Phaedra

A theatre programme from 1995 for a production of 'Phaedra' at the Bristol Old Vic.

My trips to the theatre have been all too few and far between, and can quickly be enumerated in full:

  1. A traditional pantomime I saw as a child at the New Theatre in Cardiff. I don’t recall which pantomime it was.
  2. As part of a school outing we were taken to see J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, again in Cardiff, this time at the Sherman Theatre.
  3. On a somewhat longer excursion from school I saw Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Stratford-upon-Avon.
  4. Sartre’s No Exit and a one-act play whose title I forget on the same evening at the Students' Union, Imperial College.
  5. The Pope and the Witch by Dario Fo, with Frances de la Tour as the Witch, at the Comedy Theatre, London.
  6. A Romanian production of Phaedra “after Seneca and Euripides” adapted and directed by Silviu Purcărete as brought to the UK by the National Theatre of Craiova, which I saw at Bristol Old Vic in June ‘95.

Since then, means, motive and opportunity have never seemed to quite align. As a keepsake, I held on to the programme (above) for the last of these, which for me was the most memorable and impressive of the six. A stark classical tragedy performed in Romanian (there were English surtitles over the stage) wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it mesmerising. While not a dance piece as such, there was as much choreography involved as scripted drama, all enacted on a mostly bare stage. There is what I think may be complete footage of the production on YouTube (albeit in blurry, poor-quality video) here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

Sylvia Townsend Warner

A stack of ten volumes of short stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

The motley stack of ten books in the picture above contain most – but still not all – of the short stories written by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978). My first encounter with STW’s work, was, like most people’s, by way of her popular debut novel Lolly Willowes (1926). Although I admired its prose-style, I didn’t altogether fall for the book, and only returned to her work about a decade later, when I found a first edition copy of Kingdoms of Elfin (1977) in a charity bookshop: it cost me £1. I dearly loved the elegant, fatalistic fairy stories within, and began to search for her other short fiction. My purchase proved to be the kind of false bargain that prefaces a good deal of further expenditure.

Most of the above were acquired fairly inexpensively, but getting the last few wasn’t so cheap. An ex-library copy of The Museum of Cheats (1947) set me back about £20. The shabby US edition of A Garland of Straw (1943) would have been almost as much, taking international postage costs into account: it had spent a long while in a Baton Rouge library, acquiring a complex & rather fascinating aroma along the way. Lastly, I coughed up £50 for a copy of The Salutation (1932), by a clear margin the cheapest I could find at the time, even including price of shipping it from Australia. Warner had published a few individual stories and one small collection prior to ‘32, but at least some of those were re-issued in The Salutation, so I’ve not sought out those earlier books.

As far as I’m aware, the other collections I’m still missing are the elusively rare (and therefore very expensive) More Joy in Heaven (1935) and the posthumously-gathered Scenes of Childhood (1982) & The Music at Long Verney (2001). The one posthumous collection I do have – One Thing Leading to Another (1984) – is pretty good, but does represent a half-step down in quality from the collections assembled in her lifetime. The books in the picture are the fruits of their author’s long association with Chatto & Windus in the UK (seven of the ten) and Viking in the US (the other three). Four of the volumes in all are ex-library, while three of the remainder are inscribed: The Cat’s Cradle Book (1940: US; 1960: UK) was someone’s Christmas gift in 1970. Kingdoms of Elfin was a birthday gift in 1977; while The Salutation merely has its first owner’s name neatly written on the price-clipped fly-leaf.

Ceiling

A film photograph of part of the ornate ceiling in the drawing room at Castell Coch.

The picture above shows part of the decorated ceiling in the drawing room at Castell Coch. I’d often caught sight of the mock castle – nestled in its woodland setting – from the A470, or from the Taff Valley railway line, but I only ever visited it once, in the autumn of 2010. I took along my Yashica Mat TLR camera, loaded with Kodak Ektar 100 film.

The present frame was something of an afterthought after I’d first tried taking a picture by positioning the camera on the floor directly underneath the chandelier in the centre of the room. Unfortunately the alignment was off, so it didn’t come out as I’d hoped. In any case, I ended up preferring the deliberately off-centre image to that one.

Taika

Two bowls and a mug from the 'Taika' line of tableware by iitala.

