Wednesday, 30 July 2008


On our way to supper with friends on Sunday, we interrupted Pippa and Jeremy Jefferies on their mission - a walk via Pinswell to the Colesbourne Inn. They have the three books written by Australian author and illustrator Annette Macarthur-Onslow, they said, based on her time at the "round" house (well, it is half round - see photograph taken earlier this year) at Pinswell. This most idyllic of cottages stands by the fork in the track where the gospel was first preached in these parts - before the Norman church at Coberley was built. A few hundred yards distant, on higher ground, is the even more ancient Norbury Camp, the layout of which is clearly visible on Google Earth. (The photograph at the head of this post shows the track leading up towards Norbury from the Colesbourne direction, on Sunday evening.)

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Godfather Michael, R.I.P.

When I first went into partnership as a solicitor, it was with Michael Rawlinson and Harry Wiggin in 1974. Michael, his wife Anne and their two (then young) children Nicholas and Susan became firm friends. Michael was Leo's very fond Godfather: he never forgot a birthday.

While Harry and I moved on, Michael stayed at Wiggin and Co (it was always "and" then) until his retirement, 11 years ago. Latterly he was the firm's PSL, one of the first of that breed in this country, and one of the best: Michael ran a very tight ship in the legal information flotilla, and played an important part in securing for his firm its high reputation in a specialist field. (He would no doubt have been quick to draw attention to the mixed metaphor - not in any pedantic way, but illustrative of his deliciously dry and self-deprecating sense of humour.)

The cruelty was that no sooner had Michael retired than he contracted Parkinson's Disease, which with added complications immediately laid him low. Little of that travelling he had longed to do with Anne was possible, and none of the walking. Rather, his life became more and more an alert mind imprisoned within a bent body. Even a short while ago, when visiting him at our nearby Sue Ryder Home, he had books on mathematics and the Northern saints at his side. On a rare occasion he lost the thread during his conversation with me. "Please talk among yourselves," he said.

Anne looked after Michael at home lovingly, with only very occasional breaks when she went to see the children (now happily settled in Spain and America). She would ring me if this meant I could visit Michael in nearby respite care. She did this most recently last week. I noticed a change in him on Friday, but on Sunday he seemed more on the ball. Yesterday morning, when I called, he was sleeping in his chair, Radio 4 playing as usual. I sat with him for 15 minutes, watching his face change mood, a smile twice flickering across it as he dreamed. Poor man, I thought: he looks so well - surely this living death could continue a long while. Please let it not be so!

In the evening, Anne rang to say that Michael had died - suddenly and peacefully whilst being given his lunch. Thanks be to God, but equally - as Leo said - "How sad, as he was such a nice bloke."

Leo and Michael were photographed (top) in January 2004; and (below) after Leo's Confirmation in May 1992.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Chris the hedges

On arrival in Cheltenham in 1995, I planted two hedges, beech at the front and hornbeam at the back. They took well, and now the only problem is keeping them in trim. This is where Chris comes in. Once a year, usually on the hottest day, he arrives with his land rover and trailer and, in a whirl of machinery, transforms our two straggly rows into respectable town hedges. What's more, he takes away the bits.

That's the bare facts; but beyond them there are the chats over the coffee (the whole of life is here); Chris's deadpan humour; his pride in the progress of his twin sons - Mark, the tennis player, has come with him the last couple of years; and (this year) Ruby, the mad puppy. Chris is one of the nicest, most capable people I know, but also one of the most modest - oh, and chaotic.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Matthewman's - not this year

In Matthewman's sweet pea catalogue, you will find a bewilderingly long list of getting on for fifty varieties. Since seeing their stall at the Chelsea Flower Show, I have bought Matthewman's seeds and planted them in late Autumn as instructed; but last year's purchase - for some reason - remains in its wrapper. So in April, realising I had missed the boat, I bought some plants from our local florist/greengrocer, Robert Young: they have done brilliantly! The most delicate colours, and the longest, straightest stalks - some more than 18" - you could wish for.

