Sunday, 31 August 2008

The Bull

This oil painting by an unknown artist hangs in my sister Sarah Davis’s house, in Kingsclere, Hampshire: Caroline, Agnes, Ida and I had lunch with her in the garden there on a warm and sunny Friday: we took The Bull outside too, to be photographed - not easy, because the oil paint is shiny.

The painting was restored by Pippa Jeffries in 2004, at which time its handsome gilt frame was mended also. On the front of the picture are the words 1st prize 15L [fifteen pounds sterling] & silver medal to the breeder, Birmingham 1865. On the back is written P. Davis, Bickmarsh.

Little is known about the Davis family’s origins. Peter was born in 1812 at Dean Park, just outside Burford in the very South of Shropshire - just North of Tenbury Wells, which is in Worcestershire. He was the son of a farmer, Samuel Davis, and of his wife Elizabeth née Reynolds. The 1851 census records the village of his birth, but the Burford Parish registers do not list his baptism.

Peter had two elder brothers: William (born 1805) carried on farming at Dean Park on his father's death, as did his son (another Peter) after him – until he lost his money, having invested it in South American silver mining shares. Our Buckinghamshire cousin Mike Davis is that Peter's grandson.

The second brother, Samuel, baptized at Burford on 2nd January 1910, went up to Cambridge University. Following ordination, he lived most of his life in Devon, as Vicar of Burrington. He was said to be of simple, sweet disposition and fine presence, much revered in the neighbourhood. He married three times having met all his wives on the same day (the second being the sister of the author of Lorna Doone, R.D. Blackmore).

The brothers had two sisters, Carolina, who died young, and Eliza, who married twice: she had four children, but I have no knowledge of any living descendants.

On 8th June 1835, Peter set out on a journey from his home, “Park” - to Edinburgh. The round trip lasted till 22nd June. I have a copy of his diary of this journey, transcribed by his granddaughter Edith Howard Freer in 1898. [Later: now published!]

At the time of his father's death in 1837, Peter was living at Burford Rectory. By 7th June 1841, the date of that year's Census, he had moved to The Lodge, Broncroft Farm, Diddlebury, where he was head of the household, aged 29, a farmer, and living with his sister Eliza (then Mrs Trumper - but widowed), two female servants and two agricultural labourers.

In 1842, Peter, or possibly someone else in his family, won the Tredegar prize for the best two-year-old Hereford heifer. The prize, in the form of a silver cup, was passed down to my father, and is now in Sarah's ownership along with The Bull portrait.

On 30th January 1845, Peter (then 34) was married by licence to a girl from a well-established local family, 14 years his junior. Jane Jeffries' and Peter's wedding took place at Pembridge Church, Herefordshire, Peter being described as a Gentleman, a bachelor living at Milton in Pembridge parish. It is strange that all the witnesses to the marriage seem to be from the bride’s extended family. Milton was a farm of about 600 acres, Peter Davis being the tenant.

On 21st November 1845, Jane gave birth to the first of her ten children, a son John Jeffries Davis. 21 months later, a daughter, Gertrude Louisa was born. Laura Jane Meredith Davis (Meredith was Jane Davis’s mother’s maiden name) was born on 15th March 1850. After this, the family moved from Milton Farm, as in the 1851 census they are shown as living at Bromfield, in South Shropshire, near the Herefordshire border. In Bagshaw’s 1851 Directory of Shropshire, Peter's address is King’s Head Farm, which is on the West of the village.

In 1852, my great-grandfather Arthur Henry was born in Bromfield: in 1855, Agnes (known as Lil) arrived, and then Georgina Reynolds ("Reynolds" after her paternal grandmother), known as Ina, was born in 1857. Eliza Augusta was born in 1858, and Constance Alathea (Alathea being a name found amongst members of the Cheese family, from which the Jeffries were descended) on 25th March 1860.

At Michaelmas 1860, Peter took over as tenant of the Bickmarsh Hall estate, Warwickshire, some 45 miles South-East of Bromfield. Why he went so far out of his country is a mystery: perhaps he couldn't find a big enough farm to suit his ambitions anywhere nearer to home. In the 1861 census, he is said to be a farmer of 1,270 acres at Bickmarsh, employing 29 men and five boys. Also living with the family were a house servant and a shepherd.

Another daughter, Flora May ("Floo") was born on 5th May 1862, and baptized with her elder sister Constance Alathea at Bickmarsh on 13th January 1863. Floo and her husband took off for Australia after their marriage - as did a descendant of Constance Alathea, but not till the 1950s: between them we know of nearly 200 altogether, about ten times those of my great-grandfather. (The only other descendants of Peter we know of are via John Jeffries Davis - nearing 100, including Bruce Coates from New Brunswick, and his family.)

