Istanbul seafood

Fish stall in Istanbul

Fish stall in Istanbul

One of my favourite food memories of Istanbul are the fish grills down by the Galata Bridge.

Galata Tower

Crossing the road from the New Mosque at the start of Friday prayers, the appetising smell of grilled fish gets stronger the closer you get to the bridge. There’s a crowd of people milling around and sitting at little tables in front of floating grills, eating long rolls filled with fish and salad leaves.

Fish grill 3

The little grill boats, which bob and sway on the sea, are extravagantly decorated and their staff smartly dressed in gold and black uniforms.

Fish grill

Closer up the fish looks like mackerel:

Fish grill 2

A shame that I have had a very substantial breakfast this morning. Just another good reasons for coming back to Istanbul. Often now when I smell fish on the barbecue it reminds me of this scene and an extraordinary city.

New Mosque

Bookends of the Search

I have previously blogged about my literary pilgrimages to Proust’s Illiers-Combray and to Montaigne’s Tower. It seems odd that there is no explicit reference to Montaigne in A la recherche du temps perdu: how could he not have been one of Proust’s favourite reads? This great article on Sharon Girard’s wonderful Proust and Other Matters blog shows in fact that there is a hidden homage at the start and end of the novel. The whole site is well worth exploring for its thoughtful and insightful posts on Proust.

Proust and Other Matters

The Bookends of the Search Contain a Secret

The first paragraph and the last form a stunning pair of bookends which contain a secret.  The secret is an homage to an unnamed titan of French letters.  The titan’s name appears nowhere in The Search, but his legacy is felt and Proust knows it and cherishes it.  I call this homage a secret because I’ve never come across it in Proust commentary.  But it’s out of the closet now.  Remember, you read it here first.  (If you find it somewhere else, please let me know!  I first revealed the secret to my Yahoo Proust group in 2003.)

The beginning of The Search, page 1, paragraph 1, takes place in that dusky state of hypnagogia where all is possible.  In bed, M holds a book and reads by candlelight.  Just barely drifting off, he imagines that he himself is the subject of…

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Fantasy Bakin’ Boy

Bakery exterior

It’s just gone five o’clock on a cool, dark morning in late August and I have been waiting at the bakery now for nearly half an hour. I’ve knocked on the door, walked round the back and inspected closed shutters with my torch, but there’s no sign of life. Perhaps I got the day or the time wrong.

Then just as I am about to give up, M. Meynard arrives. He’s running about an hour behind. Full of energy in his light t-shirt, cargo shorts and trainers, he opens up the bakery and off we go.

I am spending a few hours working with an artisan baker in a small village called St Magne de Castillon in the lower Dordogne valley. I am a home sourdough baker and part-time fantasist about the delights of baking for a living.

M Meynard

No time to lose, my son and I are pressed into service, rolling black dustbins full of proving dough into the bakery. Kneeling in front of the firebox, the baker uses newspaper and pine kindling uses using paper and pine kindling from trees grown in the nearby Landes area to get the fire going. The flames are soon roaring, but it will take another 1½ hours and frequent stoking to get the oven hot enough to bake. As the oven heats up M. Meynard removes a couple of bricks from the front of the hearth and replaces them with a shaped metal gueulat  (mouth) so the flames start flicking out from it and heating the surface of the hearth itself.

By the flickering light of the oven, M. Meynard talks almost mystically about baking: “It is an art and it’s also about feeling. You have to watch the dough and the oven carefully. If the wind is coming from the north or west, the oven behaves differently and every day the dough is different too.”


But this is not the time for a deep discussion, we are rushing to catch up. Now I’m weighing and shaping the dough into loaves and first up is a sourdough mixture of wholewheat and white (T65) flour. “These are going to be cèpes de vignes,” he tells me, “so called because they look like vine branches”.