Sweet peas are such a gift. You provide a simple structures (as for runner beans) and wind some string round it, then hey presto! They do the rest themselves. On the row, so long as you keep cutting - which you can do for ages - they look ethereal: in the hand in a bunch, they make a great bouquet: in a vase on the kitchen table, they are best of all, giving out their delicious scent. Their short life makes them all the more special. Whom the Gods love die young.

Saturday, 26 July 2008


Yesterday, after some of the heat of the day had abated, we drove the nine miles South to Painswick. The annual exhibition of the Gloucestershire Guild of Craftsmen - well worth a visit between now and 25th August - was opening that evening.

Having set off in time to meet our friends John and Sue Colquhoun for a walk beforehand, we aimed Westwards from Painswick into unfamiliar territory. Our path followed the Cotswold Way for a mile or so, then branched right down into a likely-looking, wooded valley, leading to what turned out to be the Washbrook. Soon we came across an unexceptional mill building, just like so many one comes across beside a stream - but look at this William and Mary doorway!

Walter Hawkins, a Bristol brewer, built Washbrook as a grist-mill, it seems. Successive owners milled cloth and then corn here for more than two hundred years. Hawkins' coat of arms, flanked by more swags, surmount another doorway on the same frontage, with an oval window above.

What extraordinarily rich carving to find in the middle of nowhere! (What an encouragement to go places on foot!)

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Is the Pope green?

Leo Hickman raised this question last weekend, in the Guardian. It followed Pope Benedict's words in Australia: gazing out of the window on his flight there, he had, he said, been filled with introspection about the plight of the environment.

Benedict is getting something of a reputation as a green Pope. Solar panels have appeared on Vatican buildings, and the Apostolic Penitentiary numbers ecological offences amongst new forms of social sin.

Moreover, Vatican City boasts it is the only sovereign state to have zero carbon dioxide emissions - thanks to the Vatican Climate Forest in Hungary. But, as a theologian from Louvain University points out, where is the justice in this "indulgence-type" method of offsetting one's carbon footprint?

As expected, Hickman's crunch point is to home in on the population consequences of the Church's opposition to contraception - much the same as I reported Jonathon Porritt had concluded in a blog I posted last month.

The Vatican hosts, amongst very many other organisations, a Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerants, headed up by a Cardinal. Travel lightly, it urges: use public transport, carry less luggage and do everything you can to make your holiday environmentally friendly. But what about Vatican Airlines, launched last year to ferry pilgroms back and forth to the world's shrines? Given that a pilgrimage is a metaphor for life's journey, shouldn't we be thinking more in terms of making virtual pilgrimage these days?

Those who may have been gazing down from the two planes in my photograph could also have been "filled with introspection," but it is only we who gaze upwards that see the damaging vapour trails.

Slow Sunday

These days, the Fourth Commandment isn't one we seem to worry too much about breaking. Of a Sunday morning, the temples of commerce are many times fuller than the temples of worship, are they not?

So, wellcome to Resurgence's Slow Sunday idea! The first is this coming Sunday 27th: we are urged to make bread - and even provided with a recipé. As Satish Kumar says, only 4% of bread is baked in local bakeries: "Lorries full of factory bread," he writes, "rush up and down the country on our motorways, polluting the air so that they can provide the nation with cheap bread. But we have paid a very high price for this cheap bread in CO2 emissions and climate change. This mass-produced bread is stale and sterile."

(I spotted these delicious-looking rolls - they were baked locally - in the window of Barber & Manuel's, Leominster: we visited it earlier in the month.)

Tuesday, 22 July 2008


Paris, Barcelona and now... Cheltenham! As I anticipated last month, the University's new cycle hire scheme has been extended throughout Cheltenham as a whole. It's England's first town centre scheme.

Any of 30 bikes can be commandeered at any of nine docking stations - like this one in Montpellier.

And it's free for the first half hour, so you can for instance jump on at the Station and leave your yellow cycle in the Town Centre. If you want one for the day, it's £8 - quite a bit less than the cost of two gallons of petrol. There has been no great rush for them yet - the procedure needs simplifying - but it is early days, and the recession has hardly begun to take hold.

As Cheltenham's terrain is basically pretty flat - compared to somewhere like Sheffield or Bristol - and we are all having to extend our mortgages each time we fill up our fuel tanks, it should succeed.

