Learning a language

I was standing at the long bar in the Museo de Jamon in Madrid,  half-lifting an arm, half-opening my mouth in a vain attempt to catch the bartender’s eye when the Spaniard beside me, either out of pity or irritation, told me that to activate a waiter in Spain you simply called out Oiga, and forthwith demonstrated how it was done.
Oiga. The bartender responded immediately. No offence taken; none given.
The man went on to tell me that he could identify the nationality of  people by the way they entered a bar. The English, he said, stop as soon as they’ve crossed the threshold, look round sort of helplessly, fiddle with their tie (this was long ago when men wore ties), wait to be told what to do next.
So the next time I was in a bar I walked straight to the counter and tried out the Oiga gambit. The waiter seemed quite comfortable with it (although I wasn’t!).
To me it was like shouting  Oi to a perfect stranger.  Probably a class thing. A middle-class language thing…. I wonder if you would be good enough to pass the salt, please….sorry to trouble you, sorry to disturb the universe….

poppies spain PRINT good

When we were having a stroll in the Spanish Pyrenees one summer, we passed/were passed by other walkers and, as is the way of hill walkers, greeted/were greeted with a friendly Hola. So we decided to perfect our pronunciation of this one word greeting, replicating the Spanish stress, tone, intonation and pitch rather than simply saying  Hola with the English stress etc.  of  Hello.
It was surprisingly difficult. It made me think how much information you convey with a simple greeting. About class, age, personality, sexuality…..

Going back to my schooldays, I remember my excellent French teacher, Miss Yuill, telling us about the mysterious French sense of humour where foreigners were concerned.
” It was a picnic, ” she said, ” une pique-nique, beside a field of poppies on the hillside above the beautiful town of Collioure, famous for all the artists who painted there…..how many of you have heard of Matisse?……Good. Picasso?……. André Derain… There is something so special about the bright, clear light in Collioure.  Derain, who was Matisse’s friend, said that ‘Collioure has no shadows’. Can you imagine such a pure light?”
She paused, and gave a little smile, remembering.
” Anyhow it was a beautiful, warm sunny day, ” she went on, ” and we were having a picnic and Jean-Pierre had just passed me one of these French cakes that are so light, so delicious… ” She smiled again, then frowned.  “When  out of the blue,  à l’improviste, a wasp descended on the back of my hand and I leapt to my feet and shook it off and cried out ‘Dites donc! Un guêpe!’ And you know what? Everyone laughed. Yes, everyone laughed and I was so embarrassed, so hurt…..And you know what they found so funny? You know why Monique and Jean-Pierre and all these lovely people laughed at me?”
She paused and looked down  at her hands. We waited. She sighed and looked up.
Une guêpe. Silly old me. Not un guêpe. Une guêpe. Une guêpe!”
The class was silent. She sounded so angry with herself.  Or with her remembered self. All that time ago. Thirty, forty years. And still so hurt. Still so angry.


Language Love

You’re such a snob!


When Ariadne left me in mid-sentence and began throwing stuff  pêle-mêle  into cases and holdalls and bin liners, I asked her where it had all gone wrong, just what had I done to ruin what was, for me at least, a perfect marriage, and she paused long enough to say with unbelievable bitterness, “You’re such a snob. ”

I was knocked over. Bouleversé.

But I have  nothing against people who are of a different class, creed or race from myself, ” I protested. ” In fact –  ”

Not that sort of snob, ” she interrupted impatiently. “ You’re a language snob. That’s your problem. Our problem.  Pass me that case.

I was dumbfounded. Asombrado.  Décontenancé.

Just because I can’t stand people who say ‘ Between you and I…‘, ” I told her, ” and ‘He was laying down…’ and ‘there are less people…’ and ‘ she’s disinterested in what I say…’ and ‘ he could of went yesterday..’ and  ‘in this day and age’  and begin everything they say with ‘basically’ or ‘actually’ and 

But before I could say any more, she was off, taking with her my first editions of Graham Greenes novels, all my  Picasso’s blue period  prints and most of my  CDs of Beethoven’s greatest hits.

*   *   *   *   *

Festival in the Rain


Edinburgh in the rain at  Festival time is okay. You just jump on (or into) a taxi or whatever and get yourself transported to a show – any show – there are thousands of them – in theatres, churches, streets,  telephone kiosks, castles, bus shelters, people’s dining rooms, bedrooms…..and if it’s still raining when you come out you go for a meal or a drink, you meet someone interesting, you don’t even mention the weather and before you can say Inakunyamvua, you’ve made a friend, or a lover, or a useful contact who lives in the south of France and would willingly swap houses/wives/life-styles with you for a couple of weeks next summer

Then, if it’s still raining when you come out, you can go to another show. And so on….. show – bar-show – bar – show – bar……There’s always something happening – rain or shine – outside or inside –  day or night…..in Edinburgh  at  Festival Time.

picasso 2

Pink Jacket and Orange Cap

                                                             THE PINK JACKET

‘Untitled’ is a title. What does it mean? That the artist couldn’t think of a good enough title? Probably Yes.
So what’s a title for?
It states what the artist regards as the main focus of the picture or places the picture in some significant context: Cadell’s ‘The Orange Blind’ or Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ draws your attention to a focal point in the painting; Picasso’s title ‘Guernica’, on the other hand,  guides the viewer to see the painting in the context of an exact place at an exact time.
The title ‘Sunset’ adds nothing to the painting of a sunset . ‘Sunset Over New York’ at least provides information which may give the painting more meaning to the viewer.

                                        Man with Orange Cap

This title does not mean there is nothing else of importance in the picture but invites the viewer to start viewing at the unusual cap held by the otherwise very soberly dressed man.
On the wall behind him is Cadell’s ‘The Orange Blind’  so perhaps ‘The Orange Cap’ would be a better title for the photograph, providing a verbal as well as a visual link.
On a purely practical level, a title is obviously a handy way of referring to any painting or photograph – eg Picasso’s ‘Guernica”.(What would we make of ‘Guernica’ if it had been untitled? That it was Picasso’s protest against bull-fighting? Or something even darker and deeper? Perhaps the title limits rather than focuses the viewer’s response.)
And signatures.
Should you sign a photograph?
You certainly wouldn’t clutter a painting or a photograph (as above) with a title. So why put a signature on?
To establish copyright ownership?
In general photgraphs aren’t signed. Why sign paintings and not photographs? And if you do, how and where do you sign?
More questions than answers! 

Titles of short stories, novels? Perhaps that needs a separate post.

Titles and Opening Sentences

Ghost writers in the sky

I’m starting on an updated historical novel about Joseph and Mary with the working title:  “We need  to talk about Jesus“.

I’ve just finished a short story about witchcraft set in a 17th century Scottish village at carnival time with the title:  “Fowlis Fair” ( Fowlis is a village in Macbeth country)

My last novel – a complicated narrative about a feckless young teacher who was marooned on Ibiza with a plane-load of mostly upper-class schoolchildren and who let the school (and himself) down but came out quite well in the end – was called:  “Lucky Lord Jim of the Flies“.

And so on.

But you can spend ages trying to find a title for your writing, whatever it is.  Or for your painting. I don’t like it when a photograph of  a sunset over the sea has as its title “SUNSET OVER THE SEA.”  On the other hand, if Picasso hadn’t called his painting “Guernica” what would critics have made of it? And someone pointed out that ‘untitled’ is a title. Is “Catcher in the Rye” a good title? ” Moby Dick”?  “Pride and Prejudice”? How about one-word titles like “Departures”, “Distances”? The book I’m reading now is called ” A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In”. I think good titles tend to be a touch ironic, or metaphorical, or even poetic in some way. I’m not even sure they are all that important but you can spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to think up a ‘good’ one.
I’d be interested in your views on titles ( or opening sentences for that matter  – there’s another time-waster. Or is it? I get the distinct feeling after having read the opening sentence(s) that I’m going to enjoy this (or not).
Jane Austen  hits  the right note and tone from the very beginning: “It  is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife…..”
And similarily J.D. Salinger did pretty well in his opening to ‘Catcher in the Rye’:
” If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
The same applies to the opening shot(s) of a film. After the first few seconds I know whether I can settle back and be transported for the next hour or so or keep glancing at my watch and listening to the rustling of  the chocolate eaters.

C’est le premier pas qui coûte