Never ask a swimmer what he is thinking about as length after length is completed: he might tell you!
Which is a lead up to my telling you what I was thinking about as I swam my way through my daily metric mile. I would love to admit that poetic ideas swirl through my mind as my flailing arms create more substantial currents in the placid salty waters of my local pool; or that the themes from my Open University courses course through my mind – but that would be, generally, a lie.
What actually went through my head was the phrase, “Dip me in chocolate and throw me to the lesbians!” If I could work out why this, admittedly delightful, phrase went through my mind, I feel that I would gain a valuable insight into my basic motivations and understand my character with a clarity which is so sadly lacking in my day to day existence. But I can’t. It came out of nowhere and, once I had thought of it, like one of those irritatingly compulsive snatches of music that you dread hearing because you know that you will be hearing in your mind for the rest of the day, it battered its way back and fore in my brain for the rest of the swim.
I know swimming is essentially boring, but it’s not so boring that the repetition of an out of context phrase is enough to keep you stable. I had to think of context and I soon realized that my knowledge of this phrase comes from an opera. Admittedly an opera that I have seen on television rather than in an opera house, but one that was deliberately provocative and created ‘problems’ in Cardiff, prompting a far-right, so-called Christian demonstration outside the Millennium Centre shocked at the language and themes in the piece which was based on a musical interpretation of ideas suggested by the Jerry Springer show. The actual phrase was part of the lines sung by a participant in the show called Baby Jane who enters singing,
This is my Jerry Springer moment.
I don’t want this moment to die.
So dip me in chocolate and throw me to the lesbians.
I don’t want this moment to die
I had actually remembered the line as “Coat me in chocolate . . .” which is not as effective as the ‘real’ line, but that is not the point. My mind did not stay on this, shall I call it ‘concept’, and instead as I continued my swim I began to think about other odd lines in operas.
Probably my favourite odd line in opera is from Albert Herring by Benjamin Britten which is, “And a box of Swan Vestas!” An opera which stays in my mind from the Welsh National Opera production in Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre, because when Albert’s flowered circlet (he had been crowned Virgin King of the May) was thrown into the audience, it was caught by my friend Robert!
“Pigeons on the grass, alas!” was the title of one of James Thurber’s wonderfully funny occasional pieces written for the New Yorker. As Satan said to an insufferably smug member of the angelic throng in an unpublished extract from Paradise Lost that Milton never used, “Not to know Thurber is to argue yourself unfunny, the lowest of your throng!” It was with unparalleled delight that, having bought an interesting looking second-hand record in Kettering market, I discovered not only the music of Virgil Thomson, but also the ineffably pretentious libretto of the one-and-only Gertrude Stein and the fact that “Pigeons on the grass, alas!” was one of the more memorable lines from the opera Four Saints in Three Acts by Thomson and Stein!
When I finally got to see a production of this somewhat obscure opera in London with the ENO I was overwhelmed and turned to the staid lady sitting next to me and said breathlessly, “Wasn’t that wonderful!” To which she replied, “No.” Ah well, each to his or her own.
And “pigeons on the grass, alas!” by the way, is one of the more comprehensible lines in this opera. For odd quotations you are spoilt for choice in Four Saints in Three Acts, but if I had to choose just one, it might be, “Having happily had it with a spoon.” And if that doesn’t make you want to find out more and listen to it, then you are made of sterner stuff than I.
I will end with a line that I did not hear in the whole opera, but heard in an extract, “Life without hats? How extraordinary!” That is a line where context really makes it. I have forgotten the composer, but I know someone who will know, if I can be bothered to ask. Or there is always Google, or ‘research’ as we used to call it!
Now off to Terrassa for a Birthday Celebration for which, for once, all the presents are ready and wrapped!