24 December 2012

Silent Night

It's Christmas Eve, and on the radio, a solo choirboy is singing the carol Once in Royal David's City - the traditional start to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.  The opening notes are a particularly exquisite sound coming out of the hush beforehand.  

The sudden presence of his voice is mesmerising, just as other unexpected flourishes of sound can be - a note, a trill, a thrum, a chord on a piano, even a loud body-jangling open E from an electric guitar.  For what is remarkable and special about sound is, of course, its contrast to the silence that precedes it.

A few weeks ago, John Humphreys of Radio 4's Today programme, had a rant about how noisy our lives have become.  He's got a point.  It's not just aeroplanes and traffic, but the muzak in lifts, concourses, restaurants, bars, supermarkets, shops.  We actually abuse music - using it as a cover, a gauze, a medication to manipulate mood, allowing it to speak for us or even create our personality, like getting fixated on the make of car we drive, and proclaiming to the world - as if it actually needs to know - this is the kind of music I listen to.  

On the recent X Factor final, a show I dip into because I am genuinely interested in the way the singers handle their material, I nearly went demented with the constant stream of noise. There were never any moments of quiet - just an incessant parade of loud commercials, followed by musically-accompanied back stories of the contestants.  When the finalists came to their actual performance, the impact had been lessened by the burbling hum that had been continual throughout.  There was no differentiation.

On a music course I attended a couple of years ago, an inspired teacher called Radha did not only remind us through group singing how organic and in-the-moment music can be, but also the importance of really listening.  As an exercise she asked us to bring a favourite piece of music - either a song or an extract lasting no longer than five minutes.  We arranged ourselves in a circle on the floor as, one by one, each person took a turn to play the chosen music, simply said his or her name and then went quietly to sit in the centre of the circle.  There was no explanation, no preamble, and no distraction.  The rest of us simply lay there with our open ears and quietened minds, truly absorbed in what we could hear.  

Five minutes of listening in this way was nourishing, and incomparable with five hours of walking as an automaton through unceasing soundscape.

So when I wish you a Silent Night this Christmas, it's only so that you can truly enjoy the sheer delight of sound as it arises out of peace and quiet, a rediscovery of the fresh impact of voices, the suddenness of harmony, the surprise of dissonance, perhaps the unexpected jingle from Santa's sleigh flying overhead...

27 November 2012

The Hapsburg Jaw, the Griffiths Hamstrung

Carlos II of Spain (1661 - 1700)

There was something about the movement of chins and the pronounced nature of chewing at dinner the other day that propelled us into a discussion about the Hapsburgs.

I wondered, idly and friskily, if the latest in the line, Otto von Hapsburg, who died last year, needed a special annexe for his coffin, a kind of side-car if you will, to accommodate the famed Hapsburg Jaw. 

This genetic defect, medically known as prognathism, plagued members of the royal house of Hapsburg as payback for their habit of searching a little too close to home for matrimonial partners.  Although moneybags and political power may have been safeguarded, the constant inter-marrying resulted in a hereditary protruding lower jaw, passed on by a dominant gene.

A hasty search on the internet revealed comforting news about the late Otto, son of the last Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary.   A passionate anti-nationalist (and fervently opposed to the Austrian Nazi movement) he was a member of the European parliament, with a track record of public service at high level.  As a member of the Hapsburg-Lorraine family, a branch that seems to have been bypassed by the misshapen mandible, his facial contours were pleasingly normal.  

How markedly he contrasted, however, with Carlos II (pictured at the top of this blog) who was the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs.  Unseemly tangles amongst Carlos’s forebears - for example, his mother also technically being his first cousin, his grandmother also being his aunt, and his other grandmother also being his great-grandmother - created such acute inbreeding that for this unfortunate king, a mammoth underbite was the least of his worries.  He could not walk until he was eight, had limited intellectual capacity, and suffered both from an extended childhood and premature senility.  He married twice but was unable to produce heirs.  When he died at the age of 38 in 1700, the coroner’s report stated that as well as his body lacking blood, his heart being minute (the size of a grain of pepper), his lungs and intestines raddled, "he had a single testicle which was as black as carbon and his head was full of water.”

