I took this photograph from the train when we were in China in 2002. The journeys we then made came vividly back to mind this evening, as we watched our Film Society's latest offering, "Mao's last dancer". That true-to-life film's scenes of its hero's childhood in rural China contrasted dramatically with the footage shot in Houston and Washington, where the eponymous dancer, Li Cunxin ended up as a ballet star. An extraordinary story! And told with great sensitivity to both sides of the political struggle which ensued when Li's visa ran out.
Never enough handkerchiefs for this one's audience, I'd say.
We were not out for long, despite the fine weather, but it was enough to enable us to admire the 360 degree views from the top of "the Pinnacle", which rises up behind the house of our friends in Malvern Wells. Not that it's a particularly "pointy" point on the ridge: from it I took this photograph looking South towards the British Camp or Herefordshire Beacon - 338m, and far more of a landmark.
Being six, we paired and changed pairs during both the walk and the ensuing lunch, covering a number of bases: photography; Edward Wilson, the polar explorer; Syria and the Lebanon (having two Arab-speakers amongst us); live opera relays; the Congo; adoption; Bangladesh; the WWF; Transition in Wales, and the difference between sustainability and resilience; Weltethos... the list isn't exhaustive, I guess.
Those were the days when I was busy organising events for the Cheltenham RC Deanery: one such took place on Whit weekend 1984 at what was then Charlton Park Convent. We had a beautiful day for it, and a cake to match, in celebration of the Church's birthday.
Our special guest was Bishop Patrick Kalilombe, living here in exile from his native Malawi. The first Malawian White Father and first Malawian-born Bishop of Lilongwe, he proposed the idea of a self-ministering, self-reliant, self-propagating church in the spirit of Vatican II. All of which President Hastings Banda saw as sufficient threat for him to expel Bishop Pat from Malawi. Only in 1996 was he able to return.
Meanwhile, amongst other posts, he worked in the Mission Department at Selly Oak Colleges, and for one lovely afternoon in Cheltenham we had the benefit of his extremely fresh-sounding teaching.
Much of the above background information comes from an item in this week's Tablet, which reports the sad news of Bishop Pat's death on 24th September aged 79.
To Bristol today for the second time this week: more particularly, to Bristol's oldest building, St James' Priory, used for worship for approaching 900 years. After lunch, 30 or so of us met in what remains of a very large church, not so much for worship as for reflection upon the graces of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela: most of us had walked (or cycled) the Camino - or were intending to do so. My photograph shows Gerry Slamond leading us in a pilgrim song, one of several he wrote when walking through Spain: he even performed one during the pilgrims' mass in Santiago Cathedral.
So, what lessons did my fellow ex-pilgrims share with us? "It taught me to get rid of everything in life except the essentials," one said. "But I'm still working on it." Why do we keep doing it? was another question. (I couldn't help thinking of Eliza's words in My Fair Lady: "Go to St James so often I will call it St Jim.") "It's the existence of a goal," said one. "No," said another, "it's the journey." "No, it's the people," said a third.
One of those present who'd done a fortnight as a hospitalero in the CSJ's Refugio Gaucelmo at Rabanal del Camino spoke of the language difficulties which arose from time to time. A South Korean, whom he had gone out of his way to accompany to the edge of town, fearing he would not find the start of his next stage, bowed deeply to him, saying, "I will never remember you."
I took this photograph in 1999, when we were walking along a strada bianca near Pienza: it hardly does justice to the lichen, an extraordinary colour. I remembered it this morning, as I caught up with the latest goings on in The thick of it. It really does get better and better - and in the whole hour of this bumper episode there isn't a single F word (well, in direct speech anyway). How do they keep a straight face?
I couldn't watch it on Saturday as we were at the Parabola Arts Centre, where they were showing a recording of the Royal Opera's 2011 Tosca: a great cast, and - still more important - Antonio Pappano conducting. Before we went out, there was another Royal Opera House recording on Radio 3: Otello, Pappano again conducting. And earlier in the day, I'd been catching up on the Covent Garden Ring. Conductor? Pappano again.
