A madeleine for you: Are you sitting comfortably?

A madeleine for you: Are you sitting comfortably?

1950s family listening to the radio

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’

If you want proof of LP Hartley’s dictum, listen to the audio clip ‘Introduction to Listen With Mother’ on this page.

The time is a quarter to two. This is the BBC Light Programme for mothers and children at home. Are you ready for the music? When it stops, Daphne Oxenford will be here to tell you a story. Ding-de-dong. Ding-de-dong, Ding, Ding! Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin!

If you were a pre-school child in the 1950s these words will instantly have the same effect as Proust’s madeleine. A generation sat before a big old radio set every afternoon at 1:45pm to listen to a fifteen minute programme of stories, songs and nursery rhymes for children under five. To anyone who didn’t grow up in the 1950s it will be difficult to comprehend how something so bland, so stilted and so posh could ever have attracted an audience was over one million children.

But it did, and consequently was etched in a generation’s memory.  That memory was revived for me the other day when I read in The Guardian the obituary of Daphne Oxenford, who died before Christmas aged 93.  Oxenford was the voice of children’s stories on Listen With Mother through the 1950s, and right up to 1971. When she spoke, it was the most comforting sound in the world: ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin’. Her name remains deeply evocative of childhood  for a generation of postwar children who grew up in homes without television.


Listen with Mother’ was first broadcast on 16 January 1950 on the Light Programme (now Radio 2), later transferring to the Home Service (Radio 4). Daphne Oxenford’s meticulously modulated opening phrase was eventually included in the Oxford dictionary of quotations.

Radio Times January 1950

The programme is associated in my memory with the afternoon nap – something which was statutory for very young children in those days, enforced not just by mothers but also in the reception class at primary school.  Since my retirement it’s a practice which I have returned to on occasion, and found remarkably refreshing.

This paragraph, from www.whirligig-tv.co.uk, will almost certainly jog a few memories:

With nursery rhymes set to music by Ann Driver and sung by George Dixon, a senior schools producer with a long and distinguished career in broadcasting, and Eileen Browne, the songs were often unaccompanied. There cannot be many children who did not march up and down the hill with ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’.

Meanwhile ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’ was growing neat rows of silver bells and cockleshells in her garden, while the King of Spain’s Daughter regularly visited a ‘Little Nut Tree’ which only grew a silver nutmeg and a golden pear. Humpty Dumpty and “Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross” were other favourites.

Then, helping us to count was ‘One, two. . . . three, four, five; Once I caught a fish alive; six, seven. . . . eight, nine, ten; Then I let it go again’ and the rhyme ‘Ding, Dong, Dell, Pussy’s in the Well’ all turned out for the best once we had found out who put her in and who pulled her out! So ‘Polly Put the Kettle On, We’ll All Have Tea!’

Another particularly memorable song, which featured at least once a week, ended: ‘This is the way the old men ride, Hobble-dee Hobble-dee Hobble-dee and down into a ditch!’

And here’s another madeleine to stir the memory: the little piece of piano music that ended the programme (‘Berceuse’ from Fauré’s Dolly Suite for piano duet):

See also

Charlie Gillett

It was with great sadness that I learned today of the death of Charlie Gillett, the radio presenter and music journalist. He has had a considerable influence on my musical tastes, ever since I read his columns in Let It Rock (a great lost music mag) and his book, The Sound of the City, back in the 1970s. The book traces the origins of rock and roll in the black music and independent record labels of the early 1950s. For me it put into perspective the music I had grown up with and explained its origins. It revealed the glories of that great roll-call of record labels: Atlantic, Savoy, King, Chess, Aladdin, VeeJay, Modern, Specialty, Sun, Excello and many others. I assiduously began collecting the music from these sources, and still have the box-sets to prove it. Later came his essential Sound of the City compilations: Chicago, Memphis, New York, Los Angeles. Then Charlie became, with Andy Kershaw, a trusted guide to world music, in fact he was a member of the panel that first coined the term ‘world music’  to aid retailers in how to rack the music in their stores. His recent annual Sound of the World compilations were also essential.