Compared to the afflictions outlined above, I therefore almost hesitate to bring up the subject of the rather more trifling Griffiths Hamstrung.  This condition – which is basically a deficient, possibly wizened, hamstring – is a constant embarrassment for me and mine.  It renders us completely incapable of hunkering down with feet planted flat on the ground.  Athleticism seems to matter little.  Close kin who have regularly worked out at a gym still cannot perform such essential actions as squatting at the bus stop or in the paddy field, crouching to produce a sit spin or a Teapot at the ice rink, or positioning themselves efficiently by a back wheel for a tyre change. 

Indeed, during attempts to get closer to the floor without my heels coming up, even my yoga teacher has been taken aback by the extent of the Griffiths Hamstrung.  “Don’t stick your bottom out,” she has instructed, despairingly, not realising that a thrust of the posterior is the only way to achieve even a few inches of movement.

Though I’ve seen this problem pop up in offspring, siblings and nephews, the Hamstrung isn’t genetic at all.  It affects many westerners.  If you sit all day at the computer, bad news.  If you also wear high heels, even worse.  If you haven’t tried to hunker since the age of two, forget it.  The way we generally lead our lives as if recumbent in a passenger seat, rather than getting out to sprint or stretch, is at fault.

Free of Griffiths Hamstrung

Advanced surgery and complex dentistry could have perhaps remedied Carlos II’s Hapsburg Jaw.  Something, too, can apparently be done about the Hamstrung: 
Ready? OK, back against the wall, bottom in, down a millimetre, another millimetre…

17 November 2012

Something Fishy About Sin....

...something sinful about fish

On my recent visit to Spain, aboard the bus from Malaga to Orgiva, a well-dressed  and impeccably coiffed lady sat down beside me.   She began a friendly conversation about where she was going for the weekend, where she lived – look, just over there in that smart neighbourhood, that very apartment building, a few tens of metres from the sea.

And then, fifteen minutes further into our journey, she pointed out of the window and began to talk about sin. 

Now this was a surprising turn, given the run-of-the-mill nature of everything thus far.  Why the sudden lurch into sin?  What would come next?  A scouring stare?  A toe-curling confession?   I coughed and played for time.  She pointed again towards the village we were passing through, with its whitewashed houses clustering around the shore. 

And then I got it.  Fish.  She was talking about fish.

The Spanish word for fish is pescado.  But drop the “s” –  and you are left with pecado, meaning "sin". 

But why on earth would anyone want to drop the “s” in the first place?  Indeed.  This is the constant cry as you travel around Andalucia and come to realise that  “s” has been hounded to the verge of extinction.  The southern Spaniards have charmingly seen fit to extract “s”s  from the middle and ends of their words with the diligence of dentists.

So pescado is pronounced pecadoBuenos días becomes bueno díaDespues (meaning “after”) becomes de-pue.  And so on.

(To give you a hint of what it’s like trying to keep abreast of things during a haemorrhage of this vital consonant, try saying the following sentence, as quickly as you can, without any of the "s"s:  “Let’s eat goose this Christmas”.   And see if anyone can understand you.)

Of course, context becomes vital.  It was perhaps idiotic to be travelling through a fishing village assuming my bus companion was prattling on about sin, when clearly the nets and boats should have given the game away.  But it is  intriguing how dangerously close are sin and fish in a couple of other languages.  An Italian fisherman, pescatore, could easily turn, with an injudicious tongue slip, into a sinner, peccatore.  A Frenchman who goes fishing, pêcher, is homophonically embracing sin, péché.  And, depending on what blots are on his conscience,  he may not automatically infer the reel and rod should you waltz up to him and ask bluntly: “Vous êtes pêcheur?  

But just think of the whole new raft of possible images:

a sin-monger
a sin market
a shoal of sin
a haul of sin
a sinning net
deepwater sin
wriggling sin
slippery sin
fresh sin
a sin laid out to dry

Fish.  Sin.  Now irrevocably entwined.

10 November 2012

Typing Up a Storm

Typewriter in the house of Robert Graves, Deia, Mallorca

Writing in longhand.  The impulse from your wrist to form letters.  Ink flowing like blood, like dark milk, like grape juice.  Sufficient delay to dredge your depths.  Notebooks covered with splotches and underlinings.

Versus typing on a keyboard.  Torrential clicking when ideas flow and you must keep pace.  Reams of churned paper that already have the look of something organised and official.

Both approaches are useful, depending on context and type of work. 

When I decided, back in the mists, that I wanted to be a purveyor of words, it was essential to learn to type - using all ten fingers as swiftly as possible.  Although the advent of word processors and PCs was just around the corner, my first writer’s tools were a Remington typewriter and a gallon of correcting fluid.

