Saturday, 27 December 2008

Three cheers for Hoggart

Simon Hoggart sometimes infuriates me, but at others he hits the nail on the head. As in today's article, which includes this, about Pope Benedict's recent speech to the Curia:

...I know he was trying to make a more subtle point: that we should worry about human frailty as much as environmental degradation, but it didn't half come out wrong. Maybe someone should point out to his holiness that the human race will survive since the great majority of people are still straight, and being gay isn't just a lifestyle choice, like where you live, or whether you pick turkey or goose for Christmas. It's a decision made for you - you may think by God.

What the Pope may need is someone to live with, of either sex, someone who treats him as an equal, and is able to tell him, "but, dearest heart, that is sheer blithering idiocy! Please don't say it. And you did promise to peel the potatoes ..."

As it is, working it out on his own this one seems to be roughly as infallible as a 30-year old Hillman Imp.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Fit to print - 3

By way of seasonal update:

Edmund, Claire, William and Laurie are at their home for Christmas (and we are going to see them on Boxing Day). Claire telephoned yesterday to say that Laurie was walking.

Leo and Mini are busy planning their wedding celebrations, to take place at various stages during next year.

Thomas arrives back from Lisbon for Christmas tonight.

Agnes will complete her proof-reading course shortly; whilst
Ida - who enjoys chocolate pudding - is now 14 months old, and, having been spurred on by her younger cousin's prowess, has (yesterday) taken her first independent steps.

Midnight Mass at St Gregory's is always packed out, but I hope that Caroline, sister Sarah, Leo, Mini, Thomas, Agnes and Ida will be joining me for the first Mass of Christmas on Wednesday evening at St Thomas More's Church in the West of Cheltenham.

A Happy Christmas to blog readers everywhere! This extract from Dickens' A Christmas Carol came today from the RSA.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Winter wedding in Withington

Malcolm Rooker was a university friend of mine: we met up again after we had both come to work in Cheltenham, in the '70s. Some years later, he died suddenly - at far too young an age.

Passing through the nearby village of Withington yesterday, I glimpsed that the South entrance to St Michael's Church was looking a bit special. Was it decorated for Christmas? No: on further investigation I found myself talking to the bride's mother: today at 4.30 Malcolm's niece is to be married in the church.

The decorations inside are if possible even more impressive than those around the porch, including the largest bunch of mistletoe I have ever seen. It is all the work of the celebrated Sue Artus, I was told.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Weeping beech

This morning I walked past this beech, standing on the edge of a Cotswold conifer plantation near Withington. Maybe the vandal who carved "CRIME" into its bark some years ago was upset by the loss of whatever was growing on the land previously, or perhaps the view. Otherwise it's hard to know the motivation for desecrating a beautiful tree in this way.

"CRIME" seems to cause the tree to weep! (I think I'll enter the photograph for the What is crime? photography competition.)

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Advent Art

Advent Art is an online Advent calendar which showcases the creativity of artists living or working in Gloucestershire today. In the words of the organisers, Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum: "There is no theme, it is simply art for art's sake."

Now in its second year, I am pleased to have been chosen as today's artist: this link takes you to my page on the site.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The great Brendel

Alfred Brendel gives his last public recital this week. Yesterday's G2 carried an interview with him, and an article by his former pupil, Imogen Cooper.

To commemorate, I have dusted down this photograph I took in July 1976: Brendel was in Cheltenham - as so often before and since - for that Summer's music festival, and staying at the Greenway Hotel. Imogen, a family friend, was staying with us. Here they are with Adrian, now a celebrated cellist, then aged one!

What impressed me most at the time, I recall, was the ends of Brendel's fingers - heavily plastered.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

The boys in pink

Today is Gaudete Sunday. The Introit at Mass goes: Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice; let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God.

If you take Advent seriously, then Gaudete is a welcome and necessary break from voluntary austerity, as is Laetare Sunday in Lent. Our church didn't possess rose-coloured vestments - until now. But are they necessary for two Sundays a year?

I ask this, as we learnt today that a set has been donated (presumably by a parishioner). Anyway, the assistant priest and one of the deacons paraded in for mass this evening, each togged up in fetching pink. Distracted, I kept wondering what the tailoring bill had come to, and how much might instead have been sent to those looking after the cholera victims in Zimbabwe, the subject of our intercessions.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Leo & Mini

Thomas took this excellent photograph in August: Leo and his fiancée, Katsumi Ikushima, known to the world as Mini, are now formally engaged. In The Times, there is a Guest Book for them: do sign in! You can see half a dozen other photographs of them on The Times' site also, in their Photo Gallery.

