All posts by sidewaysstation

Memories of Pyongyang

North_korea_bannerIn the 1990’s, when the grandfather of the current Kim was North Korea’s Great Leader, I spent a week in Pyongyang working as an interpreter for the Italian delegation at a huge conference which was attended by most of the world’s nations. I have decided to note down what I remember now, before the place becomes a major tourist destination. (Not likely, I suppose, but more improbable things have happened recently.)

At the time, the only places from which you could fly to Pyongyang were Beijing, Moscow and Tirana. We got to Pyongyang via Beijing. There were so many more people travelling to Pyongyang than usual that Air Koryo, the North Korean airline was flying a shuttle service from Beijing to Pyongyang, which meant that all time-tables had been abolished. Whenever a plane arrived from Pyongyang, the people nearest the front of the huge huddle managed to leave.

The first thing I noticed on boarding the plane was that the stewardesses were stowing real crockery on the shelves in the kitchen area. This was very impressive. The second thing which became apparent was that some of the seats were stuck in a reclining position and several of the tray tables could not be folded back in place. The plane, however, promptly began to race down the runway and as it took off two loud sounds were heard. One was the crockery falling to the floor, and the second was a blast of muscular martial music streaming out of the loudspeakers. The music never let up, all the way to Pyongyang.

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Interjected intervals

If any of you have ever done ear training you have almost certainly encountered the method for recognising intervals which is based on memorising the first couple of notes from songs you know.

For example, first two notes of:

Isn’t She Lovely – Minor 2nd
Frères Jacques- Major 2nd
Greensleeves – Minor 3rd
Oh, when the Saints – Major 3rd
Here comes the Bride – 4th
Maria – tritone
Twinkle, Twinkle – 5th
Go down Moses – Minor 6th
My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean – Major 6th
Somewhere- Minor 7th
Superman Theme – Major 7th
Singin’ in the Rain- Octave

If you don’t know all of those, here’s a list with several alternatives.

But there are also songs which specify the intervals sung in the lyrics. Here, for example, is The Interval Song by Django Bates, which I think everyone should know.

Here’s another one, which changes the words to the Christmas Song to sing about various elements of musical theory:

 

Finally, slightly different, but a lot of fun, this is Bobby McFerrin literally jumping around the pentatonic scale and claiming that it is written into everyone’s mind.

Eastern Wisdom vs. Tennis

tennis_03When the British assembled their empire, they took their games and sports and moustaches with them, even to the hottest places. Some people were bemused, as in this anecdote, relayed by Jan Morris in her book Hong Kong, when discussing the early days of the colony.

An old tale tells of the Chinese gentleman who, watching a pair of Englishmen sweating away at a game of tennis, inquired why they did not hire coolies to play it for them.

We do not know whether they took heed of this pearl of Eastern wisdom, but it would certainly have been more reasonable to sit calmly in the shade or else, if they were really incapable of sitting still, to equip themselves with something like the following admirable device:

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Perhaps this is Dr. Watson trying out the contraption. After all, he was just down the road at 221B Baker St.

The Horse-Action Saddle was also available for ladies:

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It is interesting to note that the saddle does not seem to have the same effect on gentlemen and ladies. Only in the case of ladies is it noted that the saddle provides a “complete cure for … HYSTERIA…”.

Also interesting, at the top of the ad, is the plug from the Countess of Aberdeen (who was never taught the difference between direct and reported speech):

Her Excellency the Countess of Aberdeen writes: “That the saddle has given her complete satisfaction.”

Stop beating around the mulberry bush and do the needful- Indian complaints

Dear Sir, It is with great agony that I wish to bring to your kind notice the callousness shown by some employee of your deptt.

What a way to begin a complaint! It certainly grabs my attention. This is a letter on the Indian Consumers Complaint Forum addressed to the passport office in Jaipur. And what is this callousness which caused the writer so much agony?

 In my passport they have changed my surname spelling.but i filled surname spelling correct in my forum.currently In the passport surname is ..AR… but it should be …RA… my passport no is … and file no is …

It is difficult to belive that such thing should have happened under your efficient control.please get the needful done at the earlist.

The ending is as accomplished as the beginning: “It is difficult to believe that such a thing could have happened under your efficient control.”

I am a great admirer of Indian English. I believe they will be the last country to continue to speak what I consider to be real English, which separates nouns, adverbs, adjectives and verbs into orderly clauses, something which is increasingly slipping away in Britain and America. In a hundred years’ time when everyone else will be conjugating the verb to be, as follows:

I mlike You rlike He/She/It zlike We rlike You rlike They rlike

Indians will still be using am, are and is.

It is true that they use phrases which are slightly different from what I am used to. I once used to translate at a committee which was chaired by an Indian gentleman who  used to say things like:

We are beating around the mulberry bush

We are sweeping everything under the carpet and the carpet itself is getting bloated.

I see Norway with his flag up, impedimenting progress as usual.