There was an annual cattle show at Bingley Hall, Birmingham, very near to where Symphony Hall now stands. The catalogue for the 1865 exhibition (2nd – 7th December) confirms that Peter Davis of Bickmarsh was the winning breeder in the Fat Cattle class for Hereford Oxen or Steers exceeding three years and three months old. The Bull was then three years and eleven months, and had been fed on hay, grass, barley and bean meal, oil cakes, swedes and mangolds.

A William Aldworth, of Frilford, Abingdon, had exhibited The Bull, so the catalogue said. From the 1861/71 Censuses, it appears Mr Aldworth was born about 1809, and owned and farmed 550 acres at Frilford – with a staff of 47! The church in the background of the picture is the parish church of Abingdon. Round Hill (121 metres), one of the Wittenham Clumps, is in the background.

Alice Marian Davis, the youngest child born to Jane, arrived on 8th March 1866, and was baptized at Bickmarsh on 8th April that year.

Peter Davis died at Bickmarsh on 3rd October 1873, aged 62, and was buried in nearby Dorsington churchyard. The local paper described him as One of the leading agriculturalists in this district. His imposing gravestone (highly polished red granite) is engraved: This tomb was erected by many friends as a memorial of their esteem and affection. Peter left no will: the grant of letters of administration says that his effects were worth "under £8,000". When his wife Jane eventually died on 18th June 1891, she was buried in the same grave, and a further inscription was added.

So there we are.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Cloning about

This sign adorns an art gallery in old Nicosia: we were there in February 2005: I have been looking for a opportunity to use my photograph of it, and now I have one.

I withdrew some cash at a hole in the wall in Gloucester last week: alas, I chose the wrong one. The telephone rang yesterday, a call from my bank: "€1,750 has been withdrawn from your account by someone in Italy: have you been visiting there?" the voice asked.

Apparently the devices that are used in order to clone bank cards are now so midget that you just don't notice them, however hard you look. And I always do look.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Over the Severn Vale

This has been a Summer's day - at last! We drove to Malvern for a walk on the Hills with our friends Margaret and David Bryer, who live high up on the East-facing slopes. The path from their house leads through old woodland, some ash and sycamore. We emerged into scrubland, and then a panoramic view over Herefordshire towards the Black Mountains. It was hazy, so we could hardly make out Hay Bluff, but the Marcle Ridge stood out clearly enough. Walking South, we skirted Pinacle Hill, pausing to look towards the British Camp and Midsummer Hill before returning for lunch on the Bryers' terrace - from where I took this photograph.

It shows the Three Counties Showground, with Bredon Hill and the Cotswolds behind. We spotted Pershore Abbey and Worcester Cathedral, and Croome church which we visited last month. A great view - but coming away we agreed that we might prefer not to live on so steep a slope: David has to take considerable care when cutting his grass not to cut his feet as well.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008


Thomas celebrated his birthday yesterday. In Lisbon.

He moved there a couple of weeks ago, and is busy looking for a flat - with a good view over the river. He seems to have his IT pretty well sorted, as calls to his London business number go directly through to him - at no extra cost to the caller apparently. The next challenge is to learn some Portuguese, but meanwhile he is busy enough with work for his English clients.

Neither Caroline nor I have been to Portugal: we are planning a visit in November - assuming our sale board still remains up. The Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable arrived on the doorstep yesterday, together with a map of all the train lines indicating the scenic routes. A fascinating read, although, as Conan Doyle wrote about its predecessor, "The vocabulary of Bradshaw is nervous and terse, but limited. The selection of words would hardly lend itself to the sending of general messages."

Monday, 25 August 2008

Lunch at The Blue Zucchini

Our good friends Sarah and Helena Priday invited us out yesterday, to The Blue Zucchini in Tetbury. The conversation barely parted from the topic of music, even after Sarah had left early, on Bampton Opera duty. We seemed to be surrounded by excellent raconteurs. Two of the other guests turned out to have been employed by the impressario Victor Hochhauser in a past life: many were the stories that came gushing out about their years working with him, his wife and the rest of their very distinctive cadre. "There was the time," said one, "when Mstislav Rostropovich started tickling Victor, who ran round and round the office laughing helplessly, trying to escape and crying Oh do stop Slava!"

As you may imagine, we were easily the last party to leave the restaurant.

rus in urbe

It's Bank Holiday weekend, but why join queues of cars on the road? I did venture up to Greenbelt last evening: amazing crowds, transforming Cheltenham racecourse for the weekend; but going for the evening only, I felt more a tourist than a pilgrim. (John Bell of the Iona Community impressed me as a speaker; and it was good to talk to those on the CEL stand.)

Yes, here we still are, in Cheltenham. The sale board remains up, but it's more than a fortnight since anyone came to look at the house. On a rare dry August Saturday, Ida (aged 10 months), having discarded a sock, sits under the russet tree to eat her lunch... and gets her beans in a row.