The wedding is now fixed for May next year, to take place in England, with another ceremony in Kyoto in October: we shall be flying out!

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Mumbai: the terror attacks, religion & class

This article briefly sketches in the background, or some of it. As you see, the author is a Jesuit priest working in Assam. I found it helpful.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Brussels: the final leg

From Luxembourg it's not that far up through the Ardennes to Brussels, where we arrived at midday. An unmemorable journey, apart from the train being remarkably empty: the day was misty so we couldn't see much. Oh yes, Namur's Citadel looked impressive, perched above the River Meuse.

We were kindly invited to Brussels to stay with Thibaud and Ulli de Saint-Quentin, recently-moved there from across our road in Cheltenham. Thibaud, with an insider's knowledge of the chocolate industry, was well-placed to guide us round the mouth-watering shops in Place du Grand Sablon: the window of Maison Marcolini looked more like a jeweller's than a chocolatier's.

Left to ourselves, we enjoyed the Royal Museums, both ancient and modern: the modern (besides its impressive collection) has a lift as large as a dentist's waiting-room. We also had an excellent lunch in the Museum Brasserie: recommended. Earlier, we explored the Marolles quarter, and the market in Place du Jeu de Balle: I bargained for some pretty plates there a couple of years ago, carrying them back unwrapped in my hand on Eurostar.

I had visited the beautiful late Gothic Notre Dame du Sablon a couple of times, but apart from another look at that lovely church we also went into the nearby Notre Dame de la Chapelle, an enormous Romanesque/Gothic church, burial place of the elder Brueghel, and the Chapelle Sainte-Marie-Madeleine. This last is tiny by comparison, a restored jewel, clearly much used and loved. One of the Sisters of the Assumption keeps a small shop.

Reflecting on our nearly four weeks away, it's the Christian thread to our journeys that stands out: great cathedrals; monastic buildings, churches and chapels, and religious painting and sculpture - all relics of a common culture flourishing over a period of many centuries. The same stories again and again, but told each in its unique way, and with the utmost reverence, formed a persistent theme for meditation. Even if churches lack repair and may be poorly attended, with few priests available - as in France particularly - nevertheless in that kindness to strangers we experienced everywhere we went, I felt and was grateful for more than a merely humanist tradition: it is Christianity's enduring legacy.


Whereas Strasbourg station entrance was all shiny new glass cladding and opened onto wide spaces, Luxembourg's seemed more like a building site, its outside crammed with people and traffic when we arrived there. Eventually we heard a welcoming cry from Angela Hoogewerf, an old friend with whom we had invited ourselves to stay: she whisked us off in her car, pausing by the Adolphe Bridge so we could look down into the deep gorge which gave the city its strategic importance. Migrating storks - in the dark, we could only hear them - honoured us with a flypast as we shivered.

Down by the somewhat puny (I thought) river, we admired an exhibition of wire body forms suspended above the water: spot-lit, they seemed beautiful but faintly sinister. After a look round the river area, we met up with Francis Hoogewerf at his Club. We drank a coupe de champagne. I had to don a (Club) tie before I was allowed in: "Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sinn," is the Grand Duchy's motto - "We want to remain what we are."

Angela and Francis live in a most welcoming house outside Luxembourg itself: as one of the smallest capital cities, its surrounding countryside is not far away. Having said this, we seemed to find ourselves in a long and rather slow-moving line of BMWs and Mercedes on the way back to the station the next morning, no doubt Eurocrats all.

France: Strasbourg

We passed the Vosges mountains on our left as we sped along to Strasbourg, another city that surprised us. Europe has certainly made its mark on the station building there, but we hadn't thought there would be so much else to see between trains. Leaving our backpacks, it was an easy walk to the old centre - the Grande Île.

This turns out to be a city crammed full of fine buildings, but dominated by the pink Cathedral of Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg with its vast spire. The carvings - inside and out - and the stained glass are sensational; but then I seem to have felt that about very many of the churches and cathedrals we have visited. What was different here was the throng of people, in spite of which the manner in which the authorities presented the church and its works of art to the public displayed a special reverence.

