blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Living carefully

After a very pleasant dinner at Jean's and Michèle's new house yesterday we got talking to a friend of theirs, a specialist in Canadian Privacy Law, working for the government, who is quite horrified by the intrusion of the Internet into our everyday lives. Presumably a wary person in any case by virtue of her legal education, the more she finds out about the erosion of our privacy, the less she dares to use her VISA card: "I pay in cash if I can!" Chris alarmed her further by betting he could discover her email address in five minutes by means of googling, even though he had no idea what her surname was. He could, too.

This led to a wide-ranging conversation about identity theft, copyright laws, surveillance trends and privacy in general. At one point Jean said: the only answer is for us to lead a pure life.

It makes you think. Once upon a time it was the Bible or the priest in the pulpit who frightened us into behaving ourselves, with threats of Hell in the afterlife if we lapsed, with God the Big Brother who is always watching. Nowadays we frighten ourselves with the thought of being condemned by Public Exposure and the Law in this life, and we're pulled up short by the realisation that Google, Amazon, Facebook and company are keeping electronic tabs on all our emails, searches, downloads, files, photos, backups, passwords, etc.

Anyway, if we misbehave either on or off line—the trouble is, (i) we're only human, and (ii) misbehaviour is sometimes a matter of opinion—we're pretty sure be found out by one sort of police or another. There are very few hiding places. However much security protection we think we have and however much "anonymizing" is done, there's probably no longer any such thing as complete anonymity, now that we have the Internet. The identity of practically everyone is known, in one electronic way or another. To go incognito or disappear, or try to do so, we'd have to cut ourselves off from most of the tools for survival in modern society. 

Although Google's slogan, at present, is DON'T BE EVIL, I wonder what will happen if that ideal gets compromised, as ideals often have been in the past. George Orwell wrote a book about that, Animal Farm, which coincidentally has recently been erased from all the Kindle devices on which it had been downloaded!

Chris has been reading a book recently (an old fashioned book with real pages, not one of the e-books on his new Kindle) called Sailing from Byzantium ("one of the best books I've read for a while," he says) and just now asked me to check the meaning of Hesychasm. Hesychasm, originating among the Orthodox monks of Mount Athos in 14th century Greece, was a movement dedicated to contemplation. I have an idea that the Hesychasts might be of relevance to my drift.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Breaking the ice

This is not about smoothing over some awkward little moment at the start of a Christmas party. This is about hard physical effort.

From my on-line dictionary:

... they were all slogging away. WORK HARD, toil, labor, work one's fingers to the bone, work like a Trojan/dog, exert oneself, grind, slave, grub, plow, plod, peg; (informal) beaver, plug, work one's guts out, put one's nose to the grindstone, sweat blood; travail; (archaic) drudge, moil. (antonym) relax.

I mentioned in yesterday's blog post that everything outside has acquired a layer of ice. Today at the Rockcliffe Flying Club we became an ice breaking crew, trying to get rid of it. The new hangar, its floor measuring over 2800 square feet, has to be erected a.s.a.p. (because the old one is ... let's just say past its best). The replacement construction already has a metal frame, roof and back wall and since this afternoon, the wooden framework for another wall as well, but before our indomitable volunteers (Chris among them, hammer and nails at the ready) could build this, the floor had to be restored to normality by means of shovels, spades, brushes and wheelbarrows. I could almost have added, pickaxes. Indeed, we looked like a party of convicts sentenced to years of hard labour in some frozen in Siberia. There were my normally ladylike friends wielding a sledgehammer (until Don told us to desist in case we broke the concrete as well as the ice).

It's satisfying to have got rid of so much ice and snow in one day, but as we were working, I kept thinking of The Walrus and The Carpenter who

... wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
"If this were only cleared away,"
They said, "it would be grand!"
"If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose," the Walrus said,
"That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it," said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

I know I ought to have taken a proper photo to illustrate this post, but forgot to take my camera along. To give some idea of its size, here's a picture of the hangar under construction in milder weather a few weeks ago. (Click to enlarge.)

Tonight more snow will blow through the open spaces in windy gusts of 35 knots, so they say. I hope this doesn't mean that we'll have to do the same amount of work again tomorrow, because, as my grandmother used to put it, "my bones ache." The temperature is forecast to drop to minus 16 and it will "feel like" minus 24 in the morning.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Different worlds

Christmas Day at their house, as promised by Elva and Laurie, was very restful. Elva's decorations, like this poinsettia on the table, are simply done and very beautiful. While our turkey finished roasting, we walked up the hill, followed a homemade trail through the woods —neighbours' feet having trodden the snow down—then came back indoors to enjoy our meal. The dining room made a nice, warm contrast to the screened deck the other side of the patio doors, on which cane furniture was stacked, snow drifting around its feet, as in that scene from the famous film where Dr Zhivago and Lara break into his old summer house in mid winter.

Boxing Day today, and the outside world's transformed by freezing rain. Even ordinary things like the washing line in my garden become extraordinary.

Most of the day I've been playing with the gadget Chris gave me for Christmas which converts old fashioned slides and negatives on strips of film into digital photographs. We moved house so often in the old days that any storage system I once had has disappeared and the negatives have become inextricably shuffled, so that at one moment I pull out pictures of us in the Netherlands, in 1979, then at the next dip into the pile we're suddenly in Hertfordshire in 1987, or Wales, 1993, never mind the holiday destinations. All those different worlds, all the different people we used to be! The once ordered past has turned into a proper muddle, but it doesn't seem to matter.

