Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Beautiful and Immovable Forever: Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011)

The recent passing of Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011 ) at the age of 96 has produced a florescence of memories, tributes and obituaries. His passing has led many back to his writings, myself included.

Words of Mercury (John Murray, 2003), a selection of PLF's writings edited by Artemis Cooper is an excellent book to reacquaint oneself with his writings, and it will be a fine companion to her anticipated biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor. This selection reproduces choice excerpts from his published works as well as a selection of his pieces written for magazines and journals. There is a short essay he wrote for Architectural Digest (August 1986), Sash Windows Opening on the Foam, which is a detailed and fascinating look at his home in Greece, a home he designed and helped build. The essay tellingly opens with a reference to books--for though he was a man of action, he was also most definitely a man of the book: a scholar, a gentleman, and an adventurer. The essay also opens with a reference to his dining table, a place of convivial discussion:

Where a man's Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is, there shall his heart be also; and of course, Lempriere, Fowler, Brewer, Liddell and Scott, Dr. Smith, Harrap and Larousse and a battery of atlases, bibles, concordances, Loeb classics, Pleiade editions, Oxford Companions and Cambridge histories; anthologies and books on painting, sculpture, architecture, birds, beasts, fishes, trees and stars; for if one is settling in the wilds, a dozen reference shelves is the minimum; and they must be near the dinner table where arguments spring up which have to be settled then or never. This being so, two roles for the chief room in a still unbuilt house were clear from the start.

The large living room and dining room are surrounded by bookshelves and windows and he describes his convenient device to reach the smaller volumes on the upper shelves:

The bookcases with no divan in front rise nine feet from the floor and we have discovered a brilliant way of reaching the upper shelves without steps: an elephant pole of brass bound teak made by the Hong Kong Chinese to help minor rajahs to climb into their howdahs: it splits down the middle and half the pole drops away parallel with a heartening bang like grounded arms; the rungs, slotted and hinged in hidden grooves, fall horizontal and up one goes.

Such Victorian pole ladders are not uncommon but certainly pricey these days, running into the thousands of dollars at auction houses. Patrick Leigh Fermor's dinner table, however, was unique:

A visiting friend unsettlingly hinted that a Victorian mahogany dining-table was not up to the rest; so, years later, we ruinously exorcized this complex with an inlaid marble table made by Dame Freya Stark's marmorista in Venice. Based on a tondo in the chancel of S. Anastasio in Mantua, flames of Udine stone radiate from the centre of the design of subtle grey carsico rosso di Verona. When it arrived, lugging the triple plinth of Istrian stone down from the road and then trundling the heavy circular top through the trees was as bad as the earlier struggles with the lintel. But the friend was right. Here it was, beautiful and immovable forever, and when set down with glasses and candles, it turns the humblest meal--even oil and lentils--into a feast.

A very recent blog by a writer who was living in Greece and visited the author at his home, provided photographs of his bookshelves, his dinner table, and Patrick Leigh Fermor and his guests. It seems the post has quite disappeared, perhaps due to the personal nature of the photographs. The shelves were interesting to peruse from afar, however, many works of Freya Stark, Norman Douglas, Winston Churchill, Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley among others. Heavy old volumes, bereft of dustwrappers, slightly shabby, well read, well thumbed. A working library. There is still a photograph of his dinner table and I hesitate to post it, but it has so much charm. His home must be imbued with his spirit, a spirit that will also live on in his extraordinary and vivid prose.

The latest on all things Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

A Little Flutter, or, a Montreal tavern, a race track, U2, and the Patagonian Groo Groo

Part 1
“March, my muse! If you cannot fly, yet flutter.” - Byron, Don Juan xv, xxvii 1824.

When U2's 360 Tour rolls into Montreal's disused Hippodrome in July, bringing their wonderful mindful, emotional, multi-textured (from intimate to interstellar) musical soundscape experience, perhaps the ghostly remnant energies of so many countless horse races ever spinning like some enormous invisible ourbouros, tail in mouth, will add to the heightened sense of energy, time and space as the fans surround the enormous stage which may well appear to have descended from above and beyond like some massive intergalatic spaceship.