France: Colmar

What a contrast between Colmar and Clermont-Ferrand, our previous stay! Colmar is clean, pedestrian-friendly and full of charm. You could use it to model sets for a traditional production of Die Meistersinger.

The main purpose of our visit was to see the Isenheim Altarpiece. Could it be worth it, we thought as we walked across the town, seeking out a museum which could have been closed according to one interpretation of our leaflet? Well, yes it surely was. The retable is the main work to be found in the former chapel of the convent which is now the Unterlinden Museum. Before reaching it, you pass through cloisters and a warren of smaller galleries, full of fine things, none of which however prepare you for the impact of this extraordinary polyptych.

Though we have all seen the subject-matter in very many forms before, this so-expressive crucifixion will remain with me.

France: Clermont-Ferrand to Colmar

This was another three-train day, weather dull but dry. The journeys (600kms in total) passed comfortably: not many on board. As usual, we were on time. I was pleased to see one of our trains in particular was kitted out for lots of bikes, and that all passengers sat in what was a mobile phone-free zone: jokey signs indicated you could use them between the carriages.

As always there seemed plenty to look out for, though when taking photographs it was never easy to avoid reflections from the windows - none of which of course opened (unlike when we were travelling through Mongolia). We passed along the Rivers Saône (here, near Lyon) and Doubs, and later through vineyards and the Belfort Gap.

We stopped to change trains in Mulhouse,
which my spouse thought should rhyme with "full house."
But the ticket inspector
was quick to correct her:
In fact, it's pronounced like "Toulouse."

Monday, 8 December 2008

France: Nîmes to Clermont-Ferrand

This was the most scenic journey on our 5,000-mile route. The train wound its way up from Nîmes, through the mountainous Ardèche and many tunnels. On and on, with rushing rivers below us. Quite a different France from that we saw on our flat run this morning - long views over the landscape with glimpses of Mediterranean coastline.

Getting into the train at Nîmes station, we settled ourselves down in what turned out to be first class seats. But the move wasn't arduous: the carriage next door had a nostalgic corridor down one side: we had a compartment to ourselves.

We arrived well after dark in Clermont-Ferrand, a huge place. (I suppose I knew this, but it was unexpected somehow.) The twin-spired Cathedral, Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption, dominates the city, its black stone giving it rather a grim air. We had supper - pork and stuffed cabbage - looking out at a transept wall from the first floor of our restaurant.

France: Nîmes

Two TGVs from Toulouse - one a double-decker - took us the 300kms to Nîmes in time for elevenses, in the shadow of the elliptical Roman amphitheatre. In the absence of left-luggage facilities at Nîmes station, we had to carry our rucksacks up Mont Cavalier to the (also Roman) Tour Magne: it was just as well we didn't know how steep it was, or we would certainly have missed out on the view and a gentle walk down to the Jardins de la Fontaine.

I know it always helps to see somewhere when the sun is shining, but we very much enjoyed Nîmes, a stylish city, with its generous streets and rich history. This is the façade of Agrippa's Maison Carrée: the other end, restored recently, has come out all bright and shining: a bit too white for my taste. The building has been variously a temple, a Christian church, a meeting place, a stable, a storehouse and a museum. You enter it up an immensely steep flight of steps.

Norman Foster was responsible for the clearance and layout of the surrounding square, and for building an adjacent art gallery. It looks rather fine, but we didn't have time to investigate before our train North.

France: Toulouse

As we drove into Toulouse, we experienced one of the disadvantages of being car-borne: there wasn't anywhere to park near Les Abattoirs, so we missed the chance to see something of its enormous collection of contemporary painting and sculpture, and Picasso's Minotaur backdrop. After handing the car back, though, we were free to explore the old centre of the city, and particularly some of its many fine churches: Caroline had only passed through before, and it was many years since I had visited.

I had forgotten how spectacular is the interior St Sernin, Europe's largest Romanesque basilica. And I don't at all remember the brilliant carvings on the church's Porte Miègeville: in the tympanum, there is the Ascension, witnessed by the disciples in stylised poses: they look faintly Egyptian. The figures on this capital are more naturalistic: I like the rather laid-back angel who accompanies Adam and a glamorous Eve out of the Garden of Eden. (This photograph also indicates the repair work needed on St Sernin's exterior.)

