Friday, August 19, 2022

this is lycanthropy


Peter and the Wolff

My Krefeld Clan is very well documented, but the prehistory of the families before they arrived at the booming silk-weaving town of Krefeld is quickly lost in obscurity. The earliest date we have from Krefeld is the marriage of Christophel Wilsberg from Hamm and Anna Sybille Wolff from Mülheim on Aug 5, 1764. Wilsberg is also a place name in the district of Neuwied, where the name is still common today, so no worries there. But Wolff is a name too widespread to be useful, and the trace goes cold with Anna Sybille’s grandfather Peter Wolf (as in the children’s opera).

Now I had a chat with somebody who also has Wolff ancestry elsewhere in Germany and afterwards I felt inspired to google the details of my Wolffs again, and got lucky. In a very detailed family history of the Vorster family of paper mill owners, I found the origin of my Wolff lineage.

It turns out Peter Wolf’s father was called Hermann Hofstadt, the second son of a farmer from Unna. In 1652, he bought the Wolffskotten farm at Styrum (today divided between Mülheim and Oberhausen), and was known as Wolff ever since. (Sadly the farm seems to have disappeared, the only search results I get are to the Vorster family source.)

Hermann the werewolf married Trine von der neuen Mühle (I suspect that is a description rather than a proper family name, it just says, from the new mill, and as the name of the town Mülheim suggests, there must have been plenty of mills around). Their son Peter married Elsgen, about whom I knew nothing but the first name before, but the Vorster chronicles reveal an interesting story.

Adolf Vorster, the first of the clan to arrive at Mülheim from Olpe (Sauerland) where the reformed protestants from the Netherlands had found refuge a few generations earlier, was widowed twice. After his second wife died, he took on a maid, Catharina aus dem Bieg, to help with the kids and the household, but ended up marrying her as well. He died after only ten months of marriage, but Catharina gave birth to their child Elsgen after he died. The Vorster clan rejected Catharina and Elsgen though and they went back to Catharina’s home farm, the Biegerhof (a medieval site today part of Duisburg). By 1680, Catharina found a second husband, Thiel Weinhaus, and had another child. Elsgen got to marry Peter Wolff.

Canis lupus. Photo: Bernard Landgraf, CC BY-SA 3.0

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

reinventing Alice

Some thoughts on

The looking-glass house
by Vanessa Tait
Corvus paperback 2016

Alice Day in Oxford is normally celebrated with an events programme that not only includes entertainment for kids but also some thoughtful lectures for adults which I usually attend. Although the topics may sometimes look eclectic on paper, I’ve always learned something interesting.

This year, one of the presentations was by Vanessa Tait, who has the USP of being Alice Liddell’s only great-granddaughter – being the only daughter of her only grandchild. So the whole Carrollian heritage came down heavy on her, and she made light of it by writing it up as a novel informed by the unique insights gained from family tradition and the memorabilia inherited by her mother but eventually sold at auction.

This was all so intriguing that I bought her book on the spot – I was also a bit embarrassed that I missed the memo when it was published. It did not disappoint. Mixing the well-documented information about the historic characters (Alice, her parents, her governess, Lewis Carroll, Queen Victoria and her sons) with a few invented ones to provide colour and plot, she does paint a convincing tableau of how the events that led to the telling of the Alice stories on that famous boat trip may have unfolded.

While I personally wouldn’t go as far as inventing dialogues to put into my dead ancestors’ mouths, I fully understand that this is a reasonable thing to do here, as the factual backbone has been established by a legion of researchers and every single stone has been turned over by committed fans. To add anything new to that, I suppose you have to rely on well-informed invention. The author does add a helpful afterword to help readers with the separation of facts and fiction.

I was particularly intrigued by the reminder that Lewis Carroll’s main interest in these contacts was that of a pioneering photographer. He told the children stories in order to get them in a better mood for posing for his photos. And of course it’s fun to catch the atmosphere of Victorian Oxford with places like Christ Church and the department store Elliston and Cavell taken over by Debenhams a century later. In some ways one could say it hasn’t changed a bit, and culturally speaking, Alice still is very much alive around here.

