26 July 2019

Let Me Sing And I'm Happy

Non, je n'egret rien

Every summer now for some ten years or so a friend and I have taken a couple of July days out to walk somewhere in England.  We have wandered on the Northumbrian coast, in the Yorkshire Dales, the Peak District, in Norfolk, Suffolk, the Cotswolds, along the Kent coast, around Malvern and Stratford, and, this year, in rural Essex.

This year we found ourselves alongside the thundering A120 near Colchester, attempting to appreciate the joys of Essex in the shadow of the new Caligula, Al (Mammy) Jolson [I'd walk a million miles.....complete according to taste....]

the Blue Boris Chafer

In fact, there is an Irving Berlin song that Alexander Boris Piccaninny Letterbox Kipper Caligula Jolson made famous, by the title of Let Me Sing And I'm Happy, which just about sums up the onanistic joys of these happy days in their full fretulosity.....

What care I who makes the laws of a nation
Let those who will take care of its rights and wrongs
What care I who care for the world's affairs
As long as I can sing this popular song
Let me sing a funny song with crazy words that roll along
And if my song can start you laughing I'm happy, so happy


In the muddy estuarine tracts of Essex I lose myself in reflections on life and love that are far, very very far, from Westminster or Brussels.  It is quiet here, and lovely.  A few oysters and a glass of stout and the soul develops resistance to the glib emptiness of daily politics.  Ancient toil and tidal wash provide an impression of things that matter more than greed and gain.

Godwits, rather than fuckwits, sift the silt here.....

And in the Stour Valley, where John Constable created the two dimensions that England has become (no offence, JC, you meant no harm: Ed.) the Common Darter does what a Common Darter does, not what some self-important hyper-ambitious ill-informed cabaret minstrel would decree.....

And the people of this world attempt to live their lives as well as they can, by the skiff.....

Or by the spray can.....

The haves, the have-nots.....

The ducks, raising their young....

The swans, loving their families.....

And the Drakes [pirateering, as some do]....

Let's be honest, Essex is no Shangri-La, but it's worth the detour.  It still surprises, and delights, me how one can find solace on the banks of a muddy creek, with the fluffy clatters and screeches of birds tempering the rotting reeks of the slimes, while gleaming insects sparkle over the shiny weeds.....

Yup, Essex is neither Magaluf nor the Maldives, but it saves air miles and carbon footprints, or exchange rates (and commission).  Maldon has a sweet gold and a tart salt, Mersey has all the oysters you can eat, and Clacton is 'on-sea'.....

On our way to our respective homes in the nondescript netherlands of this scabied aisle, we pause in the rain at Perry Green, to commune with some of Harry Moore's patient figures....

I admire these stoical unmoving, unmovable figures, who care nothing for rain nor dark.  It's an intriguing staging post.

In an ancient barn, tapestries tell silent stories,

While bronze casts stand impassive under the raindrops in quiet corners of the grounds, pieces of ordnance yet to be dropped on the innocent by the bombasts who preen to rule....

Let me sing a sad refrain of broken hearts that love in vain
And if my song can start you crying I'm happy

And thence to home, where peace comes dropping slow (if I am lucky). 

Non, rien de rien
Non, je ne regrette rien
Ni le bien qu'on m'a fait
Ni le mal
Tout ça m'est bien égal
Non, rien de rien 
Non, je ne regrette rien
C'est payé, balayé, oublié
Je me fous du passé
Avec mes souvenirs 
J'ai allumé le feu
Mes chagrins, mes plaisirs
Je n'ai plus besoin d'eux
Balayé les amours 
Avec leurs trémolos
Balayé pour toujours
Je repars à zéro
Non, rien de rien
Non, je ne regrette rien
Ni le bien qu'on m'a fait
Ni le mal
Tout ça m'est bien égal
Non, rien de rien 
Non, je ne regrette rien
Car ma vie
Car mes joies
Ça commence avec toi

Songwriters: Charles Dumont / Michel Vaucaire

6 July 2019

Ode to Cologne

Tosca on the Rhine

This picture (above) doesn't show Cologne today, but does contain an early likeness of the famous cathedral, together with a popular Rhine Cruise Ship in the foreground, and the brutal martyrdom of St Ursula, who, perhaps, had upset one of the city's notorious Köbes, a disgruntled class of servants, tasked with dispensing  Kölsch, a frothy, acidic excuse for beer that is inflicted on indigenes and unsuspecting wanderers alike... 

The image does not show the railway station....

This picture (below) shows the cathedral in a more modern aspect, with building site in the foreground, and later towers in addition.  Shot through the coarse muslin drapes of the wonderful Wolfman Rothfisch Museyroom (I suspect that's not the name, but this is not supposed to be accurate.....)

