Monday, 29 March 2010

To be, a pilgrim

We have walked on the pilgrim way in France, and a little in Northern Spain, but the idea of walking the Via de la Plata is what has attracted me recently. And so, in this Holy Week, and in a Holy Year, Caroline and I make our way (via five trains) to Seville on Wednesday, before embarking on Saturday upon our four-week walk to Salamanca: it's a convenient half-way point on the Silver Route - next year (God willing) we shall walk from Salamanca to Compostela.

One of the strangest of Luis Buñuel's strange corpus of films is "La Voie lactée", featuring two people tramping towards Santiago, and meeting a mysterious man in a Spanish cloak, a heretic from the past perhaps. The latest Confraternity of St James Bulletin arrived the other day, always worth a read. It makes mention of that, and also of a more recent film, "Al final del camino". This 2009 road movie/romcom, set on the pilgrimage route, clearly provides a different form of enjoyment from that sought by the reviewer: at the end of what might be called a "mixed" notice, the Bulletin's Editor adds: "[The reviewer] is a retired Methodist minister who can sometimes be old fashioned, especially on the camino."

Walking has never quite gone out of fashion, and today we have double-lined socks, Lekis and mobile phones to aid our passage. I might even get to blog a bit. People temporarily turn themselves into pilgrims for many different reasons, some only finding out on the camino itself: I hope to be one of them!

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Sunday afternoon at Glyndebourne

I happened to notice in the local paper that Cheltenham's Cineworld was screening a recording from last year of the Glyndebourne L'Elisir d'Amore this afternoon. What a joy it was! I have never seen the opera before, though it's familiar enough through one of my favourite recordings, made by DGG in 1990. (James Levine conducting, Pavarotti, past his best, but Kathleen Battle in brilliant form, and a gemlike cameo from Dawn Upshaw.) The Glyndebourne cast's acting and singing uniformly sparkled, and again the Giannetta - in her tiny part - caught the eye and ear: Eliana Pretorian, a name to follow.

As my neighbour said to me, leaving the cinema: "Great not to have to drive all that way back home from East Sussex!" I might have replied, "Yes, and to be paying £9 rather than £190 for a ticket."

Thursday, 25 March 2010

"The healing power of art"

Dr. Richard Cork, the urbane art historian (for this is he) today celebrates his birthday. This fact emerged whilst he addressed a large audience in Cheltenham last night on the theme of how art can alleviate suffering and humanise hospitals.

Being born on Lady Day, he said, gives depictions of the Annunciation a special place in his heart, as he shared with us a slide of El Greco's exquisite roundel of 1603 in the Capilla mayor del Hospital de la Caridad de Illescas.

But for all the pretty pictures Dr. Cork had brought along - by no means universally first rate reproductions - he only partly established his thesis. What was the real added value of Hogarth's works in Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital for instance? And how does the rather brutalist Fernand Léger mosaic serve to humanise Saint-Lô's Memorial Hospital precisely?

Still, it would be a sadness if Alistair Darling's proposed £4.35bn cut from the Department of Health (announced in the Budget) meant the end of its funding of Paintings in Hospitals: our Cheltenham General has benefitted from this charity's largesse - enabling it to continue work Caroline and others started two decades or so ago.

Since the excellent Hamish Roberton came as a dentist to Cheltenham some while back, each of my regular (but thankfully infrequent) visits to his room have mostly brought me face to face with a new painting by his talented wife. (She is modest about her work to the extent that I can't insert a link to something of hers on the web.) This afternoon's appointment was cheered enormously by a stunning abstract, which might almost be a celestial vision: the healing power of art was well in evidence at Cambray Dental.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

"Saint" Óscar Romero RIP

I like anniversaries. Today is exactly thirty years since someone using an M-16 assault rifle entered a small hospital chapel and assassinated Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador whilst he was saying mass. An audio-recording reveals he was shot while elevating the chalice at the end of the Eucharistic rite. His blood spilled over the altar.

During a sermon delivered only the previous day, he had called upon Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God's higher order and to stop carrying out their government's repression of basic human rights.

A generation has passed, therefore, during which in popular thought Romero has become a saint. Yet the Church, so eager to grant sainthood upon the immediate past pope, and upon Pope Pius XII (would Romero have kept silence when the Jews were being rounded up?), still hangs fire.

I have borrowed this sketch of Romero, by S. Njeru Muraguey from the Chicago Catholic Theological Union's website. Njeru is a CTU Graduate.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Horse Monument

This is not a hastily-erected tribute to the two horses who died as a result of last week's racing at Cheltenham, but a much older memorial. "The Continental" was the favourite ride of Henry Cecil Elwes, 1874-1950, of Colesbourne Park. He also owned Leckhampton Court and its surrounding fields on the side of our local hill, where Caroline and I walked this sunny morning.

