Sunday, April 29, 2007

Magic moments

Carcassonne (the little square within the ramparts): if you're lucky, "Chet Atkins" might be playing this evening

Years ago we took the children to stay at a friend's cottage near Cahors in SW France. On the way back from a side trip to the Med we called in at that must-see, buy-the-tee shirt, now tick-the-box destination, Carcassonne.

Of course, everyone scoffs. It's medieval Disneyland, innit, that was given a make-over by Viollet-le-Duc, which had the antiquarians of his day up in arms.

Here, in green font, is what Wikipedia has to say on that controversial 19th century restoration. Skip it if you wish:

The architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, already at work restoring the Basilica of Saint-Nazaire, was commissioned to renovate the place.

In 1853.... the fortifications were consolidated here and there but the chief attention was paid to restoring the roofing of the towers and the ramparts, where Viollet-le-Duc ordered the destruction of structures that had encroached against the walls, some of them of considerable age ....... The restoration was strongly criticized during Viollet-le-Duc's lifetime.

Fresh from work in the north of France, he made the error of using slates and restoring the roofs as pointed cones, where local practice was traditionally of tile roofing and low slopes, in a snow-free environment.

Yet, overall, Viollet-le-Duc's achievement at Carcassonne is agreed to be a work of genius, though not of strictest authenticity."

Then there are, needless to say, the tacky souvenir shops, the inevitable little tractor-train ( although handy as a way of seeing the main sights, even if one feels slightly ridiculous), the crush of tourists and coach parties, choc-a-bloc car parks etc.

But in the cool of the evening, when all the coaches and most of the day-trippers have gone, families flock to a small square within the ramparts (see picture above) where they sip their drinks, surreptitiously people-watch and dine as the night falls. If they are lucky, or choose the right evening, they also get to hear a live performance from whoever is booked to play that night.

When we were there it was a guitarist with a Chet Atkins repertoire. I first discovered ther nimble-fingered Chet in my youth, and went to hear him play at the Albert Hall in about 1969. It was a good performance, just slightly spoiled by having R&B aficionados in front banging on about Chet having sold out to pop music. Personally I much prefer his "pop" repertoire to his R&B, not being a great fan of the latter.

Here's a short audio clip of him playing "Travelin" (sic). Make sure your speakers are activated.

That guitar of his acts instantly like a drug on me .

( I should perhaps add that I have never experimented with any illegal substances in my life, not even a puff of wacky baccy. Maybe that's a sign of being unadventurous, but alcohol and (previously) nicotine met all my needs in the mood-enhancing substances department. Being a biochemist by training was another factor too: In my mind's eye I could just picture those dodgy opiate molecules jamming neuro-receptors like microscopic spanners in the works).

Just a few bars from that lilting guitar, with its rippling minor chords, quickly has me up there on Cloud 9, and thus it was that evening.

There was a similar experience when we made a day trip last year to Avignon - another highly proficient Chet Atkins sound-alike was out there in the main square next to the Papal Palace. That guy was good, really good. I went up to congratulate him, and leave something for his next beer. I wish now I had been bolder and asked for his name. I suspect that some street performers are minor celebrities on holiday, or even on tour, who are just keeping their hand in, so to speak. I noticed that guy was constantly going to talk to folk at a table, some of whom were carrying musical instruments.

There have been other such magic moments, as Perry Como was wont to call them, usually with a happy combination of alcohol and music.

In Ghana, where I taught for two years, there was "High Life" dance music at the night clubs, of which A K Mensah was probably the best exponent. It was years before I was able to track down one of his LPs in a London shop . It had a particular number used to transport me away from anxious thoughts about the next day's lesson plans.

On Corfu we heard a particular number played again and again at open air night clubs. It was enchanting. Later, while still on the island, there was much embarassment in a record shop, trying to make the assistant recognise the song I wanted, since the lyric consisted mainly of "Dringi, dringi, dringi (mana mou)" but we got there in the end.

There was a stroppy German tourist on a similar mission, trying to buy "her song" and indignant that the assistant could not mind-read. She looked first astonished and then disgusted when I broke into "Dringi, dringi dringi " with hip-gyrating body language thrown in for good measure. But she was still berating the assistant as I departed the shop with LP record with a happy grin. The English title of the track, by the way, was "Velvet Mornings".

Some years ago I took some stuff up to St. Andrews for my son, who was studying there. In the street was a group Andean musicians, like one used to see in every big town, maybe not so much these days.

Now I know there's a lot of indifferent pan pipe music out there, but this was heavenly. I wasted no time in buying their tape, and must have played it scores of times. Whenever I think of St. Andrews, I think of those wistful and haunting pan pipes.

Similarly, the return journey from Skye through the Scottish Highlands in the 80s is forever associated in my mind with stopping at a pub for lunch, and hearing Dire Straits perform "Brothers in Arms" for the first time. What a majestic number (if you'll excuse the Adrian Mole adjective).

And when my two sons were still very young, I took them youth-hostelling on the Isle of Wight. On hearing "Smalltown Boy" (Disk 1,Track 6) by Bronski Beat for the first time , I was shoving coin after coin into the juke box while the lads played board games with the locals.

It's the same with films. The most memorable films for me invariably have haunting soundtracks - The Godfather, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Ipcress File, The Go-Between, Battle of Britain (aerial combat scenes), and of course Clint Eastwood's "spaghetti westerns".

I now realise, fairly late in life, that I should try to work in a new musical experience on each holiday. Otherwise I come back feeling I've missed out. It could be bouzouki genre of music, or its local equivalent; it might be hearing something that is current in the charts, assuming it to be reasonably melodic, or having some other musical merit. If all else fails, one can always plonk down at a pavement café and wait for the local busker to arrive with 5 minutes on the accordion or whatever before the hat comes round.

Can anyone recommend places in which good music comes as part of the holiday experience?

Comments and suggestions welcome (by email) to: