Extract 1 from WIP No. 2


Valse.  The alternative spelling of waltz, preferred, perhaps, by those who look to the west of Europe for the origins of that odd time signature rather than to its east.  5/4 time, the so-called, ‘limping waltz’, though to limp in such a manner one would need to be an amputee insect, of a species incapable of regenerating its limbs. There are competing claims to be investigated. 

First, we travel eastward to a mosquito-infested swamp on the Silesian plains. We proceed along a village street, an unmade dirt track full of potholes and ruts. The dwellings are all of the same design, narrow single-storey hovels like those in a macabre folk tale, placed lengthways to the road like pork sausages on a grill. A big, society wedding is in the offing.  The local pig farmer’s daughter is marrying the son of the cement works manager. The farmer has use of a tractor. The church shows Russian influence in its spherical cupola. The village band is playing, a wedding march for the drunk and the lame. Imagine Mendelssohn played as an arthritic alcoholic. One-two-three, one-two…  One-two-three, one-two… 

And now we travel across to the far west of the continent, out onto the Celtic Fringe. We find ourselves in a tiny commune in Brittany. Let us call it ‘Kerplunc’. Much that we might recognise in a Breton village is missing. So there is no bakery or bar/tobacconist, no butchery or press. Maybe they’ve closed down.  Perhaps they were never present in the first place. And yet even here, despite its rump population, its cast of old ladies and bankrupt drunks, strange recluses and back-to-nature hippies, the village still hosts its yearly fest noz and people come from many miles around to help celebrate the gathering in of another harvest. The village square is tiny. And it isn’t even square. What follows, then, to borrow a phrase from Brubeck, will be an unsquare dance. The band has begun to play. The instruments are traditional – fiddle, accordion, the Breton bagpipe and drum.  The stalls sell Camembert and French sticks and vast quantities of alcohol – red wine, ‘brut’ cider, blonde beer…  Many of the revellers have dressed in folk costume, the women in full-length dresses in heavy fabrics and drab colours, britches, waistcoats and frilly blouses for the men. As tourists, we stand at the margins, granted observer status only. The dancers form a circle that fills the entire square and begin shuffling around in an anti-clockwise direction, shifting in time with the music. This is the ‘gavotte’. The participants make those strange, crab-like movements. The wheel turns. It looks simple, primitive even. And yet somehow, the movement of the dancers is hypnotic. The music becomes more insistent, lying somewhere between a dirge and a jig. There is something alien about it, a disconcerting quality. The alcohol is flowing, and now it’s not just the drunken bankrupts who have begun to feel intoxicated. ‘Come on!’ the locals regale us. ‘Join in!’ At first, we resist but they won’t be denied. We find ourselves dragged into the wheel. And that’s when it becomes apparent that the dance is not so simple, after all. We try moving our feet sideward as for a waltz but find ourselves falling out of step every other bar.  We attempt a march.  We fall in.  We fall out.  And it’s not just the alcohol that impedes our movement.  Our feet cannot read this music.  For these sons and daughters of peasants, it is second nature. They move intuitively with the five beats in each bar. 

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