust. Kevin was perched on one end of the workbench, swinging his feet to and fro, and watching attentively as Septimus Appleby sawed thin pieces of wood into precise lengths.
    'My mum says you won't be able to do it. She says if Icarus couldn't do it, why should you be able to.'
    'And what does your mother know about Icarus?'
    Kevin explained that they had 'done' Icarus at school, and that he had told the story to his mum when she got home that evening. She had found that story odd enough, but when Kevin had told her of Septimus Appleby's plans, she had just shaken her head and muttered something.
    'What do you think, Kevin?' asked Septimus Appleby. 'Do you think your mother's right?'
    'No. I don't think she has much imagination. I think you need imagination for something like this.'
    'Good lad,' said Septimus Appleby, smiling to himself. 'After all, it wasn't that Icarus was unsuccessful, was it? On the contrary, he was a victim of his own success. His wings were so effective, they enabled him to fly too close to the sun. That was his downfall - heat. Heat and hubris. Do you know what 'hubris' means, Kevin?'
    'Yes, Mr Septimus Appleby.'
    'You're a bright young chap.'
    Kevin frowned for a moment, and hesitated.
    'I think my mum's worried about you. She says maybe you're not expecting to be able to fly at all, that you'll just jump off the cliff and... well... She thinks... She thinks you never really got over... you know...'
    'It's alright, Kevin. Your mother is a wonderful woman. But you must tell her not to be concerned about me. I shall be alright. This is going to be the finest time of my life. Don't you think?'
    Kevin nodded, reassured.
    'Will you be using wax and feathers, Mr Septimus Appleby?'
    'No, Kevin.'

That evening, Septimus Appleby balanced himself on a chair against the wardrobe and pulled down a box with a faded design of antique roses on it. He was ready for the aching sense of emptiness it would bring with it, and tried to suppress it, but without success. He jumped nimbly down from the chair.
    He put the box on the floor, pulled off the lid, and removed the layers of crisp tissue paper protecting its precious contents.
    And there it was. Molly's wedding dress. The scent which rose from the fabric struck him like a physical blow, and a wave of loss and loneliness washed over him.
    He remembered Molly telling him the story of the dress. How it had been her mother's, carefully crafted from the parachute which had glided her father into occupied France in 1944. And it suddenly struck him that perhaps he should preserve the garment just as it was, as a piece of history.
    He hesitated a moment, pushing the tissue layers home again. He started chewing on his thumbnail, something he did when he was undecided. Then he realised what he was doing and gently admonished himself, just as Molly would have done.
    And the realisation struck him: his life had become like that wedding dress - preserved in layers of tissue paper, unchanging, suspended in time. Suspended. Yes. He pulled off the layers of tissue paper again, more urgently this time, hoping that a sense of purpose might extinguish his doubts.  
    'You don't mind, do you love?' he asked the face in the photograph on the bedside table. 'You do think I'm doing the right thing?'
    The face in the photograph smiled at him, the smile it had smiled forty-five years ago, across an airport departure lounge - the smile he had fallen in love with.
    'This way, you see,' he said to the smile, 'we'll be together again. And I can't do it without you, Molly. I don't want to do it without you.'
    The smile seemed to say 'You should always follow your dreams, Septimus Appleby,' and he felt the same sense of reassurance he had always felt from her.
    He pulled Molly's old sewing box from its retirement space under the bed, and took out a large pair of dress-making scissors. He had the strangest feeling that they had been waiting for him.

That weekend, Kevin watched as Septimus Appleby cut pieces of silk into the shapes he needed for his wings, adjusting his measurements from time to time, and trimming pieces of the fabric as he went along.
    Kevin was in charge of the glue pot, and had risen to this responsibility with an easy assurance surprising in a child of his tender years. As each piece of silk was cut precisely to its finished size, Kevin would carefully run the glue brush along the edges, his lips pursed in concentration. Then he would watch intently as Septimus Appleby eased the silk into place on the wooden frames.

