Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Little wonder

Ida was one - and the one - yesterday. A tea party took place, Ida in her Tripp Trapp chair surrounded by friends and relations of all ages at the dining-table. Agnes had, as can be seen, let her imagination flourish delightfully in the making of gingerbread men - sorry, women! - which set the tone for a great celebration.

Now Caroline and I are looking forward to four weeks away. On Friday morning we shall be picking up our rucksacks and embarking at Cheltenham Station on the first of about three dozen train journeys linking five European capitals - Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Luxembourg, Brussels. Our schedule looks like a logistical cat's cradle. We plan to see some architecture: Gaudi of Barcelona; Calatrava of Valencia; some cathedrals - Salamanca, Toledo, Oporto, Toulouse, Clermont-Ferrand... If it's Wednesday, it must be Pau.

And we shall not be taking with us anything other than a basic mobile phone - unlike Stephen Fry with his laptop and "a suitcase full of cables, chargers, memory cards and connectors." So, no more blogging for a bit whilst I range free.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Burrell collection

Last evening, Michael and Sarah Burrell gathered a huge number of friends around them for a party in the Great Hall of Chelsea Royal Hospital. It was a fortieth wedding anniversary celebration: though we were not forewarned, James in an excellent speech announced it from a table top - toasting Gilbert Thompson-Royds, the man who introduced his parents, to save them the embarrassment of being toasted themselves.

Having met Sarah before she met Mike, I found myself bumping in to some very old friends: Willie Stevenson, for instance, who reminded me of a tip I'd given him for the Irish horse Double Jump, which won five out of six races - but not this one. (I've found different ways of losing money since the '60s.)

Such grand events stick in the memory. In an age of short marriages, dressing down and generally low-key entertainment, none of us will soon forget a smartly-dressed party with champagne in such an august setting as Christopher Wren's hall, lined with royal portraits and the vast mural of Charles II on horseback by Antonio Verrio - even if it was pouring with rain as we struggled to get there (and back).

Monday, 20 October 2008

The late Bill Waterhouse

From this photograph of Bill that I took five years before his death (last Autumn), you might think he was a Master of Wine, or possibly even an alcoholic, but he was neither: we were sitting across the table from each other at a post-wedding party, and Bill was talking with habitual earnestness: the subject could have been anything, but was most likely not to have been that about which he knew best: Bill was a pre-eminent practitioner on the bassoon.

"A worthy fellow, Ratty, with many good qualities, but very little intelligence and absolutely no education." So says Toad (in The Wind in the Willows). Superficially, Bill Waterhouse might be said to resemble "dear good old Ratty", with his unmistakable physiognomy – though equally perhaps Moley, ceaselessly industrious; Badger (with his fancy waistcoats): even (dare I say) Toad himself, when kitted out in his leathers and astride his motor bike. What is certain is that Bill indeed had many good qualities – but (unlike Ratty) they included a very unusual intelligence and a continuing zest for education!

His bassoon (and wider musicological) prowess has been well recorded, but as a neighbour I chiefly recall his appetite for his community and his joie de vivre. Bill was a regular attender at the Sevenhampton Produce Show and also the Whittington Summer Show – since 1981, as he recorded in a learned article he wrote for the celebrated Whittington Press's Matrix 26.

Bill and Elisabeth's cottage was situated well apart from Sevenhampton itself, but everyone at all interested was welcome there for the Waterhouse musical afternoons - at Christmas, Easter or some other occasion dreamt up for celebration. On arrival Bill would be standing (in his fancy waistcoat) directing the traffic and getting splashed with mud. Inside the Musicbarn, we perched on garden chairs or just a cushion on the floor. We always emerged feasted.

A neighbouring village gave its name to a scratch group that used to put on an annual concert, with what might sometimes be described as uneven results. But when the Shipton Consort performed Mozart's Requiem, with its opening bassoon motif, we all gasped: it was Bill playing.

Never having been to Highgate before 23rd November last, the day of Bill's Memorial Service, I asked myself what he would have done to mark the occasion. Of course! Yes, after a magical remembrance of Bill in prayer and in music, I sought out Karl Marx's splendid tomb in Highgate Cemetery, and George Eliot's more modest one. The eclectic Bill would surely have approved.

