Colchiques dans les prés …

Temperatures during the day are still in the high twenties here, and sometimes I’m sure it’s been over 30”C, too hot for me to do anything demanding energy. A late afternoon stroll with some old friends to Heidi’s village, just across the river from here, gave me a poignant reminder however that autumn is nigh: the autumn crocus, or meadow saffron, is blooming in profusion on the slopes.

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Goat in Heid’s village, above Maienfeld, view towards Bad Ragaz

I startled my friends by bursting into song – not too loud, I didn’t want to scare the droves of oriental tourists that flock to the scene of the 1950’s Heidi films – because for me this little flower is inextricably linked with my first September in Switzerland, in the mountain meadows near Geneva, where I first came across the colchicum autumnale and the children were all singing this melancholy little melody.

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Colchiques dans les prés fleurissent …

As autumn songs go, it actually isn’t so sad: yes, the summer is over but the colchique is blooming, the colourful leaves are swirling, clouds wing their way across the sky, chestnuts are bursting in the forests and the song that lingers in the heart – despite the plaintive tune – is one of happiness.

Not an anonymous folk song, as I discovered from Wikipedia, but a ritournelle written for the scout movement in 1942 or 43, the words by Jacqueline Debatte and the melody by a lady with the marvellous name of Francine Cookenpot. What better name for a composer of campfire songs!

For anyone interested, here are links to YouTube versions of the song, one in a traditional children’s arrangement, the other by the romantic chansonnier Francis Cabrel  (one of my favourite French singers, who doesn’t sound like a bleating sheep). There’s also a version of the melody with English words that bear no relation to the original by a long-forgotten French progressive rock band called Sandrose.

I listened to the first few bars of this batlike singer and understand why the band sank into oblivion.

This pretty little flower is deadly poisonous, with no known antidote, but has medicinal uses. Interesting that once upon a time, nobody was bothered that little children sang so blithely about it. I do know that when I first heard it, sung by first-graders, they all knew it was not to be picked or nibbled. “If you touch it, you’ll DIE!” they told me. I hope that, despite modern over-protective parents, first-graders are still singing about it, aware of the dangers and with enough childish common sense not to eat it.

Finally, if you also want to sing along to this haunting little song, here are the words:

Automne (Colchiques Dans Les Près)

Colchiques dans les près
Fleurissent, fleurissent
Colchiques dans les près
C’est la fin de l’été

(Refrain)
La feuille d’automne
Emportée par le vent
En rondes monotones
Tombe en tourbillonnant

Nuage dans le ciel
S’étire, s’étire
Nuage dans le ciel
S’étire comme une aile

Châtaignes dans les bois
Se fendent, se fendent
Châtaignes dans les bois
Se fendent sous nos pas

Et ce chant dans mon cœur
Murmure, murmure
Et ce chant dans mon cœur
Murmure le bonheur.

On This Day

Today – 9 September 2013 – is the anniversary of the Battle of Flodden 500 years ago.  Coincidentally, it’s also the anniversary of the day I started Grammar School in 1952 and the day I left England to start a new life in Germany in 1963, though at the time I didn’t know that, blissfully believing I was going for just one year. I prefer not to reflect on how many years ago that was, as it means I have to admit to being over 45.

Both days seem like yesterday but a torrent of water has passed under the bridge since then, and if I dip my toe in it is most decidedly not the same river I was paddling in at that time. Not the same toe, either – I’ve forgotten how often cells regenerate in the human body, but I doubt even the oldest of mine were around in 1963, let alone 1952.

Today archaeologists digging on Flodden Field for remains of the men who slaughtered one another that day paused in their labours to allow a special service to take place honouring the fallen. It was attended by a large congregation, including descendants of those killed in the battle.

If you are the scion of a noble family, it’s easy to find out if your ancestor was there or not. But how can you tell if you are descended from a simple, illiterate pike- or cudgel-bearing foot soldier?  Some of the people there claiming to be relatives looked very ordinary to me, hence my question.

By digging around myself – metaphorically, not with the archaeologists – I have traced some of our family tree back to the sixteenth century, though not as far back as 1513. It is very difficult to ascertain who was who among hoi polloi in those days, unless they came to acquire some kind of fame or notoriety. The average law-abiding serf or villein was regarded as scarcely more than the animals he tended, just another pair of hands that the feudal lord could call upon when needed and pack off as cannon fodder when the King wanted to raise an army.