And so, four months later, Septimus Appleby stood on the edge of a cliff, with a small group of people from the village assembled nearby. His white, silken wings were dazzling in the sunlight. He didn't look worried at all, Mrs Robinson was to remark a day or so later. No, quite serene, in fact.
    He looked up into the sky at one point, and his lips moved. Could it have been a prayer? they asked. But they agreed that no, it probably wasn't. He didn't believe in God, did he? They had seen him in the church occasionally, just recently, but he usually seemed to be studying the stained glass window of the Annunciation, and jotting down notes in a little book.
    So there he stood, looking up into the sky, and moving his lips. Nobody would ever know what he was thinking; nobody would ever know what he was saying, or to whom. Perhaps he was just talking to himself.
    After a moment, he closed his eyes and nodded, as if something had been settled, once and for all. He stared ahead of him, smiling softly. Smiling, why? Out of pure happiness? Out of a recognition of something suddenly understood? Out of resignation, perhaps?
    When he shifted a little in his harness, adjusting the straps ever so slightly, and slowly raised his wings, it was obvious to the villagers what would happen next. And they watched, not wanting to, transfixed in their unwilling comprehension of the disaster which lay only moments ahead.
    He would plunge to his death on the uncompromising rocks below, and they would have to wait until low tide before they could recover his poor, broken body. The retreating water would solemnly lap its last around the ragged remains of his improvised wings, the splintered wood, the silken tatters: Mr Septimus Appleby, and his wife, Molly, finally reunited - in death.
    Septimus Appleby appeared to brace himself for a moment, and take a deep breath. He flapped his suddenly flimsy-looking wings - once, twice, three times -
    and launched himself decisively off the ledge, to a sharp gasp from the crowd.
    Mrs Robinson turned her face away and screwed her eyes shut, as Septimus Appleby plummeted downwards, gravity scorning his unnatural wings. The villagers murmured, horrified, as he and the rocks came into rapidly closer proximity.

Kevin saw everything from a little further along the cliff, away from the adults, where he had been calmly feeding twenty-pence pieces into the viewing telescope.
    And it came as no surprise to him when Septimus Appleby suddenly soared away from the rocks, just in time, and up into the cloudless sky; or when, a few seconds later, he had established his wings into an assured, steady rhythm, and seemed suspended on the fresh, blue morning.
    Kevin imagined this was how an angel might look in flight, but he had never seen one, so he couldn't really know for sure. What he did know was that those silk panels seemed transformed into feathers now, softly embracing the air with each broad stroke, and that with the sun on his wings, Septimus Appleby shimmered like some mythic creature from a story book.
    The little boy watched as his friend grew smaller and smaller, flapping and gliding his way across the sparkling water, strong, free and invincible. Kevin put his hand into the pocket of his duffle coat, and pulled out a perfect square of silk, a gift from Septimus Appleby. He smiled to himself as he caressed it with his fingers.
    'Goodbye, Mr Septimus Appleby,' he whispered, not in a sad way, but with an overwhelming sense of pride. 
    He had known all along that everything would be alright. Because nothing was impossible to Kevin, just as nothing was impossible to Septimus Appleby. It never had been.
    And after today, it never would be.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Use it or lose it

"It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words."
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

I have been reflecting just lately on language. I love words; and I love the way they can be put together with huge subtlety, enabling us to express with precision and beauty the tiniest detail, thought, or experience.

I was revisiting a favourite episode of John Esmonde and Bob Larbey's 1970's BBC sitcom The Good Life recently, and one scene particularly got me thinking. Tom and Barbara, who are striving for self-sufficiency and have suffered a disappointing harvest, are having dinner with their neighbours, Margot and Jerry. They are out of sorts, and the conversation has stalled:

Jerry: You two are very quiet.

Barbara: Oh are we? Sorry. 

Margot: Yes. Now come along. We have such a rich language. Let's use it. 

Tom: Alright then.


Barbara: Err...

Margot: I've finished.

Tom: I've finished as well.

Margot: Oh yes. Have you finished, Jerry?

Jerry: Yes, thank you, darling.

Margot: Then I've finished too.

Jerry: It is a rich language, isn't it?

This is comedy of course, comedy of the highest order, written by two men who were masters of bringing character and situation to vivid life - through words. But it got me thinking about the English language and our use, abuse, and neglect of it.

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, there are at least 250,000 words in the English language; and depending on what you actually term a 'word', this number could be as many as 750,000. It is one of the richest languages on the planet, partly as a result of being such a mongrel: much of our language has Germanic roots, courtesy of our Viking invaders; but the Norman Conquest brought with it lots of French and Latin too.

Is it just me, or are our language standards falling? Every day I seem to notice examples of poor communication. My husband once had a client whose email communications were written with a carefree disregard for most of the basics - grammar, punctuation, good manners - and with the same sloppiness and informality he might use to text his mates and invite them to the pub. And he considered himself a businessman.