Reading his obituary today reminded me of how Charlie remembered his old friend Roger Deakin on his blog a few years ago.  He wrote that Deakin

‘was among the few people I made friends with at University. He was so friendly and considerate, I was wary at first – what’s wrong with this guy? But he simply saw the best in everyone and seemed blind to our faults.  A lasting memory is taking a ride in his sports car with Charlotte Rampling on my knee and her sister Sarah crushed into the space behind us, laughably referred to as the back seat. This was not my normal world at all, and absurdly I was more impressed with the fact that their father had run in the 4 x 440 relay for Britain in the 1936 Olympics.’

Last September I wrote about that week’s World on 3 show, presented by Charlie, saying it ‘was one of the best music shows I’ve listened to in a long while. As his studio guest, Charlie welcomed Yasmin Levy, whose music is a fusion of Flamenco and the Judeo-Spanish Ladino style. As well as performing songs from her forthcoming album, Yasmin also discussed her work and participated in Charlie’s radio ping-pong’.


Gormley On Epstein

Gormley On Epstein

Jacob and the Angel 1940-1 by Sir Jacob Epstein 1880-1959

Jacob Epstein: Jacob and the Angel 1941

In this programme, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 today, Antony Gormley focused on the work of  ‘the most important artist, above any other, working in this country at the beginning of the 20th century’ – the sculptor Jacob Epstein. The programme coincides with the 50th anniversary of Epstein’s death, as well as a new exhibition at the Royal Academy, Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill. I was particularly interested in this since Epstein’s work, Jacob and the Angel is currently displayed at the Tate in Liverpool, and, of course, because we have the privilege, in this city, of meeting ‘under a statue exceedingly bare’.

Gormley began by explaining how Epstein attracted criticism during his turbulent career – his work was seen as too graphic or hard hitting, too ‘ugly’ or ‘cannibal’.  Gormley told how the problems began in 1908 when his first major project, to decorate the front of the new British Medical Association Building on the Strand, provoked outrage among conservative critics. Certain newspapers conducted a campaign against his design, and the resulting scandal damaged his reputation, discouraged potential employers, and ultimately destroyed the works themselves.

Epstein: British Medical Association freize detail

Jacob Epstein, British Medical Association freize detail

Zimbabwe House, formerly the British Medical Association building, still displays on its second-storey façade the hacked remnants of the eighteen, eight-foot-high Ages of Man statues with which he decorated the building. Nude sculptures depicting an old woman’s sagging dugs and withered flesh, and a man’s full-frontal nakedness, were the focus of not only the furious campaign against the statues but also signified to his critics that his art transgressed the laws of beauty and sexual propriety. The sequence of nude men and women, symbolising the ages of man, was mutilated when the Rhodesian government took over the building in the 1930s.

Edwardian London proved unprepared for 18 monumental, anatomically correct, naked males in a public place, and the Evening Standard launched a campaign to have them removed. In the 1930s, on the pretext that a fractured stone penis had fallen and nearly killed a pedestrian, the sculptures were castrated and mutilated; thus they remain today, neither fully destroyed nor fully preserved. It was as if the icon-smashing years of the Reformation had never been forgotten. – James Meek, Guardian

Jacob Epstein, Cast from Ages of Man statue

After his death, fellow sculptor, Henry Moore paid tribute to his courage as a pioneering artist who bore the brunt of critical derision: from the late 1930s to the mid 1950s many of Epstein’s works, including Adam, Consummatum Est, Jacob and the Angel and Genesis were exhibited in Blackpool, in an old drapery shop surrounded by red velvet curtains, to be viewed as a shocking curiosity by the holiday-making crowds for the cost of a shilling. After a small tour of American fun fairs, the works were returned to Blackpool and were exhibited in the anatomical curiosities section of the Louis Tussaud’s waxworks. The works were displayed alongside dancing marionettes, diseased body parts and Siamese twin babies in jars.

Jacob Epstein, Consummatum Est

Jacob Epstein, Consummatum Est

Gormley argued that Epstein revived British sculpture in crucial ways: he looked for inspiration from the ancient, non-Western cultures of Egypt, China and Africa; he insisted on ‘direct carving’, where he worked out his ideas straight into the stone, but above all, he made the first British ‘readymade’, alongside Marcel Duchamp when he included a real rock drill, the kind used to drill in quarries, in his pivotal work, The Rock Drill which he completed in 1915. He exhibited the powerful sculpture once that year, after which he completely dismantled it. He hacked the figure of the rock driller apart, and cast its torso in bronze, to resemble a battered soldier – by this time Epstein had seen the ways that the machines he celebrated, could destroy human lives during the First World War.

