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NEWS AT A GLANCE

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The average salary of professors at Dublin University is £530.

The Nelson Evening Mail, March 14 1907
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Wherever there is a fire that ravages everything in its path, the protea is the first thing to regenerate.

Clive James once voluntarily interviewed the Spice Girls.

Manchester has become ‘Womanchester’.

Cineworld has landed in Weston-super-Mare.

The ‘little people’ have been missing out on the opportunity to turn $250 into a retirement fortune.

Literally no-one knows how household heating works.

They do not, in fact, drink Um Bongo in the Congo. (It’s mostly Coca-Cola out there.)

Bowls commentators call contestants by their first names.

There’s a way to say ‘Sir’ that denotes a deep contempt.

Since becoming President, Donald Trump has been sued over 130 times.

It is impossible to be Oscar Wilde.

Elon Musk, tech entrepreneur, designer, billionaire, and astronaut, is most inspired by Kanye West.

There are currently few patisserie chefs in need of work.
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Tripping hither, tripping thither

When I went to the bar as a very young man, it was often enough in the company of the Oxford University Gilbert & Sullivan Society.

My relationship with G&S had started early, specifically the argument in Three Men in a Boat over which song Harris is trying to sing (I remain confused to this day). Block-booked family cheap-seats at the ENO fed this enthusiasm through my adolescence, until at secondary school I played the part of Nanki Poo in a local girls’ concert performance of The Mikado (fitting punishment for any teenager who think he’s an heroic tenor). During my A Levels, I sang ‘He who shies’ from Iolanthe with two fellow 6th-formers – at which point I realised I was not a tenor and made us all swap roles before we went on stage.

At Oxford, I found the collegiate choral life a little stultifying, and a turn as Florian in Princess Ida provided one way out.

They were a weird and wonderful bunch, the G&S Society – from the otherworldly to the decidedly worldly. A dapper junior law lecturer rubbed shoulders with a chap who worked behind the counter at the local Barclays. Young ladies with evident social prospects duetted with slightly-less-young ladies on 10-year PhD courses. The Fellow of All Souls who’d performed with the Kazakh National Opera (or somesuch) could routinely be found wolfing down a fry-up in St Giles beside the first-year undergrad who’d turned up once for Cox & Box to turn the pages, in a yellow tracksuit.

Sometimes there was even the odd (‘Tzing! Boom!’) musician.

The OUGSS get through about three shows a year, and so it was with many of these fine folks I found myself performing Iolanthe at the Holywell Music Room, in Michaelmas (that’s autumn) term, 2002.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s fourth consecutive smash hit, premiered simultaneously in the UK and the US in 1882 (the first new show to do this, in an effort to prevent piracy), was also the first production to open at D’Oyly Carte’s purpose-built Savoy Theatre, and the first therefore to be lit entirely by electric lighting.

In every other respect, though, it was a formulaic G&S gig. Iolanthe is a fairy banished from Fairyland for marrying a mortal. She has a son, Strephon – ‘an Arcadian shepherd’ – who is in love with Phyllis, which would be fine except that a) he’s a bit of a fairy himself, and b) Phyllis is a Ward of Chancery, and not only the Lord Chancellor but also every other member of the House of Lords had been rather hoping to marry her himself. Still, everything is going swimmingly until young Strephon is caught embracing his suspiciously attractive mother who, for reasons too theologically complicated to go into here, is eight years younger than him (‘Oh, fie! Our Strephon is a rogue!’). The fairies go to war against the upper house, returning Strephon to Parliament ‘carrying every bill he may wish’ and opening the peerage to – gasp! – ‘competitive examination.’

I was cast as George, Earl of Mountararat (Wikipedia: ‘See also: “Mount Ararat” and “Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act 1907”’), a peer who barely has a line before the second act. (Wikipedia also has the Lord Chancellor down as ‘comic baritone’, where Mountararat is staunchly ‘baritone’. Hear, hear.)

