Picking Nits in Alfaville

I think it is because it is otherwise so damned beautiful that I keep finding niggling faults with my new Alfa Romeo. None of them by itself is worth spending a penny on fixing, with labor charged at £45 an hour. There is now a list of 14, as I propose to enumerate.

  1. The quality inspector obviously decided in view of the fact that it was only for the UK market to overlook that the carpet on the front passenger side was not cut correctly. There is a visually distracting, oddly shaped gap between it and the side trim below the door.
  2. The system whereby you dial-in the gap you want the sunroof to open and it opens for you automatically by precisely that amount sometimes means it doesn’t. Open, that is. You have to keep trying until it does, rather negating the convenience factor.
  3. The seatbelt warning light keeps flashing on to tell me my seatbelt isn’t fastened, when it really is.
  4. The windscreen-wipers don’t automatically wipe the windscreen after you have used the squirter to clean it.
  5. Turning the engine off also turns off the radio/CD player. You have to turn the ignition key all the way off, then back to the Start position to continue listening, risking the engine firing while the car is in gear; and will have missed an interesting news item or Wayne Shorter solo by the time sound returns.
  6. There is a CD player, but no CD storage. I had to buy a neat little pouch to carry my CDs around. It takes 36 CDs! Only you can’t get them out and load them with one hand while the vehicle is in motion. So you have to stop every time a CD finishes. The player takes only one CD at a time (and does not have an MP3 or iPod connection).
  7. The fuel indicator buzzes discreetly to tell me we are running out, the computer shows me a worrying graph to tell me we are running out, of diesel when there is still apparently 100 miles at least left in the tank.
  8. The fuel filler cap lock just goes on turning round and round with the key in, without either unlocking or locking the cap, whichever you need to do, causing delays at the pump while other motorists discuss in shocked tones what I just said.
  9. The gorgeous, deep blood-red Alfa paintwork is so soft that you can scratch it with your fingernail. Be careful opening the doors! Be careful parking next to bushes! Don’t drive anywhere near hard objects.
  10. Putting down the back seats and putting them back up again with the seatbelt stalks in working position is a logistical and ergonomic nightmare, involving the use of all three doors while performing gymnastics in the prone position. Having said that, the front seats do glide away effortlessly; they just won’t glide back again with the rear seats down. Luckily, I don’t know enough people to need rear seats.
  11. The JTDm diesel unit is clattery and suffers from turbo-lag at low revs (see, I can be technical too! What I mean is, while my car is very fast, it pulls away too slowly and noisily. I have had hairy moments overtaking in second gear, when the revs just die).
  12. Some minor encounter with the rear bumper has caused one of the ‘magic eye’ reversing detectors to pop out of its seating. Now the car beeps continuously as soon as you put it in reverse. The detector is detecting the inside of the bumper and overriding the three other detectors. It is telling you ‘Stoppa! you is reversing your beautifulla Italian design icon into a lamp-a-post!’ But you is not. Probably.
  13. Unless there is a phone app for car thieves, the Alfa cannot be started without the electronic signal from its key. It cannot be hotwired. Little purpose is therefore served by having a neurotic theft alarm, that will not allow you to leave the car with a window even partly open or the wind or the movement of the dog sets it off.
  14. The nearest Alfa service agent is 65 miles away.

But the car is a joy to drive! The upholstery is all pale beige, handstitched leather! All the brightwork and distinctive Alfa grille are solid metal, there is no chrome plastic anywhere! It is gorgeous! Like other Alfa owners, I smile secretly with joy whenever I look at it! When I blog about it, I run out of exclamation marks

This has caused me to wonder. I’ve never had a really stunning-looking partner, you know, the supermodel type who turns heads. My relationships have been of a practical-cum-spiritual, rather than an aesthetic, nature. If I lived with an objectively glamorous person, would I be more critical of their minor flaws, as I am with my gorgeous Alfa Romeo? As I am with myself?