See also my twitter thread listing books I read in 2022.

PS Just one tiny little moan: I am fairly sure the Victorians didn't know the horribly agrammatical phrasing "just because ... doesn't mean", which occurs at least twice in the book, including once as allegedly spoken by one of the characters. I believe I haven't heard this before the year 2000. Am I wrong?

NB I am tagging this "memoir" although it isn't one, because it demonstrates one of the options we have in processing family history, so it helps me thinking even if novelisation is not a path I'm likely to take.

Monday, August 15, 2022

the great 9-euro adventure

From June through to August 2022, Germany offered a "flat rate" ticket for local and regional public transport for 9 Euros per calendar month. I used one in June, but was only there for a couple of days, so it didn't make much difference, although it did inspire me to revisit Wuppertal and travel the entire length of the Schwebebahn (suspension railway) up and down the valley. I think the Schwebebahn day pass alone would have cost something like 9 euros in normal times.

At the beginning of August, I was there for ten days and used the ticket to explore a few cities. There were three I hadn't seen before, namely Rheydt (featured in my lostcities series), Krefeld, and Rothenburg ob der Tauber. The latter I wouldn't have dared normally, as it is a globally famous tourist destination and I was kind of expecting it to be overrun, but on the day it turned out just fine, with fewer tourists than you'd see in Oxford on a normal summer day, and it was quite lovely. I also spent time in Aachen, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Würzburg, and Xanten. That's 9 cities for 9 euros.

It did take me some time to get my head round the fact that this thing really works, that I was really allowed to go anywhere. It does change the geography of a country significantly if you can just hop on a train without worrying whether it will be worth the expense. And after many years of routinely using the intercity and high-speed network, it was nice to rediscover some of the little train stations that the ICE doesn't serve. The Regional Express (RE) trains that you are allowed to use with the ticket cover considerable distances though, including one of the first long-distance rail lines in Germany, Cologne to Minden, or a 200km stretch of the river Rhine from Koblenz to Wesel. With air-conditioned electric double-decker trains, they often offer a level of comfort that compares favourably with what Great Western would call an intercity train. (There was also a heat wave going on, so the AC came in handy.)

Some trains were crowded (but mask discipline was good, so no covid worries), some were late or cancelled, but hey, if it's basically free, you can't complain, right? It's all part of the big 9-euro adventure. I read that 31 million tickets were sold for June, so it's kind of a one off nation-wide summer experience you just have to enjoy. Designed in haste as a counterweight to the very non-green fuel subsidy (Tankrabatt), it may not have moved the dial on car usage, but it certainly helped many who would otherwise have struggled to pay for travel by any means.

I took a zillion photos, some of which are slowly turning up in this new flickr album.

The regional railway station Düsseldorf-Bilk, where all my adventures started. It used to be an S-Bahn station with only the platform on the left, but has been expanded and upgraded to serve regional express trains of four separate lines. Basically every RE that crosses the river Rhine at Düsseldorf now stops at Bilk (plus three lines of the local S-Bahn trains). That's more trains and destinations than you get from Oxford main station, and they are electric.

Media coverage of the 9-euro ticket:

Friday, August 12, 2022

under the sea

Earlier this week it was reported that the International Seabed Authority (ISA) closed its meeting without reaching agreement on regulations on deep-sea mining. In the absence of such regulation, uncontrolled mining could start at the end of June next year. Ahead of this development I looked into deep-sea mining again and at one particular problem that I hadn't covered in my previous features on the subject (2015, 2014), namely noise pollution. The feature is out now:

Mining noise set to rock the oceans

Current Biology Volume 32, Issue 15, 8 August 2022, Pages R807-R810

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

See also my twitter thread with all this year's CB features.

