"What vasty thighs outspread to give thee birth,
DIDCOT, thou marvel of the plain?"
Thus Kit Wright begins his Ode to Didcot Power Station, composed in 2005: his step-grandchildren live nearby, and he confesses to finding it rather beautiful. And so it perhaps appears, at least from the safe distance of the Wittenham Clumps. We climbed up to them, from Dorchester, on a grey, mainly sunless Saturday morning.
I had long been interested in exploring the Clumps, as one of them may possibly feature in the background of our family heirloom, the oil painting of "The Bull" bred by my great-great-grandfather Peter Davis. (Enough: I've blogged about this before.) I returned from the walk this weekend, no wiser, but with the thought that I might ask the people at Earth Trust, which owns the Clumps, whether they have any ideas on the subject.
Didcot burns a small amount of biomass (sawdust), but large amounts of oil, natural gas, and in particular coal. So, sorry Kit: I can't get out of my mind that it's amongst the top 10 most polluting power stations in the UK, which means that the cooling towers etc. spoil - rather than enhance - the view for this onlooker.
On Saturday, I photographed this detail from a late 13th/early 14th Century glass roundel in the Dorchester Abbey chancel's SE window - "reputedly the oldest stained glass in England, possibly inported from a church in France," according to Simon Jenkins. The two characters could almost have emerged from a 20th Century cartoon strip. The window sits beneath an elaborately carved sedilia, and opposite the magnificent Jesse window - greatly trickier to photograph. Discovering the Abbey's rich chancel was unexpected: the nave (and indeed the exterior) seemed unpromisingly austere, particularly given that preparations were in full swing for that evening's concert by Showaddywaddy. "Who are they?" I asked: well, according to the pre-publicity, "they have long been established as Europe's most successful ever exponents in the art of rock and roll. 23 Top 40 hit singles including 10 Top 5 hits (Under The Moon Of Love, When, I Wonder Why, 3 Steps To Heaven, Hey Rock and Roll.....), 15 massive selling albums - including 3 multi-platinum, over 50 Top of the Pops appearances..." and so it goes on - under my radar.
Friday's was my first visit to Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre for a symphony concert: we had heard the OAE and Andreas Scholl there some years ago, but a full orchestra playing from the romantic repertoire was something else. If truth be told, despite the well-documented brilliance of the CBSO under its young conductor Andris Nelsons, it produced rather too harsh a sound for my ears, sitting in the first tier up. Still, the chance to listen carefully to two old warhorses (Tchaikovsky's 1st Symphony and Brahms' 1st Piano Concerto) in such virtuosic performances doesn't come often. In fact it was a treat.
My back has now recovered from sitting squashed for two hours on what is effectively a bench, an ordeal only partly offset by the beauty of Wren's architecture.
Highlight of the evening: the pianist was lissome Hélène Grimaud, her performance in the Brahms combining elegance with strength way beyond what her appearance gave me to expect.
Once more, the Cheltenham Music Society has triumphed, in securing the Takács Quartet for their tour's only UK out-of-London recital: recognised as one of the world's leading ensembles, last night they played for a packed Pittville Pump Room audience Haydn's "Lark", Britten no. 3 and Dvořák Op. 51. Could the programming possibly have been influenced by all three works being led off by the second violinist, Károly Schranz, 60 this year? Whatevs.
Talking to Alec Hamilton beforehand, I learnt that he "suffers" Haydn. Poor man! How else can you account for Beethoven? There are a couple of bars in the first movement of the "Lark" and more than a couple in the last movement that pre-echo even late Beethoven.
And without Beethoven, no Britten: his intense last quartet formed the meat course last night. The soaring violin of the Ostinato 2nd movement even outmatching in its eloquence the leader's role in the "Lark" opening.
You can still hear the Takács playing the Haydn and Dvořák (at the Wigmore on Monday) via the iPlayer for five days more. They look and sound like a happy bunch. With their talent, they are as generous as Bill Gates says he would have all the American Presidential candidates be - but some hope there!
Also on Monday, the young Russians making up the Atrium Quartet were broadcast live. Catching up with them on the iPlayer, I admired their early Beethoven in particular: a different sound, but gripping. This quartet is one to watch out for.
This is such a clever film! Our expectations were high, which is usually dangerous; but seeing it last night there was no feeling of let-down. It really has it all: glitz, drama, romance, comedy (lots of in-jokes), dancing, a bit of the surreal – and, reluctant as I am to admit it, a sympathetic dog. When all’s said, though, it left me curiously dry-eyed. I think I was turned off by the hero of the piece: his “Jeeves” was - on the other hand - delightful.
This photograph - taken in Nara when we were in Japan a couple of years ago - is of course of no relevance whatever to the film!
The first major social event in the gardening calendar locally is Dundry Nurseries' annual Potato Festival, held this last weekend. The mild weather added to the crowds, so it became quite a jostle in Chris Evans' big shed. People were there from far and wide, the word circulating ever more widely about the great service Dundry offers: leaving aside the heritage items, they had supplies of upwards of 120 varieties available - and will keep the stocks up till Easter, Chris assured us. A lady went round with a tray of buns for the many extra helpers who came in - some from GOGG: Mac, the 62-year-old parrot sat on her shoulder (he hates men).