Saturday, 23 August 2008


Caroline, Agnes (and Ida) and I all went to see Rory Morrell's exhibition yesterday, at the Cheltenham School of Drawing and Painting, which he runs. It was a large show, filling three studios. There was a great variety of charcoal life drawings, all beautifully wrought. There's even one of Agnes, who has sat as a model for the Cheltenham School in the past.

But we also very much liked the oil landscapes of scenes near The Lizard and in Portugal. I fear not enough people knew about this excellent exhibition: there weren't that many red dots. This bit of publicity is too late, as the show closed yesterday evening.

Rory also showed me a folder of photographs he has taken: some of them are worthy of exhibition in their own right. As always, he was overly modest about them.

A quarter of a mile away, in the Gardens Gallery, Pam Stone has a solo show, contrasting but also worth seeing: some quite impressive portraits in a variety of media. That's on till next Tuesday evening, 26th August.

In London, Birmingham or Bristol, either of these shows would be getting quite a lot of attention: as Caroline always says - there's never much of a buzz created by anything here in Cheltenham.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Glorious Gloucester

Clutching my wonderful bus pass and a sandwich, I set off for Gloucester yesterday with a view to exploring the County Records Office. That will have to wait till another day.

I was sidetracked by the Cathedral: just before I left home, Sarah Loveday had arrived, and said I should drop by the Cloisters to look at Diana Green's Creation & Fall etchings, which are on temporary display. So I did (and admired them); which led to an amble round the Ambulatory and into the Lady Chapel. I realised that, in spite of many previous visits, I was looking at much of what I saw for the first time.

An hour or more had passed when a Steward walked by. "Was I joining the Tower Tour, starting in five minutes?" "No," I said, but then thought, "Why not?" The tower of the Cathedral is visible on almost any walk around Cheltenham, but I had never climbed up it.

The guide on duty - it happened to be a friend of ours, Sue Hamilton - does not it seems share my fear of heights. Intrepidly she led us 175 steps up to Great Peter (which strikes the hours), into the adjacent Ringing Chamber, and up again past the ring of twelve bells. Finally, we emerged onto the roof, and there we were, in driving rain, 225 feet above the Cathedral floor.

The view is of course amazing, even on a day like yesterday. When taking the photograph above - there are some more in a web sequence beginning here - I was pointing the camera West over the nave. In mediaeval times, the River Severn would have been visible flowing from right to left in the top of the picture. The West walk of the Cloister is visible at the bottom right, and beyond it the half-timbered building is where Richard II is thought to have held his Parliament of 1378.

To its left is the former Deanery. Caroline's great-great-grandfather Dean Edward Rice, who held office for 36 years, would have lived there with his 12 children: he kept chickens in the Cloister garden, according to Tamara Talbot Rice's autobiography. Sue Hamilton said there were still chickens kept in a roof garden somewhere in the Cathedral Close: I didn't spot them.

At that height, you cannot help thinking about the faith of the monks who organized such a tower to be built 550 years ago. On the bus, I was reading a newspaper article by a professor of philosophy under the headline "The rise of Milliband brings at last the prospect of an atheist prime minister." God save us!

Thursday, 21 August 2008

The Victorian age

Our friend Terry Murphy once told me of a question put to him by Tamara Talbot Rice (the then widow of Caroline's cousin David, the Byzantinist). Tamara never lost the art of rolling her Rs, having been born (before the Revolution) of Russian parents.

"Do you suffer from the tyranny of fruit?" she asked, making "tyranny" sound like a cat's purr. Well, our Victoria plum tree is weighed down with fruit this year, and it's not a time to be away from home. Each evening I run the gauntlet of the local wasp population in order to pick the plums that are ripe. And end up with red fingers from stoning the fruit. Caroline is already asking whether she has enough room in the deep freeze.

The deal as we arrived here was for builders to come and erect a bungalow at the rear of our house: they yanked out an old apple tree in order to provide the driveway. The best investment I've made was planting our two plum trees to take its place.

Bredon and Overbury

Colin and Jessica Russell generously took us out to lunch yesterday at the pub in Bredon. Very good it was too. Although it's only about 10 miles from home, and we must have driven past on the M5 a hundred times, I had never before discovered what went on in the village itself.

It seems Bredon has quite a number of houses of character, as well as the Tithe Barn and St Giles' Church - two stars in Jenkins. I photographed (see above) one of the scenes depicted in a locally-made tapestry which hangs in the nave of the church. It tells a story, along the lines of the Bayeux Tapestry. A monastery was founded in Bredon in AD 716: its Abbot Tatwin – splendid name! – became one of the earliest Archbishops of Canterbury. But in the mid-ninth century, Vikings sailed up the adjacent River Avon, burning the monastery and murdering or deporting the monks. A touchingly related tale: Burma in 2007 had its precedents.

After lunch we drove a couple of miles East. We had made an appointment to visit the garden of Overbury Court, which is in the Yellow Book. Again, we had driven past many times, but I had no idea what lay behind the high Cotswold stone wall that runs beside the road round Bredon Hill.