Saturday, 6 December 2008

France: around Simorre

We only glimpsed the Pyrenees just as we were leaving our chambre d'hôte at the end of a two-night stay. Its address was a remote hamlet, Monferran-Plavès. But the house was further from there than we were led to believe: in the middle of nowhere actually. Not a place to find easily on a rainy, windblown evening after dark.

During most of our stay, the weather was misty - and very cold. We made sorties to various local villages, but all were as quiet as the grave. We spent a long time in the bleak but beautiful church at Simorre, but seeking out a cup of coffee (lukewarm) in the local bar, we found it populated just by the silent proprietor and two cats. Driving through the empty lanes of the Midi-Pyrénées in November, I thought what a desolate place to live! However attractive, you can't eat the scenery.

Simorre church is a huge, brick, fortified, 14th Century priory (restored by Viollet-le-Duc 600 years later), its main external feature an octagonal lantern, surrounded by pinacled turrets, a haven for the pigeons circling round. Inside, there is a set of 35 choir stalls (with misericords), the carving as fine as in Auch Cathedral, but more rustic, and the wood much lighter in colour. Through the grille on the sacristy door, you can see wall paintings, and a small, rather exquisite Deposition. No doubt it's not worth the risk of leaving it in an open, untenanted church, where there is a larger one - simple compared to Monastiès, but fine all the same. Some old glass too, but high up and difficult to see clearly. Altogether, a great building: like many others in sleepy corners of France, a delight to come across.

Encouraged, we also went into the church of Notre Dame de l'Assomption in nearby Boulogne sur Gesse: another large 14th Century building, but not so impressive apart from the pulpit - covered with stone carvings of animals (more or less fabulous): I particularly liked the lizard, about to devour a snail.

In that area, we liked too the Cistercian Abbey of Sainte Marie de Boulaur, with its 14th Century frescoes. Nuns returned after World War II, and it is very much a place of prayer today. But how do they maintain such a place? We were looking round the church when my mobile phone rang: the only time I heard it during our entire trip.

Gimont church (Notre Dame) also boasts an octagonal tower - very tall - but with its interior in a sad state. (To make up for it, our coffee in the market square bar was hot.)

France: Pau - Lourdes

The coach disgorged us at Pau station 90 minutes or so later than expected, but no harm was done: indeed, we had rather enjoyed this minor drama. Up we went on the funicular to the Boulevard des Pyrénées, but of the view there was none: the day was grey. Caroline rather likes Pau, but we didn't dawdle long in the City after lunch, feeling the weight of our backpacks. Instead, we tracked down an efficient bus which took us out to the Europcar base and to temporary possession of a Fiat 500 diesel. (It seemed plenty big enough for the two of us - though I attracted some odd looks when getting in and out - and used very little fuel: in fact it's rather more economical than the Smart car that Caroline covets.)

Though the object was to discover some more remote parts of the Midi-Pyrénées, our first stop was Lourdes, which we could have reached by train. I had been on two Ampleforth Pilgrimages in the early 'Seventies, of which I had clear and happy memories. Caroline for her part was intrigued to see what the fuss was about.

Although 2008 has been a big year at the Shrine, 150 years after Bernadette's apparitions, there weren't hordes of pilgrims about in the Domain on a damp November afternoon. All things considered we declined to join the short queue for the baths, walking past to the bridge across the Gave and into La Prairie: heavily developed now compared to 35 years ago, it remains a still and special place.

France: Hendaye - Pau

The strangely-named Puyoo is a village halfway to Pau, where we had planned to break our journey for a couple of days' car hire. A very long SNCF train pulled out of Hendaye and snaked its way up the coast through St. Jean-de-Luz and Biarritz, exotic places compared to the grime of industrial North-East Spain yesterday.

It wasn't quite as comfortable as with Renfe, but all was going smoothly till we came to a halt here, and out we had to get. Apparently the train in front had been derailed - possibly a result of industrial action aimed at France's TGVs: when we tried to get to the bottom of it our French failed us.

So, we asked the station master for the key to the station loo, and tried to wait patiently for coaches to take us onwards. Amongst the throng was an elderly French woman in pilgrimage gear (i.e. complete with a dangling scallop shell): she had not only walked to Compostela, but also back again as far as the Spanish border. That spurs me on.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Spain: Hondarribia

Our final single-track, narrow-guage journey took us (via view after view of hideous, tightly-packed apartment blocks, washing draped from their windows, graffiti everywhere) across the French border to Hendaye. With some relief, we traded the train for a taxi: this took us back across to the Spanish border town of Hondarribia, formerly known as Fuenterrabía and scene of many battles.