Yesterday, visiting Elisabeth and having tea with her in Bill's beloved Musicbarn, I met the musicologist Jim Kopp and his wife Joanne. They are hard at work completing the book Bill had agreed to write on the bassoon for the authoritative Yale Musical Instrument Series. It will be a long task, but one that's clearly in good hands.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Leckhampton warming

Our nearest Council tip is just up the hill from us here in Leckhampton. It's just back from the Cotswold edge, close to some old open-cast stone mines. On dog duty once more, I walked past it the other morning, and was appalled to see the remains of a truly vast bonfire.

And there was I thinking that all the garden waste we have been putting out in our green sacks was going to make compost!

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Love of wisdom

It's rare to hear two quite different lectures in the same day, each so full of wise words, and so well delivered. I would have been glad to read either "The Choice of Hercules" by A.C. Grayling, or "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet" by Jeffrey Sachs, but knew realisticaly that it was unlikely. The appearance of their authors - both renowned speakers - therefore made them easy choices out of the 26 events on offer at our Literature Festival yesterday.

The philosopher Grayling had virtually a full house at 10 a.m. in the Everyman Theatre. Though he spoke from the lectern on stage, such is his fluency that it represented no sort of barrier. The success of a lecture can often be judged by the quality of questions posed to the lecturer at the end: all were good, and Grayling answered with skill and humour. But he was flummoxed when asked, "Were you assuming we had come along as a duty or for pleasure?"

Hercules chose duty above pleasure, but, Grayling asks, where is the conflict between them today? What do we think about reading novels in the morning? Conventionally, the answer is "guilty", but insofar as they are an excellent way of our learning much-needed toleration - allowing other people to do things you don't like - maybe we should look upon a couple of hours with our novel as our morning duty.

From Jeffrey Sachs' viewpoint as a development economist, working for the Earth Institute, our car is careering towards the cliff edge. Even if the road turns out to bend a little away from the precipice, our alarm increases when we realises that Dick Cheney is at the wheel. (A McCain victory next month is too grim for Sachs to begin to contemplate.)

The three horsemen of Jeffrey Sachs' apocalypse are environment, poverty and population. Each can be reined in, but not by a self-regulating market. Global, co-operative, science-based mechanisms are needed. They don't at present exist, but they could be established - at a cost of about three per cent of world income. Trillions have been made available to save the banks, so in principle the money is there. Can we sit back and allow the aggregate of a year's Wall Street Christmas bonuses to continue to exceed the entire world's annual aid to Africa? "I'm a PhD beggar," proclaims Jeffrey Sachs.

Sachs spoke for 50 minutes without any notes from the Town Hall stage, an astonishing tour de force.

Thursday, 16 October 2008


We have all the grandchildren staying here, so Caroline delegated dog walking to me this morning. We trespassed, dog and I, up near Withington. Although a mere six miles from home, as you can see from my photograph, it's completely another world from Cheltenham.

Only two disturbances to today's Autumn tranquility crossed my mind, one vertical. one horizontal. The steel pylon, which reared up at me as I took a wrong turning in the woods reminded me that, despite all the renewable fuel that surrounded me, the need for electricity is all-pervasive, and complete carbon elimination a far cry. Two low-flying vehicles of the RAF, gone almost before they came into hearing (but nevertheless brutish for those few instants) semed to be saying that - however our longing for disarmament and a constructive peace - some defence force will always be required, albeit at a huge and unsustainable cost.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Induction whoop

Well, perhaps not a full-blown Whoop!, but even a round of applause is rare enough in St Gregory's church! At the Induction this evening of Fr. Bosco as our new parish priest there were no less than two outbursts of clapping led by the presiding Bishop Declan of Clifton.

The Bishop spoke about human beings as latecomers to Planet Earth; and Christians as a very young people in Earth terms. So we can identify with St Paul talking about us giving birth to something new, by producing the fruits of God within our lives. We are not a settled people, the Bishop said, but a pilgrim people, on the way to perfection - which was entirely appropriate for today's feast of St Teresa of Avila.

More photographs here.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008


Cheltenham acquired a new piece of public art earlier this year: a statue of Gustav Holst now stands in the centre of the fountain in Imperial Gardens. (Holst was born in Cheltenham in 1874.)

Holst's fame resting as it does on his composition of The Planets, they are listed on the fountain's surround. What will future generations make of the sponsors' names which accompany each planet on its plaque I wonder? The name of the sculptor, Anthony Stones also appears prominently on the base of the statue itself, the lettering being somewhat larger than that of Holst's own name!