I suppose, once they have found a few bones, there may be a possibility of identifying more present-day descendants by means of DNA. However, unlike with Richard III, we won’t see the unearthing of the bones of James IV of Scotland, who bravely led his men into battle and achieved the dubious distinction of being the last king killed in battle on British soil, because his body was carted off to London and presented as a trophy to the crown. Henry VIII was off fighting the French (and leading from behind to ensure he survived), so it landed with Queen Catherine of Aragon, who had it dumped. By the time his grandson became King of England 90 years later, it had rotted away in a woodshed and there was nothing left to disinter. Thus even if he had wanted to rehabilitate his grandfather, he couldn’t.

There is one beautiful thing to come out of that horrific battle at Flodden field: the lament “Flowers of the Forest” which is played regularly when the Scots are remembering their fallen comrades, especially in the two world wars.  

When Words Fail

I have recently read a book by a young woman afflicted with a rare form of bone cancer, osteosarcoma, recording her journey through this harrowing illness: From Cancer to Coma” by Ciara O’Neill.  Cancer to Coma

Her courage and love of life are what shine through on every page of this book, and although she lost her battle, it is a very inspiring story and one I would recommend to anyone who is feeling a bit sorry for themselves. It brings home the old cliché that there’s always someone worse off than you, although there is never a hint of self-pity in this book. Ciara worked on her manuscript right up to the eve of her death, and it is a beautiful legacy.

Just a few days after I had finished reading it, I received a phone call from an old friend whom I have known since my primary school days, to say she has been diagnosed with this same form of cancer.  She sounded remarkably calm as she told me how she has been putting all her affairs in order and preparing for the end, but admitted that she was actually a swan, paddling like mad underneath. Today I have received news that another old friend who has been bravely fighting another aggressive form of cancer for the last two years or so is now very near to departure.

Words are meaningless in these situations. I struggle to express my love and support, and feel helpless. I can pray but I’m too far away from either of these friends to be able to visit, to give them a hug, do something practical and useful, or just sit quietly with them. What I have found – thanks to the Internet – are two beautiful YouTube videos of beautiful scenery and powerful music that flows over you like a gentle massage in warm, sweet-scented almond oil. Thanks to e-mail I have been able to pass these on. So much better than stammering out my sympathy on the phone. A drop in the ocean, I know – but music and natural beauty speak so much more eloquently than words.

1812 And All That

I’ve always enjoyed listening to music that tells a story. Sometimes the composer bases his music on an actual tale, but in other cases the music just seems to evoke scenes and events. For instance, Sibelius composed tone poems that would make wonderful soundtracks to a film, and I have spent many dreamy hours imagining the tales they tell.

On the other hand, overtures to operas and plays usually foreshadow the events, and so take you through the story. One of the earliest I stumbled upon as a child was Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where I would listen for the jackass braying.  Another old favourite was The William Tell Overture, which tells its tale from the prelude through to the triumphant galloping finale with its much-abused  “Lone Ranger” motif.

(And just to throw in some trivia, did you know that the horn of the Swiss Postal Buses that is sounded every time the bus approaches a blind bend on a mountain road echoes those opening bars of the Prelude? Ta-taaa-toooo – exactly as Rossini wrote it, in the key of E.)

English: Tchaikovsky's famous 1812 Overture, w...

Tchaikovsky’s famous 1812 Overture, was played complete with cannons and pyrotechnics at the 2005 Classical Spectacular, in the Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne Photo taken at ISO 1600 with no tripod (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I was pleased and interested when this post about Programme Music landed in my inbox this morning, with the story of the 1812 Overture. What I didn’t know until I read this post was that Americans often associated this piece of music with the Fourth of July and gaining their Independence in the War of 1812.  My first reaction to this was surprise that the stupid ignorant Americans hadn’t picked up on the French and Russian themes in the piece. Then I was surprised at myself for not having heard of the War of 1812. What was that? The War of 1812?  Who’s the stupid ignorant one now?

Well, a long time ago I took history at school and passed GCE O-level, focussing on British and European history from 1789 to 1914, so that certainly included 1812 and Napoleon’s Russian Campaign (I was very good on Napoleon) but I had never heard of this war before.  How remiss of my History teacher who used to drill us to a very high standard.

