Caroline's dog has been ailing for a while. Indeed, after a last operation (of many), the vet gave it a precise 56 days to live, which expired on Boxing Day. This morning, she bravely made the call to have her put down. Then it was just a question of communicating the sad news to the children and grandchildren.
A recent parish bulletin has an apposite piece, "Some signs and symptoms of inner peace." I set them all out below, with best wishes for the coming year.
A tendency to think and act spontaneously rather, than on fears based on past experiences
An unmistakable ability to enjoy each moment
A loss of interest in judging other people
A loss of interest in interpreting the actions of others
A loss of interest in conflict
A loss of the ability to worry - a very serious symptom
Frequent, overwhelming episodes of appreciation
Contented feelings of connectedness with others and nature
Frequent attacks of smiling
An increasing tendency to let things happen rather than make them happen
An increased susceptibility to the love extended by others as well as the uncontrollable urge to extend it
Our friend's Edmund de Waal pots can be rearranged ad lib., which gives him (and others) enormous pleasure. We had a jolly lunch there yesterday. Equally random seems the ability of certain streets to attract wealthy people to live in them.
Back in the mid- to late-Sixties, I shared a flat with Mark Fuller, Geoffrey Tilleard and Hugh Chatwin in Chelsea. It was on the first and second floors of no. 13 Bramerton Street, which runs South off the King's Road, not far down from Sydney Street. Then, with its gay nightclub in the adjoining basement, it really wasn't all that smart a place to live: I guess my rent might have been £6 a week. Now I read in the paper that Bramerton Street is in the top 10 list of dearest addresses in Britain.
Caroline dropped me off at Foston's Ash yesterday morning, to meet up with a friend and his dog: ours isn't up to much. We all later gathered for a protracted pub lunch.
From the busy Birdlip-Bisley road, you are soon it seems miles away, dropping down into the National Trust's Workmans Wood. A muddy track descends through the beeches, past a lake and into Sheepscombe. From there we climbed up the bank into Lord's Wood, before swinging round North of Ebworth House and back to the road. Many hares were started: few solutions arrived at.
On Boxing Night, Caroline and I endured a grim night at Cineworld: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows looked the best of a poor selection, but neither of us enjoyed it much.
By contrast, Die Meistersinger triumphed last night at Covent Garden. I was the lucky holder of a staff ticket, entitling me to sit at the back of the Orchestra Stalls at a fraction of the normal price. Within 18 months, I've heard it three times: I enjoyed the Glyndebourne production, with Gerry Finlay's notable Sachs, relayed to Malvern in June - a match for Bryn Terfel in the WNO version (which I caught at the 2010 Proms). But this consistently amazing Wagner score never sounded so well as under Pappano's baton at the Opera House, despite some quibbles with the production. What a treat!
Julian Barnes' Booker Prize-winning novella was on my Christmas list, as it's the current read for our book group. My sister Sarah kindly came up with it, and I've now read it (in what is - for me - record time).
It's a sad story, but intriguing, unfolding as it does right up to the penultimate page. Barnes is at his best writing about recollection of the past. "My memory," his narrator sighs at one point, "has increasingly become a mechanism which reiterates apparently truthful data with little variation." My feelings precisely.
There's a lull in proceedings following lunch for 15 here. So, here's the cover of my latest Blurb book, a copy having been given to Caroline this morning. Its brief introduction reads:
"My father, who was in the paper business, produced his own family Christmas cards some years. This sowed a seed, which started to bear fruit in 1992: it was then that I first contacted The Thought Factory in Leicester, with a view to their printing a card which made use of one of my photographs: they have continued to print cards for me every year since. This book brings together the collection (to date), along with subject descriptions, and a little background information on how each photograph came to be taken.
In concentrating on its religious significance, I feel, like Mrs. Partington with her mop, that I may have done rather little to arrest the process by which Christmas has become increasingly secularised. And anyway, you may ask, who wants a glossy throwaway card at a time when trees need saving and a second class stamp costs 36p? Well, now here’s a glossy book to compound my sin."
Last year, Edmund and I took William to Cinderella at our Everyman Theatre: this afternoon, we felt it was the turn of the full trio of Davis grandchildren to come along. I'm not sure I can recall ever seeing Jack and the beanstalk before, but certainly not done to death as in this too lengthy, jazzed-up production: the stars of an over-blown show were undoubtedly the cow and the giant.
Our Toyota Corolla failed its MOT today. I suppose, at the age of eight, that should not be too shocking. In the light of its previous reliability, though, I was taken aback rather.
A couple of hundred pounds needs spending on it, to put things right, which is not the end of the world. But what never ceases to amaze me is the soullessness of modern car showrooms! After sitting in a plastic bucket chair for two hours, with coffee machine whirring and television flashing in the background (I did at least locate the volume control), I drove home through our tree-lined streets pleasantly surprised that I was still on planet Earth.
