Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Basingstoke and the History of the Roundabout

When I tell people that I live in Basingstoke (civic motto: “Where the livin’ is easy”) they are surprised. They are not shocked, they are not aghast but definitely surprised. As surprised perhaps as if I had said “My uncle Frank is serving a short prison sentence for receiving stolen goods”. I am a sophisticated and metropolitan human being, I have eaten at the Ivy, I know one end of a sun-dried tomato from another, so people who know me raise their eyebrows when I mention that I live in Basingstoke which apart from a fleeting mention in Ruddigore is only famous for it’s roundabouts.
The roundabouts are not the reason that we moved here from central London 7 years ago, the state of our local primary school in Bermondsey was the main driving force. Necessary proximity to my ailing mother gave us a general location but we quickly discovered that while we couldn’t afford to buy a house in pretty Hampshire market towns like Alton or Arlesford we could afford to buy a house 5 minutes walk (and 2 roundabouts) away from Basingstoke station. Basingstoke was a pretty Hampshire market town until 1961 when it was decided to ‘parachute’ thousands of London families into the town. Basingstoke became a ’New Town’ and the age of the roundabout had arrived.
By now readers will be thinking “is this man going to bang on endlessly about Basingstoke and its unexceptional history or is this piece going to get more interesting and is he going to tell us more about roundabouts?” The bad news about roundabouts is that they are not a British invention. They were conceived by a French engineer Alphonse Giratoire in the late 19th century. Giratoire moved in elevated circles, engineers were highly respected in Paris at that time unlike the UK today where they are treated with the mild contempt with which we patronise our train spotters. Giratoire realised that the ever increasing number of phaetons, broughams, landaus and other horse drawn vehicles with improbable names circulating round the Arc de Triomphe needed regulation. As an engineer employed by the city of Paris he was well placed to put his recommendation to the city fathers that in future all vehicles (with the exception of the Horse Artillery) should circulate in a clockwise direction. There followed a heated debate in the press with the secretary of the Paris Barouche Owners Society, Henri Chassis, who made the obvious point that with traffic driving on the right it would be logical for the circulation round the Arc de Triomphe to be anti-clockwise. This point has become blindingly obvious to generations of British motorists within a couple of minutes of their driving off a Cross Channel ferry in Calais. Foolishly Giratoire took offence at being corrected by an upstart carriage fancier and mulishly defended his position. At the same time strenuous objections to any regulation of traffic around the Arc de Triomphe were being made by the Parisian White wine delivery drivers, La Societe des Drivers Vin Blanc. Up to that time if, for instance, they had just made a delivery to the famous restaurant ‘La Tippe Astronomique’ in the Champs-Elysees and their next delivery was to the equally renowned L’Addition Grosse’ in the Blvd Haussmann they would simply nip around the corner briefly joining the Arc de Triomphe traffic but crucially under the new regime they would be going against the flow. To go legitimately with the flow could, in heavy traffic, take 6 hours and require a stop to water the horses. Paris became divided between ‘clockers’ and ‘anti-clockers’, the former wearing white rosettes and the latter red.
Before we come to the dramatic events of May 15th 1885 we should perhaps examine who it was that decided on which side of the road we should drive. The earliest records in France show an edict from Louis X (nicknamed ‘The Cackhanded’ by the general populace and ‘Lefty’ by his court familiars) dated 1316, which directed that, in honour of St Bernadette of Montelimar, haywains should always pass to the right of any oncoming haywain. St Bernadette, the patron saint of cartographers and left handed haywain drivers was a Roman martyr who was fed to the lions in the Coliseum. The lions swiftly despatched the unfortunate Bernadette and consumed her corpse with gusto with the exception of her left arm which was left in the centre of the arena. Nothing could induce even the most ravenous of the beasts in the arena to touch the left arm. The Emperor Nicotinus posthumously pardoned Bernadette and ordered that the arm should be preserved in the Coliseum ‘Museum of Interesting Body Parts’. The arm was later smuggled out of Rome by a one armed exotic dancer (her task made more difficult by the fact that she herself was missing her right arm) and can now be seen in the crypt of the Church of Our Lady of Cheerful Countenance in Montelimar and also, depending on who you believe, in the Church of St Ronaldo in Seville, St Trevors Church in Borehamwood and the Ripleys “Believe It or Not” exhibit at Niagara Falls. Why Louis X ordered that haywain drivers should pass to the right of oncoming haywains remains a mystery but it seems that Louis may have been a simpleton and just confused right and left. In England things were better ordered in that a clause clearly stating that “hayewaines and all other cartes” should pass to the left is to be found in the small print at the bottom of the Magna Carta.
And so to that fateful Sunday in May 1885 when the city of Paris ordained that the two theories of traffic circulation should be put to the test. The cream of Parisian society attended in their carriages and crowds from the poorer districts flocked to block the avenues and boulevards surrounding the Arc de Triomphe. Giratoire insisted that his system should be tested first and at the signal, the firing of a small cannon on top of the Arc itself, a mass of traffic started to move in a clockwise direction. Initially all went well until vehicles tired of going round and round and tried to leave by turning into one of the surrounding boulevards. As now seems obvious they immediately started to clash with vehicles entering from the same boulevard. Chaos ensued as enraged coachmen set about each other with their whips, all the while hurling insults up at Giratoire who was nervously pacing on the roof of the Arc. The Prefect of Police panicked and called out the army to restore order. The Horse Artillery, who were barracked nearby, were the first to arrive and plunged into the heaving mass of horse drawn vehicles in an anti-clockwise direction which made matters much worse. Rumours spread that the traffic experiment was an elaborate ploy to cover a military coup against the Third Republic and socialist roughs went at the artillery with a will. It was eight hours before order was restored.
Casualties were surprisingly light but nevertheless Giratoire was a ruined man and he went into bitter retirement at Ostend. Today Parisians still celebrate May 15th as the day of “Le Grand Circulation” by sitting in their cars in stationary traffic and hurling sexually explicit abuse at the drivers of neighbouring vehicles. Here in Basingstoke we wind down our windows and say to our fellow drivers in a breezy manner, “Turned out nice again ain’t it”.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Rules for Living