I tense the dough by folding it, rounding it to a ball with cupped hands then rolling out it to a baguette shape. Well, that’s the theory. Under my hands, they end up like misshapen sausages. M. Meynard picks them up and with a few deft movements sorts them out before putting them on a couche made of coarse linen that’s over 80 years old and has never been washed.

“Many bakers in France now buy in the dough for their bread, but I mix my own”, he says. “With the white baguettes, you have to make sure that the dough is firm when you shape it. You put the bread in the couche with the seam side up so that when you turn it over you can slash the top.”


I ask him how he made his own levain: “I use a liquid levain with wholemeal flour at 100% hydration. I refresh it then store it at 11o C and leave for 18 hours so it’s ready to use to make the dough at 2.00-3.00 am.”

Next we’re on to white and seeded boules, and then baguettes proper. He handles the dough confidently without it sticking to either his hands or the bench. It’s this finesse, especially in shaping, that separates artisan professional from clumsy amateur.

Wood fired oven

M. Meynard comes from a line of bakers going back 140-150 years. “In France it tends to run in the family.When people do repetitive work it somehow gets into the genes. I trained as a baker, but I had worked with my dad. In France it tends to run in the family and go from one generation to the next. Once you are old enough you are put to work in the bakery. It was my great grandfather who had this oven installed in 1898 when he married the girl across the road and opened the bakery. Before that this building, which dates back to the eighteenth century, had been a winery.” In his turn he was the son of a baker in a small village on the other side of the Dordogne called St Pez de Castet.

M Meynard-2

I have always slightly romanticised the life of an artisan baker, but talking to him, I realise how hard it can be, and not well paid. He remembers what it was like working with his grandfather: “ We started work at about midnight to make up the dough and then slept on sacks of flour in the bakery while we waited a long time for the oven to heat up. We also had the vineyard to look after in the afternoons.”

Such unsociable hours are not good for family life or for health: “When I was 10 I was helping my grandfather in the bakery here load the oven at Christmas when he had a heart attack and died in front of me.” His father also had a heart attack in the bakery at the age of 51 and when M. Meynard was 36 he too had a heart attack on the tennis court.

At the moment he is one worker short, which means that he has to work long hours to keep both bakeries going. “I went to bed at 10.00 last night and this morning I woke up at 1.30am. I’ll probably have a couple of hours sleep this afternoon. It’s like this every day.” I couldn’t possibly function sensibly with this degree of sleep deprivation, so I am amazed at his energy and good humour.


As the bell for 7.00 am Mass rings, M.Meynard cleans the hearth with a wet rag on stick before we start the first bake. Then, turning the shaped and proved loaves onto a long-handled wooden peel and slashing them with a razor blade, he reaches into the depths of the oven and deftly shugs them onto the hearth. The larger loaves go at the back of the oven as they take longer to cook and the smaller baguettes at the front.

As a reward for rolling loaves onto the peel, I’m allowed to load the last few into the oven. It’s much harder than it looks. Top tip: never stand behind a baker wielding a five metre peel – it really hurts when he hits you with it.

He managed to escape his baking destiny for a while, becoming a mason, working his way up to Commercial Director of a company and then as a sales rep for a flour mill. But he felt that he needed a complete change of direction and was planning to run a hotel on the Mediterranean, until one night: “I had a dream in which I saw my father again – he’d been dead a long time by then – and he was repairing the oven. I had the idea of opening the bakery just on a Sunday. But quickly it became impossible just to bake on a Sunday because there was such a demand for bread that was out of the ordinary.”

People still come from 20-30 km away to buy his bread, but he is aware that in general people are now much less loyal to their local baker than they used to be. They tend to buy bread from near where they work or when they are shopping in the supermarket.

I’ve sometimes toyed with the idea of baking for a living, but could never get the business maths to stack up and I wondered how he found it. “To make it work you need a small business. I used to have a business with 4 bakeries that employed 18 people and I lost money because in France there are so many overheads. Then I came down to 3 bakeries and 13 people, and now I have 2 bakeries and 9 people. I’m now in the process of selling the other bakery and keeping this one with three people, and that will be great. It’s the way to make money. The problem with industrial bakeries – apart from the staff issues – is that you have to get large customers, retirement homes, schools, hospitals and hotels who all buy on prices. So you are working on very fine margins.”