Our parish carol service - held yesterday evening - attracted an enormous crowd! The church glowed in the candlelight. The choir excelled itself, which was just as well as the congregational singing - in traditional English Catholic style - barely exceeded forte. Fr. Bosco, succinctly distinguishing the Nativity from the incarnation, gave one of his uniformly good sermons.
It all contrasted nicely with the evening before: unlike last night, the champagne flowed, and our generous South Gloucestershire friends' Christmas party may serve as their sole involvement with the Nativity narrative for some of the regular suspects rounded up on this invariably jolly occasion. Having two pianos perhaps made the backsliders sing up a bit more willingly than usual. Florence, a precocious nine-year-old, led off Once in royal... Our host as ever took the part of Wenceslas. One half of the assembly sang The First Nowell against the other's Holly and the ivy.
Oh, and for We three kings, I was promoted from second to first this year!
Today the funeral takes place of my cousin Trevor Webster's wife Mary. In fact, it has already happened, the "venue" being Sydney, New South Wales. Mary and Trevor put Leo and me up for a few days when we went to Sydney in January 1998 - in fact more than that, they provided endless hospitality as well as introductions to places we would never have discovered on our own.
We had first met several years before that, following my father's death: then we lived up in the Cotswolds, and they came to supper while - by one of those extraordinary coincidences - staying with an old friend of Mary's from the next village.
The story of Mary and Trevor's emigration deserves wider publicity: together with their 18-month-old son, they set off from England in June 1958, along with another couple - two cars and much luggage - driving across almost the entirety of Europe and Asia. Arriving in North Australia by boat, they were all set to turn left for Sydney, but were warned against this: "you could never carry enough water to get through on that route!" So, turning the other way, they arrived in Sydney on 17th January 1959 via Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. On our 1998 visit, we saw the car they had come in. It was in course of restoration, subsequently completed.
Mary's last illness was short, her death (aged 81) sudden. She will be sorely missed by her three children and five grandchildren, as well as by countless friends; but in particular by Trevor.
A different ceiling photograph today: I took this last night in Oxford's Divinity School, the venue for a dinner to celebrate John and Maria Paz's wedding earlier in the year, in Chile. (The elaborate lierne vaulting dates from the 1480s, we were told by the groom's father.)
While this setting perfectly matched the sumptuous dinner we were given (Chilean wines to accompany it), the lunch I had earlier was a discordant affair: Jesus College Hall dates from three centuries later (than the Divinity School), but with its portraits of Elizabeth I and Charles I, not to mention Lawrence of Arabia and Harold Wilson, inspires a similar degree of awe. All right, term had ended, and I was being treated, but "hot lunch" consisting of a sausage, fried egg, a few chips and some spears of broccoli - in a soup bowl - still didn't quite fit.
Coming back from Malvern last evening, I was struck more than usually by the degree to which people seem to have money (and carbon) to burn. Above is a detail from a photograph I took on a bright Summer day in a tent at Cheltenham Racecourse - Greenbelt: they should know better. Now, as Christmas approaches, I noted once again that there is hardly a house without its tree lit up, visible through the unclosed curtains. Worse still is the number of houses with flashing lights festooned over their exterior.
And, yes, the roofs of some of those houses even sport photovoltaic panels. Thus supporting the theory of W.S. Jevons, writing some 170 years ago: Jevons argued that improvements in fuel efficiency tend to increase, rather than decrease, fuel use: he observed that England's consumption of coal soared after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine, greatly improving on the efficiency of earlier designs. Watt's innovations made coal a more cost-effective power source, leading to the increased use of the steam engine in a wide range of industries. This in turn increased total coal consumption, even as the amount of coal required for any particular application fell. At that time, many worried that coal reserves were dwindling: some thought increasing efficiency would reduce consumption. Jevons however argued that further increases in efficiency would tend to increase the use of coal. Hence, increasing efficiency would tend to increase, rather than reduce, the rate at which England's coal deposits were being depleted.
Similarly, those benefiting from the feed-in tarrif are saying, perhaps: "What the heck? Now we don't need to worry about turning the lights off!" What prospect therefore of fossil fuels being left in the ground?
The jolly quintet in Lilas Pastia's Tavern was by far and away the highlight of Co-Opera Co.'s Carmen in the Forum at Malvern this evening. You could see from this where Gilbert & Sullivan went for their inspiration. We were sitting in the second row, quite a gap between us and the orchestra, which was on the level in front of a fairly narrow rostrum stage, with the permanent backdrop of some Moorish-looking arches. The cast of nine singers had its work cut out to convey the flavour of Seville and its mountainous hinterland - Act 3 ("A wild and deserted rocky place at night") looked more like an apology for the Occupy movement, with its trio of wigwams; but the drama somehow won through. Certainly Adriana Festeu looks the part of Carmen, and I was impressed too by the band of 15, James Holmes conducting. This young company is one to encourage.
