Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Christmas story for the digital age

Letter boxes have still overflowed this year notwithstanding text and email's dominance of our normal communications flow. There's something satisfying about sending and receiving a card, however little may be written on it, and despite - perhaps because of - the expense and labour-intensiveness. I never cease to wonder at the variety of representations of the Christmas message that the postman brings: duplicates occur, but they are rare. My father used to hang cards up on sticky tape, and we played a game trying to spot which card image contained a certain unique feature.

This year, we have had a smattering of e-cards as in recent years past; but so far the best e-message has been forwarded by Thomas from Lisbon: as one might expect from him, both up-to-date and tongue-in-cheek.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010


This is one of the gates of St Gregory's Church, here in Cheltenham town centre: I took it on Sunday night. We were due to go again last night for the carol concert, but it was called off. As compensation, I discovered this joyous video: it has been viewed nearly 25 million times already, but some of you (like me) may have missed it.

Monday, 20 December 2010

"The Nativity"

We watched the first episode of BBC1's "The Nativity" this evening. Very good it was too. A perceptive review has already appeared here.

What I particularly liked about it was the depiction of the holy family as made up of very ordinary people, rather like those out walking their dog on our local playing field yesterday. (Not sure the holy family would have kept a dog, mind you.) We shall try and catch the remaining three episodes - which is not so hard now that we are house-bound because of the weather: we've just been coping with a burst pipe.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

paper white

Caroline was out early this morning, sweeping our drive after our first really serious fall of snow this Winter: we have got off lightly up till now. I was quite surprised that the newspapers had got through, as the roads are treacherous. Gritters don't seem to work on a Sunday, I concluded as I slithered by foot to mass this evening. I sneaked in a prayer for a better performance by our batsmen after the Perth debacle.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Phoenix of Avon

My photograph, taken this afternoon from the old bridge across the Avon at Stratford, shows the remade Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which opens in earnest next February. By the waterside, the line of the Scott building has been restored, with the café resited in the stalls bar, and a wide outdoor terrace opened up in place of the café. The dressing-room block has been refaced: in 1955, stagestruck, I saw Vivien Leigh on one of those little balconies during an interval of Twelfth Night: she was playing opposite her husband Laurence Olivier. The restaurant - excellent food and of course views - is now in the glass-faced box overlooking both the river and former theatre car park: it paid to be on good terms with Victor there - as with Leslie Mitchell in the box office. The tower is of course totally new, and I think rather regrettable. I would say the same for the octagonal crown over the refashioned auditorium.

Inside, there is plenty to admire. The layout is on the same lines as that of the Swan next door, but altogether less claustrophobic. The seats look really comfortable, and of course none is any distance from the stage - as in the Courtyard. I can't wait to hear what the sound is like.

One major disappointment: try as I might, I can find nothing in the literature to indicate what steps have been taken to make the refurbished RST energy-efficient. Heating the cavernous new shop/foyer area seems likely to cost a bomb.

Thursday, 16 December 2010


Verdict on last night's predictions:

* the cricket - better than I expected (Day 1): a long way to go though!

* the weather - as bad: not much fun bicycling back from Cheltenham Station in the snow this evening.

I had taken the bike on the train to Bristol, for a visit to watch grandson Laurie in a starring role as a gingerbread man - in his playgroup's Christmas show. In fact, all 31 of the little darlings had starring roles, but naturally Laurie was the only one who really mattered. (Photography generally encouraged, but results not to be posted on the internet, I was advised.) I wondered if any of them would make it onto whatever turns out to be the 2025 equivalent of The X Factor.

It is always nostalgic, coming to Temple Meads Station, and reliving the misery of the beginning of each new school term in the early 50s.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Cricket and carols

Good friends invited us to their carol party this evening, which put us well into the mood for Christmas. Not many are privileged to sing together in an upstairs drawing-room accompanied by a chamber organ. We began with my favourite Advent hymn, O come, O come, Emmanuel, with five carols following on - just the right number, and played at a good lick. There's nothing worse than a dirgy pace where carols are concerned.

The snow is coming back, we are told, but at least we shall hear about warmer doings overnight, tuning in from Perth. (I have a hunch that all is not going to go according to - English - plan.) Meanwhile, the British Council have added an amazing historic film about cricket in post-War London to their website.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

An Oscar at the RCE

Yesterday, I related unnecessary packaging to incipient climate chaos. Today, the RCE Severn Christmas Lecture by Michael Wadleigh related consumerism as a whole to unsustainable development by means of the simple equation:

H+P = -R

where H = the human population, P = manufactured products and R = resources. It's hardly an original thought, but he put it across well by means of excellent slides. They imagined our world was encapsulated in a space station with ten occupants - one of whom enjoyed half the available resources, the other nine sharing the rest. Result: of course, revolution.

What makes human beings happy? he asked. Products? No: nature, other human society and activities leading to fulfilment. Truth and finit-ism were his watchwords.

I commend Michael's presentation, called the Homo Sapiens report: he offers it free of charge to secondary schools and universities. And he'll bring along his Woodstock Oscar for a talking point!

Monday, 13 December 2010


At this checkout at lunchtime, I was told I was the first person today to refuse a plastic bag for my purchases. Is there any wonder we can only just about keep the climate talks on the road?

