Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler, the well-known American author of novels featuring the private detective Philip Marlowe, once described a character who “was wearing a hat that looked as if it had been taken from its mother too early“.

Another favourite quote:

“Tall, aren’t you?” she said.
“I didn’t mean to be.”
Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.


Erik Satie

I have recently been listening to music by Erik Satie, the guy in the picture to the left. Satie was a notorious prankster and leg-puller. He scattered his music manuscripts with strange directions to the performer and gave his pieces very odd titles like Préludes flasques (pour un chien) = “Flabby Preludes (for a dog)” and Trois morceaux en forme de poire = “Three bits in the form of a pear” — there are actually seven movements to this piece.

One of his better known works is a set of what he called Gnossiennes. There are six of them in all. The first three are written in so-called absolute time, meaning no time signature or bar lines are indicated. The word gnossienne appears to have been a Satie invention and no-one is quite sure what he meant. Some have speculated that it is connected to Gnosticism and indeed Satie in his younger days was involved with some strange Christian sects and even invented his own church, of which he was the head and sole member. Others reckon that there may be a connection with Knossos, the great Minoan palace on the island of Crete.

I can’t make up my mind how to pronounce gnossienne. [nɒsiˈen] is the obvious way to treat it in English. But what about French? The letter sequence <gn> in French usually represents [ɲ] – a voiced palatal nasal, as in ligne and agneau. My rather old French dictionary does not, as I expected, list the word, but of the handful of words beginning <gn> which it does list about half are shown with [ɲ] and the other half with [ɡn]. The former group seems to consist exclusively of slang words like gnangnan (term of abuse – “a drip”) and gnon (“a blow, a bash”) or borrowings from Italian like gnocchi. The latter group consists of learned words like gneiss, gnomique and gnosticisme. So my guess is that in French gnossienne should be [ɡnɔsjɛn]. Any native French speakers there?


A sample of Ormulum

Orm was an Anglo-Saxon monk, who probably lived and worked at Bourne Abbey in Lincolnshire in the 12th century. He has a fair claim to be the earliest English phonetician. He wrote a book called The Ormulum, a sample of which you can see above. It was a biblical exegesis in verse, with no great claim to originality or literary worth, but which has one extraordinary quality.

Orm lived at a time, less than 100 years after the Norman invasion of England, when English was at the beginning of the profound changes which would result in the Middle English of Chaucer. He also lived in a place where the influence of Norse on Old English was very strong. Apparently, Orm was disturbed by the inability of his fellows to pronounce English properly and so set about writing his book in such a way as to indicate, to the best of his ability, the pronunciation he thought was correct. This makes the book, together with the later Ancrene Wisse and the wonderfully named Ayenbite of Inwyt, an invaluable resource for scholars documenting the development of the language at this time.

One of the orthographic innovations to be found in Orm’s manuscript is the consistent use of double letters to indicate that the preceding vowel is short. As you can see in the extract, where possible, the letters were stacked one on top of the other. Orm also used various accents, acute, double acute and breve. These too had something to do with vowel length, though at the moment I’m not sure exactly what.

Another thing that Orm did was to distinguish between the different pronunciations of Old English <g>. For a voiced velar plosive [g] he used <g>, for the corresponding fricative [ɣ] he used <ȝʰ> for [j] he wrote <ȝ> and for the close front ending to a diphthong he used <ȝȝ>.

If you’re interested, you can find out more about Orm and his book at The Ormulum Project.

John Clare

John Clare
John Clare 1793 – 1864

I became interested in John Clare, I suppose, because I lived in Northamptonshire and that is where Clare was born — in the village of Helpstone (now Helpston) in the district known as the Soke of Peterborough in the north of the county. Helpston is now in fact just inside Cambridgeshire because of boundary changes.