Caroline's week-long Wagner widowhood ended last night. The highlights of this Ring for me were Act 2 of Die Walküre, with Sarah Connolly outstanding; and Act 2 of Götterdämmerung last night - Tomlinson terrific as Hagen, notwithstanding that wobble: only to be expected in a 66-year-old. (What contemporary relevance in the Prologue too - with all the Norns' talk about ash dieback.)
Are there other operas besides Tosca and Götterdämmerung where all the principals end up dead? (Is there a post on my blog containing more hyperbole?)
Our granddaughter celebrated her fifth birthday at the weekend, and we were in Bristol yesterday, to taste some of the cake. Agnes and Ida seem to have settled happily into their new surroundings, Ida loving her school, just five minutes' walk from the house. Its playground seems pretty well-equipped. And in their tiny garden at home, there's now a trampoline, as well as two rabbits.
Nine days after the end of our ten-day Festival of Literature, this is what Montpellier Gardens looked like at lunchtime. Still, there were people at work from the marquee hire firm - but who's going to restore the messed up park, and how soon?
I'm all in favour of the Festival, but would propose that it concentrates its tents upon Imperial Square, and uses other venues such as the Everyman, the Parabola and the Playhouse - instead of ruining both of our major gardens for what is surely a disproportionate part of the year. I may be repeating myself (as well as the view of others), but it seems to me to be a no-brainer. At present the tail is wagging the dog.
Nor is our gargantuan event pleasing to all the publishers who come. I was chatting with a representative of one well-known international firm on Saturday last: "How does Cheltenham rate amongst all the literary festivals you must go to?" I asked. "It's too commercial, too impersonal," she replied, without missing a beat.
At the Gloucestershire Historic Churches lunch we attended in the Summer, Caroline's cousin (the current chairman) told me he would like some photographs of the county's churches. I haven't heard any more from him about this, but have gradually begun compiling an archive. With the two I photographed today after visiting Charlotte - this is St John the Baptist, Chaceley - there are now 64 on my website. Plenty more to go though.
Sara Maitland's column in this week's Tablet is headed, "Electricity is a pivotal example of and a rich metaphor for the Holy Spirit." Sara is always worth reading, based as she is in a remote corner of Scotland, and often reflecting upon the elements, in this instance causing power cuts. Both electricity and the Holy Spirit, she reflects, bring us light, warmth, joy and love.
Edmund (who lives in a world of computers) was for once powerless too this weekend: leaving his telephone (unintentionally) in the train, he went on a green woodwork course in the woods at Prinknash. No power tools, just a foot-operated lathe; but by the end of two days he'd made two beautiful stools, one for each of the boys. Excellent!
I've admired from afar the work of Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute over a longish period: in its early days, when the geographical ambit of the Summerfield Trust was wider, we gave it some money; but I never met its best-known pioneer, Brenda Boardman. For 17 years, she and her husband John helped to fly Oxford University's environmental flag, starting from a time when the word "environment" featured within no other department's title.
It was a pleasure therefore to find myself sitting between Brenda and John at the annual lunch of the Gloucestershire branch of the Oxford Society today, at the Three Choirs Vineyard. Afterwards we heard from Brenda, not only about the genesis of the ECI's inter-disciplinary work on the environment, but with her appraisal that there's currently a sorry lack of joined up green thinking within the University.
She described the situation as "both brilliant and heartbreaking": despite fairly recent endowment being provided for more than one new institution at Oxford, working in the environmental field, "we are still largely living in the realm of wishful thinking." All the Colleges come up with when asked for their response to the challenge of climate change are toe-dipping gestures such as the LMH allotments.
"Oxford's four most recent buildings are the four buildings which are Oxford's heaviest users of electricity." The University has lasted for 900 years, but with the problems the world faces, it's almost impossible to conceive it lasting another 900 years unchanged, she sighed - as did we all.
We have been in London today, to visit the exhibition of an artist friend in Islington. We met him, his wife and two friends for lunch first at the Quaker Meeting House in Euston, and afterwards dropped into the Coram Foundation en route for a rather brief look at the huge Shakespeare exhibition at the British Museum. This gentleman was picnicking as, on a beautiful Autumn day, we walked through Brunswick Square.
Caroline was off to a sculpture trustees' meeting at Quenington this morning, so I cadged a lift part of the way. Leaving her to drive on from a little way beyond the top of the hill, I came back along the Cotswold Way.