The pictures below were taken in Apeldoorn, Shoreham-by-Sea, and Welwyn Garden City, in 1979, 1985 and 1987 (or so).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lilly, learning

"Unverfänglich" in German means "harmless, innocuous, inoffensive". I learned that word at our German group's viewing of the film Lilly unter den Linden earlier this month. Our hostess paused the film so that those in the know could explain what was going on in the scene where one of the main characters, Lilly's aunt, sings in a cabaret, in the 1980s, in Jena. It was strictly forbidden by the governing regime in the DDR to perform anything of a politically subversive nature, so the cabaret artists became past masters in the use of double meanings. They sang what were ironically known as "unverfängliche Texte", so Barbara told us, but their hidden meanings were not lost on their audiences (which usually included one or two Stasi spies). The film conveyed this very well.

Another moment worth remembering was when the 13 year old, recently bereaved Lilly asks her aunt if she believes in God.

"Glaubst du an Gott?

"Ich glaube an die Sehnsucht nach Gott," the aunt replies, "und an die oder den, der die Sehnsucht in unser Herz liegt. Ich weiss nicht, ob das Gott ist."

(Freely translated: I believe in the longing for God and in whatever it is that puts that longing into our hearts. Whether or not that is God, I don't know. An appropriate thought for Christmas Eve?)

Buying wigs

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I went into a wig shop and tried on some wigs. Wearing them felt like wearing woolly hats and for obvious reasons they are all voluminous and have fringes (bangs). Most of them made me look like a Thing From Beyond The Grave. The blonde ones looked marginally better on me than the dark haired variety, but none of them suited me and in any case I had no intention of buying any. I was having some lighthearted fun while the friend I accompanied was engaged in a far more serious search. She has a prescription for a wig which means that she pays no tax on the one she chose. The better quality wigs are not cheap.

About to start a course of chemotherapy in the new year my friend has no choice about whether to change her appearance or not. She has been told that very shortly her hair will fall out, and that is not so funny. Luckily she did find an artificial head of hair that really suited her although the interior may turn out to tickle or feel scratchy against her skin, in which case a 2 dollar skullcap will have to line it. It was made with "human hair from Asia", so the wig assistant told us, and must be washed with hydrating shampoo to keep it in good shape.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Millions more voices

Petition to the 110 Presidents and Prime Ministers at the Copenhagen talks last week:

We call on each one of you to make the concessions necessary to meet your historic responsibility in this crisis.[...] Do not leave Copenhagen without a fair, ambitious and binding deal that keeps the world safe from catastrophic global warming of 2 degrees

Close to 15 million people (including me) signed on-line, and after hearing the result of the Copenhagen talks, an AVAAZ supporter from Africa wrote

It takes a lot to get an elephant moving, but when you do it is hard to stop...the elephant is moving...

After signing the petition, supporters are invited by email to "join a global, instant translation multilingual live chat..." During the last couple of days I have been reading the multilingual messages popping up every few seconds since that suggestion was sent out and I estimate that there have been between 15000 and 20000 comments. Here's a typical selection:

Ein grosses Dankeschoen an alle Mitwirkenden. Lasst den Elefanten weiterlaufen, er ist hochintelligent. Viel Kraft und Gottes Segen.

Merci de donner l'espoir que l'éléphant se met en mouvement. Canada

Gràcies a tots i a totes. Podrem canviar el món sense cimeres! Catalunya

Desde PERU nos unimos a este gran movimiento ..sigamos adelante!

Maraming salamat sa inyong lahat! Let us all keep fighting the good fight. Padayon! (Philippines)

Tackar Kiitän Merci (de la Finlande)

Köszönjük! Thank you from Hungary

it is a good move ... don't give up. Hargeisa, Repubic of Somaliland

شكرا وامتنانش

gracias por hacer visibles nuestros deseos.

Tusen takk!

grazie, grazie a tutti, da parte dei nostri figli e dei figli dei figli!

Go raibh mile maith agaibh. Tosach maith leath na h-oibre! (Ireland)

El Amor mueve al mundo.

I thank you. My children thank you. My grandchildren thank you. by Tom, U.S.

Chenoragaloutioun ner (= "Thank you" in Armenian)


Debemos mejorar nuestro mundo interior tanto como el exterior. Estamos en marcha.

Thank you to all those that acted for those that could not, and for enabling our collective voice to be heard. Please keep it up! England

A união faz a força, todos juntos contribuiremos para um mundo melhor

Elephants run through the bush making the paths.

...deze wereldwijde ketting

Samen zijn we sterk !

je suis émue aux larmes en lisant l'impact qu'a eu la campagne d'Avaaz. De me sentir reliée à tous ces gens que je ne connais pas, mais animés par le même espoir et le même amour.

The Copenhagen Conference was the first step towards a World Government, and the thousands of NGO´s assembled in front of the Conference building were the beginning of the beginning of a World Parliament.Thank God that we have reached this point.

Thank you for the well worth effort! sure the Elephant is moving!! Sri Lanka

Нам надо продолжать кампанию!

Il mondo in azione,con solo la forza delle parole come forza..

Il faut viser la Lune. Même si tu la rates tu iras dans les étoiles. (Burkina Faso)

Best wishes from Sweden...

Gracias de Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Bolivia)

great to know there's so many people of good will in the world. Festive greetings from Liverpool

Eskerrik asko (Basque) Eta elefantea ibiltzen hasi da

Makibaka!! Huwag Matakot (= "Fight, do not be afraid", in Tagalog)

good on ya all who gathered together, raised their voices and put pen to paper. Don't stop now. (Australia)

Many of us in Australia CARE! Thank you everyone, we're in this together.

"Nur wer selbst brennt, kann Feuer in anderen entfachen" (Augustinus)

I am a New Zealander, at present in Thailand, and have got all the members of the Class I am teaching to join Avaaz and help fuel this fight! It's truly great to see such people power- gives one hope!