Soon it’s all hands on deck to get the finished bread out of the oven and into baskets to cool off before going on display. The loaves have that wonderful aroma and golden colour that only come from being baked in a wood fired oven. Impossible, alas, to reproduce it in a domestic electric oven, as I can testify from my endless attempts.


The T65 flour he uses has the Label rouge, which designates it as a superior quality product. The flour is a delicate yellow colour, but if you mix it for too long it tends to go whiter. I’ve always wondered what the numbers in French flour types mean. He tells me that they indicate the level of ash in the flour once 1 kg of flour has been heated at 900C for 12 hours.  So for the T65 flour, it contains 65gm of mineral contents that were not burnt.

In the old days the flour the family used came from local mills, and it was very ‘rough’. “It was not very resistant, so we had to use a lot of levain or yeast in order to make firm dough. Bakers used to say that you had to put a lot of energy into the dough because the dough is not elastic. Now modern flour mills use high gluten flours that give a good rise, but the downside is that more and more people are getting gluten allergies.”

Tastes have changed over the years: “After the war people wanted white bread, because they’d eaten lots of brown bread during the war. But gradually over the past 15 years, we’ve been coming back to less aerated breads with more taste. So in addition to white and wholemeal I use other flours such as spelt, buckwheat, maize, kamut and barley – especially for customers with gluten allergies.”

His own favourite bread varies with the season of the year. “Breads are like wine. I advise people to serve different breads with different courses. Certain breads improve the taste of the food, just as certain wines do. For example, with foie gras, thinly sliced and lightly toasted ‘sarments’ go with it very well. With red meats breads which are crisp and a bit stale bring out the flavour more. At Christmas I make a fig bread with lime that goes very well with smoked salmon. Rye bread goes very well with oysters because it has a depth of flavour to match the oysters. And walnut bread goes very well with cheese.”


The wood fired oven and the baking bread mingle to create an enticing and comforting aroma. As people come in to buy their bread and patisserie for breakfast, little jokes are exchanged. They smile, lingering a little in the warmth and savouring the appetising smells of baking bread and patisseries, before carrying on with their lives. Not a bad way to make a living after all.

Bakery goods

But there’s no time to stop, we have to get the second bake of the morning going.



8 lessons I learned from Comrade Stalin about corporate life

Comrade Stalin

As a student of Russian history, I have from time to time been struck by some of the similarities between corporate life and life in the Soviet Union under Stalin. In saying this I do not wish in any way to minimise the suffering and the evil murder of millions of innocent people. Rather I want to focus on the similarity in techniques of persuasion.

Lesson 1: planning. As a planned centralised economy, the Soviet regime ran everything according to the pyatiletka (the five-year plan). Stalin even wanted to make the film industry work on the same lines. Often they were as much a complete fantasy as their claimed fulfilment or more likely ‘over-fulfilment’. In my corporate life, I lost count of the number of 3 and 5 year business plans I worked on. More often than not they were put in a draw and forgotten until the next planning cycle started.

Lesson 2: visions and mission statements. Stalin used clunky slogans and visionary statements to exhort the people to greater effort. Successive CEOs came and went with their simplified statements of why we were all coming to work day after day. One of the more memorable ones was one of the last: “A good place to do business for customers, shareholders and colleagues”. That was probably only true for shareholders, as judging by the volume of customer complaints, they did not share the vision – and for staff it was an increasingly unpleasant and unhealthy environment in which to work.

Lesson 3: intolerance of dissent. Stalin saw any dissent as betrayal and ruthlessly suppressed any actual or supposed signs of it. Similarly, corporate life discouraged any dissent or disagreement with decisions. It doesn’t like democracy or debate. The price it pays is much pent-up frustration amongst staff and a failure to properly engage people. In the end, for a quiet life, people pay lip service to the company, much as the majority of people paid lip service to Stalin’s regime.