In the musical “The Producers” Max Bialystock tells Leo Bloom that Rule 1 is “Never put your own money in the show”. Bloom asks him what Rule 2 is. “!!$Never put you own money in the show!#!$” yells Max. Solid advice, advice that will certainly do for my first two rules for living. But what others should we live by? What else should I tell my long suffering children as I hold forth at the supper table? Some are so obvious as to be hardly worth mentioning, “Never trust a Russian” and “Always wear sandals with socks when attending a Wagner opera” for instance. What else can I pass on to them that will stand them in good stead in the future? They are past the age when “Never cross when the Green Man is flashing” is very helpful and they are much better than I am when it comes to returning library books. ”Neither a borrower nor a lender be” will prove counterproductive as I am likely to want to borrow money from them in my old age.

One rule that I learnt very early on in my career was “Never sleep with the Turns”. Younger readers contemplating a career in showbiz would do well to take heed at the following cautionary tale.
Many years ago I was in the chorus of a tiny production of ‘Puss in Boots’ in an obscure corner of the British theatrical empire. I took a shine to the young lady who played the non-speaking Puss (who incidentally wore very little under her all-white cat-suit. The smell of that cat-suit haunts me to this day) and she to me. On our second date we went to the only restaurant, Chinese, that was open after the show. Puss was paying as I had paid on our first outing and I earned even less than she did. This being the only place to eat late in town several of our company were already there when we arrived but we managed to get a table well away from them. All went well until the main course when Puss said to me ”Do you think I’m a good actress?” A lack of sisters and a single sex education had left me knowing little about women and nothing about actresses. If I had known then what I know now I would have replied “Absolutely! You combine a supple intelligence with daring grace in a delicately erotic performance. Listen forget dinner. Let’s go to a hotel and…..” Sadly what I did say was “Erm well….” At this point Puss leaned across the table, flipped a bowl of chop suey over into my lap and stomped out of the door. The waiters were somewhat unsympathetic and became more so when it became obvious that I didn’t have the wherewithal to settle up. So my humiliation became complete as I had to limp over to our Company Manager on the far side of the restaurant, shedding noodles as I went, to borrow enough money to pay the bill.