This was the first question put to architect Sir Richard MacCormac after his lecture in Cheltenham last evening. He called it "Intentions in Architecture". Illustrated with drawings and photographs of many of his projects, he claimed to have reevaluated the past, without adopting a classical language. "Why aren't we comfortable with the word beauty?" he asked.
The invitation to speak came following the presentation of a Civic Award to Sir Richard for his work on our local Maggie's Centre (mentioned in a post last September): "It's a building about love," he said, the care he had taken over it clearly being a sign of the affection in which he had held the late (eponymous) Maggie Jencks.
Before I left, I had a chance to ask Sir Richard whether he felt any constraint in designing buildings to be energy efficient. "No," he replied: "Look at my new St John's, Oxford design: though it is nearly carbon-neutral, you can't tell from its appearance." He conjectured later, "Shall we always be able to go on using so much energy to heat our living spaces? It's only such a recent luxury - think of the days of warm indoor clothing and people huddled together on settles in front of a wood fire. Don't sheep have the right idea?"
My photograph shows Sir Richard with Mary Paterson, in whose father's name the lecture took place - it's an annual event organised by the Cheltenham Civic Society, which I suppose I ought to join.
And the answer to the question? "Yes, in its strict sense: post-modern as a word has been trashed."
A great-grandmother of mine was born in Daventry: we went there briefly on Saturday, but not for family history purposes. A short way South of the town lies the village of Canons Ashby, dominated by the remains of its Priory and an Elizabethan manor house, the home for many years of the Dryden family, now owned by the National Trust: we didn't have time to pay a proper visit, but this delightful early 18th Century statue caught the eye when I had a peep over the garden wall from the roadside.
Segue to Chris Heaton-Harris, Daventry's Eurosceptic MP, who numbered himself amongst the 100 or more Members putting questions to the Prime Minister in the Commons this afternoon: unusually, I found myself watching more or less the whole proceedings. You couldn't but admire Cameron's stamina and courtesy, in keeping up the appearance of considering each question on its merits. But he surely suffered from Ed Milliband's early barb: a veto, he said, was what one deployed to stop something from taking place. If what you tried to stop goes ahead anyway, it's not a veto - "it's called losing."
Two items have dominated the news this weekend: in Europe, our Prime Minister reached for the unilateral opt-out (surely a better description than "the veto"); whilst in South Africa some sort of legally-binding climate treaty looks now to be on the cards - thanks largely to the EU's climate chief (Connie Hedegaard)'s efforts. (What better illustration do you require Mr. Cameron, of the importance of us playing a full part in Europe?)
Both events will impinge far more upon a four-year-old than on someone of my age, but so far from this being the public perception, all we hear are Hooray Henrys on the Tory right apparently regardless of the significance of the Durban roadmap: it may only be a mouse, where a lion-sized compact for humanity's future is required, but it's better than nothing.
Today's photograph was taken less than a mile from last Sunday's (of another old tree). This field, however, is not under threat, being virtually part of the Cotswold escarpment. Nor does the church in the distance, St Peter's, in any way resemble that portrayed in the play we saw last night, at our local Parabola Arts Centre. "Operation Greenfield", a presentation by Little Bulb Theatre, received warm commendation in the national press ("recklessly talented... insanely brave"), but it went off like a damp squib with the meagre Cheltenham audience. Was it meant to evangelise or (mildly) scandalise? Whatever, it was nothing like the piece of theatre brought to Cheltenham last month by Kneehigh: The Wild Bride.
Cheltenham Camera Club put on a special event this evening, a lecture by the photographer Guy Edwardes. I didn't bother to book a ticket in advance, and when I arrived ahead of time at the Town Hall the room was virtually full, all seats sold. Happily they squeezed me into a hot corner at the back.
I'm glad I went, as Edwardes' work is thrilling, if rather more artificial-looking than the effect I strive for. One of the 300-odd landscape/nature pictures he put up must have been taken from a similar vantage point to the one above. (His result is very considerably better!) My photograph dates from April 1999, and I was standing by the Belvedere at La Foce, Iris Origo's former home in Tuscany.
I took the bus to Witney today, almost the first time I've been to (as opposed to through) that town. I seem to recall a visit with my mother, who had worked for a little while in the famous Early's factory in the 'Thirties as part of her social studies diploma experience: we came away with a bright red blanket. Now, it's almost a decade since blankets were made in Witney, which has seen much redevelopment alongside its original heart - full of the usual charity shops.
