Saturday 23 May 2009

A Night At The Opera

A few weeks ago I thought I saw someone from the past, but it was impossible. Herman The German died fifty years ago. So it must have been a ghost. Herman was not German, but one of those unfortunates born before Kaiser Wilhelm II had a tiff with his family, who, as younger sons, attracted names from fashion or German culture. Think of Siegfried Farnon in “All Creatures Great And Small”. When Herman volunteered for The London Regiment in 1912 to get some paid for fresh air as a Territorial, he did not expect to go to France for four years in 1914, but the Army knew him as Henry, and his friends as Harry. Those who continued to call him Herman The German did not do so to his face. As a regular Covent Garden Market porter he expected and received the ordinary courtesies of life. He might have fought at Light Middleweight, but even the biggest Heavyweight needed to be careful, he could throw a mean hook, left or right, and you would not see it coming.

When I encountered Herman, I was wary of him, noticing the way he moved on the balls of his feet. He was wary of me, a student moonlighting for the rent money on a long night shift in The Garden. But when I met the challenge of moving a ton of spuds in a decent time, that was enough, so long as I did not intrude on his privacy and observed the ordinary courtesies. Although three times my age, he could still shift a ton or two a lot quicker than I could. Like many of his generation he shaved only once a week, bathed less often, had the language skills any modern comedian would pay a fortune for, and was as hard as nails. Apparently brought up by a Grandfather, he had been reared to believe that the British Empire was a bankers ramp, that socialists only wanted to live off other peoples money, that newspapers, and later the BBC and the film industry, were paid liars with posh accents. We young better educated men regarded his views as quaint and eccentric.

So it was not surprising that it was in the Floral Hall at Covent Garden where I saw the ghost rush past a few weeks ago. I was stone cold sober, waiting to go in to the auditorium and it was going to be a long stand amongst the huddle of the paupers at the back. The Hall is now part of the new Royal Opera House, housing a champagne bar and eating places costing a months old wages a bottle or a plate, and not a glass shed for flowers and vegetables. The tea costs near three pounds, a weeks rent over fifty years ago, when round the corner it used to cost tuppence a pint mug, or nothing if you had a full breakfast. I preferred it when Herman and his fellow porters were in and out with the barrows and bantering with the flower girls of all ages.

On Friday for the want of anything better to do I put on BBC4 to see if the “Acis and Galatea” from Covent Garden a few weeks ago worked on screen. There was the face of Herman staring from the screen. The same scruffy jacket, crumpled dirty open neck shirt, several days growth of grizzled beard, spiky unkempt hair, the hunted half crazed look in the eyes set in a reddened face, and the aggressive verbal thrust of a man who has been into the ring too often. But it was not Herman. It was Charles Hazlewood, the middle aged music man doing his manic youth presenter act.

The groan that escaped my lips was greater than when the monster Polyphemus did for Acis with a large rock. Ever since TV was visited on the masses the BBC has had presenters mostly in the style of Adjutants or Sergeant-Majors. There are the odd handwringing intellectuals but normally from sports to documentaries to politics we are hectored, loudly ordered to believe, told to be convinced by waving arms and thrusting fingers, and with the recent technology to make sure we notice are given thumping sound effects that leap up to fifteen decibels in volume without warning, I have checked with a meter. The flickering jump cutting may be great for a car chase film, but useless in a programme designed to convey information, or complex thinking, never mind disorienting for anyone with vision problems.

None of this does my temper nor my willingness to watch any good. So when we have classical music on the TV why does it so often have to be cheeky chappie Charles Hazlewood? He was the wrong man for the William Byrd documentary, and he is the wrong man for other things. I wish him well in his general career, he is a fine musician, but can he give the TV and all of us a rest?

If he really wants to look and behave like Herman The German, he needs to be able to shift a ton or more of vegetables from the church at one end of The Garden to the Floral Hall at the other without stopping and using only a two wheeled barrow.

Herman did not smoke, he chewed his baccy, being careful when expelling it, except if a dog was near to offer a target. I wonder, does Charles, surely not, but …………….

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