Not until I turned thirty was I faced with a need to acquire a set of my own tableware. In the decade before that I’d relied on a combination of familial hand-me-downs and whatever I found in the kitchens of the furnished accommodation I rented. These would on occasion have to be supplemented by additional purchases, but only ever of individual items, or pairs of them: a new mug here; a couple of plates there. On first setting up home with my then-fiancée in early 1999, however, a full and matching complement of plates and bowls was called for. IKEA provided them: from something resembling their current Färgklar line in off-white with a matt finish.

A few years later, after we’d moved to Sweden, the IKEA crockery was pushed to the back of our cupboards when we acquired a further, slightly better-quality set, in plain deep blue-glazed stoneware, from Höganäs Keramik. This gave us seven or so years of daily use, until, one day in our last year in Scandinavia, some decorated plates caught my eye in one of Karlskrona’s homeware shops: the Taika series by the Finnish company Iitala. We bought a set in the blue colourway, and these, with some remainders of the Höganäs set, accompanied us back to the UK in 2009.

Fifteen years on, I’m still using and enjoying these plates, bowls and mugs every day. Three pieces from the set are shown above, showing the two stylized owl decorations and the other creature (is it supposed to be a fox?) that appear in various configurations on each item. A few of the pieces have broken over time, but the rate of attrition has been low & slow enough that it could easily be another decade before I need to think about getting any additional dinnerware.

Ocean Songs

A CD copy of the 1998 album 'Ocean Songs' by the Dirty Three.

It has happened disconcertingly often that my belated discovery of an artist’s music has, by a matter of days or weeks, preceded their demise. A happier kind of coincidence, regrettably less frequent, is where an overdue appreciation of a musician or band unknowingly anticipates a release of new material from them. My recent acquisition of Ocean Songs (1998) by the Dirty Three is an example of the latter scenario. I bought it two weeks or so before the announcement of the release of the trio’s first album in twelve years, Love Changes Everything, which is due out in June.

I first heard of the band about twenty years ago, but beyond making a mental note to the effect of “Dirty Three: well-regarded Australian instrumental trio”, their music, like so very many things, passed me by. The catalyst for my eventually listening to them came in the form of a song by a compatriot of theirs, Jen Cloher. On her eponymous 2017 album there was a track in tribute to the Three called ‘Loose Magic’. It’s a song I always enjoyed, and every few times I heard it I’d think that I ought to check out what moved Cloher to write it.

A mere six years or so later, and I got around to doing just that, thoroughly enjoying their ‘Tiny Desk Concert’ courtesy of YouTube. An ebay order for a secondhand CD copy of Ocean Songs followed soon afterwards. I gather it’s a calmer and less frenetic record than their earlier ones. Most of the track titles, like that of the album as a whole, suggest maritime environs: ‘The Restless Waves’, for example, and the appropriately-named ‘Deep Waters’ – a very absorbing and atmospheric sixteen and a half minutes of music. Having now heard a first track from their forthcoming record, I’ll be eager to check out the whole thing!

A Glass of Amontillado

Part of the label on a half-bottle of Sánchez Romate Hnos. 'Amontillado Olvidado' sherry.

It’s quite likely that my maternal grandmother was responsible for my first taste of sherry, it being her booze of choice. I found the ‘cream’ sherry she favoured overly sweet, if pleasant enough in small servings. A glass of manzanilla at a Spanish seafood restaurant some twenty years ago brought another style of the wine to my attention – one that was more to my taste. After that I’d occasionally seek out a bottle of the stuff – an exception to my general preference for red wines over whites.

I had never tried amontillado sherry until the other week, despite long familiarity with the word thanks to Mr. Poe. The label above caught my eye during a visit to a nearby branch of Waitrose. It adorned a half-bottle of Sánchez Romate Hermanos' Amontillado Olvidado, where ‘olvidado’ relates to the wine having reputedly been left forgotten and undisturbed in the company’s cellars in 1000-litre toneles for 25 years.

The blurb on the back of the bottle describes it as “elegant, with delicate hazelnut reminders and antique furniture notes”. The latter comparison seemed fanciful to me until I took a good sniff, with the bouquet of the amber nectar within redolent indeed of old wood and furniture polish. My palate was more oblivious to those hazelnut reminders – “tastes like sherry” was my own unhelpful conclusion; albeit a broader, deeper, more intense kind than I’d sampled before. Its lengthy spell in the barrel hadn’t altogether mellowed the wine: it was smooth but not without brashness, something like (attempting a fanciful comparison of my own) the flavour equivalent of a brass fanfare and its lingering reverberations.

Clippings

Part of a clipping from a '90s newspaper atricle by Frederic Raphael about the poetry of C.P. Cavafy.