I was there to see a friend who was hospital-bound: the only place for a chat was apparently the landing by the lift and stair-head, not exactly an oasis of peace. Whilst bureaucracy ensured that the patient had plenty of scope for cultivating... patience, it was still evident that a culture of very personal service prevailed within the hospital. It contrasted interestingly with the situation portrayed in Sebastián Silva's The Maid, which we saw this evening (at the Film Society). Its protagonist is of a type more commonly found in Silva's 21st Century Chile than in 21st Century England, where next to nobody is called to the vocation of a maid. What the film expertly sketches is the degree of genuine attachment members of a family can feel for their long-suffering servant, brilliantly acted by Catalina Saavedra. "I love them and they love me. I'm part of the family," her character confesses.
This comes up for public consultation shortly: the three local authorities have combined to present a plan for the future of their considerable area - and this they say means more housing, but where? Our "amenity land" in Leckhampton is particularly vulnerable, only one of several targetted pockets around Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury.
I have photographed this magnificent oak tree before, captioning a warning about the future of its location. My best man and his wife (plus dog) being with us for the weekend, we all walked past it again today in its late Autumn majesty.
All the fun of the fair is to be had this weekend in our Bath Road. There’s nowadays a regular weekend market on the Robert Young site, where I had a useful photographic chat with one of the stallholders. We then visited the Cheltenham Connect Christmas fair at the Exmouth Arms, and I met another photographer, seasonally decorated. A jolly musical accompaniment was provided by Ukaholics. I felt I'd come a very long way from Leicester here!
Since its inception nearly three years ago now Cheltenham Connect seems to have become rather well established on various fronts. You always wonder how long the enthusiasm of volunteers for any given cause will maintain itself. The best thing you can hope to be able to say is that if it didn't exist you'd have to invent it. Might that not now just be the case with Cheltenham Connect?
‘Spirituality and the Earth Community: Responding to the Spiritual Challenges Facing People and Planet’. This was former Professor Ursula King’s theme for her Cheltenham lecture last evening. It deserved to be better attended. Possibly the title was what put people off, for after a somewhat analytical start, she took off in the latter part of her talk, and ended with several almost impassioned responses to audience questions. Not for a long time have I heard such a free thinker, open to so many differently stimulating channels of thought! “I was mighty impressed,” as a friend put it.
Amongst challenging questions Professor King herself raised were, “Are modern societies predominantly secular?” (Answer: “Pace Richard Dawkins, no.”) “Does spirituality only concern the needs of the individual?” (Answer: “Again, no.”) And, echoing Indira Gandhi at Stockholm almost 40 years ago, “Will the growing awareness of ‘one earth' and ‘one environment' guide us to the concept of ‘one humanity'?” (Answer: “We must sincerely hope so, notwithstanding the signal lack of progress to date!”) Finally, and she gave no answer to this, leaving us each to take up the quest for a response ourselves: “How do we live a good life?”
"We've had the driest 12 months on record," said Jim Naughtie on the Today programme this morning. This chimes in with something even more disturbing that Nick Reeves, Executive Director of The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, wrote recently. (It came to mind following yesterday's visit to Leicester.)
“While we have been making headway in cleaning up our rivers and beaches, the air we breathe and the water we drink . . . we have created trashy inner city settlements where the poor, the vulnerable, the hopeless and the unhinged have been kettled into urban breezeblock ghettoes that have become a breeding ground for disaffection, anger and feral behaviour . . . These rotten environments turn on its head the notion of sustainable development. Sustainability is about much more than water and energy efficiency, insulation and recycling. The human dimension somehow got forgotten. The environment is about the condition in which we all live together, not just the well-connected, the empowered middle class and those with sharp elbows and loud voices.”
I took this photograph of the sluice on the 37-hectare Retenue de Brousseau in Les Landes when walking on the Voie du Puy in April 2009.
A 3rd cousin (once removed) invited me to Leicester today, the first time I'd been there, so far as I can recall. I don't count passing through on the train. It's not a difficult journey by rail, though New Street seems to get busier each time I change there: there was only three minutes to catch the Cheltenham connection this evening, and I had to fight my way from one end of the station to the other. (Perhaps it was all those striking public service employees, taking advantage of a day off work to go somewhere...)
My cousin, having worked in Leicester for many years, knew all about the long-term successes in race relations there, a tribute to much patience and perseverance. We passed the brand new BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, on Gipsy Lane, opened only last month to great fanfares. Local residents regard it as a great improvement on the old factory that formerly stood on this prominent site. Its building (total cost £3m) took three years and much voluntary effort.
The visit enabled me to catch a glimpse of a set of photograph albums, put together by earlier generations: they fill a number of gaps in my knowledge of the family tree. I rather wish I'd known about them when researching pictures for The Diary of a Shropshire Farmer last year. Even leaving aside any genealogical interest, some of the photography is quite remarkable, and I was delighted to hear that the collection might end up in the Shropshire Archives.