But I lacked speed and technique, and so enrolled for three months at a secretarial college in west London.  The classes crammed with non-native speakers, the shabby premises, and the whiff of unregulation were reflected in very reasonable fees.  Students came and went, and there was always room for more in that quirky establishment - where it appeared the tea lady ruled the roost by the quantity of tea or biscuits she awarded, and where the typing teacher was clipped and meticulously English.  “What is your Christian name?” she would habitually ask new Arab arrivals, much to their bewilderment.

One day I came to college forty-five minutes early, seeking warmth and the possibility of getting ahead with my work.   Within ten minutes, the assistant principal marched in.  An octogenarian, she wore a wig which had fitted her head thirty years before, but which had long since shed bits of itself down to the webbing.  It was now a patchy-haired beret skewed at a worrying angle.

She was stiff with anger.  “What on earth are you doing?  Classes don’t begin until 9.0 a.m.,” she shouted.  “You foreigners are all the same.  No concept of correct behaviour.” 

I stood away from my desk, stretched up to my full five-foot-four-inches, and responded through clenched teeth:  “I’ll have you know that I was born in England, so I’m not exactly a foreigner.   And how dare you suggest that they or I don’t know how to behave.  For your information, I happen to have been brought up correctly.  In any case, the college was open.  I wanted to do some more practice.  This is actually important for my career.” 

Or words to that effect.

News of the altercation soon spread.  The tea lady sidled up to me with a fresh brew in her huge aluminium teapot and an unprecedented three Rich Tea biscuits.  She asked what I was hoping to do in life.  I told her I wanted to be a journalist. 

“I think I can help you,” she said. 

“Oh?”  My ears pricked up. 

“My nephew works at the Daily Express.” 

It wasn’t the paper I had in mind, but a start is a start.   

“What does he do?”  I asked.  Even a junior reporter might be able to put in a good word, or smuggle me in as pencil-case holder on a celebrity assignment.

“He’s the car park attendant,” she said.

That afternoon, I was summoned to the principal’s office.  Preparing myself for a dressing-down, I sat…(demurely I was going to write, but it was more nail-chewingly)…in my chair.

“The assistant principal…” she began.


“The assistant principal is retiring in two months.  Would you like her job?”

Gentle reader, I’m pleased to tell you that etiquette held good and I managed to turn down the job without resorting to words like stick and sun and don’t and shine, before packing up my 63 wpm typing skills and heading off into the west London streets.

But thanks to that school, ever after there’s been that delicious choice:

Slow contemplative doodle?  Or energetic word tumble?

31 October 2012

The Month-Namer

As this eighth month of the year slides rapidly to a close, I’ve a bone to pick with the Namer of Months.

Of course, it isn’t the eighth month.  You’ll have observed that, in fact, we’re at the end of the tenth month, although October, from Latin octo, meaning eight, is enough to throw you off the scent.  And let’s not get started on October’s band of hapless siblings – September (seven) November (nine) and December (ten).

So why the confusion?   To its credit, the early Roman calendar of 304 days did attempt to keep things simple by decimalising the year, although this was wholly at the expense of the period we now know of as January and February, which was written off as a monthless limbo where, let's face it, not much happened.  The year actually began in March. 

And here, some effort was expended.  March, an assertive little entity, burst in named for Mars, the Roman god of war.  This was followed by the poetic idea of opening, aperire, giving us April.  May was named after the Greek fertility goddess, Maia, and June after the Roman goddess Juno, wife of Jupiter (though Ovid suggests these two months could have been derived from maiores, the month of elders, and iuniores, the month of youth). 

But then, the Month-Namer ran plum out of ideas, stalled, and came up with the ho-hum Quintilis, (fifth month) and Sextilis, (sixth month) then seventh month, eighth month, and so on, yawn, before skipping out forever into the long afternoon, his work done.

Even when January and February - more imaginatively named for Janus, the god of the doorway, and after the purification ritual of Februa - were later parachuted in about 700 BC to allow the calendar to conform to a lunar year of 354 days, the other months simply budged up to create space and did not alter their names.   Nor did the emperors Julius and Augustus Caesar do much more than get their noses into the trough and snaffle the two premium summer months for themselves.  True, July and August are an improvement on Quintilis and Sextilis, but the aberration of the mis-named four last months remains.