Polymetallic nodules found on the seafloor at depths between four and six kilometres are the target of planned seafloor mining operations. Formerly known as manganese nodules, they also contain cobalt, nickel, copper and rare earth metals. (Photo: James St. John/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

Sunday, July 31, 2022

lost cities reading list

After reading the interesting review of the book: Motherlands: in search of our inherited cities by Amaryllis Gacioppo, where the lost cities the author revisits are Turin, Rome, Palermo and Benghasi, I thought I should start a reading list of books relevant to my #lostcities series. So here goes, item one:

Motherlands: in search of our inherited cities
by Amaryllis Gacioppo
Bloomsbury 2022

I'm sure I can think of more examples once I find my thinking hat. I'll just post this as a nucleus, suggestions welcome.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

kitchen chemistry and quirky impacts

I've reviewed two very different books for C&I in recent months, and as it happens the two reviews appear side by side in the July/August issue, pp34-35.

Firstly, the very lovely science-in-fiction or lablit novel:

Lessons in chemistry
Bonnie Garmus
Doubleday, 2022
ISBN 978-0-8575-2812-4

Which I am pleased to see has found a lot of attention elsewhere too, so you may already have heard about it or even read it. If not, do.

And secondly, an account on how meteorites impact life on Earth and especially humanity:

Impact: How rocks from space led to life, culture and Donkey Kong
Greg Brennecka
William Morrow 2022
ISBN 978-0-06-307892-5

Meteorite impacts are of course hugely important for astrobiology, while some of the pop culture things that the author obsesses about are not, so for a more sober account of the actual science of meteorites, I might turn to Colliding worlds by Simone Marchi instead, which I reviewed recently, too. Impact might attract some who are intereted in the quirkiness though.

Paywalled PDF containing both reviews

See also my twitter thread listing books I read in 2022.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

colonial crimes

some thoughts on


Uwe Timm

published 1983, new edition: dtv, 2020

In 1904, my adventurous great-grandfather Julius (born in May 1883) signed up to serve in the colonial war against the Herero and Nama in the area now known as Namibia, but soon caught a tropical disease and was sent home, arriving back in March 1905. He was rumoured to have witnessed terrible things there but as far as I know didn’t tell anybody any details.

In recent years, the operations under the command of general Lothar von Trotha have been increasingly described as genocide and discussed as foreboding of the Holocaust (eg by David Olusoga), although earlier accounts saw no more than the ruthless suppression of a rebellion against colonial rule.

Uwe Timm’s account of the events is half fictional, half documentary and dates from the time when the war was described in more forgiving terms. It contrasts the perspective of a (fictional) naïve and relatively innocent veterinarian serving the German troops, with lengthy extracts from contemporary documents.

Reading the sources with their original racist language and all the rest of it is disturbing at times and could lead the reader to condemning colonialist attitudes. Then again, I suspect any reader thinking that colonialism was a good thing could take those sources as the good side and the veterinarian as the crazy outlier. I suspect the fact that the book has now been re-issued (with a new afterword by Green politician Robert Habeck, no less) after the views have shifted shows that the format allows it to move with the times and allows readers to pick and choose.

Considering that Jacob Morenga, an important leader of guerrilla warfare after the Nama joined the rebellion in 1904, lends his name to the book title, we don’t learn all that much about him. I suppose the idea behind the title is that he is essentially the phantom that haunts the German troops, but a book that is actually about him, showing the other side of the front lines, might also be interesting.

See also my twitter thread listing books I read in 2022.

PS: I'll collect some other materials relevant to this here:

  • Just after finishing reading Morenga, I discovered the Bradt travel guidebook Namibia in a charity shop. Would have been handy if only for the map. In this edition, dating from 2011, the word genocide doesn't occur.

Monday, July 25, 2022

anosmia gets a boost

Anosmia - the loss of smell - was a neglected condition until Covid-19 came along. Then the loss of smell as a diagnostic criterion, and also as a lingering long-term consequence of the disease rose to prominence. While devastating for all concerned, this sudden increase in awareness of the condition and interest in research into it may have a happy ending in that it could lead to better understanding of the mechanisms and more effective treatments.

So I've taken this silver lining as an opportunity to revisit smell science and Covid, now combined under the banner of anosmia. The resulting feature is out now:

In search of lost smell

Current Biology Volume 32, Issue 14, 25 July 2022, Pages R757-R759

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

See also my twitter thread with all this year's CB features.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread loss of smell and thereby led to a renewed scientific interest in anosmia research. (Photo: Mark C. Olsen/New Jersey National Guard.)

