It's 13 years since we stayed a week at La Foce, celebrating with our late lamented friend Massimo his 50th birthday. You forget how beautiful Tuscany is, even on a less than 100% sunny evening such as tonight. Here, we are further North than before, looking towards the village of Radicondoli, across a wide valley: there's nothing much between us apart from a very few farmhouses, and indeed nothing that I can at this late hour see to mar the 180 degree view.
We arrived not long after 7 o'clock, met by our kind hosts off the bus from Colle di Val d'Elsa. After traveling all day, to immerse myself in a heated infinity pool overlooking such a view was absolutely delicious.
We have just been sitting under an awning outside the Duc de Richelieu bistro in rue Parrot near here, having an early supper. Though the air is warmer than it was in England this morning, the rain has been pouring down on a scooterised traffic warden, pausing to slap a notice on the windscreen of each of several illegally-parked cars alongside us. Our Geneva train leaves shortly, and then it's on to Lausanne to sleep, before going on to Florence tomorrow: a friend of a friend advises against the sleeper to Italy.
Thomas was over from Lisbon, Agnes and Ida have now immigrated (from Wales), Sarah has been in Scotland, William and Laurie in France, and Edmund all the way across to the Isle of Wight - oh, and we are just off to Italy. So where more natural for us to meet for a family reunion than downtown Swindon?
This is the title of one of the Presteigne Festival art exhibitions: we went to The Workhouse Gallery to see it after my talk this morning. (I took the photograph from upstairs where beautiful carpets and rugs are to be found, above the exhibition space.)
Craxton was brother to the oboist, Janet, Nick Daniel's teacher, and friend of the Berkeley family. Hence "Into the ravine", the name Michael has given to his new work, matching that of the Craxton painting owned by Michael's father Lennox.
There is something a bit Samuel Palmer-ish about Craxton's work, as you see it in this fine show. Maybe it's because of other influences appearing so strong that his name is less celebrated than that of his contemporaries, Graham Sutherland's for instance. But as Michael said in the course of last night's discussion, "We are all a synthesis of our own experience."
Pausing for lunch at The Feathers in Ledbury, we drove to Presteigne today. We are staying at Radnor House, opposite the Assembly Rooms, where I am due to speak tomorrow morning about Peter Davis' Diary.
After the Diary period, Peter Davis moved North to Diddlebury, and then 20-odd miles South to Milton Farm, near Shobdon. From there, he was married - in Pembridge Church. On our final run in to Presteigne, we stopped at both the church and the farm to inspect. Each impressed by its size, and what a view it is from the farmhouse!
This evening, there's been a concert by the Carducci String Quartet, 87.5% of whom you can see in my rather poor photograph - together with Presteigne Festival President, Michael Berkeley. Michael's Oboe Quintet ("Into the ravine") received its premiere, oboist Nick Daniel being out of my picture. "My pieces are much more spare since my illness," Michael said. (Before the concert, he had shared an interesting platform with Nick, David Matthews and Sally Beamish.)
Cousin Trevor is over from Sydney, and has come to stay the weekend, together with his sister, who is from Suffolk: we have never met her before. Today, I drove them round on a scenic tour - past the top of Upper Coberley, through Lower Hilcot, Withington, Compton Abdale, Hazleton, Turkdean and Aylworth. Then lunch at the Black Horse, Naunton, and afterwards on through Kineton to Ford and Toddington, to see the railway (Trevor's work was in that world). Finally, back - via Winchcombe and its Railway Museum (where I had a sleep in the car) - to Cheltenham.
In St Oswald's, Compton Abdale, above the crocodile-mouth water spout, I found this somewhat out of the ordinary altar frontal.
26-year-old Jonathan Kelham has been working at Meantime for a few weeks, and tonight he unveiled - under the above title - the most curious body of work I have yet seen there.