When a friend studying Finnish told me the names of the months in that language, I felt both enchanted and short-changed.  Here was a language that did not resort to month-by-number, but used a different kind of logic, for example:

helmikuu – “pearl month”, possibly because melting snow on
branches can create droplets which when they refreeze are like ice pearls (our February)
heinäkuu  - “hay month” (our July)
lokakuu – “mud month” (our October)

We need only to turn to languages that do not derive entirely from Latin roots to find similar delights.  In Polish, for example, we have a calendar translated as meaning;

styczeń - touching or joining month
luty - cruel or frosty month
marzec – from the Latin Martius
kwieci – blossom month
mai – from the Latin Maius
czerwiec – carmine scale month (gathering of larvae from the insect czerw to
make red dye)
lipiec – linden or lime tree month
sierpień – sickle month
wrzesień – heather month
paźdzjernik – broken flax stalk month
listopad – leaf fall month
grudzień – frozen clod month

But, in fact, we don’t don’t have to scratch very far to find this sort of thinking in our own inheritance.  To Anglo-Saxons, February was Mud Month (solmonað).  June was drimilcemonað, Month of Three Milkings, supposedly from the longer days, succulent grasses and greater yield in the cows. 

So this week, I’d like to offer you the fun of not just thinking up more appropriate names for September, October, November and December, but creating an entirely new calendar particular to yourself.  For example, for you, August may not be connected with sickles, or February with pearls.  Think of your own associations – perhaps connected with childhood, perhaps sporting activities that you do, perhaps aspirations.  All I ask is that you try to avoid redubbing April Tax Month………

In my own very personal calendar, I’ve taken it one step further from the association with activity to thinking of one word that encapsulates and deepens this idea.  December, for me would be month of darkness but I’d like to call it Lanterns, to symbolise the notion of illumination and hope in the longer nights.  November is a month I now associate entirely with my father – the month of his birth, the month of his death, the month of remembrance.  For me it is therefore Paternus (derived from pater, meaning father).  July I’d like to call Molten, in honour of the hot, melting days I associate with that month in my Canadian childhood.  My calendar would look like this:

Moonscar – month where moon and wan skies predominate
Sanctuary – month to retreat, rethink
Reveille – month of fanfare to jolt the season awake
Groundswell – month of growth and upsurge
Roundelay – month to dance
Touchstone – month of examinations
Molten – month of humid heat, hazy hot suns
Escapade – month of holiday, letting one’s hair down
Flitsong – month with consciousness of birds, their flight, their migration
Firebrand – month of vivid red and orange leaf-fall, bonfires
Paternus – month of my father
Lanterns – month of paths through darkness

Your turn!

28 September 2012

A Lesson in Flamenco

I am the only student here - gracias a Dios - for a two-hour lesson in the dance school in Alhendín, a village near Granada.

In the vestibule, black skirts with large red spots, swirling hemlines and frills down their sideseams hang on pegs.  I choose the only one that fits - an offering made of unexciting brown stretchy material that greatly enhances the line of the figure.  Or, put another way, the one with the same fabric used for Spanx control underwear.  Very quickly, my skirt is required to do sterling work.

I must also choose a pair of Flamenco shoes, but like the skirts, the footwear has been accustomed to more dainty dancers.  The largest pair, size 39, are just the wrong side of comfortable, and my feet soon begin to feel emprisoned.

My teacher, Paquita, is a very beautiful young woman who moves with great ease and sensuous grace.  When she tells me she is actually 48 years old, I decide to pay very close attention.  We stand in front of a mirror, with arms straight, shoulders back, stomach and bottom pulled in.  Her fingers reach up to the skies, inviting energy to run down her entire body.  She brings her arms behind the line of her ears, then stretches them out behind her arched back, to show the proud, arrogant position needed in this dance.

We begin by clapping in time to the music, introduce arm movements with wrists moving sinously.  Then we work on the feet, using the heel (tacon) the middle of the foot (media) and the full sole (golpe) to create not just different movements but the tapping sound which acts as accentuation to the music.

"Más chulo, Katie," says Paquita, which means, I assume from her gestures, more attitude.  She is being charitable, for as I gallump alongside her it is not just chulo that is wanting.  I am severely anatomically-challenged, with shoulders that have stiffened and an extra foot that has arrived out of nowhere.