Another pair of third cousins, twins, turns out to have been a teenage song and dance act that transformed itself into a business making bikinis in Florida - shortly after the days they were illegal. It thrives, so I was told in Leicester.
A pity I didn't get a photograph of the two pure white doves that fluttered around my cousin's garden: he and his wife keep a dovecote, perhaps an unusual feature on a housing estate.
Our runner bean plants have never been so prolific! Not only did they crop plentifully over a long period, but there are still lots left for next year's seed and the stewpot. Agnes and Ida were pressed into service to save them today, whilst I dug up the dahlias and gathered yet more apples. (Ida taking a break from her current favourite game, "Pretend...")
In this morning's bright sunshine, the trees along Coldwell Bottom took on a ghostly appearance. I often walk there, because it's peaceful, apart from the kennels over the hill, and the valley's appearance changes so much depending on the season. And it's a good way to work up an appetite when there's venison for lunch.
We don't often go to Stroud, though it's only a dozen miles down the road. Today was my first visit to its celebrated Saturday market. We were too late getting there to sample it properly: this was because we had first been walking in Woodchester Park, then visiting Selsley Church on our way back.
It wasn't at all a bad day for walking, dry and windless for the most part. Our walk ended at the big, gaunt, never finished house, which wasn't open: peering through the windows you can still get a good idea of its astonishingly elaborate Victorian Gothic stonework. The three of us agreed it was a strange place to build such a pile, on the bottom of a narrow valley.
The churchyard at Selsley by contrast has one of the best views of any I know. And a complete set of Pre-Raphaelite stained glass atones for the rather dull church building - of much the same era (and ilk) as Woodchester Mansion. As you can see from the photograph, the Stroud street scene is somewhat different.
My cousin, "young" Martin has alerted me to the change of name of our family firm of solicitors: founded by my great-grandfather, Stephen Gateley, it became Stephen Gateley & Sons when his two sons qualified and joined the practice. My cousin "young" Stephen steered the firm into its first major merger, it being renamed Gateley Wareing. Subsequent amalgamations made it HBJ Gateley Wareing, but a new look was announced in May apparently: from that time, it's just been "Gateley".
Now with some 800 employees, its look and feel differs rather from the days 60-odd years ago when I used to visit my grandfather in his Temple Row office, with clerks sitting on high stools dipping their pens. 13/4d was a fairly standard charge, I seem to recall, less than it now costs to post a large letter.
This morning, I took along various photographs for the Heart & Soul board: we went back this evening, for the opening party, and admired all the work that had been put in to enliven the building. We learnt that 80 people had been through the Gallery during the first day. The question is, for how many of them was "transition" a new concept?
Heart & Soul have an open space session as part of the Festival from 5 to 6.30pm next Sunday 27th November - "Faith in Transition: what do faith communities have to offer?" At a time when one or two church leaders are questioning the science upon which Transition is founded, it seems to me more than ever important that Christians should witness - alongside other people of faith - to what their belief in creation implies.
It was six weeks ago that I posted signs of Autumn colouring - at Westonbirt. With the mild weather we've had, it still seems - from the trees in our garden - to be Autumn even now in late November. Roses are blooming: snapdragon and geranium phaeum are still in flower. Meanwhile, the Christmas lights are on and the Promenade is full of tawdry German Marketeers. One of them pointed out a bat yesterday, asleep on the tree trunk just behind his hut.
The Film Society offering this evening was Patagonia, with great landscape photography veering between Argentina in the Autumn and Wales in Springtime: it brought to mind the visual shock I experienced at this time of year in 2003, flying away from our soft Autumnal colours in order to land amidst vibrant reds and blues in South Island, New Zealand.
Since we last walked by the ghost-like barns at Wontley, just below Cleeve Common, a rash of signs has appeared, making this look like the Spaghetti Junction of the local footpath network. Nevertheless, stepping out with friends visiting yesterday from Brixton, we saw not a soul.
It was a good spin, from West Down, via Wontley to the windswept tree on top of the Common; but too much for our dog, Rosie. We had to leave Caroline with her by the masts, and come round with the car later. (Caroline fears she is not long for this world.)
From Brixton Market, we were presented with a pomegranate, two each of custard apples, Sharon fruits, prickly pears and plantains, and a mango!
On Wednesday, we walked with friends above the Slad Valley, starting and ending at the tucked-away hamlet of Elcombe. The landscape had a Tolkein-like feel to it, woods and fields being shrouded in mist: all very different from our last visit in sunny April a couple of years ago.
We passed artist-blacksmith Alan Evans' cottage en route, admiring his innovative stainless steel swing gates as we passed by. The once-controversial grille over the entrance to Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum is his work.