From one of the charity shops in Monmouth last week I bought a copy of C.P. Cavafy’s Collected Poems, specifically a 1984 paperback volume published under The Hogarth Press imprint. It cost me £2. I didn’t open the book until I’d brought it home, so only then did I see the newspaper clippings that had been enclosed within by a prior owner of the book. One of them (part of which is shown above) is a piece by Frederic Raphael about Cavafy & his poetry which has “S.T. 14/5/94” written on it. I imagined S.T. might stand for the Sunday Times, but 14/5/94 was a Saturday. The remainder of the clipping (which, unfolded, is a little taller than my scanner’s flatbed) is here, should anyone be interested.

The other clipping is a more substantial one: three full pages from a November 2008 issue of the NYRB, stapled together in one corner and folded three times. It preserves an article about Cavafy entitled “‘As Good as Great Poetry Gets’” by Daniel Mendelsohn, together with a translation by Mendelsohn of Cavafy’s poem ‘Myres: Alexandria in 340 AD’. This was in advance of Mendelsohn’s edition (Knopf, 2009) of the poet’s collected work.

There was further evidence of prior ownership with an inscription inside the cover bearing the original purchaser’s (unusual) name, dated October 1984. Also, a wooden toothpick that had served as a bookmark. Searching on-line for the inscribed name, I found it matched that of a newspaper journalist who had worked internationally in the ’90s and ’00s. Could he be the author of the inscription? And, balancing one conjecture unsteadily on top of another, might he have been the one to fold up and enclose the clippings?

I had previously – in the early ’90s – owned a similar second-hand volume of Cavafy’s poetry. In those days I felt somewhat ambivalent about the superficially un-lyrical plainness of his verse, and a little uncomfortable (having, regrettably, absorbed some of the ambient homophobia of the times) with his writing about same-sex attraction. On becoming re-acquainted with Cavafy’s poetry, I felt no such misgivings and found rather more to enjoy and appreciate in it than before.

Hollingworth Papers

The title page for 'Hollingworth Papers' a book of samples issued by Hollingworth & Co. about a century ago.

Among the books of paper samples I’ve acquired, the volume of Hollingworth Papers has to be the most elegant. It’s a tall, slim hardback bound in pale blue cloth with some vellum-effect stuff at the spine. It has gilt titling, and the upper page-edges are gilded too. The paper within is appropriately excellent. Its title-page is shown above.

Before the title comes a page with a hand-illuminated Hollingworth coat of arms. There follows some letterpress printing, and a selection of illustrations highlighting how the company’s papers show off lithographs, collotypes and photogravures to fine effect. Each illustration is protected by a sheet of tissue-paper. In a folder within the back cover are a few examples of embossed images.


A sample volume, ca. 1920s, of paper made by Hollingworth & Co.

No date of publication is given. The ebay seller I bought it from claimed it dated from the 1920s. It can’t at any rate be earlier than that as there’s mention of over two centuries of paper-making at the company’s Turkey Mill premises, which were first used for that purpose in 1719. The same mill was the venue, a few decades later, for James Whatman’s invention of wove paper. with the Hollingworth family only becoming its proprietors near the end of the 18th century.

Pegs

A monochrome film photograph of some clothes-pegs on a dewy clothesline caught in a ray of early-morning sunsine.

Of the various kinds of photographic film I tried out, one I didn’t have much luck with was Rollei Ortho 25. My attempts to develop it at home were bedevilled by blemishes in the finished negatives. Most likely this was due to something amiss in my process, although I suppose it could just have been a bad batch of the film. In any case, most of the frames I shot on the stuff were uninspired efforts, so little of value was spoiled.

The sole exception was the photo above. Early one autumn morning I caught sight of a low slant of sunlight illuminating the bedewed clothesline in the garden and the plastic pegs hanging from it. What at other times would have been a poor choice of subject had momentarily become a fascinating one. There are still small blotchy marks in this frame too (much more apparent when viewing a larger version of the image), but they are less prominent than on most of the others from the same roll. I took the photo with my Mamiya C330S, and developed the Ortho 25 in Rodinal.

Gotta, LouPer

One gets the impression that German-made straight razors tended to be more ostentatious than those made in Sheffield. Brand-names are more prominent; scales are more often decorative; etching and gold-washing on the blade more eye-catching. There would have been a time, in the early years of the last century, when many German-made goods were regarded in the UK, fairly or not, as cheap and inferior imports, so perhaps there was a tendency on the manufacturers' parts to try to compensate by projecting a more de-luxe appearance.


