Monday, 29 September 2008

Travels with my mother-in-law

Neighbourhood Romaniac Gadjo Dilo has recently waxed lyrical on the perils and pitfalls of dealing with foreign mothers-in-law. This set me to thinking about the bond of good-natured incomprehension that exists between myself and my own mother-in-law; a lady with whom I have never had a cross word although on one occasion I came close, as I shall shortly relate.

My MiL is a lady of little education (not her fault, I hasten to add - blame it on the Imperial Japanese Army burning her school down when she was 8 and the subsequent chaos of occupation and revolution preventing any proper schooling), whose life revolves entirely around her family. She bore 13 children in total, 10 of whom are still around today, and now has a total of 17 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren. Mrs Byard is the only one of her offspring living outside Indonesia.

Now while I cannot claim to be a favourite in the family, having removed their beloved daughter/sister from the fold, they do tolerate me with good humour on the grounds that I at least make the effort to be a dutiful son-in-law as far as the separation distance will allow. I greet my MiL respectfully with the 'hand over fist' greeting familiar from old episodes of Kung Fu, we send money for red envelopes at Chinese New Year, we go and visit every couple of years and I speak enough Indonesian and Javanese that I can ask her about her her grandchildren (her favourite topic of conversation as with grannies the world over). There's also the appeal of the exotic. Never forget that in much of Southeast Asia, being from Dudley is exotic.

There have been but two occasions on which the happy facade cracked - once during the burial of my daughter's placenta and once over housework during her stay in England.

Now at this point, you may well be asking what on earth I was doing burying a placenta. IN my defence, it is a common custom in Indonesia and my wife's family - especially my MiL - would have been quite upset with us had we not gone through with the ritual. The idea is that the placenta represents a 'spirit sibling' who watches over the child until the remaining stub of the umbilical cord drops off (historically the most hazardous period for a newborn). The placenta is washed and wrapped in white cotton, and then placed in an earthenware pot with flower petals and a selection of items indicating the family's aspirations for the child - money for prosperity, a notebook and pencil for scholastic diligence, a mirror and comb for good grooming. Finding this rather poetic, I decided to go along with it and add a few mathematical and scientific formulae, a Shakespeare sonnet and a bit of rosin from my violin case. I then had to dig a hole in the garden, in equatorial heat, to bury the thing. Having done that, we buried the pot and I back-filled the hole. I was just treading down the last of the earth when my MiL suddenly interrupted me: "We forgot the money. Dig it up again!" It's as well she spoke no English, especially my next utterance. I did dig it up again, of course, rather than risk a major ruption.

Some years later, she and my eldest sister-in-law (the one involved in the ripped shirt incident), came to stay with us in England. Having only a three bedroom semi (one of whose bedrooms is too small to fit a bed into), we decided that the only viable sleeping plan would be for my MiL and SiL to share my daughter's room, my daughter to go in with Mrs Byard and me to sleep on the couch downstairs. (When I say 'we decided...' I'm obviously not implying I had much of a say in this). Anyway, waking blearily at 4 am and needing the bathroom, I staggered out clad only in dubious boxer shorts to find my hall occupied by my fully dressed MiL doing my ironing. She greeted me with a cheery 'good morning'. I greeted her with a wheeze of horrified embarrassment. Should I castigate her for setting to at all hours (although she had the defence that she was jet-lagged and couldn't sleep), order her not to be so daft as to bother ironing all our crapulous laundry, or just accept it graciously and make a point of dressing more elaborately for bed for the duration of her stay? Well, the only viable course of action was the last one, clearly, but I was pretty grumpy about it.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Glimpses into forgotten worlds - 2

Or "Malay as she is spoken by a Welch academic".

The bookseller of Woodley market came up trumps for me this last Saturday, with a 1947 edition of "Teach Yourself Malay". A more substantial volume than Hamilton's 'Malay Made Easy', it moves away from the 'yell at the servants' paradigm and shows that its author, one M.B. Lewis, had a genuine love of Malay literature that transcended mere quotidian practicality in favour of language so flowery it could be displayed at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Flicking through at random, one comes at first to some delightful dialogues, redolent of pith-helmeted Hamiltonian lunacy:
"If you are free on Friday, come up river crocodile-shooting, will you?"
"Your coollies, Mat, are often late assembling."
"Bring me the chisel when you come back."
"The prisoner, who was deaf, could not hear what the judge said."

And clearly Lewis was a man with a feel for life's necessaries:
"Nurse, come here a moment, will you?"

But for Lewis these are clearly distractions to be put aside in favour of slightly mildewed copies of chronicles and tea-stained reams of pantuns.
"Then without a moment's pause he lit the fuse and set spurs to his horse."
"The queen sat under a pandan tree with all the wives of the magnates in attendance. The king took much pleasure in watching the court maidens sporting there, each following her own inclination."