Walking down Swift's Hill, the view (on a clear day) is stupendous, but I wouldn't want to live on the side of so steep a valley.
There was a seed exchange at the latest Gloucestershire Organic Gardening Group's meeting at Whiteway Colony Hall: I forgot to take the ones I'd set aside, but nevertheless came back with full pockets.
Local orchardist, Martin Hayes was the speaker, though it was not so much a lecture, more a tasting - of a wide variety of apple juices, not to mention cider and perry - with aphorisms.
Martin's enthusiasm, born of 38 years' experience, is palpable. He describes vividly his falling out with an early boss (still alive "because well-pickled by spray"), and meeting two long-term partners in an orchard, "by one of whom I had a lovely daughter". "Don't spray," he urged us, "or you'll never stop. If there's a maggot in there, it proves it's a nice apple. There's always juicing." And "Yes, I do hug trees, but only to measure their age. After all, perry pears flourish for 300 years." Why does Gloucestershire have so many perry orchards - or used to? "Because God went to the top of May Hill, took a bite of a perry pear, and spat it out."
The photographer Henrietta Butler has moved to live near Cheltenham in recent years. Yesterday, she kindly gave me some of her time (and the benefit of her considerable experience). Nothing is more enjoyable than talking to an expert in what is purported to be one's own field!
Henrietta's one-off photobook - made up of her portraits of performing and other artists over the years, taken mainly for the Guardian - puts my efforts in that line to shame. Extraordinary that she has yet to find a "proper" publisher for it! "Too old fashioned!", she calls it.
Talking with her made me think of the importance of knowing what one's aiming for. "Free range photography" is all very well: targeted photography might get me further in the long run.
Helen Brown, who has just died aged 99, was, with her husband Watty and daughter Prue, one of our closest neighbours when my parents arrived to live in Wootton Wawen, shortly after I was born. That she was a fine-looking woman can easily be seen from this photograph, taken by my father (I guess) on my first birthday, eight days before D-Day: that's her in the centre of the back row.
There was something wonderfully sophisticated about Helen, which it's hard to put a finger on: perhaps it was her skill as a raconteur (with mordant sense of humour), and her penchant for a cigarette, not to mention gin. I loved it when her eyes creased into a smile, as they did so very frequently. The Priory was accordingly a happy house to visit, as was the Browns' subsequent rather grander manor house near Worcester. There I remember once counting the leaves on a pineapple.
After Watty's death, Helen moved to her beloved Cornwall, her new home barely a 3-iron from the golf course at Trevose. I looked for it when we were staying at Mother Ivey's one Summer (1997). Arriving unshaven at the Constantine Bay Stores, I enquired of the proprietor exactly where the bungalow was. No response: she clearly looked upon me as a potential mugger or worse. Luckily Helen drove up just then in her battered Fiesta, claiming me for an old friend - "whose pram I used to push". Cue for another infectious chuckle.
Our youngest grandchild, Laurie, celebrated his birthday yesterday with a chocolate-covered cake filled with blackberry and apple, and a Scalectrix to amuse himself with. (It was good fun for the adults too.) Roary the Racing Car also put in an appearance, but only after Laurie had been persuaded that the recycled wine box in which it arrived might contain something more interesting than... wine.
Yesterday was one of our regular - if infrequent - social walking days, and gloriously warm it was for it. We met up at Elkstone, looked round the beautiful church - new to some of us - and then set off down the hidden valley towards Combend: though you are less than a mile from the A417, you can't hear a sound apart from birdsong. Turning up left, we reached the ridge road. After a look down into and across the Churn Valley, we turned back towards the cars. A short walk, not too muddy, and perfect for whetting the lunchtime appetite.
Last evening I paid my first visit to the recently-reopened Cheltenham Everyman Theatre. In the auditorium, things look great: the original Frank Matcham decoration sparkles from loving refurbishment. The foyer by contrast looks dire, with its new 50s-style carpet. Whoever did they get to advise on this?
The Cornish-based (but internationally-constituted) touring company, Kneehigh took away all painful thoughts, however, with a brilliant new fairy-tale show, "The Wild Bride": I enjoyed it even more than their famous "Brief Encounter". The synopsis promised not nearly so much as the performance delivered, which was epic theatre, but on a boutique scale. A sextet of performers conjured up images which played upon all the emotions: at times, you couldn't believe how things could happily be resolved for this latter day Mother Courage; and all the while, she - there were three of them - and her trio of male accomplices animated, sang, danced, somersaulted and played a variety of instruments (Patrycja Kujawska's violin standing out). A tour de force, and how criminal that there were empty seats!