Caroline had known Chris - and his work with young people - for many years: his pride and joy now is The Butterfly Garden, adjacent to Dundry - a project for people of all ages coping with disablement.
What is left of the once celebrated Cheltenham School of Art (founded over 150 years ago) is now located in the University of Gloucestershire's Hardwick Campus. I went there for the first time yesterday: Transition Town Cheltenham's Heart and Soul Group were running an Art of Transition course there. It was well subscribed, the keynote speech being by the University's Arran Stibbe, assisted by his five-year-old son. Arran's theme was that images - not necessarily artistic - can help to point the way towards a new lifestyle for communities.
This made sense to me, as a Christian member of the Group - rather like religious images as an aid to prayer. Yet, as Sara Maitland points out in a thoughtful article in this week’s Tablet, “Our God creates by speaking and most usually communicates with that Creation through words and songs – rather than direct visual appearances.”
Arran's is, furthermore, art as function, not for art's sake; though perhaps our problem is that we lose sight of things for their own sake. Certainly, it's difficult to avoid putting a price on everything: free entry to the Heart and Soul group's "heartening" event - complementary biscuits and juices into the bargain - no doubt helped those attending (myself included) to feel they were walking the talk.
The photograph shows local graphic designer, Jacqui Brown's practical art workshop: she had raided the marvellous Gloucester Scrapstore for our benefit. (On Thursday, the Gloucestershire Churches Environmental Justice Network heard Richard Walter of the local Community Energy Co-operative talk about the huge PV array recently-installed on the Scrapstore roof: it should yield £1800 a month in Summertime!)
Besides Jacqui's workshop, Pat Dannahy ran a session on The art of Communication, and Lesley O'Neill a workshop on the Artist's Way.
The all-male company, Propeller are in Cheltenham with two Shakespeare plays: we saw The Winter's Tale yesterday evening, last seen by me in 1993 (Adrian Noble's magical production at Stratford). This was only the second night of Edward Hall's production, and perhaps it will improve; but I wonder. The verse speaking left a lot to be desired: so much of the text is gabbled. (We were near the front, and I don't think I'm getting that deaf!)
In the first three Acts, men playing ladies' roles are fine. But then a major problem arose, with the entry of the 16-year-old Perdita. In Shakespeare's day, I imagine it wasn't as difficult a part as many others in the canon for a teenage boy, who could look much like a beautiful princess in shepherd's guise; but Ben Allen? No.
The best bit of the evening by far was the chorus of sheep - The Bleatles. A pity the bear wasn't equally evident. And a great shame there were so many empty seats! For, whatever one's reservations about the production, it's a joy to have live Shakespeare in our beautiful Everyman Theatre. Is this the recession?
This Christmas, for the first time in very many years, there had been no card bearing Ray's graceful handwriting; and now I hear of his "peaceful" death, on Wednesday.
More than 30 years ago, he was awarded the MBE: nobody could have worn his honour more modestly. He was an inspiration to generations of potters, as well as being one of the easiest people to love and respect. We first met in 1974, when I went to live within Winchcombe Catholic parish, of which Ray and his wife Muriel were quiet stalwarts. Muriel involved me in the formation of the town's overseas development project, a charity we called Save a starving village trust - an informal "twinning" of Winchcombe with Kanjianal in Bangladesh. The bowl Ray gave us for our wedding present remains one of our most treasured possessions - now alas, a little chipped. What a privilege it was to have known Winchcombe's most distinguished craftsman - indeed resident!
I took this photograph on 18th March 1993, the day Jodami won the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
On its release in 2009, the New York Times hated it, as did some of our own papers; but we are still raving about last night's chaotic Cheltenham Film Society offering - a take on Russian Jewish musicians somehow getting it together to play Tchaikovsky in Paris's Théâtre du Châtelet. As a romantic tear-jerker-cum-action-packed political farce, it risked falling between every stool; but as a piece of magic-realist escapism, it was a great evening out, for this general music-lover anyway. Buena Vista Social Club on speed.
The fragrant Melanie Laurent steals the show, run close by Gheorghe Anghel of the brilliant Taraf de Haïdouks, stars of a couple of our Cheltenham festivals in past years. I felt sorry for those who left when the film started running without subtitles: they missed a treat.
The book of my 2011 posts has arrived today. As its name implies, it's the 4th in the series, each one printed handsomely by Blurb. This time, I have used white text against a black background throughout, and a slightly larger font. All very satisfactory, though I say it myself.
Yesterday's Heart and Soul group discussed ways in which we could each intensify our local community experience. The implication being that, if we needed to travel anywhere, let's go low-carbon. Better however to stay at home. That was in the middle of the day: in the evening we took the car an hour Southwards, to hear a pianist from Indiana, flown in a few hours before from New York. And in the interval, the talk was with one person just returned from New Zealand, another off to Burma this week, a third having been skiing since New Year in Wyoming, a fourth glad that his cruise had not ended with a rocky encounter off the Tuscan coast.
