An incredible bit of synchronicity or something else has come about recently between the troupe of TAC Teatro and me. We are working on our first full-blown play, and in recent weeks there has been a sudden incorporation of a couple of bits of music that I had nothing to do with but that lie at the heart of my life-long musical loves.
As it turns out, both of the pieces were introduced by the same member of the company. But the skills and talents that we have in the company mean that the music can be performed to a degree that I never imagined likely. I mean, I knew we have great musicians in the company, but here I am talking about Irish music! And the company is made mostly of Italian and French actors and musicians.
So how amazing it was when over recent rehearsal days the troupe began playing and incorporating into the play the famous Irish piece of music dating back to the 1930s – and one of the most popular pieces of the last century – called “Cooley’s Reel.”
Anyway, I made a video of the musicians rehearsing the piece (and I added into the video some of the first exploratory acrobatic workout we did with the ladder that is also part of the show – check it out, above). It was only one of a handful of the first efforts to play the reel, so there are a few minor moments off the rails, but it sure sounds great to me already! Bizarrely, for me, I have found myself playing the bongo a little bit like a Bodhran, rather than me doing my usual musical instrument, the guitar. My Seagull guitar is here played by Pacôme Puech – I didn’t have the confidence to get the rhythm right on the guitar – and on flute is Marine Lefèvre, and on fiddle is Marina Meinero.
The other bit of music that I was stunned to find one of the actors – Marine – wanted to incorporate somehow in the show was “Only Our Rivers Run Free,” which I also first heard through Christy Moore’s version in Planxty. It is one of the few traditional Irish songs that I occasionally have the guts to try to do myself on stage, as to me if feels like a great Bob Dylan protest song, and I try to ignore that I’m not Irish and I can attack it like a Dylan cover.
It was written in 1965 by Mickey McConnell, who was only 18 years old at the time. He went on to have a career as a journalist at the Irish Times, before decided in his 40s to return to a career in music. Extraordinary. The poetry of the song is astounding, and even more so when you realize it was written by an 18-year-old. I love that line, “are you gone like the snows of last winter?”
So that’s the update from my adventures at TAC Teatro. In the meantime, I hope the snows of winter go fast and I’ll be able to post some great thing about the completed show in April! In the meantime, we will be inviting the public to check out our progress in our “second stage” open-door event on 29 February, as the poster at the top of this post explains….
The first time I wrote about Michel Onfray was in December 2006, and the story was published by The Toronto Star – because the newspaper where I worked did not have either the courage, the savvy or the understanding to publish the story about one of France’s most popular, but controversial writers. Ultimately, I was overjoyed that the story made the lead, front-page, Insight section of the Star in its Sunday edition, which reached more than a million subscribers.
Even better, I had been worried – and told – that it was too long a story. But when finally after several rejections elsewhere, the Star accepted it, they asked me to expand it even more, and it ended up well over 2,000 words. I was then delighted when another editor at my own newspaper wrote me an email and said he had just read the article on a famous literary web site – I think it was based in Britain – that he subscribed to, which had picked up the story after the Star publication. He said he was a fan of Onfray, and he asked me why had I not offered it to our newspaper?!
The other day, I went to a projection of a film about Michel Onfray’s upbringing and home town, in a cinema not far from where I live. It not only brought me back to that period more than a decade ago, but it allowed me to meet Onfray again, as it was a special soirée with the film, a Q&A with Onfray, and then a party afterwards with wine and canapés. There must have been between 600 and 1,000 people present in the 7 Batignolles cinema, on the edge of Paris across from the new prefecture de Police, right next to Clichy.
The documentary, “Sur les chemins de mon enfance,” (“On the Paths of my Childhood”) went way beyond my expectations. It was made by a couple of Onfray’s friends – also accomplished filmmakers – and filmed in his home town of Chambois, in Normandy – where he still lives. I assumed in advance that it was a small-budget, maybe no-budget, production. But the simplicity with which it was done combined with the depth of the material made it a fabulously genuine document that shows a lot to us of the connection between the writer and his environment. How Onfray became Onfray.
Upon returning home from the screening, I discovered in my computer archives that after my own visit to Chambois, and Onfray’s personal home itself (which, interestingly, does not feature in the film), in 2006, I had written a nearly 10,000-word diary item of my impressions, which I wanted to use as a basis for the eventual article I would write. Re-reading that account after seeing the film, made me realize how valuable the film is in showing how his childhood environment made Onfray who he is – which, of course, is true of us all. I am very thankful to have seen the film as my own written account – and the memory of my visit – painted a picture of his world without seeing how that world was the stimulus of his existence.
The structure of the film is simple: Onfray takes a walk on a circuit around his town and the neighbouring couple of towns, starting at Point A and returning at the end of the film at Point A, but after walking a large circuitous route, the “chemin de la Garenne.”
Onfray draws our attention to how this microcosmic walk is actually representative of our whole existence, and how his garden is the center of the universe in that way. Of course he does not see his little world as the center of the world … except in how it IS the center of his own world and how it is representative of how the center of ALL of our worlds is also the center of the world. (Ornella, who attended with me, was struck by how similar were so many things in her own childhood upbringing in Sicily. When I pointed that out to Onfray, he said it had to do with the similarity of a rural upbringing everywhere, which we agreed was true.)