It is unlikely, however, that latent histories of this island city would be entertained by the many fans as the musical events play out, but perhaps the musicians upon the stage might, in a rare moment of timeless calm, catch a glimpse of reflections on water in the distant south west (if such reflections can be seen from such a location upon such a stage) and think of how over 400 years ago, the great explorer Samuel de Champlain travelled with the First Nations inhabitants past the rapids of the St. Lawrence and viewed the open expanse of Lake St. Louis, and naturally thought that he had reached the passage to China, thereby calling the location, La Chine, or the Lachine Montrealers know. It was there that Champlain created a fur trading post, perhaps the most important of the three, the others being at Tadoussac and Quebec city.

I think of this rather significant moment because the Hippodrome was originally called Blue Bonnets and this name is tied into that historic riverscape close to the present
municipality of Lachine.

“I used to flutter the ribbands of the London Croydon and South Coast Coach.” -Eton School Days, i, 11. 1864.

Back before the railroads linked the centre of Montreal to the outlying region of Lachine, there were stage coaches, caleches and other horse-powered vehicles carrying both mail and passengers to the steam boats at the Lachine docks. These stage coaches left from McGill street near St. Maurice Street, and travelled to the dock at Lachine with a number of watering stops along the way such as Deschamps, a stage house near the tanneries, and further on, a tavern known as Blue Bonnets in an old area once known as Cote St. Pierre named after the river that once ran from its origins in present day Hampstead and Cote St. Luc, down towards Ville St. Pierre and eastwards along the Lachine Canal before flowing out into the St. Lawrence at old Montreal's Pointe à Callière.

“Down the rock the shallow water falls,/ fluttering through the stones in feeble whimpering brawls.” -John Clare, Village Minster, 1821.

The river is still flowing underground but a remnant does reveal itself above ground in the old Wentworth and later named Meadowbrook golf course, a golf course I have fond memories of playing—especially that short par 3 on the hill (number 7 I think) so pretty, and so much easier to play for a complete duffer like myself. I never knew that the small picturesque stream I crossed on the way to another green or fairway was the part of the last visible remains of the historic river St. Pierre. It was, and hopefully still is, a lovely spot and I hear small red fox can be seen from time to time, fox who are fairly tame and approachable as this recent video attests. How long such a scarce piece of wooded green will be left alone I can only wonder. The original Wentworth golf course was much larger and was a part of the Canadian Pacific Railroad Recreational Club for its employees. With time, however, the railyards expanded and expanded taking up more and more land. Much of the land that used to be part of the original Wentworth golf course is now a vast space for parking new cars, a sparkling reflective field of glass and steel.

“A fluttered hope his accents shook / A fluttered joy was in his look.” -Sir Walter Scott, Rokeby iv, xxix.

The story concerning the name Blue Bonnets seems to be that a Scottish soldier named Alexander “Sandy” McRae from one of the Scotch Regiments in Montreal, opened a tavern named Blue Bonnets in the Cote St. Pierre area in the early 1840s, with a large signboard featuring a Scot in full regalia and blue bonnet. The name became a byword for the area as well.

When the Grand Trunk Railway was laid from downtown Montreal to the docks at Lachine, the railway replaced the horse as the major means of transport, and so the stage coaches fell into disuse as did the watering holes. When a racetrack opened in the year 1872 just to the north of this area, now part of Montreal West, it was named Blue Bonnets, so the name of Sandy McRae's establishment was reborn and lived on.

The land at that time was divided into long stips of farm land and much of it was owned by the Decarie family (often written 'Decary' as on the Hopkins' Atlas of Montreal for 1879). The strip of land on which the Blue Bonnets race track lay, belonged to Joseph Decarie. If you stood at the juncture of Sherbrooke Street West and Westminister North, near the CPR railway tracts, you could look north west and envisage where the race track used to be.

When the Canadian Pacific Railroad laid their line down westwards in 1886, it passed just south of the Blue Bonnets raceway, and once again the advancement of technology, transportation and urban development seemed to keep pushing the origins and spirit of the Blue Bonnets further afield. The race course moved to its present location near Decarie Boulevard and Paré in 1907, and was inaugurated on June 14, 1907 and once again the name Blue Bonnets lived on, at least until 1991 when it was renamed the Hippodrome. The race track went into bankruptcy and has been in disuse since the autumn of 2009.

Print  Blue Bonnets Race Track, Montreal, QC, about 1910  MP-0000.873.2
Image of Blue Bonnets c. 1910 from the McCord Museum Notman Archives. Mount Royal can be seen in the distance.

When the U2 360 Tour has come and gone, and their beautiful and energizing music lingers on in the atmosphere and in the souls of those who attended, the ultimate fate of the large tract of land upon which their concert took place remains in question. It appears a mix of residential and commercial development has been suggested. It would be a fine municipal gesture to honour the old spirit of Blue Bonnets and keep the name alive in a street name or a park. I think it warrants at least some civic consideration. Perhaps a nod to U2 would also be considered. Place U2. U2 Boulevard. Rue U2. But perhaps a round park would be more appropriate, with a fountain in the middle, Parc U2. That would have a nice feel.

Part 2

"They do not beat at all, like imperfect consonances, but only flutter, at a slower or quicker rate according to the pitch of the sounds." -Robert Smith, Harmonics, 1759.

This brings me full circle to what I originally had meant to write about: the assumptions of the reading eye.

For years I have had a book I picked up at the old Fraser-Hickson Library in Montreal. A book that has travelled with me but I have never read: A Little Flutter (London: Cassell, 1932, orig. 1930) by Ernest Bramah. It doesn't have a description on the dustwrapper and no blurbs are to be found, only lists of their 2/6 reprints, romance and adventure novels for the most part by many a forgotten name. The only clue to its subject matter would be the title, and the illustration on the front panel of the dustwrapper. For years I looked at the spine title of the book on the shelf while I practised my guitar and I always assumed it to be a novel that involved horse racing and the exciting venture of a bet or two. Occasionally it reminded me of Montreal's Blue Bonnets race track where on a few occasions, I enjoyed the spectacle of a horse race or two, breathed the cigarette and cigar smoke and heard the stirring sounds while watching with fascination not just the horses but the people around me. The book title also later reminded me of the Black Books episode of that name, where Bernard catches the betting bug.

This book title became part of the inspiration for a piece of music I composed. I had been greatly impressed by the musical piece Last Train to Dusseldorf by the extraordinary guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, where he captures the sense of train travel. One day practicing guitar, I was staring at Bramah's A Little Flutter on the bookshelf, and thought that I could come up with a piece of music which could mimic a horse race and I could call it A Little Flutter. So, inspired by Tommy Emmanuel and a book title, and my memories of Blue Bonnets, I created the music piece.

The odd thing is that the book has nothing to do with horse racing and is merely a play on words. The book's subject matter, comically absurd, is about birds, and the rare Patagonian Groo Groo plays a major part. I only recently read the book, skimmingly, for it is written in an idiom which reminded me of From London Far by Michael Innes, a style which seems exceedingly verbose and dated.

Perhaps I should try to compose a piece of music to mimic a bird's flight. I could name it after the rare Patagonian Groo Groo. The Groo Groo Groove. Hmm, might be something there. It would be a dream to write the song with the Edge and Bono, but I think that would be dreaming indeed.

Anyway, here is my music which I recorded direct to an inexpensive MP3 player and ran through a reverb on a music software program to add depth. State of the art it is not. Cheers. Music copyright Ralph Mackay aka Chumley.

Addendum: I have not been back to my hometown Montreal since I left in September of 2002, so if I ever get back there, the old Blue Bonnets may draw me in. Perhaps I could bring my cheap acoustic guitar and play the song as I gaze out over the remnant race track oval and think of the cyclical nature of this strange world we live in.

Addendum2: Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses metaphorical, but a Equus ferus caballus reference nevertheless.

Addendum3: The source for the reference to Sandy McRae and the original Blue Bonnets is a book I've had for years: Canadian Pen and Ink Sketches by John Fraser (Montreal: Gazette Printing Company, 1890). It is a book of essays, often repetitive in detail, dealing with Montreal history, and specifically the area of Lachine, his birthplace, and the site of the great French explorer La Salle's homestead. John's brother, Hugh Fraser (1818-1870), a wealthy Montreal wine merchant, died unmarried and left $200,000 of his estate for the founding of a library. This will was contested by his brother John, a rather prominent case at the time. John lost his case however, and the will was upheld. It is perhaps strangely ironic that the book by Ernest Bramah entitled A Little Flutter, the book that originally got me thinking on this subject of horse races, was purchased by me at the Fraser-Hickson Institute free Library, the very library that Hugh Fraser's money brought into being. I think there is a full circle in there somewhere.