A 'Gotta' straight razor.

For example here’s a Gotta 120 razor with a 4/8, full hollow ground blade which has a ‘barber’s notch’ at the point. The GOTTA brand-name, one of a few used by the firm of Grah & Plümacher, appears on the scales (which I believe to be celluloid), in gold wash on the blade and again on the tang. On the other side of the tang is the text “Finest Silver Steel / Forged and Ground / in Solingen Germany” (Solingen, like Sheffield, being a traditional centre for bladesmithing and cutlery manufacture).

I’ve been using this one for three years. When it first arrived, the edge on it was formidably sharp, and in my inexperienced hands my first shave with it wasn’t far short of a bloody mess. Not quite a case of “Gotta call an ambulance” but certainly “Gotta be more careful next time!” Since then it has been reliably excellent: I had a great shave with it the other day.


A 'LouPer Flamme' straight razor.

And here’s a LouPer Flamme razor. This one has a 6/8 blade with a ‘French’ point which is decorated along the spine and has SOLINGEN – and the city’s coat of arms – etched into the sides of the blade. On the reverse of the tang is the text “🔥 Flamme / Louper / Solingen”. The scales, again, are probably celluloid, albeit this time with a marbled effect. ‘LouPer’ and ‘Flamme’ were trademarks of the Louis Perlmann company, which originated in Leipzig in the 1860s, but later set up an operation in Solingen, as well as a presence in Berlin. In addition to making blades themselves, they also supplied machinery and material to other cutlery companies.

I obtained the LouPer a few months after the Gotta. Whereas the Gotta was in near-pristine condition, and still had its original box, the LouPer had more signs of prior use, and arrived boxless. Despite that, it too has served me very well. Both razors are likely to have been made between the wars, which raises the unsettling (and potentially unanswerable) question: are these artefacts of the Weimar Republic, or of the Third Reich?

Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares

The cover of an LP copy of the 1986 4AD release of 'Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares'.

A few weekends ago out of the boxes of LPs at one of my usual haunts, I picked up a copy of Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares, specifically the 1986 re-release on 4AD. As 4AD is a label which has maintained a certain vogue (and one which hit its stride at a time when cassettes and CDs were increasingly prevalent), one seldom finds affordable copies of their vinyl releases out & about. I was lucky enough to get this one as part of a 3-for-£10 offer. The cover is a typically enigmatic example of the work of 23 Envelope, whose connection to the music – if there is any – is far from obvious,

It’s an album that had first been released a decade earlier, as the fruit of many years' labour by the Swiss ethnomusicologist Marcel Cellier, who had made and collected recordings of traditional Bulgarian song performed by female choirs (notably the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir). These performances were in contemporary (’60s and ’70s) arrangements, but the singing style, like the material, had much older Slavic (and even Byzantine) roots, utilizing close harmonies in a way that, to Western ears, can have a piquant dissonance about it.


An LP copy of the 1986 4AD release of 'Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares'.

At a time when the average listener’s musical horizons were more constrained than thay are now, the release of such unfamilar-sounding, yet inarguably beautiful and powerful music felt like a bolt from the blue, and the 4AD re-issue (and a subsequent one on Nonesuch in the US) made some waves. George Harrison, for example, praised and recommended it; Kate Bush invited the Trio Bulgarka (whose members also sang for the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir) to join her on a couple of the tracks on The Sensual World; and it inspired the soundtrack for the anime Ghost in the Shell.

Gorwydd Caerphilly

A wedge of Gorwydd caerphilly cheese with a smaller wedge cut off it.

Mass-produced Caerphilly cheese of the kind generally available in supermarkets tends to have a simple flavour profile: salty, mildly creamy; somewhat tangy; and a dryish, crumbly texture. A farmhouse-style Caerphilly like the Gorwydd one shown above is altogether more complex. As the photo illustrates, it has a pale-coloured heart around which is a deeper yellow layer within its edible rind. The pale part of the cheese has something like the quasi-citric tang of its factory-made namesake, whereas the outer part contributes rounder and deeper notes, and the rind an earthy mushroomlike quality. The overall effect is that of an harmonious chord of flavours, as opposed to a single note.