Research is very important in writing a piece like this, so when I found myself next to the ‘Personal Development’ section while queuing at the till in our local Waterstones I had a quick trawl. First to hand came “How to Win Friends and Influence People” published in 1937 by the grandfather of self-improvers Dale Carnegie. His first chapter is promisingly entitled “If you want to gather honey don’t kick over the beehive”. Richard Templar, a current favourite with the “Low Self Esteem Book Club” has 4 consecutive chapters alarmingly entitled:
Don’t be afraid to dream.
Don’t dwell on the past.
Don’t live in the future.
Get on with life, it’s whooshing past!
I think I am unlikely to get on the LSEBC ‘Book of the Month’ list but, for what it’s worth, here are my top ten rules for living.
1. Never put your own money in the show.
2. !!$Never put you own money in the show!#!$
3. Never sleep with the Turns
4. Never trust a Russian
5. Only go to a Stephen Sondheim musical when there is an ‘R’ in the month
6. Always begin a letter to any Government agency as follows: “Dear Sir, I was shocked and appalled to…”
7. When batting at cricket always get in line, play straight and cut out the ‘fancy stuff’.
8. Never put your head out of the sunroof of your car when attending political rallies.
9. Never order chop suey on a second date.
10. Never read books or articles with titles like ”Rules for Living”

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Great Moments From History – Sarajevo 1914

What would have happened if Gavrilo Princip had failed to assassinate Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in 1914? Historians would say that all the Great Powers were armed to the teeth and spoiling for a fight so they would have found an excuse to have a war anyway. It is more interesting to think about what would have happened if Germany and their Austro-Hungarian allies had won.
In 1914 the Germans came within a hairsbreadth of capturing Paris. Their strategy on the Western Front was based on the Schlieffen Plan, originated in 1905 by the Chief of the German General Staff, General Alfred von Schlieffen. This envisaged sending virtually the entire German army through neutral Holland and Belgium aiming to the west of Paris thus encircling the French army and separating them from any British intervention. In the end the Germans fudged it and sent valuable divisions to East Prussia to fend off the Russians and to Alsace to hold any French advance there. So had their full strength been available in Northern France it is a fair supposition to say that they would have captured Paris and knocked France out of the war in a couple of weeks.
Then what would have happened? The French sue for peace, the British with their expeditionary force pinned against the Channel coast and not much to fight for would probably have done likewise. The Germans pack their well equipped and disciplined troops into trains and send them east to demolish the Russian Bear. It would all have been over by Christmas.
In the short term we British would have been spared the horrors of the Somme, Poppy Day and a lot of poetry. These are not the only pluses. In the treaties that the Kaiser would have dictated, France and Britain would have been compelled to cede vast swathes of Africa to Germany. Belgium might have become a German province and the Congo a German colony (no bad thing!). Perhaps Hong Kong would have been added to the German concessions in China, perhaps Saigon would have been renamed New Berlin.
More importantly A. Hitler “Painters & Decorators – Estimates Given” of Vienna might have prospered and Lenin would have stayed in Zurich to change his library books. So we would have had no Nazism, no Russian Revolution, no Communism, no Holocaust and perhaps the Germans working with their Ottoman allies would have made a better fist of the Middle East than the British and French.
So at some point at a meeting round a table in an office in Berlin amid the water jugs, pencils and minutes of the last meeting a group of staff officers, some perhaps suffering hangovers, one perhaps agreeing to anything so that he could get back to his mistress before teatime, made the fateful decision to dilute the Schlieffen ‘Punch’. The fact that history turns on such individual and personal moments is fascinating. I recently read an account of the meeting at which Lenin and the Bolsheviks agreed the date of their ‘putsch’ in October 1917. It went something like this:

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin): Order! Order! Right comrades can I take the minutes of our previous meeting as read? All those in favour?
Bolsheviks: Aye
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin): We have apologies from Sergei, who has had to take his droshky in for a service. Ok on to item 1 on today’s agenda. From now on I would like to be known simply as Lenin. OK?
Bolshevik 1: Really. Why’s that then?

Lenin: It’s stronger, simpler and it’s what I want. OK?
Bolshevik 2 (at far end of the table): Did he say linen? Why does he want to be called linen?
Bolshevik 3: I’m not sure. Did you say linen? Why do you want to be called linen?
Lenin: Not linen! Lenin. OK!
Bolshevik 3: Alright. Alright keep your hair on! You’ll have to speak up. We can’t hear you down here.
Bolshevik 2 (to his neighbour): Careful he’s touchy about his hair. But Lenin. Why Lenin? Perhaps it’s an anagram.
Bolshevik 3 : El inn? Neil N? No I can’t make anything out of it.
Bolshevik 4 : I think you mean acronym don’t you.
Bolshevik 2 : Oh do I? What’s an acronym then?
Lenin: Gordon Bennett!
Bolshevik 2: Who’s Gordon Bennett?
Bolshevik 3: He’s that mad English bloke that does car racing and ballooning. Hence the expression.
Bolshevik 2: Oh right.
Lenin: Item 2 on the agenda, the date of the October Revolution.
Bolshevik 1: I propose we have it in October.
Bolshevik 2: Seconded.
Bolsheviks: Aye
Lenin: I propose we have it next Tuesday.
Bolshevik 1: Ah. Tuesday’s tricky for me. I promised Natalia that we would go round to her mothers
Bolshevik 2: And its little Sasha’s school play that day.
Lenin: Tuesday! The proletariat’s destiny is on Tuesday! It has to be Tuesday!
Bolshevik 3: Don’t we have a Five-a Side booked against the Mensheviks?
Bolshevik 4: I’ve got tickets for “Battleship Potemkin” on Tuesday.
Lenin: Tuesday! Tuesday! I insist on Tuesday.
Bolshevik 2: Are you sure Comrade Linen? Will we get the turn out? There’s a lot going on on a Tuesday.
Lenin: Right! It’s going to be on Tuesday and anyone here who doesn’t like it can fucking well piss off. OK!
Bolshevik 1: Tuesday it is then.
Bolsheviks: Aye

Sunday, 6 January 2008

The Scissor Sisters & My Part in Their Download

It’s probably a sign of advancing senility but I regularly wake at 5.30am with the Scissor Sisters “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing” running through my head. It’s impossible to go back to sleep when this unrelentingly catchy tune kicks open the door of consciousness so I get up, put on my dressing gown, make coffee and go and sit in my shed at the bottom of the garden.

You have probably guessed that my knowledge of contemporary pop music is zero and that the last time I knowingly listened to Radio One was when Housewives Choice was the breakfast show and it was on the Light Programme. You may then be asking yourselves how did I get infected with this little bit of 21st century Pop. The answer is downloads. I bought my daughter an Ipod in the duty free at Toronto Airport and while helping her download to some truly awful pap we came across the Scissor Sisters and the excellent KT Tunstall. At this point I thought “this is interesting. Can I download anything? Can I download my entire 1969 record collection?” So I set the search to “I’ll do what you want me to do” by the splendidly named Arizona Dranes, a 1920/30s gospel singer. And up it came, as catchy a tune as anything the Scissor Sisters have ever done. Up came Charles Lloyd’s hippy-jazz album “Forest Flower” Up came Country Joe & the Fish’s “Flying High”, and then the final test. Would I-tunes carry Jacki Byard’s “Live at Lenny’s on the Turnpike”, the best jazz album that I have ever heard. Sadly not, so if anyone out there knows where I can get a copy please get in touch.

Esoteric stuff you may think. Where did a nice middle class boy from Surrey get such rash musical tastes? It all comes from a chance encounter under the bedclothes in the dormitory of one England’s lesser public schools, a public school that made the one portrayed in Lindsay Anderson’s film “If” look like a holiday camp. This encounter was not a “youthful homosexual dalliance” (as advertised by Michael Portillo) but an encounter via a tiny transistor radio with “The Voice of America Jazz Hour”. I was retuning between Helen Schapiro on Radio Luxemburg and Book at Bedtime on the Home Service when I came across a deep Mid-Western drawl introducing Elmore James’s “It Hurts Me Too”. A revelation! A Road to Damascus moment! Why had no one ever told me that music like this existed? I became a VOA Jazz Hour addict. I saved my pocket money, I stole the small change from my mother’s coat pockets, I sold my beloved Airfix Lancaster bomber to my best friend and went to the local record shop, where I had never bought anything racier than Duane, “The Twangs the Thang”, Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser”. “Elmore James? Never ‘eard of ‘im” said the gloomy proprietor. But I persisted and we ploughed through catalogues together until bingo. The LP took 6 weeks to come from America. It was a start of a love affair with the Blues that was to last me until my first divorce.

In my late teens I accumulated a huge Blues collection. Robert Johnson. Lonnie Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson and other members of the Johnson family, many of whom were missing body parts. In these days of improved health and welfare Blues singers tend not to be quite so maimed. We have the allergenically challenged “Sneezin’ Sam McPhlegm”, “Irritable Bowel Bob and his Colonic Stompers” and “Uninsured Uriah and his Ukulele Underwriters”.

From the real ‘Blues’ I moved on to the ersatz UK variety. My best friend (who had tired of the Lancaster by then) and I pursued our guitar heroes round the Home Counties in his Morris Minor. I’m pretty sure we saw Clapton playing with John Mayall at the Wooden Bridge Hotel in Guildford. I was a regular at the Cambridge Red Cow’s ‘Blues Night’, where I spilled beer over Christine Perfect. Then came the Summer of Love and I think I saw Captain Beefheart at Middle Earth but I rather overdid the pharmaceuticals that night and not even a hazy memory remains. Finally I joined the ‘Theatre’ and went on tour for nearly 15 years and the record collection somehow evaporated.