She, meanwhile, whirls and flows and lunges and struts.  She lifts her skirts above her knees, her legs shapely and brown, and taps her shoes ever more furiously in a living example of confidence, sensuality and femininity.

During one of our necessary breaks, she tells me that there are numerous different palos, or Flamenco styles, depending on where the dances have originated and what rhythm or mood is being created.  Classical dance requires the arms to be straight and long, the back to be arched, and the movements to be precise.  Many dancers perfect their techniques over years of training.  She herself actually only began five years ago.  I find this revelation inordinately encouraging, as much as the information that very young dancers will not often have sufficent duende (soul) to convey the depth of emotion required.

"And it is also possible to use your own ideas and movements in Flamenco," she tells me.

Good.  These, then, are the ones I shall be developing within the dark yet safe confines of my own living room.

9 September 2012

A Labour of Love

Somewhere – it could be in France, it could even be in Burgundy – there is an old town with a wonderful square containing a covered market and half-timbered houses.

And in the square sits an inviting tearoom, advertising on its sign a selection of teas, brunch and lunch. 

But when you get there - although it is a Saturday, a light is on and someone appears to be moving about inside - the tea shop is closed.  

You are persistent.  You rap on the window.

A slim woman comes to the door to say that the establishment is not open.  But you insist, charmingly of course, that you have travelled all this way especially, and all you want is a cup of her famous tea, oh please, is it not possible?

And you enter the room with its comfy chairs and sofas overlaid with throws and the odd teddy bear or two, with knick-knacks and curios in the corners, and while savouring the view over the marketplace you pour tea from teapots large enough to provide each individual with six cups. 

You visit the loo, leaf through one of the many antique books you’ve taken down from the shelf, try on several of the hats from the old-fashioned hat-stand.  By the time you’ve re-emerged, your hostess has carried out a delicious-looking fruit pie.  “It’s just from the oven,” she announces.

And you think, if this tearoom is not open, who exactly is this pie for?  And you ask her, and she answers that she is cooking for a party of fifteen people here this evening.

Oh, you say, dumbly.  Does she actually open in the evening? 

Bien sûr, she says, though you scratch your head at the thought of the sign outside that loudly proclaims tea but makes no mention of dinner.  So could we come here for dinner on Monday, you ask.  Of course, she says, but you must tell her now which meat you would prefer, souris d’agneau (lamb shank) or coquelet (chicken). 

And you indeed arrive on Monday, to find the place transformed into an enchanting candlelit room, your table laid with a centrepiece of ceramic rabbit propped on an old leather-bound book entitled Les Voyages, each place set with a napkin held together by a clothespeg, each knife resting on a small comma-shaped aubergine.  And after your mouth-watering lamb and chicken, and your course of local cheeses, you head to the dessert table to help yourself too liberally to the clafoutis, berry pie, chocolate cake and compote of dried fruit so laced with booze that she calls it her bombe atomique.

And you learn that this cook extraordinaire with her refined and caring manner does this all on her own, that she moved here from Paris some three years ago having fallen in love with the town and the premises she now occupies with the view across the square.  You sense that this is her raison d’être, her passion, that she does not need to publicise her dinners, that clients simply find her in much this way: they want a cup of tea, they see a light, they tap on the window…

22 August 2012

How Did That Get There?

Today I happened to be looking down the list of Word documents on my computer, and I came across this title:

How Successfully Did Pitt Face the Challenge of the French Revolution from 1789-1801?

There it was, sandwiched between Hits of the 60s. doc and How to Read an Unseen Poem and Compare it to One in Your Booklet. doc – both unmistakeably work  of my own hand.

Now, I haven’t written a history essay for (loud cough)-ty years or so.   So exactly how Mr Pitt got in amongst my personal effects is unclear. 

I feel it important to point out to my future executors, should I ever go under a bus and should they ever need to comb nostagically through my written remnants, that this blip of erudition has not been penned by me.  Never in my life have I ever considered the agonisings of the British Prime Minister at the turn of the 18th century as he stared, possibly bleakly, into the shockwaves of the French Revolution. 

But looking at that Pitt document, standing as a proud bastion of oddity among all the other titles, gave me the same feeling I had back in June when I was examining my daughter’s cycle route through the Pyrenees.  According to the map, near the French town of Bourg-Madame  her route took her past  Spain on one side - yes there was the border clearly marked,  and………..Spain on the other.  I blinked.  I looked again.  How on earth could that be?