But what really irks me about the statue is that, first, it is too small for its situation, and secondly it portrays the composer as a conductor. (He is incidentally shown wearing a cummerbund as part of his evening dress: wouldn't he have worn a white waistcoat?) Someone like the contemporary composer Pierre Boulez could well in due course be immortalised with a baton in his hand: surely not though the shy Gustav Holst, whose topple backwards from a podium contributed to his death at the comparatively early age of 59.

Having carped sufficiently, I have to say that the rebuilt fountain seems to have become a popular meeting place, and the ornamental grasses planted round it look great!

Monday, 13 October 2008

Everyman Shakespeare

Our literary festival has forged good links with the Royal Shakespeare Company over the years, though there have inevitably been last-minute cancellations. Yesterday, however, three Cleopatras lined up according to schedule on the stage of Cheltenham's Everyman Theatre, for a discussion that never quite took flight. Mainly, Janet Suzman, Harriet Walter and (pictured here) Noma Dumezweni were too polite to each other. You longed for a touch of the asp to enter their conversation. And above all you ached to hear one of them launch into "His legs bestrid the ocean". They lacked a prompter.

Later in the day, Michael Pennington made an altogether more memorable appearance on the same stage. Pennington described catching the Shakespeare bug at the age of 11, and never having shaken it off: his resulting one-man Shakespeare show "Sweet William" is a tour de force.

"Sweet William" runs through what we know of Shakespeare's life in chronological sequence, with the actor morphing into both major and minor characters to illustrate the developing achievement of the playwright and in particular its historical and political context. Apart from audience coughing all round me, which would never have been tolerated during the performance of a play, I have seldom enjoyed a LitFest evening more.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Be and queue

My sister Sarah is staying with us for the Literature Festival: she is keen to see as many events as possible, whereas we (old hands) are feeling rather semi-detached about the whole shebang, as I foretold when the brochure first came out. (The local paper published that ill-humoured blogpost in the form of a letter to the editor, attracting some supportive comment; but will they listen?)

Long queues snake round the tented village in Imperial Gardens, for the events themselves - often three or four starting simultaneously - and also for book signings. I wonder how many of the books bought in the vast Waterstones' tent will be read.

Why are people so restless in a queue? On Friday evening I was manning the stall which the Friends of the Festival put up each year inside the Town Hall, to help raise funds towards sponsorship of future Festival events. For this cause, a wide range of cards is on display - including a basket of my own photogaphic cards - but not many people were in the least interested: either the place was deserted (during the events) or punters were stationary in a distracted queue which waited for the doors to open, and completely ignored my presence alongside it. Perhaps the atmosphere will be different when I am on the stall for another stint this evening.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Garden news - 2

Reverting to what I was saying yesterday, if the minutest fraction of the money that is being injected into the banks were somehow directed towards encouraging people to make gardens more genuinely productive - instead of turning them over to tarmac and decking - wouldn't life be vastly healthier? Morrisons' "Let's Grow" scheme has the right idea.

Of course, I wouldn't in any way exclude flowers: they do so much for our mental wellbeing. Apologies in advance for some more horticultural hubris: you expect geraniums to stick around for a long season, but I've never had such luck before with sweet peas. It was nearly four months ago that I reported that ours were flowering - and they are still. You see a lot of extremely realistic artificial flowers around these days, including sweet peas, but despite their short life, there is nothing to compare with having fresh ones in a vase on the table.

It's been a good year too for raspberries, a few of which seem to be there for the picking each morning. And though we've exhausted the fig tree at last, it's hard to keep up with falling apples.

For anyone without the opportunity to grow their own, there is of course a wide variety of vegetable box schemes, some more organic and local than others. Following a recent post, it was good to hear from my Canadian cousin, Bruce Coates that his son and daughter-in-law Kent and Ruth are heavily committed in this field: one of the ways a blog seems to be able to bring together diverse people with similar ideas.

Friday, 10 October 2008

"The shortest distance from land to mouth"

As I said on Monday, we all love local food. But by last month we four had already eaten all the potatoes I planted this year. This week therefore, in glorious Indian Summer sunshine, I have been digging up more of our lawn. Another nine square metres under cultivation next Spring does not amount to very much perhaps, but in a week so full of doom and gloom on the front pages that one is made to feel helpless, it is at least a small step in what I see as the right direction.

After our "Henry Moore - Surrealism and beyond" lecture this afternoon - when both Caroline and I fell asleep - I cycled down to check out the Literature Festival book tent, and ran into Jane Blunden and Finola Sumner, just emerged from John Gray's talk. If the Moore talk was dreary, the gospel according to Gray seems to have been lively but pessimistic, with seismic shift as its watchwords. "Things will never be the same again," Finola reported. Before I could get in a boast about my gesture with the spade, Jane came out with the healing words: "It's the potato patch". A kindred spirit indeed!

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Our Aga saga

Thanks to Google Analytics, I can tell that my blog has been read in 23 countries - what they must make of it in South Korea, I am not sure - but nobody has so far tuned in from Japan.

Which is just as well, as the Davis family has some exciting news that is highly Japan-sensitive for the present: Leo and Mini are planning to be married next Summer! Even as I write, Mini is on the coach to London Airport to catch her plane home to Osaka: Leo follows in a fortnight, having by then perfected the Japanese for "May I have your daughter's hand in marriage please?", and they will both return next month, it is hoped as a formally engaged couple.

There seemed to be something funny in the kitchen air late on Tuesday evening as I walked in after my Film Society. Though I had already said Bon voyage to Mini before leaving, she and Leo were still there by the Aga, but looking rather pink.

Leo had agreed with Mini that she could decide when to announce the engagement. So - without Leo knowing - she had sidled up to Caroline after supper and said, "I would like to be your daughter-in-law." "Well, that would be very nice," replied Caroline, "but doesn't it rather depend on Leo?" And so the news came out.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

"The Diving Bell & the Butterfly"

I wasn't much looking forward to seeing this Cheltenham Film Society offering, after the diasappointment of last week's screening. But it turned out to be one of the very best I've seen, from the point of view both of the story, and the way it was told. A film of immense power and beauty.

A man in his prime, Jean-Do, has a massive stroke, which he survives - but only just. He is tied up completely within himself, able to think perfectly clearly, but not to communicate except by blinking one of his eyes. Miraculously, he finds a beautiful "interpreter": his autobiography is written and published, shortly after which he dies.

This much many people - me included - had heard about already. What the film brings is another dimension. The narrative from within is interrupted by flashbacks, not in chronological sequence. These go to illustrate Jean-Do's psychological pain - for example his failure to contact a friend released after being held hostage for years: it would have been Jean-Do himself, but he had given up his plane seat to the hostage.

Jean-Do in his diving bell at first just wants to be allowed to die; but through the compassion and kindness he receives, he determines to live, without self-pity, what life he has to the full. So does the butterfly in its short span, spreading its beautiful wings for all to admire.

Monday, 6 October 2008


Agnes had friends to lunch, to celebrate her birthday, so Caroline and I went to Winchcombe. For the past couple of years, The White Hart there has been specialising in wine and sausages. We tried it (and liked it) during the great flooding last year: all the restaurants in Cheltenham were closed, so we drove over the hill to Winchcombe, stupidly thinking they would have water, when of course they are in the same (Severn) catchment as we are. However, they had enterprisingly tapped some friends in the Thames catchment a mile or two away, trucking the water back to the pub. They therefore stayed open. Not that there was much business: everyone must have thought they would be closed.

It was a different story yesterday lunchtime: things were buzzing, the recession notwithstanding. It is good to see so much local food available. The wines are excellent too: I can recommend the Mad Fish Pinot Noir. But it's interesting how we have all come to love eating food that's grown locally, but to go with it we reach out for wine from the Antipodes.

Sunday, 5 October 2008


"HFA" stands for "Hadfield Fine Art", which was unknown to me till yesterday, when we tumbled upon its Autumn Exhibition.

We had been visiting Caroline's brother, to wish him a happy birthday (and to admire the work they have been doing on their house restoration). I vaguely knew that there was an art exhibition on nearby, so we sought it out: round and round the parish of Sevenhampton we drove - stopping to admire an incongruous paddock full of rheas (see photograph) as we went along Gassons - when eventually we came across the HFA sign only a door or two from where we had started.

The gallery was once a indoor swimming pool: it is big enough to show off well the work of 14 contemporary artists (potters as well as painters). The paintings are principally landscapes, still lives and abstract subjects, very varied. Caroline (the expert on this sort of thing) thought the work was of pretty uniformly high quality. And I agreed.

If you want to see the show, hurry: it finishes on 12th. Though the Gallery is open at other times, you need to ring for an appontment save during the exhibition at weekends between 10 and 5: see their website for details. (We arrived late in the evening, without an appointment, but we realised quickly that that wasn't really fair.)