Monday, July 11, 2022

the sixth mass extinction

Human activities are driving lots of species towards extinction. Many experts now recognise this as the beginning of the sixth mass extinction.

In my latest feature I discuss the evidence for this claim:

Extinction in progress

Current Biology Volume 32, Issue 13, 11 July 2022, Pages R721-R723

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

See also my twitter thread with all this year's CB features.

Mollusc shells such as these of extinct lamellar disc snails (Endodonta lamellosa) are useful as records of species that have become extinct within recent history. (Photo: Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, accession number MNHN-IM-2000-22719 (CC BY 4.0).)

Saturday, July 02, 2022

an uneven pair of bourrées

Plague Year(s) Bach Project, 20th month

Time to try a new movement, although I've only managed to memorise half of the Courante from the fourth suite. Staying in the key of Eb (which I am beginning to enjoy now I've grasped the geography of those three flats), I am now tackling the very curious pair of bourrées of the fourth suite. They are both in the same key (while the paired dances in the other suites typically have the second dance departing from the key of the suite). And the second bourrée is dramatically shorter than the first, in a relation of 1:4 (12 bars to 48 bars). In his short book about the suites, Steven Isserlis mused whether Bach was having a bit of fun with the number 4 here - it is the fourth dance movement of the fourth suite after all, if we leave the prelude out of the count.

Anyhow, it looks manageable, doesn't have any chords in the longer bourrée, which is a bonus for me. As always I am starting with Inbal Segev's video (which is quite short this time).

Performance videos: There aren't many to choose from, but this version by Christine J. Lee works for me.

I seem to have run out of random snaps of the cello, so this recent selfie will have to do:

During Covid I discovered that I kind of like having a bicolour fur pattern around my chin. Once it's going all white, I may shave that off again.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

stepping up the scales

Slow progress in the Plague Year Bach project, as I am still stuck half-way into the Courante from the fourth suite. But the movement has already served the purpose for which I chose it, namely making me lose the fear of keys with more than two flats.

Essentially, the keys with up to two flats or sharps are easy on the cello as you can play the scales using only elementary technique, ie first position and open strings for orientation. Losing the guidance of open strings (and harmonics) is what makes me panic whenever I see more than two flats or sharps in a key signature, like eg. this very lovely repertoire piece:

After learning the Eb major scale which I needed for the Courante, I realised I can recycle this fingering for other flat scales, and stumbled upon a consistent method that in principle works for all scales in remote keys (and is different from the fingerings I find in books). So here goes (sorry the formatting doesn't quite align across the strings, in my original it is a word file with courier font, where it does):

scales with flats

3xb: Eb (loses open A)

A ¦---1-34
D ¦01-3-12-4
G ¦01x24
C ¦---2-4

that one was fairly obvious, but I’m now taking the upper octave of that and shifting it down the strings to make it the lower octave for the next scales, and I get:

4xb: Ab (loses open D)

A ¦-1-34-1-3-12
D ¦---1-34
G ¦-1-3-12-4

5xb: Db (loses open G)

A ¦---12
D ¦-1-34-1-3
G ¦---1-34
C ¦-1-3-12-4

scales with sharps

3x#: A is trivial (upper oct: 01-34-13-12)

4x#: E (loses open D) finger sequence like Ab, Db works here too, doesn’t need open A.

A ¦---1-3-12
D ¦----1-34
G ¦-12-4-1-34
C ¦----1-3

5x#: B (loses open A) finger sequence like E, Ab, Db.

A ¦----1-34-1-3-12
D ¦-12-4-1-34
G ¦----1-3

i.e. for the lower octave, or if the upper octave starts near an open string (eg Eb on D string), use 13 124 134 For an upper octave that starts on 4th finger, carry on: 4 134 13 12

The combined sequence 13 124 134 134 13 12 works for four scales: Ab, Db, E and B. (although with the E major scale it unnecessarily avoids the open A string).

NB books seem to prefer the sequence 1x24 1x24 124 124 134, which has only four shifts instead of five, but the extensions add difficulty where I’m already in unfamiliar terrain, so I prefer mine.

PS the example shown above is the beginning of the Élégie by Gabriel Fauré, Op 24. Watch a very lovely performance from Nadège Rochat here.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

my musical miseducation

Here's a memoir fragment I wrote in English in 2015 and kept in a drawer. At the tail end of bringing up my own children, I had built up a lot of anger about all the opportunities I never even knew about when I grew up, but I wasn't really ready to get into discussions about that.

In 2020/21 this fragment became the nucleus for the much longer (and marginally less angry) text of chapter 3 in my cello/piano themed family memoir, written in German. To give an impression of the content of that chapter, I'm now sharing the original fragment, with only a few edits and updates.


My musical miseducation

(started writing up 23.10.2015 – this version revised in June 2022)

When I was five, my father finished his PhD and started a proper job, and we moved from an attic in the centre of Würzburg to a place in the middle of nowhere, close to the petrochemical site where he worked, but far away from everything else. At that time the chemical industry was hiring all the chemists they could get, so he had the choice to start at any of the large chemical companies. We could have ended up in a more civilised environment like Mannheim/Ludwigshafen, Frankfurt, or Köln/Leverkusen, but we ended up at the rural northern fringe of the Ruhrgebiet, not even in a village or residential development, but in a field where a local farmer had built a house for his daughter, who then very wisely decided not to move in. The small town of Dorsten was 3 km away, the village which we nominally belonged to about the same distance in the opposite direction.

I was sent to the village primary school aged 5 (and three quarters), a year ahead of schedule as I had started learning to read and write all by myself – probably because there was nothing else to do there.

My mother had inherited a good upright piano (August Förster, Leipzig, ca. 1912) from her mother, who had been a piano teacher and had died just before I was born. That piano now came out of storage and moved in with us. In the early years it had pride of place in the large living/dining room, but later on it was squeezed out and ended up in the dark corridor, near the bathroom door. Meanwhile, in the attic of my (paternal) grandparents’ house, there was a good cello (although in a sorry state) last played by my great-grandfather in the early 1930s.

So my parents had space, disposable income, two quality musical instruments, and an intelligent child in primary school. What would you do in that situation? My mother decided to take piano lessons for herself and put me out to pasture on the steppe. Her teacher, a certain Kurt Kayser, head of the Vestische Musikschule at Gelsenkirchen-Buer, died on April 25, 1972 after smoking-related illnesses, and her lessons notebook runs for two years and a bit from Feb 17 to March 18. As I found payment receipts from May 69 to July 70, and I seem to remember that Herr Kayser was ill for a while, I conclude the lessons ran from February 1969 (just before I started school) to March 1971.

Ironically, Herr Kayser was also a cellist, so in her piano lessons they sometimes played cello sonatas together (the notes don’t say, they only identify pieces by composer) and I remember her raving about what a lovely instrument that was. Nobody told me that there was a cello in my grandparents' attic, and that children can, you know, learn to play that thing.

One time in her late 70s, my mother was still raving about Herr Kayser and how unfortunate his death was (he was 78 though), and how he was her best chance of learning the piano properly, without seeming to notice that I was sitting opposite her and might have opinions on what she should have done at the time.

I learned to play the recorder in primary school by default – I think the whole class did, or at least a significant proportion. That lasted for less than a year and I have a vague feeling I enjoyed it. Also, the things I learned there stuck for a lifetime. After decades of not using the knowledge I have picked up recorders and played tunes from sight. The notes you learn first on the recorder are still the ones I read most automatically.

I still have the booklet with the recorder tunes and dates of the lessons scribbled in. I was shocked to find out that the dates match the year 1974, so it only happened in the second half of year 4 of primary school, when I was 10 already. At the end of the school year, that recorder tuition ran out, and so did my musical education. I am fairly sure that nobody told me that one can “move up” from the recorder to a proper flute and do more interesting things with that. So no music for the next few years, apart from being forced to sing carols at Christmas.