It seems to me a sort of artistic equivalent to Second Life. I listened in to a more or less unintelligible conversation Jonathan was having in the downstairs gallery, in which hangs just one work: it's a sideways map of England, it appears; but its significance entirely escapes me.
Upstairs, there are quite good (and recognisable) portrait sketches alongside pages of local newspaper advertisements: Jonathan inserts random small ads round the country. When I asked him whether he'd ever had a reply to one, he said "No". Very odd.
I returned home looking forward ever more eagerly to our departure for Italy in a week's time.
Caroline and I drove across the Severn to Corse this evening. It's not far, but feels a different country. Gloucestershire Organic Gardeners were meeting (as they do occasionally in the Summer months) somewhere different to Whiteway - in this case to view the garden of a former farmhouse, by kind permission of its owner: born there, she is now over 80 and still looking after her extensive creation.
You can see how it's basically a reclaimed farmyard, with large pond and surrounded by black and white buildings. The many trees she planted are of course well established, and give some protection against the noise of traffic on what is nowadays quite a busy road. (Nevertheless, I am bound to say that I notice it less at home.)
As ever on GOGG outings, it was worth going if only for the cakes.
I always feel that bit bolder about taking random photographs after a good lunch. This one was snatched whilst I paused at traffic lights on my Boris Bike: I was returning to Paddington to catch the train home after meeting a school friend at Mon Plaisir today. (I managed a quick visit to Edmund's newish office in Covent Garden beforehand.)
Norman lives and works in Rome, but comes over for Summer holidays. We haven't seen a lot of each other over the years, and it was a pleasure to catch up. As a prominent church historian, he comes in for criticism from time to time, mainly from right wing elements who see recent history rather differently to him. Yes, he agreed, Vatican II has taken a while to bed down, "but then so did Chalcedon". (Don't you love sweeping thoughts like this?) "It's easier with Councils like Trent and Vatican I, which strengthen the Pope's hand," he surmised.You don't get this sort of conversation much in Cheltenham.
I came away enlivened - and delighted that Norman had agreed to come and speak at a local Christian Ecology Link meeting at the end of his Summer visit next year: on ecology in the early Church.
DiY removals can be very exhausting, as Agnes and her stalwart partner Milo are finding out this weekend. Agnes and Ida are in transit from Presteigne - where they have spent two and a half happy years - to Horfield in Bristol. Since our marriage, we haven't had to move many times, thank God, and certainly never took a fruit tree with us.
The sad thing for us is that we are due to go and stay in Presteigne next weekend, and Agnes won't be there.
It's hot with us, at last - and will be as hot again tomorrow, says the forecast. And our dog days have begun in another sense with the arrival yesterday of Floss, from her former home in Ludlow. Thus ends a period of 228 blissful - for me, but not for Caroline - dog-free days: no worries about having to go out for a walk in the pouring rain, or what to do if we are off abroad. And - in Floss' case - no constant importuning to throw a tennis ball across the lawn.
I am always struck by the difference in meaning between "passion" and "compassion" - which ought to mean "with passion", but doesn't. I came across both yesterday, when we were invited out to lunch at a good friend's house, and met some people new to the area.
The wife of this couple spoke about someone we had both much admired, but whom she had known far better than I: the late Jacqueline du Pré. Hearing Stephen Isserlis playing Elgar's cello concerto last month brought du Pré's radically different interpretation to my mind, and my new friend confirmed that du Pré tackled everything in that same passionate style. I reminisced about first hearing her in duets with Stephen Bishop (as he was then known) at the Bishopsgate Institute. Why didn't this wonderful partnership continue? I wondered. "Jackie," came the response, "didn't feel it was developing: she always needed to be heading off into some new direction, and leading the way."
It's a quarter of a century since du Pré died, and I marvelled at the compassionate way this music lover spoke. (The roses are Compassion too, by the way, growing three metres tall this year and currently adorning our hallway.)
The 21-year-old student from Tokyo, who is staying with us for three weeks, must rate as the most fashionable Japanese girl we have ever hosted. Her changes of attire are many and varied, none lacking in elegance.