So early on a frosty morning, think of me, as I sit in my shed brooding on life’s unfairness, brooding on West Ham’s inconsistent form and listening with disbelief to The Incredible String Band. Did I really used to enjoy this rubbish?

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Karlheinz Stockhausen and My Part in the European Avant-Garde

In the mid-eighties I was one of the Production Managers at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It fell to me to take charge of the technical side of things on Stockhausen’s opera “Donnerstag aus Licht”.

The production was to be directed by Michael Bogdanov and designed by the late, great, Maria Bjornson, a challenging coupling if ever there was one. Stockhausen was a charming charismatic character, who never let anyone else in the room get a word in edgeways if it could be prevented. Before we went into production Michael, Maria and I went to visit him at his house on top of a hill near Cologne. The house, which I think Stockhausen may have designed himself, was circular with a lot of ramped levels and glass walls. Using the loo was a little disconcerting as it had a floor to ceiling window with fine views of the Rhine Valley and equally fine views for those outside, like the postman for instance, of whoever was sitting on the loo reading the Sporting Life. One of the main reasons for our trip was to ascertain from Stockhausen what his opera was about. In the course of a long dinner he skilfully avoided giving us much of a clue. When faced with a direct question he would either change the subject or reply in such vague and confusing terms that one was none the wiser. Most of dinner was occupied by Stockhausen banging on about his various hobby-horses one of which was prefaced by the question, “where is the centre of Europe?” We all had a go. Vienna and Frankfurt were mentioned. “No!”, he said “it’s here, right here!” He then gave us a rambling lecture, which based on Ley lines, cosmic waves and Celtic tribal migratory paths, proved that he had chosen to build his house at the very centre of Europe. We returned to London with a loose grasp on all sorts of things none of which were “Donnerstag aus Licht”.

Just how far our creative concepts were from Stockhausen’s ‘reality’ were made apparent during the early stage rehearsals of Act 1. Entitled ‘Examen’ (Examination) Maria and Michael had come up with a rather gloomy and menacing set. There was a grey cyclorama behind barbed wire fencing and judge’s podia that were a cross between Wimbledon umpire’s chairs and concentration camp watchtowers. Our lighting designer, Chris Ellis, had come up with wintry lighting to suit. It became increasingly obvious that Stockhausen who was attending to things musical at the front of the stalls, was not happy. Eventually he stormed up the aisle to the production desk. “Michael! Maria! Why is everything so depressing? This scene is a scene of triumph, of celebration, a fiesta if you like”.
“Ah…” said Michael.
Maria however was up to the challenge and turned to me brightly and said “Ted, do we have any bunting?”
We did. Overnight we changed the cyc, painted everything red and replaced the barbed wire with jolly bunting. Art is that easy.

Stockhausen came to London with his entire ‘circus’, a mix of wives, mistresses, children singers and acrobats. The opera was made up of 3 acts with a “Gruss” (Welcome) and “Abscheid” (Farewell) played by a dozen trumpeters stationed on the rooftops of Bow St outside the front of the theatre as the audience arrived and departed. Act 1 was largely a piano piece played by a daughter and Act 2 a Trumpet concerto played by a son. Act 3 was very confusing. The whole thing ran about 5 hours. The music was challenging, when I described the show to a stage carpenter friend he promptly said “Oh bing-bang-bosh music”.
I think many of the audience agreed. At each interval the house thinned out perceptibly, though I was particularly impressed by one diehard who stuck it out to Act 3. At one point in this act, and for no particular reason that I can think of, a radio controlled toy tank drove off a glass topped table and fell to the stage with a dull thud. The diehard finally snapped and leapt to his feet shouting “That’s it! I’ve had enough. This is just silly”, and left slamming the Crush Bar doors behind him.
For me personally the whole experience was almost magical. After 6 weeks I did start to ‘get’ the music. Stockhausen and his troupe were extraordinary and even if none of us at Covent Garden knew what was going on it all seemed to work. Best of all the set design involved lots of moving parts that enabled me to play in the basement with Mike Barnett (the world’s greatest living stage engineer) and the Opera House’s hydraulic systems.

At the end of it all Stockhausen gave me one of his LPs. He signed the sleeve “cordially yours Karlheinz” The ’O’ of cordially was drawn in the shape of a heart. Now how avant-garde is that?

Cycling Down the Danube

Cycling Down the Danube
The Map