Llívia, Spain

It turns out that there is a little corner of France that is forever Spain.  Llívia, some 12.84 square kilometres with a population of 1,665 (data from 2011), is a tiny island of Spain smack bang in French territory.   Connected to its mother country across some two kilometres of road, the D68, Llívia is part of the area known as Cerdanya (Cerdagne in France).  In 1659 the Treaty of the Pyrenees established the borders between France and Spain.  Some 33 villages of Cerdanya had to be given up to France, but the town of Llívia managed to escape by dint of a loophole – the treaty stipulated that only villages were to be ceded to the northern neighbour. 

And so, as it is completely surrounded by France, Llívia is technically an enclave within France, or an exclave of Spain

Just as the Mr Pitt essay could be considered an enclave within my computer documents, but an exclave of what may be a copious output of essays gone astray from an A-level syllabus, possibly my son’s, possibly a scribing elf’s.  It will be there forever unless I exert jurisdiction over it, and delete it from my files. 

Which I choose not to do, because I like its quirky presence. 

So how did Pitt face that pesky challenge of the French Revolution?  Well, the conclusion of the exclave essay tells me that  “it is possible to argue that Pitt overreacted somewhat”.

6 August 2012

Cycle Mad

Last Wednesday afternoon, I stood with my humble bicycle at Hampton Court Bridge at the finishing line for the men cyclists’ Olympic Time Trial, and could not help but think of American President John Kennedy’s words when he addressed the citizens of Berlin in 1963. His purpose was to show solidarity, to indicate that he understood the current circumstances in that city by asserting that he too was a Berliner

And as flags waved, cheers arose and the crowd at Hampton Court went bananas when the sideburned hero, British cyclist Bradley Wiggins, came in first place to receive the gold medal, I also wanted to express fellowship in the moment.  I wanted to state that I too was part of a fraternity, the two-wheeled one surrounding me, with a vehement: ich bin ein Radfahrer.

But in the absence of anything resembling the megaphone required for such a declaration, I headed instead for a celebratory cappuccino at a café facing the gift shop Bradley + Brown  which, for the occasion, had changed its name to Bradley + Wiggins.

“What a great result for Wiggo,” said one of a group of three cyclists who joined my table.  Of course, we agreed, things hadn’t quite gone Wiggo’s way – nor for Mark Cavendish, nor any of the British team - in the previous Saturday’s road race.  We scratched our heads in bewilderment at how our sporting greats had on that day seemingly fallen foul of two cycling truths: one, that a peloton is a cosy and sociable hangout, but a place to pedal hell-for-leather out of if you want to make your mark.  And, two, that not only should you sweet-talk your own team-mates in order to decide which of you has the best chance of victory, but you also have to get to work in the locker-room beforehand, distributing devastatingly yummy gels and energy bars to your competitors.  Only then might any of them be persuaded to take the strain in turn, by cycling at the head so that you can, for a while, tuck comfortably into their slipstream. The Brits last Saturday had got themselves snagged at the front of the peloton, a mistake avoided by the women the next day when Lizzie Armitstead romped home to a silver. 

Even before my tablemates had sat down with me to share such insider information, I could tell they were serious cyclists – not just because of the hungry and over-exercised look, not just because of the body-clenching clobber they were wearing, but because they knew these routes like the back of their hand.  This was their patch, they said, here, round Hampton Court, and out to the Surrey Hills - an Area of Oustanding Natural Beauty (note the capital letters), which always comes as a surprise to any visitor who thinks that London sprawls unchecked until it hits the English Channel.  But an Area, apparently, with more than its allocated share of bicycle-chewing motorists who are inclined to stick heads out of windows of four-by-fours and shout: “So who pays road tax, then?”

It’s not the kind of reception that the current crop of international competitors had been receiving.  As they flew past, all cyclists were loudly cheered.  Indeed, anything on wheels was cheered.  Support vehicles.  Cameramen on motorbikes.  White vans containing members of the press.  Policemen on motorbikes who did high fives with spectators or posed with hands on hips to whip up the throng. 

And even me, on my way back along the Thames path from Hampton Court.

Riding into the teeth of the same warm wind that had kept blowing the uneaten half of my blueberry muffin on to the ground back at the café, I wove through prams, children on scooters, entire shoals of cycling families.  Ich bin ein Radfahrer I kept reminding myself.  Suddenly, up ahead, two young energetic cyclists were in my sights.  “Go on!” cried a smiling woman who stepped back into the bushes as I passed her.  “You can beat them!”

