I had a lesson about silage during today's Wednesday walk. Starting from the Royal Oak in Gretton, we left the main road by the lane leading up to Abbots Lees. Rain was in the air, but at first we watched it blow down upon Winchcombe from Charlton Abbots and pass us to the East. It was on Langley Hill that we paused to take in the delicious smell, and in doing so met a helpful young farmer, who explained the different ways silage is made: one uses just grass, another adds in immature barley. On his (organic) farm, silage was, he said, fed all the year round to their 150 milking Holsteins .
Last week, I received my latest Blurb effort, containing images mostly not included in my earlier Romania book. It might - Caroline's suggestion - be the beginning of a series, as I always seem to have windows on my mind when I go on holiday. There could even be A window on Gloucestershire in the pipeline. Who knows? Ah well, it keeps me busy.
It would be interesting to work out how many miles I cycled during this last week that I've spent in London. I visited Wandsworth, Maida Vale, Camden and Southwark, and much in between: rather satisfying, to be seven days in London without a freedom pass, but still paying nothing to get around. The chief hazard I identified was not from buses or lorries, but those fellow cyclists who zoomed past at twice my speed.
It's hard to imagine that 2013 will bring me a greater musical experience than the Proms Ring Cycle, which reached its conclusion last night in a packed and hushed Albert Hall. Too often in the theatre applause breaks out the second the curtain falls, without any savouring of the drama: Barenboim though held us spellbound, not just throughout the five and half hours of Götterdämmerung, but for a good few seconds following the final bar of music.
"It ain't over till the fat lady sings" goes the saying; which while true enough on Saturday, can't be said of this Götterdämmerung. Nina Stemme's physique gives no inkling of her vocal power - a superb Brünnhilde; and matched by the best Siegfried I've come across: Andreas Schager - a great actor with a heroic voice. How rare is that!
"Don't you get bored with seeing The Ring so often?" I'm asked. Far from it! Each time there's something you haven't noticed before. One of my favourite themes is that describing Freia's essential contribution to the vitality of her fellow Gods. "Golden apples grow in her garden," sings Fafner. But the same theme occurred last night when Hagen described his blood as "obstinate and cold" (in contrast to the "pure and noble" blood of Siegfried). And Brünnhilde's refusing Waltraute's request to give up Siegfried's love (or rather its token) is accompanied by the music first heard in the opening scene of Das Rheingold to illustrate the renunciation of love in very different circumstances.
Nobody goes to Götterdämmerung for the jokes, but those of us standing tightly-packed in a stuffy Proms arena could be forgiven for a snigger at Siegfried's words to an off-stage Hagen: "Come down! It's airy and cool here."
From left, my photograph shows Margarita Nekrasova (1st Norn), Schager, Anna Lapkovskaja (Flosshilde), Stemme, a sombre-looking Barenboim, the great Waltraud Meier (2nd Norn and Waltraute), Mikhail Petrenko (as at Cardiff in 2006, a Hagen to be feared - he received a pantomime "Boo!" at his curtain call), the ROH Chorus Director Renato Balsadonna, Maria Gortsevskaya (Welgunde), Aga Mikolaja (Woglinde) and Gerd Grochowski (Gunther).
If it was a mistake to go to the Proms last night, mid-Ring Cycle, for something different (albeit by the same composer), then it was at least an interesting mistake.
The sound world of Tristan und Isolde is shockingly abstract (compared even to that provided for Siegfried and Brünnhilde in the final scene of Siegfried). The opera moves along steadily in one great sweep: not a lot happens, but the undercurrents are immense.
And it requires concentration, which it's harder to give when standing, as I was (mostly) last night: for the Ring, I've had, to date, the luxury of a box seat, so one can be comfortable, even jiggle round a bit.
