Out of tune

Highg

 

I have never been praised for having a good singing voice for a good reason. That is because  I do not have one.

I entered north London’s Highgate School, my secondary school, in 1965 having passed the fairly tough Common Entrance examinations. On the second day there, I took part in a football trial, and was advised not to play football at school. Soon after this, all of the new entrants to the school had to take a voice test. This involved standing in a long queue. One by one we reached a grand piano at which the senior music teacher, a Mr ‘Cherry’ Chapman, sat. As each boy arrived at the piano, Mr Chapman pressed one of the piano’s keys, and the boy made a sound. Depending on this sound, Mr Chapman was able to determine who had a voice good enough to be used in a choir and who did not. When it was my turn, I must have made a sound resembling that which you make for the doctor when he asks you to stick out your tongue and say “aaaaah”. My sound disqualified me from joining the choir.

One day a week, those in the choir spent an hour before lunch at choir practice. The rest of us were confined to classrooms where we were expected to read a book of our choice for one hour. This was no hardship in my case.

The pupils at Highgate School were divided into ‘houses’. Each house contained pupils from throughout the school. I was in Heathgate House, a ‘house’ for day boys rather than boarders. There were numerous inter-house competitions for various sports activities. Once a year, there was an inter-house singing competition. Each house had to produce its own choir, choose a song, practice it, and then sing it on the day of the contest. The first time that this competition occurred after I entered the school, Heathgate chose to sing (in French) the aria L’amour est un oiseau rebelle from the opera Carmen by Bizet.

Apparently, my voice detracted from the quality of Heathgate’s choir, and I was asked to leave the other singers. This was possible because the rules of the competition did not insist on every member of a house being included in the choir. Without me, Heathgate managed to win the contest.

Whenever I hear the aria, which was sung in the competition, I remember that event back at Highgate School. Unlike Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which I had to study for a state examination and grew to hate, I still enjoy listening to performances of Carmen.

 

Picture source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk

A vulgar audience

music

 

I enjoy attending events at the Nehru Centre, the Indian High Commission’s cultural centre in London. However, the audience can become quite unruly occasionally. 

Only afew days ago, I attended a concert of Bengali and Hindi songs pertformed by an excellent Bengali male vocalist, Soumyen Adhikari who accompanied himself on a harmonium. He was also accompanied by a superb tabla player. 

The audience was, as is often the case, restless. People arrived late throughout the performance. Others kept moving from one seat to another or leaving the auditorium only to return a few minutes later. All around us people in the audience were chatting to each other loudly whilst the musicians performed. They would not be silent even after having been asked repeatedly. All of these disturbances are quite normal amongst Indian audiences and are more or less tolerable.

What really upset me at this particular concert was the ignorant comments shouted by some members of the audience. After the singer had sung several beautiful songs in Bengali, some people began shouting things like “Sing something in Hindi”, “we can’t understand Bengali”, and “enough of Bengali songs”. 

I cannot understand either Hindi or Bengali, but that does not detract from my enjoyment of songs sung in these languages. What is important to me is that the singer has a good voice and that the musicians play well. Just the lovely sounds of the songs and the music is a great pleasure for me. It upset me that so many of those around me lacked the  ability to appreciate the beauty of what was being played. Their approach was so parochial that all they wanted was something familiar, which they had heard over and over many times before. I felt sorry for the singer, who is clearly a masterful performer whom I would happily hear again.

Leave the high street to discover hidden history

Ball Court_240

 

The City of London, the traditional business district of London that stands on the site of the old walled London of Roman and mediaeval times, is full of delightful surprises. Although much of the area was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666 and the aerial bombing in the 1940s, what has persisted to a remarkable through the ages is the mediaeval street layout.

Another charming feature are the narrow alleyways that pass between or even through buildings. Step through some of these, and suddenly you find yourself stepping back into history.

Recently, we ‘discovered’ Ball Court, which leads south from Cornhill just a few yards west of the Church of St Michaels Cornhill. A narrow alley leads beneath a building to a wider courtyard open to the sky. Two sides of this rectangular  space are occupied by Simpsons Tavern, a pub (and chop house) established in 1757. Ball Court itself is even older than the tavern, appearing on a map dated 1746. 

I can not tell you why Ball Court has that name, but I feel sure that there must have been a good reason, but it had no name on the 1746 map. In any case, when in London, leave the main streets, explore, and enjoy!

 

Black beaches

beach

 

There was a young receptionist at one of the dental surgeries where I once worked. Let us call her ‘M’. Engaging her in conversation was not easy, but I tried often and succeeded occasionally.

Once, M announced that she was taking a week’s holiday. When she returned, I asked her:

“How was your holiday?”

“Ok,” M replied vaguely.

“And, where did you go?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Really?” I queried.

“I just got a last minute package trip and got in the ‘plane,” she told me.

“If you don’t know where you went, what was it like?” I asked.

“Not very exciting, really. All of the beaches were covered with black rocks and stones.”

I guessed that M had probably been to one of the volcanic islands in the Atlantic. It surprised me that someone could take a flight somewhere and have no idea where she had landed. What if something awful had happened to her? Who would have known where she was? 

Dry Martini

martini

 

The first alcoholic drink that I enjoyed in my early teens was Martini Vermouth. I liked it neat with a piece of ice.

One evening, a wealthy relative invited my parents and me to join them at London’s Savoy Hotel, where they were staying. Before dinner, we had drinks in their suite. I must have been about fourteen then. 

The room service waiter arrived, and we ordered drinks. I asked for my then usual Martini. Soon, the drinks arrived. I was handed a large glass tumbler with a thick base. It contained a clear liquid that did not look like Martini to me. Also, it did not smell like Martini, and its taste did not resemble anything I had drunk previously. Being a polite young fellow, I did not remark on it, but just sipped it slowly whilst the adults chatted.

When it was time to get up and descend to the dining room, I had an odd sensation. I stood up and looked at the floor which seemed to be undulating like the waves in the sea. Whatever I had drunk had gone straight to my head. What I had been served was not the dry Martini, which comes straight from the bottle, but the cocktail Dry Martini, which is mostly gin and only a dash of Martini. You live and learn.

 

picture source: http://www.diffordsguide.com

Buggy battles

Buggy

 

All public transport buses in London have dedicated areas for buggies (baby strollers, push-chairs etc.) Other passengers need to, or are made to feel that they need to, move out of the way so that a buggy can be parked in the designated area.  So far so good. Many child carers use their childrens. buggies as shopping trolleys, often overloaded with bags of merchandise. Often, the child or children being transported in the buggies are removed from them during the bus journey and then occupy a passener seat. The empty buggies then simply take up space that could be used by other passengers on a crowded vehicle.

Now, there are clear signs by the designated ‘buggy area’ that state quite clearly that the area is also for use by persons confined to wheelchairs. These signs also make it very clear that wheelchair users have priority over buggies in the special area on the bus.

Clashes, often quite uncivil, occur if too many carers pushing buggies are competing for the the limited space available for buggies and wheelchairs. Or, even worse, battles can break out between whelchair users who want to board a bus and buggy owners, who are already on board the bus. Both the child carers and the wheelchair-bound  people can often behave quite unpleasantly. Unlike the wheelchair occupant, almost all baby buggies can be folded up and placed in the luggage area that is available on every bus.

Yesterday, it was a sunny afternoon and I was travelling in a bus past Swiss Cottage in north west London. The buggy/wheelchair area was occupied by two baby buggies and a folded buggy was in the luggage area. We stopped at a bus stop where a man in a wheelchair was waiting. He wanted to board the bus, but the owners of the buggies occupying the designated area would neither fold their buggies nor leave the bus to make space for the priority user, the wheel chair user. The bus driver had to get out to sort out the stand-off. He wanted the buggy users to disembark, but they would not budge. In the end, the wheel chair bound fellow behaved decently, saying he would wait for the next bus.

In my opinion, both wheelchair passengers and buggy pushers can easily manage to wait  (especially when the weather is good) until a bus arrives with sufficient space. After all, the wheelchair user is sitting and waiting as is the buggy borne child, who is often far too big and independently mobile to be confined to a buggy. What do you think, dear reader?

 

 

Picture from: https://www.britax-roemer.co.uk/pushchairs/strollers

It has its uses

Psychedelic headscarf_240

 

In the UK, unlike some countries in Europe, we have a fairly liberal attitude towards Moslem women covering their heads and faces to a greater or lesser extent. In the last dental practice where I worked until I retired, our patients came from all over the world. A not insignicant number of our female patients were Moslems who wore some kind of head covering. A few of them insisted on being treated by female dentists, but most of them did not mind seeing one of the male dentists.

One of my female Moslem patients came to the UK from a north African country. She always wore a loose-fitting headscarf, but did not cover up her face. One day, she needed to have a front (incisor) tooth removed. I explained to her that the situation was such that she would have be without any replacement for it for 24 hours – I cannot remember why. 

Will you be able to cope without that tooth for a day. The gap will show every time you speak or smile,” I said.

Picking up the end of the scarf she was wearing, she covered her mouth with it, and then said humorously:

This has its uses!

And with that comment, she allowed me to remove the troublesome tooth, and then left the surgery with her face covered. She looked like a typical Moslem woman wearing a face-covering. Nobody would have guessed that she was missing a front tooth.

Conducted by an Albanian

OLSI 1

 

The Victorian gothic St Stephens Church in Gloucester Road has great acoustics for orchestral music. On the evening of the 15th of June 2019, we attended a wonderful concert of “Symphonic Dances” performed by the London City Philharmonic Orchestra. I have been to several other concerts where this ensemble has played. This time the orchestra had been enlarged so considerably that it only just fitted into the space available for them at the east end of the church. This magnificent collection of first-class musicians was masterfully and sensitively conducted by the Albanian conductor Olsi Qinami, who studied at the Academy of Arts in Tirana and then at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris.

The ambitious programme consisted of three symphonic dance pieces, all composed in the USA. Variations on a Shaker Theme by Aaron Copeland (1900-90), son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, got the concert off to a tuneful start. This was followed by a memorably good rendering of the vibrant Symphonic Dances by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), son of Ukranian Jewish parents. This exciting piece contains familiar tunes from Bernstein’s musical drama West Side Story. After an interval, there was a piece, Symphonic Dances, composed late in the life of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), who emigrated to the USA from Russia in 1918.

The three pieces were all by composers, whose families had ‘roots’ in the former Russian Empire, but each of them was completely different. All three were highly enjoyable. Olsi Qinami seemed to be able to get the best out of the orchestra seemingly effortlessly. He stood on his podium calmly without any dramatic gestures and achieved wonders with his large well-disciplined orchestra, which according to the programme notes contains players from all over the world including two with Albanian names (Pranvera Govori, violinist, and Idlir Shytu, cellist).

In summary, I am truly pleased that I did not miss this concert. It was pure joy throughout. Although Olsi’s previous concerts have all been outstanding, “Symphonic Dances” was his best so far. I look forward to the next, which will be in St Stephens Church on Saturday, 5th of October 2019.