A full-blown birthday tea took place this afternoon in our kitchen: Ida's new bear was its focus, though assistance was needed to blow out the candle. I am (with Caroline) just about to abandon our domesticity for the first time in a week, donning black tie for a grown up dinner with friends near Tetbury. Often, we are happy at home, failing to see in the New Year, but for tonight we have had no less than three invitations.
I knew David Wood a little at Oxford, where he displayed a precocious talent in the OUDS and ETC. Starting as he meant to go on, he is now hailed by some as the children's theatre laureate. We turned our backs on panto for once in order to sample his adaptation of "Tom's Midnight Garden" this afternoon, the children scoring it 10 out of 10.
For this, the five of us sat at the back of the steeply-raked stalls at Birmingham Old Rep. It's celebrating 100 years as a theatre this year, and the space between the rows is an indication of how well we've all been eating our greens in the interim. I remember being taken to pantos there by my grandmother Gateley - probably in the 1940s, when my legs and trousers were shorter.
Before the play, we paid a visit to the crib at St Philip's (in fact two cribs - plus of course the Burne-Jones Nativity window); and then had lunch in the new Library café, explored its lifts and escalators and admired the view from the top floor. The children rolled merrily around on the carpet of the recreated Shakespeare Memorial Room, where they clearly felt at home. (Ida has been spouting Macbeth.)
Eleven of us sat down for Christmas dinner yesterday: usually, it's lunch, but we had no grandchildren with us (till today), so why not? We sang carols afterwards, James playing the piano. Well, some of us sang anyway - sadly not all believe in that sort of thing.
Like last year, but along a slightly different trajectory, we looked over the curve of Coldwell Bottom during the course of our Christmas walk. The six of us parked at Pinkham on a beautiful morning, three walking all the way home.
This was after a lateish breakfast: we had been to Midnight Mass - the two of us, plus all four of our (normally non-church-going) children, two with appendages. The experience gave rise to much discussion.
Unlike the Queen's Speech at 3 p.m. We all listened, but some with less than the fullest attention. A pity, as it was good.
PS Lawrence Freeman OSB wrote as follows in The Tablet later: The Queen knows where she belongs. When she spoke her Christmas message, it resonated from more than a geographical place. It touched the soul of a people she had served for 60 years. She had seen great changes – “many of them for the better”, as she said. She was looking backwards… but… she also looked forwards, not predicting what would come but with a hope born of a personal vision not of statistics or planning. Not many monarchs or other leaders have spoken recently from such a place of faith, rooted in such a defined cultural and geographical identity... It was not a sermon. Perhaps she has heard enough of those. It was more like a teaching, carrying an authority that rested on its ability to clarify and advise without any feeling of imposition. His disciples once asked a desert father on his deathbed how they should live. He replied that he had always made up his mind, whenever he had asked any of them to do something, not to be angry if they did not do it. “And so we have always lived in peace.” The Queen’s rather similarly toned message to the people she has served was wrapped in the reflections of a grandmother, the head of the Commonwealth and of the armed forces. We saw a baby being photographed, sportsmen running and soldiers in action. But between these images was the real message – to take time to pause and regain the “balance between action and reflection” that the intense distractedness of our culture has lost us. Temporary retreat from the world allows us to understand the world better, and the essential values of family, friendships and good neighbourliness come back into focus. The generic, safely non-religious, word for this in a secular society is the rather neutral “reflection”. The Queen used this, but drew from an older and richer vocabulary too when she spoke of “contemplation, prayer and meditation”. Reflection, she said, did not mean only looking back. Whoever takes time to pause in the midst of activity, to be still in these moments of contemplation, may discover “surprising results”. In the light of the Christian mystical tradition, this is, of course, a very English understatement. But who is better able to deliver a powerful message with such a throwaway, inoffensive line? What lay behind it, however, was wrapped in the talk of the new baby who had been inducted into a “joyful faith of duty and service”. The teaching ended in an explicit link between the need for this space for prayer in modern life and the love of God, which we find there and in which we grow. And without blinking, she reminded us of the staggering truth that nothing is beyond the reach of this love. It is rare in our culture for a sincere statement of such clarity and depth to be made at all, and especially rare for it to be made so convincingly.
Thomas, back from Lisbon for a week, has climbed the step ladder to put the star on top of the Christmas tree, which Caroline fetched from Winstone on Thursday last.
We shall be eleven for dinner tomorrow. Nevertheless, when you look at the number of presents already under the tree, you might think we were expecting twice that number. I seem to say this every year. Decades ago, Sarah invited a Polish teacher, Barbara to spend Christmas with us at our family home, the Coach House, Arrow. Upon being asked to sum up her impressions of the day, she volunteered: "I think you are over presented."
These many years, we have been carol singing at Long Newton on the Sunday before Christmas. The three kings were last night cast as in 2012, and in the same sequence - wearing almost the same trousers. The only difference this time was that William had a walk-on part as Balthasar's page.
It was a poignant evening, as we learnt that this will be the last such happy occasion to be held in this house.
At lunchtime, we were invited up here for a pre-Christmas party. Old friends were there, but also some "new" people: from one, I heard more about the sad story of Glenfall House's closure and impending sale.
This was the view from our hosts' house, North-West across the Severn Vale towards the Malverns, with the whale-like shape of Bredon Hill on the right.
After 19 years, I felt it was time Caroline had a new bike (for Christmas). But you can see from the look on her face that she is a little distrustful about switching from her faithful Claud Butler to this Trek: still, Matthew having adjusted the height appropriately, she rode it home in convoy with me (on my Trek), and the two now nestle side by side in our shed.
I toyed with the idea of an electric bike, which she had mentioned with a slight air of longing; but rejected it. They are (a) heavy, (b) expensive and (c) geriatric - particularly as most of our miles are biked around Cheltenham on the (virtual) flat.
On the strength of the photographs I took at the recent tree planting at Well Close, I was asked to bring my camera along to Phoenix, 86-90 Winchcombe Street in our town centre for the St George's and St Vincent's Christmas party this afternoon.
Here were 80 or so people of all ages and all sorts of impaired ability: hardly any of them could talk, and most were unable to feed themselves. But they were given a great time, and clearly enjoyed themselves without inhibition. To be there felt like a privilege.