Clare was the son of a farm labourer and became one himself while still a child. He received very little education and was later a potboy in a local pub and then a gardener at Burghley House. He taught himself to write poetry and had his first collection published as Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery in 1820. Further collections followed and Clare became celebrated in polite society as “The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”. However, he suffered from financial difficulties all his life and that, plus heavy drinking, began to have an effect on his mental stability and his behaviour became more and more erratic. On one occasion he even interrupted a performance of The Merchant of Venice to berate Shylock. In 1837 he went voluntarily to an asylum in Essex, where he apparently believed that he was, in turn, Lord Byron and then Shakespeare. In 1841 Clare walked back to Northamptonshire to meet his first love, Mary Joyce, being convinced that he was actually married to her. In fact, Mary had died in a house fire some years previously. Clare was committed to the Northamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum at the end of 1841 and remained there for the rest of his life.

Clare refused to conform to the increasingly standardised English of contemporary literature and used many idiosyncratic spellings and dialect words in his verse, most of which was concerned with the passing of the traditional rural way of life as industrialisation encroached. He was also capable of much more personal poetry as his most famous poem I am shows. This was written in 1844 or 1845, while Clare was in the asylum in Northampton. Here it is:

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am, and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest–that I loved the best–
Are strange–nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod,
A place where woman never smiled or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below–above the vaulted sky.

Clare’s cottage in Helpston has been restored to something what it was like in his day. It can be visited. There is more information here.

Paolo Conte

Paolo ConteConte is an Italian painter, lawyer, musician, singer, song-writer. He was born in Asti in the province of Piemonte in 1937.

Musically, he has been likened to the Belgian singer/song-writer Jacques Brel, but I think the resemblance is tenuous at best. PC is much more surreal and elusive than Brel.

One of his most puzzling songs is called Hemingway. This is has a haunting tune, carried mainly by a saxophone. It starts with a spoken introduction which goes:

Oltre le dolcezze di Harry’s Bar
E le tenerezze di Zanzibar
C’era questa strada
Oltre le illusioni di Timbuctù
E le gambe lunghe di Babalù
C’era questa strada
Questa strada zitta
Che vola via
Come una farfalla
O una nostalgia
Nostalgia al gusto di curaçao
Forse un giorno
Meglio mi spiegherò
Beyond the sweetnesses of Harry’s Bar
and the tendernesses of Zanzibar
There was this road
Beyond the illusions of Timbuctu
and the long legs of Babalu
There was this road
This silent road
That flies away
Like a butterfly
Or a nostalgia
Nostalgia tasting of curaçao
Maybe one day
I will explain myself better

There then follows the spoke phrase: Alors, Monsieur Hemingway, ça vaʔ, which in turn is followed by the weirdest section, consisting of PC speaking incomprehensibly with a kazoo in his mouth. Then the “song” ends with: Alors, Monsieur Hemingway, ça va mieux?. If anyone can tell me what that is all about, they will gain my profoundest gratitude.

My favourite Paolo Conte song is called Sparring Partner. Here are the lyrics to this. By the way, the translations are mine, and are pretty rough and ready.

È un macaco senza storia
Dice lei di lui
Che ɡli manca la memoria
In fondo ai guanti bui
Ma il suo sguardo è una veranda
E tempo al tempo lo vedrai
Che si addentra nella giungla
No, non incontrarlo mai.
He’s an ape without a history
She says of him
That he has lost his memory
In the depths of the dark gloves
But his look is a veranda
And from time to time you will see
That it goes out into the jungle
No, never go to meet it
Ho guardato in fondo al giuoco
Tutto qui…ma sai?
Son’ un vecchio sparring partner
E non ho visto mai
Una calma più tigrata
Più segreta di così
Prendi il primo pullman via
Tutto il resto è già poesia
I know the game well
Only here…but you know?
I’m an old sparring partner
And I have never seen
A calmness more tigerish
More secret than this
Take the first coach away
All the rest is just words
Avrà più di quarant’ anni
E certi applausi ormai
Son’ dovuti per amore
No, non incontrarlo mai
Stava lì nel suo sorriso
A guardar passare i tram
Vecchia pista da elefanti
Stesa sopra al macadam
It seems he’s more than forty
And some applause
Is owed because of love
No, don’t go to meet him
He was standing there smiling his smile
Watching the trams pass by
Old elephant track
Spread out across the tarmacadam

A mystifying, haunting song with equally haunting backing music. I would love to know the significance of the line shown in bold.