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Chaz'z Blog

Friday, October 24, 2003

Opera North is in town, and I've been a culture vulture this last couple of nights, picking over the bones of quality: La Traviata followed by Massenet's Manon, which I didn't know at all. La Trav is old news, though none the less welcome for that; Manon was a revelation, lyrical and sensuous by turns. Loved the music, loved the production. Stupid story, but hey, what's new?

Which brings me to my fundamental position on opera, which is entirely opposed to my fundamental position on literature or any other medium of communication: ignorance is better than understanding.

My first opera was Tosca, back when I was a snotty adolescent - and boy, was I snotty about it. I didnít want to go, I thought I'd been tricked into it (by a Mr Adrian Underwood, late of Kingham Hill School, and if any of you come across him at all, tell him that he kept me out of opera houses for ten years thereafter), I was determined to hate it and so I did. But they really, really made it easy for me. It was an ENO production, and hence in English translation - and there is nothing simpler to deride than the banality of opera libretti against the pomp and circumstance of the music, especially when it's been through a translator's hands. 'Where's your lunch?' 'I've eaten it' - what art, what style! Ah, I was vicious in the homeward coach, and contemptuous for years thereafter, and only persuaded back by the promise that in the original I wouldn't understand it and so could just relax and enjoy the music. Which is what I did and what I do, and I'm still wary of opera in English even when that is the original. I will go to Britten (especially for the Auden libretti), but not much else.

Opera North, however, is using surtitles this year - or side-titles, rather, big screens to either side of the proscenium arch. I regarded them with hostility, and I think rightly so. If you put words in front of me, it's very hard not to read them; I spent half of Trav with my eyes more on the screens than the stage, and I don't believe that understanding the gist of every line added much to my enjoyment of the whole.

And then there was Manon, where the libretto is French, and I could muddle half along with it. How this would have been without the side-titles, I don't know; probably I would just have coasted along without trying, and just smiled occasionally as I recognised a phrase here or there. But with the titles - and particularly with the titles coming up just in advance of the line's delivery, just ahead of the action - I was reading the English off the screen and then waiting to hear the French, how close it was, how wide the translator had drifted. And of course there is drift, because it's abridgement as much as translation; 'Jamais, jamais, jamais!' just became 'No.' But if I'd been just a little more obsessive, or a little better at French, or a little less appreciative of the music, it could have ruined my evening. Happily not, none of the above, but a near-run thing; so God, yes, give me ignorance.

The only other time I've seen surtitles in a theatre was a Russian troupe acting below an English translation, and I thought afterwards how weird it must have been for them, because the piece had big laughs in it, but they were literary laughs, not slapstick action; and the translator had caught the humour of it, but there was a five-second timelag on the titles in that instance, so the actors would say the lines and move on, and then suddenly be hit by the laughter when they were already into the next phase. They carried on regardless, but it must have been strange.

Posted by Chaz at 09:11 AM GMT [Link]

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Forgive the pause, but I've been away again. Down south, helping an old friend pack up his late mother's house. Weird coincidences come in threes: I flicked through a box of postcards and found one of Brenchley (a village in Kent, where my forebears came from; been there once on a special trip, never otherwise heard it mentioned anywhere, certainly never seen a postcard); I flicked through some business correspondence and found a letter from a John Brenchley (once in my life, I have encountered another Brenchley just by chance; that's once in forty-four years); I flicked through a bird-watching notebook and found 'Outing to Brenchley Wood', which I've never heard of in all my born days. Spooky, or what?

And so home, spooked but satisfied, and among the post that had come in my absence was the sixth and final volume of the US edition of Outremer, from lovely Ace Books. So I had the whole set, and very fine it looked; and then I gave it away. Sunday was the final day of the Durham Literature Festival, of which I am a patron, and we closed it with a double whammy, Steve Bell followed by Terry Jones, and I had drinks and dinner and talk with both. That's the nation's greatest political cartoonist and my favourite Python, and there was me among them. Ann Cleeves tells me I'm too old to have heroes; but this was Steve Bell and Terry Jones, for crying out loud! And Terry - who is of course a mediaeval scholar too, and hence my favouritism - went off with Outremer tucked under his arm. I don't expect him to read it, but hey, if he only sits it on a shelf I'll be happy. And if he doesn't, if he ships it straight off to Oxfam, of course I'll never know, so my happiness is guaranteed.