I was a little daunted by the commission, not having been to Phoenix before - and not knowing the range of people who would be present. So I was relieved to hear from the Manager after I had sent her the photographs, that "just looking at these is so moving: you have captured the essence of our work and the personalities of the people in the pictures."
The publicity boxes given out by our newly-reopened museum and art gallery came in useful today, as we were able to fill one with festive goodies to take along to its namesakes, where we were as usual bidden for eats, drinks and carols.
There we found the accustomed mix of nice old friends and interesting new faces; plus delicious food, thanks to Christine, and enough singing to put us in the groove but leave us with enough voice for sessions to come. Oh, and just brisk enough musical accompaniment by John on his beautiful chamber organ - how many Cheltenham terraces have one to grace their first floor drawing-room, I wonder?
For one reason or another, we hadn't been to the Film Society recently - till last night. "The Guard" (released in 2011) is Irish noir, laced with good visual jokes. There were jokes in the script too, but many of them passed me by: never have I found the words of an English-language film so difficult to grasp. A strong case for subtitles throughout!
Delivering Christmas cards earlier, I dropped one in at Catherine Shinn. Her father, Catherine said, was at home decorating an absurdly large Christmas tree: "we don't do minimalism," she added - unnecessarily, if you have ever been to her magnificent shop: see my photograph.
I bumped into another of my "by hand" card recipients as she walked homewards with the shopping: recently having flown back from a pilgrimage/holiday in the Holy Land, she justified her failure to send conventional cards this year by a desire to save trees. Really!!
Which brings me onto the great airport debate, raging anew this week - mostly about where extra capacity should be built. The leader in today's Guardian stands alone, reminding readers that roads (and runways) breed traffic. "The old Mr Cameron," it goes on, "warned that If we don't act now, and act quickly, we could face disaster from the climate. That danger has not gone away, and neither have Whitehall's own projections for a 50% rise of aviation emissions by 2050, projections that make a mockery of a supposedly binding commitment to cut 80% out of total greenhouse gases by the same date."
...people who include pets as "signatories" on their Christmas cards. The Season of Goodwill is stressed and strained enough as it is without extra provocation.
The ox and ass know their place in a Nativity scene, but a pony in Verdi's Falstaff? Well, at the outset of Act III, one puts in an appearance in Robert Carsen's syndicated production. It was relayed from The Met. to us amongst others - not that many, surprisingly - in our local Cineworld on Saturday evening. A riotously enjoyable evening it was too, discounting a few excesses (in addition to the pony): these so easily take attention away from a score that describes the action more than sufficiently. So, the wonderful orchestral accompaniment to "Mondo ladro" etc. was lost by my efforts to discern where Falstaff had ended up when he should have been "seated on a bench beside the door of the Garter Inn" (according to the stage directions).
As suggested in the interval discussion, Falstaff is a giant standing on the shoulders of others - Figaro and Meistersinger, but also Rosenkavalier. And something of the humanity, the stillness of a very great work needs bringing out, that was just a little lacking on Saturday. Nevertheless, for the first time in a while at these relays, I felt an urge to clap at the end.
This made me reflect again on a weird genre: the audience in New York is enjoying a live performance, but though we are watching it real-time, we might as well not be. It could be the Oscars on telly at home. I guess that's why I prefer the relative anonymity of Screen 4 (possibly Cineworld's largest auditorium) to the chi-chi of the more exclusive Screening Rooms downstairs. There you are in a full house, waited on with wine and nibbles while you wallow in leather seating alongside other regulars.
I discussed this over wine and (somewhat more than) nibbles with Robert Padgett, Chairman of the Cheltenham Opera Society, at lunchtime on Sunday. What was the effect of all these relays, I wondered, upon the audience for the actual performances (in New York, London, Glyndebourne, Stratford etc.); and upon the audience for less prestigious productions in the same towns/cities as had the relays?
Not much photography lately: so here instead is an image taken when out walking on an icy lane this time last year - it was a good few degrees colder then.
Leo and Mini accompanied us to church this evening for our annual candlelit carol service, and very good it was. Proceedings opened with a magical Rorate Caeli. And the Presbytery window captures the coming season well too, don't you agree?
Last month, I reported on a visit to the late John Bunting's Chapel, on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, above Oldstead. Returning home, I picked up "The Plot", John's daughter Madeleine's book about the Chapel and the small plot of land on which it stands.
Not many single acres of land can have had its own biography written about it! Some of it struck me as being a little uninteresting, but I did admire the author's treatment of the concept of "landscape". She quotes Trevor Rowley, "Large areas of rural England... are seen by millions and trodden on by hardly anyone at all."
This bears out a reflection I had, looking back on the 20 "Wednesday walks" I've done with others this year in various parts of Gloucestershire - never once retracing our steps. On hardly any occasion did we see other people on our path, and only rarely saw we people working the land through which we passed.
We drove through the mist to Arlington for the start of this morning's walk. A late start became later as the three of us - well, me actually (as I had the map) - couldn't find the way out of the village: the bonus was a glimpse of the tucked-away Baptist Chapel - 1833, "with windows with odd straight-sided Y-tracery" (Pevsner). Why so much non-conformism in the Cotswolds?
The sun struggled through as we passed amongst the horsiculture and many million-pound mansions in Ablington, Winson etc. (This view was taken looking back between those two villages.) Entering Coln St Dennis, we passed a weather vane featuring a gaff-rigged yacht - a long way from the sea. St James' was where Caroline and I were married 38 years ago, a June day rather warmer than today. I could not be sure I'd been inside the church since. Candles were carefully placed upon every surface: when lit they would make the Norman nave a pretty place indeed. Cutting across the Fosseway, we walked up through Chedworth, which must be one of the longest villages in Gloucestershire. At least, it felt like it: I was exhausted.
On the "Sunday" programme this morning, The Rev. Dirkie Van Der Spui from the Dutch reform church in South Africa was asked whether he felt guilty about his church's complicity with Apartheid. In a disarmingly honest response, he confessed that he wished he and his colleagues had found a prophetic voice with which to tell the world that all was not then well with the way his country was being run.
This made me reflect on all those conversations we have at the dinner table - one such was Friday night's - where we skate between trivia, not confessing to any great feeling during the whole evening. Opportunities may occur, but rather than upset the rhythm of politeness, we duck them, apologising for any disquieting reflection that may slip out.
