• ‘The Pianist’ (b. 5.12.1911) and his Red Bus

Thanks to an alert last night from a friend in Warsaw, I was reminded that today marks the centenary of the birth of Władysław Szpilman (1911-2000). Szpilman was well-known in Poland from the 1930s as a fine concert pianist and as a composer of concert music and popular songs, especially after World War II.  He recounted his extraordinary survival of the war in his memoir Śmierć Miasta (Death of a City).  The memoir was republished in English as The Pianist shortly before his death and turned into an award-winning, internationally popular film of the same title by Roman Polański (2002), with Adrien Brody playing the lead role.

I once sat behind the quiet, elderly Szpilman at a concert in Warsaw.  I regret not speaking to him.  Later, I wanted to reproduce the opening page of one of his songs – Jak młode Stare Miasto (Like The Young Old Town, 1951) – in my book Polish Music since Szymanowski (Cambridge, 2005).  But permission was refused by his family as they thought that some of his songs were not representative of his talents (and also perhaps because 1951 was the height of the socialist-realist push in the arts). Yet this hugely popular song had already been released on CD (‘Golden Hits of Socialism’ [!], Intersonus ISO84).  Such is the unpredictability of copyright permission.

In 2000, Polish Radio issued a 5-CD set of Szpilman’s performances and compositions (PRCD 241-245):

• CD 1: 19 songs (1952-91).
• CD 2: Szpilman as pianist – including in his own Concertino (1940), Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1954), Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major (1960) and two pieces by Chopin, including the Nocturne in C# minor (1980) with which he both closed Polish Radio broadcasts in 1939 and reopened them in 1945.
• CD 3: Szpilman as a member of the Warsaw Quintet – piano quintets by Brahms and Schumann (1963-65).
• CD 4: Szpilman with Bronisław Gimpel (who also led the Warsaw Quintet) – violin sonatas by Brahms (no.3), Grieg (no.3) and Franck (1958-65).
• CD 5: songs for children including three extended ‘musical fairytales’ (1962-75).

One of Szpilman’s most popular songs was Czerwony Autobus (The Red Bus, 1952).  The recording on CD 1 above is particularly fine, not least because of its sense of good humour, considerably aided by Szpilman’s own swinging piano.  Search it out if you can.  That recording was made by the best close-harmony male-voice quartet of the time, Chór Czejanda (Czejanda Choir).  They also made another, longer recording with dance orchestra.  In the YouTube video below (Legendy PRL: Legends of the Polish People’s Republic), this audio recording is accompanied by shots of Warsaw buses in various ‘picturesque’ locations of the post-war socialist capital.  I’ve put my translation of the first three verses below.  Enjoy!


When at dawn I run like a wind through the streets,
The city like a good friend welcomes me,
And – honestly – I wish you all such happiness
As every day gives me in Warsaw.

On board, please!  No-one will be late for work,
We will go quickly, even though we’re surrounded by a forest –
A forest of scaffolding, which really does mean
That here time does not stand still.

The red bus rushes along my city’s streets,
Passes the new, bright houses and the gardens’ cool shade.
Sometimes a girl will cast us a glance like a fiery flower.
Not only ‘Nowy Swiat’* is new – here each day is new.

* ‘New World’, a beautiful old street in Warsaw, reconstructed after the war.  It appears at 2’01” in the video above.

[For more information, go to http://www.szpilman.net/]

• Rain

Hiroshige Shōno - Hakuu/Shōno - Sudden Rain (1831-34)

Ochiba ochi
kazanarite ame
ame wo utsu 

Falling leaves fall,
pile up; rain
on rain, beats

Gyōdai (1732-93)

• John Clare’s ‘August’

John Clare’s The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827) is a constant source of delight.  His eye for detail and linguistic turns of phrase constantly surprise.  I’m very fond of this episode from ‘August’, where ‘the bawling boy’ goes stealing fruit under the cover of darkness.  As I frequently walk home at night, with unexpected animal and bird noises and looming shapes on all sides, I can identify with the boy’s alarm!