Lesson 4: purges. One of the main ways that Stalin dealt with dissent was through purges. The worst of these occurred in the 1930s following the ‘death’ of Kirov in Leningrad. Stalin, who was almost certainly responsible for having Kirov murdered, used it as a pretext for getting rid of people who he felt opposed his regime through a succession of purges in most areas of life, from the party, armed forces, NKVD (Secret Police), academia, industry, the arts, ordinary people. It reached its peak in 1937 when it devoured Yezhov, Head of the NKVD itself. Of course, companies don’t kill people or send them off to die in labour camps, but they do periodically have re-structures, often to shed staff in the interests of becoming more efficient. Often incoming CEOs or senior management instigate their own purges as a way of stamping their own authority quickly on a company and bringing in their own place-men, people who are loyal to them and whom they trust to do their bidding.

Lesson 5: non persons and the re-writing of history. Once Stalin had managed to grab and consolidate power, he famously made his erstwhile rival, Trotsky, a non-person. He was airbrushed out of history: photographs in which he appeared were doctored to exclude him; and he was expunged from books about the civil war in which he had played a leading part, both in shaping the new Red Army and in leading it against the White forces. Companies often treat their ex-workers in a similar way, their contributions are quickly forgotten, often downplayed, as if they were a risk to the current incumbents. Truly they are names written in water.

Lesson 6: propaganda and self-delusion. Stalin maintained himself in power through an extremely powerful and insidious propaganda machine (as well as by force, terror and fear) that created the delusion that people were living in a society that was travelling towards the perfect Communist society. The relentlessly upbeat in-house magazines and press releases generated by my previous company create a similar sort of effect: ‘this is a great place to work, we are on the right path, we are doing well, we can do even better. Of course, there are still things we aren’t getting quite right, but’: this last is even a direct borrowing from Soviet propaganda wording ‘konechno u nas est nedostaki, no…’ And suddenly one day I went in to work to discover we were all ‘colleagues’: the word ‘staff’ became a non-word.

Lesson 7: cult of the leader: Stalin idolised Lenin (even whilst betraying his last wishes), endlessly doodling the words “Lenin – teacher, friend’ during meetings. But he promoted himself even more as the Great Leader (Vozhd), especially after the Second World War. Similarly CEOs position themselves as the fount of all wisdom and knowledge, omnipresent in in-house magazines. Endlessly quoted, directly or indirectly, by senior managers and their cohorts to justify their actions.

Lesson 8: subordination of personal lives.  Stalin wanted to re-make society and create homo sovieticus by remolding individuals, to colonise their private and even interior lives. Diaries of some intellectual revolutionaries in the 20s particularly showed that they shared the same ideal of re-making themselves. One of his great frustrations was what goes on behind closed doors in families and amongst friends and, even more frustratingly, what goes on in people’s heads. He therefore tried to break the family by encouraging people to inform on each other, even within families. My former company demanded ever greater and greater loyalty, forcing staff to work longer hours and sacrifice their own personal time, health and family life to meet corporate objectives.

Re-reading this, the way that companies behave is not just down to Stalin. It is behaviour that is learned from oppressive regimes of all stripes throughout history. Western Capitalism is just the latest to employ them.   


Travelling hopefully

I realise that it’s been two years now since I started this blog. I started it when I was made redundant after the company I worked for decided to rationalise its offices and close the one I worked in. So as good a time as any to look back on two years of unemployment / enforced semi-retirement.

At the time it came like a release. I had worked for the company for 25 years and for much of that time dreamt of getting out of it and doing something different, something with a purpose. When the opportunity came along, I took it willingly. My departure was eased by a redundancy package, and then about a couple of months after I left, by my company pension kicking in.

