mardi 23 février 2010

Batten down the tea-cups, here comes Edith

As is often my wont, I fell to musing about music this morning. Or rather, I was pushed; someone at France Culture unchained Edith Piaf. So there is a role on radio for the hard-of-hearing, or merely those with a fetish for pink leather bulletproof ear-muffs.

Far be it from me to mock the afflicted; I get the odd touch of tinnitus myself, either from playing electric guitar or driving a circular saw, should you be able to tell the difference.

There's certainly no mistaking that compulsive vibrato like an express train on steroids with the DTs; a sure sign that The Little Sparrow Has Landed. Ella Fitzgerald could shatter a wineglass with the sheer purity of her voice. In dear old Edith's case, large plate glass windows simply surrender before the commencement of hostilities; citing name, rank and number in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

I suppose it must be high treason to talk about one of France's finest like this. But I have to admit that I just don't get what Edith Piaf is about. It's all so full-on. I once listened to her greatest hits CD. Twenty whole tracks - home James, and beat the horses into two submissions and a knockout before we start. What I really enjoyed was the wonderful, ethereal, deliciously dead silence when at last she stopped . . .

But we all have music that we don't get. Take Prog Rock, bands like Yes and Genesis; some bloke in a funny hat going on about Hogweeds and Epping Forest. I mean to say, have you ever seen a forest epping? What does it do when it epps? Probably it's just a question of mulch.

Needless to say, I never got Prog Rock either. But what about French Prog Rock? Le cerveau vraiment bogule . . . Congratulations, you have just won a copy of the dreaded Gong Double Live; my official The Most Boring Album Ever In The World Ever for the last 27 years, and counting.

And even now, there's no escape. The French absolutely adore some English guy called Feel Coleen. Most pop stations only possess about four records, three of which are always by Feel Coleen. I have come to the unavoidable conclusion that this must in fact be the bald guy who used to play drums for Genesis . . .

But don't get the idea that I've got a downer on French music. I adore Debussy and Ravel and it was well worth catching Stephane Grappelli live, even if he was about 106 at the time. And then there's our local boy Claude Nougaro, whose best songs I'm gradually learning to play so that girlfriend Claire can sing them. He's got a lovely touch with the lyrics, like in his signature tune Toulouse, talking about the rather dodgy quartier that he grew up in, "where even the grannies love a punch-up". Funny, poignant; great words.

It's a shame as well that Renaud's Miss Maggie isn't better known to us anglais. It is, of course, about La Femme en Fer. It goes on for four verses or so, explaining how the singer loves all the women in the world, even fat, ugly, old slappeuses, because they're not either warmongers or idiot football fans like men. It's just that each verse ends "except Madame Thatcher", or words to that effect . . .

Mind you, I was discussing this with Claire the other day; we simply never got to hear any French bands in England. The only French records I could recall were Vanessa Paradis's first hit Joe Le Taxi and Plastique Bertrand's Ca plane pour moi. Of course, yer man Bertrand (or do you call him Plastique?) turns out to be Belgian, rather like Johnny Hallyday when he's having a row with the taxman.

Well, it could be worse; France's most famous singers may be Belgian, but all the most famous Belgians are fictitious; Hercules Poirot and Tintin. Tonnerre de Brest! C'est un coup de Trafalgar!*

*Usually translated, very loosely indeed, as Blistering barnacles! etc. (See Haddock, Captain, swearing, for the use of). Un coup de Trafalgar dates from the battle naturally, and to this day denotes a cunning or sneaky trick, the French obviously having felt that it was unfair that they lost.

dimanche 21 février 2010

Out on the piste with the Dancing Men

I hope you'll excuse a bit of Proud Daddery with this pic of my son and heir Rhys, aged 13, receiving his first lesson in skiing from girlfriend Claire. At this point, the lad was still a tad wobbly on his pins, hence the somewhat bowed right leg. But we were thrilled to find that after about half an hour he stopped falling over, and zoomed off madly in all directions while remaining largely vertical.

It didn't greatly surprise me because the S&H is remarkably good at sports; a slightly bizarre state of affairs considering that he's related to me, but there you have it. I was deeply grateful to Claire for getting him started. It's wonderful when you can introduce your kids to something they can really enjoy and never had the chance to do before. Besides, it's unfair to inflict too many hours of adult boredom on the young-and-still-alive, during a week's holiday.