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Head swivelling and the Art of Sleeping

I recently came across these two short films by the French director Chris Marker (1921-2012) from Bestiaire (1990). The first one is a cat sleeping on a piano. And the second a series of owls, mostly swivelling their heads rather amazingly.

Looking at the cat, I realised for the first time that sleeping can be an art form.

Also, the next time I find it hard to sleep I am going to try to imagine being that cat and see what happens. (I shall stop short of lying down on top of the piano keyboard, however).

The owls go through a range of motion which is so far beyond our abilities as to seem aliens or objects (periscopes, perhaps).

Also, there is something about these films which seems to belong to another time, although though they are quite recent. Perhaps it is just the fact that they seem completely separate from our new multi-tasking customs. Marker focuses on one thing and doesn’t get distracted.

Chat écoutant la musique

 

An owl is an owl is an owl

 

If you have now become curious about how far an owl can swivel its head, look at this:

 

The Indian boy outside the temple

(Listen to the poem here)

 

 

Swaying in his walking mother’s arms

The two-year old is studiously

Extracting strands of moonlight

From her long and precious hair.

 

Phillip Hill 2017

Halfpenny thoughts no.2 – What does the Queen sing in the shower?

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Thoughts which aren’t even worth a penny

If you have watched any royal ceremonies involving the Queen of England,  you may have noticed that she is the only person who doesn’t join in when “God Save the Queen” is sung. She can’t, of course. It would make no sense.

But I am sure that there have been times when she has sung it in private. How could one resist it? When she’s really worked up about something or, almost unthinkingly, in the shower. She would still need to change the words, though. This is what I think she sings:

“God save my gracious Me, Long live my noble Me, Go-od save Me!”

And, perhaps, people would enjoy it more if they too could sing those words instead of the standard version. In this selfie-littered age of self-display and ceaseless selling, this should, really, become everybody’s personal anthem.

Haikus for explaneedfuls

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Some people (I call them explaneedfuls) need an explanation for everything and often an explanation of the explanation as well. A long time ago I met one of them. I was asked to go to a TV studio in Italy to assist the host of a programme covering the Oscar awards ceremony. I thought I was going to be there to interpret, which is what I usually do, but it turned out that the core of my job was to make sure the Italian host understood the jokes people made during the ceremony.

Jokes are definitely one of the hardest things to translate but in this case the real problem was that the person was devoid  of any sense of humour and the more one took the pieces of the witticisms apart and described how they were supposed to interact the more bewilderment descended on his features. I began to wonder whether he was actually an alien from a race with no jokes who had infiltrated our society to spy on us. They had managed to copy all our bodily components perfectly but they had no idea on how to instil humour into a fake human.

I’m sure you’ve met at least one explaneedful person. I sometimes think about them when I read haikus.

For example,

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
casually.

(Issa)

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Hey, History!

 

(Listen to the poem here)

 

 

Some people tell me that

they feel compelledbook-1740519_1920

to read books

to the end, no matter

how brainless and

repetitive the plot,

how many unattractive

characters,

or how nobody ever

seems to learn from

their mistakes.

Me, I’m not like that.

If I’m fed up

(and it could be on

page fourteen or thirty-three

or even four seven six)

well, then I toss

it parabolically into the furthest

corner I can conceive

and that’s the

final end of it for me.

What’s more,

I’ll tell you what,

I’m right, they’re wrong,

And now I’ll show you why –

(excuse me while

I shout a little)

“Hey, history! Stop

turning pages! Go

get yourself another book!”

 

Phillip Hill 2016

Rossini’s little train

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When I look at of the books in my library, the only thing I can remember in most cases is whether I have read them or not. Books in the second-largest category trigger one single anecdote or image and nothing else. One image which has been in my head for decades now comes from a book by Alberto Savinio (the brother of the painter Giorgio De Chirico), who was a fine writer and music critic, but of whom the only thing I recall is this passage he wrote about Gioacchino Rossini:

When, in Rossini’s symphonies, the allegro theme with the repeated little notes starts up, followed by one of his famous crescendos, I close my eyes and I see an ancient train with the steam engine in front, an ostrich-neck smoke stack with something like a pasta colander on top and the open-sided carriages behind, the curtains flapping and all full of fat Rossinis, paunchy and chuckling, who blow kisses to the crowd and shout out witticisms. The train starts giving off slow puffs, which then pick up pace, until they reach a steady, blistering speed, and the train races through the countryside, which is green with astonishment.

I often think about that when I hear Rossini’s music.  Here are some of his famous crescendos. Try and see the train going by. Or get on and stand behind all the Rossinis as you go through the greenly astonished countryside.

Rossini retired from writing operas when he was 37. He wrote some other music, including some pieces which he called “Old Age Sins”, one of which is about peas (Ouf, les petis pois!).

He was famous for his witticisms. Just like the images from my books, I recall one in number. It’s about Wagner (look away now, Wagner fans):

“Mr. Wagner has some wonderful moments, but some awful quarters of an hour.”

(Note: the caricature of Rossini is by David Levine. You can see several other outstanding examples of his art here.)