Voices and faces

I mustn't keep my sister waiting to hear what on earth I've got to say about Bryan Adams, not the sort of person she expected to see me mention in my blog. I only intended to mention him in passing actually because I saw a photo of his face (taken by Yousuf Karsh) in an exhibition at our National Library and Archives as I was on my way to make myself acquainted with another kind of singer, Georg Ots. Both Adams and Ots had handsome faces, but it's the voices that people swoon over. Ots, recordings of whose voice were used in the musical parts of the film Georg sounded to me like Dmitri Hvorostowski, singing the sort of music that Richard Tauber used to sing, only in a lower register. Yes indeed, very different from Bryan Adams.

It struck me as interesting that Adams as a young man had one of the faces that appealed to Karsh along with such luminaries as Pablo Casals, Lawrence Olivier, Jessye Norman and Jean Sibelius! Because he (Adams) was (still is?) an object of adoration for Canadians, perhaps.

Another Canadian icon that may not be so well known outside Canada is k.d. lang. Chris and I were at a house warming party the other week where the host rounded off the evening by improvising on his new electronic piano, and the music he chose to play was Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", most famously (so I gather) sung by the barefoot Ms Lang. Vija, a professional musician friend of mine, also present at the party, told us that this woman "has the best voice in Canada!"

I googled her when I got home, and although I don't exactly feel at home with Country and Western music I must admit k.d. lang has quality and what looks like integrity. I also took a closer look at the lyrics. I found them rather foreign to me, too, am obviously not 100% Canadian yet.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The product of an unfortunate habit

Nicola Vulpe considers poetry and fiction unfortunate habits ...

says the blurb on the back of his book

... which he has supported by working as a computer programmer, technical writer, senior manager in high-tech and university professor.

Chris now works on the same premises of this man in his guise as technical writer and he bought his novella out of curiosity. When I it arrived at our house I read it in one go, enthralled by it. The novella is called The Extraordinary Event of Pia H., the narrative having the logic and repetitive quality of dream sequences that progress from one event to another, from one place to another (actually several places: parts of Spain, France, Italy, Slovenia, Canada and 200 fathoms deep in the Pacific Ocean) without actually getting anywhere much. At the end of the book the narrator, or perhaps one of the narrators (you can't be sure) is still moving forward (or is it backward?) searching for the wife who vanished into thin air on page 1 after turning to admire a chicken in the Plaza Mayor of León. Great fun to read, with an underlying atmosphere of sadness.

It reminded me of Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The quirks of various languages

The mathematician S.M. (Stan) Ulam wrote:

...there is a clarity to French which is not there in other tongues ...thoughts are steered in different ways. In French generalizations come to my mind and stimulate me toward conciseness and simplification. In English one sees the practical sense; German tends to make one go for a depth which is not always there. In Polish and Russian, the language lends itself to a sort of brewing, a development of thought like tea growing stronger and stronger. Slavic languages tend to be pensive, soulful, expansive, more psychological than philosophical... Latin is something else again. It is orderly; clarity is always there ... words are separated; they do not glue together as in German; it is like well-cooked rice compared to overcooked... When I speak German everything I say seems overstated, in English on the contrary it feels like an understatement. Only in French does it seem just right, and in Polish, too, since it is my native language and feels so natural.

Those fascinating comments appear in Ulam's autobiography, my husband's birthday present from his sister and brother-in-law. Chris bought himself a copy of Teach Yourself Ancient Greek the other day which looks well nigh impossible to me. It's got grammar notes like this:

When a reflexive sense is involved (i.e. when the reference is to the subject of the clause to which the noun-group containing the possessive belongs), the genitive of the reflective pronouns is used, again in the attributive position.

Anyway, not to be outdone, because my son now has a Chinese girlfriend, I have bought a BBC guide to Mandarin Chinese. What gluttons for punishment we are.

Did you know that the opposite of yes in Chinese is not yes (apparently the same words as for am / are / is and am not / aren't /isn'tbu shi?

Shi bu shi...? means Are you or are you not?

I spent a very interesting afternoon yesterday hearing a friend talk in French about Anton Tchekhov and tomorrow morning I'm off to see the German film of Lilly Unter Den Linden again, this time at the Ambassador's Residence. Next Tuesday Daniella (she's Romanian) is going to say goodbye to our Spanish conversation group, so I'll have to struggle away in Spanish there. Last time we met, Dawn told us that the polite Spanish word for you, Usted, abbreviated to Vd., is a corruption of a respectful but now obsolete way of addressing people as Your Mercy (i.e. Your Honour), vuestra merced, which prompted a Polish Canadian to tell us how, in Poland, people address one another, or used to, as Pan or Pani (like Monsieur... Madame) to show respect. It seems that those rules are still quite complicated. In Mandarin, too, nin is more respectful than ni. Oh dear, I'm afraid that's just reminded me of The Knights Who Say Ni in the Monty Python sketch.

Is English the only language that shows "you" no respect?

Monday, December 7, 2009

At the end of the day

Coming home late Saturday afternoon we saw this sky over the city, changing colour from minute to minute. I just caught it on time. The picture is of our street, Cathcart St., looking west-southwest across King Edward Avenue.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Memo to self

...that, when I have time, I want to blog about the quirks of certain languages (Mandarin, Spanish, Polish, French, Ancient Greek), voices (Georg Ots', k.d. lang's and possibly Bryan Adams') and words (Leonard Cohen's, Nicola Vulpe's and my grandson's), as well as the drawings and paintings of Miller Brittain. I have also been seriously thinking about travelling to Barcelona, Granada, Paris, Powys, Istanbul, Ancient Greece (as it were), South Carolina and New Zealand next year, and Hawaii the year after that, but I must face facts and not be so ambitious. I haven't even got time to write the blog posts elucidating all of this. Am also trying to design a kitchen and starting to worry about my next edition of Crosswinds.

