Saturday, 31 March 2012

"She stoops to conquer"

Last evening, Cineworld showed the National Theatre's live relay of what I always thought the silliest of our classic plays; but in this brilliant production, it fizzed into life from the first scene, and momentum was sustained throughout. Music and dance, not overdone, provided the continuity, and a clear if narrow pathway between Shakespearean low comedy and the wordiness of Wilde. "She stoops to conquer" has to be the defining English 18th century play: directed by the astonishingly youthful Jamie Lloyd, it's - in the words of co-heroine Constance Neville - "the very pink of perfection."

Caroline being on her way back from spending three nights in Scotland, I was there on my own with four friends, who provided generous amounts of food and wine for the interval: hence no pink perfection Ben & Jerry ice cream on this occasion.

Thursday, 29 March 2012


It's not much more than an hour away, yet we hardly ever go to Royal Leamington Spa, as they like it to be known. I was there yesterday for a meeting about the Heritage Open Days, a national celebration of our heritage and culture - construed in the widest sense. 50 countries now take part, we were told. At the time, I mentioned that a sub-set of domestic properties calling itself Cheltenham Eco Homes took part in the HODs weekend for the first time last September: we were encouraged by the public response to repeat the process, and are now calling ourselves Cheltenham ECOHAB - standing for something like energy conservation opportunities - houses and (other) buildings. A colleague and I thought we should tap into what's going on during the HODs in other places - hence the trek over to Warwickshire. The "organiser forum", led by a couple of lively young London ladies, was well attended, and included a tour of the Pump Rooms and the integral Art Gallery & Museum.

Leamington has got it together in a way which puts Cheltenham to shame: it's a tribute to the energies and vision of I guess just one or two people, one certainly being our guide who started as a typist there 20 years ago and now seems to run the place. This unusual royal coat of arms is up in the main hall, not as large or elegant as the Pittville Pump Room, but well used for chamber music, I note from the bumf.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Norganic neither

The charismatic Chris Beardshaw came to the Cotswold Playhouse Theatre in Stroud last evening, at the invitation of the Gloucestershire Organic Gardening Group: well though he talked about his career and background, the "O" word was notably absent during the enjoyable two hours (nearly) for which he spoke!

Both a plantsman and a garden architect, Chris clearly wanted us to know more about the architecture than the planting. Or rather the "choreography". How are we going to arrange our plants? He agreed with Gertrude Jekyll, they should be "like the thread in a tapestry." And he went on to talk of the gardener as the conductor of a great orchestra, controlling both the assemblage of blooms and their timing.

To walk down a well-planned herbaceous border was like exploring the nave of a cathedral, its columns (trees) supporting the roof and giving rhythm as you proceed towards the altar (gazebo?). Changing the metaphor yet again (this happened a lot), he spoke of the garden as a four-dimensional photograph album, as a strange stew, even as a pair of old slippers...

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Duntisbourne Abbots

Another warm, sunny day! From our walk this morning, we had a good view overlooking the most Northerly of the Duntisbournes, with its six well-tailored yew trees leading up to the 12th Century church of St Peter. (Actually, there are seven yews, one male and the rest female, or is it vice versa?)

I came away having been lent three books by female authors to choose from for our forthcoming bike holiday: Molly Keane's Devoted Ladies (1934); The Report, by Jessica Francis Kane (2010), and Mel T.P.Z O'Dea's The Ghost Whisperers, published only last year.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Purple patches

Even in Antarctica, I read, some are today wearing purple: it's the global day of epilepsy awareness, the brainchild (four years ago) of a young Canadian girl. Cassidy - for it was she - chose the colour purple after the international colour for epilepsy, lavender - a flower often associated with solitude, and so echoing the feelings of isolation of many epileptics.

My photograph - to complement this - was stolen during last evening's mass at St Gregory's, the first Sunday in Passiontide. The clocks went forward but the church went dark. By contrast, I had a lovely sunny walk down from home, admiring Cheltenham's profusion of magnolia trees of several varieties; and on afterwards to the Town Hall to hear (and see) the beautiful Natalie Clein playing with the Oxford Philomusica. It was her 35th birthday, and rather as - in the office - we had to buy everyone cake on our birthdays, she too gave the orchestra (and us) a present, staying on after the interval to take her place amongst the 'cellos for the performance of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Three stumps

More cricket to wake up to from tomorrow! I wonder if our quicks will be as succesful in removing stumps as Martin Pemberton was this afternoon. In our garden we have recently lost three trees, the roots however stubbornly resisting my attacks upon their stumps. This Martin, though, clawed them out in a jiffy.

In quiet times, he says he's tempted to take his intelligent elephant equivalent along to the nearest supermarket car park: like the Pied Piper, all the children would inevitably cluster round, and at so much a go, he'd be soon rich.