Not content with a hectic "official" programme involving visits to Oxford, Stratford, Bath etc., she and a couple of friends took themselves off on their free day to London, shopping - no doubt for more clothes.
Sato is the last of a long line of temporary lodgers this year, and a welcome break approaches for Caroline (not to mention me).
Our Victorian semi (dating from 1870) is high maintenance in all senses. A tile falls off the roof? We need a scaffold tower to replace it. Currently, we have two in place, one for the tile, and the other for the rear bargeboards, which had rotted.
Whilst he's up there, Andy is going to trim back the Rambling Rector and paint the window frames. (I get dizzy on ladders these days.) Let's hope for a dry spell.
Meanwhile, on the glass half full principle, we enjoy the benefit of looking over the road at much more intricate bargeboarding opposite: to replace that would cost twice as much.
I went to Winchcombe to meet a friend this morning, and we walked to Stanway along the Cotswold Way. We were due to go further, to Stanton, but it was warm work, and we dallied somewhat. Happily, the rain held off till the end.
It's years since I was on this stretch of the Way. The signage is far better now, but we still managed to go wrong, descending to Wood Stanway.
Before that, we paused near Beckbury to assess all the tree planting: not many individuals have the freedom these days to carry into operation such an extensive scheme. My friend wondered what it was for: in the age of the evanescent, I feel it's rather majestic, to conceive of a two-mile-long avenue. Perhaps some things should be allowed as an end in themselves. (NB The avenue of horse chestnuts beyond the water garden's canal from here were thought to have been first planted in 1720.)
A friend has been sharing with some of his wide circle thoughts about the relative greatness of Thomas Jefferson and William Jefferson Clinton. After some delay, I responded to him today.
"My younger friends," I said, "never stop telling me how, now I’m retired, my life must just be one long holiday. When however your stimulating message arrived, I was not sufficiently in holiday mode to give it the considered reply it deserves.
"Today being the closing day of the Olympics, I would bracket the names you mention, Jefferson and Clinton, with those of our new sporting heroes, in order to reflect on the true nature of leadership. I’m the greatest belongs to someone illness has since ravaged – we saw him of course at the opening ceremony – but the sentiment has been echoed by others on their own behalf in the past fortnight. Instinctively, though, don’t we all know that authentic leadership lies with those who are most modest about their achievement? We think of the Queen, for instance, but look also at Mo Farah: his first Gold was celebrated immediately by an embrace for the runner up, then by kneeling in prayer.
"All of us on your circulation list are or have no doubt been leaders one way or another – even if it’s only within the circle of our families. We are deservedly proud of our successes, but we also need to reflect on what we might have done better. As a lawyer, for instance, did I at times put the interests of the firm (i.e. myself) ahead of those of my clients?
"With the golden anniversary of matriculation coming up, we ‘62ers have been asked to reflect – in writing – upon our respective careers and indeed lives, so I’m currently dwelling on the past rather more than on the future. But it’s the future which – as a society – we must plan for. Courage is never more needed: difficult choices face us and the generations for which we most care. What style of a just life awaits them? Does our lifestyle provide an authentic model?
"A couple of months ago, I completed the last section of the main French Compostela route. Doing it solo, I had time to think, and what I was most grateful for was to be living in the here and now. That’s both the now, the reality of putting one foot down after another, come solid rain or searing sun; and the here – enjoying a beautiful part of the world, not fretting about communication with the world outside it, however easy that has become. Is it too pompous to claim I found a rule for life?"
It's been warm and dry again today, too warm for wearing my dark suit. I put it on as we were attending Val's memorial at St Andrew's, Sevenhampton.
Brian too, in order to see his mother off, was smartly suited - a new one might even have been bought for the occasion: the village would not be used to seeing him look so tidy. Pat of course was her usual naturally elegant self. She would have been proud of her three daughters, for the well-chosen contributions they made. Matt's family too was out in force, including his two lovely-looking Woodmancote nieces.