Monday, 21 July 2008

An die musik

Flouting Pittville Park Regulations (al fresco drinking is proscribed) after the final Pump Room morning concert last Saturday, we threw a Schubert impromptu Kir Boot party.

There could be more such jollity at the Cheltenham Music Festival: I gather there is at festivals such as Buxton and even the dear old Three Choirs. It might help to swell our audiences, which - judging from the dozen events I attended - were poor this year considering the quality of the performance: a very thin house in the Town Hall, for instance, for the sublime Sarah Connolly. And the Town Hall was not exactly jam-packed - as it should have been - for Taraf de Haidouks on Saturday night. (It was good to see our MP Martin Horwood there and his two young children, sitting on the floor tapping their feet.)

The modest turnout can't just be the recession. Where - at the classical music concerts - is the dark- and fair- (as opposed to the white-, the grey- and the no-)haired generation, which throngs the Albert Hall during the Proms season? Is it just Cheltenham, or is it the way we promote the Festival - with rather expensive seats?

Some Festivals ago, the Summerfield Trust gave a grant to enable best Town Hall seats to go to quite a number of children from local schools for a performance (Richard Hickox conducting) ending up with a long Rachmaninov symphony: I recall a gloriously noisy reception in the Drawing-room. It was not an unqualified success - the children had been insufficiently prepared, and it wasn’t the right piece to submit them to. However the principle is right: make them kings/queens for the day, and let the usual audience have a back seat.

Had the marketing for Sarah Connolly been different, with 300 tickets at £5, we could have had a full house, and more income overall at the box office. Our Cheltenham Festivals have become too institutionalized - too much rigid thinking about marketing and sponsorship; and too much visual emphasis on the catering facilities, fine tea-tasting etc. OK, we can't do it without sponsorship, but does the front cover of the Festival programme brochure have to be so dominated by their names? Where does it tell us anything at all about THE MUSIC we are hearing? Isn't music what this Festival is supposed to be about?

Robin Kindersley reflected that, apart from the Connolly evening, every concert he attended contained work by Schubert, and Schubert's music was indeed the central joy of this year's Festival. However, you wouldn't know this from reading Festival Director Meurig Bowen's curious introduction to the brochure - not a mention of Franz Schubert there in his 650-odd words!

In particular - on the three last days - we had performances of the three great Schubert song cycles, with superlative singing by Allan Clayton, Florian Boesch and (an unrecognisable) Mark Padmore, as well as playing by the accompanists Paul Lewis and Roger Vignoles. My neighbour on Saturday for Winterreise had been present at the very first Cheltenham Festival over 60 years ago (and most since), but couldn't recall such fine musicianship. Even for these three events there were some empty seats: Cheltenham's Schubertiad deserved better publicity - and international acclaim.

[I have blogged already on the Festival - here, here and here, in case you are interested.]

Maggie's Cotswold Farm

Maggie's seems to be the charity flavour of the month: hardly surprising, with its cancer caring centres being such a very attractive idea - which could benefit any of us. Next year, the Cheltenham centre, designed by Sir Richard MacCormac, is scheduled to open, and yesterday Iona Birchall kindly let hundreds into her beautiful garden to picnic in aid of its running costs.

As Colin Russell was one of the organizers, there was traditional jazz, live during the afternoon, and an ice cream stall. The sun mainly shone, but there was the inevitable rush for umbrellas at one moment. Cotswold Farm is set in an almost unspoilt stretch of countryside, North of Cirencester, with views towards the Wiltshire Downs, its flower gardens tumbling down into a secret valley. There is a huge and productive kitchen garden too: we bought lettuces.

(More photographs here)

Sunday, 20 July 2008

20th meeting of the book group

A week ago, my book group met in Wells. A long way to go for a book discussion? We are six in number, and one of us has defected from Gloucestershire to Somerset. So we were invited to catch up with him at his new house, near the centre of Wells.

I had been there on weekends when my parents came to visit me at All Hallows; so my last acquaintance with Wells was 52 years ago. I hardly remembered it at all. Simon led us around the Cathedral and precincts: a magical tour, ending in an old prebendary's house, called - why? - The Rib, with the most mysteriously beautiful mediaeval interior.

