26th July, 2013
My Dear Readers,
I have come across an unusual discovery, which I would like to share with you. As you know from reading my column, I am a familiar figure at Belfast’s auction houses, and (although I say so myself), I do quite well out of them. I have a nose for a good find. So, about three weeks ago I went down to Anderson’s to have a look, and to get straight to the point, I couldn’t believe my luck. Amongst the usual house-clearance detritus was a cardboard box full of books, some of which were lovely leather bound volumes, maybe from the Nineteenth Century or early Twentieth. The auction catalogue simply said ‘various books and papers, mostly in German.’ Well, I haven’t much of a clue about the German language (‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ is about the height of it), but I know quality when I see it, and it just so happens that I have a contact in the book trade in Switzerland. So I reckoned I was on to a bargain, as long as nobody else had spotted my little treasure trove. And I was correct in my suspicions, for there was no interest in the lot and I got it for next to nothing.
As soon as I arrived home I excitedly pulled out the books and sorted them into four piles: first the interesting old volumes, then the paperbacks: German in one stack (Günter Grass, Nietzsche etc), English in the other (mostly Irish: Joyce, Yeats, Flann O’Brien, etc), and finally an uninspiring collection of yellowing sheet music and battered notebooks. Later on that evening I emailed my man Frank in Basel with the details of the German books. Even though I couldn’t understand the text, I must say I was pretty confident about them; they looked good: gold-tooled gothic letters on the covers and spines, marbled endpapers, gilded page-edges. They were well preserved too; the various owners had obviously taken care of them fastidiously. One name, Edgar H. Wankel, was neatly inscribed on the flyleaf of each book, with an accompanying date and place as well. The earliest was Köln, 1951, the latest Heidelberg, 1967. I briefly toyed with the idea that this man might be the famous inventor of the rotary engine, but dismissed the notion fairly quickly – it would be too much to hope for. But maybe Frank would be able to tell me something; an interesting provenance could add considerably to the sale value for the right buyer.
I was a little miffed when I started reading Frank’s message later on the next day. The books were academic treatises, mainly in the field of anthropology. Not much use to me, I thought. But my mood improved as he went on to inform me of the niche market for these specialised volumes in his part of the world, and apparently if I was right about the quality he could offer me a decent price for them. Unfortunately Frank couldn’t find any connection to the inventor; he thought that Herr Wankel must have been a scholar; maybe a lecturer at Queen’s University or something like that? In the end, I was happy enough to ship the books off to him along with the German paperbacks. I easily sold the English ones as well (they were in good condition too), and soon all I had left was the papers and notebooks. I had a very busy spell involving several trips to Dublin, so it was nearly two weeks before I got round to looking at them (I had piled them up in a corner and neglected them while I got on with more pressing matters).
To be honest, I was still a little curious about the presumably-dead academic, and one gloomy day when I found myself at a loose end, I decided to rifle through the small stack to see what I could find there. I don’t read music, so after briefly running my eye over a couple of the scrappily-written music scores I put them aside for later and carried on searching. There were sheaves of scrawled notes, some in German, but most of them in English. In contrast to his earlier copperplate signatures in the academic books, his handwriting was hard to read; he must have been considerably older, or ill, when he wrote them. After trawling through this stuff for a while my eyes lit upon a bundle of dull-looking, red-covered, notebooks. When I opened the first one I was delighted to read at the top of the first page (inscribed in the same shaky, old-fashioned handwriting): E. H. Wankel, Reflections on the Irish and their Native Music; from my Journeys in Ireland, 1987-1994. I imagined him as a short, bespectacled, balding man, sitting at a grand mahogany writing desk in his study, carefully filling his fountain pen with blue ink, and commencing his Magnum Opus. The first entry, which described his arrival at Belfast International Airport in March 1987, was not very exciting, apart from some small details about the ‘smirking’ customs men and police at passport control, and the ‘excessive’ airport security. He uses quite a few German words in these passages, so I will not repeat them here.
As I went through the manuscripts (there were four), I came across a few significant and surprising observations, and although much of the writing was rather tedious, I have decided to share some of the more interesting ones with you over the coming weeks. I hope you enjoy them: they provide an objective outsider’s view of a society that had not yet been largely affected by the internet and mobile communications. I have transcribed them as faithfully as possible, (including a few mistakes) so that you may experience the ‘real Wankel.’ Here is the first, one of my favourites:
Belfast, 10. August 1992.
Since returning from the “Willy Week” (they called it this in honour of the late piper William Clancy, who they revere) in Miltown Malbay, County Clare, where I had the opportunity to observe a great many Irish music sessions, I have formulated a new theory concerning the Irish wooden flute players. Mein Gott, what a revelation it was! After queuing for two hours at the door I was very fortunate to get the best seat in the Clancy’s Bar, and spent the whole day there, until hunger got the better of me. This establishment is known locally as “The Blondes.” I was told by a reliable local man that this is because they only employ the fair-haired, blue-eyed girls. Although this is a wery good bar for music, their unfortunate employment practice makes me think with heavy regret of the shameful events in my own country’s past. I am certain that it must not be legal, but I note that it is interesting how these savage customs persist in the peasant lands of the West, especially where money is inwolved. Now – to the flautists. It was like a lightning bolt from above when I realised that every one of them I saw was hairless! (n.b. I speak only of the men at this time). Not all were completely like the baby’s arsch, but all had significant hairlessness. Very curious. I wondered at first if this should be because of the pressure when the flute is blowed, but if so it would have implications for all clarinet and saxophone, bagpipes &c. So this hypothesis must be rejected, and consider the next point (which is much more interesting): there is a physiological link between the Irisch flute and the player. Viz. only those of a certain genetic type (i.e. hairless) will learn to play the flaute. Perhaps they are attracted to the instrument like moths to a flame – they have no choice in the matter. Of course there are exep exceptions to every rule, and amongst the hundred or so flautists I observed during the week two (only two!) flautists had the full growth of hair. I briefly interviewed both gentlemen and was exited to learn that they had the common connection: both lived in the county of Roscommon (n.b. they both let me tug at their hair and I can confirm that neither was wearing a wig). It is well known to medical science that the natives of Sliabh Luachra share a unique physical defect as well as a distinct musical style (note: I must investigate this further also – flute players from S.L.), so it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that being a native of the county Roscommon would make some difference. Further research is needed (viz. vater quality, residence vs. native born, diet, larger samples, male vs. female, &c), but I am given heart by my discoveries so far. I only hope that God will grant me the years to finish this important work.
Field trip to Roscommon & National Fleadh Cheoil:
– Better interviews, observe hirsute & hairless flautists in sessions (ancestry / residence /how they learned – chose(?) flute).
– Scientific data: water, air, diet.
– Native customs & instrument selection (e.g. Shetland violinists).
– Multiinstrumentalists (combinations of instruments might affect the theory / dominant instrument / degree of hairlessness).