Sunday, 12 December 2010


48 hours after Hamlet, I returned to our local Cineworld's Screen 3 for Don Carlo last evening: live relays from the Metropolitan Opera have begun again, praise the Lord. A couple of minor hiccoughs with the transmission served only to underline the miracle of modern science that enables us to sit in Cheltenham and watch what New Yorkers are experiencing in the theatre. To be able to bike 10 minutes down to the cinema and pick up a ticket at the door (and for only £10) seems to me incredible good fortune.

Both production and performances were outstanding. I forgot I had seen most of the principals in the same staging when televised from Covent Garden a year or so ago, but no matter when such excellence is on hand. Of the cast, Marina Poplavskaya again stood out for me, with her extraordinary legato and perfect looks for the part of Elisabeth de Valois.

Something else we now take for granted is subtitling. Not every word of the libretto is given us, but last night, with the King of Spain around, "Sire!" naturally recurred a good deal. And earlier in the day we had seen another famous sire. Makfi, winner of this year's 2,000 Guineas, resides in a stableyard beside the house where we were lucky enough to be invited to lunch yesterday: stud fee, £25,000.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Hamlet by the dozen

I collect Hamlets as others collect rare books. The bibliophile leaves many of his volumes unopened on the shelf: likewise, this Hamlet collector doesn't record the minutes his eyes have remained closed during a performance. (Kenneth Branagh took a long time doing his Dane, I recall, on a particularly stuffy evening at the RST in 1992...)

Alan Badel was my first Hamlet - 1956, Stratford. I remember him, but not much about Anthony Quayle and Glen Byam Shaw's production, the first of half a dozed (this is as I typed it - too good to correct) I saw in what we must now call the old Shakespeare Memorial Theatre: that meant something different to theatregoers in the 1950s, whose memories went back before the 1926 fire.

Ian Bannen, David Warner in long sudent scarf, Nicol Williamson with some machine gun delivery at The Round House, Alan Howard, Ian McKellen in 1971, Alex Jennings (1996), Simon Russell Beale (2001), and the great Russian film Hamlet with Innokenti Smoktunovsky: now the collection has an addition to it, following a visit to Cheltenham's Cineworld last night for the relay from the National Theatre. And Rory Kinnear's Hamlet goes to the top of my list.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Student unrest - in Cheltenham

"Hundreds of students are gathering in Cheltenham to stage a protest against a planned rise in tuition fees" - so promised the press release issued first thing this morning. The police turned out in force. Bus routes were diverted, and not just because of the snow.

The water froze before reaching the taps in my Oxford rooms in 1962. Surely students today are not put off from marching by a little cold? In a place where the annual GCHQ rallies used to witness thousands coming together, just a few tens ambled in after midday today - shepherded by as many (if not more) of the boys and girls in yellow jackets, their kettling skills unneeded. William IV looked down scornfully from his plinth.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Patsy Hendren

Half a century ago, I used to travel into Birmingham on the top deck of the Midland Red bus, to watch Warwickshire play cricket. I sat at the front alongside Mr. Austin, the Warwickshire scorer: he, his wife and daughter Joan lived near us in Alcester. I regarded him and indeed all the cricket establishment with awe.

After lunch, Chico, as people less in awe called him, would let me come and sit at the front of the score box - but only upon the arduous condition that I resisted the urge to clap. Chico knew of my propensity for collecting autographs, and one day when Middlesex were our visitors, suggested I might like to ask his fellow-scorer to sign my book. Who was this white-haired veteran, I wondered? The name in the book was clear: "E.H. Hendren". But it meant little to me, hardly surprising since he had made his Middlesex first team debut in 1907.

Today, we sleep-deprived cricket addicts are rejoicing in a famous victory at Adelaide, brought about through England scoring 620 for 5, their second-highest total in a test match in Australia. Even when rain threatens, the temperature there is up in the 30s: here, by contrast, we walk out into a white wonderland, where even the traffic lights are decorated with hoar-frost. Retreating to the fireside, I read of the occasion in 1928 when Jardine's men reached 636, with 251 from Hammond. The second highest scorer? E.H. Hendren.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

David Fleming RIP

This afternoon, I was looking at this amongst other photographs I had taken during 2010, to select some for our usual kitchen calendar. As I did so, I thought to myself how short life is for some people - and that perhaps indeed it would be so for David. I can't imagine what gave me this idea, as that Michaelmas Day in Cornwall when I took this, just two months ago, he was in prime form - as cadaverous as ever, but enjoying a healthy if quirky diet, and no more stressed than usual about what might become his very own Casaubon delusion.

An hour later came the shocking news that David had indeed died at the weekend. What a friend we have all lost! Others have written more knowledgeably than could I about his originality of thought. You could see him as a curmudgeon if you opposed the invasion of Iraq; or the mad professor if you looked for a practical, straightforward answer to a question. He regularly won the family's competition for most unusual Christmas card. Sir Andrew Aguecheek sprang occasionally to mind, though David was nobody's fool - and never had money enough to match his generosity of spirit. Such a mixture of the extremes of conservatism and radicalism puzzled many, but beguiled our children, who will be heart-broken. And what other economic dictionary offers a definition of "quick" in the biblical sense?

The Iraq conflict re-erupted over supper in our kitchen on 8th October 2005 - between David and his good friend Jonathon Porritt. This photograph was taken a few glasses of wine later.