Jacob Epstein, The Rock Drill

Gormley sketched in the key elements of Epstein’s biography: born on the East Side of New York City in 1880 to Jewish immigrant parents, he moved to Paris in 1902, where he absorbed the work of Rodin and saw ancient Egyptian sculpture in the Louvre. He moved to London in 1905, immediately feeling at home and becoming a British subject.

Jacob Epstein

His first significant commission came in 1907, when he carved the 18 figures for the British Medical Association Building in the Strand. Completed the following year, these pieces solidly established the young sculptor’s reputation – he had numerous private commissions for portraits throughout his career. At this time, Epstein’s passion for direct carving in his own work becomes evident and his subject matter is devoted to major human themes and a search for the primordial, archetypal image. From modest beginnings in Paris, his keen interest in African sculpture grew and he amassed one of the finest collections of African art in Britain.

Jacob Epstein, Jacob and the Angel

Jacob Epstein, Jacob and the Angel

Gormley concluded by analysing Jacob and the Angel. The Old Testament story tells how Jacob, at a crisis in his life, wrestles through the night with the angel, who restrains him.  For Gormley, Epstein’s statue is ‘an absolute vision, representing the struggle between matter and spirit’.  It is clear, says Gormley, that for Epstein, the struggle through the night was sexual as well as spiritual: ‘what you have here is post-coital; Jacob is in a swoon, the angel is supporting Jacob, who has just collapsed. Jacob has passed his energy into the angel; his life is now the angel’s’.

Epstein’s legacy in his greatest work, asserts Gormley, is of an artist seeking out ‘real engagement with the unknown…he is not afraid to make large, really heavy things about things that can’t be grasped’.

Liverpool Resurgent, Lewiss, Liverpool

Liverpool Resurgent, Lewis’s Building, Liverpool

We speak with an accent exceedingly rare,
Meet under a statue exceedingly bare

And so to that statue ‘exceedingly bare. Some pretty awful buildings were erected to replace those destroyed in the Blitz, but the Lewis’s building, dating from 1947, with Epstein’s Liverpool Resurgent as its proud main feature, is the exception. The Lewis’s directors decided to commission a statue to identify themselves as being firmly in the van of Liverpool’s rebirth after the ravages of the war. Epstein’s stupendous statue, towering over Ranelagh Place was completed nine years after the building, in 1956.

Children Fighting

Baby In Pram

Children Playing

Epstein also designed the three mural panels below Liverpool Resurgent and  just above the doors representing the new post war generation of children. Children Fighting, Baby In Pram and Children Playing, were completed and installed in 1955, a year before Liverpool Resurgent was unveiled.


Robert Hooke and the vacuum pump

Another interesting week of  The Essay on Radio 3, continuing the Enlightenment Voices theme, this time exploring the life and achievements of Robert Hooke (1635 – 1703). No portrait survives of Robert Hooke. His name is somewhat obscure today, due in part to the enmity of his famous, influential, and extremely vindictive colleague, Sir Isaac Newton. Yet Hooke was perhaps the single greatest experimental scientist of the seventeenth century. His interests knew no bounds, ranging from physics and astronomy, to chemistry, biology, and geology, to architecture and naval technology

While  best-known for Hooke’s Law – the theory of elasticity – Hooke is far less acknowledged for his contribution to the development of science during the Enlightenment. He developed the microscope, was an architect, astronomer and had done much of the work on gravitational theory before Isaac Newton.

Hooke devised the first successful vacuum pump (immortalised in the painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, below) and his work with microscopes led to the publication of his best-selling work, Micrographia, that Samuel Pepys called  ‘the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life’.

Robert Hooke was inventor of, amongst other things, the iris diaphragm in cameras, the universal joint (still used in cars today), the sah window, the balance wheel in a watch, the originator of the word ‘cell’ in biology; he was Surveyor of the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666, architect, experimenter, worked in astronomy – yet was for over two centuries after his death an obscure figure.

Hooke was at the forefront of invention in the 17th century. As he and his fellow scientists went about their quest to ‘know everything’, Hooke was continually inventing new ways with machinery, telescopes, microscopes, watches and medicine. Charles II took a great interest in many of his designs.

After the Great Fire of London, alongside all his scientific commitments at the Royal Society, Hooke was employed as Christopher Wren’s right hand man, the surveyor responsible for measuring out the new street plan of the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666.

Text from National Gallery:

A travelling scientist is shown demonstrating the formation of a vacuum by withdrawing air from a flask containing a white cockatoo, though common birds like sparrows would normally have been used. Air pumps were developed in the 17th century and were relatively familiar by Wright’s day. The artist’s subject is not scientific invention, but a human drama in a night-time setting.

The bird will die if the demonstrator continues to deprive it of oxygen, and Wright leaves us in doubt as to whether or not the cockatoo will be reprieved. The painting reveals a wide range of individual reactions, from the frightened children, through the reflective philosopher, the excited interest of the youth on the left, to the indifferent young lovers concerned only with each other. The figures are dramatically lit by a single candle, while in the window the moon appears. On the table in front of the candle is a glass containing a skull.


Voltaire at Ferney

This week, The Essay on Radio 3 has been part of a series exploring Enlightenment Voices – Voltaire this time, concluding tonight with a talk in which Professor Nicholas Cronk, director of the Voltaire Foundation at the University of Oxford, explored the legacy of this greatest of Enlightenment figures. When Voltaire died in 1778 aged 84, he was the most famous writer in the world and his immortality was assured. Nicholas Cronk recounted the  story of the removal of Voltaire’s library of around 7,000 books from his chateau in France all the way to St Petersburg, where Catherine the Great planned to build a type of Voltaire theme park. He explored Voltaire’s status, both before and after his death, and went on to discuss how his ideas about politics, religion and tolerance continue to resonate today. Cronk concluded with examples of how – in the true spirit of the Enlightenment – writers continue to debate with Voltaire and, in so doing, perpetuate his legacy. He quoted from this poem, written by WH Auden in 1939, on the eve of war in Europe:

Voltaire at Ferney
by W.H. Auden

Perfectly happy now, he looked at his estate.
An exile making watches glanced up as he passed
And went on working; where a hospital was rising fast,
A joiner touched his cap; an agent came to tell
Some of the trees he’d planted were progressing well.
The white alps glittered. It was summer. He was very great.

Far off in Paris where his enemies
Whsipered that he was wicked, in an upright chair
A blind old woman longed for death and letters. He would write,
“Nothing is better than life.” But was it? Yes, the fight
Against the false and the unfair
Was always worth it. So was gardening. Civilize.

Cajoling, scolding, screaming, cleverest of them all,
He’d had the other children in a holy war
Against the infamous grown-ups; and, like a child, been sly
And humble, when there was occassion for
The two-faced answer or the plain protective lie,
But, patient like a peasant, waited for their fall.

And never doubted, like D’Alembert, he would win:
Only Pascal was a great enemy, the rest
Were rats already poisoned; there was much, though, to be done,
And only himself to count upon.
Dear Diderot was dull but did his best;
Rousseau, he’d always known, would blubber and give in.

Night fell and made him think of women: Lus
Was one of the great teachers; Pascal was a fool.
How Emilie had loved astronomy and bed;
Pimpette had loved him too, like scandal; he was glad.
He’d done his share of weeping for Jerusalem: As a rule,
It was the pleasure-haters who became unjust.

Yet, like a sentinel, he could not sleep. The night was full of wrong,
Earthquakes and executions: soon he would be dead,
And still all over Europe stood the horrible nurses
Itching to boil their children. Only his verses
Perhaps could stop them: He must go on working: Overhead,
The uncomplaining stars composed their lucid song.

What I learned from this week’s essays was that there are at least three distinct Voltaires. There is the scandalous Voltaire, who by the 1720s had become the leading controversialist in France, with his topical plays and poems, imprisoned in the Bastille twice for being generally annoying, and exiled to England in 1726, where he absorbed and wrote about English culture and parliamentary institutions. Then  there is the scientific Voltaire, who returned to France in 1728 and wrote about science and Newtonian physics. Finally, from the 1750s until his death, in 1778, there is the socially conscious Voltaire, the Voltaire who became one of the first human-rights campaigners in Europe, who W. H. Auden envisaged in 1939, in his poem ‘Voltaire at Ferney’:  ‘And still all over Europe stood the horrible nurses / Itching to boil their children. Only his verses / Perhaps could stop them: He must go on working.’

He was born into a Europe which had still not completely broken the habit of burning old women as witches, where you could be tortured to death for owning a small book which suggested Abraham was a legendary figure, or for being Protestant in a Catholic town, or vice-versa, where arbitrary power depended entirely on birth. That all these things were under seige in the Europe he died in was in no small part due to his writings and influence. In Europe today we can read what we like, worship what we like (if anything), and even insult rich people, so we are all his beneficiaries.

In the first essay, Nicholas Cronk placed Voltaire in the context of other Enlightenment thinkers and celebrated his novel Candide – ‘a timeless satire on the human condition’. Among the historical events that inspired Voltaire to write Candide was the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which challenged the contemporary philosophy of the Optimists, such as Leibniz, who argued that all is for the best because God is a benevolent deity. This concept was often summed up in the phrase, ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’. Philosophers had trouble fitting the horrors of the earthquake into the optimist world view.

Voltaire actively rejected Leibnizian optimism after the natural disaster, convinced that if this were the best possible world, it should surely be better than it is. In both Candide and ‘Poem on the Lisbon Disaster’, Voltaire attacked optimist belief.

At the conclusion of Candide,after experiencing many trials and tribulations and witnessing many horrors Candide finally dismisses the optimism of his tutor, Pangloss:

Pangloss used now and then to say to Candide: “There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not traveled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.”

“Excellently observed,” answered Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.”

Some Voltaire sayings

…the safest course is to do nothing against one’s conscience. With this secret, we can enjoy life and have no fear from death.

Animals have these advantages over man: they never hear the clock strike, they die without any idea of death, they have no theologians to instruct them, their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and unpleasant ceremonies, their funerals cost them nothing, and no one starts lawsuits over their wills.

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.

It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.

Men are equal; it is not birth but virtue that makes the difference.

Prejudice is opinion without judgement.

The multitude of books is making us ignorant.

[What would he have thought of the Internet, etc – see Charlie Brooker on the ]

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. [Attributed to Voltaire, but originated in The Friends of Voltaire, 1906, by S. G. Tallentyre (aka Evelyn Beatrice Hall)]

Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.

As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities.

Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.

Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.

History is only the register of crimes and misfortunes.

Birds without wings: the lost cities of the Levant

Birds without wings: the lost cities of the Levant

Last Friday’s World on 3 with Charlie Gillett was one of the best music shows I’ve listened to in a long while. As his studio guest, Charlie welcomed Yasmin Levy, whose music is a fusion of Flamenco and the Judeo-Spanish Ladino style. As well as performing songs from her forthcoming album, Yasmin also discussed her work and participated in Charlie’s radio ping-pong. Their choice of music, and the discussion – which ranged from Yasmin’s views on what makes for truly expressive singing to the challenges of translating Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (one of the songs on her new album) into Spanish and the revelation of singing the song in the Hebrew style of the synagogue and the cantor – made engrossing listening. Continue reading “Birds without wings: the lost cities of the Levant”

Samuel Johnson: words and monuments

Three hundred years ago today, on the 18th September 1709, Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire; he would go on to play a major role in the development and understanding of the English Language.

To celebrate, in The Essay nightly this week on BBC Radio 3 writers such as Philip Hoare and David Crystal have reflected on the influence of Johnson, the compiler of the first great dictionary of the English language. Philip Hoare (who won the 2009 Samuel Johnson non-fiction prize for Leviathan, his Moby Dick-inspired study of the whale, pondered the similarities between whales and words, Melville and Johnson. The linguist David Crystal outlined how Johnson’s work set the standard for modern dictionaries, in both scope and content and argued that, on the whole Johnson’s would have been impressed by the internet.

Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield in 1709 where there is now a statue of Johnson in Market Square. Pevsner compared the bas-relief panels round its plinth with Donatello. The panel on one side shows Samuel Johnson standing in the rain at Uttoxeter market. Why? Because once, as a boy, he had refused to go and look after the bookstall run by his father at Uttoxeter. “Pride was the source of that refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago, I desired to atone for this fault; I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather, and stood for a considerable time bareheaded in the rain, on the spot where my father’s stall used to stand. In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory.”

This is of interest because we have friends in Uttoxeter; exploring further, I discover that the act is remembered every year in Uttoxeter as ‘Johnson’s Penance’ with a special ceremony. This event is also commemorated by the Johnson Memorial, which stands in the Market Place, in the town centre. It is so large, that the hollow inside it now serves as a tiny newspaper kiosk and shop.

After nine years of work, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755. Until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary, 150 years later, Johnson’s was regarded as the pre-eminent British dictionary. In 1746, a group of publishers approached Johnson about creating an authoritative dictionary of the English language. Johnson claimed that he could finish the project in three years. In comparison, the Académie Française had forty scholars spending forty years to complete its dictionary, which prompted Johnson to claim, “This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman”.

Although he didn’t succeed in completing the work in three years, he managed it in nine. According to Walter Jackson Bate, the Dictionary “easily ranks as one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, and probably the greatest ever performed by one individual who labored under anything like the disadvantages in a comparable length of time”

The published dictionary was a huge book. Its pages were nearly 18 inches tall, and the book was 20 inches wide when opened; it contained 42,773 entries, to which only a few more were added in subsequent editions. It cost £4 10s, the equivalent of about £350 today. What made Johnson’s Dictionary so good? One of its most important features was the use of illustrative quotations to buttress the definitions. Johnson saw that it was not enough to say what words meant; he had to show them in use. It was Johnson’s innovation to illustrate the meanings of his words by literary quotation, of which there are around 114,000. Johnson, unlike previous lexicographers, added notes on a word’s usage, rather than being merely descriptive.  He decided he would permit as many senses of a word as he could find. So, for example, he ended up explaining 134 different senses of the verb “to take”, which occupied five pages and about 8,000 words. In some cases Johnson allowed himself a little humour:

Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.

Despite some criticisms Henry Hitchings, in Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World, states ‘the influence of the Dictionary was sweeping. Johnson established both a methodology for how dictionaries should be put together and a paradigm for how entries should be presented. Anyone who sought to create a dictionary, post-Johnson, did so in his shadow’.

The historian of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester, writes of Johnson’s work that ‘by the end of the century every educated household had, or had access to, the great book. So firmly established did it swiftly become that any request for “The Dictionary” would bring forth Johnson and none other.’ One of the first editors of the OED, James Murray, acknowledged that many of Johnson’s explanations were adopted without change, for ‘When his definitions are correct, and his arrangement judicious, it seems to be expedient to follow him.’ The OED reproduced around 1,700 of Johnson’s definitions, marking them simply ‘J.’.


WOMAD: Rokia Traore, Youssou N’Dour and Ethiopiques

WOMAD: Rokia Traore, Youssou N’Dour and Ethiopiques

Rokia Traore

Reading the reviews and listening to Radio 3’s coverage, it seems to have been a great year at WOMAD. For me, the outstanding performances were from Oumou Sangare (who I later saw perform in Liverpool at On the Waterfront), Ethiopiques, Youssou N’Dour and Rokia Traore.

Rokia Traore

The Independent said of the festival’s first night: ‘the star-making performance comes from Mali’s Rokia Traoré … It is when she dances, hips swinging half-way to Somerset, and straps on an electric guitar to lead her band in hard, dramatic rock, that she becomes potent with pride’. The Guardian agreed: ‘All good Womads rely on great Africans, and N’Dour’s set was equalled only by the frantic dance workout of a gloriously funky Rokia Traoré’.

I treasure memories of seeing Rokia Traore four years ago in a tiny venue in Oldham. At WOMAD, as heard on Radio 3, she gave a great performance of ‘Zen’ off her recent album, Tchamantche, with its wonderful lyrics:

The Angelus bell has rung
A dog is falling asleep at my feet
I have had the courage
To do nothing

The hourless hours
Over the horizon
Taking with them only this day,
I have had the courage
To do nothing

I am

Let the years pass by
Let time grow used to it
For me, it’s alright,
I’m getting rid of
These gluttonous hours
They eat me every day

Oh, how I am

I eat life and the wind
I dance in the rain showers
And in the mornings, tired
I fill my palms with dew
And let the sky settle on my eyelashes

Oh, how I am

Let time pass by
And the hours follow one another
Day after day
I will afford myself the pleasure
Of doing nothing

Oh, how I am

The Angelus bell has rung
A dog is falling asleep at my feet
I have had the courage
To do nothing

The hourless hours
Over the horizon
Taking with them only this day,
I have had the courage
To do nothing

Oh, how I am
Zen …

I am …

Rokia’s record label, Nonesuch, says this about the album Tchamantche:

Tchamantché stems from a simple inspiration—the sound of an old Gretsch guitar—and employs a traditional pop rhythm section. The instrumentation is often sparse, contrasting the Gretsch or the classic Silvertone guitar with subtle percussion effects provided by human beat box and hip-hop artist Sly Johnson, or the n’goni, the tiny, sharp-edged West African lute that has always been an integral part of her sound, played alongside the Western classical harp.

Traoré composed all the songs on Tchamantché, with the exception of the Billie Holiday classic “The Man I Love,” a song she first sang in a duet with Dianne Reeves during the Billie and Me tour in 2005. Known for her outspoken lyrics, Traoré covers a variety of topics on her new record. She discusses the problem of illegal immigration from Africa to Europe in “Tounka,” and, in “Dounia,” reminds Malians that they should be proud of the glories of their past. “Zen” is a song about having the courage to do nothing, and “Yorodjan” was written in praise of African street parties.

The daughter of a Malian diplomat who was posted to the US, Europe, and the Middle East, Traoré studied in Brussels and performed in a rap band before deciding to go back to Mali to create the music she wanted, which was to be “not pop, not jazz, not classical but something contemporary with traditional instruments,” as she says.

Traoré has explored a breadth of directions in her career. Her last album Bowmboï, which Time called “mesmerizing, casting its spell with virtuoso vocals, rich textures and startling diversity,” included collaborations with the Kronos Quartet, and in 2006, she wrote and performed a new work for Vienna’s New Crowned Hope Festival, which was curated by Peter Sellars in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birthday. In Traoré’s piece, Mozart was born as a griot in the time of the great 13th-century Mande ruler Soundiata Keita.

Traoré’s acclaim began before the release of her debut album Mouineïssa (1998), when she won the Radio France International prize for African Discovery of the Year. Her second album, Wanita, made numerous Best of 2000 lists including that of the New York Times. Traoré is equally celebrated for her live shows, which Time Out London says are “arguably the most exciting, most thrilling live African music show around.”

Youssou N’Dour

The Guardian review:  ‘This was a festival dominated by two great veterans and a whole lot of newcomers – and it was Youssou N’Dour, who first appeared at Womad back in 1986, who provided one of the highlights. His performance on the final evening, in a rainstorm, was a rousing reminder that he still possesses one of the greatest voices in Africa, capable of moving effortlessly from edgy, urgent mbalax dance songs to light, soulful ballads such as the glorious Li Ma Weesu and Birima. Then there was the “positive” ballad New Africa, a speech about fighting malaria, and a solo reworking of 7 Seconds. N’Dour is nearly 50, but he was on classic form’.

Youssou N’Dour: Probayako (WOMAD 2009)

Youssou N’Dour: New Africa (WOMAD 2009)

Youssou N’Dour: Mame Bamba (WOMAD 2009)


The Independent:  ‘The heavy rain that threatened Womad for two days fell solidly as the festival ended on Sunday. But closing act Ethiopiques made the downpour irrelevant. The result of the albums of the same name, which revealed the soul and jazz of early 1970s Addis Ababa to be sensual treasures, it brought lost stars from Haile Selassie’s last days to a Wiltshire field. Keen young musicians stand in for old Addis’s vanished bands. But it is the originals that matter, from saxophonist Gatatchew Mekurya in his Lion of Judah shawl, to Alemayehu Eshete’s James Brown screams. In a weekend of great voices, deceptively venerable, robed Mahmoud Ahmed’s may even be the best. Rising from an exotic, wobbling murmur to a roar, he leads this triumphant resurrection’.

Ethiopiques & Badume’s Band with Mahmoud Ahmed (WOMAD 2009)

Ethiopiques & Badume’s Band featuring Getatchew Mekurya (WOMAD 2009)

Ethiopiques & Badume’s Band featuring Alemayehu Eshete (WOMAD 2009)

WOMAD 2009: flyglobalmusic.com round up

Robert Macfarlane: Wild China

Another excellent series of  The Essay this week on BBC Radio 3, in which writer and climber Robert Macfarlane explored the state of the natural environment in China.  In the first talk, Robert described joining veteran winter swimmers in a Beijing park as they break the ice and dive in. A similar version of this essay can be found on the Telegraph website.

In the second he focussed on the Great Wall, describing how he and his father explored a stretch of the unrestored and unkempt Wall.

The wild wall. The phrase was coined by the British sinologist and explorer William Lindesay to describe those sections of the Great Wall of China that haven’t been officially “restored”. And, by that rule, most of the surviving wall is wild, as only a fraction of its immense length has been reconstructed. In the deserts of Xinjiang, the grass steppes of Mongolia and the plains of Shanxi, thousands of miles of the wall are lapsing back into the landscape, eroded by earthquake, wind, freeze-thaw and plant growth.

An extract from this essay appears on the New Statesman website.

In the last two talks he described travelling to the mountainous heart of China to visit the holy peak of Minya Konka. His essay began with these words:

Early December, the unlovely rump of the year. I’d been living in Beijing for three months and was itchy to leave the city. Silty air, littery gutters and always, everywhere, the noise of building work. Fortunately, I had an adventure lined up. My friend Jon Miceler had been in touch. Would I like to join him on a winter expedition to the Minya Konka massif in western Sichuan? Would a snowy prowl through high Himalayan country be of interest? Hell, yes.

Minya Konka – or The White Snow Peak of the Kingdom of Minyak, to give it its honorific – is a pyramidal mountain of exceptional elegance, ranked high in the Buddhist pantheon of sacred peaks. It is also vast: 7,556 metres. For decades, it was thought to be taller than Everest. The error was parallax in nature. For Minya Konka stands in tremendous isolation. From its summit, the land plunges seven vertical kilometres to the clammy floodplain of the Sichuan Basin. Seen from the Basin, no wonder it appeared to supersede Everest.

I discovered that a very similar version of this wonderful essay can be accessed on the Guardian website: Into the wild. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feature the Radio 3 conclusion in which he movingly recounted the story of one of the many climbers who have died attempting to scale Minya Konka’s peak, whose remains were never recovered: many years later, his daughter travelled to the site of his death and discovered his body, brought to the surface once more by the force of glacial ice. There’s also a picture gallery of the expedition.

Antony Gormley: seminal 20th century sculpture

This week on Radio 3’s The Essay, Antony Gormley has been discussing key sculptures and art installations of the 20th century. He began with the Rock Drill, made by Jacob Epstein between 1913 and 1915, which he considers as the first work of Modernism in Britain and which he compares to Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel of the same year.

In the second talk he discussed Brancusi’s Endless Column, a 100-foot column, commissioned as a war memorial and situated above the small town of Targu Giu in Romania. He considers it to be the first Minimalist work.

In the third essay he considered Alberto Giacometti’s City Square – La Place – made in 1948, when the artist returned to Paris after the Second World War. Gormley dismisses the idea that Giacometti portrayed loneliness and isolation, arguing that this small sculpture is the first work to model ‘relational aesthetics’, where space and time become the artist’s subject.

In the next talk he focused on Joseph Beuys’ installation Plight. Originally created in London in 1985, it marked the end of the industrial era in Europe and foreshadowed Beuys’ own death the following year.

Joseph Beuys Plight 1986 : State of the Art Episode 3

Finally, Gormley reflected on the industrial force and impact of American sculptor Richard Serra’s steel work The Matter of Time, completed in 2005 for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

The Matter of Time by Richard Serra, Guggenheim, Bilbao