Until we caught sight of the enormous, partly-ornamental swimming pool in front of the house, it felt rather as if one was back in the 18th Century. Here we were, permitted to stroll in this beautifully landscaped garden, and to admire the prospects towards the Hill and Southwards to the Cotswolds. Nobody else was about – not even one of the three gardeners that it hardly surprised me to hear were needed to look after it all.

It wasn't a surprise either that it should start raining hard before we had seen it all, given what a wet month this has been. We took refuge in the pretty village church, St Faith's – an unusual dedication. It stands just alongside the garden. The narrow nave is flanked with fat, squat Norman columns, each adorned rather incongruously with what look like bedside lights. I liked the 11th Century goblet-shaped font, with strong carving. At the other end of the historical spectrum, there is Victorian stained glass with unusual subjects: Jesus stands barefoot in a garden, weeping at the death of Lazarus: a richly-clad Noah cradles his ark, which appears to be fitted with gun ports. Was he expecting Vikings?

Tuesday, 19 August 2008


This wide-angle photograph was taken looking South-Eastwards from our house yesterday evening. You can just see, on the extreme left, a branch or two of an old russet tree - always quite productive . Then comes a rather straggly Buddleia davidii: I didn't cut it back hard enough last year. To its right is our very vigorous rosemary bush, with a heavily-laden Victoria plum tree behind it - more about that anon. Behind that is one of our outbuildings, and the neighbours' coach house. You can see a line of climbing and rambling roses, Winter honeysuckle and Philadelphus: I planted these along our boundary when we arrived here in 1995. On the far right is the corner of the next door house.

Dominating the centre of the photograph is a Wellingtonia in next door's garden: home to much birdlife, but standing at quite a disconcerting angle I always think. And above it all, a marvellous double rainbow.

Monday, 18 August 2008

The Proms

This time last year, Leo, Mini and I went to the Proms: it was Mini's first experience of the Royal Albert Hall. They both so enjoyed it that they were there again last night. Leo came to tell us about it this evening: they intend to go every year, he said, and I bet they will.

Last Thursday, Caroline and I were lucky enough to be at the Albert Hall too, invited by our old friend Caroline Holbrook, who goes frequently from her home near Newbury. That night the concert was given by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim. This orchestra has become an institution in less than a decade, since its founding by Barenboim and his close Palestinian friend, the late Edward Said. It inspires not just musically, but in the way it represents the hope and real possibility of a peaceful future for both Israelis and the Palestinian people. Not a yarmulke or a hijab to be seen! And the orchestra played - besides Haydn and Brahms - music by the Jewish Arnold Schoenberg together with, as an encore, the Meistersinger Prelude by Hitler's favourite composer, Wagner.

Daniel Barenboim conducted the whole programme from memory. In my early '20s, when I was an articled clerk in the City of London, my principal invited me to sit in on a meeting that a certain Enrique Barenboim had arranged with him, to discuss his son's tax position. That son, about my age, came along too: his name was Daniel. I remember nothing at all about the content of the meeting; but I have always followed from afar, and admired, Daniel Barenboim's public achievements.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Animula vagula blandula

Half a century ago, almost, I was set to learn the poem of which this is the first line. It didn't mean much to me then, nor could I have told you who wrote it. But it's up in large letters at the British Museum, as part of the Hadrian exhibition. It came back to me when I was ploughing through Margaret Yourcenar's historical novel before last month's meeting of our book group; and again on Thursday, when Caroline and I visited the exhibition. It's well worth seeing: on till 26th October.

Hadrian wrote these verses contemplating his life's end, when he clearly sees the soul as departing in a different direction from the body. But where? Becoming Emperor less than a century after Jesus's crucifixion, Hadrian was relaxed about the Christians, but there is no evidence that he entertained Christian beliefs to help him answer that question.

Still less did Hadrian embrace Judaism: indeed, his harshest treatment was reserved for the Jews. On display in the BM Reading Room is a house key. It belonged to a Jew who had fled his home to take refuge (with many others) in a cave: trapped there, he was butchered to death. Hadrian's savagery contrasts with his love of beauty in so many of its manifestations. In the same way, Radovan Karadžić also wrote poetry; and Hitler loved Wagner's music.

My photograph shows Hadrian's lover, the beautiful Greek youth Antinous. He drowned in the River Nile on the day Egyptians were commemorating the death of their god Osiris - from drowning in the Nile. Hadrian had Antinous portrayed here as Osiris, suggesting that he too was reborn as a god from the waters of the Nile.

This statue was found more than 250 years ago during excavations at Hadrian's Villa, near Rome. Only last year, a huge, undamaged head of the Emperor himself was uncovered in Turkey: this magnificent object is the first sculpture you see when you enter the current exhibition. And last week I read in the paper that there were sarcophagi of the same era found, which had been buried up near Hadrian's Wall. How many other discoveries remain to be made?