The Trethowan brothers who make Gorwydd pioneered the revival of farmhouse Caerphilly after the style had become all-but extinct. It was named for the farm in west Wales where they first made it, a name retained after their relocation to Somerset in south-west England. I bought the wedge in the picture from the Newhall Farm Shop near Chepstow. It’s a delicious cheese that is meanwhile mild enough not to alarm the unadventurous.

Kursuus-sectâ

Invented wine-label with 'Spocanian' text.

Twenty years ago, I learned of an exhibition that had been staged in Rotterdam in 1983 called Imaginaire Landen, which collected various artworks that mapped or described imaginary locales. Intrigued by some of the names of the artists and writers represented in the show, I ordered a copy of the exhibition catalogue. This, when it arrived, turned out to be a box containing numerous unbound leaflets printed in Dutch, along with sundry additional pieces of ephemera, among them a box of matches bearing the name of a non-existent airline (but with real matches inside); a weird card-game; a button-badge; numerous maps, blueprints, charts and tables; schematics of dreamt-up metro networks; a musical score; and even a little bag containing coarse black sand, some pebbles, and a broken cockle-shell, purportedly from the imaginary island of Atipé. Also there was the wine-label shown above.

The fictional location that produced the wine was one called Spokanië (or Spocania) an island-group ostensibly in the Atlantic to the south-west of Ireland: originally the brainchild of Rolandt Tweehuysen, a Dutch linguist. Given his line of work, it’s no surprise that the language of Spokaans (or Spocanian) is a significant part of his creation. According to wikipedia, it has a “a dictionary of over 25,000 entries” and is “one of the most elaborated artistic languages ever created”. Many other aspects of the islands and their inhabitants have also been described by Tweehuysen and others, with two books and an extensive old-school website devoted to the subject.

Back to the wine-label. From this page on the web-site (with the help of Google Translate), I’ve learned that it’s from the southern side of the Tjokky Mountains in the Neno district of the island of Tigof. It’s specifically a product of the Hogorit-Qualâ estate, and is a Kursuus-sectâ (or ‘blood wine’), a term used in that part of Spocania for light red wines akin to French Beaujolais or Burgundy. What kind of vintage might 1980 have been, I wonder?

Churston Deckle

The cover of a folder of vintage 'Churston Deckle' stationery.

Shown above, the striking design on the cover of a folder containing an old set of writing paper and envelopes. I would say the image and its colour-scheme suggest a ’70s origin. The paper within is an orangey shade given the name ‘peach bloom’. Below are the contents of the folder when opened out, with one of the envelopes' flaps folded back to display part of the bold design in its lining, one which echoes the cover image.


The cover of a folder of vintage 'Churston Deckle' stationery.

The sheets of paper are watermarked Churston Deckle, this being one of the many product-lines sold by John Dickinson & Co. Ltd (previously: 1, 2). Those words don’t appear on the outer packaging, however, which merely describes the contents as “distinctive deckle-edged writing paper”. I wonder if the brand may have had old-fashioned associations by that time, and perhaps this set was an attempt to appeal to a groovier, younger public?

Ligotti

A stack of eight books from my shelves by Thomas Ligotti.

Here we see the books currently in my library from the pen of the idiosyncratic American horror writer Thomas Ligotti.

Second from top is my copy of the first UK edition of his debut short story collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1989). This is a book I’d first read in ‘92, having borrowed it from Cardiff Central Library. At the time I was very unhappily acclimatising to the misery of my first proper full-time job, and I found a perverse comfort in Ligotti’s bleak worldview. I meanwhile greatly enjoyed his way with words. To paraphrase a line from the story ‘Vastarien’, I felt as though “the book had found its reader” and became an immediate fan. After much searching I found a copy of my own in early ‘94, at the Cardiff branch of ‘Forbidden Planet’.

Toward the end of that same year I spotted Ligotti’s second book, Grimscribe (1991), listed in a mail-order bookseller’s catalogue. How that copy (of the UK edition – published by Robinson, ended up in a US Carroll & Graf dust-jacket is a long story I won’t get into). Story collection #3, Noctuary (1994) came into my hands in ‘98. I suspect it would have been among my first on-line book orders, but I can’t specifically recall. The remaining five volumes were definitely all on-line orders, all placed as soon as I’d heard of the titles’ having been published.

My Work is Not Yet Done (2002) is a collectable volume, coming as it did with a bookplate signed by both Ligotti and illustrator Harry O. Morris. More sought-after still is the Durtro edition of Teatro Grottesco (2006). Hardback copies of Ligotti’s essay The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2010) likewise seem to be decidedly uncommon. Rounding out the set are the small volume of two stories that is The Spectral Link and the collection of interviews gathered in Born to Fear, both published by Subterranean Press in 2014. My copy of the former might have been worth more if my dog hadn’t got his teeth into it.