Things were easier at lunch here today, sitting with people of more passion around me. The sunshine pouring into the room will no doubt have helped; and the same sunshine enlivened our walk on Friday: we caught the bus from Charlton Kings to near Northleach, and walked back to Andoversford for lunch via five more or less small villages to the North of the A40. This photograph was taken between Hazleton and Salperton.
During the walk, I was horrified to hear a tale of what happened in a Catholic parish near Petersfield a while back: the priest fell in love with a woman and wanted to marry her. So he was forced to leave his post, and the priesthood. In his place came a new priest - a former Anglican. And who accompanied him to live in the presbytery? Why, his wife! How can the Church begin to give a credible prophetic witness to injustice in the world, when it treats its own so unjustly?
We set out from home this morning in unpromising weather - half light, and a gentle drizzle. But walking up from Charlton Kings, it gradually brightened, and by midday the sun had appeared.
This was taken a bit earlier, looking North-West over Harp Hill, towards the high ground beyond the River Severn in Hasfield parish and then on to the Malverns. Tewkesbury Abbey, 10 miles away as the crow flies, stands out clearly.
A car-less friend needed a chauffeur this morning, to take him to give a talk at Barnwood. I had been booked for this weeks ago, and in turn booked - as I thought it - the car. But just as I was ready to set off, I saw it disappearing out of the drive. So, for the rest of the time till lunch I was rather ill-temperedly playing catch-up.
The hiatus did enable me take a look at the church in Barnwood, much Victorianised, but quite handsomely set in an enormous churchyard, with some fine trees. Pope Francis has just put out his first big document, Evangelii Gaudium: "The Church," he says in it, "is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door."
This was the title of a stimulating presentation by Mary Colwell today, at a morning gathering of the Clifton Diocese Justice and Peace Commission in Bristol. The aim was to highlight projects from all corners of the Diocese, but sadly only a handful of those "corners" were represented. Mary's keynote address deserved a larger audience: I'm going to try to get her to repeat it in Cheltenham early in the New Year.
Others too spoke with conviction, including Catherine (photographed here) on the IF Campaign. And I was impressed by Dr. Séverine Deneulin of Bath University, whose presence brought down the average age.
On the first break out, I found myself talking earnestly to my contemporary Peter Downey, whom I'd last seen 57 years ago at All Hallows.
Last night on Any Questions, Jonathon Porritt delighted me with an encomium for Pope Francis. I sent him congratulations. "Even as I was thinking about that," he replied, "I was wondering whether you would be listening! Makes up for all those cynical comments over so many years - and I have been seriously impressed by the way he's completely reinterpreting what leadership looks like for the church."
I would love to be a witty photographer like Eamonn McCabe, former photo editor of the Guardian. He showed some examples of his art in the Pittville Pump Room this evening, the annual "big" talk put on by the Camera Club. "Alas poor Yorick!" was the Guardian's caption for a shot of a bald-headed goalkeeper cradling the ball.
A good raconteur, McCabe spoke with enthusiasm and wasn't too techy. So he went down well with me, if not with the nerdy fraternity. Great images of course, charting his development from gigs groupie to sports photographer to portraitist. "There's something about loners," he said. "What makes them work?" Solving that question seems very much the key to McCabe's success.
Tonight, a dozen of us have been discussing another weekend of open houses and gardens next year, to promote energy efficiency and conservation generally. This will be Cheltenham's third, and is fixed for 20th/21st September. What we need are more people to come forward, to allow their improvements etc. to go on show.
I took the photograph at the exquisite Young Dürer exhibition in Somerset House: I visited it yesterday afternoon. It features the 23-year-old Dürer's wife, "My Agnes" as he called her, a drawing on loan from the Albertina.
This was the question for discussion at the annual Univ. London Seminar. Half a dozen Old Members and a Fellow were this evening ranged upon the platform at the Royal Society: all had energy credentials of one sort or another, as did many of those in the packed audience.
Energy investment advisor Jim Long saw the present uncertainty as stemming from a long-term lack of any coherent UK energy policy, combined with our politicians implying that peoples' bills can be kept stable or even go down. This effectively placed the 75% of our capital investment that comes from overseas at risk.
Oliver Phipps of ERM was concerned about the low level of our gas storage: one week's supply, compared to Germany's three months'. But more so, that in less than a decade we had turned from being a net exporter of energy to a serious importer, with 87% based on fossil fuels. We badly needed to accelerate our investment in energy efficiency and renewables.
Gas industry expert, Dr. Jennifer Coolidge saw an immediate threat in the rising cost of our Norwegian supplies, and applauded our renewed commitment to a nuclear component.
Looking long term (the 200-year view), Laurence Fumagalli - who works in the wind power sector - saw all our energy coming from nuclear and solar PV, but over 50 years he foresaw a 30:30:40 mix of nuclear, renewables and gas. In the short term, he thought offshore wind had a big part to play. But overall he was worried about the very high levels of investment that would be needed. Not much of a mention of climate change! The evening's Chair, Professor Gideon Henderson, a College Fellow, specialises in this area, but kept his peace.
The final speaker was the most senior member of the panel, Ron Oxburgh, once Chairman of Shell. Individual governments have little control over energy prices, he said. In particular, fracking in the UK would do nothing much to reduce it, though the Treasury would benefit. He was an advocate of North Sea Interconnectors, to bring hydroelectricity from Scandinavia and thermal energy from Iceland, though in the discussion that followed another Old Member asked why on earth our neighbours would want to share our high price levels.
Mention was belatedly made of the need to bring the demand side into the market, and better energy efficiency (following China's lead) and conservation incentives called for: the Green Deal, though, was thought to be a dead duck. We waste 70% of our electricity generation capacity, said Nick Falk, who spoke up for combined heat and power, pointing to the lead given on this by the Germans and Danes.
Generally coal - though cheap - was given the thumbs down: successful CCS was far away and likely to prove more than twice as expensive as nuclear. Drax's conversion to biomass depended on unsustainable supply. A Severn Barrage? Opinion was sharply divided on this.
The most telling contribution, I felt, came from someone pointing out the deception of carbon reduction targets being based on production, not consumption: the emissions we import are up 20% since 1990, he said. All in all, a better question for discussion would have been, What steps must Government take to manage carbon reduction in a world of uncertain energy futures? I longed to hear some regret for the relative failure of the Warsaw COP 19 Summit (just ended), some attention to the dire warnings of the IPCC 5th Assessment Report - even a mention of Pope Francis' reflection that we all have to think if we can become a little poorer.