Friday, November 27, 2009

War and Peace

Earlier this month, like Prince Charles and his wife and in a bigger than ever crowd of Canadians, I stood on Parliament Hill near the war memorial on the morning of Armistice Day (or Remembrance Day, as it's called here). I took some photos of the parade and wanted to record in my blog that the twenty-one gun salute, which sent plumes of smoke wafting over the parliament buildings, frightened the little children in the crowd so much that they nearly all cried, and periodically drowned out the voices of the older children singing in the choir. I thought this altogether symbolic of how war deafens and damages us. Four fighter jets zoomed overhead in an ear-splitting fly past as well, so that we lost track of the poem being read.

This is what the children were singing:

I vow to thee, my country
All earthly things above
Entire and whole and perfect,
The service of my love;
The love that asks no question,
The love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar
The dearest and the best;
The love that never falters,
The love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted
The final sacrifice.

And there's another country,
I've heard of long ago
Most dear to them that love her,
Most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies,
We may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart,
Her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently
Her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness,
And all her paths are peace.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Old fashioned service

This afternoon I went to Choral Evensong at Christ Church Cathedral, with Matthew Larkin playing the organ and directing the choir (he also composed today's setting of the traditional, 16th century Versicles and Responses).

It was thrilling. A bell began to ring in the tower, summoning the congregation to come in and sit down, and as the blasts from the organ pipes began to make the pews vibrate, I thought: this is good, I feel at home with this. The ostensibly religious element of the service, however—the prayers and the Bible readings, especially when translated into "modern" (inferior) English—did not have that same effect on me.

Mr Larkin was playing Oliver Messiaen's Apparition de l'Église Éternelle. It was neither comfortable nor soothing, but harsh, jaggèd, disturbing, composed by a man in mental torment, it seemed, and the organist emphasised this in his powerful interpretation, jabbing at the keyboard. Likewise when the choir's turn came to perform, that music was discordant too, and he got them to sing the clashes fortissimo. The Introit was Sir Edward Bairstow's Let all mortal flesh keep silence. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis, during which the congregation remained standing, were in Herbert Howells' setting; the anthem too (Behold, O God our defender) was by Howells.

The boys, who had learned their parts very thoroughly (except perhaps for the very young novices who sometimes lost their places in the sheet music ...and I saw one of these very small boys give a big yawn) were revelling in it. The lead chorister was particularly confident and had a fine, flawless voice, effortlessly produced. He turned his head toward the nave whereas most of the others either faced forwards, ten boys on one side of the choir, ten on the other, or kept their eyes fixed on the director. They wore the full regalia, red, floor-length cassocks, white surplices. The men of the choir sounded like professional singers. I was impressed.

After the prayers, including the Prayer of St Chrysostom, we all sang Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven, which once upon a time was my School Hymn, the trebles singing a descant to the last verse, and they processed out to the postlude, Jean Langlais' loud and triumphant Acclamations: Christus vincit on the organ.

Chris met me outside when it was over and we went to the Green Papaya for a Thai curry.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Two visits to Wakefield

15th August and 13th November, 2009. My mother aged 90 and, three months later, my grandson aged 2, walking along Chemin Mance near the old station.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Science is not a theme park

My daughter has just shown me an apposite blog post written by Michael de Podesta, a friend and colleague of hers who has just been received an MBE (for Services to Science) from the Queen. He runs "a course [...] called Protons for Breakfast which aims to help the general public make sense of some of the science that they encounter." His description of the BBC show Horizon on the theme of Black Holes as "dumbed-down science at its worst" puts into words what I felt today during my visit to the national Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa.

Not all of the museum is bad; if it were rehoused in a building that looked less than a warehouse, didn't have such dismally black ceilings and if its contents were differently presented and modernised (most of the information and illustrations have not been updated since the 1980s), it could be a rewarding place for everyone to visit. Alexander enjoyed himself there, appreciating the model railway made from Lego, pretending to drive the vehicles and pressing the various buttons to make things happen, but then, he is only two. Surely a nation's tribute to Science and Technology ought not to assume that all its visitors are toddlers. Various groups of school children were there and most of them were simply running wild. In the Telecommunications (Connexions) section of the museum, above ground level, was a maze of interconnecting tunnels with coloured, flashing lights running along their sides. This installation was supposed to teach the youngsters about packet switching, but they weren't learning anything; they were playing tag. "Don't run!" said the poor woman (volunteer teacher's assistant? inexperienced teacher?) meant to be in charge up there. "I'm it!" shouted a little girl, not even noticing the adult was there. Alexander of course joined in and we lost track of him for a few moments. It was claustrophobic, dark and very noisy, not an atmosphere conducive to anyone's education. Emma, Peter and I became depressed when we started to think about it.

Who is to blame? Is it the fault of the museum's directors, the school system, the individual teachers, our ambient culture or lack of it, the children themselves, their parents, or all of the above? I suspect the museum is sadly understaffed. There was nobody in uniform to be seen while this pandemonium was going on (perhaps they were in hiding; I wouldn't blame them). The few adults present didn't seem to have a clue how to calm the children down or teach them anything. Had I been planning a field trip to this museum with a potentially rowdy class I would at least have visited it ahead of time and planned accordingly.

On the positive side, one teacher, elsewhere in the building with a different school group, was impressively and confidently in control. He didn't try to intimidate his charges, but when we watched him lining them up in the cafeteria after their lunch, they were doing exactly as they were told. The young woman who gave the dramatic 2 o'clock demo-lecture on Cryogenics also deserves praise; she did it entertainingly and efficiently in two languages, managing to aim her teaching at adults and young children simultaneously.

Maybe it depends (now as always) on extraordinary individuals like Dr de Podesta to give people young and old what they deserve to get in the way of education, but designing a nation's museums as playgrounds does not help.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Trumpet Man

No time to breathe, hardly, with Alexander to look after all day—for 10 hours at a time during the last three days—but now that he's asleep tonight I must seize the opportunity to write about the 11 o'clock performance by Fred Piston and his 7 Trumpets in the Panorama Room of the National Arts Centre, last Sunday. As French was the man's first language, I suspect it may have been even livelier in French; we heard the English version.