Carrying a Torch for Ceremonial

Olympics Alert

Hundreds of people have turned out in the town to watch the Olympic torch arrive for the night, on its journey northwards. They line the streets, waving little flags and looking excited. I have had to take the same route as it is the way back from the beach, where I have been walking the dog, to my house. They cheer as I drive by in my little red Alfa Romeo, and I wave back, and smile, hoping not to be recognised.

All day, helicopters have been clattering overhead and music and unintelligible announcements have been booming out of a small marquee on the football field. Jolly women policemen are everywhere, in their fetching stab vests, moving people on and directing traffic. Sponsored by a tooth-decaying fizzy drink manufacturer, the sacred flame will rest the night in a cricket pavilion before being borne on to the next anonymous little town in the morning, forcing me to walk to work as the roads will be closed.

People everywhere seem to have a desperate yearning for ceremonial. Even this ersatz, overcommercialised spectacle has few detractors, despite the appalling cost and the extraordinary security measures the Government feels are needed to show the world how tough Britain is on terrorism, even while their economy is collapsing. The little knots of townsfolk are out to enjoy every moment, flush-faced pubgoers spilling merrily out onto the pavement with pints in hand, as the blazing sunshine of the past few days gives way to sultry, lowering clouds from the West, and no-one seems to notice the irony.

Investment Tip: Buy Trellis

Jazz Alert

Just to mention: having yesterday received by fourth post the magisterial Universal 13-CD boxed set of every master recording of sessions involving Charlie Parker from 1941 to 1953, with 65-page information booklet (half in French, which is even better); and having today received the 4-CD ‘Intuition’ set of sessions with the blind and almost forgotten pianist Lennie Tristano, father of ‘free jazz’, with 40-page information booklet, while waiting for the Betty Carter/Carmen McCrae duets to arrive, that I ordered last week, I think I have come to the end of my jazz CD purchasing activity for the year and shall henceforth devote any discretionary capital to my town garden. (Investment advice: buy shares in trellis*)

(*May go up as well as down)

A complete list of jazz CD purchases over the past six months is available elsewhere on this blog. Purists may sneer, but it is a long and quite expensive one and comprises much familiar and unfamiliar work by many of the major figures, as well as a few ghastly mistakes.

Dogs Die in Hot Cars

I am feeling guilty that I left my dog to die in a hot car and everyone in the supermarket  knows it as they read my licence plate out in a censorious tone.

I didn’t go to the customer service desk to waste time receiving a lecture: he really would have died if I had. I had already calculated that it would take me at most eight minutes to get round the milk bay and the dogfood aisle and out again; whereas the dog would have had about 40 minutes at 28 degrees C before hyperthermia and death from dehydration set in.

I had been down the coast for lunch with my ex-family and their new people. It was a roasting hot day. I thoughtfully didn’t take the dog because I did not know what we would be doing or what conditions I might have to leave him in, maybe even in the car. Instead, I left him at home, with the garden door open and plenty of water. After I got back, he was desperate to be taken out, so I took him for a 40-minute walk on the beach, and stopped off at the supermarket on the way home. It was about five o’clock. I parked carefully under the shade of a tree, in the lee of a tall van that wasn’t there when I got back (Oho, a van was it, you say, Sir… any colour in particular?).

But I didn’t leave a window open for him.

My reasons for not leaving a window open were threefold: a) it would have invalidated the insurance if the car had been damaged or stolen, and the dog might have been lost or harmed; b) in that airless heat an open window open just enough to admit some air but not enough to allow the dog to escape would have made little difference anyway, and c) whenever I leave a window open with the dog in the car, the alarm goes off after I have walked 200 yards, adding 600 yards to my journey. I know, you’re supposed to lock it with the physical key not the electronic one, and then it doesn’t go off if you leave a window open, but with my car it goes off anyway, so.

I reasoned that leaving a window open could only make the situation worse: time was of the essence, and a quick in-and-out posed less risk to the dog than any other course of action. Why would I want to harm my dog, my only friend? I love him to bits, and he loves me, in his doggy way. Why don’t car makers, especially ones in hot countries, make it possible to keep the cool air blower running for a while with the engine off and the key out? You’d think that would be a no-brainer in Torino.