Semyon Bychkov is no stranger to Tristan, but one feels the difference between his BBC (big blaring chords) Symphony Orchestra and the not-in-the-least Ring-rusty Staatskapelle Berlin. It seemed a performance with far lass sensitivity to the singers - or was it just less good singers? No, I think not. Two in particular shone out: Kwangchul Youn as King Mark and Mihoko Fujimura as Brangäne. Worth being there to hear them alone! Not that you can go wrong hearing any live music @ £1 an hour.
The photograph shows Robert Dean Smith and Violetta Urmana (in the name parts) with Bychkov.
A large black BMW passed me in Queen's Gate this afternoon, as I biked towards the Albert Hall. "NOT 2B" was its number. So, to while away the time during parts of my least favourite Ring segment, I counted the "Not to be" moments in Siegfried. Mime's plot to get hold of the Ring; Fafner's intent to live forever sitting on his horde; the Wanderer's bid for useful information from Erda, and then his attempt to bar the young hero's way to Brünnhilde; and finally her realisation on awaking that immortality was no longer to be.
"Least favourite" it may be for many - I spied empty seats around for the first time this week - but there are still many magic moments. The break the composer took at the end of Act 2 explains the thrilling gear change you always experience at the outset of the Act 3 Prelude. Last night, the hair at the back of my neck duly stood on end then: one would expect nothing less with this wonderful orchestra on the stage.
Barenboim's relationship with all its members is not always easy to fathom: there was another of those curious frissons last night, again at the end of Act II. Was it bashfulness or defiance, the first horn's failure to come on to acknowledge applause? He deserved the belated recognition Barenboim gave him - not just for his playing of the famous dragon-awakening call, but for carrying on undaunted by Lance Ryan (the boy hero) prancing around at his side, a splendidly surreal (two days running, that word) bit of theatre.
Generally Ryan looked the gawky part, and came into it, vocally, in the final scene, which ended with the audience fully bathed in golden love-fest light. Did he deserve his Brünnhilde? Well, to my ear Nina Stemme wasn't on such fine form as on Tuesday: it will be interesting to hear her on Sunday. the big one.
The other singers were excellent, dramatically and vocally, especially Kränzle as Alberich: his duet with Stensvold's Wanderer at the start of Act 2 was a highlight. And it makes such a difference, being in a hall light enough so you can follow the libretto when you want to - far preferable to straining at surtitles. How great too, not to have production values to complain about! ("There are two Rings taking place here: one by Castorf and one by Wagner." Thus Martin Kettle sums up this year's new Bayreuth production.)
The Confraternity of St James celebrated their patronal feast with lunchtime tapas yesterday, but those of us present in North Paddington were in somber mode: the deaths and injuries of so many train passengers en route for Santiago cast a black shadow over proceedings.
It comes less than a fortnight after the fatal crash near Paris. I reflected on having travelled along both stretches of line in recent times: the French and Spanish maintain that provision of excellent rail links fit for the 21st Century should not merely earn them a bubble reputation - a claim now punctured (at least in Spain's case) by what looks like the negligence of one man.
One woman has made a difference to Trafalgar Square, with the unveiling yesterday of Katharina Fritsch's Hahn/Cock. I biked past after dark, the polyester resin sculpture, nearly 5 metres high, roosting surreally on its plinth. Great!
In Ring terms, yesterday and today are holidays, and I'm enjoying a little London leisure. The night-time rain has cooled things down, so making it more comfortable to cycle around. Southwark Cathedral hosts an inter-faith exhibition this week, put on by our good friend Sarah. That made something to aim for: it was an added bonus to find a steward who knew all about the Cathedral's stained glass. Much of it is C.E. Kempe, and indeed there's a memorial to him in the South transept. I admired the colourful Henry Holiday window at the West end also (complete with a panel which seems to depict the Rhinemaidens: you can't get away from it!). The Cathedral, wedged in between railway lines, is now of course dwarfed by the Shard.