Frédéric Demers, apart from being a virtuoso on his trumpet, is a bit of a Pied Piper.

Adults and children sat on the floor on mats or round the edges of the room on chairs, with Fred and a small projection screen at the front, a treasure chest packed with visual aids behind him and a rack with hooks to hold his seven trumpets to one side. (On the other side was his computer equipment which did not let him down). Seeing the number of children coming in (mostly aged between 3 and 8 years old) and gauging their anticipatory noise level, it struck me that the man would have to have a highly developed teaching skills to cope with this audience.

He had.

The first piece of magic that he showed was a proto-trumpet. Pretending to be a caveman, he flourished a shell in the air, asking the children if they thought that was a musical instrument. When they all yelled "NO!" he promptly proved them wrong. Then came the didgeridoo (which grand name young Alex still remembers... he's been blowing down a roll of brown paper all week to pretend he's got one).

Fred asked the children how to get a sound out of a trumpet and when several of them said, you blow down it, he obediently tried and made no musical sound at all. Then a bright spark at the back told him to vibrate his lips, after which we were all encouraged to blow raspberries. Then he made it work, using the mouthpiece alone.

He told us that his father had taught him to play and that his father's trumpets were all in that large, mysterious trunk he had dragged into the "studio lab." On the first trumpet, sporting a pennant, he played a medieval fanfare (invisible trumpets joining in). On the screen, key words and cartoon characters were projected. The children were by now all ears. He gave us his credentials, saying he has a doctorate in trumpets—"I can cure sick trumpets!"he said.

On the cornet he played a virtuoso piece that "sounds like two cornets" (with double and triple tonguing), then came a demonstration of the cornetto. The Flügelhorn trumpet gave rise to a jazz improvisation and he told us that "[his] father charmed his way into [his] mother's heart" with the Adagio from the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo that we also heard. As well as some other schmoozy, Latin American numbers we had blues and some salsa, and (on the Wedding Trumpet) Mendelssohn's Wedding March, as played in churches. The piccolo trumpet made a high-pitched noise which made the children giggle, as did a variety of mutes including a toilet plunger ("Do not do this in the bathroom.") At the end of the show, following a medley of Disney World tunes lost on me, Mr "Piston" picked a volunteer from the audience: the little girl who'd called out "I'm not shy!"and because she had a well developed sense of rhythm (had been on her feet dancing for all the jazzy numbers), he gave her a pair maracas with which to accompany his finale, and everyone got moving to the music.

Alexander was shy but appreciated it thoroughly; he finally took to dancing on the vacated mats when most of the other children were departing.

We then used up more energy in the leaves of Major's Hill Park.

The spectacle that made the biggest impression on him was The Violins, beforehand, for when we arrived in the NAC foyer, we were in time to see some children from the local Suzuki school in performance on the podium, all in synch, very well rehearsed. In the pauses between items we asked Alexander what they were doing and he said they were playing guitars with sticks, but he no longer says that now. The sulky faces he made at the time made us wonder if he disliked the experience, but it turns out he liked it so much he was disgusted that people interrupted by clapping when he did not want the music to stop." Alexander didn't clap until the End.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A dubious claim to fame

I woke up from a vivid nightmare which was of the last few horrible moments of Madame Butterfly, Act III, in colour, modernised. Pinkerton was crashed out, fully dressed on a double bed, too jetlagged to realise that his dead wife was on the floor at the foot of it. The onlooker (me) or film viewer could see her face in the mirror. Where on earth did that image come from? I have never witnessed such a production of the opera anywhere.

I must have been watching too many videos lately, Babette's Feast (Babettes Gaestebud) being one, which has plenty to say about music as well as food, but which is not at all horrible. Here's a very good article that says what I feel about that film. Last night I also started watching a beautifully made French film (1988), lent to us by one of Chris' colleagues, about singers and singing teachers, Le Maître de Musique.

I vaguely remember my son-in-law Peter pointing the camera at us during my last visit to Wales, but thought nothing more of it until I log on to Facebook after getting up this morning and find myself posted to all and sundry in a YouTube video clip, playing the piano, although the star of this film is my grandson, of course. As my brother-in-law ironically comments, "One day he'll be really grateful to you for making this available to everyone ..."

I composed that accompaniment myself, by the way.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Wooo, scary!

From the end of this week I may have no time for blogging until the end of November because my grandson and his parents are coming to stay, so here's a spooky mantelpiece in advance of the Hallowe'en weekend.

I snapped it on October 16th during a "diplomatic hospitality" outing to Saunders Farm where there are acres of ghastly frights hanging in the trees, a plethora of playgrounds, eleven mazes, a puppet show and old barns dressed up for the season. About fifty of us (including some little Japanese children as well as ladies from Pakistan, Romania, Germany, Indonesia ...) took wagon rides through the plantations and pond sized puddles, pulled along by a couple of tractors before returning to the log cabin (dating back to the 1840s) where an open fire did its best to warm us up and where we were served warm drinks and wedges of pumpkin pie with cream. Sheila organised a team game in which we had to identify (or guess the purpose of) various old-fashioned farmhouse objects being passed around, such as a wooden spigot, a hot pie extractor made of bent wire and a gramophone turntable arm. Distracted by the giant spiders' webs, bats and living dead monsters that surrounded us, my team didn't do well.