Like one of the other philosopher writers whose works have influenced me in my life, Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British letters, Onfray is both massively loathed and massive loved by the public in his country. As I said in the beginning, he was France’s best-selling philosopher in 2005-2006 or so. Now, I have no idea what his position is in terms of sales, but like Wilson as well, he is mighty prolific.
And his works and words and persona continue in France to elicit massive amounts of public attention – love him or hate him.
What is fabulous about this documentary is how we see the simple, normal, but at the same time exceptional man behind the public persona. And we see the people who were important in his life: His mother and his most influential elementary school teacher are not only both interviewed in the film, but they were both present at the screening last night, and present until after midnight at the party. Both are pushing 90 years old or beyond!
And this in itself is one of the most convincing aspects of Onfray that most people who dislike him probably have no idea about: What famous public persona philosopher would make his mom and school teacher of his childhood as welcome a part of his literary world?
When I first met him in 2006 and attended a dinner with him and some of the teachers of his Université Populaire at a meal at his home in Chamois, I remember at one point in the evening his parents coming in to say hello.
But, as it turns out, this aspect of Onfray’s life – connecting the real with the philosophical – is central to this thinking, and it was not entirely new to me – even if the film strengthens my understanding through the power of the images. One of the first books I read of his, was “La Puissance d’Exister,” or “The Strength to Exist,” in which he recounts how his life led to his philosophy. I find in my notes from 2006 this paragraph:
“I told him I had finished reading the Atheist Manifesto, and then had started reading the Strength to Exist. I told him that I was very surprised by the account of his youth, but said that I thought it worked very, very well to show where his philosophy came from, what inspired it. He said that he had done this in many of his books, in fact, starting from a personal point and moving to the philosophy. I then recalled the same had indeed been the case with “The Stomach of the Philosophers,” (his book “Le Ventre des Philosophes”). But no sooner had we said these few words than his parents entered the house, almost on cue to put an end to the discussion about his unhappy childhood.”
The documentary shows a man who is so deeply in touch with the natural world – the plants, gardens, streams and fields – of Chambois, that there is a sense coming through the film of this attachement to the earth that seems to feed his writing. Colin Wilson was often accused of existing ONLY in the world of books. But Onfray in this film makes it clear how in his life and world, nature came first, and the books came second. And the best writing is one that brings us back to the real world in which we live.
We meet also his childhood friend, Ghislain Gondouin, who we learn introduced him to many minor poets, and also to politics. In fact, this is one of the shocking, interesting parts of the documentary: We learn where so many of Onfray’s seminal influences came from, and they were not coming from institutions or café culture, but from humble, simple, local people like the barber, butcher, school teacher, farmer or every place and person imaginable.
There will be nothing in the film for critics of Onfray to like, or even for many professional journalists, as there is not a bad word said about him. But why should there be? As Onfray said in the Q&A after the film, “This was a film done amongst friends. I knew I could trust them.” And what’s wrong with that, when the result is such an important understanding of one of France’s most important modern writers and philosophers?
The film, by Alexandre Jonette et Stéphane Simon, had appeared on local Normandy television once, and it is also now accessible on Onfray’s web site MichelOnfray.com.
Last Friday, 6 December 2019, marked the exact anniversary date three years ago that I finished working in my job reporting about Formula One for The New York Times (based in Paris, but writing for both its international and U.S. editions). It was also the day that I was invited to attend the International Automobile Federation‘s prize giving ceremony press conference at the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris, where Lewis Hamilton and the Mercedes team received their trophy for winning the Formula One titles this year, along with the other F.I.A. champions from other series. So with that personal synchronicity in mind, and as a fan of the series, I attended the press conference, wondering how I would feel about my past life re-emerging on that timely date.
Before I say more about my feelings on that, I want to mention the other synchronicity – the next day, or rather, at around 1:38 AM that same night/next morning: Saturday, 7 December. That day is my birthday – which my brother, Scott, likes to quote Franklin D. Roosevelt on regarding the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor as “a date which will live in infamy” – and in France’s Journal Officiel dated 7 December 2019 published around 1:38 AM that day, I found the decree that said I had become a French citizen. I had been fighting for that honor for 3 1/2 years – ie, since the Brexit referendum – and that it should fall on my birthday, and precisely three years after ending my career as an NYT journalist, was beautiful – and felt full of significance.
So the whole weekend was a blessed time. Despite having to battle my way through a French transport strike and rain, arriving at the Louvre drenched in both sweat and precipitation (from running through the rain for the last 40 minutes of the journey), the visit to the prize giving was an extraordinary moment. It was the first time I found myself involved in an F.I.A. press conference while no longer reporting for my newspaper. While I did decide that I would do a few tweets and write something about it on this blog – thereby making it a legitimate invitation – my biggest reason for attending was to see the world in which I had lived for more than two decades from my new point of view as a fan only.