My aim initially was to try to get contract work in my old line of business and I thought it would be easy to find within a month or so of leaving. Of course, I couldn’t go back to my old employer for a couple of years, but surely there must be lots of other opportunities?

The recruitment consultants I contacted were very positive about my prospects. Gradually though as the weeks after I left turned into months they rarely contacted me and even more rarely returned my calls.

I started to expand my search out, looking at the charity sector, business admin work, anything basically. I have applied for quite a lot of jobs and been invited to about 10 interviews; so far with no success.

The fact is that I don’t feel ready to retire: my mind is too active and I still need to earn money.

How have I used my time? I have done some volunteering. I took a writing course. I have tried to improve my photography. I have written some news and feature articles for my local paper. I went through the lengthy process of applying to become a magistrate. This is something I dearly wanted to do. I enjoyed observing cases and watching the criminal justice system in action. I had a terrific second interview which was very stimulating and I felt I was on fire. But though found suitable for appointment, I got filtered out by the quota system. Well, I suppose there are only so many grey-haired, middle class men they can take if they are going to have a representative cross-section of society on the bench.

Then there’s this blog that I keep writing from time to time – and this is my hundredth post!

I have tried hard to think of businesses I could start on my own based on the things I enjoy doing as hobbies (baking, writing, photography). But, perhaps it’s just me, I can’t see how to turn them into paying businesses.

Hope and expectations rise and fall, although it always feels more comfortable when I am taking action, rather than just waiting on others to come back to me.

The search continues. I am still travelling hopefully. There is no other way.

How children’s books thrived under Stalin – Guardian review

Read this wonderful article by Philip Pullman in Saturday’s Guardian Review about early Soviet writers and designers of children’s books: How children’s books thrived under Stalin

Several years ago I went to an exhibition at Tate Modern in London about the Constructivists. One of the most fascinating things about that exhibition for me was how the art of the Futurists and Constructivists, which developed in the years leading up to the Revolution and which could easily have become a self-indulgent dead-end, was adapted for propaganda purposes. A lot of posters for example make use of their bold colour blocks and angular type.

As he points out in his article Philip Pullman on a new book called Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920-35: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times by Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya, avant garde writers who found it impossible to get their work published or shown turned to children’s books as a way of surviving and earning a living. For a while at least, until the dead hand of the Stalinist regime tightened its grip, their art blossomed and survived in this enclave.

In praise of the rackety life

Being sort of semi-retired has given me time to reflect on different approaches to life, as I try to create my own new life after full-time employment. Not that I have given up on full-time employment, far from it. I’ve actually been looking for work now for 20 months, so far without success. I suspect it’s my age which puts potential employers off. Who knows? Perhaps that’s just my own defensive fantasy!

I look for different things now from work. Something satisfying that gives me a sense that I am doing something more worthwhile than just earning a pay cheque. Something that allows more time than just living to work, eat and sleep. Something that lets me live my life as well. I’ll keep looking.

Anyway, I keep coming across people who live far more disordered lives than I can imagine. A prime example is Patrick Leigh-Fermor, who apart from his time in the army during the war and a brief spell at the British Council in Athens after the war, did not hold down any regular job at all. He travelled a lot and wrote rather less than he could have done. Of course he was lucky to marry in to money which removed a lot of the financial pressure that forces the rest of us to turn up at the coalface day after day.

Then there’s my old college friend, an eccentric even then. He once got out of a tutorial by claiming (correctly) that he had been taken in for questioning by the police on suspicion of murder. It turns out that the tuxedo he’d sent to the laundry had been suspected of being soaked in blood, as opposed to being stained with the port he’d actually spilled down it. After college he travelled widely all over the Arabic speaking world, becoming fluent in Arabic and its offshoots, and lived for a time in a village in Pakistan. He has no money but is fabulously well-connected. One of the stranger stories that swirl around him concerns the end of the Shah’s regime. Apparently he left Tehran and drove across the border with the body of deceased Anglican priest in the boot because he didn’t want it to be desecrated by the new regime.