Saturday, 16 August 2008

tête à tête - The Opera Festival

Riverside Studios, on the Thames at Hammersmith, has been hosting a fortnight of fringe opera, under the enthusiastic artistic direction of Bill Bankes-Jones. The Festival ends this weekend with a visit from Scottish Opera. (They bring five recent works, including one I see directed by Ida's Godfather Frederic Wake-Walker.)

Caroline and I went along on Wednesday evening to sample what was on offer, meeting up with some old friends. It was a heartening experience, particularly after the disappointment I felt with some contemporary music at this year's Cheltenham Festival. Committing oneself to a full evening of Birtwistle, Adès or even Adams requires courage; but everyone it seems can hope to enjoy something during a session with tête à tête at the Riverside.

We saw no less than seven operas, including some work in progress. The excitement began with a snippet about the travails of a knife thrower's assistant, rather splendidly staged in the Riverside's foyer. Just as we were wondering when it was to end, the "orchestra" (which consisted of an electric keyboard) collapsed onto the floor.

Next up, on stage this time, was a little two-hander, one of the singers spending the entire performance in a "zorbing" pod.

This has to be a first, but (like the foyer number) it may also be a last. "Flam", which followed it, composed by Orlando Gough (one of the founders of The Shout), is an altogether more weighty piece. This entirely a cappella music drama was performed with great virtuosity by Rebecca Askew and (see my main photograph) Melanie Pappenheim, together with Michael Henry. With its faint echoes of the Oxen of the Sun, "Flam" will I'm sure be seen elsewhere. It might spoil your fun if I told you the plot.

Size Zero Music Theatre's two offerings were less successful. Though the Manchester-based company shows some potential, better material needs to be found. Before this, though, there was a delightful duet by members of the tête à tête company between an archetypal Prince Charming and his Sleeping Beauty - Snow White - Little Red Riding Hood (all rolled into one): this holds a lot of promise for when more worked up.

Finally, the weird and wonderful Carysfort Stories: this was not so much opera as bitter sweet jazz revue, performed by Georg and Thomas, a couple of Austrian buskers, along with Loré Lixenberg.
The set featured a bar stool, on which two silent women took turns to sit, and a tent, illuminated from behind. All the performers live in or near Carysfort Road, Stoke Newington, from where they brought along this rather low-key drama of local life: Lake Wobegon comes to London. The versatile Loré Lixenberg confined herself to the tent throughout, declining to emerge even for a well-earned curtain call.

This was an appropriately bizarre end to a long evening, throughout which energy levels remained high. It has to be amazing value for £25, inclusive of supper in the buzzy Riverside Studios café, a true festival atmosphere.

Friday, 15 August 2008

The Courtauld Cézannes

Caroline's friend and former colleague at the Courtauld Institute, Bob Ratcliffe worshipped Paul Cézanne, and was one of the acknowledged experts on his work. Caroline, who worked in the slide library, accompanied Bob on trips to record and photograph exhibitions, Bob with a thermos bag for keeping his film at exactly the right temperature, so as not to jeopardise accurate colour reproduction.

The Courtauld Institute's entire collection of Cézanne's work - unique, at least in Britain - is currently on show at Somerset House (till 5th October). For the catalogue, John House, one of Bob's students, has written an eloquent appreciation, dedicating the exhibition to Bob's memory: he died last year. We have been in London for a couple of days and it was fitting that our first stop on arrival should be Somerset House.

Quite apart from the magnificent Cézannes, I always like visiting the Strand, since having worked near there when I was a newly-qualified solicitor; and it is a particular pleasure nowadays to be able to see both outside and inside Somerset House, with its elegant rooms (see the Degas sculpture gallery - below) and amazing staircase (above).

Monday, 11 August 2008

"Prinknash treasures"

This is the title of a loan exhibition at Simon Chorley Art & Antiques, Prinknash Abbey Park. You can only catch it until 14th August though. I recommend a visit.

It was news to me that the monks of Prinknash, always rather a low-key bunch as I perceived them, possessed so many beautiful objects. But a number of the monks have been - indeed are - artists, with friends and patrons who have acted as benefactors over the years. One member of the Community (a noted potter and stone carver) was the son of the cartoonist Heath Robinson: three of his delightful paintings featuring the monks are exhibited.

Moreover, the founder of the community at Prinknash itself was it seems a devotee of the Arts & Crafts Movement. This lovely Madonna and child on marble is by Eric Gill: I loved seeing traces of the censoring hand (shades of Silvio Berlusconi's Tiepolo) which applied the masking tape to Mary's right nipple!

Gill was also responsible for the rather severe drawing of the first Abbot of Prinknash, Wilfred Upson - left, below: Abbot Wilfred seems a little less daunting in William Rothenstein's seated portrait (right, below).