I took the photograph earlier in the day walking along Monmouth Street, drawn as usual towards Stanfords for a browse amongst their maps.
Caroline looked after the grandchildren again today (they were generally in high spirits), while Agnes and I were once more at Medicine Unboxed.
I found myself flagging by mid-afternoon, after a heavily political hour dominated by discussion of the "Semtex suppository inserted in the NHS by the Coalition." Ray Tallis, author of NHS SOS, came up with this and several other pithy phrases to sum up his view that the Health Service wasn't broke when the Tories took over, "and they tried to fix it by blowing it up."
He was supported by Professor Allyson Pollock, laying in to the BBC for its failure to alert the public to what was going on, and the vocal majority of the audience.
Earlier, Jocelyn Pook had talked about her strange compositions, inspired by ansafone messages. I could just about take these on board, but not the pieces consisting of voices running backwards: as with Eduardo Miranda's robotic music (he was on yesterday's programme), I kept thinking of those who use Photoshop to rob representational photographs of all meaning: you may as well set chimpanzees loose in the artist's studio.
This was the session when we came nearest to a consideration of the role God plays in people's lives: ecstatic singing was compared to prayer - without anyone "confessing" that it could indeed be prayer. I hid my light under a bushel. Shame.
I found myself surprisingly comfortable with psychoanalyst (and author of The Examined Life) Stephen Grosz talking to Sam Guglani: Grosz's conclusion about a bore was simply that "he didn't let the present matter." And the question put to him by his own (distinguished) analyst was, "When are you going to come in here by yourself?"
The other star of today's sessions was for me Eleanor Longden, reprising her TED talk about the voices in her head. "Don't ask what's wrong with you: ask what's happened to you," she urged.
What's happened to the England cricket team? One could certainly ask that.
Agnes knows Dr. Sam Guglani who is on her creative writing course: a man of many parts, Sam is the brains behind the two-day part conference, part entertainment on at our local Parabola Arts Centre this weekend, Medicine Unboxed. Though it has been running for more than a decade, this is the first time I've been brave enough to book for it, and so far without regret.
As I suspected it would be, the 325-seat theatre (sold out) was mainly full of medics of one variety or another, but the balance of contributors ensured that the content was largely intelligible to a general audience. Unusually for an event in a Cheltenham auditorium, I felt well above the average age.
This year's theme was "voice", echoed by contributions from the Birmingham Medical School Choir and the "remarkable" duo, Melanie Pappenheim and Rebecca Askew. (I had first heard them five years ago at the Riverside Studios.)
One of today's highlights was Fi Glover's talk about Radio 4's Listening Project. She described it as consenting eavesdropping, vitamin supplements for the soul. A move to call it "The Talking Project" had been resisted. "The best doctors are the ones who really listen," concluded someone.
I acted for the Community of St Peter when it purchased Well Close some three decades ago: the house turned out to be riddled with dry rot, which the nuns' surveyor somehow overlooked - leading to more work for my firm in the shape of a negligence claim.
The Anglican Benedictine community had run a large house near Stonehouse for some years as a home for vulnerable girls: I remember a large aviary there, the pride and joy of the solitary nun who was still actively involved, the characterful Sister Pauline Mary.
Until fairly recently, the front garden of Well Close, large considering it's in a fairly central location, was unproductive. Thanks however to the efforts of Miggi Lorraine, Peter Clegg and others, it now hosts a community composting area, and plans have been hatched to increase its usefulness further. It was in this connection that Peter asked me to bring my camera along to today's hedge planting. The local paper sent their photographer, but my angle - see my website - would have been different.
Some 60 of us were there: besides the Mayor, Wendy Flynn, there were various Councillors and other nobs, staff and children from Christ Church Primary school and residents of Well Close itself. Between us, we planted 150 saplings (mainly donated by the Woodland Trust and Chris Evans' Butterfly Project) in less than an hour - a happy occasion, and proof that many hands make light work.
The overall aim is to increase local biodiversity, the garden becoming available for the residents, local school children and people with learning and/or physical disabilities to grow their own organically produced fruit and vegetables.
Agnes completed her 100th poem at home in Bristol between lunch and tea on the first day's play at Brisbane. More than satisfactory in both quarters: with Gift Aid, the 24-hour poetry slam will have raised the best part of £2,000 for the typhoon victims, whereas, in the cricket, Australia look to be pushed to reach the statutory 400 they might be said to need as a platform for a win in the First Test.
Everybody following our daughter's 24 hour burst of creativity has expressed amazement at the richness of her imagination. Let's hope the experience, as well as helping the needy, opens some doors for her!
Meanwhile, in London today, we managed a visit to Prue Cooper's show at Abbott and Holder. We have long admired her press-moulded earthenware pots, as quirky as they are useful. Her blurb says she likes to make "things that communicate through being used... the lettering being integral to the design in the same way that the words are integral to a song... We're bound together by stories."
My favourite in the present exhibition is this one photographed: I shall never now be able to listen with proper seriousness to Marcellus' questioning of Barnardo in the opening scene of Hamlet.
Earlier, at a cousins' lunch, I overheard part of a discussion about houses in the country, and the husband of one cousin asking another (female), never before encountered, "Is your seat large?"
Scrubditch Farm hosts a variety of activities, but we only saw this one Old Spot as we walked through this morning. Patrick attempted to draw its attention to the apples which lay behind, but to no avail.
The rain came down upon the four of us in earnest soon afterwards, so we were glad to find St Margaret's Church in Bagendon open - a dry haven for a while, and surprisingly warm. It turned out that a funeral was due to take place there this afternoon, and the parish was clearly determined it shouldn't lead on to others: the building was almost warm enough for a cremation.
The stained glass is varied: good fragments from the 15th Century; indifferent 19th Century Hardman, but excellent Christopher Whall from the early 20th.
There are many fine houses in and around the villages and hamlets in this part of the Cotswolds, it seems. And much horsiculture.
We had a gentle outing today, exploring a couple of areas North-West of Cirencester. We parked first at Daneway, to inspect the Gothick West portal of the canal tunnel, restored by Cotswold Canals Trust in 1996. The canal itself is barely visible, but one day...
Up the hill behind the pub, we peered over the electric gates of Daneway House, to admire a weather vane by the Miserden blacksmith, Michael Roberts. It's in the form of a golden phoenix alighting on a blue sphere - but alas too distant for me to get a decent photograph.