Someone else I came across recently, has done a bit of this and that: some teaching, some singing, some singing teaching, investment banking, a project or two here and there.

For me, used to routine and regular income, this sort of life is almost heroic, just through its riskiness and unpredictability.What is the attraction? Probably because it is just so different from what I have known. Perhaps better to live it though vicariously, at a distance, through these extraordinary other people rather than being in the gut churning maelstrom of it.

Letters of introduction in white, red and blue

In Artemis Cooper’s wonderful recent biography of Patrick Leigh-Fermor, she describes how, in the course of his walk across Europe in the 1930s, he managed to meet and stay with a succession of eccentric and often brilliant aristocratic families in Germany and middle Europe. In the main this was thanks to some letters of introduction provided by a friend of his landlady’s in London. And, of course, as he stayed with more people they provided further letters of introduction to their friends and relatives to help him further along his route to Constantinople.  

It reminded me of the only time in my life (to date – who knows what may happen tomorrow?) when I was given a couple of letters of introduction.

Nearly 40 years ago I was living in France and working as an English language assistant in a lycee in Grenoble. On my university course I was also studying Russian and the wife of my professor, with whom I took some translation classes, finding out where I was going to do this stage in France, gave me a letter of introduction to a White Russian family by the name of K—– (can’t resist the anonymising device of old Russian novels) who lived in Grenoble. One there, I hung on to the letter for quite a while, as there were so many other distractions in my life at that time. And then one day decided to make contact with them.

Details at this distance in time are hazy. I recall there seemed to be quite a few people in the flat and I never quite worked out who they all were. The reason for the introduction was so that I could speak Russian to them. Remember, this was the early 1970s so access to native Russian speakers in those days was rare. My Russian at that time, even though I was studying it at university, was to say the least not good. In fact to me it was mainly a written language and my main exposure to it was via nineteenth century literature. In the circumstances, and given the fact I felt very self-conscious about speaking it, It was hard  to make conversation in the language, so we spoke mainly in French.

I remember that they sort of invited me to a party or event that may have had some connection with the (Orthodox) church. Looking back, if I had had any sense I would have tried harder to speak Russian and to make friends with them. However, I didn’t and that was undoubtedly my loss. One of the main things that sticks in my memory though about that one and only meeting with them was when we got onto the subject of politics.

Pompidou was nearing the end of his presidency and life – he died in April 1974. But in the last few months of his life there was much speculation about his health. Magazines and newspapers showed pictures of him with a very swollen face. Clearly something was wrong with him, but of course he denied it. There was therefore much talk of an upcoming election and after so many years of Gaullism, a sense that the country was going to take another direction, specifically a lurch leftwards. My White Russian family, mindful of the Russian Revolution and its upheavals (and who knows what personal tragedies it brought them), were horrified at the prospect of a Communist government coming to power in France. In fact they were so frightened of it, they told me that if it happened they would pack their bags and leave the country.

I thought at the time they were being alarmist. I remember people in England saying the same sort of thing at the prospect of a Labour government in the early 60s. But looking back and knowing a bit more about that period now than I did at the time, I can appreciate why they felt the way they did.

The main leftwing parties in France at that time had united under Le Programme Commun, driven mainly by the Communist Party. I remember buying a copy of it, a book the size of an average paperback, though I never did get round to reading it.  However, this leftwing coalition, in order not to alienate too many leftist sympathisers, had the sense not to elect a leader from the Communist Party. Instead they selected François Mitterand who, ironically when he did become president in 1984, started to drift as far away from the left as you could imagine.

Fast forward a few weeks and it is a warm evening in the Stade de Glace in Grenoble. It is 4 May and the last night of the quick presidential election campaign called following Pompidou’s death in office. I am sitting up in the balcony with a couple of English friends surrounded by several thousand fervent French leftwingers. We are waiting for Mitterand to appear and give his last address of the election campaign. Grenoble was no doubt  chosen for the climax of the campaign because at the time it was a socialist stronghold, with a forward thinking socialist mayor called Hubert Dubedout who was doing great things for the city.

