Chim chim cher-ee!

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun; 
Nor the furious winter’s rages, 
Thou thy worldly task hast done, 
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages; 
Golden lads and girls all must, 
As chimney sweepers come to dust. 
From Shakespeare’s Cymbeline song to Blake’s poem “The Chimney Sweeper”, Dickens’ Oliver Twist – and indeed, Bert in Mary Poppins (immortalised with one of the most bogus Cockney accents ever by Dick Van Dyke) – chimney sweeps have had a mixed press. The use of young “climbing boys” to clamber up inside chimneys, risking death by asphyxiation or eventually carcinoma, was not fully outlawed in England until 1875 (see Peter Coveney’s excellent 1957 book on the child in literature, Poor Monkey). Nevertheless, to see a sweep on your wedding day, or shake hands with him at any time, was considered good luck – as we learn in the song “Chim him cher-ee!” 
In Paris, rogue “ramoneurs” come knocking on apartment doors, insisting on the legal necessity for this to be done and then charging three or four times the going rate.
In rural France, today, most people have wood-burning fires, both for pleasure and because wood is a cheap and readily available fuel. If you use your fireplace, the law requires you to have the chimney swept professionally once a year, at which time you receive a certificate. Should you then have a chimney fire (igniting cobwebs being one common cause), the insurance doesn’t cover you unless you have said certificate. I have a complete chimney sweeping kit in my barn, but I can’t bypass the professionals, being unable to issue myself with a certificate!
After a hot summer, a sudden chill. This year we started making evening fires earlier than ever. Now it is officially Autumn and the hunting season began yesterday, so I feel slightly less guilty about doing so. Today, therefore, the chimney sweeps came – complete with designer chimney-sweep trousers (see photo above). They blocked off the fireplace to contain the soot, then climbed onto the roof to brush down, then worked from under the fireplace tarpaulin to brush up. Then they hoovered up the mess. Forty-five minutes, and Done!
Here it is in pictures.

Time Machines

P1020772The town of Loches is dominated by the Tour Saint Antoine, a Renaissance tower built in the mid-16th century, in the reign of François I. It is 52 metres high, a square column terminating in an octagonal superstructure. But what is it? There is no church attached to it, and no bell atop. This weekend was the “journées du patrimoine” in France and we took the opportunity to visit the tower, which is normally closed to visitors. The visit began with an arduous ascent – the 143 narrow stone steps of a spiral staircase. One then emerges onto a narrow balcony around the central space with a unique and dizzying view over Loches and its magnificent citadel, over 1,500 years of history.

There is no bell in the Tour Saint Antoine, though undoubtedly there once was. The historian who talked us through its past said that the main question was whether it was a “clocher” or a “beffroi” or both. What’s the difference? Essentially a “clocher” is a church bell that serves for religious timekeeping, whereas a “beffroi” is a secular or communal timekeeper with the tower as a lookout post over the countryside and the bell serving to rally the people of the town. The Tour Saint Antoine was probably a “clocher” since a church once stood at its base, later to be replaced by the Eglise Saint Antoine opposite the Palais de Justice. In the course of the visit, we learned how the old ramparts were removed as the town expanded, and how traces of this expansion are still visible from on high. Incidentally, the “bel” part of “belfry” has nothing to do with bells etymologically: the word derives from old German and meant “a high place of safety, tower”.

Another response to the question “What is the difference between a clocher and a beffroi”? One goes “ding” and the other goes “dong”… 


Today, the best thing about the Tour Saint Antoine is the view.

We also took advantage of the weekend’s open-door policy to visit the Horlogerie Vassort & Joubert, a master clockmaker’s workshop. The building was an apothecary’s in the 18th century, and the oldest part goes back to the 15th century. Since 1983, Gilles Vassort has made this his headquarters, from which he has restored clocks in châteaux, museums and public edifices in many parts of France, in addition to watches and clocks for private customers. His young assistant and prospective successor explained to us how clocks were repaired, the way in which mechanical parts were made, the hands, the face and so on. 

Clocks have a special place in my family. My father was obsessed with them and I once counted 40 in his small house (not including those that were tucked away in chests of drawers). He would buy defunct clocks, particularly carriage clocks, and revive them with quartz movements.

I also had a brief period when I collected mechanical watches and learned as much as I could about them. I still have a few, including a Vulcain Cricket, the so-called Presidents’ watch since it was worn by Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Johnson. It is one of the first alarm watches and legend has it that the Swiss maker, asking himself “What is tiny but makes a big noise?” answered “A cricket”, and that the miniature alarm mechanism is based on direct observation of the insect. It is also said that on one occasion, when Eisenhower was publicly announcing a temporary embargo on Swiss goods, his Vulcain Cricket alarm went off and all the journalists present recognised the signature sound of the Swiss timepiece.  

I also have my grandfather’s old fob watch and chain, which I can remember him wearing in his waistcoat, as he lay on the sofa reading in Balham, back in the 1960s. 

The relative merits of watches and clocks with mechanical and quartz movements in some ways sum up how we feel about the technological revolution that has swept us along with it. While the quartz mechanism is infinitely more reliable, convenient and trouble-free, it is strangely soulless. In Paris, I’ve seen a number of old-fashioned watch and clock repairers closing down due to lack of business. But every now and then one comes across someone quietly keeping the centuries-old traditions of craftsmanship alive, such as Gilles Vassort and his apprentices in the quiet backwater of Loches. 


200 Volcanoes Can’t Be Wrong

P1100183Some years ago I was driving through the Auvergne on the A75 autoroute and the skyline of extinct volcanoes intrigued me – one can’t help imagining what that horizon looked like when they were active. This September, we finally got round to a short but serious visit. Despite almost continuous torrential rain and batting windscreen wipers, the experience was unforgettable – rolling green countryside, hedgerow, cattle and sheep cowering in the downpour, austere hilltop villages, viaducts, the omnipresence of dark volcanic rock, and of course 200 volcanoes, the last of which erupted some 6,000 years ago. Not to mention the faded glory of Belle Epoque spa towns, of which there are ten, with an elderly clientele – their “cure” paid for by social security – and many of their 19th-century hotels now transformed into flats. Our visit was also gastronomic, with a particular focus on the famous Auvergne cheeses – Cantal, Saint-Nectaire, Bleu d’Auvergne, Forme d’Ambert – and simple peasant dishes involving cheese, such as the extremely filling Truffade, a mash-up of potatoes and Salers cheese, served with salad and jambon du pays.

Surprisingly, the Auvergne does not attract as many tourists as other less spectacular regions in France, perhaps being somewhat off the beaten track, and property prices there are consequently low. For us, and for many visitors, the main attraction was the magnificent Parc des Volcans d’Auvergne which is the biggest regional natural park in France, dominated by the Chaîne des Puys – a “puys” being a rounded hilltop formed from unerupted hardened magma.

 We began our trip at Saint-Gervais d’Auvergne, with a night at the Castel Hôtel 1904 which boasts one of the finest restaurants in the region, a reputation which we can now thoroughly endorse. In the village, we met Catherine Decultot, a professional milliner with her Aladdin’s cave of hats and bonnets. She speaks excellent English, having worked as a wig maker in London for Harrods in the 1980s, and with long experience of living in Martinique and confecting bright carnival-style headgear for Caribbean women, which she still does from her remote French hideaway. 

 One of the first natural sites we took in was the Méandres de Queuille, a breathtaking loop in the Sioule river which one observes from a rocky promontory 200 metres above (see main photo). The valley is composed of gorges and is almost inaccessible. It is like looking down from a plane on an isolated stretch of the Amazon. We later met a man who had been there, with his canoe, a tent, and fishing rod, and he confirmed that there was no human habitation, only nature in the wild. 

From there we drove to the Puy de Dôme, the highest volcano in this range. There is a rack railway and a visitor centre at the foot of the Puys, but the rain and fog were so dense that we were advised not to waste our money on the upward trip. However, we waited an hour, the fog lifted, and we ended up taking the train to the summit which is dominated by a huge Stalinesque weather station and off-limits air force control base overlooking the foundations of a 2nd-century AD Gallo-Roman Temple of Mercury, itself – as was recently discovered – built on the site of an older Celtic temple. Our sympathies went out to the donkeys and mules who had to haul the big stones up the mountainside to build this folly to a defunct deity. The view from the Puy de Dôme is one of the major attractions here, taking in nearly all of the lesser volcanoes in the range.

 We spent the night in the old Spa Town of Royat at the wonderful 19th-century Royal Saint Mart hotel which exudes the charm of bygone days, and also has an excellent restaurant where the waiters wear white tunics with gold buttons, as if on an ocean liner. The next day we drove back into the volcano region and visited Lac Chambon – like so many of the circular lakes in this region, the crater of an extinct volcano. A good brisk walk round the lake, then a trip up to the pretty nearby village of Murol for a much-advertised vide grenier, that turned out to host only five stalls, the rain having scared off most potential punters. An elderly man with a W. C. Fields nose and more than a whiff of pinard on his breath accosted us and tried to drag us to his house, where he said he wanted to give us a painting for free, but we shook him off, insisting that we had to hit the road – leaving some “What might have happened?” and “What painting?” question marks hovering over this chance encounter. 

Thence we drove to a smaller volcanic lake further north before finding the Hôtel de Paris in Châtel-Guyon, another long-forgotten spa town, and in the evening headed up to the Croix en Fer auberge,  a charming chalet atop a hill that overlooks the town of Riom – a sprawling metropolis of nearly 20,000 souls, of which we’d never previously heard. The auberge restaurant, with its jazz pianist, was a warm welcome on a cold night, and reminded me of the legendary Café Hafa outside Tangiers, mostly because of its towering position.

 The next day, a visit to Vichy. When I was in my early teens, I read and loved Flann O’Brien’s books, in one of which the narrator’s favourite tipple – after the “pint of porter is your only man” – was “Vichy water”. The name appealed to me then, as did the absurd luxury of paying good money for water, and I went ahead bought a bottle of genuine Vichy mineral water from the local off-license – this, I add, at a time when virtually no one in the UK drank mineral water. The style choice was fateful and thenceforth I made sure I always had a bottle in my bedroom, an early manifestation of a pretentious addiction to all things French, that has long since apotheosised into a consummate and not uncomfortable Nemesis. So it was a personal and vaguely epiphanic moment discovering the Vichy spa in its splendid Victorian pavilion and drinking that sparkling, mineral-rich water.

In the nearby park, beside the river, we got talking to an elderly lady called Laure who was feeding the black swans. The conversation lasted an hour, during which we learned everything about her in exhaustive detail – her Catholic faith, her hatred of racism, her contempt for Vichy and its townsfolk, her halcyon days living in Morocco, her ex-husband who married six times and regretted every marriage, her conspicuous openness to others – and closed with a promise to stay in touch. The prolixity of the lonely. As we parted company, we stepped tentatively over the many donkey hind legs that littered our path…

There is, of course, a darker historical side to the town of Vichy, but the local tourist office seems to have erased this effectively from all documentation if not from the national memory. 

 Thus ended our little jaunt to the Auvergne. 

 I strongly recommend visiting this relatively unfrequented corner of France. Listen to Joseph Canteloube’s magnificent Chants d’Auvergne to put yourself in the mood, with a glass or two of Saint-Pourcain white wine and a slice of Cantal. We’re planning to return in the winter, to see those volcanoes capped with snow. 


Batmanship in Beaulieu

There is a colony of tiny pipistrelle bats in our barn. In the summer evenings, the swallows who spend summer in the abandoned house circle and swoop, catching insects on the wing. Then suddenly they all retire, there is a brief pause, and the bats come out like the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, also to consume insects. The swallows of course migrate at the end of summer, to South Africa we are told, while the common pipistrelles hibernate in the barn, dramatically reducing their heartbeats and metabolic functions to consume virtually no energy during the winter months. When my daughter was eight, she came into my room one morning saying “Daddy, there’s something black on the stairs”. A baby bat, fast asleep. Wearing gloves, I picked it up and we studied it closely – still asleep – before putting it on the woodpile in the barn. Then just a couple of weeks ago, Geraldine’s daughter Ombeline was having dinner when a bat which had got in through an upstairs window made it down to the kitchen and circled her head a couple of times before fleeing through the open kitchen door.
Having decided to find out more concerning our nocturnal tenants, we went to Beaulieu-les-Loches to meet up with Vincent and Virginie, two bat experts from the Groupe Chiroptères d’Indre-et-Loire, an association for the study and protection of bats in the region. Vincent talked us through the amazing facts and figures about these creatures, the only flying mammals in the world. They have the ability to couple and then defer gestation, because the female stores the sperm as long as she wants, ensuring that her baby (they only have one offspring at a time) is born in Spring when food is available. They fly at between 25 and 70 kph and, when feeding, eat up to half their weight in insects – though a pipistrelle weighs no more than a 50-centime coin. They are not blind, despite the proverb, but have eyesight that is more or less as good as ours – though of course they navigate at high speed using echolocation, emitting sharp high-pitched blips from the larynx or – in the case of some species – the nose. When they catch an insect in their mouths, they can no longer make this noise, so – to avoid collisions – they fly in small circles while eating their prey.
It was curious meeting two people who had such a fondness for these eldritch life forms. Bats are a protected species. Vincent and Virginie have an SOS line to save bats in peril, and they told us about a colleague who saved the lives of baby bats by popping them into her bra to keep them warm against her breasts. In common with swallows, their numbers and the locations of the colonies are important ecological and meteorological indicators. There are 34 species in France and 23 in Indre-et-Loire, with the highest concentration being in this region of France and particularly around Loches, with all its old tuffeau quarries, cellars and troglodytic habitations. 
At sunset, we went out into Les Prairies du Roy, a small nature reserve with a gorgeous view of Loches across the river Indre. We glimpsed the bats in flight, following the path of a row of trees or hedges. But Vincent and Virginie went one better. They had “batbox” bat detectors – handheld devices that pick up the bats’ ultrasonic shouts (above 20kHz) and bring them into audible range. It was like radar, hearing the increasing volume of rapid-fire blip-blip-blip calls approaching, glimpsing the speeding bat overhead, then hearing it recede. Each species of bat has a different call, and they are clearly distinguishable. The enthusiasm of Vincent and Virginie for bats is apparently unbridled. Is this a curious rural equivalent of the trainspotters of my London youth?
We continued chatting under a full supermoon. When they heard about my colony, in a locality they had not yet explored or developed a statistical picture for, they immediately set up a visit, during which they plan to capture a bat for a brief get-to-know-you session.
So more news of chiropterans anon…

My Dinner With André (1981)

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Louis Malle has always been one of my favourite French film directors – and Lacombe Lucien (1974) probably my favourite French film, and one of the most morally subtle movies I’ve ever seen. Malle  moved to the USA in 1977/78 where he produced seven films. One of these, My Dinner With André (1981), I saw for the first time last night. 

This is a most unusual and striking movie. It is nothing more than a dinner conversation between the two actors, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, written by them and presumably based on their real conversations and experiences. In the first half of the film, we hear only Andre Gregory who talks about his spiritual experiences in experimental theatre and transcendentalism since ceasing activity as a New York theatre director in 1975. In the second half of the film, Wallace Shawn comes into his own, reacting to the enthusiasms of his friend in a way that could broadly be described as everyday empiricism challenging fashionable mysticism. But the conversation goes deeper than that, into what is, and is not, “performance” in life, and the relative merits of “being” and “doing”.

 While they are eating quail in their New York restaurant – in fact filmed over two weeks in an empty hotel in Richmond, Virginia – both men, in many ways ill-assorted, confront their world views in a spirit of friendship and intelligence. The opening, when only Andre Gregory is speaking, leads one to expect a conversation of surreal non sequiturs, but gradually the whole thing is drawn together into a captivating discussion that touches on our lives with familiar philosophical relevance. 

 In our post-Beckettian, post-Pinterian world, we’re used to plays and films in which conversation is more about the avoidance of communication, cross-purposes, le non-dit,  and the propagation of personal illusions and delusions rather than depressing, ineluctable truths. This 1981 movie is something different, a celebration of how two very dissimilar individuals can listen attentively, understand each other – to the extent that any articulate, cultivated person can understand another, and to the extent that language can effectively communicate feeling and conviction – and nevertheless take strong and partially incompatible stands, without animosity.

My favourite line is from Wallace Shawn: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I mean I know what you’re talking about, but I don’t really know what you’re talking about.” 

 The fact that the whole premise of the movie develops directly out of a real conversation between the two actors, in real life, which is subsequently scripted – presumably to give it filmic shape – and the audacity of filming two men talking to each other over dinner for more than two hours, adds up to a unique thing of splendour. And it is a thing of splendour that works. We are drawn into that conversation as if we were occupying the third seat at the table.

 Where does one find screenwriting of this calibre today?

I’ve been watching the impressive True Detective Series 2 recently, which is compulsive viewing, but when you scrutinise the structure and language and character interaction it all comes down to writing-school precepts and dreary clichés – sorry, Nic Pizzolatto (creator and writer) – despite the dazzling pyrotechnics. Placed side by side with a work like My Dinner With André – which it is right now in my head because I have seen them in juxtaposition – the latter shines out as a unique work of art, and a celebration of human understanding through the dialectic of conversation: listening, understanding, reacting, agreeing – or agreeing to disagree, in the full apprehension of what you are disagreeing with. In this respect, it is a kind of post-post-Existentialist affirmation that human communication is not a lost cause.

 If, like me, you love chancing on neglected masterpieces, this is definitely one, by one of the brightest sparks in French cinema.

Sugar Daddy


Don’t waste your pucker on some all day sucker
And don’t try a toffee or cream
If you seek perfection in sugar confection
Well there’s something new on the scene

Should you be heading down the avenue Aristide Briand in Loches, you’ll see some colourful signs for Confiserie Hallard, an artisan sweet maker. Jean-Damien Hallard makes lollipops, sweets, the French speciality berlingots, nougat, fruit jellies, pralines and nougatines. In his workshop, while his assistant works in the background, he is a born entertainer, making sure visitors all have a go at stretching a handful of semi-liquid coloured sugar until it strains into two tones, then twisting it round a stick in a perfect or imperfect spiral. This, after viewing a detailed film on how cane and beet sugar are produced. Watching him brought back memories of the glassworkers of Murano, an island I visited when I was 17. The molten sugar – coloured and flavoured – bends and slithers and flows in similar fashion, like a translucent, tame, sleepy snake. The visit also reminded me of how, when I was a kid in England, my father often took me on visits to factories and workshops to see how things were done – from the Dunlop tyre factories, to a stained glass atelier, to the presses of the Daily Telegraph in Fleet Street, when lead type machines were still being used. Learning by viewing, but also learning by doing – if your host is happy to invite hands-on – all very well in sweet making, I guess, but inadvisable in industrial tyre production… 


Help Needed

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The 2005 BBC series Help, about a psychotherapist played by Chris Langham and his multiple patients, all played by the brilliant Paul Whitehouse – described by Johnny Depp as “the finest actor of all time” – is one of the sharpest comedies ever produced on British television. The actor Chris Langham, of course, was jailed for 6 months in 2007 for downloading child pornography. Since his release, he has starred in a feature-length low-budget comedy called Black Pond. Help was not released on DVD, presumably because of Langham’s conviction, but was freely available for viewing on YouTube. It has now been snuffed out on YouTube as well, without a word of explanation. This means that one of the most stunning comedy acts of our times cannot be viewed, by hook or by crook – unless someone can tell me of a means of which I am unaware? This is a particularly nasty and inexplicable act of censorship to all appearances. Does anyone have any information about what is going on? And how to bring this wonderful series – a whacky precursor to Gabriel Byrne’s earnest HBO series about a shrink, In Treatment – back into the public realm?

Goodnight Mommy (2014)

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Goodnight Mommy (2014) is an Austrian arthouse horror movie that lingers in the mind for more reasons than one. Identical nine-year-old twins Elias and Lukas (played by the extraordinary identical twin Schwarz brothers) live in a superb designer house – all timber, glass, marble and Venetian blinds – between a lake, a wood and a field of tall, swaying maize. Their mother returns from an operation (accident? cosmetic surgery?), her head swathed in bandages. As they pick up their life together – there is no mention of a father – the boys begin to suspect that the woman behind the bandages is an imposter. 
 This is a directorial debut for Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala and has echoes of Haneke’s Funny Games, The Sixth Sense, A History of Violence, Jack Clayton’s The InnocentsThe Village of the Damned and even the 2007 Danish film The Substitute – at least, all of these came to mind. While you may guess the film’s enigma early on, as I did, this movie keeps you in its thrall all along the way, with an exquisitely eerie atmosphere inside the bourgeois dream house and outside – in the forest of maize plants, or beside the lake, or on a night of torrential rain.
The mother, with her quick spasmodic glances and movements and the dreamy circling of the wide-eyed boys – rarely leaving each other’s sides – creates the sense of a dangerous private world that brooks no intrusion. There is no scary music. There are no cheap surprise tactics. The scenes of extreme violence are enacted with cold, surgical precision. The creepiness emanates above all from the quiet collusion between the two boys and the bewitching cinematography that sucks one into the cryptic realm of childhood. In common with other masterpieces of horror, such as The Exorcist, it achieves its effects through measured counterpoint with episodes of intense serenity.

Cold Call Management Strategies

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I have never had an authentic phone call on my landline, only cold calls. In general, the caller has an Indian accent and cannot pronounce my name. If you ask where they are calling from, they saying something like “not far from you” or “the North”, begging the question. The problem with cold calls is that you have to wait a while before you can be sure that it is not your bank, or your insurance company, or a bona fide institution to which you belong. Once you are sure that it is a cold call, you can of course simply put the phone down. However, if you have a few seconds to waste, a certain degree of entertainment value can be derived from these impromptu voices from overseas. Here are two of my regular ripostes.
Caller: Can I speak to Mr Matheus?
Me: He isn’t here.
Caller: You are not Mr Matheus?
Me: No, I’m the plumber.
Caller: Where is Mr Matheus?
Me: He’s back on the International Space Station.
Caller: When will he be returning?
Me: I don’t know, I’ll have to ask Mission Control.
Caller: This is the Pukka International Insurance Company. When can I call back?
Me: I don’t know. I’m just the plumber.
Caller: Can I speak to Mr Matthers?
Me (outraged): How did you get this number?
Caller: Is this Mr Matthers?
Me: I repeat, how did get this number?
Caller: From the phone book.
Me: This number is not in the phone book. It is a highly secure, confidential number. Only three people in the world know this number. Your call has activated Red Alert. National security has been compromised.
Caller: It is on our list.
Me: Put me through immediately to your manager. Etc.
Does anyone else have any good cold caller management strategies?
Please share…

Neighbours from Hell

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“Good fences make good neighbours.” But there are some nuisances – and neighbours – that fences cannot contain. 
My musician friend “X” moved to a handsome 19th-century cottage on the outskirts of a big city a couple of years ago, and almost immediately things started to go wrong. The neighbours to one side live in a big, swanky house with huge grounds and to begin with relations were amicable. Until construction work began on a small lodge within the palatial residence’s grounds. One morning, X opened his garage door to find his passage blocked by an enormous truck belonging to the construction workers. He asked them to move it, and they said “10 minutes”. He waited an hour for action, by which time he had missed his appointment in town. From this moment on, things degenerated. The workers became increasingly supercilious, deliberately obstructing the street – not only for X, but for everyone else living there – and the only prospect of relief was the neighbour’s assurance that the work would be over in “three months”. However, a year later, it was still under way, the principal nuisance being the constant noise. When X remonstrated with the neighbour’s husband, he replied “Well, here ‘three months’ means ‘a year’” and agreed to an ex gratia payment to avoid legal action over the nuisance caused by the regularly obstructed thoroughfare.
Other “castle and cottage” incidents followed. Repeatedly, a woman who visited the neighbour’s parked her car on X’s property, and one day he confronted her. “Why don’t you park in your friend’s driveway? It’s huge. There’s plenty of room.” The visitor replied, “Well I have to be honest – I have an oil leak, you see. I don’t want to soil their gravel.” 
When at last construction of the lodge was completed, peace and quiet were set to return to this semi-rural backwater of the big city. But it was not to be. Spring had come, and the neighbours’ garden – all three hectares of it – needed attention. They promptly employed a live-in gardener, with wife and child in tow, to trim the boxwood hedges, mow the lawn, and man the strimmer, apparently aiming for an effect comparable to the gardens of the Chateau de Versailles. The gardener was employed to work eight hours a day, five days a week and from the outset it was clear that no mere garden shears were good enough for him. He liked machines, the bigger and noisier the better. Furthermore, his passion for his work extended into the weekend, because he had nothing better to do than add another eight hours to his workload on Saturdays. At this point, negotiations with the wealthy neighbour faltered, sighed and collapsed: “He has to work!” growled the neighbour, “But I have to play piano,” pleaded X.  The police shrugged: people can do what they like in their own gardens. Without a doubt, the time for personal initiative had come.
As a classical musician, it was clear from the word ‘go’ that music would be his ally in what was likely to become a long-drawn-out war of attrition. He borrowed a pair of powerful loudspeakers from a friend and searched through his extensive collection of recordings for the one opus that would do the trick. Mere techno or rap was pointless, the constant beat giving it a hypnotic quasi-acceptability. What was required was sheer cacophony, a jarring, strident, raucous, grating, rasping triumph of unignorable pandemonium. And at last he found it, the Holy Grail of acoustic retaliation.
Amériques, by Edgard Varèse, was composed between 1918 and 1921, a huge orchestral representation of New York, complete with clanging construction work and wailing sirens, requiring a total of 155 musicians. It is some 25 minutes of sheer urban ferocity, an explosion of praise for the new machine age, out-Stravinskying Stravinsky. Now, whenever the hedge-trimmers and mowers and chain saws cough into action, Varèse’s Amériques ripostes – again and again, onward and ever upward, until the blood beats in the brow and the hand reaches tremulously for the ear-plugs. The neighbour screams over the hedge, “You’ll see! I know the Prime Minister!” to which X shouts back, “And I know the Second Minister, and the Third Minister, and the Fourth Minister!” or even “I know the Queen!” When X leaves his house, the music still blaring in the garden, the gardener poses like a statue in front of the next-door palace and points a basilisk stare at him, and every day the prospect of that chainsaw being imaginatively repurposed becomes a real possibility. 
Thus music may have charms to soothe the savage breast, but it can also be pressed into action to quite the opposite effect. Though the outcome of this war of nerves remains to be decided, Edgard Varèse may be congratulated on the unintended usefulness of his oeuvre, with possible secondary inspiration from Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange. Having spent the best part of a weekend listening to Amériques again and again and again, I can testify to its maddening potency. If any enterprising record producer decides to create a “Neighbours from Hell” revenge album, it should be right up there at the top of the playlist.
Pass the Xanax, dear…
© 2019 Adrian Mathews