When day declines and labour meets repose
The bawling boy his evening journey goes
At toils unwearied call the first and last
He drives his horses to their nights repast
In dewey close or meadow to sojourn
And often ventures on his still return
Oer garden pales or orchard walls to hie
When sleeps safe key hath locked up dangers eye
All but the mastiff watching in the dark
Who snufts and knows him and forbears to bark
With fearful haste he climbs each loaded tree
And picks for prizes which the ripest be
Pears plumbs or filberts covered oer in leams
While the pale moon creeps high in peaceful dreams
And oer his harvest theft in jealous light
Fills empty shadows with the power to fright
And owlet screaming as it bounces nigh
That from some barn hole pops and hurries bye
Scard the cat upon her nightly watch
For rats that come for dew upon the thatch
He hears the noise and trembling to escape
While every object grows a dismal shape
Drops from the tree in fancys swiftest dread
By ghosts pursued and scampers home to bed
Quick tumbling oer the mossy mouldering wall
And looses half his booty in the fall
Where soon as ere the morning opes its eyes
The restless hogs will happen on the prize
And crump adown the mellow and the green
And makes all seem as nothing ne’er had been


• Trethevy Quoit

A little howse raised of mightie stones (John Norden, 1584)

The early morning sun drew me away from my study and out again for a good three-hour walk along the fringes of the moor.  Destination: Trethevy Quoit, near St Cleer, aiming to be back by 10.00 before the predicted heavy rain materialised.  Success on all accounts!  I’ve seen and marvelled at quoits in West Cornwall, particularly Zennor Quoit, near where the painters Bryan Wynter and Patrick Heron once lived and near where I had productive composing retreats in the 1980s.  But Trethevy Quoit is something else.

It’s massive.  It has crazy angles, a mysterious hole in the ‘roof‘ and a puzzling neolithic version of a cat-flap at the SE end.  Shame about the unlovely houses next door.  Even so, it’s spectacular.  Whatever you think of the claims for its solar alignment, potential for astronomical observation and other speculations about its intended structure and usage, it remains an awesome monument to ancient endeavour and societal honour.

And there are great views.  To the W: the tall tower of St Cleer parish church.  From the N to the E: engine-house chimneys and other evidence of the copper-mining boom of the mid-late 19th century.  Today, it’s quiet, apart from the excited twittering of a charm of goldfinches feasting on thistle seeds.  Back then, Trethevy Quoit must have seemed a bizarre, silent relic beyond which all hell was breaking loose.  No-one has quite caught the contrast between Trethevy Quoit and the South Caradon mine better than the author Wilkie Collins in this well-known passage from Rambles Beyond Railways: Notes in Cornwall Taken A-Foot (1851):

… about a mile and a half from St. Clare’s Well, we stopped to look at one of the most perfect and remarkable of ancient British monuments in Cornwall.  It is called Trevethey Stone, and consists of six large upright slabs of granite, overlaid by a seventh, which covers them in the form of a rude, slanting roof.  These slabs are so irregular in form as to look quite unhewn.  They all vary in size and thickness.  The whole structure rises to a height, probably, of fourteen feet; and, standing as it does on elevated ground, in a barren country, with no stones of a similar kind erected near it, presents an appearance of rugged grandeur and aboriginal simplicity, which renders it an impressive, almost startling object to look on.  Antiquaries have discovered that its name signifies The Place of Graves; and have discovered no more.  No inscription appears on it; the date of its erection is lost in the darkest of the dark periods of English history.