By the way, I have just discovered from Google Analytics that people logging on in 87 different countries have glanced at this blog since I created it two years ago. That's also rather scary.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Lovely music

Chris and I have just walked home (through the park, under a starry sky) from a concert at MacKay United Church, a fundraiser for their piano purchase. We listened to Mozart's String Quartet No. 20 (K499) followed by Brahms' Clarinet Quintet performed by members of the NACO who live nearby: Leah Roseman and her husband Mark Friedman on the violins, David Thies-Thompson on a beautiful (Inokuchi 1997) viola, Margaret Munro Tobolowska on the 'cello and the Principal Clarinetist himself playing his instrument for the Brahms, Kimball Sykes. Good quality musicians, all.

It was enough to have heard the Mozart piece, especially its langorous slow movement with all the minor key modulations—why don't we know this piece better?—the remainder of the concert was a bonus. We recognised every note of the Brahms, in fact I remember following the score with great excitement during an A-level class at school in 1968 and discovering the Zigeunermusik in the Adagio! However I hadn't realised how pervasive the motto theme is in this work. Before the players launched into their performance of the whole thing Mr Sykes gave us an illustrated mini-lecture , pointing out the way in which the material from the first four bars of the first music generates everything that is to follow! He also revealed that Brahms in his late 50s had apparently decided to let younger men do the composing of German music as (by 1890) he felt he was getting past it, until he happened to come across the clarinetist Mühlfeld, whose musicality inspired him to start afresh.

I've just found this web page which includes the following description:

Mühlfeld’s playing style was apparently quite individualistic and somewhat outside the Germanic tradition of clarinet performance. In Germany he was lavishly praised; Brahms nicknamed him “Fräulein Klarinette”, “meine Primadonna” and “the nightingale of the orchestra”, and Clara Schumann described his playing as delicate, warm and unaffected, with perfect technique and command of the instrument. Reports of his concerts in England, however, were at times uncomplimentary, his interpretation, tone and technical execution being called crude and even comical; and in Vienna he was not regarded as equal to the best local clarinetists. In part at least, these contradictory opinions might have stemmed from Mühlfeld’s reported use of vibrato and his fiery, extroverted approach to performance, both perhaps attributable to his background as a violinist.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"This is a fight for fairness"

Today I joined some of the people affected by Nortel's pension cuts, demonstrating our disapproval of the lack of support from the current Canadian government. If you count the spouses of the ex-Nortel employees—and so you should!—some 40000 Canadians have taken a direct hit, and even more upsetting is that this figure includes people whose disability benefits have disappeared. One of the speakers said, however, that 70% of the people to whom such payments are owed are too ill to know they have been neglected.

The demonstrators stood in the cold for about an hour and a half, while the organisers, high profile supporters and opposition party leaders (Gilles Duceppe, Jack Layton and Michael Ignatieff) clustered together on the steps ahead of us and took turns to make the most of the microphone set up for them there. Layton seemed the most passionate of the three:

Well, sisters and brothers, are you ready to fight?

I'm not tall enough to make my living as a photo-journalist. Peering on tiptoes through the crowd I failed to snap a picture of Mr Layton as he told us that this was a fight for fairness, although I did later manage to get a shot of Mr Ignatieff who was allotted the grand finale.

The demonstrators' banners told much the same story in the same sort of rhetoric:

Bankrupt Nortel must not mean bankrupt pension plans.

Fix the bankruptcy act.

Workers get screwed!!!

Nortel pensioner mad as hell.

Pourquoi le gouvernement ne s'occupe pas des pensions?

Oppose legalised theft.

Give pensions preferred status.

MPs fiddle while pensioners get burned.

Don't give us the silent treatment. NORTEL us more lies. Act now, Mr Harper.

MPs, what if it was your pension?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Literary excursions

In September I was invited to join a group calling itself le circle des amies de Marion and who Marion was, I'm not quite sure. Most of its members are quite elderly and speak French as their first language. I was to have participated in a table ronde session with them, talking about le livre qui m'a frappé le plus. Unfortunately this was cancelled, due to an administrative hiccough, but I'd been preparing myself to tell them about Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot which (apparently) is translated as Le Char des Élus. There's very little about it on the internet in French, though there's a fair bit of rather difficult stuff about it in English.

I would have introduced my subject like this:

J'ai choisi de vous parler d'un roman d'un écrivain australien qui a gagné le prix Nobel pour la litérature en 1973, Patrick White. (Le roman se passe aux alentours de Sydney dans les annees 50 apres la fin de la 2e guerre mondiale.) La premiere foix que j'en ai fait la découverte mes enfants étaient encore tres jeunes, et j'avais simplement besoin de quelque chose d'adulte à lire pour ne pas trop m'ennuyer a la maison. Ma mère venait de lire ce roman qui s'appelle "Cavaliers dans le Char" (ou "Le Char des Élus" dans la traduction francaise) et me l'a recommandé. Il m'a ému énormément. Il est écrit avec une intensité formidable qui ne plairait pas a tout le monde, parce que la violence de certains passages vous donne des frissons d'horreur. De temps en temps, j'apprécie des livres de ce genre...

Of course I reread the whole thing in English and it doesn't seem to have lost any of its power to shock. Once you have delved into Patrick White's writing you are never the same again.

On a completely different tack, I met a German lady recently, Anne C. Voorhoeve from Berlin, an author of novels for teenagers, such as the one we are reading in our Konversationsgruppe these days: Lilly unter den Linden. This book was created from the "Drehbuch" Ms Voorhoeve wrote in preparation for the film of the same title, shown on German TV. When I spoke to her, she told me that her research for this project took up four years of her life. It's the story of a 13 year old girl who flees through the Iron Curtain from West to East, rather than the other way around, in order to join her relatives who are stuck in the DDR.

Our opportunity to meet the authoress was offered by the Martin-Luther-Kirche on Preston street. In 1989 their Pastor, in those days a student in East Germany, was a Charter Member of the East German Social Democratic Party in Leipzig who experienced the collapse of the communist régime first hand. He invited Ms Vorhoeve to Ottawa this month to help commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Wall's collapse. Her book is set in 1988, in Hamburg, Berlin and Jena.

