This story concerns our beloved founder and editor of The Ecphorizer, George Towner, the epicure in the title. The recollections are mine. They are quite true.
It’s time you learned more about George. For the best part of twenty years I have known him as one of our more erudite members, a veritable fount of knowledge, world traveller, Francophile connoisseur of fine wines and women, and a major contributor to the success of so many San Francisco Regional Mensa events: a true Renaissance man. A most use-ful philosophical friend for a lazy man like myself; it is always easier to ask George for information than to reach for the encyclopædia or for Bartletts “Familiar Quotations.” There is little he does not know in the realms of science, engineering, art, literature, grammar, music, or œnology.
In his “Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution”, the late C. P. Snow referred to “literary intellectuals at one pole at the other, scientists .... Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” It was his loss that Lord Snow didn’t know George as I know him. He would have applauded his conversation and welcomed his discourse on any subject. In short, a scholar and a gentleman, and there aren’t many of us left.
So often, in conversation over a genial bottle of wine, (“I’d appreciate your opinion of this Paul, on sale for only $3.98. Can you believe that?”) I have felt my horizons broadening, seen new light cast on abstruse political and social imbroglios, and gained deeper understanding of the universe. I sometimes marvel at the correlation between the absorption of new ideas and of George’s old wine. If, however, I am emboldened to contradict him it is at my peril, on pain of the embarrassment of having proof of the true state of affairs abstracted from his extensive library and flourished under my nose.
Except once. Just once. As Hercule Poirot might say, it is time to reveal the truth of the affair.
In the summer of 1979 many Mensans enjoyed a most pleasant vacation together in the south of France. We stayed in two adjacent villas in a grove of olive trees on a private estate overlooking the Côte d’Azur. Each morning we took turns to stroll to the village to get fresh hot croissants and “baguettes” for everyone’s morning coffee. If the afternoon sun was too hot we adjourned to the swimming pool or to the beach at St. Tropez. The flower festival in Grasse, heart of the French perfume industry, was unforgettable. We drove along the Route Napoleon through air heavy with the fragrance of flowers as far as the eye could see, all to supply the perfume factories with petals. We gambled in Monte Carlo. We gambolled in fields of wild Provençal herbs. We dined out and savoured the exquisite cuisine of the area. In the tiny village of Mons with its ruined castle, we had the food of the gods on a balcony poised in space, the ground sweeping down to the coast, before us, with Corsica on the horizon.
I remember it was in Mons that I commented to an old woman on the curiosity that so many of the inscriptions on the small World War I memorial had the
same last name. She shot an intense look at me and said simply: “They were brothers; I knew all of them.” Then she burst into tears, and I left her in the peaceful sunshine of the village square, looking away from me down a lonely corridor almost sixty-five years long.
One night we went to a jumping night club, and were honoured next morning with our photographs in the newspapers. A memorable four weeks. Why was it so successful? Because George organized it. Group trips to Florence, or freedom to roam individually. No “i” was undotted, no “t” uncrossed. For transport he bought two cars before we arrived and sold them when we left. Each car had a log book for mileage, whoever used them subsequently got a remarkably small prorated bill covering the cost.
One afternoon I took Madeleine out shopping. I sat in the car reading “Nice Matin,” a rather good regional newspaper. I read it from cover to cover. Still no Madeleine. I read the sports pages, something I rarely do in England or America. I read all the advertisements. I reread them and toyed with the idea of applying for some of the situations vacant. I read the news again. I read the weather forecasts for the whole of France. Finally, I studied in detail the wireless program, noting that there was a concert of classical music that evening at 8:00 and wistfully wishing I could hear it. Madeleine eventually came back and we returned to the villa.
In the evenings after dinner the Mensans, being Mensans, sometime lounged inside and read books, sat outside under the grape arbour and talked, or strolled on the lawn to admire the view. The entire village of Seillans is a national monument. Just to the right of our garden was the 11th century castle, bathed in warm orange floodlights, looking as if it had been put there for the tourists. Directly below us the lights of Nice and St. Rafael, with the moon turning the calm Mediterranean into sheets of silver.
That evening someone suggested bridge, so four of us settled down in the living room. George sat on my right. We each had a lady partner. A very civilized game ensued. At about 8:20 George got up, went over to the radio, paused, looked at us and and raised an eyebrow. We nodded. What softly filled the villa was the very same music I had read about that afternoon. We settled down to play.
My partner and I had all the good cards. “Lovely music” I murmured, leading off with a high trump. “Yes,” said George, concentrating hard, then absentmindedly added: “Mozart, I believe.” I didn’t disturb the silence until I had gathered up the trick and put it beside me.
“Haydn actually.” I said, as I lead off again. “Ah yes, said George” furrowing his brow as it came his turn. He laid down a card. “One of his early works, I think.”
I let the words delicately hang in the air as I cleared the table. “Sorry George” I said, negligently studying my hand, “It’s his one hundred and fourth symphony, the ‘London’, written in 1795. I can tell by the key: it’s D major.”
George looked at me for a moment through bleak blue eyes. “Yes, of course.” he said, “First movement,” and returned his attention to the game.
We continued m silence. I couldn’t resist “It’s the fourth movement George, you know the one, the Presto. Sounds like Eugen Jocum conducting.”
The sound of Mensa minds furiously cogitating , broken only by the slap of cards. I gathered more tricks. A growl from George: “Berlin Philharmonic, would you say?”
I deprecatingly cleared my throat for the coup de grâce and picked up the last trick. “Actually no, it’s a recording of the London Philharmonic.” Then casually added: “Probably the one done in 1972.”
The game was mine and the piece ended. The announcer came on and said: “You have just heard Haydn’s symphony number one hundred and four in D major composed in 1795, the “London,” played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Eugen Jocum. This recording was made in England in 1972.” I gazed innocently out through the French windows at the moonlit Mediterranean below us.There you are, George, my soul is unburdened at last and my conscience is clear. When are we all going to France again?”
Paul is one of those wonderful story-tellers who has a vast range of personal experiences that he draws upon for his humorous vignettes about his life. He and his wife Madeleine lived in Placerville until his death in 2006.
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