I moved on to the Gymnasium (selective secondary school) where at one point the music teacher tested us for musical hearing. The tasks were things like: “Which of the two intervals is the larger one?” – completely trivial for those kids who were already learning an instrument. If in doubt, you just hum the scale inside your head to count the steps in each interval. And practically impossible for the rest of us who hardly knew what an interval was, let alone how to determine its size. I suppose if anybody had shown up with the unrecognised raw talent of a young Mozart at that point, the teacher would have taken steps to make sure they get an opportunity to use it, but to my knowledge nobody did.

At age 13 at least (I know because I already had the large bedroom that only became available in 1976 after the other family had moved out of the house consisting of two flats), my mother brought up the issue that it might be good for me to learn an instrument. My father suggested a guitar group, emphasizing “group”, as the social aspect was the only part of the equation that he could relate to.

However, by that time I had already decided that I wasn’t really keen on spending more time with other kids than I did anyway, as I was much happier in my own company and had plenty of books to read. So I got upset and argued that a) I could already play the recorder, and b) I could learn the guitar all by myself. By that point, a classical guitar of reasonable quality had joined the household. My mother had bought it (for herself, not for me!) off my cousin who replaced it with a steel-string western style one. The first photo of the guitar shows up in my albums in the summer of 1978, when I was 14.

I got my way, hauled the guitar up to my bedroom, and learned the essential chords that everybody can play. I figured out a way to play a scale without open strings, so I could essentially play any tune in any key, and stayed on that level, without any encouragement to move up and play some easy classics, for instance. Only in my student days did I discover sheet music for easy classical guitar and got to learn some easy bits from Bach etc.

What also didn’t happen between ages 5 and 16 was exposure to live classical music. From January 1981 - I was 17 and a member of the editorial team of the pupils’ magazine spectrum - a music teacher at the school organised free tickets for the spectrum crew to see classical concerts held regularly by the Philharmonia Hungarica in nearby Marl. The PH was a widely known orchestra founded in Vienna in 1957 by musicians exiled from communist Hungary, and for some reason that I forgot, possibly a pot of state funding being available, it landed in the otherwise not too cultured town of Marl. (After losing its politically motivated state finance, the orchestra was disbanded in 2001.) I am quite sure that until then I had not known anything about the PH. In the second concert we attended they played Dvorak’s cello concerto, with Ralph Kirshbaum as the soloist, which became my favourite piece of classical music. Later I found out that my grandfather, being the son of a cellist, although not a musician himself, owned three LPs with different recordings of this concerto. Another piece that left a deep impression at that point was Schubert’s unfinished symphony – these days I occasionally get to play it with Cowley Orchestra and the goosebumps I get from that are remarkable.

Opera, ironically, didn’t happen either, although my mother was a huge opera fan. Presumably that was a pleasure not to be shared with mere peasants such as the rest of the family. The first opera performance I saw was Don Giovanni at the Musiktheater im Revier, Gelsenkirchen, in the season of 1980/81, so I was 17 or just under. Even later still (cinematic release in Germany 23.11.1984), I saw the film adaptation of the opera Carmen, with Julia Migenes in the title role and Placido Domingo as Don Jose and really loved it. (Today I realise that the story is a rather problematic one to love.)

In the summer of 1980, at the age of 16, I discovered my great-grandfather’s cello in the attic of my grandparents’ house. It had a few gut strings, but the bridge was missing, and there were a couple of serious cracks in the body. It had been stored in a cloth bag, so the protection wasn’t all that perfect. I took it home to my room (where it joined the classical guitar as well as an ancient black Framus semi-acoustic guitar which I had bought a few months earlier, in May 1980). I built a very provisional bridge from spare bits of wood, bought a cheap bow, and fancied the idea of learning to play the instrument.