Posted by Chaz at 11:11 PM GMT [Link]

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Tell you what, though - one of the best things about being Me is the way I strain every sinew to make my own life so much more exciting than its natural humdrum tendency would suggest.

As, for example, yesterday, which I must clearly have nominated behind my back to be Domestic Disaster Day.

As I told you, I have harvested my chillies. I have also committed their bodies to the compost heap (a combination of drought in my absence and aphid attack having left them so unhealthy it really wasn't worth trying to bring them through the winter). This left me looking at the windows and the window-sills, all uncurtained by green luxuriance; which sent me running (well, all right, after a week or so it sent me grumbling) for hot water and cleaning fluids. Sticky dead aphids everywhere: ick.

So I clambered up and down the stepladder, I washed and wiped and scrubbed away, and felt happier when I was done. And carried the big glass bowl of filthy water through to the bathroom, and emptied it into the basin, and balanced it carefully on the edge of the bath (my constant moan in this house being that there is nowhere to put anything. Particularly in the kitchen, but it's true in the bathroom also; the two rooms are the same shape, which is long and narrow and triangular, and they're very short of horizontal surfaces). Then I washed my hands, and turned away from the basin, and knocked the bowl into the bath. Where it shattered into a thousand shards.

Some period of cursing later, I fetched dustpan, brush and bucket. I swept the glass shards out of the bath and deposited them in the bucket. Then I did it again, and was still seeing little glinty splinters in the bath. So I went at them with old J-cloths and moistened paper towels, and picked up plenty but still wasn't sure I'd got them all, and really didn't fancy finding one with a buttock when I had a bath that night.

So I came up with this lovely plan, to fill the bath and pull out the plug and let the weight and fall of water flush out any residual splinters. So I put the plug in, started the tap running and went downstairs to empty the bucket of broken glass into the wheelie-bin out in the alley.

And came back into the house and thought, best not forget about the bath, it's got no overflow; but it'll take ten minutes to fill, and Iíve got those books to sort out for the workshop, that'll take five...

So there I am deeply engrossed in these boxes of books, and the next thing I know there's a muted thunder from the kitchen, which is the sound of water plummeting through the ceiling from the entirely flooded bathroom above. And I knew it could happen, because I do things like this all the time; and I knew the devastation that would naturally result if it did happen; and yet I set it up to happen none the less, and I can only conclude that I do this stuff to myself entirely deliberately, in a desperate attempt to drag a little interest into the tedium of my existence.

Either that, or it's another displacement activity.


Posted by Chaz at 09:32 PM GMT [Link]

Wednesday, October 8, 2003

I have been harvesting, since I got home.

Actually I've been doing many things: buying new software and trying to make the house at least habitable if not exactly respectable, seeing physios and doctors and getting my slipped disc and sciatica diagnosed if not exactly treated, getting caught up with e-mails and messages and post. Which last leads inevitably to work, more and more teaching - at the university this time, another semester on the pay-roll, which I was so going to say no to, sigh - when I really want to clear all of that away and just write the novel. And of course I have been writing the novel, and a column for the BFS newsletter, and other things; and I've done a gig in Durham and agreed to do others in Kent next month, and I've done a talking-newspaper interview to promote a ghost-story reading in Gateshead this month, and, and, and...

But the most fun has been the harvesting, and the cooking that follows as the night the day.

the chilli harvest

All the chillies are now off their plants, and most are looking gorgeous in a bowl. The rest are tasting gorgeous, in various dishes on the stove or in the freezer or else in memory for those I've eaten already.

I came home also to a glut of tomatoes: most of them ripe, on account of the amazing summer we've had, but inevitably there was a bowlful of green ones, late fruits that were never going to ripen now. So I fried some belly-pork with onions and garlic and a couple of the red mazano chillies (lovely fat red heavy fruits, which utterly defy the general notion of less is more, smaller is hotter: these are fierce), then tossed in some field mushrooms and all the green tomatoes. A pint of water and a couple of handfuls of toor dal (that's a split yellow lentil, smaller than channa dal; don't get the oily kind, because you only have to wash the oil off, and what's the point of that?), and simmer till thick and scrumptious. Ripe tomatoes would have been emollient, but these are sharp, acidic, just what the dish needs. I love it.

Posted by Chaz at 09:55 PM GMT [Link]


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© Chaz Brenchley 2002/2006
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.