We have had a few warm up speeches, including one from Pierre Mendès France, a longstanding leftwing politician. He was an anticolonialist who in the late 40s had started French disengagement from Indo-China by negotiating an armistice with Ho Ch Minh. Later he clashed with de Gaulle over government policy on Algeria. Then amazingly a slight woman with black hair and wearing a long black dress emerges on the stage, trailing a single red rose (the symbol of the leftwing alliance). The audience goes wild. It is Juliette Gréco, and she proceeds to give us some of her great songs.

However, it is getting late. By law electioneering has to stop at midnight. It’s now gone eleven and there’s still no sign of Mitterrand. Even Juliette is struggling to hold the audience’s attention. When it gets past 11.30, the audience are boiling with frustration at Mitterrand’s non-appearance. Then suddenly there he is on stage, giving a speech which is greeted almost hysterically by the audience. At one point we sing the Marseillaise. I say ‘we’ because I jumped to my feet and joined in, giving it full voice, whilst my English comrades pointedly remained seated. I enjoyed that bit enormously but was later treated to a bit of lecture about the dangers of mob hysteria.

Then it was midnight and, like Cinderella, Mitterrand slips away. Amazingly this election turned out to be one of the closest in French history. The Gaullist candidate, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing failed to get a majority in the first round and it went to a second ballot where he won by about 400,000 votes – or a whisker as we psephologists prefer to say. No doubt my White Russian family breathed a huge sigh of relief.

My second letter of introduction was to a French nun. At the time I was going through my Catholic phase and before leaving for France had been taking instruction from a Jesuit to ’embrace the scarlet woman’, as they used to say. In spite of the Jesuit’s urging I had refused to be stampeded into a decision. Somehow and from a Catholic friend I imagine I had managed to get this introduction. I held on to it for a long time, not sure what I would have in common with a nun. Eventually out of curiosity I rang her up and she invited me to the convent one Saturday afternoon.

As it turned out, she was quite entertaining. She was a teacher of English and I was able to help her out be recording some pieces from her textbooks for her classes. We had tea and cake in the communal area of the convent with some of the other nuns, who all seemed very calm and quite jolly.

One event stays in my memory all these years later. She invited me to the convent one Sunday afternoon for an outing. In the boxy convent Renault we drove up into the mountains, my nun friend driving, another nun beside her and me sat in the back with the Profesor of Astrophysics from Birmingham University, on a visit from CERN. I have no idea how he knew these nuns. Perhaps he too had a letter of introduction…

Up and up into the mountains we went, each hairpin bend revealing more and more dramatic views, until at one point flat part we stopped and the nuns pointed at some wild flowers by the side of the road. We got out of the car and walked over to them. They turned out to be gentians. I can still see their intense blue colour, smell the heady scent of pine resin, and feel the freshness of the air in these high mountains. For some reason it remains an intense, clear experience across the years.

The changing sounds of English

They say that you can tell you’re getting older when policemen start to look younger. Don’t know about that, but I have noticed the new doctor at our practice looks like a student.

One of the other signs I have noticed is an increasing awareness of changes in spoken English. Not so much in grammar and spelling. I’ve given up on that because it would be a sign that I am attached to the English as I was taught at school as the yardstick for the language as a whole, and any changes are almost an assault on me as a person.

It relates more to certain changes in English pronunciation which are harder to understand. Some years ago, I first became aware of a change in the way people pronounce the words community and communications. The initial syllable com was being shortened to kim, so the words sounded like kimmunity and kimmunications  I thought at first that it was a local pronunciation issue, but since then I have noticed it has become more widespread and is now frequently to be heard in the broadcast media.

Then there’s the word nuclear. It is somehow morphing into nuc-a-lear. Even my son says it. Then there’s almond, now being pronounced as written, rather than armond.

