26 February 2022: Covid consequences; Bad banks; Bad PTVs; Ukraine, Russia and a new world; A perfect song; & Other stuff

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Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable
Christopher Howse: ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’


Bad news.

Certainly, here in Pontevedra city the great majority of folk are still wearing masks in the street, even though it’s not obligatory.

Cosas de España/Galiza 

The government is going to compel banks to be better for those who give them their profits. A testament to the continuing lack of real customer service in Spain.

How many (money-spinning, ‘authentic’) caminos are there in Spain? I reckon at least 42. A relevant article.

Something to see when I’m in Madrid next week.

A classic happening in Pontevedra city yesterday . . . As I was waiting in a picture-framing shop for a customer to be served, a woman of advanced years came in and immediately interrupted the conversation between the framer and the customer. When the latter had been dealt with, she immediately tried to push in in front of me, only to be repulsed by the shopkeeper. The city’s PTVs – Pontevedresa por toda la vida – seem to think ageing gives them certain rights denied to the rest of us. The female ones anyway.


In the last week, I’ve learned a great deal about this country’s history over the last 100 years. My god, have they suffered appallingly. Until quite recently, in fact. And they must have been thinking they were now over the worst, finally having their destiny in their own hands. Hopefully, they will again before too long.


We used to worry that Trump was a madman with his finger on the nuclear button. It’s all relative, I guess. In retrospect.

I wonder if Putin is now pondering the observation of French diplomat Talleyrand on some earlier event : C’est pire qu’un crime; c’est une faute – It’s worse than a crime; it’s a mistake.

It’s reported that a ‘hacking collective’ is waging a cyber war on Russia and that it’s claimed to have taken down Moscow’s mouthpiece, RT news. Certainly the site isn’t accessible this morning. Not exactly a huge loss to the world.

The EU

Disunity and ‘disgrace’?

The Way of the World 

You might be able to read this Telegraph article on ‘Putin’s useful idiots’. It ends with the comment: If any good is to come of this horrific situation in Ukraine, it is surely the hope that the sight of mothers weeping over their children’s coffins might finally remind the so-called “civilised” world that there are more important things to worry about in life than pronouns. Even before reading it, I’d noted again that circumstances – and realities – change perspectives. Leaving me sure that, among the concerns of the Ukrainians, there won’t be a worry about how much the Russians will enforce correct views on transgenderism and personal pronouns.

Fundamental change is coming, the only question is how fast. 


I hadn’t realised that we’re close to Lent and to the week of Carnaval celebrations called here Entroido. By coincidence, I read last night – in a book on Old English – that the word lencten originally meant ‘spring’ but evolved into ‘Lent’.

I mentioned the song Whiter Shade of Pale yesterday. Below is a paean of praise to this ‘perfect creation’ of the recently departed Gary Brooker.

For new reader(s): If you’ve landed here looking for info on Galicia or Pontevedra, try here. If you’re passing through Pontevedra on the Camino, you’ll find a guide to the city there.


Gary Brooker’s Whiter Shade of Pale broke every pop rule – and it was perfect. Fusing Bach and Chaucer to the tale of a drunken tryst, the late Procul Harum frontman somehow created one of the greatest songs ever: Neil McCormick,  

Gary Brooker has skipped the light fandango. Gone from cancer aged 76, the pianist, singer and songwriter with Procul Harum was responsible for one of the most spookily beautiful pieces of pop music ever heard, with a little help from Johann Sebastian Bach.

The song is Whiter Shade of Pale, and from its cryptic title to its melancholy melody, lustrously baroque Hammond organ motifs, beguilingly mysterious lyrics, woozily discombobulating arrangement and stately yet soulful singing it is a work of pop art.

Brooker wrote the chord progression, inspired by his love of classical music. At the time, there was an advertisement on British television for Hamlet cigars that used a modern interpolation of Bach’s Air on a G String recorded by French jazz group The Jack Louissier Trio. Brooker started messing around with that, playing in C Major with a descending bass pattern, but while his song mimics Bach, it veers off in its own distinct melody and chordal sequence. “That spark was all it took,” according to Brooker. “I wasn’t consciously combining rock with classical, it’s just that Bach’s music was in me.” 

Brooker’s songwriting partner Keith Reid wrote the elegantly opaque lyrics that added so much to the song’s strange allure. The title was a phrase overheard at a London party (“You’ve turned a whiter shade of pale”), to which Reid added an inscrutable jumble of intriguing references, including allusions to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (“the Miller told his tale”) and ancient Roman priestesses (“16 vestal virgins who were leaving for the coast”) alongside picaresque imagery of what might have been a mystical encounter or a drunken night on the tiles (“The room was humming harder / As the ceiling flew away / When we called out for another drink / The waiter brought a tray.”)