An email came in overnight from Canadian cousins, who go to great lengths, it seems, to commemorate Armistice Day. Good for them. It's easy to forget. Today's picture combines the red and black of my poppy - in verticals, to mark, in addition, the moment of the day that most resembles corduroy, as the clock moves from 11:11:11:11:00:00 to 11:11:11:11:11.11.
It was three years ago that the Guardian offered readers the chance to download an original Keith Tyson History Picture. This is "mine". Each work consists of a unique randomly-generated sequence of vertical stripes in red, black and green - the roulette colours. Every image has its own title, based on the geographical location of the user: hence "Cheltenham" at the bottom left.
Ahead of the offer, Keith wrote that his computer "will generate a sequence of the numbers one to 32 which relates to the roulette wheel. Each number has an assigned colour. If you hit the jackpot, you'll come away with an entirely green work. But the chances of that happening are 1 in 37 x 37 x 37, 49 times." Even I, who am red/green colour-blind, can see this is not a jackpot that I've won. But the consolations are that Caroline remembered it's St Martin's Day, and I've been asked out to lunch by an old friend!
My enthusiasm for this still-young quartet (led by Matthew Denton) has been voiced before, and it's none the less intense following this evening's performance at Dean Close School, where they have been "in residence" since the beginning of the year. Drab decor and distracting piles of scores in the background of the Prince Michael Hall couldn't take away from a vibrant performance - of what was a challenging programme.
It began with a quartet by Philip Glass: it had been described, Matthew said, as Rock music for Buddhists. The opening movement of this, his 4th Quartet rocked, but more in the sense of a lullaby - as if Bach might have been looking over the composer's shoulder. The real rock music came after the interval, with the Allegretto furioso of Shostakovich's 10th Quartet.
In between, we heard a couple of minimalist jewels (Kurtág and Webern), and a surprisingly enjoyable work, inspired by Australian birdsong, by David Matthews: he was there to introduce it himself, whistling us a preview of each of the motifs. I liked the idea of the Australian cuckoo singing the same interval as ours, but upside down. And particularly appropriate to hear this piece at a time of year when our garden is more or less a song-free zone.
Leopold/Wolfgang, Fanny/Felix, and Colin/David. I can't think of many other musical family pairs apart from these three Ms, Mozart, Mendelssohn - and Matthews.
Two years ago, we were all getting very excited in the run-up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at Copenhagen. Its perceived failure was a big disappointment. Now, we are barely three weeks away from the start of this year's equivalent COP - 17 - to be held in Durban: nobody seems to be holding their breath, but that doesn't mean to say people shouldn't be praying for a positive outcome this time round. And that's the purpose of Hope for Creation, a day of prayer - today - for action on climate change: Christians in 60 countries around the world have signed up.
Right on cue, I read yesterday of both good news and bad news: the latter first - a record rise in greenhouse gas emissions is reported, putting global warming ahead of the worst-case scenarios envisaged by scientists.
And the good news? China's lightbulb moment. Incandescent bulbs are being phased out in the Peoples' Republic over a five-year period, which is more than the US is committed to.
I photographed this fennel head just over a week ago: it has self-seeded in amongst the carrots.
Paul Dobraszczyk, Andy Wigley, James Bowen, Douglas Grounds, Pamela Sambrook and I were the speakers at this rather interesting day meeting, organised by the Shropshire and Marches Georgian Group. I spoke first, about The Diary of a Shropshire Farmer: it must have been pretty well-received, as I only came back with one copy of the book left unsold. We stayed with friends a little way South of Culmington Village Hall, where the event took place: as we were going to be rather early arriving, we made a minor detour up the lane from the A49 in Bromfield, to take a look at King's Head Farm. The Diarist lived there throughout the 1850s, and indeed my great-grandfather was born there. The place looks a bit desolate today. Culmington village is a surprise: at first you think it must be all along the main road, but tucked away to the East are a number of black and white houses and farm buildings, together with a curious church (All Saints), with Saxon origins clearly visible and a Kempe-like St Michael in one of the South Nave windows. We left before the end, to travel home mainly by daylight, and were rewarded by a remarkable sunset over Ludlow.
Well, this one was taken in August, but we were outside again for lunch today, albeit wearing jerseys. Just a few Wallace and Gromit-like clouds (Caroline's description) hovered far above. One might as well make the most of this Indian Summer. After lunch, we picked more of our huge crop of Bramleys, some for storing under the stairs, some for juicing. The tree still looks laden: how many of Earth's - now 7 billion - people would cry for joy at having a few!
Whilst tent-dwellers were Occupy-ing the space to the West of St Paul's Cathedral, the Archbishop of Canterbury was praying alongside Pope Benedict and other faith leaders in Assisi last week. And from tomorrow Assisi hosts another inter-faith gathering of importance, to launch the first global network aimed at "greening" pilgrimages. Mary Colwell writes about it in the current issue of The Tablet.