I was delighted to meet up again with so many of my former paddock friends and colleagues: Journalists like Joe Saward, Jonathan Noble of Autosport, Frédéric Ferret of L’Equipe, Alain Pernot of Sport-Auto and other publications, and Andrea Cremonesi of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Tom Clarkson, who interviewed the drivers for the F.I.A., or Dieter Rencken, the South African journalist; team press officers like Bradley Lord of Mercedes (who has been press officer in teams that have now won the title 8 times (Renault and Mercedes), and his boss Toto Wolff. And of the drivers, there was Jean-Eric Vergne, the Formula E champion whom I have known since he was 15; Fernando Alonso; and, of course, Lewis Hamilton. And finally, Jean Todt, the president of the F.I.A., whom I first met as the Ferrari team director in 1997, who was also present as the organizer and key officiator of the event, of course.
I guess the word best to describe the experience would be: Flashback! But for the first time attending a press conference, I felt no pressure to produce any reports.
It was, though, very strange to hear the same kinds of questions being asked in the same way by the same people to the same people. It made me wonder how it feels for the drivers and teams to confront the same members of the media year after year, decade after decade. This, of course, is the same situation we find in any media circus: at the White House, the Olympic Games, soccer or even in coverage of show business, fashion or even science, no doubt.
But I thought about how surreal it must feel sometimes for the stars, such as Hamilton and Alonso, (and even for the not as successful drivers who must sit next to these stars and be ignored by the media while all the questions go to the stars, as happened in Alonso’s World Endurance Championship racing team, as the Spaniard received all the questions from the media). How surreal it must be to see the same inquisitors asking the same questions year after year.
And I am not here criticizing the work of my former colleagues or of the F.I.A., all of whom are doing a fabulous job. This is just the nature of the beast. But having been away from it all for so long, it felt strange to find myself plopped right back into the paradigm, as if time had stopped, and all that I had done for the last three years had never existed, and I was again reporting on Formula One and other car racing series.
It was a little like how it felt a few months ago when I visited The National Theatre in London where I had worked 42 years ago as a bartender, and I found the place unchanged. And I thought, had I stayed there and made a career of it, I would have been in a world unchanged, rather than having felt as if I have lived a full, adventurous life since then….
It certainly comes down to our passions: Probably most of the people who have and will spend their lives in Formula One – or at the National Theatre – cannot imagine a life they would love better than that, cannot imagine a life without that environment. I spent 33 years employed by the International Herald Tribune and its successor, the International New York Times. While I would have happily continued, I am even happier that I have been able to transform my life into something else since then – working in the TAC Teatro theater company (back to the past?!), playing my music, writing on other subjects, avoiding much travel, and making films – while remaining a fan of racing.
These observations are probably obvious to most people, and probably I had many of them to a slightly lesser degree while in the thick of reporting on Formula One. But during such an emotional couple of days, it was all perfectly timed: The world DOES change. If we choose to make it change. I no longer cover Formula One as I used to. I still watch every session and race, and I still love it. But I am no longer part of the circus – or perhaps never really was. I am now French, after 36 years living in this country, and while I may feel like that is a fabulous consecration, I suppose that in many ways I have been French for decades.
But no wonder that the thing I found most interesting about the press conference was hearing Hamilton and Alonso talking about their life-changes, about the different worlds they live in, not just Formula One. I managed to film a bit of that, and I am putting it up here on the blog – in my role as a journalist attending a Formula One press conference again….
We took a short break from the creation of our work-in-progress at TAC Teatro in order to put together and perform a commemoration for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Originally intending to put on the flash mob and short performance in Asnières-sur-Seine, where the company rehearses, we had a last minute change of plan and did it all in Paris. So it was that putting on this performance we called “Les Chaussettes Rouges” (The Red Socks) was pure delight.
In the middle of a few weeks of desperately cold, rainy, horrible weather, our target date of 24 November, the day before the official date of the United Nations commemoration, we ended up with sun all over town. It could not have been a more beautiful day, and so it allowed us to use several different locations for the flash mob, and another location for the performance, as we spread the names of women victims of violence across the city where the day before there had been a demonstration of 45,000 people in support of the same cause.
As you can see in the above video that we made of the day, we started by rehearsing what we planned in a small, quiet backstreet of the Place de Clichy. Then we put on the first flash mob at the beginning of the Boulevard de Clichy. After that, we walked to the Place des Abbesses, in Montmartre, where we did the second flash mob.
We performed a third flash mob at Stalingrad, in the big place by the canal, and we did the performance in the park of Belleville in a kind of modern take on an ancient amphitheater. Present were all of the actors of TAC Teatro and a couple of the students from TAC’s acting school.
It was quite an emotional, but also liberating, day, as we moved through the city as a group and performed for a surprised public, looking and pointing to the sky for the victims of domestic violence. The flash mob and performance was something we all wove together in a few days preceding the event – with lots of thought having gone into it in the month before, week to week, as we continued to prepare our show.
It was, as Ornella Bonventre, the director of TAC Teatro said, the preparation for the event that was as much an act of contributing towards this cause as was the actual performance.
We had a fabulous two weeks at TAC Teatro working daily on our next show, and then crowning the work period with a demonstration of the creative process to spectators at the Petit Théâtre in Asnières-sur-Seine. There we interspersed our personal work on the next show with explanations of how we went through the creative process to come up with the scores. The whole was led, of course, by Ornella Bonventre, the director of TAC Teatro, who was also the one behind leading us towards our individual creations.