She read us extracts from the first half of the story and then all the "congregation" (we'd been sitting in the pews of the church) repaired to the church basement to find out what happens next by watching the second half of the film. Then we came back upstairs for wine, cheese and conversation with Lilly's creator.

In December I'm going to be able to watch the whole film, this time at the residence of the new German Ambassador to Ottawa.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A cricket match at the airport

Earlier this month I sat in one of my usual coffee shops, writing two essays, one in French for a talk I'll have to give (see above) and one in English for the Flying Club's newsletter of which I'm the editor. I think the essay in English was the easier one to write:

This year's thank you took place on September 12th, club volunteers mingling on the grass outside the clubhouse in perfect weather to enjoy the reward of supper from Tony's Mile High Bar-B-Q, with carrot cake for dessert. In order for some of the crowd to work up an appetite for this feast, Chris Hobbs organised and umpired his usual cricket match on the field behind the hangar between two teams spontaneously recruited, The Rockcliffe Flyers and Valerie's XI. Meanwhile, Bopper Sensation, a five-man jazz band from the city, were tuning up for a performance on keyboard, trombone, guitar, percussion and vocals, that kept our feet tapping until well after sunset, some of their lyrics being as spicy as the dressing on Tony's burgers! By the time darkness fell, we also had telescopes erected on the field, courtesy of our guests from the Astronomy club, who were able to show everyone interested four of Jupiter's moons. A fortuitous extra thrill was the transit of the international space station moving smoothly and rapidly across the evening sky, spot-lit by the sun from well below the horizon. The space station, unlike high flying jet aircraft, does not leave a contrail.

Happy Thanksgiving

Yesterday was a Canadian day par excellence, beginning with a two hour ride, Carol driving Elva and me in Laurie's car, Don driving the men in his car, to Bill's cottage north of Gananoque. Beyond Kemptville the country roads became prettier and prettier, bordered with colour. We passed through Merrickville, Toledo, Delta and crossed the bridge at Lyndhurst before turning off the road along a track through the fields and into the woods beside a farm that reared Belgian draft horses. Bill's was the neighbouring property.

When we drew up at the cottage beside Grippen Lake and got out of the car we could not only smell pine needles but also, wafting from the oven indoors, the Thanksgiving turkey. It was a big bird, more than sufficient for the ten of us who sat round the cottage tables to eat it: Mickey and Bill's mother (a fine old lady of 93), Bill himself and his friend Alan (who've been friends for more than half a century), Carol, Don, Elva, Laurie, Chris and me. I'd enjoyed myself picking some wild flowers for the table to go with the pumpkins and decorative squashes. Mickey and her daughter had made some superb apple and pumpkin pies for our dessert, lashed with dollops of whipped cream. Two dogs, Baci and Harry, had a share in the feast as well, Baci from sheer joie de vivre flinging himself into the lake afterwards to retrieve a bounce ball, repeatedly.

Bill's cottage has a host of attractions, a swing, a boat, and tied up on the other side of the dock, C-FUEY, his yellow floatplane. Because of the wine we'd shared, the 'plane did not take off after our meal; instead, we went bush whacking round the property so that Bill could show us his hunting grounds, the grand old trees, rocky cliffs and deer trails. Elva, Carol and I extended our walk by hiking up to the road and back as well and by the time we returned to base the sun had set, the sky had gone pink and the view was one to remember, so I took this photo (click all the pictures to enlarge them):

Nobody wanted to leave yet, of course. Bill said, "Shall we light a bonfire?" so despite the chilly night air, we did, and to Chris' bemusement roasted marshmallows on skewers held over the glowing logs and the men reminisced about other campfires they'd sat around, winter camping at -40° in the North and so on, outdoing one another with tales of how they'd nearly killed themselves or each other people on various occasions in their Youth. In Rockcliffe, when they were small, (actually this was a dinner time anecdote) Bill and Alan used to "chuck rocks" at the gang of Frenchies across the road and the Frenchies would retaliate by chucking rocks at the maudits anglais. Those were the days, apparently. Only when the clock struck tea time Bill's mother would call "Willi-AM!" in no nonsense tones, and that would be that.

Fourteen years

I was cycling home along MacKay Street this afternoon and, as I passed the house we used to rent when we first moved here from Wales in the autumn of 1995, suddenly realised that we have now been in Ottawa for fourteen years. When we moved in, that week, the street looked like it does now, magnificent, though the two maple trees in the foreground on the left were then not much higher than the For Sale sign is now.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The end of the holiday

9th September, 10th September? That was a long time ago, but I still want to conclude my account of Summer 2009 and record of our last evening at Ste. Flavie and the flight home.

The sun went down five minutes before we were due to take our seats in the restaurant at the Auberge and when we went in, we were given the coveted corner table by two windows overlooking the beach and the sculptures. The colours, as you can see from my pictures, were mesmeric. I can't remember now what I ate, surrounded by the Gagnon family's works of art, but I know it tasted good, as did the Quebec wine.

The next morning, having packed reluctantly and breakfasted deliciously, we refuelled the car in Mt Joli, returned it to the airport and climbed back into PTN to take her home. On the way to Quebec airport we overflew the towns we'd driven through the day before, me saying, "There's the church of Ste. Luce, remember?... There's the lighthouse, there's the submarine! Look, you can see the catamaran from Forrestville just pulling into dock..." (and we'd never realised at ground level how close the Rimouski airport had been to the port). The whole of Rimouski was clearly laid out below us, obviously the region's metropolis, a much bigger place than Mt. Joli.