Val's good friend Carol took the service with just the right degree of affection and seriousness, another nail in the coffin for those clinging to the idea of an exclusively male clergy. As usual, Gill told us where to sit and Muriel played the organ.
Everyone was there. Skip's sideboards, as bushy as ever, are now newly-back in fashion, thanks to Bradley Wiggins. Vera and Dennis hadn't changed much, but Clem looks older: her daughter Georgina has clearly taken over a more presidential role in the village. Ann and a deafer John, Robert and Lynne represented the Manor Farmers.
Robin and Sarah of the extended Smith family were alongside us in church, Sarah still playing hockey, and looking not much different from when she arrived as our efficient office cleaner a couple of decades ago, possibly more. Moving closer to Val's late husband, his nephew Jess, for ever known to us as Young John, was smiling as broadly as ever. And then there was David, in our early days in the valley, the young entrepreneur: now he enjoys the best position of all, up at Elsdown. From just over the fields beyond there came Ian: we reminisced about times even longer ago, when we both had back row seats in the sun around Elsa Marland at Dover's Court, and were spooked by her friend Ken Hay's Captain Hook arm. (Had he been in the wartime SOE asked Ian?)
Last but not least a clutch of Val's closest, including Bill and Sally, who helped us at Hill View as young teenagers.
My Worcestershire brother-in-law planted a vineyard a little while ago, and with all this Summer's rain the grapes are currently looking good. We look forward to a wine tasting in due course. Meanwhile, in recent years he has been making a mean perry, using pears from some of his mature orchard, and - following today's visit - we returned home with a case of 12 bottles. It's delicious!
News has just reached us of the death of Val Smith, aged 80. She was one of those people whom it was a privilege to have known. I first met her nearly 40 years ago, when I went to live in Sevenhampton. She, her husband Alan and their then young children Brian and Pat, lived along the lane at Gassons Farm, Brockhampton. Val lived on there following farmer Alan's far-too-early death, and (later) the happy day of Pat's marriage to the vicar's son, also a farmer.
Val and her sister Gill, still in Brockhampton, were born Coombe. They were brought up in the old family brewery next to the Craven Arms. It first came to a Coombe more than 150 years ago - possibly won in a game of cards from a Wood, ancestor of the family who lived in our old home, Hill View, Sevenhampton.
Not many people like Val and Gill these days live their whole lives within just one community. And Val didn't just live there: she was - with one or two others - its life and soul. Nothing was too much trouble. The newspapers needed delivering on a snowy morning? Val would do it.
It goes without saying that when the village Produce Show came around - it always used to be the second Saturday of September - she would be helping, and nothing gave her and everyone else more pleasure than when she won a cup, or (as here in 1988) two.
This morning, I visited the newly-reopened Photographers' Gallery, and very welcoming I found it. The makeover provides a much airier setting for the displays, in what is a fairly cramped setting for an important gallery.
I much enjoyed the exhibition of contemporary Japanese photobooks - lots of good ideas there. And even more so, the work of the candidates for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, the winner to be announced in a month's time. I favour Pieter Hugo for this: his bleak reportage of life on the industrial wasteland outside Accra succeeds for me on every level.
From Ramillies Street I biked towards the National Portrait Gallery, but might as well have walked: it took me half an hour to find a vacant slot into which I could return the bike - I suppose people use them to commute to work.
Walking eventually down past the Garrick Theatre, my eyes were drawn to a pair of walking advertisements for "Chicago": red-stockinged legs, double yellows and chewing gum residue notating a form of pavement plainsong - or perhaps I spent too long looking at those Japanese photobooks.
To correct the balance, I ended up my time in London visiting Somerset House - not for the drawings on show at Courtauld Gallery as intended, but the Salgado exhibition at King's College, on the East side. I have long been a fan of the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. The extensive Arden Collection, on display in the Inigo Rooms, displays much of Salgado's earlier work, including the gut-wrenching Brazilian mining series.
I'm in London for a celebration of the life of Adrian Cave. It took place this afternoon in a large lecture room, part of the recently-opened Oil Tanks at Tate Modern. One of Adrian's last projects, he helped in designing its access with elegance, much recalled as his thing at the packed meeting. Its affectionate spirit was summed up by a grandchild's quite brilliant "performance" of Albert & the lion.
The gloomy Oil Tanks themselves were showing video instalations, the magic of which continues to elude me. No doubt I suffer from late onset ADHD.
Before leaving Bankside, I sampled Tino Sehgal's Unilever Series effort in the Turbine Hall. You hardly expect to see two-dimensional framed pictures in that giant space, but this "show" is the exact reverse of what one gets in a conventional gallery. It's a Whiteread experience.
A room full of Rothkos, for example, sees people looking at the walls in silence: Sehgal has us standing or sitting in the Turbine Hall, looking at one another: "us" includes Sehgal's animators, who are liable to come up to one and engage in random conversation. Thus I had the joy of discussing sea bathing off the English coast with an attractive young lady, who broke away as suddenly as she first approached me, only to go and stand 20 yards off. I waited where I was a little longer, wondering whether I was now entitled to walk up to someone in my turn, and what I should say; but I became distracted by the realisation that the Turbine Hall floor would never quite recover from being dug up by Doris Salcedo for her 2007 Unilever show.
En route from Paddington, I paused by the Serpentine Gallery. This year's Pavilion is another sombre affair: a subterranean chamber, with stepped seating finished in dark grey cork to match large mushroom-shaped stools which comprise the only other furniture. The "space" is covered by a flat disc, its surface covered by an inch or so of water. Eleven of the columns below the disc are supposed to characterise each of the eleven previous Serpentine Pavilions, but you could have fooled me.
Avoiding buses because I feared Olympic traffic congestion, I have been riding a Boris Bike for the first time. The sponsors' name has attracted the odd graffiti artist, as can be seen from my photograph. Renting is easier than in Paris, but the biking isn't such fun, certainly when rounding Parliament Square and crossing Westminster Bridge - a bit hairy, dicing with all those buses. Even on the bike route through Hyde Park, it was tricky, being so hugely busy: in Beijing (according to our friend Edward, who came to see us the other day - he's been living there), people are moving from bikes to cars, in London it seems to be the other way about.
The Boris Bikes are low-geared, so it's warm work on a day such as today has been. I arrived at the Albert Hall from Bankside very hot and sweaty just in time for the Prom, and - standing in the packed Arena - spent most of the first half mopping my brow. It was the great B Minor Mass: the Guardian critic gets it just right - four stars. "When counter-tenor Iestyn Davies sang his solos," he writes, "his extraordinary tonal richness and imaginative phrasing combined into something truly unforgettable."
Canon Adrian Slade, the Gloucester Diocese's Director of Social Responsibility for 27 years, is retiring. I came across him first in connection with the then St George's Association, run by a magnificently eccentric nun, who found Adrian's brusque, often sardonic style a challenge. In many ways, his job description required him to get under people's skin - to afflict the comfortable - and it's something he's been good at. But there's no gainsaying his stalwart work over the decades in many areas with which the church isn't normally thought to be associated. These areas have long included environmental responsibility: so it was appropriate that Judy Howard (who on Tuesday convened a group of us to thank Adrian, and wish him well) should present him with sunflowers planted in soil which we had all brought along from our own gardens - all except me: I was on the bus to Gloucester for the lunch (at the Friendship Café) before I remembered.
In the two months since my first visit to Transition Town Cheltenham's garden project in Sandford Park, things have happened - as can be seen from the photographs. Not only are the four beds full of useful produce - we are encouraged to help ourselves! - but they also look extremely attractive. And people were definitely interested - several stopped whilst I was there.