Saturday, 31 May 2008

Cleaning the stables

This photograph may not at first seem to relate that closely to the title of this blog (and the FT blog to which it's linked). Patience.

That was forwarded to me by Tony Weston, a university friend who lives in Prague: he keeps a close eye on the international scene, including what's going on in the UK. I don't often rush for the FT myself, but the article seemed to me worth sharing more widely. I enjoyed the Responses too, and was struck by Esther Phillips' comment: I am tempted to conclude that people with “common sense” don’t go into politics and hence there can be no “common sense” found amongst politicians. It was this realisation thirty years ago that pushed me towards joining what was then quite a new political party, the Ecology Party. There I met Jonathon Porritt, who - unlike me - is still a member of what is now the Green Party. In spite of his high profile in affairs environmental over the whole of the intervening period, Jonathon has never gone into mainstream party politics - having, as Esther Phillips would say, far too much common sense.

Five years ago yesterday, Caroline planned a major surprise dinner for my 60th birthday at Stanway Tithe Barn, and was cross with Jonathon's wife Sarah for spilling the beans - inadvertently. On that occasion, another university friend, Colin Russell made an embarrassingly elaborate speech in my favour. This year, for my 65th birthday (and to mark my retirement), she planned another, smaller dinner, which was a complete surprise - only revealed at teatime (when this photograph was taken). Though two of the special guests - Edmund and Claire - had to cry off at the last moment, Leo and Mini came, and also the Porritts and the Russells. On a warm, sunny evening, we sat in the garden drinking champagne (provided by Colin and Jessica), before going indoors for a delicious dinner with excellent conversation: exactly how a birthday should conclude!

Hello, I Must Be Going

This is the view (looking across Suffolk Square) from Compass House, Lypiatt Road, Cheltenham GL50 2QJ, where I've worked as a partner - and more recently a consultant solicitor - for the past several years. I've now said farewell to Charles Russell LLP having yesterday attained the magic age of 65.

We dress down on Fridays, so I went to work for my last day in brown shoes, cords and a casual shirt. Some contrast with when I started as an articled clerk at Clifford-Turner 42 years ago! Then I arrived at 11 Old Jewry, London E.C.2 - no postal codes in those days - in shiny black shoes, grey socks, grey three-piece suit, white shirt with separate stiff collar and (probably old school or college or Law Society) tie, with umbrella and bowler hat. Photocopying had just emerged from the era when it resembled a school science lab experiment. The calculator didn't exist, though there was a toaster-sized apparatus with levers and a handle which I toyed with for the purpose of making apportionments, but never really understood. Pairs of women sat in small rooms one reading out an amended draft and the other checking it against the engrossment.

By good fortune my principal was Bobby Furber, a man of considerable culture, heavily involved with the British Film Institute. He took the trouble to recommend to me Janet Baker's Saga recordings: they cost the equivalent of 62p each, which even on an annual salary of £450 I seemed to be able to afford. I sat in on meetings with the likes of Yehudi Menuhin, Charles Mackerras and a very young Daniel Barenboim. During my lunch hours, clutching luncheon vouchers worth the equivalent of 15p, I bought a sandwich and went to City Music Society concerts at the Bishopsgate Institute. There were no time sheets to fill in. I confessed once to a more senior articled clerk that I had taken slightly longer than an hour for lunch because the concert overran. Oh I shouldn't worry, he said: I saw War & Peace in my lunch hour the other day.

I was one of an intake of six articled clerks at Clifford-Turner, then one of the largest firms in the City of London. As with all firms, the number of partners was limited by law to 20. According to its website, that firm's present day incarnation, Clifford Chance, now employs "about 6,700 people".

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Chipping in

When we arrived here at our "new" home in July 1995, it didn't take long for the first hidden defect to reveal itself. As I lifted one of the sash windows in the dining-room, the bottom bar gave way and a large sheet of plate glass crashed downwards: had my head been a few inches further forward, I would have known what it felt like to be guillotined. We turned for help to our neighbour across the road, Tom Holding, having heard that he ran a building firm, and the next day the diminutive Barry arrived carrying a bag of tools. This charming Irishman fixed up a new sash bar (and glass pane) in what seemed like next to no time.

We now hope we are on the way out of this house, but the other day nearly the same thing happened as I was opening the bathroom sash window. Help! I cried to Tom. I'll send someone, he replied; and lo and behold, early yesterday morning, along came Barry with his bag of tools. Now 73, he still does his most skilful stuff, lamenting how much the present generation of carpenters depends on expensive power tools which take 45 minutes to unload from the van in the morning.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Driving off into the sunset

When my dear friend and work colleague Christopher Page asked whether I'd like a retirement party, I said yes, provided I didn't have to make a speech. Well, the party was last night, and a very good one too, but I was not to get off so lightly. I had prepared (and delivered - in response to all sorts of embarrassing reminiscences Christopher came up with in his speech in my favour) a "non-speech": this morning of course I can think clearly of all the witty things I might have said.

I had parcelled up presents for Christopher (who is about to be 50) and for Lisa, my wonderful secretary, and had them in a Tesco's bag. When we arrived at Christopher and Celia's house their son Leo pointed us to a parking spot near the (rather full) skip. I rested the bag on top of the skip for one moment whilst I helped Agnes with her baby carrier, when before you could say Synecdoche there was Agnes unwrapping one of the presents, thinking she had found something worth scavenging from the skip. Eek, I cried (just in time).

And coming away, we did indeed drive into the sunset, and (for a few minutes anyway) a beautiful red sky.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Concert at St Gregory's, Cheltenham

Sussex Voiceworks performed in my church yesterday afternoon - a varied (and interesting) programme including Bob Chilcott's Little Jazz Mass and excerpts from Karl Jenkins' disturbing millennial work, The Armed Man.

I thought the best part of the event was hearing in St Gregory's - as a building, pretty much a bastion of pre-Vatican Catholicism - music of another, close-to-home ("sorella chiesa" in the words of Paul VI in 1966) Christian tradition, all composed in the 150 years since our beautiful church was built, and indicating an aesthetic vibrancy in Anglicanism that we are almost entirely lacking in our happy-clappy-if-anything Catholic church. Sitting with my Anglican wife, I was grateful for this introduction to a way of approaching God via some (to me) unfamiliar routes.

It was good too to hear the music of two Gloucestershire-born composers, Gurney and Vaughan Williams. And to see that another - Howard Goodall - had a new work premiered at last week's Chipping Campden festival.

Finally, what a great acoustic St Greg's has!

Sunday, 25 May 2008

A birthday of surprises

Caroline loves surprises, so we gave her plenty yesterday, her birthday. It was a beautiful day, and we covered quite a few miles between our different "events" - the Cotswold lanes, bordered by cow parsley, running between fields filled with lambs. The may seems to bloom this year as never before. (There are more photographs available via the weblink alongside this post.)

Friday, 23 May 2008

A bit of LEJOG

Today, I took my bike on the train so as to join my friends Martin and Peter (and friends of theirs), who are in the process of cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats - they have a blog too. When I came alongside them near Slimbridge after lunch, they had already biked more than 40 miles. (I am now exhausted after a mere 20 or so miles!) They have another fortnight to go. And compared to the hills of Somerset, where they had started early this morning, I had an easy bit - up the Severn valley, and on through Gloucester. While I peeled off to come home and sink into a hot bath, they slogged up the A38. What particularly puzzled me - it must be a sign that I am ready to put my feet up - is that, so far from rejoicing at living life in the Slow Lane for three weeks, Martin confessed it was all a frantic business getting to the right place at the right time. What a mad way to celebrate being 65! Don't they know they are now eligible for a free bus pass, for use anywhere in England? OK, it wouldn't take you as far as John O'Groats. No, really I'm exhilarated to have been able to tap in, and admire hugely their cojones.
Whilst waiting to meet up, I saw lightening in the distance, but managed to avoid any of the sharp showers that were around: in fact, discounting the slight head wind, it was perfect weather for cycling. Going through Gloucester these days is heaven on a bike: the City had a cycling Mayor for some years: he encouraged the estimable Sustrans in their Route 41 planning, and the mediaeval lanes round the Cathedral are ideal for avoiding car traffic. We stopped to look at Llanthony Secunda Priory, and rode through the docks: that whole area is so much more attractive now than it was 20 years ago. The outside of the Cathedral is looking magnificent - in the places where the restoration has gone ahead. And we can recommend the teashop in the basement of the old Deanery (see picture - it's where Caroline's Great-grandmother grew up: her father the Dean kept chickens in the Cloisters, according to Tamara Talbot-Rice).

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Our garden - forget the Chelsea Flower Show

My cousin Bruce wrote recently from New Brunswick about the serious flooding near where they live. "Many streets in the city of Fredericton have turned into canals and families and animals down stream have been evacuated. One farmer had to move 140 milking cows by barge." Here, we have been spared any torrential rain so far. Indeed, it's been dry apart from some rain at the weekend, which has helped our potatoes, beans and sweet peas to put on growth - the photograph was taken early this morning. We are eating our leeks, spinach and rhubarb; and the roses are beginning to look good. Caroline's yellow tree peony has been magnificent this year. We are praying there will be no late frosts, as our bedding plants have mostly gone out now (for the benefit of those being brought round by our selling agents!).

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

When I retire

At the end of next week I retire, after forty years as a solicitor. In preparation for this we put the house on the market in January, but that - for the moment - is where it rests. Not a good time to be selling a house! But it's a good house, and especially now it's Summertime, we are enjoying being here. The bore is having it looking spick and span all the time for when people come and look round.

If and when we do find a buyer, the plan is to have a Gap Year - renting a house in the South-West of France, the Gers. (This photograph of Gersois landscape was taken near La Romieu on 2nd October 2006.)

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

we CAN

The CAN in "we CAN" stands for Climate Action Now. It was started by a group of mothers and young people who are gravely concerned about the government’s failure to take decisive action on climate change. Many have not taken political action before. Climate Action Now is what they’re calling for. They want the government to know that it has a mandate to tackle the problem. And to this end they are at this moment holding a protest vigil outside the House of Commons calling for a halt to airport expansion and immediate and real Climate Action Now.

"What will we tell our children when they ask us what we did when the scale of the problem facing the world became apparent?" they ask.

Here is a photograph of our granddaughter, Ida Frances, aged nearly seven months, taken on Sunday: it is a grim world she will grow up into if action is not taken soon.

The Sixteen: Motet by John Sheppard

The Sixteen singing the 6-part "Verbum caro factum est" by this Tudor composer, Harry Christophers conducting

The Takacs playing Brahms' op. 51 no I

(This is the final movement: the sound is better than the pictures!)

Monday, 19 May 2008

4 & 16

Two contrasting but equally memorable concerts on consecutive nights! What luck! On Sunday, we went to our Pittville Pump Room for what had been billed as the final concert in the Cheltenham Music Society 's season. The Takacs Quartet seem like old friends, but we always feel enormously privileged to have them back: they played the first and last of Brahms' quartets, which they are recording this week: see the YouTube video I have posted for an earlier recording of part of the first. But I would find it hard to listen to an all-Brahms recital, and the jewel of the evening for me was the Takacs playing Haydn's op. 74 no. 3, The Rider. The final movement in particular was sublime.

Then, this evening we were at Chipping Campden (at the kind invitation of our good friends Eric and Carmen Reynal) to hear The Sixteen in pieces by Monteverdi and Hans Werner Henze, mixed with poetry - recited by their conductor (and founder) Harry Christophers and his wife. The magical setting of Campden church and the entirely white middle class audience contrasted starkly with the pain of Edward Bond's text for Henze's Orpheus Behind the Wire and the poems of Denise Levertov. This was an extrardinarily cohesive and compelling programme, performed by a phenomenal group.

Leo at 31

We have entered the birthday season. Leo was 31 yesterday: he and Mini asked Agnes, Ida, Caroline and me to a celebratory breakfast in their smart, modern, central-Cheltenham pad - which didn't feel at all too cramped for the six of us. We were joined via the Skype camera by Mini's parents, just before their bedtime in Japan. Two countries united by a single tune: her father played "Happy Birthday" on his mouth organ and her mother sang the words - in Japanese.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Michael Braungart video

This is part of an address he gave to the 'Cradle to Cradle' conference in Maastricht.

William McDonough video

Architect and designer William McDonough asks what our buildings and products would look like if designers took into account "all children, all species, for all time." A proponent of absolute sustainability, he explains his philosophy of "cradle to cradle" design, which bridges the needs of ecology and economics. He also talks about some of his work, including the world's largest green roof (at the Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan), and the entire sustainable cities he's designing in China.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Cradle to cradle

One modern usage I find more annoying than most is "Tell me about it". Which of course means, "Don't tell me about it: I already know". But most of our insights come from being willing to rearrange what we already know; and two talks I have been privileged to hear in the past week or so illustrate this for me.

On Friday night, Caroline and I joined the serried mass of commuters driving home to Bristol from Cheltenham/Gloucester along the M5: thank God I don't have that journey every day! Bristol was the venue for a local RSA meeting at which German chemist Michael Braungart - co-author of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things - was the main speaker. And very inspiring his 'beyond sustainability' message was.

It's one that we all know makes fundamental sense, but that we easily lose sight of. Man can live with nature instead of off nature. Nature and commerce can coexist. It's not a question of growth or no growth, but what do we want to grow? And how do we eliminate the concept of waste? YouTube has part of an earlier address by Michael, and one by his American co-author, William McDonough: I recommend them both.

A week ago, at the Clifton Diocese Justice & Peace Commission's Day of Reflection at Woodchester, Frank Regan gave us this familiar text as what he called a Gospel echo: "I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full" (St John, chapter 10, verse 10). Faith is not so much "belief in God", but "knowing him through his energies, and knowing ourselves to be loved by God". And we need to share that love with others, this love underpinning our mission to be stewards of the planet; our quest for peace, our concerns for the poor and our struggles on behalf of those lacking basic human rights. (Frank, born and raised in the Bronx, speaks from a background of 22 years as a chaplain with the Young Christian Workers helping form trade union organisations in Peru.) At this crucial juncture, he asks, which path will we choose? We do not need a church which has the answers. We need a church which raises the questions for a full humanity that we are still constructing.

And the photograph? Taken a year ago at Charleston Farmhouse, Sussex: not on the way out, but looking in and towards the future!

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Getting the pitch of the hall

Normally, at 9 o'clock on a May evening, I would be in the garden - here it is on 11th May last year - and indeed that is where I was this time yesterday. But the weather has changed. Back into Winter gear, I almost feel tempted to turn the heating on again. Amazing there was any play at Lord's in the First Test. Not that I could follow it much today, as I've been busy at work. Only seven more days at the office till I retire: only four more days wearing a suit. (We "dress down" on Fridays. Oh, I forgot: I have to dress "up" tomorrow: a legal colleague, Hugh Jessop has died: I must go to the Cheltenham College Chapel to pay my last respects at his memorial service.)