I remember learning my lines in a single late-night bus trip back from London – almost successfully. But that’s about the only thing I do remember. This was a ‘busy’ time for me (‘Faint heart never won fair lady,’ and all that). The flyer in my copy says we did a night in Bletchingdon Church. Well, I suppose it must have happened.

But I do know G&S is not as easy to pull off as one might think. Gilbert’s trademark (and bestselling) socio-political satire – ‘If you ask us distinctly to say / What Party we claim to belong to, / We reply, without doubt or delay, / The Party we’re singing this song to!’ – and panto ribaldry – ‘I heard the minx remark / she’d meet him after dark / inside St James’s Park / and give him one!’ – are often finely balanced. Sullivan’s music, meanwhile, treads a thin line between pastiche (of Wagner, e.g.) and a desperate desire to be taken seriously. (He was going to break it off with Gilbert after Iolanthe, until his finances went down the drain.)

The sorry-not-sorry paeans to duty (as was pointed out in an early West Wing episode, “they’re all about dooty”) and the mock-ponderous ‘Blue blood’ and guardsman’s songs are tricky to get right when you’re a callow 20-something. We laughed too easily at ‘vulgar plebs’ and roared ‘Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!’ more than was entirely genteel. And while the call-and-response ‘One Latin word, one Greek remark, / And one that’s French!’ is audaciously witty and self-deprecating, I always thought ‘as the ancient Romans said, festina lente’ was just plain bad – at least until I heard of Jacob Rees-Mogg. A lot of Iolanthe now seems glumly prescient for our bull-headed times. ‘When Britain really ruled the waves’ is the perfect piss-take Brexit anthem.

I came back hard in my (positively) finals term, as a snarling Lord High Executioner. And then, of course, we went our ways. The law, academia, journalism, post-modernist French clown school. Phyllis is now a high-flying mathematical analyst. Lord Tolloller experiments with ketamine, while working on a novel about rescue donkeys. Private Willis, the embodiment of stolid manly virtue, is now called Sally.

Another alumna spent the Saturday before last assuring teenagers at a schools’ workshop that ENO had not concocted most of the entendres in their new production. True, director Cal McCrystal has missed no opportunity for smut; but nothing could (or need!) be dirtier than these two lines from the original: ‘Why did five-and-twenty Liberal peers come down to shoot over your grass-plot last autumn? … Why did five-and-twenty Conservative peers come down to fish in your pond?’ As undergraduates, we gave these full attention.

G&S is not admitted as the peak of anybody’s musical ambition, and my G. Schirmer scores have lain untouched for 15 years. Flipping through them now, though, I find with pleased relief that I still chuckle at the cheek of the librettos, and my feet tap ingenuously through the finales.


For The Oldie, in a different version

NEWS AT A GLANCE

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A blind chameleon cannot change its colour.

The Nelson Evening Mail, July 17 1908
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Nobody ever thinks they’re stupid.

All homes bear ethnic odours.

Some bags look the same.

There’s no point putting shackles on Quinton de Kock.

You don’t get many Mini Eggs for a pound no more.

The UK is leaving the European Union.

There is a place called ‘Yarm’.

This generation of alpacas are certainly at home in the Amber Valley.

Bruno Mars is auditioning for the role of Michael Jackson.

The word ‘mortgage’ comes from the French for ‘death pledge’.

If you spit blood you may have gum disease.

Canada keeps maple syrup in its global strategic reserves. It costs 30 times the price of oil.

Extreme weather conditions may extend response time.
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I heard, this morning, in the nursing home…

‘Struggling every day in scorching heat.

Staggering under the burden
of more than he should carry.

The heavy load cruelly rubs his back
until it’s raw and bleeding.

He has sores on his legs, too,
so that every step is agony.

He’s desperately thirsty,
and oh so very, very tired.

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This is his life until the day he dies –
unless someone, somewhere, is willing to help him.

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Will you help ease his pain…?’

An irony

South Africa is not on Zulu Time.

NEWS AT A GLANCE

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A tax of 6d per head is levied on all passengers landed at the Isle of Man.