It’s a process of work that I began wondering if I would ever come out of it with anything at all. But on the very first day, with the instructions Ornella gave us, I began to create my character and his place in the show. Can there be any surprise that the character comes from a circus background and so did some juggling, tight-rope walking and…reading of the beginning of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”?
Brad Spurgeon at TAC Teatro work demonstration
If you don’t understand a word of what I just explained there, well, you will have to come to the show when it is finished later next year. The other members of the company to perform in the work demonstration – who worked in the same manner as I just explained, but who came up with many different kinds of characters and scores – were Sara Baudry, Ioana Jarda, Marine Lefèvre, Julie Lossec, Marina Meinero, Pacôme Puech, and Janice Zadrozynski.
Marina was the only one not physically present, as she had a commitment in Italy. But she sent a video of her work, which I place below.
Ornella Bonventre speaking to the spectators during the TAC Teatro work demonstration
Keep posted for the next steps of the work-in-progress.
Why have I done so few posts on this blog in recent months? Let’s call it a TACtic. I have mentioned TAC Teatro a few times on this blog in the past three years, and especially my activities with TAC. But as of this summer, I have been devoting a lot more time to TAC, and am now a full member of the troupe. This is part of a decision to transform all my open mic experiences into something different, and, hopefully, bigger.
When I say bigger, I mean above all in terms of range of use of the body, voice, performance. I continue to play guitar and write every day – in fact, I am working on a very big writing project that I will finish at the end of the year – but I got to the point with the open mics that it felt as if I was repeating myself. Since stopping my travel to the Formula One races at the end of 2016, I had pretty much only Paris as my stage. And as big and beautiful and great is that stage, playing the same open mics with the same songs for the same spectators began to wear on me.
But my love of performing and my need to create are as strong as ever and always. Now, invited by Ornella Bonventre, the director of TAC Teatro, to involve myself even more than before – that is to say, with at least three meetings with the newly formed Paris troupe per week — I have found what feels like the answer to the stagnation at the open mics.
Of course, I am also continuing several other projects, such as the completing of my open mic documentary and the completing of my open mic memoir. But as far as performing goes, the idea is to build as much as possible on the physical theater of TAC Teatro. This is a kind of theater that appeals to me as it involves voice, music, physical action, acrobatics, puppetry, juggling, unicycling, text and just about every other thing you can imagine all wrapped into one.
Among its great proponents are groups like Odin Teatret of Denmark – I am also finishing the editing of a video interview with the founder of that theater, Eugenio Barba, that I conducted along with Ornella – and even the Théâtre du Soleil of Paris, and many others. TAC Teatro has existed for many years in Italy, and Ornella started up the Paris part two years ago. This year is the biggest step so far, with the recent gathering of several new performers – and you could say I am part of that wave.
In the first week of September five of us, under Ornella’s direction, put together a performance on the theme of borders, or “Frontières” that we performed on an outdoor stage at the city hall of Asnières-sur-Seine, where the French TAC is legally based in France. I am putting up on this blog page two videos connected to that event, one of which is a short video of the performance that Luca Papini, an Italian filmmaker in Paris, made.
The other video is of my own specific contribution to the writing of the performance, that did not make it into Luca’s film. All the performers created the first seeds of their own scenes, which we all then worked on together under Ornella’s directing, and so I was pleased to learn that Ornella had found in the filmed bits of our rehearsals and moments of creation, that there was a good, complete filming of my scene. (The exercise of filming the rehearsals was in order for the performers to have a more objective view of their work.) Ornella just finished preparing that segment as a video, which I post above.
TAC Rehearsal with music
We all used our personal preoccupations of the moment to create these seeds of our scenes, which were all also somehow connected to the theme of borders. My own section, called “Le Passeport,” as you will see, has to do with my personal battle with the concept of Brexit, which is affecting me to the point of madness as I wonder at how long I will be considered a legal citizen in France, as opposed to an illegal alien…. And I emphasize that word ALIEN.
So to sum up, again, my lack of presence on the blog in recent months has had nothing to do with an end to my creative projects, but rather, a reduction in the approach of the past – focusing almost entirely on open mics – and the beginning of a new approach, combining all of my interests, including playing music. I hope now I can shake myself out of the lack of contributions to the blog and back into a cycle of regular updates, but on a bigger theme!
This is the article my father wrote for the Globe and Mail about man landing on the moon – written 50 years ago today, published 50 years ago tomorrow. I, with my brother and sister and mother, were there with him at Cape Kennedy (as it was then called) and we watched the Apollo 11 spacecraft lift off toward the moon. We stayed at Cocoa Beach while he then flew off to Houston, and Mission Control, for the rest of the coverage.
At one point, one early evening, without a board, I asked my father to rent me one. He said no, but that I should go ask that man over there with a woman if I could use his, as he was not using it. I was unsure why he singled out this man, but I went and asked for his board. “No,” came the abrupt answer. Returning to tell my Dad, he asked me if I knew who the man was. Of course I did not, but he responded: “That’s Norman Mailer, Brad.” Mailer was attending the launch researching his eventual book, “Of a Fire on the Moon.”