From London Bridge, I pushed/rode my bike three miles upstream along the Thames path: from the dry dock that's home to Drake's Golden Hind (such a tiny vessel to have circumnavigated the globe all those 400+ years ago!) to the brand new St George's Wharf development at Vauxhall. Most of the way was thronged with people enjoying themselves: drinking mainly, but also playing on the shore or on the artificial beach outside the Festival Hall; learning from the brilliant garden exhibition by Hungerford Bridge; watching jugglers, acrobats and limbo dancers; browsing the book stalls by the Film Theatre; queuing for the Eye; photographing each other against the river backdrop, and proselytising - my ear was bent for ten minutes by a young man from South China, who worshipped at All Souls Langham Place and made it his - or rather the Lord's - business to accost people sitting in the pleasant gardens outside Tate Modern on his way home from work every evening (so he told me).
You don't get the feeling that Austerity Britain means much here.
I toyed with the idea of shutting myself in my study at home, and listening to the first Proms Ring Cycle on Radio 3, but I'm glad I decided otherwise: it's memorable, to put it mildly, being in the Albert Hall with so superb an orchestra, under a conductor who knows the score backwards (and for all his jewishness is self-evidently a Wagner lover), and a magnificent cast.
After Das Rheingold on Monday, the comment from next door was about how they might have acted more. I didn't mind that - though it was a bit uneven (some acting more than others). I particularly liked Loge in an MCC tie evoking the Ashes: "Spür' ich lockende Lust sie aufzuzehren." ("I am strongly tempted to burn them up.")
After last night's Die Walküre there could have been no such complaint, surely, about lack of drama. Notung was - hinted Sieglinde - embedded in Henry Wood's bust; the dead duly lay down and the sleeping were carried off (which was a pity, as Loge's ring of fire - summoned by Bryn Terfel with three first class stamps of his patent leather shoes - ran round the orchestra and a bare stage).
But no carping allowed! This was quite simply the best Die Walküre I've ever heard.
We don’t have a Justice & Peace group in our parish, though there are plenty of parishioners pursuing just and peaceful ends – those involved, for instance, in SVP, CAFOD lunches, the Fairtrade stall, the three parish overseas projects, Christian Ecology Link: in addition we have our priest’s encouragement for the work of Pax Christi.
I had heard from others outside the parish about the annual conference of the National Justice & Peace Network, and this year decided for the first time to go along. It takes place – and has done for 35 years now – near Derby: I don’t know that city at all, but it turns out to be not much more than an hour’s train journey from Cheltenham, and the conference organises a bus from there up to the village of Swanwick: The Hayes Conference Centre, in suitably peaceful, tree-lined grounds of its own, must be one of the best appointed in the country. It was amply big enough to accommodate the 300 or more who came there this weekend.
The 2013 conference theme was “Breaking open the Word: a call to faith in action.” Megan McKenna's name is new to me notwithstanding she has an international reputation and has written many books: as the keynote speaker, she gave four discourses. Each lasted more than an hour, and she talked to us standing up and without notes – remarkable considering she is no Spring chicken, as I’m sure she wouldn’t mind my saying, and that she had just flown in from New Zealand. But the words "speak" and "talk" don't really fit Megan. She is above all a storyteller; and when she is not telling stories, she declaims – almost performs – the scriptures. (“What you read goes to your head, but what you hear goes to your heart,” she maintains.)
"Listen to me, you who pursue justice!" was the title of her first discourse, opening up Chapter 55 of Isaiah. This led into a study of “Today this scripture comes true” – the account of Jesus’ return to Nazareth in Chapter 4 of St Luke’s Gospel. Her other two talks centred round the Transfiguration and the story of the feeding of the 5,000 (or more likely the 25,000, as she believes). I can only echo the words of a review of her most recent book: Megan “has used her gifts of insight to help us take a fresh look at the role of the Gospels in contemporary church life. I found her observations very challenging.”