I'm talking about a paucity of self-expression, an inability - or a disinclination - to use our wonderful language to the best of our abilities. Trying to do business in the language of the text seems unprofessional, not to say counter-productive: how can you expect to get what you want when you're not prepared to communicate clearly what that is? It also seems disrespectful, both to the language and to the recipient of the message. Perhaps this reflects on a growing lack of respect within society generally?

In his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell created the concept of 'Newspeak'. This was a system of repression, where words were gradually made to disappear from the language to limit the citizens' imaginations, and therefore their activites and behaviour. For instance, the word 'revolution' was deleted, the theory being that if the word did not exist, people would not even be able to conceive of the idea of revolution. 

I do sometimes wonder whether we might be imposing a form of Newspeak on ourselves without even realising it: if the only contact we have with our own language is through the limitations of the text message, are we not in danger of limiting our imaginations, and our creativity, too?

In neglecting the huge potential for expression open to us through our native tongue, perhaps we are also limiting our ability to appreciate the riches of the world around us, to share that appreciation with others, and to grow in the process. But it takes practice. Like a muscle, it needs to be exercised and challenged to be kept in optimum shape. Perhaps language is like the human body or the human mind: if you don't use it, you are in danger of losing it.

It's a bit depressing, isn't it? So here is a YouTube clip from the episode of The Good Life I referred to earlier. The dinner party scene is at 4'30", although it is well worth seeing all the way through. Enjoy!


Tuesday, 18 October 2011

All things must pass...

Well, it's that time of year again. There is a nip in the air, and there is a haunting quality to the light which I know is there but which I find difficult to describe, a sort of mellow clarity unique to autumn.

This is my favourite time of year, and has been for as long as I can remember. Autumn at its best can deliver bright, crisp, sunny days, times when you feel a need to be outdoors, kicking up golden leaves, breathing in, and simply being

And in more recent years, autumn has sometimes brought with it another treat for me and my husband: a trip to Inversnaid, or, more specifically, the Inversnaid Photography Centre.

If you type 'Inversnaid' into Google Maps, you will see that this tiny hamlet is in the middle of nowhere, about half-way up the eastern shore of Loch Lomond. It is actually at the end of a 15-mile cul-de-sac, which begins in Aberfoyle and then travels along a narrow, winding, undulating road, along the banks of several lochs and through stunning areas of woodland. 

 View from the eastern end of Loch Arklet, looking west towards Inversnaid

For nearly 25 years, André Goulancourt and Linda Middleton, ably assisted by Ian King, ran residential photography workshops with some of the country's best photographers, from their home, Inversnaid Lodge, a beautifully-restored, 18th century hunting lodge. My husband participated in several of these workshops, before becoming a tutor there himself. And - luckily for me - non-participating partners were made very welcome...!

My memories of Inversnaid are pretty unusual, as they're from the perspective of someone who hasn't participated in the workshops themselves. But this gave me a wonderful opportunity to explore the area in depth, and to come to know and love it.

Whichever way you walk from the Lodge, you end up in beautiful walking country. Head down to Loch Lomond, and you can walk a section of the West Highland Way. My favourite stretch of this walk takes me south, into a dense area of woodland which allows for only limited, dappled light, and where many of the trees are covered in delicate lichens. There is a stillness and a quiet here which is absolutely magical.

 Looking west across Loch Lomond from Inversnaid

At my most energetic, I love the walk along Loch Arklet, up and around Loch Katrine, where the plaintive cry of the buzzard provides a haunting soundtrack. Whenever I've done this walk, I've always had to keep my eye on the time: I've covered as much as 14 miles in a day, pausing frequently to watch the birds or to enjoy my packed lunch. And my greatest fear has always been that I won't be back at the Lodge in time for dinner: ask anyone who has experienced Inversnaid, and they're bound to mention Linda's delicious home-cooking!

Loch Katrine at sunrise: not my favourite time of day, but very pretty.

And what of the Lodge itself? It is beautiful and cosy, and many of the rooms look straight over towards Loch Lomond. But I suppose the real measure of any home is the people living in it. For that reason, you couldn't hope for a warmer atmosphere than you find here. It really is one of those places where you arrive as a stranger and leave as a friend.

For so many reasons, the arrival of autumn always makes me yearn to be back in Inversnaid. And that feeling is given an increased intensity this year, because sadly it seems very likely that the days of photography workshops there are over now, after an impressive 24 years. (This, incidentally, gives my husband the rather melancholy distinction of having run the last one ever!)