At one time or another I’ve also owned copies of The Nightmare Factory; In a Foreign Town, in a Foreign Land; Crampton; Sideshow, and Other Stories and Death Poems. Of these I sold a couple and gave away the remainder. There are only a few of his works (most notably The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein) that I haven’t read at all.

Big Hand

Hand from a colossal statue in the courtyard of the Musei Capotolini in Rome.

Here’s a photo of a disembodied hand, a surviving fragment of an ancient statue, to be found (at least as of August ‘97) in the courtyard of the Musei Capitolini at Piazza di Campdoglio in Rome. There must be many, many thousands of similar images out there similarly snapped by a significant proportion of the Museums’ very numerous visitors.

Ninety-seven was the year I finally got my hands on some of the desirable gadgets of the day. A JVC ‘Micro Component’ CD player (and speakers) and a Canon IXUS compact ‘APS’ camera. The IXUS was a great-looking little thing – all brushed metal and black plastic – with a nifty retracting zoom lens. It wasn’t the sturdiest device, however, and after four years' light use it conked out.

The ‘Advanced Photographic System’ must have been one of the last hurrahs of film photography, before the digital imaging juggernaut rolled in. I held on to about a dozen of the exposed APS films I’d shot, which, a decade or so later, I sent off to be digitally scanned. The ‘big hand’ was one of the frames in the first roll I ran through the IXUS. APS frames had a rather elongated 7:4 aspect ratio, which I’ve slightly cropped here.

Torpedo 18a

A 1954 Torpedo 18a typewriter with an AZERTY keyboard.

Pictured above is my 1954 Torpedo 18a typewriter. The difference between the 18a and the 18b being that the latter came equipped with a tabulator, while the former did not. I bought this one in December ‘17 from an ebay seller somewhere in Devon or Somerset. It was a pre-Christmas impulse-buy that cost me something like £35, postage included. As I recall it arrived packaged in an old Fortnum & Mason box.

For obvious reasons, a German company using ‘Torpedo’ as their brand would have raised more eyebrows than profits in mid-20th Century Britain, hence for the UK market these machines went by the name ‘Blue Bird’. This one is a ‘Torpedo’ having been destined for France: it has a French AZERTY keyboard-layout, which is likely the main reason I was able to buy it relatively cheaply. Despite years of use, I still frequently mqke the sqme old mistqkes when typing on it. Also, its platen is rather hard, with the type-bars consequently liable to try to stamp holes in one’s paper.

On the plus side, out of all the portable typewriters I’ve used, this one has my favourite typing action: very responsive & sweetly snappy. The type itself is an appealing ‘Congress’-style one. I have a blue ribbon installed in the 18a, obtained from FJA Products in the U.S., which has served me well. I’d order more from them if the postage rates weren’t so prohibitive. When not in use, the machine resides in its smart metal carrying case. When I bought it, all that remained of the case’s handle was a steel strip. I later re-upholstered this with a section of a dog collar I’d found in a vaguely similar shade of grey.


A metal carrying case for a '50s Torpedo-brand typewriter.

Turbulence and Pulse, etc.

The cover and disc of the CD album 'Turbulence and Pulse' by Asher Gamedze.

Latterly added to my shelves, and shown above, is the album Turbulence and Pulse by the South African drummer, composer and bandleader Asher Gamedze. It was released last year, another fine offering from the people at International Anthem. For a taste of the music see Gamedze’s quartet play a live version of ‘Melancholia’, one of the tracks on the album.

It’s acoustic jazz with an old-school sound agreeably reminscent at times of Charles Mingus, with its unison horn passages and powerhouse rhythm section, in which Gamedze is very ably aided & abetted by bassist Thembinkosi Mavimbela. Shaped by American traditions it may be, but it also has an accent and an attitude very much its own. I’m less convinced by the vocal contributions of Julian ‘Deacon’ Otis on a couple of its numbers, but they may yet grow on me. If this and my one other slice of South African jazz (Shabaka And The Ancestors' We Are Sent Here By History) are anything to go by, then further exploration of that country’s music will be well worth my time.


The covers of the CD albums 'Cloudward' by Mary Halvorson and 'Bark Out Thunder Roar Out Lightning' by Chief Adjuah.