In this weather, people like to take it on themselves to report evildoers who leave dogs to die in hot cars to the authorities, so that we can be lectured and sanctioned and punished. As far as they were concerned I had acted thoughtlessly, stupidly, out of brute ignorance or fashionable disdain; because of not knowing, as they properly do, that dogs die in hot cars. But I hadn’t done that. Instead, I had thought very carefully about it, and all the alternatives, before acting in everyone’s best interests; even of those of the people who like to report evildoers, as now they have had the opportunity to feel good about themselves.

I always think very deeply and carefully before acting, especially when my actions might be seen as transgressive: weigh-up the risks, the options, the probabilities, the likely outcomes — the possible recriminations. Yet people who instinctively know best and who act from fixed positions learned from lurid newspaper stories always imagine the worst of me. They do not ask themselves how I have survived mostly unscathed for 62 years, had several careers and brought-up two nice children; how I come to own a nice car and work in a university; or ask how come I have never yet left a dog to die in a hot car, however frustratingly slow the queue and unhelpful the housewife in front, shopping for her huge family.

All my previous dogs have died too early, not in hot cars, but from painful and undignified degenerative diseases, which I put down to the stress of living on human neurosis and a diet of tinned food; which is why I feed my dog fresh meat every night, bought at great expense from the supermarket, even on the hottest days. Sometimes they don’t have any offal-meat on the shelf and I feed him diced steak.

Surely it’s worth putting up with the occasional discomfort, to be owned by me?



A Witness at the Dawn of Faith

I’d like to pause my diatribe of liquid shit for a moment to pour instead unstinting praise over two dear, mad-genius friends. Yesterday I drove to Cardigan again to honour – there is no better word – the fifth annual manifestation of Holy Hiatus.

This cleansing ritual takes place in the wondrous timbered atrium of the Small World Centre, which started life as a venue for puppetry (if you’ve ever experienced a forty-foot-high character from the Mabinogion, the headless King Bran, you’ll know why the space is the shape it is, a soaring wigwam supported on huge ships’ masts) but which plays host to all sorts of artistic ‘interventions’, a genuine community facility for children of all ages. Unlike its voracious commercial neighbour, Theatr Mwldan, SWC is an architectural masterpiece in sustainable materials and a must-visit if you are ever in Cardigan, which you should sometimes be. You don’t have to live there.

A barefoot dancer performs a series of precise, sacerdotal gestures while rotating slowly around the marble floor of the conical space. In the centre is a table set obscurely with a bowl of water and a wilting pot plant on a lace doily; a tiny glass bell is rung at significant intervals by an acolyte who doubles as the tea lady. The audience – six at a time can be let in, but are ‘not to sit on the chair with the cushion’ – are each given a pebble for a ticket; high up in the Gods an unseen soprano accompanied by a drone from a harmonium sings, with only brief silences between repetitions, and with strange noises-off, a haunting 13th-century ballad, ‘Worldes Blysse ne Laste’ (The Happiness of the World Endureth Not).

The performance is sustained over six hours, with one fifteen-minute interval, but you are not expected to stay that long. Most people are emotionally overwhelmed after twenty minutes and either go for a chatty cup of tea and then plunge back in again for a second tearful immersion, or remember another appointment.

Overlaid recordings from previous years create impressionistic layers of ritual gestures and atmospheric sounds that take in all the respectful creaks and coughs of audiences, long-departed; the filtered birdsong from overwintered trees outside, the long-ago banging of doors and the distant hum and hoot of long-passed-by traffic in the high street. After five years, the original sounds and images have begun to fragment, blend and decay, but new ones are being added, creating a choral impasto that is haunting and timeless. The singer works this tapestry of sound, weaving ethereal new instrumental effects into each new cycle of the song, which she will repeat around ninety times in the course of the performance. It is the same, yet never the same song.