Wouldn't we all?

And his approach to everday grammar is evident in this delightful translation from a 16th century prose romance:
"The said Hang Mahmud to his wife, whose name was Dang Merdu Wati, 'Lady, it were well that we should go to Bentan so that we may more easily seek a livelihood. Moreover, it is a large settlement; it were well that we should move thither, we and our child'."

One wonders if he spoke English like that. And the following pantun may tell us more about Lewis's personal life than he realised:
"In the swamp the monkeys play
Swinging down from leafy tree.
Plain, uncomely others say;
Sweet and fair she seems to me."

Poignantly, however, the book gives the occasional "twitch of the curtain" to reveal just how dire life in Malaya must have been in 1947.

There is, for instance, this given as an example of correspondence:
"I apologise for this shabby scrap of paper. I had to buy it because there was nothing else to be had. We reached a very low ebb when the war was on. We had scarcely more than we stood up in. But what does it matter, as long as we are still alive?"

And the following comes from an Engish-Malay translation exercise:
"In consequence of reports received by the District Officer that many persons are hoarding food far in excess of their needs... No one is allowed to keep in his house more rice (sugar, flour etc) than is sufficient for 3 days consumption... The officer in question hs power to enter and search any house to enforce this regulation."

One wonders why they rebelled.

Monday, 22 September 2008

The bitter-sweetness of serendipitous discovery

Many years ago, while I was living in Indonesia, I sang and played keyboards in a blues-rock band with three local Indonesian guys. We played a few gigs but never amounted to that much. I lost touch with the bass player and drummer years ago, though I still see the lead-guitarist from time to time now that he's living in London. The drummer was a Balinese guy named Ari, who had lived in Australia. We spent many convivial evenings rehearsing, playing and drinking beer. The question of what had become of him had slipped from my consciousness, when today I read this:

Ari Astina, a drummer of the Superman is Dead pop band, said his worry was based on the fact that anything, including songs, associated with pornography under the would-be law could be subject to legal punishment, regardless of their lyrics.
"Actually whether its pornographic or not depends on how it is seen. If someone is full of dirty mind, anything can be considered pornographic," said Ari, who is popularly known as Jerinx.

So one of us made it to stardom, at least... I am consoled by the thought that had he stayed playing with me, he doubtless would not have made it in the music business...

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Jacqueline Wilson is a very nice lady

My daughter is an avid reader, usually to be found curled up with a book if she has the choice. Her favourite author is Jacqueline Wilson, author of the Tracy Beaker books among much else - a name which should be familiar to any parents of girls aged from about 7-13. Jacqueline Wilson has an official fan website to which my daughter is signed up, but in August she went a step further and sent a fan letter to Ms Wilson.

I expected that at most she would get a printed form-type reply; imagine then her delight to receive a hand-written postcard from JW herself. I have never seen her quite so excited. The card is now her single most treasured possession.

From the fact that JW has had a card printed (it shows the author in front of a shelf-full of her books), I summise that she replies in person to most if not all of her fan-mail, which must be a huge effort. I heard from people who have attended her signings that she is meticulous about dealing attentively with her fans in person too. What a pleasant thing it is to encounter a successful person who is willing to 'give something back' to that extent.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Gyppo's Top Twelve Operas - 3

"Britten in Bloom"
I thought to myself, thought I, 'I must put some British operas in this list'; and having thought that the title came naturally. Then I started actually thinking about Britten operas and how much I actually dislike them. Besides, Boyo and Gadjo have got Benji nicely covered...

Dido and Aeneas - Purcell
Often touted - wrongly - as the first English opera (Cupid and Death having achieved that distinction under the Commonwealth), Dido is, however, the first worth reviving. I've sung in the chorus a couple of times, once achieving the distinction of being "the tenor echo". Like Gianni Schicchi (see previous posting), it's known as much for its main female aria as for the rest of the piece. But both are cracking...

A Midsummer Marriage - Tippett
"Keep Britten Tidy - don't Tippett in the street!" as old Music Faculty graffiti had it. Tippett certainly wrote better vocal parts than Britten. Discuss.

The Mikado - Sullivan
And indeed - though it pains me to say it - Gilbert. Purists will howl that this isn't an opera but merely an operetta. But in preparation for that, I have cleaned and loaded my purist gun. This is such a cracking show, and has a special place in my affections as being the first in which I played the tenor lead on stage, opposite a young Elizabeth Menezes as Yum-Yum...

And three that don't fit anywhere:
L'Incoronazione di Poppea - Monteverdi
Back to early opera for a bit - this is an absolute corker of a piece, and refreshingly brutal for the time. The love duet with male and female voices entwining in the same register is spectacularly erotic. Anyone who casts Nero as a baritone should be shot for cloth-earedness. You 'as bin warned.

