A surprise intruder at my door

 

img_0976When I was in my twenties, I used to live in Bologna in a 6th floor flat together with 5 other people. The flat was on the outskirts of town  and I remember you could see a football pitch, a roller hockey rink, the motorway, the railway and just beyond it the airport and all the planes landing. The biggest room in the flat had a huge window which looked over all this civic activity and at night if you turned the light off, and in particular if you put the right music on (I especially remember one instance when Bach’s St. Matthew’s passion was playing), and watched the cars, the trains and the planes, it felt like you were on a spaceship.

One Friday I was alone in the house. Perhaps it was on the eve of a holiday, everyone else had gone back to their homes. I was up till late reading. The book I was reading was Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, which was made famous by the film adaptation which the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky made from it. Read more…

Pi in the sky with diamonds

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Apple π ?

The 14th of March, we are told, is π day because that the beginning of that amazing number in decimal notation  is 3.14.

I’m not sure how you celebrate π day. Dance round in circles? Go on and on (as many of us are wont to do) without ever repeating ourselves (not something I can do).

On the basis of the photos I have seen, some people bake pies for π day. If you bake a tiny pie with a one inch diameter its circumference will be π inches. Even more π-like would be to make a pie whose area is π but I am not going to try and do the maths.

Furthermore, if you cut an apple in two horizontally to make a circular section then, if you attribute the value of one apple  to the diameter, the circumference will be equal to 1 apple π.
Read more…

Arise! An imaginary film scene

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Recently, I came across an article published in 1945 in the New Yorker entitled “Return to Place Pigalle”, where Joseph Wechsberg, originally from Czechoslovakia,  describes returning to Paris as a US soldier and meeting the musicians he used to play with there in the 1920’s.
The musicians describe the experience of playing in  Nazi-occupied Paris and leds to a discussion  of a violinist-cellist called Maurice, who is remembered for the following:

After 2 A.M., by which hour many of the German customers, not having been brought up on Pommery and Verve Clicquot, were under the tables, Maurice’s favorite sport was to get up and announce in German that the orchestra would play “Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles.” (Maurice had been born in Alsace and spoke German fluently.) The plastered Germans would crawl out from under the tables, make an effort to stand at attention and fall flat on their faces. The French customers would start laughing, and in the end an S.S. man who wasn’t quite drunk would call in the nearest patrol and have the drunken Germans arrested.

I think that this would make a marvellous sequence in a film. In fact, it would be even better if the gag was repeated two or three times in a row. Of course, there is no need for the soldier to be Germans. I think that Russians would be a good alternative, simply on musical grounds, since the Russian anthem has a swaying quality to it which would well accompany the efforts of drunk soldiers to stand up straight. Even better perhaps, Chinese soldiers, once you know that the Chinese national anthem begins with the call qǐ lái (起来) –  Arise! or Stand Up!

 

Montaigne berates his “membre”

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“One commonly notices the unruly independence of this member, interjecting itself so inopportunely when we have no need for it and failing us so inopportunely when we most need it, and contending so imperiously for authority with our will, so haughtily and stubbornly rejecting our urgings, both mental and manual.”

(“On a raison de remarquer l’indocile liberté de ce membre, s’ingerant si importunement, lors que nous n’en avons que faire, et defaillant si importunement, lors que nous en avons le plus affaire, et contestant de l’authorité si imperieusement U avec nostre volonté, refusant avec tant de fierté et d’obstination noz solicitations et mentales et manuelles.“)

I can’t think of anyone who could have written such a classically phrased sentence about such an unclassical topic. Actually, Montaigne goes on to say (in his essay on the Imagination) that in fact this criticism is unfair since all the parts of our body act without our consent. Do we command our hair to stand on end? Or our hearts to beat faster? And he goes on to mention a number of different organs. I can’t help thinking, though, that the one of the main reasons for his adding this was to be able to report the exceptional case of someone who could fart in tune.

Similarly, I find it hard not to mention an anecdote I was once told about “le membre”. At an international committee meeting, a British delegate decided to introduce the new Belgian delegate to the French chairman.

British delegate: Puis-je avoir le plaisir de vous introduire le membre belge?

French chairman: Oui, mais doucement. 

“Introduire” in French is a bit different from “introduce” in English, so I suppose you could render it as follows:

British delegate: May I have the pleasure of introducing the Belgian member into you?

French chairman: Yes, but gently.

“I’ve shot hares.” Patrick Leigh Fermor

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After a moment, I heard Baron Pips laugh quietly and asked why. He said : ” You sound just like Count Sternberg.” He was ancient and rather simple-minded Austrian nobleman, he explained. When he was on his death-bed his confessor said the time had come to make a general confession. The Count, after racking his brains for a while, said he couldn’t remember anything to confess. “Come, come, Count!” the priest said, “you must have committed some sins in your life. Do think again.” After a long and bewildered silence, the Count said, rather reluctantly, “Habe Hasen geschossen”—”I’ve shot hares”—and expired.

 

from A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh-Fermor

The Poetry of Google Translate

And the long road ahead, I go to bed
And the long road ahead, I go to bed
 

Google Translate is amazing when it works. Unfortunately, it only works about half of the time. Even more unfortunately, unless you already know the languages you are trying to translate, there is no way of knowing when it is accurate and when it is serving you up something non-sensical, inaccurate or downright offensive.

On the other hand, it is a wonderful machine for playing Chinese Whispers. I have already translated a Turkish menu into English, with what I think are fascinating results. Now, the time has come to see how well Google Translate can generate its own poetry.

Read more…

Aloud – John Skelton – To Mistress Margaret Hussey

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Lady with pomander

Whenever I open an anthology of English poetry this is always one of the first poems I turn to. I love its rhythms. I also think that, although we know nothing about Mistress Margaret Hussey, thousands of people down the centuries after having read this poem have thought they would have liked to meet her.




(listen to the poem here)



Merry Margaret,
As midsummer flower:
Gentle as falcon
Or hawk of the tower:
Read more…

Disparitions Mystérieuses des Civilisations Méso-Américaines

(Listen to the poem here)

 

 

Après le repas à Oaxtepec

le patron du restaurant

nous dit d’un air de satisfaction agaçant

que toute sa viande

vient du Texas.

Je trouve que ce n’est pas normal

de manger tellement hormonal.

Au Mexique on trouve

partout des traces

olmèques, toltèques,

aztèques, mixtèques,

mais qu’en est-il

des Bixtèques?

 

Phillip Hill 2008

 

 

(After the meal in Oaxtepec/the owner of the restaurant/tells us with an/ irritating manner/that all his meat/is from Texas./I find that all this hormonality/is somewhat an abnormality./In Mexico everywhere/one finds traces of/Olmecs, Toltecs,/Aztecs, Mixtecs,/but whatever happened to/your Beefxstecs?)

 

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(This poem is included in my book The Observation Car which is available from