Here are a couple more jazz or jazz-related albums that have made an impression on me lately. Also from last year, Bark Out Thunder Roar Out Lightning by Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah, hitherto known as a trumpeter (and formerly named Christian Scott), who has turned to using his voice, in conjunction with harp-like instruments inspired by the West African ngoni and kora, and has produced a striking record heavy on the percussion and replete with call-&-response vocals. Hear for example ‘Shallow Water’.

And the first 2024 release to reach me: Mary Halvorson’s Cloudward, a sequel of sorts to her wonderful ‘22 album Amaryllis, one that features the same sextet line-up as that earlier record. Apart from Halvorson’s highly-distinctive guitar work, Patricia Brennan’s contributions on the vibraphone are, for me, particular highlights. An example track is ‘The Gate’.

Pistachios

A bowl of roasted & salted pistachios,

In my provincial ’70s British working-class childhood, nuts usually meant peanuts: plain salted peanuts, or, less often, in ‘monkey nut’ form. Around Christmastime there would be bowls of mixed nuts in their shells: hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts. And a nutcracker nearby. Occasionally one might have almonds. I daresay pecans and cashews have been available for much longer, but as far as I was concerned they may as well have not been invented until the mid-’80s.

Pistachios likewise weren’t a part of my formative snacking experiences. I don’t recall when I might have first tried them – possibly in my teens. Now they are my favorite of all the commonly-encountered nuts. The ones pictured above are some Tesco own-brand roasted & salted pistachios that I ate while working from home this morning.

Spare Stamps

Six assorted, unused special-issue British postage stamps.

When I send letters I like to adorn them with special-issue stamps, especially now the standard Royal Mail stamp designs are so remarkably ugly. Special issues come in sets, often with an assortment of denominations, some of which tend to be more readily-usable then others. With the passing of time and the consequent increases to postal rates, I’ve accumulated a variety of the less readily-usable ones which are still awaiting an opportunity for affixing to an envelope.

The examples pictured above are from the Pride set (2022); from Royal Navy Ships (‘19); Blackadder (‘23); Cats (‘22) The Gruffalo (‘19) and Rugby Union (‘21) respectively. Perhaps in time I’ll be in a position to make a decorative arrangement out of them all. Oddly, a couple of the letters I’ve sent recently have had their (Spice Girls, ‘24) stamps seemingly removed while in the mail. Has a ’90s pop fan taken an acquisitive shine to them? Did their adhesive somehow fail? The latest letter I received was likewise missing its stamp.

Imperial Parchment

A box of 'Imperial Parchment' writing paper.

This box of Imperial Parchment paper, obtained recently via ebay, is something of an oddity. It’s announced as “a Terston product”, that being a brand-name used by George Waterston and Sons of Edinburgh and London, who went out of business over twenty years ago. The watermarked sheets within have an old-school look and feel, and the other text printed on the box, about the paper being “Hard Sized and Air-Dried” etc., is likewise redolent of a bygone era. Yet the box itself seems flimsily new.

Could this stuff be old stock re-packaged in the company’s declining years, or re-sold ‘posthumously’ by someone who acquired it when the manufacturer ceased trading? Might it even be counterfeit, unlikely as that seems? I may never know, but it’s good, relatively thick & heavyweight paper & there’s plenty of it.

Poems of Today

The cover of a copy of 'Poems for Today: from Twenty-five Icelandic Poets' (1971).

The latest addition to my collection of obscure anthologies of translated poetry is Poems for Today: from Twenty-five Icelandic Poets, a 1971 publication from the Iceland Review Library selected and translated by Alan Boucher. Specifically my copy is a ‘74 reprint that was purchased in Iceland in ‘76, for 720 ISK (judging from the inscription on the half-title page and the price-tag on the back cover). The inscription suggests the original owner lived out on the Western Isles of Scotland.

I enjoyed the poems. As one might perhaps expect there’s a good deal of boreal gloom in them. “Hard it is to bear on a mountain road / a full load of autumn forebodings” writes Jóhannes úr Kötlum, the oldest of the poets featured, in his ‘Traveller’s verse’. In the same author’s ‘Climacteric’ one finds a note of atomic-age anxiety, while elsewhere, in Stéfan Hördur Grímsson’s ‘Term of reckoning’, there is ecological unease. I don’t know if it was a sign of the times, or a characteristic of the selection, but only one of the poets whose work was included was a woman – Nína Björk Árnadóttir.