Our path had been gradually rising all the way from St. Clare’s Well; and, when we left Trevethey Stone, we still continued to ascend, proceeding along the tram-way leading to the Caraton Mine.  Soon the scene presented another abrupt and extraordinary change.  We had been walking hitherto amid almost invariable silence and solitude; but now, with each succeeding minute, strange, mingled, unintermitting noises began to grow louder and louder around us.  We followed a sharp curve in the tram-way, and immediately found ourselves saluted by an entirely new prospect, and surrounded by an utterly bewildering noise.  All about us monstrous wheels were turning slowly; machinery was clanking and groaning in the hoarsest discords; invisible waters were pouring onwards with a rushing sound; high above our heads, on skeleton platforms, iron chairs clattered fast and fiercely over iron pulleys, and huge steam pumps puffed and gasped, and slowly raised and depressed their heavy black beams of wood.  Far beneath the embankment on which we stood, men, women, and children were breaking and washing ore in a perfect marsh of copper-coloured mud and copper-coloured water.  We had penetrated to the very centre of the noise, the bustle, and the population on the surface of a great mine.

Here’s a more recent response to the ‘startling object’.  It’s by Charles Causley, born this day in 1917, in his poem ‘Trethevy Quoit’ (Field of Vision, 1988):

Sea to the north, the south.
At the moor’s crown
Thin field, hard-won, turns on
The puzzle of stones.
Lying in dreamtime here
Knees dragged to chin,
With dagger, food and drink –
Who was that one?

None shall know, says bully blackbird.

Field threaded with flowers
Cools in lost sun.
Under furze bank, yarrow
Sinks the drowned mine.
By spoil dump and bothy
Down the moor spine
Hear long-vanished voices
Falling again.

Now they are all gone, says bully blackbird.
All gone.

Hedgebirds loose on wild air
Their dole of song.
From churchtown the tractor
Stammers.  Is dumb.
In the wilderness house
Of granite, thorn,
Ask where are those who came.
Ask why we come.

Home, says bully blackbird.
Where is home? 

• On Three Interactions

Tout lieu retiré requiert un promenoir.  Mes pensées dorment si je les assis.

Having spent three glorious days out walking with family, it’s time to get back to my books.  But, as Montaigne discoursed, there’s no point in sitting immured with books if you don’t give yourself and your reflections some exercise (perhaps an argument for the iPad over the desktop …).  The books will still be there when you get back.  So today it’ll be a good few hours of study and writing, interlaced with a bit of (Voltaire’s) tending to the garden, while the rain stays off.

The following excerpts come from the final third of Montaigne’s essay (Book III, no. 3) ‘De Trois Commerces’, which I have translated as ‘On Three Interactions’.  The title is a little unclear in English, so other translations include ‘Of Three Commerces or Societies’ (Florio, 1603), ‘On Three Kinds of Relationships’ (Cohen, 1958) and ‘On Three Kinds of Social Intercourse’ (Screech, 1991).

Ces deux commerces sont fortuits, et dépendants d’autrui : L’un est ennuyeux par sa rareté, L’autre se flétrit avec l’âge : Ainsi ils n’eussent pas assez pourvu au besoin de ma vie.  Celui des livres, qui est la troisième, est bien plus sûr et plus à nous.  Il cède aux premiers les autres avantages, Mais il a pour sa part la constance et facilité de son service : Cettui-ci côtoie tout mon cours, et m’assiste partout.  Il me console en la vieillesse et en la solitude.  Il me décharge du poids d’une oisiveté ennuyeuse : Et me défait à toute heure, des compagnies, qui me fâchent.  Il émousse les pointures de la douleur, si elle n’est du tout extrême et maîtresse : Pour me distraire d’une imagination importune, il n’est que de recourir des livres, Ils me détournent facilement à eux, et me dérobent : Et si ne se mutinent point, pour voir que je ne les recherche, qu’au défaut de ces autres commodités, plus réelles, vives et naturelles.  Ils me reçoivent toujours de même visage.

These two interactions [(male) friendship and with beautiful and honourable women] are fortuitous and depend on others.  One is tiresome for its rarity, the other withers with age, so they have not adequately provided for the wants of my life.  [The interaction with] books, which is the third, is more certain and more our own.  It cedes other advantages to the first two, but for its part it has constancy and an easiness in its service: this [interaction] has been at my side all along my way and assists me everywhere.  It consoles me in old age and solitude.  It unburdens me of the weight of tiresome idleness: it releases me at any time from offensive company.  It takes the edge off the pangs of grief if it is not too extreme or masterful.  To distract me from an unwelcome thought, I only have to resort to books.  They easily divert me towards them and rescue me.  And yet they do not mutiny when they see that I reach for them only in the absence of other comforts that are more real, alive and natural.  They welcome me always with the same face.


… Chez moi, je me détourne un peu plus souvent à ma librairie, … Elle est au troisième étage d’une tour.  … Tout lieu retiré requiert un promenoir.  Mes pensées dorment si je les assis.  Mon esprit ne va si les jambes ne l’agitent.  … La figure en est ronde et n’a de plat que ce qu’il faut à ma table et à mon siège, et vient m’offrant en se courbant, d’une vue, tous mes livres, rangés à cinq degrés tout à l’environ.  Elle a trois vues de riche et libre prospect, et seize pas de vide en diamètre.

… At home, I repair a little more often to my library, … It is on the third floor of a tower.  … Every place of retreat requires somewhere to walk.  My thoughts sleep if I sit them down.  My mind does not work if my legs don’t jog it.  … The shape [of the library] is round and has no straight wall except what is necessary for my table and my chair, and in curving round it offers me, in one glance, all my books, arranged on five shelves all about me.  It has three handsome and open views and is sixteen clear paces in diameter.


… Les livres ont beaucoup de qualités agréables, à ceux qui les savent choisir.  Mais aucun bien sans peine : C’est un plaisir qui n’est pas net et pur, non plus que les autres.  Il a ses incommodités, et bien pesantes : L’âme s’y exerce, Mais le corps, duquel je n’ai plus oublié le soin, demeure cependant sans action, s’atterre et s’attriste.  Je ne sache excès plus dommageable pour moi, ni plus à éviter, en cette déclinaison d’âge.

… Books have many agreeable qualities, for those who know how to choose them.  But there is no gain without pain: [reading] is a pleasure which is not clean and pure, no more than any other.  It has its inconveniences, and heavy ones too: the soul is exercised, but the body, of which I have not forgotten to take care, meanwhile remains inactive, becomes stupefied and sad.  I know no excess that is more harmful to myself or more to be avoided in these declining years.

• This Turning Tree

For some reason, a poem by Charles Causley sprang to mind today.  He lived less than ten miles from where I do now, but he died in 2003, before I moved back to Cornwall.  A good few years ago, I composed a song on his verse, this turning tree, and the MS is still languishing somewhere in a trunk of like-fated pieces!  I was taken by its subject matter – the death of a sailor – not least because one of my great-great-grandfathers, a master mariner and captain of a ship that sailed out of St Ives to and from the Mediterranean and Black Sea, died on a voyage off Salonika.  More particularly, I was captivated by Causley’s gnarled language and terse syntax.

Grave by the Sea

By the crunching, Cornish sea
Walk the man and walk the lover,
Innocent as fish that fare
In the high and hooking air,
And their deaths discover.

Beneath, you said, this turning tree,
With granite eye and stare of sand,
His heart as candid as the clay,
A seaman from the stropping bay
Took to the land.

Once this calmed, crystal hand was free
And rang the changes of the heart:
Love, like his life, a world wherein
The white-worm sin wandered not in.
Death played no part.

Wreathed, and with ringing fingers he
Passed like a prince upon the day
And from its four and twenty towers
Shot with his shaft the haggard hours,
Hauled them away.

So he set from the shaken quay
His foot upon the ocean floor
And from the wanting water’s teeth
The ice-faced gods above, beneath,
Spat him ashore.