And he it was who assembled the monument, complete with an inscription, all of which must have cost him some considerable effort, since it stands proud on a knoll well above the Court and as high as the Church spire.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

"Ageing well"

The 1995 Summerfield Lecture (in our Festival of Literature) was given by Rabbi Julia Neuberger. She gave a masterly survey of "The moral state we're in", considering some of the life and death questions which Brtitish society faces - or doesn't face. Tonight, she returned to Cheltenham to speak at the University of Gloucestershire on one specific question, how we deal with ageing, and how we could do better.

Her talk, as 15 years ago, was a tour de force. "We are an ageing society, and live in an inherently ageist society," was her message. China, Japan, and even America have much to teach us: older people need to mount the barricades for civil liberties, as Raymond Tallis urges. Where are our Grey Panthers?

From ageing to dying requires an acceptance, if not an embrace. Instead, with this transition we enter into taboo territory. "We need to contemplate our mortality with a kind of equanimity."

But it was't all fine phrases. Julia's a practical soul, and throughout her lecture you could feel her (ageing) audience abuzz with "Yesss!". In introducing her, Vice-Chancellor Patricia Broadfoot was right to predict it would be "far more exciting than the Cheltenham Races."

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Tasting Wales

Today, we went to Presteigne, just over the border from Herefordshire. Indeed, from the back garden of Emily's Tearooms and Restaurant, England is about a no. 3 wood away. As often happens, you go for a light lunch, and end up with too large a plateful - particularly when you aren't yet 30 months old.

Presteigne has a lot going for it: an excellent bread/cakes shop; one selling beautiful materials and local woollen products; second hand bookshops, and another with an interesting range of new books; a vibrant music festival (Michael Berkeley lives near); a 500-year-old Flemish tapestry in the church; the award-winning Judge's Lodging museum (though museum is too weak a word for it), and some attractive houses set in wild and wonderful countryside. Oh yes, and it's a Transition Town.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010


Cheltenham High Street is, as ever, filled with strangers this (race)week.  Not just from Ireland, but also from Scotland - this piper was blowing for Help for Heroes - and who knows where else?

Though the dafodills have not obliged, the sun is shining, some of the potholes have been filled in, and Cheltenham is ready for the tills to ring. Extra masses have even been laid on for St Patrick's Day.

When Cheltenham was a more remote destination, I remember making for it myself, in the hope of supplementing my pocket money. But living on the doorstep I don't feel in the least drawn up towards the course: it was the same with Shakespeare's Birthplace, when we lived near Stratford-on-Avon.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Fly past?

Hurrah on one plane (sic) for Mary Robinson, returning to her native Ireland after working in New York for many years, in order to fight for climate justice. "The failure to get agreement in Copenhagen," she's reported as saying, "has put the whole world more at risk." But after Copenhagen, she thinks, governments aren't the way to go, if they ever were. The answer, for her, is "civil society". "I feel a terrible sense of urgency."

But sharing this awareness, will civilians ever think of flying - for instance - as an activity that we used to engage in - as opposed to one we hope and expect for more of? It's only possible to determine the answer to this for yourself: apart from our love miles to Japan and back last Autumn, it's more than forty months now since I flew anywhere, and indeed I am making no plans to fly again. But it's easy for me to resolve this, having travelled much, and to many different parts of the world in my 66 years. And I'm able (just about) to pay the premium required for rail travel when I go to Europe, as later this month.

King Canute came to mind after my chat with our nice postman yesterday morning: an avid Manchester United fan and season ticket holder, he was mulling over the possibilities for a new - for him - travel experience arising out of the coming Champions League draw. "Lyon would be nice," he said, "or Bordeaux: I don't much fancy Moscow" - but you can bet this wasn't on account of the air miles.

Monday, 1 March 2010


The ever-resourceful Barry has been here today, fixing our letter-box. After 140 years' service, it had lost its zip, or rather its spring. We rather feared we needed a new one, but no: Barry has bodged it back into working order, and what's more given it a good polish. Even though an annoying quantity of "Do not fold" envelopes end up, folded, on our mat, it's worth it to preserve something with this degree of originality, don't you think?

It's certainly worth getting Barry back (for a variety of jobs): the world is soon set to rights when he's on his tea break. Including (today): "That Vidic shouldn't have been on the field more than five minutes."