This unspoilt view down the valley was taken when exploring the site of Sapperton Manor, demolished nearly three centuries ago. Some of the panelling was salvaged for embellishing St Kenelm's Church, just to the East. But where did the church's Jacobean bench ends come from? Atlantes on each of them, and all different.
We were guided round and asked to lunch by a friend, a widower for eight years now. Not one to complain, he nevertheless admitted that "Living alone is lousy."
After lunch, we detoured to snoop at Middle Lypiatt, some or all of which has recently been on the market. A Bentley sits in the garage, overlooked by a polo player weather vane, which I could and did capture - maybe for an updated edition of my book.
A beautiful day, mostly sunny, no wind to speak of, and the colours splendid.
For the recent sixth birthdays of our two younger grandchildren, I put together a book of weather vanes. This has now evolved into something a bit more grown up, with others' poems to complement my photographs.
It was interesting, finding out something about the subject. A wind or weather vane pivots, as I say in my brief introduction, so the pointer can move freely, the surface area being unequally divided: the side with the larger surface area is blown away from the wind direction, so that the smaller side, with the pointer, faces into the wind. For example, in a 'Nor-Easter' (a wind that blows FROM the North-East), the pointer points TOWARDS the North-East.
The word "vane" derives from the Anglo-Saxon word "fane”, meaning "flag". Originally, fabric pennants would show archers the direction of the wind: the cloth flags came to be replaced by metal ones, decorated with the overlord’s insignia, and balanced to turn in the wind.
Sometimes they are called weathercocks. St Gregory the Great having described the cock emblem as a suitable Christian identifier, churches often displayed (as many do to this day) the rooster symbol. It serves as a reminder of the Maundy Thursday prophecy, recorded by all four Evangelists, that before the next cock crow, Peter would three times deny knowing Jesus. A weathercock still describes someone changeable or fickle, tending to go whichever way the wind blows.
In April 2010, when walking in Spain on the Via de la Plata through the Province of Salamanca, I noticed a rash of varied scenes portrayed on weather vanes. It made me pay more attention to examples of our domestic tradition: it seems no less rich and varied. However, of the weather vanes I have photographed so far, only the Spanish ones incorporate an anemometer, to indicate wind speed.
These were our marching orders for lunchtime today, when summoned to the Star Bistro to celebrate cyclist John's 70th birthday. And a jolly occasion it was, with an excellent lunch. I had pan fried artichokes and salsify, venison pudding and (best of all) Star Pimm's jelly.
As well as speeches we had a sing-song etc. With four siblings, there was no lack of relatives, so we were lucky to be counted amongst a select group of friends.
I knew Tim from church, but not his name. Then we saw each other at Longborough and elsewhere, and more recently sitting in the front row at Cineworld for the Met opera relays, which he loved. He told me he was going into hospital to have his back straightened: I could see he was apprehensive about it. Sadly, he never returned home.
At his funeral mass this morning, a friend recited The Burren Prayer by John O’Donohue, a new one to me and very beautiful: it contains the lines, "May the light that turns the limestone white remind us that our solitude is bright." Perfect for someone "who didn't always carry the world lightly" - and for Charles, his grieving partner of four decades.
Altogether, it was very proper occasion. Not many of those present were Catholic (Tim was a convert), but Fr. Bosco welcomed all comers most warmly and openly. Noone should have been mystified - unlike yesterday evening: Caroline and I went to hear Professor Rich Pancost talking about the chemistry of past and future global warming. I felt well out of my depth, though the message was clear: our politicians need to do something urgently!
Argument rages meanwhile about whether or not Typhoon Haiyan was a symptom of man-made climate change. Does it matter? Agnes thinks not, and has undertaken to write 100 poems in a day next Wednesday, if people will sponsor her in aid of the Phillippines' victims. Brilliant!
I have mentioned All Hallows before, in connection with Roger Bevan, who taught us music there. Whilst I was at Ampleforth earlier this week, I leafed through Fr. Edward Corbould's copy of Christopher Bird's excellent book, The Cherry Jumpers, which looks back over 75 years since All Hallows started. One of the book's highlights (for me) was a piece Fr. Edward himself wrote detailing the headmaster, Francis Dix's sadistic teaching methods. It brought back vividly being threatened with a beating if I couldn't remember my Catechism answers correctly.
Interestingly, Bird's book doesn't quote from Auberon Waugh's autobiography, Will this do?: that lists other All Hallows horrors, though I don't remember what they were exactly: it's a while since I read it.
This photograph portrays some of those in the All Hallows Christmas 1954 entertainment. So far as my memory serves, with the parts played, they were as follows. From the left, back row: M. Bartlett (Mrs. Squeers); me (Flute the bellows-mender, playing Thisbe); David Russell (Richard II); Lewin Bowring (Guiseppe), Terence Bantock (The Duke of Plaza Toro) and Nicholas Fitzgerald (The Duchess – all from The Gondoliers); Roger Duncan (Macbeth); Gavin Poyntz-Wright (Lady Macbeth); Erik Pearse (Casilda, from The Gondoliers); Kit Barrington (Sir Oliver Surface) and Finn Fetherstonhaugh (Careless – both from The School for Scandal); Peter Pearson [he died soon after leaving Ampleforth] (a gentleman, in Get up and bar the door). In the front row: Martin Finn (Bottom the Weaver); Charles Atthill [now living in the US] (a Pope poem); P. Downey (Moses, The School for Scandal); John McEwen [Art critic] (Koko, from The Mikado); Peter Young (a Pope poem); Anthony Gilroy (Charles Surface, The School for Scandal); ?; Christopher Fletcher (Marco, from The Gondoliers); Peter Prideaux-Brune (Noah, the Chester Miracle Play); ?; and Gerald Towell [Towell and Scott] (Nicholas Nickleby).
I am indebted to the All Hallows Chronicle, 1954-56 for the details of this weirdly eclectic show. The Chronicle records even the most mundane day-to-day events in the life of the school in loving detail, an amazing legacy - no doubt created by Dix himself or possibly his wife Evelyn.
I've now learnt that Fr Edward told the book's author - too late for the book - of when he was teaching briefly at All Hallows having just left Ampleforth (we played him up no end): he remembers posting his application to join the Ampleforth novitiate in the letter-box alongside the old chapel of St James on the back lane adjoining Scouts' Wood, and thinking, "Well, there's my future sorted out until I die."
Going back to that entertainment, it's strange how things from so long ago come sharply back to mind. David Russell's Richard II excerpt was all about "graves and worms and epitaphs." And it put me off Richard II for years. In fact, until last night, when we watched the RSC live relay at our Cineworld. Magnificent!
I note that the first time I saw the play right through was with David Warner as the king in 1964; then Ian McKellen (1969) and Ian Richardson (1973) - all at the RSC. In that last production, by John Barton, David Suchet played a messenger.
"Vatican II - 50 years on" is the title of the retreat I've been attending here at my old school. In the main room of The Grange, 20 people - average age, 70 - gather in a circle around Fr. Dominic Milroy. Eight of us were either at school with him, or taught by him.
Effectively, the four discourses have been part reminiscence, part meditation: he speaks without notes, an artist dabbing colour on his picture, using the image of a mosaic culture, shifting in an open-ended way.
Quoting Hans Urs von Balthasar ("The Word disappeared into human history"), Dominic felt the Council was teaching us to find how to talk about our belief so that the world could understand it. Our challenge: to draw people to the Church, as the joyful presence of a living community of faith, anxious to give the good news. In this context, Pope Francis was as a Spring day after a long Winter.
The main railway line from Paris to Bordeaux runs almost through the grounds of the Abbaye de Saint-Martin at Ligugé, Dominic told us; and of his vision of the church's spire soaring vertically, intersected by the horizontal of a TGV rushing South from Poitiers. It was if the building, rooted in the earth of La Belle France, was lifted by the Eucharistic celebration within it, up to God. While the train, carrying the weight of this world, rushed its passengers on their way through life towards death. The joint between the vertical and the horizontal cannot be trusted to a nail hammered on: each limb must concede part of its strength in order to make a true bond - love, marriage, the Church and the world.
My photograph was taken walking down to Lauds from The Grange. Crows - not yet vultures - circle round the tower of the Abbey Church, but how long will Ampleforth survive in its present state? Change has come about under Abbot Cuthbert. Is it the deckchairs just being shuffled? Such a plant is titanic for what will, in a decade, be so very few monks, all their energies needed for maintenance leaving none for mission.
In spirit, as far removed as possible from its original home in the soggy Midlands (near Worcester), the relatively new Stanbrook Abbey teeters on the Southern edge of the North York Moors National Park. I have been meaning to visit the nuns ever since their move four years ago, and today at last I managed it. Sister Petra showed four of us the temporary chapel, and we admired the magnificent view South over the Coxwold-Gilling gap.
Earlier, I had fulfilled another long-term ambition, to visit John Bunting's Memorial Chapel above Oldstead.
This last weekend, I was supposed to be going to the Lakes: the trip was called off after I had bought my train ticket, so - in order salvage something from it - I spent Friday in Birmingham, mainly looking all round the magnificent new Library.
In the foyer, there's a wooden pavilion housing "The Library of Lost Books". Intrigued by the title, I went in to find the transformation of a collection of old, damaged books and music scores, many over a century old, which had been discarded by different local libraries. Two years ago, local artist Susan Kruse had sent one item to each of more than 40 artists and printmakers from around the UK, to breathe new life into them through their interventions. The reworked books have now returned to Birmingham for this temporary exhibition.
On the way home, before I stepped out into the November gloom (and rain), the conductor made some of us smile: "We are," he said, "now approaching the charismatic station that is Cheltenham. Please ensure that you take all your belongings, relatives etc. with you when you leave the train."
This morning, changing trains on my way to York, I was back in Birmingham. One poor man - "I haven't been on a train for years," he told me - travelled there by mistake. He was seeing his wife off from Cheltenham, and got on so as to lift her case onto the rack above her seat. The doors closed as they were kissing goodbye. So much for gallantry.
A noticeable - if not a complete - hush came about New Street Station for the two minutes after 11 o'clock.
William likes his new bike, I'm pleased to say. He and Edmund collected it this afternoon, arriving just after Leo and Mini left: I guess they are still somewhat jet-lagged after their flight from Osaka last night. (Quick check on the world map: Japan is nearly 2,000 miles North of the poor Philippines, suffering so terribly from Super Typhoon Haiyan.)
Here this morning, it was sunny and still enough - St Martin's Little Summer - for me to be in shirt sleeves, planting my Aquadulce beans, accompanied by our faithful robin. (Boo! to the neighbour's cat.)
I took this photograph 21 years ago at the official opening of Glenfall House, by the short-lived Bishop Peter of Gloucester: Sister Frideswide was one of the Anglican sisters who had occupied the house as their convent prior to the Diocese taking it over. Here she is enjoying a dish of strawberries and cream.
We saw "Philomena" this evening, the film based on Martin Sixsmith's book, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee", about the forcible separation of a mother and child by the (Catholic) nuns of an Irish convent during the 1950s, and the subsequent attempts of the mother and child to contact one another. It's magic to watch. But it makes three contested points, without which it would undoubtedly have less impact.
First, it alleges the nuns willfully destroyed records that would have helped mothers and children to become reunited. Secondly, it says the nuns received payment from those adopting children. On both counts, the Order of nuns has issued a vehement denial.
And thirdly it portrays one of the nuns fiercely condemning the eponymous heroine for giving into her "carnal" desires - the nun in question having died almost a decade before the confrontation in question could have taken place.
It's ironic that the man behind the film (and brilliant in it) is Steve Coogan, by his own admission "forced to fight for the truth" on behalf of phone-hacking victims.
Five old friends came to lunch yesterday, and we talked about death, illness and travel, as one does. Caroline's bread and butter pudding was a triumph. I'm stuck for a segue to the scaffolders' visit today, to complete their spider's web, now surrounding most of the house at prodigious expense. And to the next item also.
"The Habit of Art" by Alan Bennett was relayed live from the National Theatre to cinemas three years ago, but I guess we were away. So we took the opportunity to view the recording they showed at Cineworld last night, part of the 50th birthday celebrations.
What a great play! And how did Bennett get the initial idea? Better than any Pirandello. There was one snag: Auden or Britten being strangers to me, I was perfectly happy to see them played by non-lookalikes; but it was different with Humphrey Carpenter, whom I had known quite well from his period directing our literary festival. Adrian Scarborough is nothing like him. This however was only a minor blip to set against some excellent acting, especially from Frances de la Tour.