Iceland’s spectacular landscape features heavily - its mountains, fells, pristine pools and all-but-empty roads; and there are striking lines about the harsh splendour of winter at those latitudes – “Our passage through storm-whirled thundering polar darkness soon at an end / on the wind-polished ice-blue pane a whitening cloud” writes Hannes Sigfússon in an excerpt from ‘Winter pictures from the life of poets’. There are summer idylls too, though, and poems about non-Icelandic landscapes set in deserts and sprawling cities.

The country’s legendary and mythical pasts also cast long shadows: there are some echoes of the sagas; the occasional glimpse of an elf. We also read something of the poverty and hardship of times past, as in Jón úr Vör’s ‘Lean months’: “And do you remember the endless / milkless midwinter days, / the lean months’ left-overs, / salted scraps soaked in the pail…” Less weighty contemporary concerns crop up too: one of the poems is about the novelty of Mediterranean package holidays. There follows one of the poems in full.


Wait while it sings

When a bird first sings on your bough
do not go straight away — but wait while it sings
though its song be strange to you and new
wait while it sings although you thirst
with parched throat about the fire and hear
springs trickle at the foot of the hill; still wait
in the bright night while it trills.
Its lyrical tongue will cease in the night’s
quiet and peace among you in the flames’ light —
a strange tongue — wait nevertheless;
you will not enjoy that voice for long
for it will fly off when it has released
the heart-child from chains and freed
those clear eyes, quick small fingers
and little feet; brought to your ears
in the leafy thicket; wait while it sings.

—Thorsteinn frá Hamri.

Daffodils

A monochrome photograph of daffodils in a tinted glass vase.

As it’s the time of year when the daffodils are proliferating hereabouts in gardens and along roadsides, here is a photograph of some daffs in a vase. I took it back in 2010 with my Mamiya C330 Pro S camera, most likely with the standard 80mm lens-pair attached. The film was Adox CHS 50 (now discontinued) which I developed at home using Tanol. I was very pleased with the way this shot turned out.

Car-key

Whereas most people are eager to learn to drive as soon as they’re of the age to do so, I was keen to avoid having to get behind the wheel, and for the first decade of my adult life, arranged things around being able to walk where I needed to go, or else to take public transport. When my first proper employers subsidised a course of driving lessons for me, I dutifully took them, but wasn’t sorry when I failed the test that followed.

Things changed when I met my wife. She tolerated train-travel, but disdained buses. Meanwhile she liked to drive, and was happy enough for the most part to do the driving for us both. For another decade or so this worked out tolerably well, until a change of location and a change of circumstances obliged me to knuckle down and start taking lessons again. It did not come naturally to me, and I failed test after test. Only after months of struggle, and at the sixth or seventh attempt, did I belatedly pass.


A key, with the prong folded away, for a 2016 Citroën C1.

This serves to explain why, although I’ve owned seven cars in my time, I’ve only driven five of them. Car no. 7 is a 2016 Citroën C1 in plain white, the latest in a line of small, low-powered and (relatively) cheap vehicles. Its key is shown above, with the prong folded away. I’ve had this one for less than a year. I like it quite well, though wish it had a CD-player rather than the bluetooth music-playing contraption it came with. At least it does have a radio.

It's Better to Travel

A vinyl copy of 'It's Better to travel' by Swing Out Sister (1987).

The music I heard as a very young child came in the form of the pop hits of the day issuing tinnily from transistor radios. On my first exposure to heavier & harder rock I didn’t care for it - I called it ‘rough music’, so must have valued a certain softness & smoothness in the tunes I heard. In time though, I lost that aural equivalent of a sweet tooth and grew to appreciate the merits of roughness; eventually coming to disdain music I considered to have too smooth or glossy a surface. These latter sentiments prevailed – albeit with gradually proliferating exceptions – well into my forties. Even now I’m deeper into middle age, I often still find myself oddly resistant to certain lower-friction sounds.

A few of last year’s vinyl acquisitions brought me back to music I’d formerly overlooked for those reasons, among them Secret Combination by Randy Crawford; Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway; Sade’s Diamond Life; and (pictured above), It’s Better to Travel, by Swing Out Sister. From the last-named, I was unavoidably familiar with some of the singles, espcially ‘Breakout’, their most successful song. I liked the tunes well enough, and Corinne Drewery’s smoky vocals, but had been less fond of the sheen of their polished production. Now, thirty-odd years on, I can at last better appreciate it for the fine album that it’s always been.