Then it dawned on me that we were studying for an exam that concentrated on European and domestic British history, and an American war didn’t come under that heading even if Britain had been involved (one of the pitfalls of studying for exams!).  As far as I knew, the USA had gained its independence in 1774 and that was that.  Of course I’d heard of the Battle of New Orleans, but I hadn’t known when it took place. Nor did I know of the precise circumstances described in The Star-spangled Banner. How lucky that nowadays we can turn to Google and Wikipedia to fill the gaps in our knowledge!

Cover of sheet music for "The Star-Spangl...

Cover of sheet music for “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key, transcribed for piano by Ch. Voss, Philadelphia: G. Andre & Co., 1862 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The number of British troops involved in the War of 1812 was relatively small, because most of our fighting men were deployed in the Napoleonic wars, in which far more was at stake. This conflict in a distant former colony was just a minor matter in British foreign affairs, and is scarcely mentioned in our textbooks.  It was, of course, a defeat for the British hence something of an embarrassment, but since it resulted in a status quo ante bellum with no changes in borders etc, we could afford to sweep it under the carpet and forget about it. For the Americans and Canadians, however, it settled their status as independent nations with clearly drawn borders. In fact, last year while Britain was once again looking inward and self-absorbed with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics, over the Pond there were all kinds of bicentenary celebrations going on in the USA and Canada.

English: Sculpture Monument to the War of 1812...

Sculpture Monument to the War of 1812 (2008) by Douglas Coupland in Toronto/Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wonder if the War of 1812 figures in modern British history books?

I must find a British teenager studying history …

Join The Fan Club!

Seeing the pleasure my mother was deriving from listening to the old cassette recordings of her well-played, scratchy old 78’s, I decided to give her a surprise and ordered a double CD of Monte Rey’s recordings from 1926 to 1950. These are re-mastered, so to my ears they sound much better, though she has said she prefers the quality of her 78’s and would like to listen to them again. Sadly, we no longer have a record player here capable of playing 78’s.Image0981

However, that is not to say she isn’t delighted with the CD. Her great favourite – So deep is the night – is missing, but most of the other songs she loves are on these two CDs including Donkey Serenade. There are also some recordings under his own name of Montgomery Fyfe (or Fyffe) when he was into opera and operettas in his early career.

The sleeve notes are very informative. It seems he was “discovered” by Sir Thomas Beecham who gave him a letter of introduction to Lillian Bayliss, the person in charge of the Old Vic, then the home of English opera. Before he could make use of this, however, he casually auditioned with Geraldo and was hired as Geraldo’s Spanish Tenor under the name of Monte Rey, a name made up on the spur of the moment by a friend, and launched into a highly successful radio career.

A couple of years later, walking down Bond Street, he bumped into Sir Thomas who enquired how he was getting on, since he had shown such promise but appeared to have sunk without trace. “Well,” replied our hero, “I’m that bloke they call Monte Rey.” Sir Thomas’s reply is a gem of wisdom:

“Now listen, my boy, you’re singing well …as Monte Rey many, many thousands will get to hear your beautiful voice who never would even have attempted to listen to you if you had remained Montgomery Fyfe, classic tenor … always remember … sing to the best of your ability and with sincerity, no matter what you sing.”

After reading the sleeve notes on the CD, Mom looked up with a big smile. “I’m so pleased,” she said, “he sounds like a nice man, and seems to have had a long happy life and a happy marriage. That’s good to know.”

Our house is ringing with the sound of Monte Rey for the first time in many years, and I have to confess that I, too, have fallen under his spell!. Move over, Alfie Boe!

This song is not on the CD, and this recording is very scratchy, but it is pretty typical of his “Spanish Tenor” period.

Mother’s Heart-throb

The great luxury item in our house in my childhood was a radiogram, in a finely polished square mahogany cabinet that stood about 4 feet high, and had a lid which lifted to reveal a turntable capable of taking up to 8 records. These were automatically released in turn as the previous one finished, at which point you took them all off, turned them over, and listened to the B-sides.

My parents had a lot of records and naturally, I was warned to be very careful when playing them as they broke or cracked very easily.  Dad liked Bing Crosby and my mother’s favourite singer was Monte Rey, so I grew up hearing these singers and their songs over and over again.  Bing not only sang but also made films, became very famous, and is still a household name – but hardly anyone today has heard of Monte Rey the singer, as opposed to Monterey the place.