I strongly suspect that ma jolie femme de la montagne is a real whizz on the slerps. After all, she lived right up in the Pyrenees for the better part of 48 years. Unfortunately, Claire is recovering from a knee injury so it will probably be next winter before Dangerwoman is once again unleashed on an unsuspecting world.

It does at least save my blushes, as I've never tried skiing, being outstandingly bad at sport. But I must admit to having felt the odd regret that I'd never given it a go in the eight years that I've lived here. I think I must try it sometime when no-one is looking (except the mountain rescue team). Well, as they say: Break a leg. I probably will.

Anyway, The S&H had such a whale of a time the first day, that I couldn't resist offering him another go, so the first pic is taken at Formiguères and the second at Camurac, two of our nearby skiing stations.

I rather liked the row of bods waiting for the ski-lift. Despite some impressive lies on the part of the camera, it was actually so eye-piercingly bright that the queue was reduced to a line of blackened silhouettes; just like Sherlock Holmes's Dancing Men or maybe Captain Flint's secret message in Arthur Ransome's Missee Lee.

Perhaps childhood is different these days. I didn't get to do things like skiing, I didn't even get out of the UK until I was 20, though you could say that I made up for lost time later by emigrating . . . It doesn't bother me, I think it's great that kids can do these things. But I seem to recall a lot via favourite books; as Ransome said: Nothing ever happens in winter holidays.

I admit that I'm rambling on about all this kids' stuff to give me the excuse to mourn the passing of Lionel Jeffries, director of the all-time classic The Railway Children. I first saw the film at the flicks in Cannock, aged nine, when it came out in 1970. It remains that very rare animal, a true family film which also improves on the book.

Edith Nesbit's original is a rather scruffy affair, written quickly for cash, and containing a couple of chapters' worth of padding to swell the always perilously-low Nesbit coffers. Jeffries's script is a gem, cutting out the rubbish, adding in all those great one-liners and lovely, poignant throwaway lines, suggesting various intriguing possibilities that are never explained.

And 40 years on, that bit where Jenny Agutter says "Daddy, my daddy!" still has the power to make grown men cry. Makes me bite the old lip a bit just thinking about it. Who says les anglais are always ze cold feesh?

I wonder if this most English of stories could translate into French. Girlfriend Claire's unfondest memoires of train travel involve spending six deeply tedious hours per weekend coming home from boarding school on the delightfully antique but fearsomely slow Train Jaune, bump and grinding its way, as near as dammit vertically, back into the Pyrenees. Bit of a nul point there, I think.

Mind you, we are supposed to be getting a steam-hauled special, visiting Limoux for the famous carnival in a week or two. The loco should be a 141R, a serious piece of kit by British standards; a vast green and gleaming monster. It is a dragon, I always knew it was . . .

mardi 9 février 2010

Alors, c'est Begin the Beguine aux legumes

Cole Porter, isn't it? Though I don't think that he mentioned carrots. Mes amis français too can be ambivalent on the subject of vegetables, or to be precise, vegetarians.

The French have no particular dislike for veggies; they just find it very difficult to fathom why anyone would want to be one. It isn't really something they do.

This is all causing a bit of head-scratching chez girlfriend Claire just at the mo. Her school is expecting an exchange party of Irish girls in a month or two, and a couple of them are listed as vegetarians (strict).

For a start, they're all a bit hazy at this end as to what strict vegetarian means. Said girls are going to be staying with French families and it's a bit worrying wondering what they're going to be able to eat.

I must admit that any pauvre maman française faced with having to cook up a solid week's worth of pure veganism, without previous experience on the frontline, has my deepest sympathy. I'm no anti-veggie myself (I came up with a chickpea, lemon and fresh coriander salad at the weekend that was profoundly wicked), but anyone giving me chapter and verse over the rights and wrongs of lesser-spotted rennet while I'm trying to cook, is likely to end up wearing their dinner . . .

Actually there's nothing really to worry about. We have all the right vegetables here; just not necessarily, as Eric Morecambe famously said, in the right order. Girlfriend Claire wouldn't dream of making a meal without a good salad and some choice spuds. But equally she wouldn't do it without the meat. It is meet and right so to do. Yea verily.