The Nelson Evening Mail, September 27 1906
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While still a teenager, James Crichton challenged professors at the Collège de Navarre to interrogate him on the liberal arts and science, in Arabic, Dutch, English, French, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Slavonic, Spanish, and/or Syriac.

At Volkswagen if you want a pen you need three signatures.

Australians spend as much as $25,000 on their honeymoons.

Even rough miners love manners.

Neurons don’t take aeroplanes early in the morning.

So many people have now owned the internet that shares are worthless.

Hanne ‘Kim’ Norgaard is Idris Elba’s ex-wife.

Faint heart never won fair lady.

60% of all humans who’ve ever lived are still alive.

What the world cares about is maintaining a reasonable semblance of order.

Venetia Bridges and Naveen Fernando had birthdays yesterday.

In Indonesia it is OK to eat cat; but it is not OK to eat your neighbours.

It’s snowing.
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He drinks a whiskey almost every night

He drinks a whiskey almost every night.

He says:
“It gives me dreams,
but keeps me reg’lar.”

NEWS AT A GLANCE

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In China the dials of a clock turn round instead of the hands.

The Nelson Evening Mail, September 8 1908
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Benedict Cumberbatch reads Oryx magazine.

A piece of pasta (dry) weighs essentially one gram.

A man can only care about so many things.

Labels are for clothes.

In Bosnian there are no words for fiction and non-fiction.

The eating of grapes has killed several Englishmen by throwing them into fluxes and fevers.

Allah does not like hearing the word ‘Allah’.

The shooting schedules in pornography are quite brisk.

Darryl Gerrity loves people, perhaps too much.

Washing machines live longer with cows on.

It’s all kicking off in Jamestown. 

Russian composer Dmitri Kabalevsky died on this day in 1987.

Two childhood friends in Honolulu have recently found out that they are brothers.
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On ranting

If there’s one thing I just can’t abide, it’s ranters.

Not the C17th religious nonconformists. Folk who can’t shut up about things.

You know the type. The workplace philosophers; the shouters at the TV; people in whose eyes you see the glint of socialist dictatorship.

They come in every walk of life. Stupid boxers (*tautology klaxon*), old men in pubs, Daily Mail columnists, every comedian who ever hosted an awards night, back-bench Labour MPs, the current president (plus phone) of the United States, Basil F***ing Fawlty.

It’s the humourlessness that really does for them. The veering crazily from ‘point’ to ‘point’. “Do you know what I mean?” they’re always asking. Alas, we always do.

Of course, a lot of ranters are successful enough to get away with it.

Doctor Johnson, one suspects, was probably a dreadful ranter. John McEnroe, obviously. Jeremy Clarkson. Will Self. Naomi Campbell. Mel Gibson. Sir Alex Ferguson was given a knighthood for services to ranting. And then there’s Geoffrey Boycott.

For every Charlie Sheen, mind, there is a Michael Richards.

Still, famous people we can usually switch off. Everyday ranters, though – real live people, whom you might find yourself stuck in a lift with – well, they’re entirely unspeakable. A quite close friend of mine goes apoplectic if he sees a button out of place in military dramas. I’ve had to institute a swear-jar system.

It’s just not really British, is it? (“I’ll rant as well at thou,” quoth Hamlet. But he was from Denmark.) Our all-time-favourite ranting stories end in tumbleweed, embarrassment, and Downfall bunker parodies on YouTube.

Another friend’s somewhat brigadierial granddad once had a long and testy conversation with (e.g.) the British Rail Customer Services Hotline, concluding, “I mean, for God’s sake, man, this is Britain, not bloody Bangalore!?’ The plaintive and predictable reply: “No sir: this is Bangalore.”

As any Oldie worth his salt will vouch, life’s too short, one mustn’t grumble, and almost nothing’s that important, really. My father – curse him – has a good line when he thinks I’m getting exercised o’er trivia: “Is this going to form a chapter in your memoirs?” That tends to do the trick.


For The Oldie

Fun run

Or; how to raise money for charity and feel bad doing it.


For The Oldie