All good things must come to an end, of course, and nobody who knows how much energy and effort has gone into the running of the Photography Centre will blame Linda or André for deciding to slow down a little. 

Of course, my beloved path through the woods on the edge of Loch Lomond will still be there, and the fieldfares will return, to strip the rowan bushes of their berries and to set the sky alive in their chack-chack-ing, silvered flocks. These things will remain. But the atmosphere and warmth of the Inversnaid experience itself, the laughter and the friendship we all shared, can never be recreated. That will have to live in memory alone. But what memories..!

If you've been a fairly regular reader of this blog, you'll realise that music is a fundamental part of my existence. And if there is one piece of music which is guaranteed to bring the sensation of Inversnaid flooding back in all its loveliness, it is 'Soltarlo' by Claudia Gomez. I can picture myself in front of the fire in the sitting room, with a book and a pre-dinner drink, refreshed and happy after a long walk along country lanes in glorious, chilly sunshine. This is where I was when I first heard this song, and it never fails to transport me straight back to that blissful moment.

 Silver birch at Inversnaid - handsome in its autumn livery!

I would like to dedicate this post, with much love, to Lin, André and Ian for the unfailing warmth of their welcome and their friendship over the years, for their tireless attention to detail, and for the magic they created for everyone privileged enough to have walked through the door of Inversnaid Lodge.

All photography copyright David Taylor Photography 

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

A viola lesson

Some of my best friends are viola players.

Does that sound like the beginning of a joke to you?

It isn't supposed to be, but by the time you've read this post, you might want to come back and see what you can do with it...

I play the cello. In my time as a 'cellist', I have had the pleasure of meeting lots of lovely musicians, and even some viola players.

Did you see what I did there? I fell into the common trap of making fun of viola players, when in fact, I'm here to defend the viola and viola players a bit. If I can. Partly.

To define the viola, briefly:

  • In size terms, it is the big brother of the violin, but very much the baby cousin of the cello, with a body length of between 15 and 18 inches.
  • Its four strings are tuned an octave higher than the cello, its lowest string being the C below Middle C, which is the lowest note you will have played if you experienced the delights of the descant recorder at school.
  • Its music is written in the alto clef, which is inherently scary. As a cellist I'm already invited to practise the mental acrobatics of the three other clefs - bass, tenor and treble - on a regular basis, and I'm not learning another one. I'm not.
  • It is the subject of scores of jokes - many of them screamingly funny - as are the people brave enough to take it on.

I had always imagined that part of the perceived problem with the viola is that - dare I say it? - it is neither one thing nor the other. It doesn't have the sparkle of the violin, nor the rich, sonorous depth of the cello. It kind of... well, rumbles along somewhere between the two.

When I decided to write this post, I googled 'Viola jokes why?'. I genuinely wanted to get to the bottom of why the viola, and violists, are so often maligned.

My search led me to Dr Carl Rahkonen's fascinating paper No Laughing Matter: The Viola Joke as Musician's Folklore*. This informative and informed article makes a lot of serious points about the reasons behind the notoriety of the viola and the violist.

The viola usually takes an easier orchestral part than the violin. The instrument is far less powerful than its smaller sibling: it is tuned a fifth lower but is only 10% larger, so will never stand out in the orchestra.

The fact that its orchestral parts tend to be easier means that when these parts are more challenging, players sometimes struggle with them. This could account for jokes about viola players having more limited musical and intellectual capacities than their colleagues.

There is also, apparently, a tradition that viola desks are filled by people who just didn't make the grade as violinists. Historically, the viola didn't actually have a part written for it: it doubled up the bass parts and was often played by inferior violin players.

This is a tradition which continues: according to Dr Rahkonen, school orchestra directors routinely 'switch the poor violinists over to viola, where they will do less harm, and perhaps even contribute...'

Even Richard Wagner - yes, the Richard Wagner - put his oar in. He is reported to have said:
The viola is commonly (with rare exceptions) played by infirm violinists, or by decrepit players of wind instruments who happen to have been acquainted with a string instrument once upon a time.
With friends like that...

I would add that Dr Rahkonen's article is made all the more appealing by the appending of three whole pages of viola jokes... (He is, of course, entitled to tell them, being himself a violist.)

According to Dr Rahkonen, the telling of viola jokes was at its height in 1993, and has since greatly diminished.

That doesn't make them any less funny, though. So, here are a few of my favourites:

Q:  How do you know when a violist is playing out of tune?
A:  The bow is moving.