It was a blustery day, the colours just on the turn. Walking down the steep former tramway from the top of Leckhampton Hill to Daisybank, the beeches looked particularly good.
At the start of the walk, I followed the rough track North from Ullenwood, certainly not fit for motor vehicles. Why the signage therefore?
Asparagus was always something my mother cooked for me on my birthday: having green fingers, her bed at Arrow was invariably productive. When I was feeling rich one Christmas, I bought my parents a set of special plates to eat their asparagus off. They came from Gien on the Loire: we have inherited them.
Though keen on growing vegetables from when I moved to live in the country in 1973, it wasn't until 1982 that I prepared and planted up an asparagus bed. The following year, we moved house - and with snow on the ground we neglected to tell the buyers not to dig up the crowns. Walking past our old house a while later, I saw that they had dug over the bed.
Perhaps as an unconscious prod to stir myself towards another move of house, I planted a few more asparagus crowns in our Cheltenham garden yesterday.
Yesterday, my book group met in the salubrious surroundings of the Birmingham Art Gallery & Museum restaurant. Not the hautest cuisine, but adequate: we missed our usual pints of bitter. Breaking with tradition, we discussed The Book over lunch, rather than tea. It was the sequel to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall: Bring up the bodies didn't grab all of us as firmly as it did me, but we seemed to agree that it was worth looking at. Shall I buy volume 3 when it appears? Probably.
Having admired the late Burne-Joneses there, we went across to St Martin's to look at the very different earlier window by him, saved by a whisker from destruction in World War II.
My companions were taken aback by Selfridge's, hovering over the Bull Ring, but even more by the new Library, to be opened next September, but now already dominating the East end of Broad Street. For my part, the excitement was this (photographed) new kinetic installation in the oculus of the Museum's new History Gallery - by Keiko Mukaide and Ronnie Watt: it was unveiled earlier this year. And whose is the amazing stained glass window on the stairs behind it, without any label?
Thomas was over here from Lisbon a week ago, for a school-friend's wedding. Ampleforth Abbey Beer was served, and he kindly brought me a bottle - the first time I'd tasted it. The flavour is good: the monks having come from Dieulouard in Northern France, one might expect it to feel quite "Belgian" - and it's as strong (7.0%). But it looks strange: though I'm not good on colours, it reminded me of rather thin borsht.
Three Festival of Literature events today: near my limit! Two of them were sponsored by the splendid Coexist Foundation. On the platform for the first of these, a discussion took place between followers of the three great Abrahamic faiths, pooling insights which could secure a better future for our planet. As Rabbi Nathan Levy (2nd from left in my photograph) said, "Even if we don't all share the same vision of heaven, we share the same Earth."
A common Earth manifesto subscribed to by the world's great religions? It could give people of faith that credibility they often lack within our sceptical yet green-inclined society; but how can we hope to achieve such a thing when within each of our faiths there are those who question any commitment to the importance of global stewardship?
This said, I bought the book after the event, the first time I'd succumbed this Festival: I usually buy more, but I'm in a mean streak.
Rabbi Nathan, a co-author of Sharing Eden, reminds us that people of faith are uniquely placed to speak truth to power about a concern for environmental justice. Politicians work to a five-year plan, business people may adopt a ten-year plan, but we are used to thinking longer-term: only after seven times seven years do we celebrate jubilee: "And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."
A lot – or sometimes very little – can change in 50 years. As I recorded last month, it’s that period since I started at university: had I instead, as destined, gone into articles in a solicitors’ firm in Birmingham, my life would have been very different. Yesterday was 50 years since the 2nd Vatican Council opened: some would say, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." More mundanely tomorrow will be 50 years since the last train went from Cheltenham to Kingham on the old Honeybourne Line, running 50 yards from our front gate: what would we now give to have back the comprehensive rail network, which Beeching axed?
"Words & Pictures: the Art of Illustration" is the title of the new exhibition at the Gardens Gallery, which I visited yesterday afternoon. The layout of the Literature Festival's Montpellier campus seems rather more friendly to this useful gallery this year. Something that's borne out in visitor numbers, I gather - and I hope sales too.