Boris Godunov - Mussorgskiy
Another that I like for similar reasons to Siegfried - forget the dodgy politics and wallow in the glorious soupy romaticism. This opera proves that to be a successful Tsar, it's not adequate being Godunov - you also need to be Stroganoff.

Jenufa - Janacek
One of the first genuinely modern operas - prose text, gritty subject matter. Nonetheless it's a compelling piece and a nice refresher for those who assume opera revolves around a German-Italian axis.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Gyppo's top twelve operas - 2

It's Puccini night!
Like many a classically-trained singer, I have the same affection for Puccini as Alpinists do for the Matterhorn. It's a challenge you set yourself. Having said that, Puccini knew how to write stuff that sounds more difficult than it really is - he provides you with the musical equivalent of conveniently-spaced handholds to give you a fighting chance. I've tried to go with whole operas rather than merely the sources of favourite tenor "warhorses", so I'm afraid that I've had to wave goodbye - tearfully and while waving a large handkershief dramatically - to both Nessun Dorma and Che Gelida Manina (which if my Italian serves me correctly, means "Your hand is in my ice-cream!")

Gianni Schicchi
More people know the one rather insipid soprano aria O mio babbino caro than know the rest of this one-acter; which is a shame because the tenor parts are rather good too. Of course, if you're allowed to count Il Trittico ('the triptych', written as a single evening's performance of three one-act operas) as one, you get Il Tabbaro and Suor Angelica thrown in too, which is a good package deal by any standards. Gianni Schicchi is also refreshingly rare as being a genuinely funny operatic comedy.

La Fanciulla Del West
Who can resist the spectacle of cowboys and Indians singing in Italian? Yes, this has to be the finest operatic western ever written. Though not the most popular of Giacamo's works, it nonetheless has its admirers (myself included, obviously) for being better dramatically integrated than many of the others and musically more 'modern' to boot.

Not only do I - like all tenors - have a soft spot for Cavaradossi, but choosing this gives me an opportunity to air a funny story about an erstwhile colleague of Scaryduck, No Good Boyo and myself - let us call her Doris - to whom I shamelessly dropped the fact that an old chum had invited me to play Cavaradossi in an amateur production.

Doris: Tosca? Are you any good at jumping off walls?
Me: Pardon? Um, I'm a tenor.
Doris: Yes, but are you any good at jumping off walls?
Me: It's only Tosca who jumps off the wall at the end.
Doris: I thought they all did.
Me: Have you ever actually seen Tosca?
Doris: Well, no...

Actually, come to think of it, the entire cast leaping from the walls might be an improvement, adding some much-needed laughs to the otherwise depressing final act.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Ladies and gentlemen - let us stretch ourselves

After the pleasurable time that was had by all over the film lists, let us extend ourselves and show our true cultural mettle:

Gyppo's Top Twelve Operas - 1

Don Giovanni (Mozart)
It's impossible to impress on anyone who hasn't been compelled to study 18th century opera just what a refreshingly revolutionary piece this is. There is fabulous music all through to be sure; but the real kick is that last scene where the Commendatore's statue arrives. In many ways, this is the true birth of romantic music.

Siegfried (Wagner)
I know Wagner isn't everyone's cup of tea, and that his supposed political views and the fact that Hitler was a fan weigh against out-and-out enjoyment for many, but I still love giving in to a good wallow in the sheer musical magnificence of it. Siegfried, for me, is the ultimate Wagner opera; but then again I'm a tenor. For best scene, it's a three-way tie for me between the forging of Nothung, 'forest murmurs' and the love duet with Brunnhilde at the end (if the orchestral entry at 3'43 in this last bit doesn't send a thrill up your spine, then you either have no soul or the voume isn't set high enough...)

Akhnaten (Philip Glass)
The final - and best, imho - part of the great Glass operatic trilogy (coming after Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha). I never tire of listening to this... I've seen the Philip Glass Ensemble play live, accompanying a screening of Koyanisqaatsi. It was honestly the loudest thing I've ever experienced - the speaker stacks rivalled many heavy metal bands.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Marketing people - I sh*t them

... as my grandfather was wont to say of things that annoyed him.

I have finally, in my mid-40s, worked out how market research operates. Hidden cameras, tracking devices and nerds with clipboards take careful note of which products I buy and then take them off the market. This has happened too many times in recent years for it to be coincidence.

Among the recent casualties of this global conspiracy to irritate me are Lloyd's pharmacy's own-brand talcum powder, Elgydium toothpaste, Sharwood's yellow bean sauce and the entirety of Waitrose's 'food explorers' kids' ready-meal range.

Why do they do this? Is it personal, or do I just have a taste so rarefied that continuing to satisfy it is unprofitable? Darn them all. Darn them to heck...