Most recently I have come across a strange change in the pronunciation of the word vulnerable, which is being pronounced as if it didn’t have the first letter l: vunerable. Even Ian Duncan-Smith says it, though I suspect that he wouldn’t know what it meant if it bit him on the bottom.

Language changes all the time. If it didn’t we would all still be speaking like characters in Beowulf. We smile now at the strangulated upper class English vowel sounds of the 30s. Just listen to the way the Queen speaks now as compared with when she first came to the throne. But why do the sounds change at all? What is it that drives vowel sound shifts? Whatever it is, it seems that those changes happen more quickly because the media reflect and disseminate variations far more quickly than happened in the past.




The strange attraction of sadness

My Greek tutor has recently been introducing me to Greek poetry, especially the poetry of Odysseas Elytis. The Greeks seem to have a fondness for setting poetry to music; ranging from Theodorakis’s setting of Elytis’s To Axion Esti (It is truly meet) through to settings of his nature poems for children (Sea Clover and Cicadas). I was struck by one particularly bleak poem, called To Parapono (The Complaint). Here’s my translation:

Here, half-way along the road

The time has come for me to say

Other things are the ones I love

I set out for something completely different.

Amid the true and the false

I hereby confess

I was like someone else and not me

Acting in life.

No matter how careful you are

No matter how hard you search

It will always be too late

There is no second go at life.

There’s a particularly fine rendition of it by Eleutheria Arvanitaki, set to the music of Dimitris Papadimitriou played on solo piano – see here

It seems to tap into a deep theme of sadness that (admittedly in my very limited experience) is evident in Greek music and poetry. It reminds me a bit of the sadness that is a major feature of Russian folk songs. I mention this to Maria who agrees that this is a cultural phenomenon in Greece, but the interpretation is different. To us, non-Greeks, it may seem like wallowing in sadness. However, to Greeks, it’s almost like a form of Stoic innoculation. It’s as if in The Complaint Elytis were saying: ‘Yes, that’s how life is. There is no second chance, so get on with it!’

So that is how I have now moved on to exploring Greek mourning songs (Moiroloi) which have no equivalent in England. I will try and report back on that in future.

In the meantime, I often think about the question that Michael Berkeley sometimes asks his guests on BBC Radio 3’s programme Private Passions: why do we like sad music? I can’t remember any answer to this I have heard that is totally convincing. After all, if you have the choice why would you choose to listen to something that makes you feel sad as opposed to something that makes you happy?

Probably the most convincing explanation that I have come across was in another Radio 3 programme that Stephen Johnson, the musicologist, made about how the music of Shostakovich had on three separate occasions pulled him out of deep clinical depression (Shostakovich – A Journey into Light). Shostakovich is a composer of some of the darkest, bleakest, most despairing music written in the last century. Looking for an explanation for the effect of this music, Stephen Johnson turned to Professor Paul Robertson, one of the founders of The Medici Quartet and an expert on the connection between music and science. ‘Music can give you a ladder out of somewhere extreme and painful. It provides a locus of control: you can externalise your feelings, examine them and hence become aware that change is possible. It shows that something beautiful can come out of pain. It begins to give it meaning and everything can be borne if it has meaning.’

So dark music helps us to externalise and start to understand our dark feelings and in some way to start to be able to deal with them more objectively rather than be overwhelmed by them

Professor Robertson’s scientific understanding was also borne out by his experience as a musician. He used to play with the Medici Quartet in hospitals, often to patients in truly dire states of health. So they assumes that they should play ‘cheerful’ music. However, what the patients really wanted was darker music, such as Death and the Maiden and Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet.

There is also one curious historical case of someone being cured of melancholia by music. In the eighteenth century, King Philip V of Spain probably suffered from bipolar disorder and started to live a nocturnal life which, of course, affected the whole court. To ease his pain, the famous Italian castrato, Farinelli, was invited to the court to sing 8 or 9 arias to the king and his wife every night.