If my father perhaps wanted to use me to meet Mailer, he did give me another unforgettable memory when while I was swimming in our hotel pool, he drew my attention to an elderly man entering a room above – the doors of the rooms faced the pool below, as in a motel – and I can still see the image of the man entering the room. “That’s Charles Lindbergh,” my father told me. And, of course, it was. Lindbergh, then only 67 years old, and the first man to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, was still around to attend the moon launch. An extraordinary century.
But many decades later, in our own century now, my father asked me what it was like to cover Formula One racing as a journalist. I told him that it was very interesting because it was about so many different things: The drivers were heroes risking their lives and doing exceptional feats of athletic prowess; they drove cars that were the highest expression of cutting edge technology, and expensive as hell; that it was a mix of extremely rapid technological development, glamour, money and danger with the drivers as stars. His response to me was: “It sounds just like covering the space program in the 1960s.” That is when I realised that no matter how hard we try to escape our origins, our family background, our parents’ goals for us, well, we somehow end up back at the same place….
2:30 AM: Arrived in Cluj-Napoca, the capital of Transylvania. Expected at least one vampire sighting, saw none.
10:30 AM: Awoke, went to pharmacy for eye infection that looked like vampire bite. At pharmacy, pleasant Romanian able to speak English sold me magic garlic bullet – also contained cortisone and antibiotic – mercifully given me despite it requiring a doctor’s prescription.
11:00 AM: Went to fruit market to buy lemons, spinach and cloves of garlic.
1:00 PM: Returned to apartment to work all afternoon on various writing projects, along with Ornella, who is writing an article for an Italian magazine (not about vampires).
7:00 PM: After eating local food made by mother of our host – chicken soup for the soul made from her very own chicken (not killed by a vampire) -, took a walk around Cluj after several applications of garlic gel on eye infection. Saw many different quarters of university town, from typical public places with bars spilling out under awning-covered tables onto the sidewalks to rapidly flowing, violent river at edge of town to canal that looked like a perfect setting for Dracula to make an attack and lure is into unknown territory. Noticed scary looking metal spike on side of the bridge where Ornella and I both looked at each other and think about Vlad the Impaler.
Saw national theater with Hungarian words in name; national opera; another national theater; a few cool bars reminiscent of Budapest kerts (or beer gardens); noticed barbed wire and old communist era signs in several places.
8:30 PM: Went out for a glass of wine and chocolate brownie at Charlie’s, a bar with the image of Charlie Chaplin. First had a local white, then had a local red. Thought I saw vampire and accidentally spilled Ornella’s wine all over her with overly abrupt hand and arm movement. Fortunately was the white wine or vampire might have mistaken it for blood.
Found whole city to look like Budapest 20 years ago when first went to that East European country. Expressed surprise to host on seeing no Roma, or Gypsies, anywhere as I see them on a daily basis in Paris. Host laughed at me, as she had at every mention of vampires or Dracula.
10:37 AM: Woke up after bad night sleep and early morning storm worthy of a vampire (learned later that hail stones the size of golf balls fell on the location of our home for the next week and a half, in Talmaciu). Prepare to go to Talmaciu, to factory that is to be our home for next week and a half.
4:30 PM: Arrive at Fabrique RE-Évolution / FREE / France Roumanie Europe Ensemble to find no gypsies. Look on Wikipedia and find that population of Talmaciu is only just over 3 percent gypsy. Find no vampires either. Despite certain parts of factory looking like good homes for vampires (or Roma, or Gypsies).
7:00 PM: Attend first conference at fabrique, featuring former minister of culture for Romania, and former boss of the Romanian Culture Center in NYC, and former a lot of things. Learn much about what it was to live under communism. Learn even more about what it is to have lived under communism and then in 1989 to face freedom. Hear no word about vampires – except in form of former communist padres – and nothing about Roma, or Gypsies.
12:30 AM: Begin to jam in dining area of Fabrique RE-Évolution / FREE / France Roumanie Europe Ensemble with musicians. Have time of life playing music and watching two musicians clown around with the music.
2:00 AM: Go to bed, closing windows at first tight against vampires, then opening windows but put mosquito repellent against vampires. (And copious mosquitoes present.)
11:00 AM: Awake in sunlight, having survived no vampire attack.
2:00 PM: Take bus to Sibiu, local big town, capital of the county. Find typical architecture of the region, mix of Romanian, Hungarian and German styles. Tried to meet Rocco, man of more than 250 guitar collection. Rocco answers phone, says he is many kilometres away in another town. Leaves me with no guitar – because Wizzair wanted me to pay for an extra seat for my guitar, so I did not take it. (Devise inspirational, brilliant, advertising campaign for Wizzair (also known as Wizz): “Next time you go on vacation, take a wizz!”)
3:00 PM: Find one of two music stores in Sibiu, go there and ask to try cheapest guitar that exists. Play Emerald green “Flame” guitar costing 60 euros. Find it more than serviceable, not bad at all. Buy guitar, strap and Fender strings for total of 74 euros. In store meet elderly, white-haired man with strong accent in English, says he is from Denmark but lives in Sibiu. Has guitar on back. After leaving store, elderly man approaches again in street. Says he owns 250 guitars. Ask him if he knows Rocco. Says yes, adds, “Rocco has 2,500 guitars.” Danish man tells me he himself gives guitars away; makes me think 74 euros was thrown in waste.
3:30 PM: Look for second music store in Sibiu for small percussion instruments for Ornella’s workshop, meet up with strange Danish man again. Says he knows all of the music bars and music restaurants in the city. Suggests I busk in street to earn back 74 euros. Ask him if he knows the other music store in Sibiu, show him on map, he does not. But knows others.
4:00 PM: Eat lunch at restaurant in outdoor awning-covered terrace on main square. Wait half an hour for food despite no other clients present – or practically none. Eat quickly, find second music store in Sibiu and second cheapo guitar of same price as new Flame. Second guitar piece of garbage – despite visually better. Find percussion instruments for Ornella’s workshop – a tambourine-like drum but without the symbols, and also a tambourine-like loop with the symbols but without the drum skin … leads me to think second music store in Sibiu is trying to make us pay twice as much for same effect in two pieces as if we had just a classic tambourine.
5:30 PM: Go to main bus and train station of Sibiu to catch bus back to Talmaciu as instructed by host. Learn at main bus and train station of Sibiu that there are no more buses back to Talmaciu. Young man approaches – later tells me he saw me playing guitar and singing to locals on the parking lot of bus and train station of Sibiu – speaks in perfect Australian English offering a ride somewhere as we appear in distress. We tell him we are going to Talmaciu and he says he is passing by that way exactly and offers us a ride. In his van I learn he is son of a Baptist missionary in Romania. My family has long line of Baptist missionaries in India, and is directly linked to a famous Baptist preacher named C.H. Spurgeon. He knows my name and is surprised. Nice coincidence.
7:00 PM: Listen to conference on Hamlet at Fabrique given by an American English professor. Speak to the professor and find he lived in the same building as two of my former newspaper colleagues in Paris. Nice coincidence. No sighting of Roma, or Gypsies, but suspect man who directs factory is Roma, or Gypsy, as he brought to conference most interested and interesting spectators: Two Goanna “monitor” lizards from Australia. (See photo.) Goannas listening to Hamlet, Cioran and Pessoa.
00:00 PM: Meet clown musician of night before going to another jam and offers us to join. I say, “No,” too much work at conference next day.
8:15 AM: Awake in Romanofir factory in Talmaciu, site of FREE. Feel fine, despite rooster crowing for 1 hour and sun flowing in window with no curtains.
Brad and Ornella in front of FREE event diary
9:00 AM: Start workshop – more or less – in incredible old theatre in factory. Theatre built as cinema, but with huge stage, lights, red seats for hundreds. Rundown after years without use. Building full of nooks and crannies and perfect place for Vampires or Roma, or Gypsies. No sightings, however, except maybe in projection room a reel of Dracula films. (Just joking.)
8:30 PM: Join members of workshop at their tents, play “Mad World” with Flame guitar. Informed halfway through song that sheep and goats in adjacent field run around like mad over music. Approach the animals, but only the three horned leaders come to check me out – and fend me off – as sheep hide in field behind. No sightings of vampires. Or Roma, or Gypsies. Continue to play music and listen to workshop participants play music with my new Flame – very good singer and player present among them. Makes me want to quit. (Well, ok, no, but you get the idea.)
Projectors at Romanofir Factory cinema and theater
10:00 PM: Attend concert of man playing flutes and cornemeuse and Lo Schuh, organizer of Fabrique singing and chanting and reciting to the music. No sighting of gypsies or vampires, but shadow of Lo Schuh from spotlight on wall of building next-door looking like Dracula, as Lo Schuh wears exotic Dracula-like clothing.
10:30 PM: Return to campsite, start thinking about vampires and Roma, or Gypsies in moon-flooded night. Romanians at campsite, participants in workshop, talk about how world outside has preconceptions of Romania, especially Transylvania, as land of Vampires and Roma, or Gypsies. Leap from my chair now aware they are aware of this stereotyping. Also learn that minority of Roma, or Gypsies badly treated by majority of Romanians. So Roma, or Gypsies in their mind same as in our mind in the West.
00:00 PM: Go to bed thinking how stupid I am to reduce Romania to Vampires and Roma, or Gypsies. Then remember moment on the way to listen to Lo Schuh when what seemed like a Vampire bat flew past my head and head of Romanian host. Host agreed it must have been vampire bat. Fall asleep anyway, no problems.
8:15 AM: Awake. Feel fine, despite rooster crowing for 1 hour at least and sun flowing in window with no curtains. No vampire bats. No Roma, or Gypsies. Forget all troubles. Do workshop, day ends well. Feel liberated to no longer have preconceptions about Roma, or Gypsies and Vampires in Romania. Have discovered amazing country, like so many in so many ways of those visited elsewhere in the world. Always people. Just people. Not Roma, or Gypsies, no vampires.
More to come in coming days, including explanation of discovery of cloves of garlic in Romanian woodshed pictured in first photo of diary … too busy to keep up beyond Saturday, but new week to deliver new adventures….