Our comfortable hotel was a converted 14th/15th century palace in the heart of the historic centre of Hondarribia, within impressive walls. Walking down the steep path through one of the stone gateways, we emerged by the harbour: excellent fish soup for dinner at Kupela, a Basque restaurant in a charming old fisherman's cottage.

This was a good stop: we could easily have stayed here longer.

Spain: Bilbao

Having been spoilt by our swish Renfe journeys, we now found ourselves on FEVE and Eusko narrow-guage trains, which stopped every five minutes. They were freezing, like in the more dire parts of Southern Region. Comfort was not the first consideration. No luggage racks. On one stretch, there wasn't even a loo. What was worse, our InterRail passes weren't recognised, so we had to PAY.

There were however some pretty sections - river valleys and seaside - on our crawl Eastwards along the North coast, but the mist - and darkness - made it impossible to see anything of the Picos de Europa. Santander - as hinted before - wasn't a great overnight stop, and we didn't have time for a look round San Sebastian. In Bilbao, again we just changed stations - this is Concordia, looking through the rain across the river from our (very efficient) tram.

Spain: Muros de Nalón

Having visited the Iberian Peninsular's South-Eastern and Western coastlines, here we were now visiting Caroline's cousins on the Northern edge. Not that we saw the sea during our short stay: in our shirtsleeves, we sat about in the lovely garden, my most strenuous exercise being to pick a basketful of persimmon - a new fruit to me: from afar, they look a bit like oranges.

Nothing at Muros seemed to have changed much since our last visit, in 2004. In particular, we received the same immensely warm welcome. Our washing was whisked away. I found a hole in one of my socks had been mended on its return. We were fetched from and driven to our trains, and sent off with a large bar of chocolate, which saw us through the rest of our holiday. After so much city life, it was a joy to be in such a haven of peace.

Spain: León to Oviédo

Before we started on our rail tour, we bought Thomas Cook's map showing all Europe's train lines. It has the scenic routes highlighted: this was one of them, through the mountains dividing Castilla from Asturias.

My view out of the window across the gangway was interrupted by a couple constantly kissing and caressing each other: they were both male. And there was I reflecting that it was easy to understand why Christianity was always able to hold out against Islam in Asturias when you pass through this wild country.

The line from Oviédo to the sea at Avilés passes through a comparatively developed landscape. We found ourselves in a more or less empty commuter train apart from a pigeon, which hopped on at Oviédo and off again two stops later. I suppose even pigeons value a lift now and then.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Spain: Ourense

However hard you study the Cook's timetable, there are some journeys you can't do in one go. That's why we found ourselves in Ourense, walking from the station across a Roman bridge: 370 metres long, it has shells embedded to indicate we were on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela - the Via de la Plata. Our train had brought us from Vigo along the Miño River valley, a journey through delightful forest scenery - a comfortable Renfe train this time. This more contemporary bridge over the Miño caught the eye; as did the elegant hot water (very hot!) baths in the centre of the old part of the city, its baroque main square and 13th Century Cathedral of Santiago. A good place for a bicycle race too, it seems: without having a clue what it was about, we joined the hundreds on the streets cheering contestants on!

Spain: Vigo

James and Penny Symington provided all too good a dinner for us in Porto, considering how early our train left the next morning: I acquired a stiff neck, trying to catch up on sleep on the way North, back towards Spain. Not one of our most comfortable trains.

We had a two-hour slot in Vigo, waiting for our East-bound train, but failed to make the best of it. (Vigo, Santander and Lyon were all failures on that score: they all had something to offer, but we were flummoxed by the lack of left luggage lockers and/or our failure to get to grips with the geography. In Lyon, we got as far as the Metro platform, but no trains came! It was Sunday morning. Memo for future trips: do pre-journey prep when you only have a relatively short time to look round somewhere.)

Quite often during our holiday we came across human statues. They are very much part of the scene in Barcelona's Las Ramblas for instance. Sometimes they are caught unawares: Julius Caesar winked at me in Brussels as he (or was it she?) puffed at a furtive cigarette. I thought I'd lined up Charlie Chaplin for a photograph whilst he was waiting to cross the road in Vigo; but - not having been paid - he turned away.