Friday, 23 March 2012

King's place

I refer of course to the King of Melody, Franz Schubert, and his place at the heart of our affections, particularly these nine days starting today, when his music (spirit indeed) will monopolise the Radio 3 schedule. I type this listening to Imogen Cooper playing the D major sonata D 850, relayed from a venue with nearly the same name as my heading. (I can't bring myself to type it because of my apostrophe fetish: I would only say, what an appropriate location the Grauniad chose a few years ago for its new offices.)

What is it that's so special about Imogen's playing? I guess it's the vulerability. Now, at double Schubert's age when his body gave up, her touch seems more tender than it once was - very much in tune with the inner world of a composer, who lives on.

During the concert interval this evening, we heard some spoken word about Schubert: the delightful brogue of that fine lieder singer Ailish Tynan contrasted with the quavering, only slightly accented voice of the 86-year-old Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, by whom I was first introduced to the intensity of Schubert's music. And then Imogen's own voice, as always so warm, and full of love for her (and our) hero, nay King.

Rehearsal photographs rarely flatter the artist: this one taken in the Pittville Pump Room in 2003 is no exception, but it conveys something of the whole-body concentration that Imogen brings to her always memorable performances. As Alan Rushbridger wrote in 2009, "Long may her moment in the sun last."

Thursday, 22 March 2012

"Colour and clay"

This is the title of the current exhibition at our Parabola Arts Centre: I popped in this afternoon. My photograph shows Plum Naismith's mixed media work, "The Day Fell into Summer" hanging above a set of porcelain clay vessels by Claire Watson. Another potter (not exhibiting) I bumped into there told me, just a hint of bitterness in her voice, that the criterion for entry into the show was that work should not be functional.

I'm bound to say that none of a vary varied set of pieces moved me much. Rather more positive was my reaction to this year's open west show - we were in Gloucester for it yesterday (but I left my memory card in my computer, so my camera wasn't much use). At least some of that, mainly three-dimensional, work is challenging, the artists and curators having combined to make something of the awesome surroundings of the Cathedral.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

St Gregory's

I have mentioned before our church's rather fine Hardman windows, displaying scenes from the life of our patron: St Gregory is taking choir practice (the Gregorian chant, don't you know). I was disappointed - a while back - to hear that the Cheltenham Festival of Music had turned us down as a venue, as it's a fine place for a concert.

Fifteen parish-based organisations submitted reports at our annual meeting last night, including our present music group, containing plenty of Youth. At the other extreme, the SVP rep. said they were looking for young blood - that is, anyone under the age of 70.

Our much-loved priest, Canon Bosco spoke of an "explosion of lay involvement in this parish, a family of faith, a school drawing out a prayful response to God's love." But he was, he admitted, missing his youthful assistant, Fr. Tom - given his own parish elsewhere last Autumn - and never more so than in Race Week, when he would go off, eager as a newborn lamb, only to return crestfallen, his bets misplaced. Loss, though, is "an essential part of the mystery of our faith."

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Spring sprung

21st March, I always thought to be the first day of Spring. Well, the bikes are being serviced. And as can be seen from the tulips and wallflowers blooming in our garden, Spring certainly seems to have arrived in Cheltenham.

But not just in a meteorological sense: in 2012 it's also true in an astronomical sense, because this year the Vernal Equinox is today, its earliest since 1896. Time to get digging and spread some of the horse manure we picked up a fortnight (or more) ago! But first I have to do something about the remainder of our apple and fig prunings, littered over the back lawn.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Leonard Stanley

Why do we all flock again and again to see the same well-known sights, when there are so many minor miracles waiting for us to experience? I must have driven along the A419 passing less than a mile North of Leonard Stanley a hundred times, but never once, in nearly 40 years as a Gloucestershire resident, have I entered the village before today. And the best way is clearly on foot - not difficult, with Stonehouse station such a short distance away. St Swithun's, the church, "contains much very good work," Pevsner (under)states. Above an aumbry in the Chancel is this most curious 12th Century representation of Adam and Eve as animals: Eve-bitch holds the apple in one paw and the serpent's body in the other. Tomcat-Adam looks on questioningly: shall I/shalln't I? It's crude work, but brilliantly anarchic. Two more conventional, and even finer, Norman sculptures adorn the ends of the central shafts further down the Chancel.

Sunday, 18 March 2012


We drove to North Hertfordshire yesterday, to spend a night with old friends. There were ten of us at table, none with unbroken Herefordshire roots, but all (the others) well pleased with moving there from busier parts. Judging from the conversation, we were not by any standards amongst backwoodsmen, however handy our host is with the chain saw.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Heart & Soul

Our Cheltenham Town Transition Heart & Soul Group met this morning: we had a good discussion about consumerism. Energy supplies came up, all obviously agreeing that renewables were "a good thing"; but what about "the fifth fuel" - energy efficiency? Consuming less should be seen to be a main pillar of any seriously green-thinking government's strategy. But is it?

One idea (Arran Stibbe's): nationalise the energy industry; and let the state give the power companies a per capita grant - the same for each customer. Then the state charges customers according to consumption. The result? Energy suppliers are motivated, big time, to get customers to reduce their consumption.

Friday, 16 March 2012

"Exploring solitude"

This is the title of an unusual exhibition at our Gardens Gallery. It "opened" this evening. Neville Gable travelled to the Antarctic a year or two ago on an artistic commission under the auspices of the British Antarctic Survey. There, he produced videos featuring himself, photographed by cameras (one launched on a kite); and he wrote daily emails to his wife, Joan, who used the text to produce a series of imaginative drawings. A book in a very limited edition has resulted - it was on display, alongside the last letter of Cheltonian Edward Wilson, who was part of Scott's last - ill-fated - expedition. Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum are promoting this show, and have acquired the videos to go with their collection of Wilson memorabilia.

Seeing our MP, Martin Horwood, amongst others present at the opening, I bent his ear with my view of the government's Alice in Wonderland approach to the definition of "marriage": he said I was the first person in his constituency who had told him of their opposition to the proposal that gays should be able to "marry"; which amazed me. "All that's necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," didn't someone say?

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Carbon savings

This is a property in an adjacent road to us, perhaps with too many PV panels: I took the photograph at just after 3.30pm towards the end of last month, and already the sun is off nearly half of the array. Our decision last year to go down the solar thermal route, rather than have PV, was governed by similar considerations of shading.

12 months having now elapsed since we finished with the plumbing firm that did our work, we can look at what a difference it's made. Not only did we instal three roof panels, but we upgraded the gas boiler and the radiator system. The result? Gas usage is barely more than half what it was before; daytime electricity about two-thirds, and night-time units about three-quarters. Of course, the 2011/12 Winter has been milder, but that's still an appreciable saving, in my book!

Saturday, 10 March 2012

"Il faut cultiver notre jardin"?

We spent the best part of today in the Old School Rooms, Stoke Gifford, hard by Bristol Parkway station, at the Christian Ecology Link annual conference. Wouldn't we have been better off "on our allotment"? Jonathon Porritt - our keynote speaker - postulated the possibility, only to reject it. After "a hundred years of suicidal growth", it is still possible to transform our (dire) situation, he said, but we need to strain each sinew to do so - and call in aid every spiritual resource: that's what justified congregating in a stuffy hall on a sunny Spring morning - and joining a peaceful protest at Hinckley Point ("No more Fukushimas!"): Jonathon was off there after his speech.

"But how can you work with a monolith like Unilever?" he's asked. "Well, I can imagine a sustainable world with no Magnum ice creams, but not one without Marmite."

Three decades or so ago, at one of the still nascent Ecology Party half-yearly conferences, a small group of Christians met to form a pool of holiness within the warring world of Green politics. And here some of us still were, seeking mutual encouragement within that same pool, Christian Ecology Link.

Today, we were marshalled, facilitated and inspired by Barbara Echlin, Ellen Teague and poet Clare Best. And - Jonathon apart - a further seven men (!) came forward to offer that encouragement.

Tim Gorringe proclaimed the whole of reality as God's, not "capital" for accrual, but gift for our nurture and for use for others' sake. Adopting an altogether lower tone, Chris Sunderland spoke of the need for inner transformation for our generation, which lived in the shallows and marketed the mind, having turned its soul into a desert - rather than a fertile land for spiritual growth.

Jeremy Williams invited us to share his quest for a simpler, more sustainable life, by detoxing from consumerism. The excellent presentation by Mark Letcher showed how we might reframe our specific concerns about climate change, so as to persuade a broader cross-section to take it seriously, while a more general political engagement was urged upon us by Jonathan Essex, a Green Party local councillor: he took me back to the early days when we were all paid up members of the Ecology Party.

The gentle, prophetic voice of Ed Echlin was heard advocating organic food production, and sparking a wide-ranging discussion amongst both young and old. Finally, CEL Chair Paul Bodenham steered us towards the darker form of hope - based not on bright, shiny technology, but upon God's sustaining power within us, drawing us into conversion: sharing that hope, we become evangelists.

"All of us find our communities where we can," Jonathon Porritt reflected: CEL brings people together from a diversity of local and national communities - a unique network, and repository of goodness.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Syde walk

On a dullish morning, we walked again, this time with friends. From Syde church, we set off Northwards before dipping into the hidden valley which stretches down through Eddington Wood from Brimpsfield. It's less than a mile from the busy dual carriageway, but you wouldn't know it. How grateful we can be that this ancient pocket was spared the scars that a modern PPG7 mansion would have inflicted on it! "Proposals for Syde Park, near Caudle Green, included a six-bedroom house with conservatory and orangery, two large cottages and a water cascade on landscaped terraces."

Listeners to The Archers (I don't count myself as one these days) will know all about it.

We arrived early for our rendezvous, so I popped into the jewel-like church of St Mary to see, I'd hoped, the "roundel of St James of Compostela in the nave SE window" - Pevsner. But no roundel was there to be seen! What might have become of it?

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Orchardist Martin

Following up his offer at a GOGG meeting last year, I approached Martin Hayes to come and prune our old apple trees - they can't have been touched for years, he said. The result of today's work is a vast heap of prunings in the centre of our lawn. The fig, too, looks leaner and fitter having suffered a few drastic blows.

I learnt a lot: the difference between male and female mistletoe, for instance; and that even experienced orchard workers can cut themselves sometimes, and wobble on ladders.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Syreford Quarry

We collected horse manure from Andoversford yesterday morning, going on to stretch our legs - preparation for more Camino walking in May - above Syreford. When we went to live there in 1983, it might have been possible to buy one of the few properties for let's say £20,000. Now you could need to add a couple of noughts to that for some of the houses - and all the cottages have been souped up.

The Quarry off the old coach road up to Whittington is bigger since our day (it's nearly 18 years since we left), but the surrounding fields all look in good heart: circling seagulls testify to a promising feeding ground.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Rochester House

During our Ealing perambulation yesterday morning, it rained more and more solidly. Nevertheless, there was much of interest to appreciate, as we were led down narrow passages, passing the backs of fine old houses as well as more or less neglected cemeteries and allotments. Our goal was the former country house that once belonged to (or was rented by) Caroline's great-great-great-grandparents. A worthwhile one it proved. Rochester House, built a few decades before (the unmarried) Francis and Ann, with their ten children, took up residence, must have looked fine from across the adjoining fields. Now it stands, well cared for still, on a bend in the busy road, surrounded by later buildings of generally less distinguished appearance.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

"...Only a future to hope for"

Crossing Trafalgar Square yesterday afternoon, en route for the Lucien Freuds at the National Portrait Gallery, we admired the latest 4th Plinth offering, recently put in place.

The guff says that a child has been elevated to the status of a historical hero, though there is not yet a history to commemorate – only a future to hope for. Instead of acknowledging the heroism of the powerful, “Powerless Structures, Fig. 101” (for that is its catchy title) - in the words of its creators, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset - “celebrates the heroism of growing up."


Saturday, 3 March 2012

After the fall

We dropped in on our Wiltshire (part-time) family this morning. The youngest member - in his excitement - ran round the house and then slipped on a greasy, loose paving-stone: splat! Savlon and an electronic gismo seemed to do the trick quite speedily, to assuage both blood and tears.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Black "Comedy"

Happy memories of Clifford Williams’ RSC production of The Comedy of Errors were brought back last evening! They were awakened by the National Theatre relay of its current revival of this early Shakespeare.

First put on in September 1962, I saw it at Stratford the following year, with Alec McCowen and the late-lamented Ian Richardson, Clifford Rose and Barry MacGregor in the male leads - other parts played by Donald Sinden, Diana Rigg, Janet Suzman…

I'm inclined to confess that yesterday the best bit was my Ben & Jerry ice cream in the interval. The production by the Royal Court's Dominic Cooke is dark, dark, dark - more uniformly so even than Act 1 of Propeller's recent Winter's Tale. I really don't think that the earlier play can stand that much directorial business: it left a distinctly unpleasant taste in the mouth - not one offset by some excellent acting and - praise be! - verse speaking: in the latter department, Pamela Nomvete as an unlikely-looking Abbess was outstanding, though her part is only a minor one.

It was the second occasion this week that I've left a so-called comedy dissatisfied: on Tuesday our Film Society showed a French film (from 2008), Louise-Michel: it was the first time I've ever found myself walking out before the end: it made me feel quite sick.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Energy Champions

Wasteful though I am in so many ways, I have signed up to be one of Cheltenham's Energy Champions. Our trainers yesterday evening (this is one) assured us that we didn't have to be experts - only know where to go for help. The Energy Saving Trust hotline was a good start. The big idea is to get Cheltenham to reduce its overall domestic (and other) energy demands, in line with our much-needed Transition to a more sustainable future. 20 of us met up for this training, which surely qualifies us as having done something significantly out of the ordinary to commemorate Leap Year Day.