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When I was in my teens, and was supposed to be listening to various pop-groups whose names I can’t remember, I was fan of Stan Getz. Never heard of him? Or perhaps you have. Playing an Americanised version of South American music the faux-Samba hit of the season was Girl from Ipanema. You don’t have to be any sort of feminist to see the inherent stereotyping in this title, and you don’t even have to know the song. Like a diffused bomb, the eponymous woman was both made safe and endangered.

It was sung by Astrud Gilberto, wife of Jao (I know I’ve spelt that wrong, but am too lazy, and unconcerned to correct it,; and I know how easily you could, if you could be bothered) Gilberto, a guitarist and singer who collaborated (an interesting choice of word) with Getz, a tenor saxophonist. As a kid I had all the Getz albums on vinyl. I have a compilation on CD nowadays, but rarely listen to it. Gets, record sleeves told me, had initiated the venture, and Gilberto, He’s wife, had been drafted in to sing the song. I was happy to listen to whatever she sang, and in whichever of the languages she had available, for you did not need to know what the words meant to pick up the emotional freight that they were slipping across our borders. In fact it might be that, certainly with that most famous song, the tedious and trite lyrics are best left un-known, with only the sound to enjoy. After all, much opera is enjoyed that way, even in English so far as I can tell.

Getz played a soothing music in the main, which appealed to me then in the way that poetry always has: lyrical, suggestive, and valued as much for what it leaves out as what it puts in. That’s what as a writer I might call leaving something for the reader to do. I find the same quality in that Josephine Dickinson poem I wrote about only a short while ago. When you get us on the right emotional wavelength we tune in to our own hopes and fears and dreams, and fantasies.

There’s something else about Samba that didn’t come to me until years later though. It was when my daughter was at school in the early noughties and Samba Bands were what the trendy English kid did at school. I would never accuse my daughter of being trendy, by the way, but her school had one of those bands, which were, at the time, virtually ubiquitous.

In case you’ve never heard of them, because they sank without trace soon enough, in my experience, they would lend a Latino flavour to the most English (and Scottish) of local events. A phalanx of drummers, lead by a gruppenfuhrer with a whistle, would – and here I struggle for a verb…stomp seems not quite right – up the road, usually as part of a larger procession, beating out a complex rhythm, the shrill shriek of the whistle signalling the changes. The not quite part of it audience – and here another verb gives problems….shuffles is only the half of it – would accompany them, sheepishly, on the sidelines. It didn’t have the insistent fascist quality of other drum bands I’ve heard (along with pipes in Carlisle’s market square, exhorting us to hate someone), nor that of the little drummer boy from you know which old film.

Eventually the Samba band would take ground at the top of a hill or in a square and settle down to a virtuoso performance of its whistles and bangs. It was all rather heady, but benign.

How the hell, I wondered, did the kids learn though, such complicated rhythms? And here comes another link with poetry, or at least with language. My daughter gave me the secret. She was playing, she said Polly put the kettle on. From that old nursery rhyme! You can tap it out on the table. That’s all you need to know really. There’s nothing you can say, even nonsense, in this language, and for all I know, in any other, that couldn’t teach you some sort of drum solo, and no line of poetry you’ve ever read, or written, that can’t be tapped out that way…. whether or not it would be worth shuffling up a street alongside though, is a different matter….



Went to Keswick’s Theatre By The Lake last night to see Hymn To Love, a showcase for Edith Piaf’s songs, and an imagined glimpse into her life. Set in a hotel where she is rehearsing for a gig, Piaf is haunted by guilt over the death of her Boxer boyfriend Marcel Cerdan. She talks and sings, linking the songs to the remembered episodes of her life. It’s a gripping piece, played by Elizabeth Mansfield as Piaf. Patrick Bridgman is the pianist to whom she pours out her heart. What’s clever about this show is the way he allows her to speak, nudges her to continue, and shows that he has heard, but never pushes the audience to a particular response, or makes a judgement of his own on what we are hearing.

Disappointing was the fact that all the songs save one – and yes, that one, to translate which would end up, no doubt, as Faux Frank Sinatra – have been translated (albeit cleverly) into English. Translating songs is like translating poems I suspect: the meaning can approximated, but the music is often entirely lost – the music in the words, I mean. Disheartening, was to hear in the after-show discussion, that an earlier production had soon revealed the unwillingness/inability of an English audience to stand an evening of songs in French. Pity, I thought, that they chose to change the songs rather than the audience.  Last night’s audience, whatever their ‘identity’ seemed to share the disappointment, even those of us not fluent in French (and English).