For Niki Whitfield has assembled a most colourful collection of exhibits: four quite different - but all vibrant - takes on the art of illustration, in the form of cards, books, framed/mounted prints and water colours. And as with all Niki's shows, it's immaculately curated. You can catch it till Tuesday evening next.
Having viewed the pictures, I went on to listen to the words - in this instance of Anglican priest, Lucy Winkett. Not that she was advocating too many of them: "the power of silence," was her theme, and indeed she "led us into" silence very effectively at the end of her hour. "Imagine," she urged us, "that you are sitting on a lovely river bank, and placing all the noises you hear into an endless procession of little boats, which float off downstream."
This was a beautifully reflective talk from someone who's surely made to be one of the first women bishops. But how did she she manage to suppress any mention of the word "prayer"? And a friend pointed out afterwards two other omissions: the silence from which a perhaps-depressed person has to be helped to escape; and the value of the mantra as a means of sustaining an individual's period of silence. But then an hour was too short.
As a Summerfield Trustee, one of my proudest achievements was to establish the Summerfield Lecture within the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. Our first lecturer was the then little-known Will Hutton, trailing his seminal book, The State We're In. As grant givers, we wanted to be visible within the community so those in need of funds would know where to come, but more than this I felt we had a responsibility to explore big ideas - and where more appropriate to do this than within our own local festival of ideas?
The Summerfield Lecture seems to have morphed in recent years: last night's featured Fiona Reynolds, on the role of the National Trust: admirable speaker, but hardly cutting edge stuff. (Perhaps this is sour grapes - I am not now invited.)
Which yesterday was just as well, as another foundation, now well enmeshed in our Festival, provided an excellent alternative at the same hour: Coexist have sponsored a number of challenging events this year, including Mary Robinson's, in their quest for an expansion of what they term religious literacy. To the extent that hostility to faith-based ideas stems from ignorance, they must be on the right track.
Certainly "Understanding Islam" was a revelatory session - and (judging by the searching questions it elicited) not just for us. Why don't you hold things sacred? the Muslim world asks. Is the price of our intellectual freedom that nothing is sacred?
A London-based Imam, Shaykh Ahmad Saad al-Azhari recited (aided by his iPad) four separate passages from the Qur'an; each one was then translated by commentator Abdul-Rehman Malik, and expanded upon by both the Imam and Dr. Mona Siddiqui (her voice familiar from Thought for the day).
We learnt that for Islam, the God of Abraham is a secret God, longing to be known. So he gives love, but he is not, as for us Christians, love itself. We believe he has revealed himself in the person of Jesus: Jesus (for Muslims) is both the bridge and the gulf - immaculately conceived by Mary, yes, but though of divine spirit, the servant, not the son of God.
We were told this was just a taster session, but I've said it before: we need a follow up mechanism, so that those whose minds are fired up by Festival events can meet again to help one another further along their paths of discovery. Come on, organisers! Where is the Cheltenham Continuing Festival... of Ideas?
For me, the highlight of this year's Festival of Literature, so far, has been Christopher Cook's riveting interview on Saturday with Mary Robinson. This took place in the vast Forum marquee, set up in Montpellier Gardens. Sitting at the very back, I wasn't well placed to catch a photograph. Coming home, though, I found this one of her: I took it after hearing her address a conference I was attending in Belfast while she was still President of Ireland.
With inevitably more lines to her face than 17 years ago, she still inspires in me the same warm admiration I felt after that speech. Whereas Peter Hennessy (the day previously) made recent history seem trivial, Robinson revealed through her thoughtful, often humble, answers to questions a total involvement with the burning issues of the past quarter century: the notes I made show as much.
"We have to make the world fairer... I was taught to believe, not to question... Why, I asked myself, is there so much emphasis on form rather than substance?... It's the distortion of religion that divides us... Admitting your mistakes is sometimes not a bad idea... The United States dipped its human rights standards after 9/11: the war on terrorism [sic] skewed the agenda, political opponents being characterised as terrorists... The rise in anti-Americanism is due to a perception that America operates upon double standards... Climate justice energises me: I wake up every morning with a sense of urgency and passion."
"Is it true," our celebrated guest was asked finally, "that you dance?" "Yes," came the smiling reply: "You bond with people when you dance with them: you dance with your eyes."
Mary Robinson - a prime candidate, I'd say, for the Nobel Peace Prize - and/or being made a Cardinal!
Peter Hennessy has recently started writing in The Tablet. Though I have admired various contributions he's made on Radio 4 over the years, I don't find his column quite so must-go-to as (for example) Clifford Longley's.
Hennessy was much in evidence during our thronged literary festival's opening weekend. I liked his self-effacing touch as interviewer with John Cruddas and Tessa Jowell, which produced a worthwhile hour: less successful, however, was his earlier appearance, solo, to promote his latest book: its title as above (referencing Keynes). Never at any festival event have I heard such a litany of quotations by others, or, to put it another way, so many names dropped! If each quote deserves a footnote, then Hennessy has to be right when he confesses, "I'm a footnote person."
He jokingly threatens an autobiography entitled, I've never been one for gossip but... On this evidence, there would be plenty to fill the space after that "but..." - not much scope, though, for substantiating the opening statement. Concentrating on post-War history, he seems obsessed by rumour and the personalities who purvey it. Now that he is a member of the House of Lords - a place for "weapons-grade gossip" - "I have lunch," he boasts, "with my exhibits".
Hennessy sees the role of historians to be that of "natural stay-behinds." They need to look for the "malign combinations" - yet it seemed he sees nothing to which we should be alerted in our leaders of recent decades neglecting to husband resources or tackle long-term environmental threats: "climate change" rates just one brief mention in Distilling the frenzy, according to its index.
"I'm a media tart," he said: at least he's honest enough to admit it.
The 2012 Cheltenham Festival of Literature is in full swing. On Friday and today, amidst the plethora of events, main sponsor, The Times, held its leader conference live. I hardly ever read that newspaper these days, yet it was a privilege to sit in on this process.
Each day at midday, eight highly intelligent people grapple with the day's main stories, one after the other pitching in on the question, which are the most important? Until James Harding says, "Here's what we're going to do." The youngest person to become editor when appointed five years ago, there's no doubt it's James who's the boss, resolving not only what subjects should fill the leader columns in the next day's paper, but also exactly how The Times should "thunder" on those stories.
Rising from the meeting after an hour, the appointed journalists trot off to research their subjects, finalising their 600-odd word leaders in time for a six o'clock deadline. Brilliant theatre!
The music festival at Tetbury seems now a well-established part of our calendar: others attend from far further afield than Cheltenham, and indeed local hotels can count on doing a roaring trade this weekend.
In its tenth year, there is cause for celebration. So it seemed fitting that Mitsuko Uchida, that sublime performer, should be on the bill to open this year's festival: there is no bigger name in the world of piano playing today. We were looking forward to hearing her in the flesh for the first time.
But it was not to be: she rang the festival codirector a week ago to say that her doctor had told her to rest for two months. Last night's audience was not the only one to be disappointed.
But was it? Amazingly, the substitute found at such short notice was none other than Paul Lewis, and not only that, he played all three of Schubert's last sonatas for us. Some stand-in. Some performance.
Brother Alberic Stacpoole (as he then was) and I were university contemporaries even though he was more than a decade senior to me. After school, he had been commissioned in the Army, where I got the impression his career had glittered, though I never knew the details. It was clear to me at Oxford that he took his studies rather more seriously than I did: this didn't in any way come in the way of our friendship, and it was still a mighty surprise that he came down with a First.
We next met properly at Lourdes in the early 'Seventies: I recall standing on a balcony with him after a late lunch. It was a hot day, but he was observant enough to detect that the breeze of the evening was just beginning to show itself: there was a sensitivity that reflected his always immaculate appearance.
It was a shock to see him again - after a long gap - at Easter last year. His handshake had the same warmth, but try as he might to make sense, his mind was elsewhere. So it's a mercy that he has at length died.
I took this happy photograph of Alberic (centre) at Ampleforth on 8th July 1973 - after the ordination of Fr. Richard ffield, seen looking away to the right.
As a defender of trees, my ears are sensitive to the sound that a chain saw makes. When I heard one going this morning whilst washing up, I therefore went to investigate.
No panic: the tops of our neighbour's sycamores were being taken out. Dowdeswell Forestry Services was the name on the lorry, the firm owned by a Mr. Huggett. (What's the opposite of nominative determinism?) We used to get our Christmas trees from Dowdeswell I recall, and our three boys were at school with the three Huggetts - or were there four?
Today, I spoke to Richard, who kindly let me take some of the wood chippings to put on our garden. "Leave them a couple of months, or they'll take the nitrogen from your shrubs," he warned.
I put fresh shavings round the plum trees last year: perhaps this is why we had such a poor crop.
On Sunday, we met up for a walk near King's Stanley. It's a steepish walk from there up the escarpment.
Here we got a bit lost, so were grateful for a helping hand from someone out with their terrier who lived locally. As it was, we didn't follow his advice, for fear of losing height and being late for lunch: instead we ploughed on up along a part of the Cotswold Way that we had never before walked: rather pretty, the path through Stanley Wood.
I included this photograph also because it illustrates the rather nifty trap door which you can lift to avoid having to lug your dog over a stile.
I returned home very red-faced, as I'd missed a message from Edmund, who might have brought the boys to meet up with us on the walk. As I said to him by way of apology, though it's no excuse: "It seems to sum up the difference between our generations. I can't get into the habit of switching on my telephone, and you can't get into the habit of not needing to!"
“Simplex munditiis” is one of those phrases that, like others in Horace, a schoolboy may long be able to recall. Anyway, this one does: its translation, “artless in her elegance” came to mind as I listened to Joanna Trollope on the theme of “Real Life: Real Stories” yesterday evening.
With her immaculate appearance, commanding presence, bejewelled sentences and warm involvement of an all-too-small audience, she charmed us in her discussion with Edward Gillespie. And in the second part of the evening, she displayed a deft touch, turning the tables on her interviewer. “How do you stay a fresh-minded nuisance?” she asked Edward, as he contemplated life after Cheltenham Racecourse. (I rather wish he had done so more succinctly: listening to him was less interesting.)
Alongside such as David Attenbrough, Judi Dench and Imogen Cooper, Joanna Trollope is surely now close to attaining the status of National Treasure. On the strength of her performance – it was in aid of the Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum’s appeal – she certainly counts as one of Gloucestershire’s treasures. Born near Minchinhampton Common (“an offered up upland,” as she described it), she clearly acknowledges both her roots in our county, and that our causes are also hers – encouraging philanthropy amongst Gloucestershire’s super rich, opposing threatened library closures, not to mention “Building a New Future”, the title of the Art Gallery appeal. On the screen behind her, the first image projected was Piero della Francesca’s “country” Christ Risen: she told us how she had been to see it this Summer in Borgo San Sepolcro (lucky her).
By way of contrast, Joanna’s second image was a Gwen John interior, reflecting the fact that a decade ago she left Gloucestershire for self-imposed exile in London, from where she does not now contemplate a return. After all, she maintains – rather controversially so far as our household is concerned – “men are more romantic about landscape than women.” And, as a writer, “you do get terribly sick of the inside of your own head.” (Her solution? To go and sit anonymously in Caffè Nero in the King’s Road.)
For someone so outwardly conventional, even middle-brow – Joanna listens to Korngold, looks fondly upon black Labradors, and has a way of speaking that might best be described as retro – she espouses some surprisingly radical ideas. Feminism, naturally. (“Now that we have the vote, we are in quite a hurry.”) But more than that, she possesses a brave candour. The cuttings don’t let us forget the furore that blew up when she compared the plight of the villagers of Aston Magna with those in Moss Side, Manchester. As she said last night at the Parabola Arts Centre, “We all have equal human validity… It won’t do to live in a bubble.” “What gets my goat? Injustice.”
Inside the rather stoical velvet glove, there is an iron hand.
Yet her cheek is still soft: this I can tell from the nice double kiss she gave me during the interval yesterday. Not so long ago I looked through the nearly-50-year-old bundle of thank you letters my mother had received from those who came to my 21st birthday party. (What a pity no such archive will exist for this generation of 21-year-olds! Even if – unlikely – they get round to writing to say thank you, they will at best do so by email.) Anyway, in the bundle I found one signed “Joanna”. A reminder that we had known each other at Oxford.