Q:  What is the difference between a viola and an onion?
A:  Nobody cries when you cut up a viola.

Q:  What is the difference between a viola and a trampoline?
A:  You take your shoes off before you jump on the trampoline.

Q:  Why do so many people take an instant dislike to the viola?
A:  It saves time.

Q:  What is the longest viola joke ever devised?
A:  Berlioz's Harold in Italy.

Oh dear. Reading this back, I don't seem to have made a very good job of sticking up for the viola or his noble player, do I? I have simply reinforced a well-established stereotype. Tut tut.

So let me end by saying that there are some beautiful pieces for the viola, and here is a selection of clips you might like to listen to. They will break you in gently...

Far from being a joke, Berlioz's Harold in Italy is a wonderful tour de force for the instrument. He wrote it at the request of Paganini, who was apparently disappointed with it; it seems that it wasn't enough of a showcase for his virtuosity.

Elgar's Enigma Variations feature a beautiful solo for viola. 'Ysobel' (Variation VI - roughly 2'15" into this clip) depicts Isabel Fitton, one of the composer's viola students.

William Walton wrote one of the most famous concertos for viola. This short clip of Maxim Vengerov is a really good introduction to the appearance and earthy timbre of the instrument. (Unfortunately, the world was deprived of the much-anticipated (?) viola concerti of Elgar, Glazunov and Ravel - all three died before doing any substantial work on them.)

I hope you've enjoyed this short tour of the viola as much as I have. Oh, I must go. My violist lodger is outside the house again, standing on the doorstep. I'd better go and open the door for him: he can't find the key and he never knows when to come in...

*Presented at the National Meeting of the American Folklore Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology, October 21, 1994, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Copyright (c) 1994.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Dulce domum: the joys (and perils) of working from home

My husband and I run our own business from home. He is a photographer, specialising in landscapes and architecture, and together we work on ideas for ways of making a living - organising exhibitions, running workshops, and selling prints and greetings cards. This is his website.

We like the life we have and wouldn't swap it, even though it can sometimes be a struggle.

So, what are its advantages? Well, personally, I don't miss the stresses and strains of office politics or aggressive, power-hungry bosses, even if I do get misty-eyed when I remember the monthly payslip...

And I don't envy our neighbours when I see them drive off to work at 8 am. Given the cost of fuel at present, I do wonder how many hours a week they have to work just to be able to afford to get there in the first place.

And there are the little things. We can beat the crowds, by going out to places during the week, when there are fewer people around. We get to decide our own hours and can, if we wish, saunter into town for a coffee occasionally, when we feel like it. That's the theory.

But this lifestyle is also fraught with hazards, some of them almost serious.

Cash-flow for one. The work may be flowing in, but that doesn't mean the money necessarily follows in a hurry. This can put serious pressure on the bank account: will we be able to pay the mortgage on time? Happily, the answer is usually 'yes', but there have been times...

And there are more creeping dangers. We gave up the idea of weekends long ago, because we could opt for days off during the week instead. But it can be very easy to let work seep into that designated time off when you are responsible for generating every penny of your own income yourself.

But there is a lighter side to the perils of this kind of self-employment.  

Some of our neighbours*, on the somewhat flimsy evidence that we might eat breakfast at 8.30 on a week day, seem convinced we're living in a state of semi-retirement! This has occasionally led to perfectly innocent comments, such as 'But of course, you have much more free time than we do.' Well, actually, no. No.

The high point, in a comic sense, of our work-related encounters with our neighbours came when my husband's first book was launched by our wonderful local independent bookshop, Cogito Books.

A lovely man from along the street came over and asked me: 'So, do you do any work?' (Italics his, not mine). I explained politely my own role in the photography business, but resisted the urge to tell him that we were both working ten hours a day, seven days a week.

I thought it was very funny. I did, honestly, or I wouldn't be telling you the story. The fact is that this man is a retired farmer - most probably used to getting up in the dark and doing very physical work for long hours - and therefore probably wasn't persuaded that what I do for a living is actually honest work. Perhaps it isn't.

We enjoy the life we have. True, it has its drawbacks, but we don't complain. This is the life we have chosen and we wouldn't change it for the world. True, it will never make us rich. In fact, another photographer friend once joked that the surest way of making a small fortune from this sort of thing... is to start off with a large one!

Boom-Boom, as Basil Brush would say.

* I would stress that we get on really well with all our neighbours. The whole street has a lovely feeling of community about it, and everyone knows everyone else's name. We're very lucky to have that.