Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Introducing the Wine Cellar Strings

Here's how it happened: Dave said to Rohan, or maybe Rohan said to Sam, and Sam's pretty sure he said to Will at some stage and Will's not sure that he remembers the conversation but he doesn't deny it, and Dave definitely mentioned it to Emily but she's overseas right now and she'll probably do the next one, but Dave and Sam both talked to Brendan about it one night at the Sawmill after the bar staff brought out a bucket - a bucket, mind! - of bourbon, and then Louise got involved, probably, and what they said was this, more or less:

"Look here, the Wine Cellar is awash with these underemployed wasters slinging their violins, their violas, their upright basses and their cellos. They all seem to know what to play on all of these different songs, and when they're not playing their instruments  they just drink the bar dry and holler at the customers, getting in the way and breaking the crockery so by god let's make them useful! What can we do with all these dirty folk-inflected string players, many of whom don't or can't or won't even read music, or at any rate they deny they can, with an insouciant shrug of the shoulder and flick of the quiff, oh it's all so off-the-cuff and spontaneous isn't it, this devil's music that we play? With their tight jeans and their hand-made cigarettes. Unseemly! What can be done with such people?"

So sort of in the manner of a social programme, the kind that local governments introduce to keep youths from vandalising public property, it was decided that there  should be inaugurated a Wine Cellar String Section.  It would be called, for the sake of simplicity and for arcane tax reasons, 'The Wine Cellar String Section,' and it would operate in the following manner:  Every once in a while, at a prearranged signal, these various fiddlers and cellists, violers and bassists would gather at the Wine Cellar. They would invite along a handful of songwriters who pass one test, which is that the members of the string section have  to think that they are awesome.  The songwriters would sing their songs, and the Wine Cellar String Section would do what they do well, which is play strings.  There are no other rules.

The first time this happens will be August the 17th.  The String Section will include at least Dave Khan, Brendan Turner, Sam Prebble and Will Wood (who between them have played with Don McGlashan, The Grifters, An Emerald City, Paul Ubana Jones, The Broken Heartbreakers, The Broadsides, Reb Fountain, The Bads, Luckless, Charlie Ash, Hannah Curwood, Tim Guy, Bond Street Bridge, White Swan Black Swan, Rodney Fisher's Backyard Orchestra, and a whole bunch of other things) and probably some other people as well.  The songwriters, this first time around, will be Gareth Thomas of Goodshirt, Bernie Griffen of the Grifters, and Reb Fountain.  You are warmly invited to come along and see what happens;  Bond Street Bridge will get things started atnine sharp and after that all bets are off.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Future Belongs To The Airship

Quite recently our friends at the Film Archive presented in brilliant black and white The Flight Of The Airship Norge Over The Arctic Ocean: In which Roald Amundsen, that hero of high latitudes, leads an attempt to fly over the North Pole in an airship in the midst of the Roaring Twenties.  Those of you who are aware of my passing interest in both polar travel and the Golden Age of Airship Transportation will not be surprised to hear that at my earliest opportunity I secured a ticket and waited, impatiently tapping my fingers on the table, for the day of the screening to roll around.  There was much anticipation here, and I certainly built the occasion up rather a lot in my head and in conversation with people over preceding weeks. As usual, these conversations tended to run along the lines of 'guess what I'm doing this weekend?' (I have the conversational skills of an emotionally stunted ten-year-old, so this would inevitebly be blurted out as an  unrelated interjection when it was really the other person's turn to talk.) 

'Oh, wait, let me guess' the other would say, either wearily or sarcastically '- are you going to see that movie about the airship? And the Antarctic?' 

'Um yes you're half right but actually it's the Arctic not the antarctic so yeah, but yeah that's what I'm doing, cool eh?'

It is a constant source of amazement to me that people continue to talk to me at all, but I suppose the conventions of politeness are still strong in our society. Lucky!

The Airship Norge: exploration in style. From the NZFF website

So if you're reading this you probably already know about the film I suppose, because no doubt I have bored you on the subject in real life, but here's the thing: It was even better than I thought it would be, and I felt even more awesome after seeing it than I thought I would.  And I thought it would make me feel pretty amazingly ace, so it just goes to show that I still have a long way to go when it comes to accurately predicting how the decisions I make are going to make me feel in the future. 

Obviously this movie was so great partly becuase of the whole polar travel thing and partly because of the whole airship thing.  Those things are pretty much givens, so I don't need to talk about them all that much except to observe that it is one of life's tragedies that we don't use airships as much as we used to, and at some stage I'd like to look into this to find out why. My guess is that there really is no good reason and all it will take is a decently-funded advertising campaign and a few well-chosen celebrity endorsements (Johnny Depp, H.M. Sir Prince Charles, Cory Doctorow) to shift public opinion slightly and re-introduce the Golden Age Of The Airship. Here's hoping!