What does it all mean? Well, that is anyone’s guess, which is certainly part of the appeal of a lyric that implies layers of poetic depth but resists literal interpretation. “It’s kind of impressionistic, so people never really get to the bottom of it,” according to Keith, who does, nevertheless, claim it has a narrative. “It’s about a relationship. There’s characters and there’s a location, and there’s a journey. You get the sound of the room and the feel of the room and the smell of the room. It’s not a collection of lines just stuck together. It’s got a thread running through it.”

Some of that thread may have become unstitched during the recording at Olympic studio in London in April 1967, when the song was found to be ten minutes long, and so producer Denny Cordell summarily chopped out two verses. In the original draft, the object of the singer’s ardour reveals herself to be on “shore leave,” he accuses her of being a mermaid to his Neptune, and the two wind up on the ocean bed in a fairly plain allusion to sexual congress. It reveals itself essentially as a song about a drunken one night stand with a sailor woman.

Yet truncated for practical reasons, the surviving verses float free of such mundane associations, and lend themselves to whatever the listener cares to impute. And in 1967, the summer of love, the hazily sensuous imagery helped turn it into a hippy anthem, an evocation of stoned bliss filled with a kind of archaic medievalism and formal romantic language very much in vogue at the time. With its narrative unresolved, there is a haunting sense of loss in there too, like a dream slipping away in the dawn’s light.

The lyric’s magical, mystic qualities are emphasised by the gently mournful melody and quite extraordinary, stately arrangement where a gorgeous Hammond organ fills up all available space with sad baroque frills and sudden surges of passion. Anchored by an almost provocatively slow pace, the organ playing practically sways from side to side, evoking the singer’s declaration of “feelin’ kind of seasick.” 

Indeed, the Hammond plays such a huge role that keyboard player Matthew Fisher was retrospectively able to convince a court he deserved a songwriting credit, and had his name added as a composer (along with a share of the royalties) in 2005. Brooker, it must be said, was not impressed. “Today may prove to be a Darker Shade of Black for creativity in the music industry,” was his own verdict. But listeners can forget about such petty squabbles. As a recording, A White Shade of Pale is too sublime to be tainted by the in-fighting of musicians.

A Whiter Shade of Pale was recorded in just two takes. To put that into context, it emerged in the wake of The Beatles creating multi-facetted state-of-the-art productions with cut ups, sound effects and orchestras to concoct a mood of psychedelic revelation on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. 

The newly formed Procul Harum banged their masterpiece down in an afternoon. Released as their debut single, its deeply strange beauty cut through all the rock clatter of the Swinging Sixties and went to number one all over the world. It went on to sell over 10 million copies and is still one of the most commercially successful singles in history.

When I say they don’t make hits like this anymore, I’m not indulging in false nostalgia. It really is an otherworldly record that defies pop rules. It has two cryptic verses followed by two even more cryptic choruses and bookended by long instrumental passages which take up at least half the four-minute running time. It seems barely arranged at all, just a five-piece band playing completely live, overloaded with thick, furry, swirling organ, loose splashy drums, tinkling piano, an almost invisible guitar and Brooker’s quizzical, resigned and yet soulfully emotional vocals. 

Indeed, rather than being considered the birth of classical rock this is a dose of classical soul, like Bach accompanying Percy Sledge down the dark end of the street. Nothing this weirdly assembled and almost haphazardly recorded would get through the song machine today, when such a beautiful oddity would have absolutely zero chance of getting played on the radio, or playlisted on Spotify.

Nevertheless, the song has been recorded over 1000 times by artists as varied as The Everly Brothers, James Last, Joe Cocker, Hugh Masakela, Annie Lennox and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. But nothing can touch the weird translucence of Procul Harum’s original. Brooker and Reid did write other fine songs. Conquistador is a fantastically intense rocker, Salty Dog a beguiling narrative of life at sea. They never had another major hit, but the Harum maintained a substantial cult audience throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and then got back together in the 1992 to continue touring, releasing 12 albums, all with their moments. 

Brooker also made three solo albums, and worked as a pianist and vocalist with George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr amongst others. He was a much-liked man, known to be devoted to his wife Franky, who he met in 1965 and married in 1968. And while he never ascended to the front ranks of rock stardom, it hardly matters. He wrote one of the greatest songs ever, and made one perfect record that will live on as long as there are discerning ears to listen.