Coincidentally les têtes d'oeuf chez France Culture were having a good go on animal rights this very morning. They were deeply clever and philosophical, throwing in all manner of cultural allusions for good measure. They also opined that it was fairly safe, medically speaking, to be a veggie.

But in the end, they continued to be frankly baffled, deciding that the best big, hairy, macho blerk français way of keeping animals in their place was still . . . to eat them.

Evidently the Glorious Path of Meatness is where your Frenchman feels most at home. And it has to be said that les français would have made a much better job of tackling The Great Ruddy Duck Menace than the massed hapless plonks of the British Government.

The Ruddy Duck, apparently, is a great swaggering, bonktastic, American slappeur of a duck. It is steadily wiping out the native British White-headed Duck, which is uterly wet and a weed (molesworth), crap in a scrap and positively panda-esque in its relative prissiness.

Deciding that the only effective way to put a Ruddy Duck off its stroke is to shoot it, ever-efficient Whitehall employed a team of highly professional marksmen. This has so far, saith The Observer, cost a magnificent £4.6million, c'est à dire, £742 per duck . . .

Les français would simply have let the valiant pastis-swilling members of la chasse loose on les Yanquis volants and probably made more than a few bob charging for licences. You can bet that they would have converted the lot into magret de canard quicker than you can say Donald.

Probably they would also have shot one or two of each other in the process, mais tant pis, it's all par for the course and you can solve most things over a glass of Ricard.

mercredi 3 février 2010

Peer Gynt? Do it on the radio . . .

I didn't have a pic to hand so I thought I'd write something about the radio, just to make you think that I planned it that way . . .

Actually I've discovered that Radio 4 is alive and kicking in France. Yes, I know you can get all those nice Beeb chaps and chapettes on the net. What I really meant to say is that France has its own version of Bay Bay Say Raddio Quatre, called France Culture.

It really is a dead ringer for Radio 4 or as Larousse online puts it; un sosie. So there you have it, your new French word for today: dead ringer = un sosie. I had to write it into the blog to avoid forgetting the blasted word instantly.

Do you find yourself staring at French words that you know damn well you've looked up; you just can't remember what they mean? I do. I suppose it's what comes of trying to build up a gigantic French vocab at a time when my brain cells are expiring quicker than my ability to put things in them.

As usual I digress. The important thing about France Culture is that you have a regular collection of exactly the kind terribly clever people talking about terribly clever subjects in a terribly refined and civilised manner that you would find on Radio 4.

But this means that you already know what they're talking about, which of course is sometimes more than they do. And thus, already being familiar with the subjects, you can understand a lot of very clever French and feel thoroughly pleased with yourself. Especially as it all gets easier with practice.

Of course, FC does have a few touches of its own. To be a regular broadcaster, it seems that you have to be a fifty-something blerk with a fruity voice de bon timbre, rather like Rumpole armed with a bottle of Château Thames Embankment, and defending Asterix for carrying sanglier-breaking implements.

This obviously involves smoking about 50,000 fags because the taut and intelo discourse does break down remarkably often for the All-France Coughing Championships.

And being radical intellectuals doesn't stop them going in for the odd bout of old-fashioned reactionary macho stuff. They couldn't wait to rip into a particularly ardent young feminist the other morning.

She did rather dig herself into un trou (noun masc) while trying to argue inherent sexism in the French language. This is a viable argument in English where we assign masculine, feminine and neuter genders according to some semblance of reality. But in a language where boats are masculine and tables feminine on some entirely arbitrary grammatical basis, the idea really doesn't hold water.

I note that my online dictionary has a list of thirteen words for various girly bits, twelve of which are masculine, and one for "balls" which is feminine, so maybe the French are just plain confused . . .

Mind you, FC also ran a nice piece on how the Stuart kings managed to get themselves deposed twice, which is a lot more real English history than you get to hear in England these days, so it doesn't do to get on the old grands chevaux too often.

Apparently "high horse" translates directly, which brings me back to my favourite subject of idiom. I heard a lovely one the other day: "Et mon cul est un poulet?" Or "And my arse is a chicken?" It really does mean "Are you kidding me?" so no, I'm not.

STOP PRESS: le piano préhistorique du café est parti.That's to say, it's gorn: A nation mourns, or to be accurate, it doesn't.