Polar travel and slow-motion airship wrangling aside, the real star of this movie was of course Amundsen's nose.  As well as a steely resolve, an iron will, and a salutary ability to learn the sledging secrets of the Eskimos in only two and a half winters, Amundsen was possessed of one of those rare noses that only truly remarkable individuals may own: the kind that starts off aquiline and just keeps on growing.  Julius Caesar had one; Buster Keaton had one, the old guy who sits in the corner of your RSA has one.  Like his stature in the Norwegian national psyche, Amundsen’s nose was by the latter part of his life truly titanic, and it broke his path through the world like the bow of an ice-hardened whaling ship.  In this film we see his nose as it points resolutely out the window of the airship while the rest of him pets a jolly little terrier, we see it feted through the streets of Oslo, we see it as it calmly sniffs his in-flight mug of warm schnapps and finds it good.  Truly an amazing nose, and the world became a poorer place when it led Amundsen to his icy doom (not pictured).

This bust of Amundsen by Arne Vieglend really does justice to the nose.
It's from the Caterbury Museum; you must go and see it if you're nearby. 
photo from

As an audience, we were expecting the nose, and Amundsen conniseurs will have left the cinema satisfied in this regard.  What we were not expecting (at least those of us weren't whose grasp, like my own, of European history is risible at best) was that one of the other stars of this show would be Uncle Mussolini and his merry band of Fascists.  That's right, you remember - that lot were well at it by 1925, throwing around their weight and marching on Rome, parading about the place in their pretty frocks. Because say what you like about the Fascists - and I wouldn't for a moment argue that Il Duce should not have been hung by his heels from a power pole - but by god they knew how to dress, and when they wanted to celebrate a thing they really put on a show.  A real pity about everything else, obviously, but from a cinematic point of view these guys really had it going on.  It was an Italian airship, apparently (students of polar history will have known that already, of course), so it's quite natural that Mussolini was all over it from a propoganda point of view, and he personally pinned a medal on the chest of Umberto Nobile, the Italian designer and pilot of the airship, when they returned from their - spoiler alert! - successful flight over the North Pole.

Umbero Nobile with his dog Titania.  Titania, along with a polar bear, a walrus, and several reindeer, was the real star of the show.  Of these, only Titania was not hunted for sport by the plucky adventurers.  Photo from wikimedia commons, original in the Library Of Congress

The reaction of the Norwegians was much more spontaneous, of course. Fewer banners, for one thing, uniforms less snappy but still very much a la mode (I miss the twenties, I really do - we all dressed so optimistically) but the main difference was that instead of pinning stuffy medals on his chest (and I suppose this is illustrative in a broader sense of the differing approaches of fascists and constitutional monarchists) the crowd carried Amundsen shoulder high through the streets of Oslo.  Soulder high - why don't we do that any more?  One hears about it, but I don't believe I've seen it done before.  It looks delightfully undignified as a matter of fact, whilst still being the utmost sign of respect that a person can be accorded by a baying, cheering, constitutionally monarchist mob.  Let's do that to somebody, I thought immediately - but who? Now that we have reached all available poles of the earth by every concievable means of transport, I suppose we don't have any reason to bear people shoulder high any more.  Oh well.

Amundsen's nose after its historic flight. 

For extra points, as if extra points were needed, the film also had a live piano score, played by the inimitable and wonderfully monikered Nikau Palm.  I have droned on at great length in the past about the joys of cinema accompanied by live music, and all I will say about the piano accompaniment in this case is that if you're not going to go all out and use a theatre organ, which would be my go-to plan A, then playing variations on 'those magnificent men in their flying machines' on a grand piano will do just fine.  I was thrilled.  I actually spent a good part of the film leaning forward in my seat, grinning like a seal. 

To complete this picture of cinematic excellence, the final detail, the rug that tied the room together if you like: there was a lovely man on the stage with a script and a microphone and I immediately wanted to make friends with him, purely because he was Danish and I could listen to him talk all night and half the day. Am I normal? I like to think I am. Anyway, his job was to translate the title cards, live for our edification.  This film was made in the twenties - we must understand that the whole Norge enterprise was partly geared towards flying an airship over the pole, but also substantially focused on filming an airship being flown over the pole.  That's one of the things that so thrills me about the heroic age of polar exploration; these guys had media strategies that make Alistair Campbell look like a dabbling amateur. So the original movie was produced in  about 1927 I think, in that magical era before cinema was ruined by the addition of soundtracks: hence the title cards.  Of couse, the title cards were in Norwegian, so they got this wonderful Danish fellow, whom I failed to befriend, to translate them into English for the monlingual riff-raff in the cheap seats. 

This is Amundsen's nose when he was younger. Still impressive, but it just got better and better.

What a combination! Snappy uniforms, graceful airships, swaggering noses, a romanically tinkling piano and Dane with a voice like treacle.  If you ever get a chance to see this film, you must grab it with both hands, because you will not be sorry if your interests include airships and polar adventure, and if they don't then they should. Up the Norwegians! Shame about the Fascists! The future belongs to the Airship!