That is really quite surprising, because he had a long and successful career in the 1930’s,  40’s and even 50’s. My mother was thrilled at seeing and hearing him perform live when she was about twenty, and must have had most of his records.  A true fan!

In the 1970’s or 80’s, Dad bought a cassette recorder and managed to record most of their old 78’s. A pile of cassettes unearthed in the process of clearing my bedroom ready for the carpet fitters proved to be songs by Bing and Monte. With new batteries the old cassette recorder now works perfectly, so much to my mother’s delight she can listen once again to her heart-throb.

But who was Monte Rey?  A Scottish operatic tenor born James Montgomery Fyfe on 5 October 1900, who got into showbiz at the relatively late age of 26. Having been sponsored by the Duchess of Montrose and the film star Jack Buchanan amongst others he decided to take classical singing seriously and left for Italy to study under singing teacher Briano Onielo (who turned out to be an Irishman named Brian O’Neil)!

As Montgomery Fyfe he appeared in many prestigious London venues such as the Albert Hall, the Palladium and the Wigmore Hall. In 1934, the famous bandleader Geraldo was looking for a Spanish tenor in a show called Château de Madrid, and Montgomery was suggested – with a slight change of name. A series of successful radio shows, some with Geraldo, others with Joe Loss, and recordings for transmission by radio Luxembourg, ensured his lasting popularity until he decided to give up professional singing in 1956. At that time, he withdrew to the Isle of Arran, where he lived peacefully and quietly with his wife, making a living collecting dues on the pier at Brodick. His last radio appearance was on Scottish radio on his 80th birthday, when he was still hale and hearty, and still singing. He died in 1982.

His style of singing went out of fashion in the fifties and sixties and his name was forgotten, and yet listening to him as my mother replays her old favourites and relives her youth, I am struck by what a magnificent voice he had. Surely Monte Rey deserves to be ranked with the great tenors of the twentieth century such as John McCormack, Richard Tauber or Mario Lanza. He wasn’t a bad-looking man, either, if his photos tell the truth, and I can’t help wondering what kind of career he would have had if he had been born in the second half of the twentieth century instead of at the beginning. Would he have been competing in “The Voice” or “Britain’s Got Talent”?

David Cameron: Proud To Be English And British – Let’s Fly The Flag!

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Patriotism is an admirable quality, provided it doesn’t deteriorate into jingoism. A survey – one of those that make you think there must be a bunch of guys paid to prop up a bar somewhere dreaming up farfetched subjects of study in order to justify IPPR’s existence – indicates that nowadays 35% of native inhabitants of England consider themselves first and foremost English rather than British.

The rest of the world might be confused at this point, as most foreigners don’t appreciate the distinction between England, Britain and the UK. Look it up – I’m tired of explaining it.

Now you’ve done that, let’s get back to the topic. It’s fine to be proud of your country, and to work loyally to try and make it better, even the best place in the world. England does have a lot to love and admire, to respect and be proud of in spite of all the knocks, and our national self-esteem is justified. Carry it too far, though, and we get ‘Little Englanders’ with all their unpleasant traits of white supremacy and bigotry, or football hooligans hijacking the cross of St George for their own brand of senseless bullying. We also need to ensure that certain far-right political ideologies remain within the lunatic fringe. But generally speaking, the English are a level-headed lot and our days of imperialism are far behind us.

In the past, nobody has objected to the Irish celebrating St Patrick’s Day and in fact many join in with greenery who have no connection whatsoever with Ireland. The Americans go so far as to drink green beer on 17 March, something not even the IRA have thought of. The Scots and Welsh also proudly wear their thistles, daffodils and leeks on St Andrew’s Day and St David’s Day respectively, wave their flags and sing their patriotic songs.

So why shouldn’t the English also have a public holiday on 23 April to mark St George’s Day and link it to Shakespeare’s Day? A triple celebration in fact, since Shakespeare died on his birthday after overdoing it a bit at his party. It also falls close enough to the Queen’s birthday (21 April) to combine the four into a real cause for fun and games. Let’s fly the flag and flaunt a rose in our buttonholes.

Why has it taken so long for this particular lobby to be heard? Apparently, the IPPR has found out that almost 75% of the English would like the 23 April to become an official holiday. Next year, it will also be Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. Wouldn’t that be a fitting birthday present for the Bard?

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