The book for discussion? Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian. The score? Two of us liked it, two didn't. I didn't (much). 300-odd pages with no dialogue: an impressive attempt at historical reconstruction, but a bit charmless I thought. More interesting as an insight into the author, than the subject.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Fit to print

"I have some good news for Caroline," the telephone voice said; so I passed it over to her. "The Cheltenham Arts Council are giving you an award as an individual who has made a special contribution to the arts in Cheltenham over the years," the voice told her.

Hooray! Caroline's latest achievement has been wading through a sea of bureaucracy to help establish The Gardens Gallery, which greatly enhances the experience of a trip to Montpellier, as many are finding.

Other family news: Edmund is in Cork, sailing. Leo and Mini have been busy furnishing his flat. Thomas is off in a few weeks' time to Lisbon, to live there for a while (if you have any Portuguese contacts, do email him). Agnes has two or three weeks' house-sitting lined up shortly, and is open to further similar offers. Ida has four teeth, which make themselves felt, and are easily visible as she hardly ever stops smiling. Rosie has lost her Winter coat (and is twice the dog for it). And we still await a buyer for our house, but meanwhile enjoy, if not the sun. then the Summer garden smells: lavender, pelargonium, dianthus, jasmine, roses, tobacco plants, sweet peas and night-scented stock. Still no datura flowers though.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Marc-André Hamelin

This French-Canadian pianist came again to Cheltenham last week: for me and for many I've talked to, his recital has been the highlight of our Music Festival so far - as I was reminded when listening to the recorded broadcast on Radio 3. You can Listen Again to this till next Tuesday morning: go to this page. The slow movement of the Haydn F major sonata is still running through my head. My friend Jeremy Tyndall, whose views I respect, was sitting next to me: at the end, "The first movement of the Schubert," said he, "was far too slow - too much about architecture." I disagreed. Judge for yourself!

With such musical excellence, it's peevish to complain. But if you know me, you will not be surprised that I do, on two aesthetic counts. First, I loathe the Stygian gloom into which the Pittville Pump Room is plunged by the curtains being drawn. This problem seemed to have been cracked last year. There are volunteer helpers around: if there is a potential risk that people will walk past the windows during the performance, then why not post someone outside to redirect them? The interior of Cheltenham's most beautiful building looks so much better in daylight.

Secondly, the size of the catering marquee grows like Topsy. The picture I posted with my blog last week was taken at last year's Festival. At least then one could see some of the front of the Pump Room from Pittville Park, but this year it is impossible to walk into the Park during a concert interval without going through a tented city - which (with its ill-matched hoardings) completely dominates the view when walking up from the town centre. What a shame! I thought this was supposed to be a Festival of Music, not another Festival of Food & Drink.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Widdershins zoo

Having returned from The Marches, we went the other way to North Oxfordshire for Friday night with our kind friends the Lloyds. This meant driving past the Chipperfield menagerie, where of course I couldn't resist a dialogue with something even taller than myself.

Jeremy, Caroline and I had a dampish walk along the Cotswold escarpment below Long Compton, a pretty village, which I remember driving through each weekend on my way back and forward to London, when staying with my parents at Arrow. Somehow, it has survived those years of heavy traffic. Long-term residents no doubt still breathe a sigh of relief. The trouble is, there surely can't be by-passes for every such village, can there?

More photographs here if you have the energy.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

"Is modern music murder?"

I've only just caught up with Joe Queenan's provocative article with this title. Listening to Peter Maxwell-Davies's new piano quartet on Sunday morning at the Pittville Pump Room, my thoughts went along similar lines: I hadn't read any programme notes, so heard it with an innocent ear. For one reviewer it "commanded total attention over its 24-minute span." I was talking to her in the interval, and - coward that I am - declined to air my view then: for this listener the 24 minutes could not come to an end soon enough. But at the outset of this Primrose Piano Quartet concert, I did much enjoy their performance of the Dohnányi String Serenade.

It was rather the same story on late Thursday night at the Town Hall Tickell & Bhamra session: spnm put it on to explore the possibilities of combining Indian and British folk traditions. The motley quintet (Northumbrian pipes, sitar, tabla, melodeon and fiddle) came with eight works - four written out by spnm composers, four composed by the players themselves: the performances of the latter - sometimes verging on a jam session - won hands down. I was describing the programme to someone at a later concert: evoking Goering he murmured, "When I hear the words spnm, I head for the exit."

Nobody was doing this on Friday morning, when the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (in their second Cheltenham Festival appearance) were performing unaccompanied music from their folksong treasury. An astonishing sound! And free wine afterwards.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Marches past

Caroline and I had a happy fortnight's holiday in the Marches. We spent four nights in a bed and breakfast by the River Wye, in West Herefordshire: Winforton Court - thoroughly to be recommended. After that, we moved into one of the National Trust's holiday cottages on the Croft Castle Estate in the North of Herefordshire, for six nights. From there, we drove, via Hereford, to stay a night with our good friends Marius and Clare Gray in Kentchurch, in the South-West corner of the county. Finally, we spent last weekend in a mews cottage right in the centre of the small town of Presteigne, just over the border into what was Radnorshire.

Means of transport (this was supposed to be a low-carbon holiday!): OK, so we did drive 466 miles; but taking our bikes on the back of the car: we had three days' cycling round the villages - no punctures and not too many hills; and we had a number of longish walks - along Hergest Ridge above Kington and in the woods at Croft.

Sunshine? The swimming trunks I took for all those refreshing dips in cool river pools came back unworn. It seemed to rain most days, but never for too long that we were in danger of losing our sense of humour. The worst moment was listening to the actor playing Richard III say "All the clouds that lour'd about our house" were "in the deep bosom of the ocean buried" whilst sitting on a plastic chair in a pool of water.

Food: we liked all the pubs we visited for lunches (and some suppers) out - and the little Hat Shop Restaurant in Presteigne. There was much emphasis placed everywhere on local produce. It's not quite the same as being in France of course, but the food was just as tasty - and probably cheaper.

Best bits: the landscapes; the villages; churches, and their embellishments; little things that catch the eye; the architecture; the gardens; the trees; the windows and doorways; the friendly natives; the history - including lots of Davis family history, inevitably (boring for poor Caroline) - and being an hour's drive from the nearest dual carriageway.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Mad north-north-west

I shall try to put together a bit about our fortnight away later (by popular request!). Meanwhile, one memorable event last week was Shakespeare's Richard III in the ruins of Ludlow Castle. With strong performances from the three tragic queens (bringing to mind Macbeth's witches in this production), I was struck by the way the play both contrasts and overlays the mad with the bad.

But for me the holiday's most searing experience was to visit (earlier that same day) a former work colleague. Not much my senior in age, he has for the past year been confined to a home for elderly people with dementia. Once the childlike excitement in his voice subsided, he might have been the man across whose elegant office desk we used to sit and chat. When I told him we were staying near a big house locally, “We used to go to dances there,” he recalled. I brought along some rather ritzy wafer chocolates, Ludlow's best. “Like After Eights,” he said, as he struggled to open the bag. Eventually, I did it for him; and he then proceeded to scoff the lot within the space of five minutes. Death by chocolate would be a merciful release, I thought.

Thirty-nine years ago, I was present in the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the première of Peter Maxwell-Davies's Eight songs for a mad king. It was a novel sort of occasion: members of the Pierrot Players sat in cages on the stage, with a frenetic Roy Hart as the deranged King George - as mad, but not as bad as his predecessor Richard also III - leaping around them, and eventually seizing and stamping upon a player's violin. At the end, the composer Max, looking for all the world like a schoolboy, jumped up onto the stage to storms of applause.

Was it all a con, I wondered, this blend of foxtrots, gavottes, didgeridoo, birdsong imitations and the rest? Now the work has the status of a classic. Even a wine is named after it! And its creator is Sir Max and revered as Master of the Queen's Music.

This afternoon, in the Pittville Pump Room, Max discussed his piece with conductor Charles Hazlewood as part of our Music Festival, before its performance by Psappha - one which (in the light of last week's experiences) made excellent sense, in its commemoration of extreme madness with extreme music.