I try not to travel with preconceptions, as these inevitably lead to disappointment (and weigh down your hand baggage), but it is Bill Nighy impossible to voyage without some scepticism.... So I thought perhaps that Cologne would be a little old school, somewhat sedate, not without charm, shall we say?

But no!  This is Brühl.   On the outer garments of the colonial city, and in a moderate condition of health, given the times (our times, hard times....)

{By the way, a native of this suburb was Max Ernst, and the much improved Neo-classical Benediktusheim here is a very fine museyroom indeed.....}

Separately, in Bonn (one time capital of the West) we see them film Meggie Merkhel (some mistake? Ed?) arriving at the Rathaus.  A seventeen stone minder asks politely through gritted moustache whether I am Presse, but I refuse all royalties and recognise no one.

And then, in Aachen, or Aches le Chapeau as I think I hear it described, I see the eternal struggle of mankind enacted in the sulphurous confines of the central gardens....

And then kneel in awe of the extreme ceiling where Charles the Great (Charles Le Mange, or Karl Der Mango) was born/created/christened/married/crowned/died/buried..... [I said this wasn't a guide book....]

Back in Cologne the natives are unimpressed....  [Try hugging this hoodie, Davie....]

But there are reminders of how great it was [once upon a reich] to spur and boot.....

Though it is much more Adidas these days....

Then, as a treat, Tom Owen, principal oboe with The Gürzenich-Orchester Köln [Der gebürtige Engländer Tom Owen erhielt seine musikalische Ausbildung an der Purcell School of Music, an der Royal Academy of Music und an der Musikhochschule Hannover bei Klaus Becker. Bereits mit 19 Jahren gewann er den „Royal Academy of Music Oboe Prize“, dem viele weitere folgten. Er gastiert regelmäßig als Solo-Oboist bei führenden Orchestern wie dem Bayerischen Staatsorchester München, dem City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, dem Gewandhausorchester Leipzig und der Staatskapelle Dresden] invites us to the Köln Oper, to see Tosca, at Staatenhaus 1, in the Rheinpark.  

The opera (in Thilo Reinhardt's production, premiered here in 2012) opens in the church of San Andrea della Valle (near where I once caught my daily bus in Rome) and aerial bombardment interrupts the mass.  Deafening percussions shake the altar, and the congregation flee in fear.  

I am not sure who is bombing who, as black-shirted fascists, marshalled by a Hitler/Himmler figure - himself is in thrall to the loud and leery Scarpia (South Korean Samuel Youn, reprising his success in 2016) - soon appear to be in charge, but perhaps the native Colonials in the audience understand.  When the dark sky flashes with airborne ordnance, and your safety is blasted to ruins with the lives of your loved ones, no one knows nor cares who is triggering the bombardment.....  

It is too much to consider, but the real agents of destruction tend to be far from the front line, sitting proud in their tousled crowns, bunkered in arrogance and ignorance, pleasuring themselves at the expense of others.  Cologne was smashed out of recognition in the Second World War, and now, after nearly eighty years, it is still attempting to revive itself....

Praise be it can't happen again?

The mighty Dom rises above the Rhine, above the morass of swirling peoples.

Admired by all sorts.....

All sorts.....

None of whom (me most certainly included) would ever have the nerve to climb a true stairway to heaven, like this one.....

Back at the Oper, Tosca is brilliant.  The cast (including American Adina Aaron and Argentine José Cura) is cosmopolitan and the chorus magnificent, and the terrifying story of perfidious arrogance and abuse of power, combined with the horrifying destruction of innocence, is so frighteningly pertinent to our times that I don't notice the passage of Erdinger Weissbier, herring salad and schnapps until it is way too late to turn back......

By coincidence, Tosca has been associated in another way with Cologne since 1921, for Tosca Eau De Cologne Splash is a true German classic. Still one of the most popular fragrances in Germany today, this fragrance was first made in 1921 and has a dedicated following.

Tosca Eau De Cologne Splash possesses top notes of fern, honeysuckle and magnolia, middle notes of pink peony, peppercorns and heliotrope and finishes with base notes of amber, vanilla and magic lantern orchid.

Spicy. Fresh. Totally Tosca. 

{The original Eau de Cologne is a spirit-citrus perfume launched in Cologne in 1709 by Giovanni Maria Farina (1685–1766), an Italian perfume maker who had settled here.  The famous Eau de Cologne 4711 is named after where it was made at Glockengasse No. 4711. It was developed in the 18th century by Wilhelm Mülhens and is one of the oldest still produced fragrances in the world. On 12 December 2006, the perfumes and cosmetics company Mäurer & Wirtz took over 4711 from Procter & Gamble.}

It is night. A warm summer night in perfumed  Cologne. Birds flutter above the Hohenzollernbrücke as trains rock back and forth, trundling into the dark, shaking the forty thousand or so 'Love Padlocks' shackled to the fencing

Cyclists flit by.....