Keith Botsford in a YouTube interview (before his death)
PARIS – I just had the most extraordinary obituary reading experience of my life. And I must have read obituaries on an average of at the very least once per week for the last 40 or so years. It felt at times as if I was reading satire, or high comedy, or was it low comedy? It felt often like reading something out of “Scoop,” the satirical novel of the newspaper business by Evelyn Waugh. Although I only saw it today, this obituary ran in The New York Times three days ago under the headline: “Keith Botsford, Man of Letters and Saul Bellow Associate, Dies at 90.” And the wild experience plants itself – as all good journalism should – right in the first paragraph (or lead, or lede): “Keith Botsford, a globe-trotting, multilingual and multifaceted man of letters who became a longtime collaborator with Saul Bellow, died last year, on Aug. 19, in London — a death that drew little public notice at the time. He was 90.”
My first thought was that it was great that The Times decided to run his obituary despite him having died a year earlier. But then in the second paragraph I learn that his death did not really go so unnoticed as all that: “His death was noted two days later by The New England Review of Books on its website and, 16 days later, in a 25-word paid death notice in The Boston Globe, but it was otherwise not reported widely. The Times of London published an obituary two months later, and the Boston University alumni magazine, Bostonia, noted his death in its recent winter-spring issue.”
This reminded me that I had read last year the obituary by The Times of London, or was pretty sure I had. They are among the best obits in the world, and they are quite widely read and authoritative. So it seemed to me that the media that really missed Mr. Botsford’s death was more The New York Times, not really the wider world as such, as the first paragraph indicated. This was, in short, no scoop! But it led directly and immediately to the next extraordinary moment in this reading experience in the third paragraph: “The New York Times learned of his death on Thursday while updating an obituary about him that had been prepared in advance in 2014. Reached on Saturday, his son Gianni confirmed the death.”
Wait a minute!!!! Hold it!!!! Ever since the horrendous Jayson Blair incident at the NYT, when an up-and-coming reporter was found to have fabricated a large number of his articles – i.e., made up the stories, the quotes, and even the travel expenses (as he sometimes claimed expenses for trips not taken, the stories having been written at home) – the NYT devised a number of new rules about reporting that I find absurd, and which it has in many cases stuck to ever since. One of these is to say exactly where a person was interviewed from: ie, “said Mr. So-and-So in an email” or “said Mr. So-and-So in a telephone call” or “said Mr. So-and-So in a text message” etc., which personally I have always found interferes with the reader’s experience of trying to learn about what was said and not how it was conveyed to the reporter.
And one of the often most infuriating – to me – such rules, which I remember as coming from that same Blair period, was the one about having to have confirmation from a family member or some official of the death of the subject of an obituary. So here we are with the venerable New York Times giving us an obituary in which we are told that the subject died almost a year earlier, that it was reported in several major publications and that there was even a – perhaps obligatory – death notice bought in the formerly NYT-owned Boston Globe…and we have to have the NYT call up the son of the subject of the obit and ask him to confirm the death to put the suspicious reader’s doubts at ease!?!?! Despite abundant proof that the subject died a year earlier?
This is also the point when the satire of the form of the article begins to create an even wilder mix with the subject of the obituary. The next paragraph, right below that stylistic convention in the NYT – here absurd – begins with this sentence about the subject of the obituary: “Mr. Botsford was a fluid, prolific writer unfettered by the boundaries of form or genre.” I said to myself, “So what the hell then would Mr. Botsford be thinking now about this boundary of form of the genre, I wonder? That the NYT had to ask for confirmation from his son despite ample proof he was dead and gone…or if not ample proof, then at least nearly a year has past, which would be plenty of time for Mr. Botsford to write letters to the editors of the venerable publications that announced his death, complaining, as another famous writer had, that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.
We now learn that Mr. Botsford was “a novelist, essayist, journalist, biographer, memoirist, teacher, translator and founder, with Bellow, of three literary magazines, most recently News From the Republic of Letters. … A Renaissance man, he also composed chamber works, a ballet and choral music, and was fluent in seven languages and able to read a dozen.”
Here we begin rising even higher in this crescendo of the extraordinary nature of this obituary and its subject: Botsford’s life was a tale that might stand beautifully alongside that of Woody Allen’s Zelig, for being a man all over the map, except here Botsford’s talents are clearly exceptional, and not just some chance thing. (In addition to his literary exploits, the article tells us that, “By his account he served as a spy in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.”)
But then the obituary’s extraordinary nature pokes its head out again a couple of paragraphs later with our first “live” quote from the subject of the obit when describing his first meeting with Saul Bellow in the early 1950s at a party, which would lead to the two writers becoming lifelong friends and colleagues:
“It was Saul Bellow, and he was pinned against the wall by a dreadful man from Winnipeg,” Mr. Botsford recalled in an interview for this obituary in 2014. “I had just read ‘The Adventures of Augie March,’ so I walked up and started talking to him.”
Bellow, left, and Botsford
Hold the presses again!!!! Our first quote from the deceased comes from an interview that was done by the author of this very same obituary and for the purpose of this very same obituary that we are reading. What?!?!? I may have been very inattentive in my reading of obituaries, but I feel this is the first time I have been informed that the subject of the obituary was interviewed by the writer of the obituary for use in the obituary itself. Is this morbid? Well, thank goodness they informed us in the beginning of the story that the son of this man confirmed to the NYT that this man was indeed dead. Otherwise, reading that he had been quoted here from an interview he did FOR this obituary, I might have thought him still alive and taking part in some kind of a practical joke about his own death notice….
Wild! But it also makes me feel as if someone at the NYT must have said, “Gee, we went to so much trouble to write this obit, including interviewing the guy, and we then missed his death and never used it?! Come on. Let’s not waste this. Get it in print.”
The obituary then spends several paragraphs talking about the relationship between these two men – is it more about Bellow than about Botsford? No, no. – until I get to a part where I learn that Mr. Botsford and I have something else in common aside from both being fans of Bellow: “In his journalism, Mr. Botsford was equally at ease writing about movie stars, concert pianists, bullfighters, novelists and race drivers. Formula One racing and the Boston Red Sox were two of his passions, along with literature, music and food.”
Formula One racing! Which, yes, I wrote about for a couple of decades for the NYT and its International Herald Tribune edition (although I have no longer been employed by either paper since 2016, and I still love reading the NYT, as this rant makes clear). But that’s just a personal thing that lit a fire for me, and probably has no place in this rant!
We find he also published some two dozen novels, and had the university education and degrees of about three or four people all rolled into one. We learn that he was born in Europe, and his family background was as fantastic as his own life, particularly the larger than life tale of his mother and her family. Her name was “Carolina Elena Rangoni-Machiavelli-Publicola-Santacroce,” and, continues the article, “He said that his mother was a descendant of Niccolo Machiavelli and that his father’s ancestors had helped found Milford, Conn., on Long Island Sound, in 1639. Mr. Botsford recalled his maternal grandmother employing 120 servants at her house near Recanati, Italy, on the Adriatic Sea.”
Wow! Love it!
Picasso and Jacqueline
He ended up moving to Costa Rica and living in a fabulous home overlooking the sea, a house designed by his son, an architect – and the very man who confirmed his father’s death to the NYT a year after it happened – and then one of the most extraordinary moments of all, the kicker, for me, of the tale of Keith Botsford’s extraordinary life: We learn that he was married three times, and that his last wife was 52 years younger than him! That stands as a record for me of age difference in spouses, far outdoing even Charlie Chaplin and Oona O’Neill’s 36-year difference, or Picasso and Jacqueline’s 45-year difference!
So here, the subject of the obituary finally takes over in wonderment from the form of the story completely – form follows function at this point – and we are left with a feeling that this was absolutely a unique, extraordinary person, and thank goodness the NYT chose to publish this story, even one year too late.
Having said that, the subject of the obit and the tale of the obit itself, its writing form, come together again in the kicker that the NYT writer left us with. The following concept may be true of Bellow and Botsford, but it is also clearly true of the way this obit was written – whether intended or not:
“Whether writing fiction, journalism or biography, Mr. Botsford always kept the reader in mind. For this he thanked Bellow:”
“As my dear friend Saul Bellow put it to me, ‘Take the reader by the hand, Keith, and he will follow you anywhere.’ Or as I tell my students, ‘You are not writing for me, but for the world. Or at least for your Aunt Nellie in Boise, Idaho.’ ”
Something tells me that Keith Botsford would have been amused.
PARIS – Performing in front of the Pompidou Center last Sunday afternoon, I had my first taste of dancing in a choreography. I feel often like the world’s worst dancer, and although music is at the center of my life, I hate dancing. I love to watch fine dancers, I just feel that I cannot do it. But the choreography on Sunday was in the form mostly of a kind of boxing movement, and we were in a big enough group that I felt I could fade into the mass and not be seen! So why did I do such a thing in front of the famous Pompidou Center – and in front of several cameras filming it?
Simple: I, like the other 14 or 15 people who took part in the performance – called “La 27ème heure” – was invited by Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro, with which I have performed occasionally over the last couple of years. Most importantly: The event was designed to fight violence against women. Another detail for why I participated was that in addition to the dance, I was told I could sing a song and play my guitar. So that gave me the inspiration to try the rest….
And so commenced several weeks of artistic creation for the Pompidou performance. Very early on the street action transformed from the kind of spectator participation event that TAC usually does into a performance in which the spectators were just that – invited to enter mentally into the performance, if not physically or vocally – and based on a choreography directed by Philippe Ducou, of ARTA. Ornella and the other artists proposed texts related to women’s rights.
In addition to her experience in performing street actions for women’s rights at TAC Teatro, Ornella also has frequently staged the “Vagina Monologues” of the author Eve Ensler, in Italy, in Italian. So several of the spoken texts came from excerpts of the “Vagina Monologues,” and were performed in several languages – French, English, Romanian, Vietnamese.
Ornella gave the event the name “La 27ème heure,” or “The 27th hour,” after an Italian study that showed that women have days that consisted of 26 hours – to take care of their jobs, their homes, their children, their husbands, etc. – where men need only 24 hours. The 27th hour is the hour that the women should have to be free and do as they please, to escape from their burden however they wish.