Besides the high quality displays, it's worth visiting HFA just to see the view across the infant River Coln towards Brockhampton Quarry: one of the best in the Cotswolds.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Old Deuteronomy

I was not particularly looking forward, yesterday, to turning out for my third concert on consecutive evenings. But it was terrific. We went to Cheltenham Town Hall to hear the Philharmonia Orchestra play three warhorses: the Meistersinger Prelude, Brahms' 1st Piano Concerto (with Boris Berezovsky) and the Pathétique. All were thrillingly performed, we thought, particularly the Tchaikovsky.

Leif Segerstam was the conductor: sitting quite far away, it seemed to us quite hard to imagine him getting through such a demanding programme, as he tottered onto the stage at the beginning, appearing to creak when rising to the podium. Ernestine Schumann-Heink was apparently of a similar build: once, at a rehearsal, she knocked over several music stands as she approached the front of he stage. "Walk sideways," urged the conductor, to which came the response: "Maestro, vith Madame Schumann-Heink der iss no sidevays."

Caroline was worried that the guard on the rostrum might be dangerously low, but Maestro Segerstam had no difficulty holding his own once installed. He even completed a stately 360 degree turn to ensure we were all enjoying ourselves as the great Allegro molto vivace approached its climax - the orchestra "still together, conductified," to use one of his own eccentric English expressions.

Sitting closer for the second half of the concert, it was clear I was wrong to think that this composer/conductor's flowing white hair and beard were evidence of great age, for his face looked remarkably young. I have now learnt that he is younger than I am; but I have yet to compose one symphony, let alone 208.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Four firsts

I have been out every night this week - a sign that the Summer holiday period is well and truly over.

Monday saw the first meeting of our church finance committee with the new parish priest: a refreshingly different sort of get-together from any we have ever had before. I feel it's going to be a pleasure to work with Fr. Bosco, given the ambitious ideas he has for the two parishes to which he's been appointed.

On Tuesday, the Cheltenham Film Society had its first showing of the new season: Xavier Giannoli's film Quand j'étais chanteur with the beautiful Cécile de France alongside a mountainous Gérard Depardieu: it was a boring story. The Chairman's welcome speech and the wine and cheese afterwards were the best bits of the evening!

The Cheltenham Music Society's opening recital was on Wednesday, an altogether higher definition performance, by the Carducci Quartet. The evening had a World War II feel to it. Britten's first quartet was followed by a very accessible quartet by a pre-war refugee from Vienna, Joseph Horowitz. The Quartet (with the brilliant Nicola Eimer) finished with Shostakovich's wartime Piano Quintet.

This was chamber music playing of the hightest standard - good enough almost to distract me from the draught which was blowing under the rear doors of the Pittville Pump Room. It was a pleasure afterwards to be introduced by Jane Blunden to the "middle" of the Quartet, Michelle Fleming and Eoin Schmidt-Martin, word of which reached Ireland before I could even get round to typing this!

Churches can also be draughty places at this time of year, but not last night: there was a packed audience for the opening Tetbury Festival recital by Radu Lupu. Not having heard him for decades, I had forgotten quite what a distinctive virtuoso he is. His playing isn't to everyone's taste, particularly those put off by unprepossessing platform behaviour; but the Beethoven in the first half was, for me magical, especially the Andante of Op 14, no 2.

The Schumann Fantasie on the other hand seemed erratic; but then I have grown used to listening to the incomparable performance by Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion. Perhaps my restlessness was to some extent to blame: when sitting in Tetbury church, "no matter where; of comfort no man speak."

Interesting to contrast Lupu with Gérard Depardieu: both gone to seed rather.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Surrealism and Spain

Paul McKee dressed very much for the occasion on Friday evening last, for the opening of Surrealism Returns at Cheltenham Art Gallery. I enjoyed the exhibition as much as any I've seen at Cheltenham.

As usual the display is limited by space, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. I knew nothing about the original Realism and Surrealism exhibition, which took place in Gloucester 70 years ago; but it is clear from the present show what an effect the conduct of the Spanish Civil War was having at that time upon the artists exhibiting: not just Picasso and Miro, but others too protested forcefully against Fascist atrocities.

At a recent visit to the glaucoma clinic, I was reminded how important it was to keep taking the drops to avoid blind spots developing. We all it seems have blind spots about the history of the decades immediately before and following our year of birth: I must read more about that Civil War period before we depart for Spain later this month.