Flit, flit.....

Flit, flit flit.....

And then we are startled by the latest vehicle to hit the streets of Cologne (barely two months legal here but now ubiquitous)....  An electric scooter, leading to utter confusion in the cycle lanes, 

And also on the pavements.....

And so, fortified by a small flask of Jägermeister (a digestif made with 56 herbs and spices at a strength of 35% alcohol by volume.... the flagship product of Mast-Jägermeister SE, headquartered in Wolfenbüttel) we take refuge in an underpass, amongst the spirits of Köln, past, present, and future.....

Spicy. Fresh. Totally Tosca. 

Nell'ora del dolore
perché, perché, Signore,
perché me ne rimuneri così?

Vissi d'arte

From Act 2 of Puccini's opera, Tosca

Screen Shot 2019-07-07 at 1.11.57 PM.png
For my mother


Antwerp - Antwerpen - Anvers

Antwerp is the second largest city in Belgium, and with over half a million people it is the largest city in Flanders, the Flemish speaking part of Belgium.  It is situated on the River Scheldt, not far from the North Sea, and it is one of the busiest ports in the world.

At the heart of the city is the Grote Markt, towered over by the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwecathedraal, the largest gothic church in the Low Countries.  There is a lively fountain in the not-so-square as well, which is topped by an effigy of young Silvius Brabo, saviour of the city.  He killed the giant Antigoon, whose penchant was for terrorising boatmen by demanding tolls, and chopping off hands when payment was not made.

The Markt is embellished on the western side by the Stadhuis (town hall), which was built in the 1560s, and which displays an impressive collection of flags (though one appears to have furled itself in shame).....

The cathedral is famous for its Rubens' altarpieces, and there just happens to be an exhibition of many other altarpieces in there for my visit.   I also meet a man who is balancing a cross on the palm of his hand, and shining, like an angel, at the same time.....

At the door, another man sings Blowin' in the wind, with a curiously personal time signature.  He reminds me of someone I never knew.....  We all have our cross to bear.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577 - 1640) was the big name in Antwerp, and his house, the Rubenshuis, which he bought in 1610 and which the city rescued in 1937, is one of the main attractions. It is here that I meet Barbara Arents, painted by Jacob van Utrech in about 1530.  Barbara was Rubens's grannie, and she is rather nice.

In the artist's studio I encounter Anthony van Dyck (1599 - 1641), Rubens's most famous and talented assistant.  For a long time it was believed that this portrait was painted by Rubens, but current theory is that it is in fact a self-portrait.

Later on that evening, I meet him again, sitting by the Stadhuis wall.  He has aged a little, and grown a characteristic beard, and he is looking the other way, but I am sure it's him.....

Characterful faces are to be found everywhere; in bars....

And in the busy streets.....

And on the city's walls. At first I thought this might be a poor representation of Belgium's favourite Police Inspector (Maigret) but it isn't.... This is a mural by Dutch artist Dick Matena's depicting Laarmans, protagonist of Willem Elsschot’s novel Kaas (Cheese). The mural shows Laarmans returning home from cheese shopping with the Brabo statue in the background in a mix of the city’s literary and folkloric past and is the cover picture of Matena's graphic version of the novel.

And just nearby is Conscience by Jan Bosschaert which portrays Hendrik Conscience (The man who taught his people how to read) above a fountain that spews out letters over copies of Bosschaert's own books.

And the city itself is a work of art. The old buildings:


The bicycles:

And the modern buildings as well.  This is the MAS (Museum aan de Stroom - Museum by the river), a vast municipal museum in a red sandstone and curved glass tower 60 metres tall which was opened in 2011:

Which has a great view from the panoramic 12th floor:

There are some other fine examples of modern architecture, like the Port House, which integrates a vast new extension to an old fire station, where 500 people, like Stevan, 

work at keeping the port in action:

It's an exciting city, full of surprises, and full of smiles:

Or half smiles:

Or people saying Cheers!

Or who would say Cheers! if they weren't nose-down in a glass of jenever/genever/genièvre....

Or who would surely say Cheers! if they weren't so busy looking like Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678)'s Bagpipe Player:

It was nearly time to go.  Though wrapped Christo-fashion in plastic sheeting, Dock's Cafe produces the best meal I have had for a long time, with their own oysters and beer, and a delicious piece of hake with asparagus, grey shrimps and hollandaise sauce.

Then it's a train to Brussels, time for a wonderful Trappe Tripel

Then the Eurostar back home.....

Shame!  I would have loved to have stayed......