Megan McKenna aside, there was in addition a choice of 15 workshops. Pax Christi explored scripture for stories of security that don’t depend on war and violence. Progressio launched a quest for the Church’s role in assisting women in fragile states. Church Action on Poverty explained their work amongst parishes to highlight the unfair prices demanded of the worst off for daily essentials. CAFOD led a scriptural reflection on food and hunger. The Jesuit Refugee Service ran a workshop on asylum issues and Gospel values. Housing Justice outlined parish and diocesan action to assist those affected by benefit changes. The St Columban Missionaries looked at the impact of rising sea levels on (in particular) island communities… and there were more than 30 stalls of allied organisations in the exhibition hall.
There was also the chance to witness an exotic Eritrean Coffee Ceremony: this attracted much attention, not just for the delicious bread (almost cake-like), popcorn and gingery coffee. We were treated also to a stately dance, accompanied by deep drumming. Of the dozen or so gaily dressed Eritrean children, one clutched a Roses tin lid, his personal frisbee, and absolutely refused to yield it up. And in the Conference Hall afterwards, we were reminded that, if these good people are able to get any work in their home towns (Sheffield, Leeds etc.), it is at the most demeaning level – they do those jobs British-born people refuse.
During meals (the food was provided on LOAF principles), I found myself in many different conversations – with a grandfather looking after his 4-year-old grandson whose father was in prison; with a young lady recently recovered from nervous illness; with a senior Sister, working for justice via the internet; with a recent graduate, giving his time to answer the conference’s technological demands, and many more. It was also good to catch up with three of our Cheltenham Christian Ecology Link speakers from the past, Frank Regan, Ellen Teague and Tom Cullinan.
Next year’s conference runs from 18th-20th July: the theme is, “Called to life in all its fullness: accepting the implications of our baptism.” Try it!
Our onions (75) and garlic (35) are lying in the sun now, awaiting storage. Lifting them involved breaking into ground as hard as iron. You wouldn't think we were crying out to an end to the wet weather only a few months ago.
We drove to Kilcot on a garden visit this evening by the scenic route - Tirley, Hartpury, Kent's Green, Clifford's Mesne. It all looked very beautiful in the very warm late afternoon sunshine: you wouldn't want to rush. (Even on our way home much later, it was 22 degrees outside.)
We ate our picnic above Aston Ingham, just North of May Hill: our host at the nearby garden to which GOGG were invited had today received a load of wood from the trees being felled on its top. "What they should replace them with," he reflected, "is 100 wind turbines: it would become the most famous windfarm in the world."
Ken ran a successful garden centre business for many years: on selling it, like many in the same position, his emphasis switched from commerce to the environment. Besides making their own garden into a model of resilience, he and Ann, his wife, are powers behind Transition Newent. They are in the process of building an outside bread/pizza oven, intended to become a focus for weekly local community gatherings.
The pond is a bit small for a boat, but Ann recently made a coracle: it's covered with cowhide (and the cow's tail is preserved intact - like a bendy rudder).
Though he confessed to a sinful greenhouse full of non-organically grown tomatoes, Ken more than balances things out with his composting, coppicing and comfrey: there's water harvesting, a willow temple and a meditation garden (with suitably restrained colour pallet). The wildflower meadow contains 57 species to the square metre. Onions and potatoes are on a four-year rotation - "no dig" in the larger section of the vegetable garden.
The last, Ken shares with the lovely Clare, a biodiversity expert with Natural England: her house lies adjacent.
We forgot the excitement of the Lions' rugby triumph and Murray's Wimbledon, a week ago, in the fever surrounding the England win in the first Ashes test yesterday - a fever more concentrated because of the game's intense fluctuations over its five days. 11 o'clock came and went this morning with a distinct feeling of anti-climax, and still we have three days to wait before another round of cricketing battle with the old enemy commences.
Meanwhile, our blackbird has relocated her old nest: we moved it from by the back door into the store in our sunless area, and she is once more sitting on eggs. And Caroline is battling with the the currant glut, trusting to her painting stool, with its canvas much in need of replacing. "Do you suffer from the tyranny of fruit?" Tamara Talbot Rice was wont to ask.
Charles Russell were sponsoring the City of London Sinfonia's concert in Gloucester Cathedral last evening: we were invited to go along to represent them. So, we had seats on pole position, and even a free interval drink - though we had to scrummage for that.
The programme was all French. Poulenc's Organ Concerto and Gloria were both new to me: I preferred the latter, particularly in light of Elizabeth Watts' contribution. She also shone in the Fauré Requiem - and the combined choirs (nearly 150 strong) sounded terrific.
We emerged into the warm gloaming, with a crescent moon over College Green.
Perhaps Ida is a bit young for concert-going, but she seemed enthusiastic, so off we went this morning to the Parabola Arts Centre. Worbey and Farrell play piano four hands, with a camera to display their dexterity on a big screen above: when eventually they came on stage - a ten-minute delay must seem an age for a 5-year-old - they quickly showed how clever they are, and the wide range of styles they can deploy. The trouble was, the novelty soon wore thin, and I sensed a restlessness beside me. So we didn't stick it to the end of the 75 minutes.
Coming out into the bright sunlight that filled the Parabola's Gallery we bumped into Mary Paterson. Despite her years, she had, she told us, much enjoyed The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, performed the previous weekend, with illustrations. I wish we had been at that, rather than the rather too blokey "comedy piano duo".
The two Italian teenagers who have been here this last fortnight left this morning. Carlotta and Virginia couldn't complain about the weather, and indeed spent quite a bit of time sitting out in the garden - though apparently quite impervious to any attraction a garden might have in the way of plants (or vegetables for that matter). Curious to send students in a pair like that, to learn English, when they are clearly going to jabber away together in their own language. And when they weren't jabbering, they were Tweeting.
Ida is coming at the weekend, so Caroline has been rushing to finish a dress for her. The material was originally bought for a dress for Agnes! Useful to have a good supply of buttons, but decisions, decisions...
The Wednesday walkers this week convened at the Highwayman and walked Southwards through Winstone parish. We were too hot to go at any great pace, so it was quite a small loop; but it was interesting to compare the churches in Winstone and Duntisbourne Abbots. The former, shaded by a huge Cedar of Lebanon, feels loved and cherished, a candle burning on a North aisle window shelf: the latter lacks that sense of mystery, its churchyard grass mown to an inch of its life.
On our way we passed the house of friends, who invited us in to see their bitch's litter of six whippet/lurcher puppies, born on Sunday evening. Aaah!
We came to our house almost 18 years ago to the day. Soon after moving in, we had a load of chippings delivered, to spread on our parking area. Tomorrow a fresh load arrives, the remains of the original one having been scraped up today by Alan, the Ripple digger man. It needed a grandson or two to be here to enjoy the action.
Six months ago, almost to the day, Miles Wright, youngest of four brothers, died after a long battle with cancer. I knew him relatively slightly, despite us being almost exact university and school contemporaries. My time at Ampleforth also overlapped with that of older Wrights, David and Martin, now Fr. Ralph and Abbot Timothy. Finally, the eldest brother, Peter (Fr. Stephen) has always been a very good friend of all the Davis family.
The three surviving brothers celebrated Mass in memory of Miles yesterday, at the little church of SS Gregory and Augustine, Oxford. I was privileged to be one of only a couple of handfuls of friends and family invited along, and to lunch afterwards. It was good to catch up with the brethren.
Each gave the assembly a short spiel about what has made him tick in life: Stephen - just off to spend eight weeks with Ampleforth's daughter community in Zimbabwe - has for a long time involved himself closely in the charismatic movement. Ralph many years ago moved from Ampleforth to join its now long independent foundation in St Louis, Missouri: he is a much published poet and veteran pro life campaigner. And Timothy, just approaching the end of seven years in Rome, teaching at the Beda, has become an authority on Christian-Muslim relations, and shortly takes up a teaching post in a North American university.
Third Wright: forthright, his verdict on Rome given with a question: "What sort of Church is it that requires a newly appointed Cardinal to spend €5000 in order to get properly togged up?" Ecumenism? "The Ordinariate: a complete waste of time!" Other religions? "Yes Muslims and Christians can pray together, but not with Hindus and Buddhists."
Five years ago, I described a pretty perfect wedding that we went to in Eton College Chapel. One of the groom's sisters has since tied the knot beside the ocean in Kenya: yesterday, another of his sisters made it - rather late! - to the altar of St Andrew's Church in their home village near here. The sun shone. The church was full of flowers, music and under fives (and more than currently the usual quota of us old codgers). No cars were needed to take us to Manor Farm's Dutch Ground, where the sides of an enormous tent were hung with sarongs, and all our family (for a few moments anyway) were able to find themselves amongst old friends once more.
This warm and sunny morning, Thomas and I walked up through Pittville Park to the Pump Room - once again gloriously uncluttered by marquees: his musician Godmother (Imogen Cooper) had kindly left us tickets for her recital with mezzo Christianne Stotijn.
What a lovely programme! A testing trio of Schubert songs was followed by Benjamin Britten's Winter Words. After the interval, a delicious Schubert Imo-promptu, and then two further cycles: more Britten and Mussorgsky. Finally, the bonne bouche - a song by Tchaikovsky.
I enthused about La Stotijn last time she was with us here, accompanied by Julius Drake (was it really four years ago?): my enthusiasm has increased after today's peaches and cream performance, particularly seeing and hearing the rapport she has with Imogen.
We had planned a picnic in Imperial Gardens to go with our four tickets for the Swingle Singers this evening, but the tickets have gone in the bin. Our guests preferred a cosy stretched out supper in our sitting-room while we watched Murray struggle through his tennis semi-final: nail-biting stuff as always, as he bids to win the Wimbledon men's title. Singles, not Swingles therefore.
When the match was eventually done and dusted, some of us got in the car for the other half of the curious cultural double bill for which we had booked - Poulenc's one-act opera, La Voix Humaine. Arriving a little late, we squeezed in at the back of the Parabola: it then took a while to adjust from the brutal serve and return routine we'd been watching on TV, to a stage bedroom where we listened to one end of a 40-minute long telephone conversation, sung in French to a piano accompaniment.
With the telephone now more than ever the bane of our lives, this Poulenc (written 50+ years ago) seems oddly prescient.
On our way out, a little dazed, we passed through the exhibition of Noye's Fludde props (brought from Tewkesbury after last night), and were able to admire James Mayhew's beautiful designs at close quarters.
The Cheltenham Music Festival has come round once again. We took Mini and Leo to Tewkesbury this evening to see Britten's Noye's Fludde performed in a thronged Abbey. I haven't heard it before (and am not sure I shall rush to hear it again). 200 local children were involved: I hope they enjoyed it more than we did, standing against the wall of the North nave aisle. You couldn't see the action much - it took place mostly either behind a pillar or on the top deck of "the Ark" - built with high sides, for safety reasons obviously. The orchestra, together with the Carducci Quartet, were penned in behind a mesh curtain underneath.
But a lot of thought and work had clearly gone in to it: the result was all very colourful, the lighting changes were well managed, and it wasn't too long an evening - or wouldn't have been, but for the insertion at the beginning of five unexpected (by me) songs by contemporary Gloucestershire composers: unnecessary - and you couldn't hear the words.
I joined the Wednesday walkers once more today, after something of a gap. We met in the hotel car park at Birdlip, and walked out of the village past the cricket pavillion. The initials on its weathervane no doubt belong to one of the Birdlip Partridge family: some of them built the bungalow at the bottom of our garden, and once members of the family made up an entire cricket Eleven (so I read somewhere). Another possibility of course is that they refer to the celebrated wally Alan Gordon Partridge...
The walk criss-crossed a number of roads, but gave us a nice variety of scenery - a view over the Severn Vale to the Malvern Hills; a path through the majestic beeches of Witcombe Wood, before the flat bit at the end near Blacklains Farm. All new to me, I rather think.
I was disappointed not to say any orchids, even though we were on limestone grassland for some of the time. And come to think of it, not a single animal either.