26 July 2012

...and I'll Sing Once More...

Songs to sing through the weathers, the harvests, the feastdays.  Through joys and sorrows, through births and burials.  Songs to sing to fretful children.  Songs that show you sympathise with your tired oxen.   

It was because I wanted to learn such songs that I found myself this time last year in the Svaneti region in the far north of the republic of Georgia in a village within sight of the imposing two-horned Mount Ushba.   

Criss-crossed by footpaths shared by inhabitants and docile livestock, the village – Lakhushdi – was a small collection of houses that were simply furnished but often large and spacious.  Many had wooden balconies that opened out to a breathtaking view of fields and mountains.   

We were a group of twenty-five billetted in the homes of five different families who had never before welcomed a group such as ours.  In our honour, they had hastened to install indoor showers and plumbing, although we had been prepared to accept conditions as they were.  Irene from Edinburgh and I shared an enormous room with wood panelling (that I almost set fire to when I was inattentive to the electric wiring) in the Chamgeliani household, which served as headquarters for our visit.  


Each morning we sat at breakfast tables spread with mouth-watering home-made produce: yogurt, butter and cheese not long from the cow.  Bread fresh from the wood stove.  Jam from cherries or plums picked from the trees.  Honey from bees that had gorged on wild flowers just down the road.  Newly laid eggs.  Red fruit compotes, plates of tomatoes, cucumbers and watermelon.  Moist nutty cake.  Tangy cherry juice.  And even chacha, the local vodka, that woke up voice and soul. 

Each evening, we convened for a supra, a special feast in which traditional Georgian toasts are proposed to guests.  Time and again, Murtaz Chamgeliani stood and raised his glass to us, to our countries, our families, our ancestors - each toast deepening in its embrace so that in the end I truly believed my heart could be spirited out of its ribcage never to return home.

Murad and djangi

One of the main reasons for our visit was to learn songs and round dances so that we could take part in the Feast of Limkheri on top of the nearby Tinghali Hill.  Our three teachers - Murad, Gigo and Givi - their faces ruddy from mountain air, their throat muscles prominent and strong, took us phrase by phrase through the songs written phonetically on our songsheets.  They painstakingly separated out vocal parts that they had always known only as an organic blend of sound, and sang with subtle shifts in tone counter-intuitive to the western ear.  Sometimes we were accompanied by traditional instruments, the carved-wood djangi, or the chuniri played by Ana Chamgeliani as she taught us cradle songs.  It required intense concentration and in this we were aided by the gifted singer Nana Mzhavanadze, who acted as a kind of musical bridge. 

Wild flowers

But it wasn’t all about the singing. There was also time to stroll down to the river to pan for gold, to walk with Madona at sunrise in a meadow dotted with blue, pink and yellow bloom.  To learn from Mzia how to bake tch’vistari bread sandwiched between walnut leaves.  To teach She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain to little Demetre and his brother Erekle, who both preferred a lusty ay yay yoopee to the standard ay yay yippee.  What did it matter at those moments when our translator, Irina, wasn’t at hand and we faltered in our attempts to tell a joke or ask a question in Georgian, or to explain to a village elder the purpose of the International Date Line drawn on the inflatable globe she was holding?   The affection and acceptance shown to us was transcending.



Emboldened by our efforts at the Feast of Limkheri, we seized the opportunity to travel deeper into the Caucasus to celebrate the festival of Kvirikoba.  In unforgiving heat, we climbed a hill to the stone shrine where pencil-thin candles dribbled down the walls.  There, at the summit, we joined hands with each other and with strangers, sang and danced with gusto, me holding on firmly to our teacher Murad as much for his pitching as for his assured steps.   

As we sat down on the grass, hot, tired but pleased with our efforts, a man approached Kaxa Chamgeliani, who for that day was co-driver on our minibus.  “I didn’t realise that the people with you were foreigners,” he said.  “At first I thought that they were all from Lakhushdi.” 

“They are from Lakhushdi,” answered Kaxa.

As I write this post, another group - some returners from last year - are nearing the end of their stay at the very same village, on a holiday organised by the indefatigable Madge Bray.  You can check out what it's all about here: Braveheart Georgia 

This is a film about last year's Feast of Limkheri made by Mike Spring: