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."