Hymn To Love is on for another week or two, and then moves to York, and will be in London in the summer. Well worth seeing.


I went to the Colonsay Book Festival at the weekend, to lead a short workshop….It was great fun. Cumbrian writer Jake Polley was on the programme, and delivered a great reading! Among those I bumped into, but not on the programme, was the lyricist from Invictor. I’d not come across these guys before, but on the positively Mediteranean cruise back to Oban he gave me a couple of their CDs (I responded with a Kowalski!) Since then I’ve been playing them on the in-car player…  Haven’t laughed so much at a CD since Beasely Street (John Cooper Clarke)? Which wasn’t of course, a CD! But, it reminded me of that, which isn’t to say Invictor is copying anything….Check ’em out!


I have favorite pieces of film – a few seconds or minutes at most – from full length movies, that I can watch repeatedly. The attack on the Cong village from Apocalypse Now is one – and to be more specific, those few seconds (longer in the early version than in Redux I think) where the helicopters rise into the air to the sound of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. The barn-raising sequence in Witness is another.

A longer piece is the drive of Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins, through the early morning snow to their destinies in the film version of Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain. I can watch this clip, which opens the film and runs throughout the titles and credits, over and again and the hairs will still stand up on the back of my neck. I first saw film simply because this scene had hooked me unexpectedly in the act of turning off the TV after watching a programme I’d intended to watch.

A large part of the attraction, for all three, is the soundtrack music. In fact, in the case of The Human Stain, the clip could be a ‘video’ to the music, rather than the music a background to the movie. Not that the visual themselves aren’t gripping – the soft slipping of the vehicle over the snowy road; the baleful eyes of the headlamps; the faint glow of those headlamps’ beams on the surface of the snow; the bare trunks of the trees; the close-ups on the faces of Hopkins and Kidman.

Even without that first time surprise of finding out what happens, the scene is potent and haunting, it has that quality of ‘a certain surprisingness’ which C’S’Lewis tells us is why we can read and re-read a story – through whatever medium perhaps – without losing interest. Text, Music, Image, to borrow a title from Roland Barthes, all can provide us with such tropes.

The word itself is worth a glance. You’ll find it in Scholes’ Dictionary of Music (and probably on Wickipaedia too), where, in relation to liturgical texts and music, it’s described as ‘an intercalation of music or words’. More helpful, perhaps, is an explanation offered to me by the leader of a Gregorian Chant group. Tropes, he said, were small musical fillers put in, as one might put grace notes into a line of song. Scholes says they appeared in the 9th century, and were banned in the 15th. My friend suggested that in between they got a bit too big for themselves, as practioneers used them to show off their musical talents! The term is still used, musically, but now for a form of hymn, intended to stand alone.

You’ll find the word also in dictionaries of literary terms. The Penguin one pins it to the Greek word for ‘turn’, and for myself, that’s ‘turn’ as in party piece. Popular usage has it referring to sections of secular text that stand out from their surrounding stories. I can think of a few: Gerty McDowell showing her knickers to Leopold Bloom in James Joyces’ Ulysses springs to mind, but that often happens! In Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the backward running film of the bombing raid on Germany is one. So is the death of Simon, to my way of thinking, in Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

The death of Little Nell, the murder of Nancy, and the meeting of Pip with Magwich are among many from Dickens. They are the pieces he used to perfom on stage, sending tight corsetted Victorian Ladies gasping for their smelling salts, and stiff-upper lipped Victorian gentlemen for their handkerciefs. These are the sort of tropes that won for themselves the description of Purple Passages – sections from larger stories, famous for their heightened emotional content.

My examples are all from novels, and it might be said that novels are really archipelagoes of tropes in seas of tropelessness. Adopting another metaphor, tropes might be seen as the emnotional punches novels subject us to, and all the rest is the fancy footwork, the ducking and weaving, jabbing and probing, that goes on to set the writer up for throwing those punches, and to manouevre the reader into the most vulnerable position for receiving them.

Perhaps, we might argue, a difference between the novel and the short story, is that whereas the former may contain a series of tropes, the short story is built around one – a knockout blow delivered at the end.

In many cases, authors often ploughing the same furrow, or at least the same field, repeatedly, the trope might be seen as type of content, or a type of style that is in common use by that author – a way of doing things; a reason for doing them: a step away from that older meaning, but still, in some ways ‘a turn’. You might even say, that a trope is a flourish, a signature, a maker’s mark, the hallmark of an author at his trade.