Beyond Rivière du Loup, the landscape became increasingly familiar and I deliberately looked out for the stripe-patterned fields around the mouth of R. Quelle and the curves of the Ile aux Grues, just as I do when I'm 30000ft higher, flying back to Ottawa from the UK.

At Quebec airport, which had had a facelift and looked smart, we discovered that daily flights go from there to Paris. Our destination was not Paris but home, and back to work.

We've been working hard ever since, and I haven't had the time to blog.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Empress under the sea

After the submarine, the wreck. There's a museum across the road from the Pointe au Père lighthouse that commemorates a ship that rivaled the Titanic, both in its grandeur and in its demise. This was the Empress of Ireland, accidentally rammed and holed by a Norwegian coal freighter in the fog one night off Rimouski, in 1914. She sank in fourteen minutes, with the result that over a thousand lives were lost. It's a sobering story that neither Chris nor I had heard before. In the Pavillon, we saw both the 3-D recreatation on screen as well the exhibition that goes into some detail about this tragedy.

Nowadays the wreck, still down there, is an attraction for scuba divers, an party of whom we later saw setting off in a dinghy from the Rimouski port, all excited and taking photos of one another. It seems that nothing remains tragic for ever.

In the afternoon, after lunch at Les Halles in downtown Rimouski near the Institut maritime du Québec, we drove back in an easterly direction so that I could be soothed by the peaceful atmosphere of the Jardins de Métis, famous for its blue poppies (only in July however); this place is otherwise known as the Reford Gardens. Chris didn't feel like spending $16 just to go and look at some plants growing, but I did, saw some interesting artistic structures in there too, and didn't regret it at all. We met again at the gate an hour later.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


This time last week we were inside a submarine. The Onondaga , built in Britain in 1967, never took part in any battle, but was deployed for reconnaissance in the cold war against the Soviets. Decommissioned in 2000, she was towed to Rimouski's Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père from Halifax last year and has only been accessible to the public since May this year. She is 90 metres long, weighs 1600 tons and had a crew of 70 men. As I put in my notes, their quarters were "a bit cramped".

From the outside she looks like a monstrous artificial whale. We stood outside looking up at her fin or conning tower with its appendages—the periscope, radar, reception, snorkel induction, communications aerial and snorkel exhaust—listening to the recorded commentary on our audioguides which invited us to board the vessel in the "after ends" (at the back). "When you step aboard, you never know when you'll be disembarking," said the guide, a supposed former sonar operator.

Here's where you'd store your beer, he said, when the hatch wasn't being used for loading. You weren't allowed any beer during the 6 hours before your watch. A series of watertight doors divided the compartments of the sub, with sealed outlets overhead for emergencies. The signal ejector, for instance, could send up coloured smoke flares, red for danger, fire or flood. There's a horrendously small Evacuation Tube through which you'd have to swim in your bright orange survival suit, if it came to that. Before evacuation, the compartment would be flooded. Imagine.

Then we squeezed into the engine compartment. Underwater the sub moved at a cautious 4 knots on a quiet, electric motor. The batteries would last for three days at this rate, but if you had to speed up to 13 knots they'd only last half an hour. On the surface the diesel engines were used. The guide mentioned that the smell of the fuel and of the men was all pervasive in this unventilated narrow tube, but you got used to it. They started with 38,000 litres of diesel in the tanks that would be gradually replaced with sea water as it was used up. The men who worked in the engine room would have to work in 60° of heat, too, and wear ear-muffs. Beneath the engines lay the snake pit (trou de serpent) that you could reach down a ladder.

You were never permitted more than a 20second shower, as water on board was at a premium, and to encourage natural "biorhythms" you lived under red light bulbs during the night, in white light during the daytime.

We inspected the instrument panels, many of which looked very modern, the sonar screens on a "glass cockpit". They played us the sounds that a sonar engineer would analyse and often immediately be able to recognise. Each kind of sea traffic had its own acoustic signature, trawlers, cargo ships; even shoals of fish make a distinctive noise on the sonar receiver.

The Sick Bay consisted of two wall mounted cupboards near a trio of bunk beds where the only privacy you get is by pulling your curtains across. To keep up the crew's morale the ship employed first class cooks who baked their own daily bread. There was no room for everyone to sit down in a canteen so crew members would tend to carry their meals away from the galley to eat them in their bunks. How they did this in the limited space available I'm not sure. All waste was expelled from the sub. through a Garbage Ejector.

The front of the ship was the business end from which they'd have launched the torpedoes, 16 of them available. On the Onondaga they had a 6km range and would move at 100kph. This was the coolest, best ventilated compartment of the vessel so it was sometimes used as a movie theatre. For blue movies, so they hinted, but "what happens on board stays on board."

Submariners are apparently proud of "their dolphins" (the badges they wear when qualified), but the service has never earned high prestige; it's sometimes called the "silent service" because of its secret habits and (literally!) low profile. At least they have no dress code to worry about. The training lasts eight months and their evacuation procedures are taught at Rimouski. They also have to learn how to operate the valves on board blind, in case the lights go out. When they pass their exams the new submariners are thrown into the water, and it's cold.

Rather them than me.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The beauty of the island

I'll come back to my chronicle shortly; for the moment I'd like to insert some visual memories of Grand Manan. I didn't record the swish of the water against the yacht's prow, the waves breaking over the pebbly beach, the clink of the metal rings on the masts, the wind flapping lines of washing or flags, the horn of the ferry arriving and departing. You'll just have to imagine those, the smell of the seaweed and the steaming bowls of seafood chowder, too. It was an unpretentious, genuine place, not stage managed for tourists. I hope it will stay that way. Now that visitors from the USA have been largely deterred from going there because of stricter border controls and the recession, it may well. It's still a wild island away from the eastern shore; in fact when our friends were preparing their planes for takeoff on Monday they saw a cougar chasing a deer down the runway.

Anyway, here are the pictures: