Friday, February 27, 2015

"The pirates of Penzance" as satire

And some surprising political implications

If the above title sounds very much like the title for a Ph.D. dissertation I suppose my academic background is to blame for that.  Unlike a Ph.D. dissertation, however, all I want to set down here are a few comments.

I first saw "Pirates" when I took my (then) teenage son to see a well-reviewed production of it here in Brisbane.  I am not at all a Gilbert & Sullivan devotee -- the profundity of Bach is my musical home -- but I know the G&S works as classics of entertainment. So I felt that I should help along my son's musical education.  I remember another occasion in that connection.  In his early teens I recommended Stravinsky to him but he said that he didn't like Stravinsky.  I said to him:  "Don't worry. You will". He came to me some years later and said:  "John, you were right.  I do like Stravinsky".

Anyway, you see far more of any Singspiel on DVD than you do in a theatre audience so I recently acquired a DVD of "Pirates". And, watching it, I did see that it had elements of satire. "Pirates" is not of course satire an sich.  It is simply the madcap humour of W.S. Gilbert ably abetted by the great musical abilities of Arthur Sullivan. I see it as a forerunner of other madcap British comedies such as those of  Mr. Bean,  the Goons and the Pythons.

What differentiates comedy and satire is of course that satire is humour targeted at someone as a form of criticism.  It is deliberately didactic.  But straight comedy can teach lessons too, if only in an incidental way.  And I see some of that in "Pirates".  Perhaps a surprising one that I see is in the song of the "modern major general", now a widely treasured bit of fun.  What Gilbert was doing in that song was referring to something that no Leftist would believe: That  British military officers  were and are often quite scholarly in various ways.  That's not at all universal but not infrequent either.  Even an RSM will often be a man of unexpected depths.  The Sergeant Major of my old army unit  was/is in fact a fan of Bach and Palestrina (nothing to do with Palestine).   And the only Wing Commander (airforce) I know is a voracious reader with a wide knowledge of history.

Captain Cook, the 18th century British discoverer of much in the Pacific is a very good example of a scholarly military man.  His discovery of the cure for scurvy alone ranks him as a distinguished scientist and his practice of quarantine was exemplary for the times.

But a much less well known but quite commendable 18th century military man with scientific interests was Watkin Tench,  an officer in His Majesty's Marine Forces.  He was posted to the new British colony in Australia in its very earliest days, then a hardship posting.  You could lose your life just getting there and back.  So he was no elite soldier and was actually from a rather humble background.  His interest was meteorology and he brought with him the latest Fahrenheit thermometer. He kept a meteorological diary that included  observations from his thermometer taken four times daily in a sheltered spot -- exemplary practice even today.

And his record of the Sydney summer of 1790 is particularly interesting.  It was very hot.  There were even bats and birds falling out of the trees from the heat.  And his thermometer readings tell us exactly how hot.  So we have both readings from a scientific instrument and behavioural observations that validate the readings:  Very hard to question.  And the solidity of his data is very useful in exposing the liars of Australia's current Bureau of Meteorology.  They have got the virus of Warmism in their heads and are always claiming that Australia in whole or in part is currently experiencing a "hottest" year.  And they exploit the fact that Sydney does occasionally have some very hot summers.  But Tench's data show that such summers go back a long way in Sydney  and hence cannot be attrributed to nonsense about the current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. The only additions to atmospheric CO2 from the Australia of Tench's days would have been the product of breathing by various living creatures.  There was not even any reticulated electricity anywhere in Australia or anywhere else at that time.

So in the famous song of the modern Major General, Gilbert was simply doing an amusing exaggeration of a real phenomenon, a military man with scientific interests, probably one better known to the British public when Gilbert wrote around 100 years ago.

I actually find prophetic Gilbert's treatment of the police ("When the foeman bares his steel").  The police have always been greatly  respected in Britain -- though that must have eroded in the last two decades -- but Gilbert defies that.  He makes fun of the police and portrays them as cowards.  As a portrayal of modern British police forces that would not be too far astray.  Did Gilbert have some experience of police to lead him to the derogatory view he took of them? I suspect it. In Strange Justice and Political Correctness Watch you will certainly find a wealth of instances of reprehensible behavior by the British police of today.

And the other police song ("A Policeman's Lot Is not a Happy One") is also very modern, expressing sympathy for offenders and a reluctance to arrest them.  Gilbert is actually a rather good prophet.  Warmists eat your heart out!

And the pirate King's assertion that "compared with respectability, piracy is comparatively honest" is also refeshingly cynical.  Commenters on modern-day "crony capitalism" in America will nod approval. And the decision of the daughters to "talk about the weather" rather than pry is quintessentially British. And the homage to Queen Victoria was also an appropriate contemporary reference but greatly exaggerated, of course.  It too could be seen as mocking by a modern audience

And I must pay tribute to the performance (in the production I have) to the singing of Linda Ronstadt.  Better known as a popular singer she is also a superb soprano and greatly ornaments the role of the Major General's daughter Mabel.

Linda Ronstadt as Mabel. Amid the total craziness of a W.S. Gilbert libretto she produces superb music. I cannot speak highly enough of her performance

FOOTNOTE:  I use the German word Singspiel above because there is no equivalent in English.  It means a "sung play" and refers to any musical performance (from Mozart's Zauberfloete ("Magic Flute") to Benatzky's beloved Im Weissen Roessl ("White Horse Inn")) that includes both spoken and sung dialogue.  A Hollywood musical such as "Showboat" is also a Singspiel.  English has a horde of words borrowed from other languages so it seems regrettable that a useful word like Singspiel has not been borrowed too.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


"Salzkammergut" has a rather harsh sound, does it not?  In the correct German pronunciation it sounds even harsher!

But I have recently been watching a DVD of "Im weissen Roessl" (in German with English subtitles), usually translated as "The  White Horse Inn".  It is set in the Salzkammergut and I think most people at the end of the performance would have developed a resolution that one day they too must see the Salzkammergut.

The literal meaning is "Salt office estate" -- a name that goes back to medieval times when salt was very valuable.  And the Salzkammergut included a salt mine.  There was even a fort built to protect the mine -- a fort called "Salt Fort", or, in German Salzburg.  That fort has given its name to the town near it, now better known as the birthplace of Mozart.

So the Salzkammergut was originally the area of Austria that came under the jurisdiction of the Salt Office, the Austrian  government department dealing with all matters salty.  It is not usually translated literally however.  It is usually rendered into English as "The Austrian Lake District" and it does have a great reputation for beauty.  The salt mine is only a small part of the story now.  It is now a tourist attraction.

A view of Hallstatt in the Salzkammergut

UPDATE:  I am now trying to learn the chorus from the theme song of "Im weissen Roessl" but getting new rhymes into old heads is hard:

Im "Weissen Rössl" am Wolfgangsee,
Da steht das Glück vor der Tür,
und ruft dir zu: "Guten Morgen,
tritt ein und vergiß deine Sorgen!"

And here is the whole Salzkammergut song:

1. Im Salzkammergut da kann man gut lustig sein
Im Salzkammergut, da kammer gut lustig sein
Wenn die Musi spielt, holdrio.
Im Salzkammergut, da kammer gut lustig sein,
So wie nirgendwo, holdrio.

Es blüht der Holunder
Den ganzen Sommer mitunter,
Jedoch die Liebe,
Die blüht s' ganze Jahr.
Im Salzkammergut, da kammer gut lustig sein,
Ja, das war schon immer so, holdrio.

2. Die ganze Welt ist Himmelblau (von Robert Stolz)
Die ganze Welt ist himmelblau
Wenn ich in deine Augen schau'
Und ich frag dabei: Bist auch du so treu
Wie das Blau, wie das Blau Deiner Augen

Ein Blick nur in dein Angesicht
Und ringsum blüht Vergissmeinnicht
Ja, die ganze Welt machst du süsse Frau
So blau, so blau, so blau

3. Es muss was Wunderbares sein
Es muss was wunderbares sein
von dir geliebt zu werden
denn meine Liebe, die ist Dein
so lang ich leb auf Erden

Ich kann nichts schöneres mir denken
als dir mein Herz zu schenken
wenn du mir Dein's dafür gibst
und mir sagst, dass auch Du mich liebst.

4. Mein Liebeslied muss ein Walzer sein (von Robert Stolz)
Mein Liebeslied muss ein Walzer sein,
voll Blütenduft und voll Sonnenschein.
Wenn beim ersten du ich mich an dich schmieg,
braucht mein Herz dazu süsse Walzermusik.

Mein Liebeslied muss ein Walzer sein,
der süss berauscht, wie Champagnerwein.
Und das Lied, das dir sagt, ich bin dein
kann doch nur ein Walzer sein,
kann doch nur ein Walzer sein.
Und das Lied, das dir sagt, ich bin dein,
kann doch nur ein Liebeswalzer sein.

5. Im weissen Rössl am Wolfgangsee
Im weissen Rössl am Wolfgangsee
da steht das Glück vor der Tür,
und ruft dir zu: "Guten Morgen,
tritt ein und vergiss deine Sorgen!"

Und musst du dann einmal fort von hier,
und tut der Abschied dir weh;
denn dein Herz, das hast du verloren
im "Weissen Rössl" am See!

Just a sampling of the operetta below (not the version I have but well done).  Wait for the final chorale

And below is the ultra-feminine Anja Katharina Wigger and friend singing the "so blau" song.  If the dynamic linking does not work, go to the 36 minute mark on the video. There must be few operatic sopranos as good-looking as she is. There is some good video of her from the 46 minute mark too.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Jill's birthday

As we usually do, Anne and I recently took Jill to the Kafe Meze in celebration of her 39th birthday.  I am not much of a gentleman but even I do not divulge the actual age of a lady.

As usual, I ordered a dinner of four small courses: Tarama, Haloumi, Keftedes and real Greek salad.  Real Greek salad does not include lettuce.  And it was good as usual. An amusing thing I noted was a warning that the Keftedes are not gluten free. Keftedes are supposed to be Greek meatballs but the ones at the Kafe Meze undoubtedly have a lot of bread in them.  They are very tasty, though.

A topic of interest to us all was weight loss.  As soon as I arrived, Lewis said to me "Your diet's not working".  He was more correct than he knew.  I have in fact lost 11 kilos since I started but my weight has plateaued for a long time at around 112 kilos (17 stone, 8 lb).  As I am 5'10" that is not good.  Hopefully, progress will resume however.  I was 14 stone for many years. Lewis and Jill have both been dieting and Lewis in particular looked very slim.  I think he has almost lost too much weight, in fact.

The proprietor of the restaurant is a real Greek.  I have known a lot of Greeks over the years and, although it is "incorrect" to "stereotype" people these days, I think there are some characteristics which one often finds among Greeks.  In particular, they only work if they have to.  Getting money in some way other than working for it is their ideal.

And the proprietor of the Kafe Meze is pretty typical.  He is a pleasant person and when the place is really busy he will get up and do cooking, waitering, cashiering and anything needed.  But most of the time he sits around having coffee with his mates. In Greece, the "kaffenion' (coffee shop) fills the niche occupied by bars and pubs in the Anglo-Celtic world.  Greek males sit around there having endless debates about politics while somebody else does the work.

And I suspect the proprietor is realistic about Greeks too:  He seems to have no Greek staff.  He always has at least some East Asians waitering.  And the Chinese waitress who looked after our table was very Chinese too.  As I think most Australians know, the best service you get in a restaurant is in a Chinese restaurant.  As well as great cooks, Chinese are great waiters, providing very attentive service. So the Chinese waitress at the Kafe Meze whisked away any dishes we had finished with almost immediately  -- just as she would have done in a Chinese restaurant!

So I think the Kafe Meze is a rare ideal:  Greek food and Chinese service.  Australia has done well to have those two ethnic groups well represented here.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The end of an era?

The era concerned is quite trivial in the great scheme of things but since I participated in it daily for a while, I thought I might note it

Woolworths and Coles have been having a price war on milk and bread but that seems to have ended.  So for a while I had my breakfast with the help of a one litre carton of long-life milk which cost me only 95c per carton.

Now, however the 95c "own brand" milk no longer appears on the shelves at Woolworths.  And, curiously, there is only one brand of real milk available -- Devondale at $1.39 per carton.  All the other milk is high or low on something -- or with or without something. What Devondale did to earn exclusivity evokes suspicion -- sacrifice their firstborn or some such, I imagine.

There still is a cheap option, however.  Devondale offer a 2 litre carton of real milk for $2.  Joe and I have decided we will buy that one.

Below is the now lost 95c carton.

UPDATE: It's back!  But for how long?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A saint's day

Catholics have a lot of saint's days but the only one which is near universal is based on the life of a saint whose very existence is dubious: St Valentine.

Now I have been on this earth long enough to know the correct ritual for Valentine's day.  Required are card, flowers and chocolate for your lady -- or you are in the poo.  If you know what perfume she likes that can trump the chocolates and even if you don't, Chanel no 5 is a pretty good bet.  It us such a classic that she will like it even if it is not her favourite.

Anne has however always been vague about what perfume she likes so I have always stuck to fancy chocolates of some kind.  This year, however, I broke out.  Anne likes things to be "different"  rather a lot.  So I gave her a fancy tin of Anzac biscuits in lieu of chocolates.  And that did seem to go down  well, though not swimmingly. She likes fancy tins so I expect that it will have delayed action satisfaction.

That night we went to the New Sing Sing for dinner.  We had Peking duck, which was as good as usual. I have always said that only the Chinese can cook duck successfully and I am still of that view.  The Clansmen of late lamented memory could do it well but they are no more. It is a very fancy meal and surprisingly filling.  We took some of it home and Anne had it for breakfast next morning.

And on the second day Anne and I also had lunch together -- ham sandwiches in my "garden".  My garden consists of a stretch of failing lawn overshadowed by eight huge crepe myrtle trees.  They form a bower over the land which creates a rather nice arboreal environment.  We both had pickles on our ham sandwiches but Anne loves pickles so what she made for herself was more a pickle and ham sandwich.  There was a lot more pickle than ham on it.

And February is  rainy season in Brisbane so we knew that we were risking wet bottoms in taking our lunch into the garden.  But Anne wanted a picnic lunch so we did.  And, half way through our lunch the rain came down.  The crepe myrtles did however form something of a canopy over us so we didn't get too wet.  Neither of us were inclined to flee the rain.  We enjoyed it instead.  Sitting together on a stool while the rain came down on a leafy arbor seemed quite pleasant, in fact.

I was reminded of my childhood when an American "crooner" called Johnny Ray was fashionable.  The fact that I had a similar name was seen as amusing by many but it was all water off a duck's back to me.  I did however become aware that one of his "hit" songs was "Just a walking in the rain" and I have in fact never been much bothered by walking in the rain so I suppose nature imitated art (as Oscar Wilde often said).  More relevant however is the fact that I grew up in Innisfail, where they get around seven YARDS of rain per year.  Innisfail people can't afford to be bothered by rain.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Mystery object

When I was browsing in our local Japanese shop today, I noticed in their stock something that I did not understand at all.  It was a solid chromium steel bar, about a foot long and a quarter of an inch square.  I asked the sales clerk what it was but all I could elicit was that it had something to do with calligraphy.  So I bought it anyway.  The brand name on the packet said BUNGU and that does have something to do  with Japanese office supplies, I gather.  All the other writing was in Japanese however so what the object is I still do not know. I am hoping that someone will tell me what the characters in the pic below say.  The pic is of the packet that the bar came in.

Mystery solved. It is a Japanese calligraphy paperweight

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Will magnetic media create a black hole in the history of late 20th century creativity?

Apologies for that portentous heading but it does express a fear I have.  Let me explain.  Magnetic media came into their own during the late 20th century.  First there were open reel tape-recorders for sound; then there cassette tapes for sound; then there were floppy disks for computer software, including games; then there were VHS video recorders for a full audio-visual experience.  But all those are now obsolete.  They were an advance for their times but have now been superseded by DVDs etc.

None of that would be any great problem except for one thing:  Magnetic media degrade over time.  That was recently brought home to me when I got out one of my old VCRs and set it up to play some video tapes of two Mozart operas that had been recorded about a quarter of a century ago.  They were a professional production so should have been of good quality.  Unfortunately they were only good in parts, as the curate said.  At their best they reproduced about as well as a DVD but in other parts there was a lot of flicker, "snow" etc.  And it was not the player that was at fault.  More recent recordings were fine.

Yet the performances were good ones that deserved to be preserved. And, probably because they were great works by a very famous composer, they ARE now available on DVD (See here and here). But what of less famous works by less famous composers and performers? They must be on the brink of being lost forever. I think that is a great pity. Hopefully, all of the best of late 20th century creativity will be transferred to optical format before it is too late but I am pessimistic about most of it.

Interestingly, not all old audio-visual technology is so fragile.  Sound and vision recorded on movie film is pretty long lasting, as is music recorded on the old black vinyl LPs.

Hard disks are also of course magnetic media but disk failure is frequent enough for most people to keep backups of everything -- so data on them is less likely to be irretrievably lost. I back up my more recent files onto DVDs several times a year.