So I went to the local council’s music school with mother and we enquired whether that might be possible. The guy who dealt with us (no idea what his role was) suggested that a) it might take a while to get the old cello sorted out, b) I was way too old to learn such a difficult instrument properly, and c) wouldn’t I like to learn the double bass instead. He took us to instrument storage where they had several of them standing around (clearly a shortage of pupils willing to pick them up!) and let me try it out, all the time emphasizing how perfect my hands were shaped to play the double bass. With hindsight, he clearly had too many pupils for cello on his books and not enough for double bass, but I swallowed the bait and started learning bass, renting an instrument from the music school (at DM 5,- per month, it was obviously at the taxpayer’s expense).

I only have very hazy memories of my first bass teacher, a Mr Balint (possibly Hungarian, not sure, there were lots of Hungarian musicians in the area thanks to the PH). He was soon replaced by a younger teacher, Gunnar Polansky, who was a very down-to-Earth, ordinary child of the Ruhrgebiet, and also a very talented musician with a promising career as part of a Jazz trio (the Thomas Gabriel Trio). He explained to me why the Jacques Loussier trio had their famous interpretation of Bach’s music all wrong, and his trio was playing Bach much better, but I forgot why it was better. Checking up on the internet, I realise the Thomas Gabriel Trio has remained active for over 30 years (they released a CD with jazzed-up Bach music in 2013), and Gunnar also advanced in the classical world, becoming solo bass at the Neue Philharmonie Westfalen (an orchestra that is only new because it resulted from the merger of two smaller regional orchestras).

Through Gunnar’s encouragement, I got into the Big Band of the Music School (somehow, the regular orchestra was never on offer?!), where I learned about three jazz standards (including How high the moon, which I still like today) and I think I took part in one concert, although I have no direct memory of playing in the concert.

I continued bass tuition through to the summer of 1984, as I did my Zivildienst (replacement military service for conscientious objectors) from home, so in total I had nearly four years of tuition on bass, and I got half way through the Simandl etudes, but nowhere near performing anything. On one occasion I had the opportunity to accompany some school choir singing Eastern European folk songs, together with a pianist. Although I practiced my part quite a bit, I fell apart as soon as I had to keep in time with the pianist, never mind the choir. Today I would know what to do about such problems, but at the time I was clueless and didn’t get much help.

Moving on to University in 1984, I had an extremely small student room, so putting a bass in there was completely out of the question. Still, I ventured out to a try-out rehearsal with some local jazz band. As it happened, their bassist was away that day but his instrument was there, so I could pluck a few wrong notes at the wrong time. I was put into my place quite firmly, however, when the other musicians discussed which piece to play next, someone proposed a title, and another one said: “No, without a bass we can’t play that one,” while I was standing next to him holding the bass. Sadly, I haven’t played a bass since that day. (Update: on one occasion at the Isis Farmhouse, I borrowed Noreen’s bass for five minutes. Didn’t get any standing ovations for my playing.)

Looking back, there were many other ways in which I was discouraged from playing music while I was growing up, even discouraged from having opinions on music. My parents liked to ridicule other families where children were bribed to practice their instruments – I remember this specifically of one family they knew from university times and where the children were younger than me and learning piano while I was still learning nothing. Apparently, they traded TV time for piano practice time and apparently that was a completely outrageous thing to do. Not that it would have worked with me as I never saw the point of TV.

Similarly, a school friend of mine who came from a family where children learned violin by default was extremely unpopular with my parents, an aversion which I have never understood. I suppose the bottom line was that those kinds of families come from another planet and have nothing to do with us.

This might have been a valid argument if my mother hadn’t been the daughter of a piano teacher as well as a pianist and singer herself. More shockingly still, we had virtually no contact with the family of her oldest sister while I was growing up (curiously, her contact with that family improved after we and our cousins were all grown up and there were no educational approaches to compare and contrast any more). Allegedly this was because that aunt and her family were very religious and would have tried to convert us to their Baptist faith. Decades later I found out that all five of my cousins in that family had learned to play musical instruments. That little detail was never mentioned in our household. By contrast, we often met up with the smaller and less religious family of the middle sister, where both my cousins were self-taught guitar strummers like myself and as far as I know there had been no serious attempt at musical education.

Photo labelled "Advent 1970" - as I said music making mainly happened in the run-up to xmas.

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