Another snag arose in the form of a neighbour with her smartphone screen lit up. My request that it be turned off elicited a fusilade of invective, which was renewed in the interval. Yes, OK. I suppose I should be more tolerant in this day and age, but...
It rained pretty solidly for the whole duration of yesterday morning's walk. Three of us set off to circle anticlockwise Oxenton Hill and Crane Hill. It was far enough in the conditions, but we made it longer by missing the turn to Dixton.
There are splendid views round there, as evidenced by the two large primitive early 18th Century landscapes in the Cheltenham Art Gallery. But it was misty and anyway our eyes were cast downwards, as we picked our way through the mud. When we eventually arrived back at the Woolstone lane, by Grange Farm, we struggled to cross a broken stile and slithery ditch bridge: at the far side was a notice saying "Footpath closed".
My photograph of St Martin's church doesn't do justice to its eccentric tower.
A couple of Summers ago, I posted a photograph of Meon Hill, but this shows it better: I took it yesterday, pausing on the drive up Saintbury Hill. I was making my way home after collecting a bike Edmund had bought on eBay for William: his earlier one had been stolen - proof (as if needed) that you can't leave things lying unlocked on a Bristol riverside.
I also photographed the church at Saintbury, across a field from the road - on the off chance that it was in Gloucestershire: it is - as I discovered on my return; but quite near the Worcestershire border. In August 1990, Thomas, Paddy and I cycled to Arrow, and Saintbury Hill was on our route home. It was deemed too steep: "I'm going this way," said Thomas (pointing down the flat road towards Willersey). It was a sticky moment, but by dint of stick and carrot we did eventually all push our bikes up through the churchyard. There were no further complaints, as from the top, it's all more or less downhill.
William's "new" bike was from Honeybourne, four miles South of Bickmarsh. I came there circuitously from lunch at the Air Balloon - not a pub I shall seek out on another such occasion: perhaps demolition for the much-needed road improvements is the best thing that could happen to it, though how to preserve that evocative name?
I drove from there up the M5, turning off at Ashchurch, where I stopped to photograph St Andrew's: it stands like an oasis in the desert, surrounded as it is by industrial buildings, main roads and the railway. Gloucestershire is nothing if not a county of contrast.
For Caroline, France has long been where we should go and live, and not just France, but Gascony. It hasn’t happened, mainly because of my intransigence, born of timidity.
So, we are looking for a way that Caroline can at least spend a chunk of time in the Gers each year: this year, it was for the month of April, in this rented house on the edge of a fairly remote village. Suggestions for 2014’s sojourn gratefully received! Does anyone need a house-sitter?
Meanwhile, Grayson Perry’s final Reith Lecture this morning summed things up rather well, I felt: I was reading recently, he said, this psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz. He writes of a patient
and during his course of therapy quite often he’d mention this house he had in France
and he said oh he enjoyed thinking about how he was going to decorate it and
refurbish it and arrange the furniture and it was one of his great pleasures when things
got a bit troubling for him; that he would think about this and it would be very
relaxing to him to think about these marvellous plans he had for his house in France.
And then at the end of his course of psychotherapy, just as he was leaving he sort of
turned and he said, “You know Mr Grosz,” he said, “there is no house in France. You
do know that?” And I completely crack up at that because it really echoed with me
about that place that he goes: his refuge where he’s an artist.
It's a relief when you go to an opera you don't know and realise at the final curtain that you need never see it again. Not that we didn't enjoy Les Vêpres Siciliennes, relayed from Covent Garden this evening. It has some good tunes, and opera doesn't come much grander. Though the programme strangely didn't mention his name, the excellent director Stefan Herheim spared no thought, and his paymasters no expense: the updating from 13th to mid-19th Century was an ingenious solution to what's pretty much an old war horse. It could be dire done straight.
During the intervals we were treated to tweets from cinema audiences around the world: someone from Ulster "wished we were there at the Royal Opera House": Caroline and I begged to differ. We felt far better off sitting in acres of space in our local Cineworld, enjoying our picnic topped off with a Ben and Jerry's ice cream.
And I reached the final chapter of "Still in the Game" last night. Charlotte had lent me her copy of Antony Hornyold's book when we met him at lunch with them last month. I much enjoyed its mixture of autobiography, history, adventure and reflection. Antony's own photographs are accompanied by good maps and some judiciously chosen archive material. Biggles was an earlier generation, but there are echoes in this self-portrayal of a brave and modest man, still very much with us. When's the next one coming out, Antony?
50th birthdays undeniably deserve to be celebrated properly, and last night's 150-minute live relay on BBC2 served as a very proper big birthday bash for the Royal National Theatre.
Most of those still alive who have, over the half century, given greatest service upon the RNT stages were there: many of the famous dead (Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson R., Scofield) were brought back to life through film clips. As the evening galloped along, Caroline and I watched enthralled. Undoubtedly some gobbits worked better than others: the two Stoppard extracts fell flat, compared with a sublimely funny and moving scene from Angels in America, for instance. But it was the French lesson from The History Boys, with its creator Alan Bennett as Hector (a role he never played on stage, so far as I know) that stole the show.
Proper, improper? The good old BBC prefaced its broadcast with a foul language warning: more appropriate would be a foul (fowl?) behaviour warning for Miley Cyrus's recent award ceremony cavorting - but what a great David Attenborough twerk tweak! Unwittingly, old Attenborough, prophetically commenting upon our sad times, may have found himself a new, young audience.
Three of our apple trees must be 50 years old or more: they have fruited this year as if it's a jubilee. I'm off out to climb the ladder and pick more, before the winds blow them all down. This one was photographed at Schofields.
"In a theatre, the eyes of men, after a well-graced actor leaves the stage, are idly bent on him that enters next," says York in Richard II. Currently, however, eyes (not only of men) are far from idly bent on David Tennant's performance as the King: we have tickets for the live relay in a fortnight, the first such from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. There are queues for returns at the box office, and that will no doubt also be the case at Cineworld.
On Radio 4's Today programme, Maroussia Frank and David have just been talking to Rebecca Jones about the large ring David is wearing as Richard. Maroussia had inherited it from her husband Ian Richardson, who wore it in the iconic 1974 John Barton production, where he alternated with Richard Pasco in the roles of king and usurper: she felt it appropriate that a second Scottish RSC "Richard" should have it, especially - no doubt - bearing in mind that Ian's ashes are interred beneath that very stage on which David Tennant ("son" of Richardson, as it were) has next entered.
As a car-less tour guide at Charlecote Park in the early Summer of 1962, I made it my business to be especially nice to the last party I was taking round in case I could cadge a lift from one of them, back to Stratford. From there, it was usually easy to hitchhike home. One sunny afternoon, some actors were in this final posse, and I ended up with one of them in his Austin A30.
From a stage photograph I spied in the glove compartment, I realised it was Ian Richardson: though I had seen him several times in plays at Stratford, I would hardly have recognised him. "That was a bit of a matinée performance you gave us, I thought." He spoke in a soft, Scottish accent, quite different from his evil-sounding Don John or high-pitched Oberon. ("I had great difficulty persuading Peter Hall that I was right for this part," he told me: Titania was Judi Dench, Helena, Diana Rigg, etc. etc.)
I had asked for a lift to Stratford, but having explained that I lived at Arrow, Ian offered to take me the extra eight miles home. "Would you like to come in?" my father asked him, when we arrived. "Why not?" he replied. After two gins, my parents apologised, "but we are all now due to go for a drink up at Oversley Castle... perhaps you would like to come too?" "Why, yes," was the eager response, and so it was that we had the pleasure of Ian's company for the evening: as it progressed, so his tongue loosened.
I went back stage a few times after seeing him perform subsequently, the final occasion - shortly before his too early death - being after a reading of Shakespeare's Sonnets in our Town Hall. Never, of course, did I quite manage to recapture the easy atmosphere of that Summer evening.
My photograph was taken in Bristol Cathedral on Monday: there are a number of fragments of mediaeval glass preserved there. "Within the hollow crown, that rounds the mortal temples of a king, keeps Death his court and there the antic sits, scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp." One might almost suppose that Shakespeare wrote these lines having visited Bristol and seen this curious image.
Half term is big business for Bristol's many and varied palaces of culture. Nine organisations have clubbed together to make a trail through the City Centre: we followed part of it with the boys today, being based on Edmund's boat, visible in the centre of the photograph. This I took from the M Shed balcony, which gives a great 180 degree view over the Avon and Northwards.
You could spend a whole day in the M Shed itself, but we also packed in the best part of an hour at the Architecture Centre (model building making) and lit a candle or two in Bristol Cathedral, where we admired some weird fragments of mediaeval glass in the Cloister: finally, we visited the Library to choose a DVD. (We only just remembered to get it unlocked - something Cheltenham hasn't yet begun to require us to do.)
And the boys and I marvelled - each in our own way - at Michael Dean's "The Introduction of Muscle" exhibition at the Arnolfini. This occupies two rooms - one huge, one smaller. But "occupies" them with a total of five modestly-sized sculptures. "It's all about texture," the helpful gallery guide told us, encouraging us to feel the amorphous, coloured concrete objects. One was recognisable as a cabbage. Others resembled a tongue, a pair of arms, possibly someone's back. No "labels" are supplied. The black flooring and the (white?) lighting form part of the "show".
The boys enjoyed being able to run round: to put it another way, they took the fact that this was "art" in their stride. I had more of a problem: the acronym Grayson Perry gave us in his "Nice rebellion, Welcome In!" Reith lecture yesterday morning was MAYA, "most advanced yet acceptable". But is it?
Photography came under the microscope in the previous lecture. ("It rains on us like sewage from above.") His advice to photographers seemed to be, make all your editions limited: "if something is endless, it's giving away part of its qualification as art." You can easily tell, Perry said, if a portrait photograph is art or not. "Are they smiling? If they are - probably not art."
It was at its worst yesterday evening, as I went to church. Today's been mostly fine, though colder: the wind has changed direction.
A couple of weeks ago, our snow guard came adrift from its moorings: two lots of kind neighbours brought it to our attention. But it's high, high up, and not at a place to which anyone would want to run up a ladder.
Thinking laterally upon hearing the wild weather forecast yesterday, I removed a top floor bedroom window: leaning out I was able to lasso the fencing with a couple of ropes, tying them in to a pipe. If the final screw on the snow guard failed to hold, I calculated that it should at least be prevented from crashing onto the glass roof below, or banging against the first floor window.
This morning, following the tempest, apples have rained down, but at roof level things remain the same. Others have been less fortunate, we hear on this evening's News.
Chris James teaches at Cirencester College. Somehow, he also finds time to paint and sculpt: I met him at the Gardens Gallery yesterday, where he has an exhibition. I liked this colourful take on the Ruskin Mill lake, inspiration for a number of the works in what is a cheerful show. It is more three-dimensional than it looks - a virtual collage.
Chris moaned a little about the scaffolding surrounding the Gallery, which - he surmised - accounted for the small number of visits. Not the problem experienced by The Wilson, so we read in the paper: crowds have flooded in to see round since the reopening three weeks ago. I sat next to the Friends' Chair, Gina Wilson (no relation) last night, who enthused about the transformation.
On my other side was Barbara McNaught, whose art is non-visual: she has just published her second collection of poems, Strings of Pearls.
The art of comedy has also been on public display of late, though Jeremy Paxman's Newsnight interview (viral on YouTube) with Russell Brand was not entirely humorous. Indeed there was a deadly seriousness about Brand's sermon on revolution.
Far indeed from Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII's encyclical, published 50 years ago this year. "His is not a message of revolution," writes Bruce Kent in this week's Tablet. "We exhort our sons to take an active part in public life," wrote that good Pope. Brand, on the other hand, says he has never voted, and has no intention of doing so.
What credit will it reflect on the New Statesman for allowing him in as guest editor I wonder? It's paradoxical that someone so intelligent should wish to be so destructive - of our society. After all, "you can do everything with bayonets except sit on them." I thought Paxman was excellent.
Thomas (b. 1979, so four years Brand's junior) says that he "does seem to be able to articulate a lot of what the youth feel about modern Britain - in that there’s no point being involved in the process. The problem is that he doesn’t present an alternative. There is no alternative. So what next?"
As I see it, the RBs of this world wield immense power through their super ability to articulate. So, when their message is a despairing one, it tends to remove hope from you and me. We can only do right what we can, in the relationships we have. No? Some of the most right will be works of art.