Thus, one imagines, is the ‘sacredness’ of all the sacred spaces of the world created, through the endless repetition down the generations of significant sounds and gestures that long ago lost their meaning, yet through the mere observance gained a continuance beyond themselves. Resonance is at the heart of all religions. Grasp that, and I can only commend Holy Hiatus to you as the most extraordinarily moving and powerful theatrical experience, pulling you back in time to bear witness at the dawn of faith. The singer is Lou Laurens, the dancer Maura Hazelden, the recordist is the film-maker Jacob Whittaker. CDs available.

Maura also captures strangely beautiful images of liminal things, those tiny rents in the fabric of the universe that you only notice out of the corner of your eye; and writes funny and enigmatic poetry. Her 16-page novella, “‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen”, is a witty and surreal deconstruction in which she cuts and pastes Austen’s own words and phrases to tell a story in which absolutely nothing happens. Familiar characters flicker in and out at random, insubstantial as ghosts, never completing their tasks or their setpiece speeches; in which sense it seems to re-embody the obsessive tedium of Austen itself.

There is something about the light in West Wales that suggests you are entering a more interesting dimension.

Liberame, Domine, de Morte Eternam…

Sometimes I think it might be fun to be the very first victim to get the Plague. You know, the big one that kills off half of Mankind. One sneeze in Morrisons, three days later you’re dead and the rest of the shoppers are going down like ninepins.

Only my son tells me he had it yesterday, thus robbing me of my place in History.

God, my head hurts. Has anyone got any Paracodamol? Is that a word?

You Betty You Ass

(Jazz Alert)

I ordered it on Amazoon weeks ago, it feels like. It finally came today by the early post (we get three deliveries an hour here).

It was quite expensive, for a CD. Thirty-two quid, since you ask. ‘Inside Betty Carter’, featuring seven additional, previously unreleased, glorious, insanely wonderful tracks. I bore it ceremoniously to the car.

Not many people will know who I am talking about. Good, she’s mine, I tell you, all mine.

Adventure in La-la Land

About six weeks ago I was walking back from a guitar lesson when something compelled me to pop into the covered market. Hanging above the antiques stall were two acoustic guitars. I was drawn to one by its clearly superior quality and superb tone. It was far too cheap! The same ‘something’ made me run to the nearest ATM to get out £60 cash. I bore my prize home, and later that night ordered a pickup for it, that cost more than the guitar.

It was not the sort of guitar I would normally buy, being designed for the folk/country market. It had a logo on the headstock, in curly script that said ‘DB Classic’; and a label inside, that gave little more away; only a low serial number and the word Handmade. Knowing that this alone would bestow added value, I was pleased with my bargain purchase. It looked and sounded more fabulous and rare, the more I thought about it.

Of course, I Googled ‘DB Guitars’, but there was nothing online, except some crazy guy who makes demented-looking planks for Goths. So I put it in a cupboard and forgot about it. Until last night, when a guitar retailer I use emailed me their weekly newsletter, and in it was a guitar for sale, made by a famed American luthier I’ve never heard of, Dana Bourgeois, and the price was ‘only’ £4,500, reduced from £5,000!

My head reeled. Could it be? Was this my unexpected but poetic passport to the One I really crave, the exquisite Mike Vanden ‘Martin Taylor Artistry’ – only six grand? I trawled every reference to Bourgeois and his company, Pantheon Guitars. He certainly makes lots that look very much like mine, I thought. Same this, same that… with a few differences, that could be accounted for by the fact that every guitar he makes is unique… and has his name on. Nah, my luck, it’s bound to be a Chinese knockoff.

And unfortunately, when I had wasted five seconds of every Bourgeois expert in North America’s time coldly scrutinising my hurriedly snatched and badly lit photos, dear Reader, that’s exactly what it turns out it seems possibly it might be.

Doesn’t sound as good now. I’ll stick it on eBay: ‘Bourgeois Pretensions?’… maybe not.