The tape residue and the crack across the Eric Gill tableau say much about the state of the "Treasures". Tender love and care has at some stages perhaps been in short measure; jewel-encrusted chalices could do with a polish, and if the caption wordings were expanded, that would assist those less familiar with the whys and wherefores of ecclesiastical hardware. The current Benedictine Yearbook lists only nine priests at the Abbey now, which must be part of the explanation. And anyway today's monks might have other priorities than to spend all their time maintaining the ornaments of a past era - which ties in with the substance of my controversial post of last Monday.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal to surprise and admire. For a Monday morning, the exhibition room was pleasantly full. Had the show been mounted - as well it could have been - by the V&A, thousands - rather than dozens - would have been delighted through paying a visit. There is still time!

Thanks to Simon Chorley's generosity, all proceeds from the exhibition go to the NSPCC.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Cheltenham Festival of Literature

The 350 plus events in the programme for this year's local literary festival apparently need 60 pages to describe - a far cry from the slim booklet of relatively few years ago: here is a photograph of the banner which adorned Cheltenham Town Hall for the 1993 Festival: the title sponsor is now The Times.

The Editor of our local paper used to make regular snipes at the Festival's "elitism". Clearly, they were heeded: now the programme has swung to the opposite extreme. Indeed someone rightly complained of this in a Letter to the Editor, published this week. Michael Atherton, Dawn French and Mariella Frostrup will all no doubt attract their crowds. But where are the great figures who used to come to Cheltenham, the poets. the real literary giants, who gathered around Alan Hancox after their events till late into the night?

And why does the brochure need to be larded with so much puff? "In a characteristically provocative and thought-provoking discussion...", "...presents a captivating illustrated explanation...", and "He discusses his new memoir and shares some of his remarkable memories in a hugely enjoyable event." (These are just three examples from the synopsis of what's on in the morning and afternoon of Day 1.)

Do the organizers have a Time Machine, to enable them to review the Festival before it happens? Assuming they don't, why burden us with a work of fiction, when we can perfectly well make up our own minds about which (if any) events we want to pay a lot of money to attend?

Thursday, 7 August 2008

My day out with the CPRE

Rather at the last minute, I joined a coach party today, organized by North Cotswold CPRE.

First stop was Bromsberrow Place, just under the Southern slopes of the Malverns, in the far North-West corner of Gloucestershire. Our huge coach all but came to grief under the low-hanging branches of the oak trees lining the drive: not quite another satnav saga, but similar. (We shouldn't have been going in that way.)

Over the past 17 years, the Bromsberrow Place garden, something of a sleeping beauty when in the late Miss Albright's ownership, has been brought fearlessly back to life by the Greenall family, who have made major investments - particularly in trees.

We marvelled especially at the walled garden. Facing South with wide views towards the Cotswolds, it contains rows of groaning apple and pear trees, a vine house, colourful borders and masses of succulent vegetables. It was good to hear that local schools bought the produce, and that their children came along regularly to help harvest it. All the various aspects of this estate seem to run brilliantly under its imaginative and hands-on owners. (This was no surprise to me, having in the past worked alongside Gilbert Greenall - he and I both being trustees of the Summerfield Charitable Trust.)

In the afternoon, our bus took us to the six-acre garden of Elton Hall, owned by Mr. and Mrs. James Hepworth. This is an extraordinarily pretty 18th Century house, brick-fronted with ogee windows, not far to the South-West of Ludlow. (We had driven past it when we were staying on the Croft estate last month.) At Elton also the scene has been transformed in the last 17 years, since the arrival of Anthony Brooks - a most modest man, yet clearly an inspired gardener.

Walking round, it was hard not to be distracted by the Hepworth family elephant (in many guises), horse, puffin etc. collection - all dead; and the five inhabitants of Fort Tortoise, very much alive. The garden is full of follies - one (dating from 1997) to commemorate a distinguished former owner, Thomas Andrew Knight, an early President of the RHS: a Latin inscription on the floor below his portrait gives thanks to the EU for the grant which helped build it - and to those who don't smoke within the gazebo.

I don't know anything about planting, but in this garden the late Summer colours - and the way they were massed - seemed to me particularly magnificent. The ladies with notebooks amongst us were enthusing about Echinaceas and Rudbeckias. Even table tombs in the adjoining churchyard seem to have been carefully bowered with wild flowers. Excess of pure colour is painful: variety and combination of colours is most pleasurable - so taught Thomas Knight's more famous elder brother, the connoisseur Payne Knight.

Overall I found it was the Elton experience that marginally won my heart - in spite of the Bromsberrow bravura. But almost best of all in the day was to be driven painlessly through Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire, countryside as varied and majestic as any one could hope to experience in the course of a two-hour journey.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008


Today's feast is the Transfiguration - one of the best in my view: Jesus becoming radiant, as witnessed by three of his closest friends.

There is that uncanny echo of "radiance" in the word "radiation". It never fails to remind me that 6th August is the anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. 120,000 people died, a whole city destroyed.

Fr. George Zabelka was a young Catholic priest, freshly enlisted into the chaplain corps of the U.S. Army Air Force. Being assigned to the 509th Composite Group, the unit responsible for planning and executing the Hiroshima raid, he blessed the members of the bombing crew before they took off.

Fr. Zabelka later made friends with Martin Luther King. He came through this friendship to see things from a different perspective: “Each one of us," he wrote, "becomes responsible for the crime of war by co-operating in its preparation and in its execution. This includes the military. This includes the making of weapons. And it includes paying for the weapons. There’s no question about that. We’ve got to realize we all become responsible. Silence, doing nothing, can be one of the greatest sins.”

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

WALL-E: spoiler alert!

Caroline and I went to the cinema together last night, a relatively rare occurence. Based on a favourable review and recommendations from Edmund and Thomas, our choice was the latest Pixar offering, WALL-E.

Its hero/heroine -arguably - is not the lovable, sentient robot of the title, but the last, or rather the first, plant on a planet Earth that has been overwhelmed by consumer waste, and whose inhabitants have mass-migrated to Space Station Axiom. The film is the story of their fight to recolonise Earth, which of course they do.

Caroline and I had a good laugh at the choice of the space station's name: her time with the Axiom Centre of the Arts here in Cheltenham was spent making a place full of opportunities to help people be as creative as possible: the computer running WALL-E's Axiom was intent on making its inhabitants as docile as possible.

Coincidentally, yesterday morning's email from Christian Ecology Link read as follows:

Conventional food production incurs the following hidden costs:
· 1,000 tonnes of water are consumed to produce every tonne of grain;
· 10-15 energy units are spent for every energy unit of food on our plates;
· With processed foods, more than 1,000 energy units are used for every energy unit of food;
· 12-15 energy units are wasted for every energy unit of food transported per thousand air-miles;
· 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, which produces 60% of all methane emissions and 70% of nitrous oxide;
· Nearly 90% of all agricultural subsidies benefit corporations and big farmers, while in the USA alone 500 family farms close down every week; and
· Subsidised surplus food dumped on developing countries creates poverty, hunger and homelessness on a massive scale.

Axiom, here we come?

WALL-E, the verdict? A dazzlingly clever film, crammed with an immense amount of imaginative detail, some of it genuinely funny and touching; but a film made with a budget of $180m, trailing movie-related merchandise, advertising, not to mention popcorn in its wake - all those things that give rise to the opening hypothesis, that we are heading towards environmental disaster. The end of this film is to entertain and make money. It is therefore, in my view, ultimately making light of our greatest challenge, its "bold" theme ironically causing filmgoers to become numbed to the possibility of overcoming that challenge.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Pictures fail me

There was quite a full house yesterday evening for mass at my Catholic parish church, St Gregory's here in Cheltenham: the celebrant was Fr. Tom Smith, the parish priest's assistant, ordained three years ago. In his homily, after a few words on the readings, he told us he had spent last week in residence at Merton College, Oxford. An anonymous donor had, he said, paid for him to attend the Latin Mass Society's course on learning to say what I once knew as the Tridentine mass. (I note the fee was £150 for the week – which is itself acknowledged on the Society's website as being "heavily subsidised".)

Clearly, the course had made a great impression on our young priest. He spoke at length about the beauty of the "extraordinary form". Further he announced that he had, immediately upon his return to Cheltenham, sought (and obtained) the parish priest's permission to celebrate the old mass publicly this coming Saturday. He urged us to come.

Any priest making such a significant statement and plea will no doubt influence his congregation. Plenty of people are, therefore, likely to be there on Saturday. But I will not be one of them.

I grew up in the Catholic faith, and in about 1950 became an altar server. I learnt by heart the Latin responses, rattling them off, as did any good member of the Guild of St Stephen in those days. At school I studied Latin up till A level, so came to understand and appreciate the words for their meaning – not just as mantras.

Vatican II coincided with my university years: thanks to a remarkable chaplain, my generation of undergraduates became rapidly familiar with its teaching, and in particular its liturgical reforms, which made good sense. Moving to London, I was in parishes with priests who likewise embraced those reforms.

In the Seventies, I found myself in a small, rural parish, with an Irish priest still saying mass with his back to the congregation. I struggled to understand how this good old man's ways could help us interpret for all The Church in the Modern World, let alone Populorum Progressio. I read the magazines he left at the end of the church, published by the Society of St Pius X, and found them full of vituperation. Many times I recalled my grandfather's words: God works through very human instruments.

My Sunday sadness was alleviated when a new priest took over. We became encouraged to take a part in the decisions affecting the parish, including the way its liturgy was celebrated. A generation has since passed, and I can't conceive of a return to the blessed mutter of the mass (as it is in its extraordinary form). Attendance at (I could not call it "participation in") the funeral mass of a Tridentine stalwart last December confirmed me in my opinion.

The Archbishop of Birmingham's address to last year's Merton College course included these words: No matter the language of the celebration, no matter the form … the liturgy must be set forth clearly. The celebrant, acting in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church, needs to ensure that his actions enable the souls in his care to participate in this saving mystery, to take part in each of its steps. This participation has to be profound, spiritual, informed by understanding – an active participation and not passive, not ‘leaving it to the priest to celebrate the Mass for us.’…The Tridentine mass remains the extraordinary form of the celebration of the Mass, for, as Pope Benedict says, its use ‘presupposes a certain degree of liturgical formation and some knowledge of the Latin language; neither of these is found very often.’

From next month the two St Gregory's priests will be responsible, not only for our large town parish, but also for the adjoining St Thomas More's parish – also large, with its own distinct and very considerable social problems. For years, our priests have been too busy to visit parishioners, or offer house blessings. The degree of ecumenical – let alone inter-faith – activity in Cheltenham involving its clergy is negligible. There is no Justice and Peace activity, and no apparent concern to address as a Christian challenge the environmental crisis facing our world today.

I am forced to ask, how is it that a priest of my son's age comes to decide to take the time needed to study and prepare for regular celebration of mass in the extraordinary form, when there is so much else that needs doing?

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Floreat Ed'n'Bella

Ed Nightingale and Bella Mackie were married yesterday afternoon in Eton College Chapel. It was my first visit: what a joy to worship there, with all the colour and life in those eight huge John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens windows!

The wedding service was memorable on a number of counts: for the groom being invisible to most of the congregation - poor man, he had just broken a tendon playing tennis; for the address, by the same priest who married Ed's parents; for that splendid priest omitting to ask whether anyone objected to the marriage (once a lawyer, always a lawyer); and for the music: Parry, Mozart, Bach, Handel, Beethoven - perhaps all to be expected. But Offenbach? Anyway, the Tales of Hoffmann barcarolle was sung beautifully by two of Ed's sisters.

We emerged after the ceremony into the sunlit School Yard, dominated by this statue of Eton's founder, King Henry VI. I've always had rather a soft spot for this king, in spite of - or possibly because of - his being on the "wrong" side in the Wars of the Roses.

She's beautiful, and therefore to be woo'd;
She is a woman, therefore to be won.

One could understand if Ed - an English teacher - had muttered to himself these words (from Shakespeare's Henry VI, part 1) when he met Bella. She was a smashing bride.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Power playing

The Guiting Power Music Festival got going just before I arrived in Gloucestershire: I remember Raymond Cochrane, who in an act of amazing generosity had given much of the village away to a specially-formed charity, making a somewhat halting speech at the first Festival I attended, about 35 years ago.

It was always a pleasure - after the relative formality of the Cheltenham Festival - to go up to Guiting; but in those days it was a bonus if one managed to hit upon a performance which was satisfying musically. With Joanna MacGregor as President, however, in recent years it has gone from strength to strength. And last night's recital was the best I have heard in the charmingly unpretentious Guiting village hall.

To have the chance of hearing and seeing three young, but already world class, string players at such close quarters is a rare privilege. Under Alexander Sitkovetsky's leadership, Natalie Clein and friends gave us a superb early Beethoven (G major) string trio, and - before that - a movement from the lyrical Dohnanyi String Serenade. At the outset, Sasha teamed up with violist Krzysztof Chorzelski, violist in the Belcea Quartet, for a vibrant - the stage flowers seemed in danger of falling off their stand - performance of the Mozart Duo K423, and Natalie gave an impassioned Kodaly solo cello sonata, Op.8: quite a tough nut for the audience, not to mention the performer.

Where else could you have swings to swing on, an entire playing field to picnic in, and end the evening with such an outstanding performance?

Friday, 1 August 2008

A militant tendency

This week, we have had a stimulating visitor staying with us. Caroline's Goddaughter Lizzie is much the same age as Agnes. She didn't much enjoy her convent school, but obviously thrived - intellectually and socially - at London University.

Since then she has involved herself in education, in the broadest sense. During our conversation under the apple trees, she told us about her recent ten-day Vipassana Meditation course, and Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. She described living in various London squats, and the soup kitchens, workshops and street theatre she helps set up.

She was off shortly to spend time with her sister Ellie's international charity, Firefly in its work with children in Bosnia. Apart from occasional foreign forays (France, Guatemala), she says she stays mainly in inner London. "You could cut some sweet peas," I suggested to her. Coming to us in Cheltenham, she said, was like the town mouse going into the country - and she asked me to show her what were sweet peas!

Beside the hard - at times challenging - edge to her life and work, there was a great sense of lightness and composure about Lizzie, a delightful guest. Godchildren are such a privilege.