In this private concert, Jonathan Biss, 31, tried out a programme he's to perform seven times in three different countries over the coming five weeks. "Remember, you're hearing it here first," our hostess warned me last night. Indeed we shall: this "outstanding" performer played Beethoven, Chopin and sublime Janáček to the huge acclaim of a discerning audience, before sending us home with a silvery sliver of Schumann.
My photograph was taken while Biss rehearsed for his Tetbury Festival recital in October 2010.
Burma featured in the news this morning, more political prisoners having been freed, thank God! And last evening we heard our friend Canon Roger Symon give an excellent account of his recent visits to that country. Speaking to a full house in the Cheltenham Junior School Assembly Hall, he described his mission, to arrange an official visit by the Archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Burmese Anglican Church. This representative was to be Roger's old boss, George Carey, Rowan Williams' predecessor.
Roger (no spring chicken, he won't mind the description) and his wife came to live in Cheltenham, having served as Secretary of the Anglican Communion between 1986 and 1994, taking the place of the imprisoned Terry Waite. He was brave indeed, therefore, to emerge from retirement to undertake this delicate assignment. For Archbishop Stephen of Burma would clearly rather his high profile party had stayed at home, than come and stir things up by visiting refugee camps and meeting Anglicans, identified by Burma's military rulers as natural sympathisers with the separatist cause.
Still worse were their plans to see Aung San Suu Kyi, whom the Archbishop of Burma had always avoided meeting. He did however send a message via Carey: "We all love her: she is our hope for the future." Having heard this, Daw Suu exclaimed, "No hope without endeavour! Hope is concrete, not just a concept. It has to be gained by practical work."
And thus the way was opened to the first encounter between the Archbishop of Burma and The Lady.
In September 1970, I spent a couple of days in Budapest, staying with a doctor friend, whom I'd met (and had to stay) when he had visited London earlier that Summer. It was one of those episodes, the importance of which bears no relation to its duration. The reason? The intensity of the hospitality I received from Ádám and his mother, living in circumstances far reduced from those they had earlier been used to, but unceasingly generous to this traveller passing through - certainly compared to the standard I'd set in London.
Since then, we have corresponded regularly - if only at Christmas - though I have never been back to Hungary. Knowing Ádám (and - over time - his family) even in this tangential way has stimulated an interest in all things Hungarian, particularly the music of Bartók and Kodály. Politically and economically, the country appears from here currently to be in a mess, alas - but this seems happily unreflected in the family photograph I've just received, taken near Lake Balaton last Summer.
This weekend, we celebrate Epiphany. Our crib has been enhanced, by the coming of one of the Kings, an albino (or is it just grey hair?), bearing a gold ball. He's the product of the Caroline and Mini papier-mâché production line, which is gradually assembling a complete set of Nativity figures. Joseph and a second sheep are also 2011 additions to the ensemble on our hall table - much admired by visitors, but now to be put away in the attic.
At church itself, we have a collection of any old bits of gold today, to be sold in aid of the St Thomas More parish hall refurbishment fund.
Caroline and I got engaged to be married in East Anglia, while staying with friends of mine, who had not long been married themselves. In other words, they showed us the way.
It's a trek, to get to see them (and vice versa), but we were pleased they could drop in on us for the night yesterday, which they did, bearing lilies. John and I had a quick march round the Park Campus lake this morning, before they headed off South. They don't seem to have changed much in nearly four decades.
Agnes and Edmund combined to buy Caroline a carpet for Christmas, for Agnes' old room at the top of the house, which is now - as a result - a cosy office for her. Rob Smith (who's been to us before, though I didn't remember his face) came to do the laying, and - obligingly - to tidy up our carpetting generally, especially the thresholds - and the wine-soaked landing: we hadn't had anyone round since the plumbers took all the floorboards up this time last year.
I've been Listening Again to the Royal Opera House's La Traviata, broadcast on New Year's Eve (when I missed it). No performance by this particular cast seems to have been reviewed, but it does contain at least one outstanding interpretation, that of Ailyn Pérez in the title rôle. Nothing can quite erase the impression Ileana Cotrubas or Montserrat Caballé made on this impressionable listener in the Gods at Covent Garden decades ago; but Pérez sang with an intensity which I've not heard for a long time. Her vocal acting reminded me of Callas, which is saying a lot.
The words in the heading were not of course sung in reference to Violetta; and probably shouldn't be applied either to our granddaughter, who has been staying with us for a nice while; but she did look rather adorable, feeding the ducks by The Park's lake yesterday, in her "new" (eBay) coat. She's been enjoying Darcey Bussell's take on Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Debbie Reynolds and Cyd Charisse, sitting on my knee.
[I've since read of Hugh Canning's enthusiasm for Pérez's Violetta.]