Now in the speaking of the sea
He waits under this written stone,
And kneeling at his freezing frame
I scrub my eyes to see his name

And read my own.

• On Idleness

In preparing my study on Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto, I’ve been reading some of the books which he read and for which he expressed admiration.  Lutosławski was well versed in philosophy and one of his favourite authors was Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), whose Essais were on his reading list.  Montaigne has been a new and absorbing adventure for me.  Some of his essays have struck a special chord, partly because I recently chose to follow Montaigne’s path (‘Dernièrement que je me retirai chez moi’) and partly because they resonate down the centuries, not least with regard to Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto.  Here’s a wonderfully expressed account of how the mind, if left untended, can develop a mind of its own.  It’s an excerpt from Book I, no. 8, ‘On Idleness’.

It’s translated by John Florio, whose vivid if sometimes, by today’s standards, impressionistic English-language version appeared in 1603, just eleven years after Montaigne’s death.  More recent translations include those by Charles Cotton (1877), J. M. Cohen (1958) and M. A. Screech (1991).

… Dernièrement que je me retirai chez moi, délibéré autant que je pourrai, ne me mêler d’autre chose, que de passer en repos, et à part, ce peu qui me reste de vie : il me semblait ne pouvoir faire plus grande faveur à mon esprit, que de le laisser en pleine oisiveté, s’entretenir soi-même, et s’arrêter et rasseoir en soi : Ce que j’espérais qu’il peut meshuy faire plus aisément, devenu avec le temps, plus pesant, et plus mûr : Mais je trouve, variam semper dant otia mentem, que au rebours, faisant le cheval échappé, il se donne cent fois plus d’affaire à soi-même, qu’il n’en prenait pour autrui : Et m’enfante tant de chimères et monstres fantasques les uns sur les autres, sans ordre, et sans propos, que pour en contempler à mon aise l’ineptie et l’étrangeté, j’ai commencé de les mettre en rôle : Espérant avec le temps, lui en faire honte à lui-même.

Of Idlenesse

… It is not long since I retired my selfe unto mine owne house, with full purpose, as much as lay in me, not to trouble my selfe with any businesse, but solitarily and quietly to weare out the remainder of my well-nigh-spent life : where me thought I could doe my spirit no greater favour, than to give him the full scope of idlenesse, and entertaine him as he best pleased, and withall, to settle him-selfe as he best liked : which I hoped he might now, being by time become more setled and ripe, accomplish very easily : but I finde, Evermore idlenesse doth wavering minds addresse (Lucan, iv. 704).  That contrariwise playing the skittish and loose-broken jade, he takes a hundred times more cariere and libertie unto himselfe, than hee did for others, and begets in me so many extravagant Chimeræs, and fantasticall monsters, so orderlesse, and without any reason, one hudling upon an other, that at leisure to view the foolishnesse and monstrous strangenesse of them, I have begun to keepe a register of them, hoping, if I live, one day to make him ashamed, and blush at himselfe.

• Words

Whenever I find myself in need of a good dictionary – and this happens all too often – I remember that one of my favourite poets, Edward Thomas (1878-1917), wrote a poem with such a spring in its step that it never fails to remind me that sometimes I should let the right word instead ‘choose me’, as Thomas memorably puts it.  So here are the final eight lines of Words (1915), briefer than brief, but more eloquent than many a long verse:

Let me sometimes dance
With you,
Or climb
Or stand perchance
In ecstasy,
Fixed and free
In a rhyme,
Like poets do.

After my current writing project I’m going to sequester myself with two books by and about Thomas that I’ve been really looking forward to reading: Thomas’s account of his journey through the English countryside in The South Country (1909, republished 2009) and Matthew Hollis’s just-released biography of Thomas’s last years, Now All Roads Lead to France.  By all accounts, Hollis brings his poet’s insight and a penetrating eye to this extraordinarily raw episode in English literature.

Paul Nash: Ruined Country (1918)

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