Some will ask, why the need for "greening"? Surely pilgrim walkers inherently proclaim a green gospel, rejoicing in nature as they go - this magnificent beech might easily have escaped my attention had I been car-borne along the little road from Upper Coberley to Hilcot on Friday. But then of course not all pilgrims are walkers or cyclists: many indeed jet to faraway destinations to give themselves the warm glow so many get from worshiping at a sacred place. Indeed, I have campaigned in the past for more virtual pilgrimages.
Mary's final sentence sets out a - for me, unfamiliar - quote from St Francis: "There is no use walking to somewhere to preach if your walking is not your preaching." And there was I thinking the expression "Walking the talk" was a recent invention!
The garden is full of it just now: here is Caroline's rhubarb, a different beast altogether from its Spring green hiding pink. Not that the wild West Wind has yet made much impression on the hornbeam and beech hedging. The beans too are still vaguely upright, with much fruit still hanging there, too coarse to slice, but the seeds ready for drying after time. I harvested the little nasturtium balls last week, a very easy crop to garner for sowing again next Summer. Its dark red flowers remain for the moment unfrosted. This mild weather has brought the lilac and weigela into flower even. Meanwhile my mother's two box bushes are home to dozens of spiders, their webs criss-crossing like the work of some crazy electrician, and all bejewelled by dew.
Though we are still a month away from Stir-up Sunday, Caroline took advantage of some willing helpers to start making the cake for Christmas this afternoon. Our grandsons are with us for some of their half-term, and it was wet outside. So good for one to be addressed as "You silly banana!" by a three-year-old whom you love!
For the cake, some sweet sherry was called for: we have none, so the remains of an old bottle of Buckfast Tonic Wine, given me by someone from Buckfast when we once met at Stanbrook, went in instead. That gift must have been almost ten years ago: does Bucky ever go off? I think we shall probably live to tell the tale.
In recent years, the distinguished artist and art historian John Golding has been wont to celebrate his birthday at a lunch in these parts, for which purpose his good neighbour Sophie Bowness has driven him down from London. Today's line-up, gathered for the occasion, was an eclectic mix of former pupils, colleagues and friends: we all enjoyed a drive there through the Autumn sunshine, the trees being now fully on the turn; but alas upon arrival we were told that it was a case of Hamlet without the Prince. John is unwell. A toast was proposed to an absent friend.
In her empty passenger seat, Sophie brought with her a copy of the elegant and comprehensive book she has edited, "Barbara Hepworth: The Plasters", published by Lund Humphries in April to coincide with the opening of the new Hepworth Wakefield museum of which she is a trustee. I was surprised to read in it that, in spite of one of her last major works being Theme and Variations, a three-part bronze relief for the façade of the Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society Head Office, Hepworth never visited Cheltenham either to see its proposed location or after installation.
Peter Newham has been tuning our piano ever since we acquired it - is that nearly 30 years ago? Before then even, I had encountered him when he and his wife first came to live here, wanting legal advice. "You are the first person in Cheltenham I met," he told me this morning. Like Somerset Maugham and W.H. Auden, he has one of those faces, which portrays character with no prospect of masking it. It's as if the sensitivity of his ear has transferred itself, Dorian Gray-like, to his visage.
Peter has strong views on planning. "Why can't our planners go and look at the Plaza Major in Salamanca before deciding on a glass and steel look for the new square in North Place?" To my enquiry, whether he's a member of our Civic Society, however, he replies, as I anticipated, "I'm not a joiner."
Our old upright is in the dining-room, the walls of which are now covered with Tetbury Festival photographs: he has stories, of course, about many of the musicians featured in them. But also he is the first person to liken my Douro Valley railway shot to something out of an old movie, and wants to hear the story behind my Gersois tobacco pickers tableau. "The trouble with both my pianos [he has made two] and your photographs, Martin, is that, inexplicably, nobody wants to buy them."
I enquire after his tricky back: he illustrates his clean bill of health since his last visit here with tales of riding horses in Szechuan amongst Buddhist Tibetan nomads and Muslim Hui Chinese.
Ida paid us a brief visit on her birthday (on Friday) - too brief for cakes and balloons. Celebrations were planned for when she reached London, I gather. She was wearing her usual heady mixture of clothing, chosen by herself. Pink is as ever the colour of choice. I thought my cap might add to the look, but it's here in the course of being rejected.
What would her great-grandmother (my mother) have said about her outfit, I wondered: she was modelling clothes for The Daily Telegraph when aged over 80. Will there be newspapers to model for if and when Ida is 80? I doubt it. Even now, the idea of reading news in paper format attracts only a minority. I am happy to be part of it, but none of my children buy a paper regularly, so far as I know.