Thursday, 30 June 2011

Floreat Boesch

I photographed the great Austrian baritone, Florian Boesch in relaxed mood at lunchtime, after his taxing recital in the Pittville Pump Room. Taxing, yet he seemed just as relaxed on stage as off, in spite of the demands of his programme of Loewe, Schubert and Mahler songs.

As three years ago, when he stunned us with his Schwanengesang, members of the audience were on the edge of their seats for much of the time: in particular, the eight Loewe songs were brilliantly characterised. (I knew none of them.)

Cheltenham's own (it seems) Roger Vignoles was the excellent accompanist. But why were there so many empty seats? What is it about even the best lieder recitals that turns our concert-goers away?

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Leaving Levers

Our local comprehensive, Bournside School will be closed tomorrow, along with many others, but the strike action is not - as it might be - because the school is abandoning its visual arts specialism. As a result of that bit of educational vandalism, Jake Lever, Head of Community Arts at Bournside, is having to find another job: thankfully, he has done so, and will soon, along with his family, be on the move to Birmingham.

Over the eight years he has been in Cheltenham, Jake has built up thriving community links: there has been a myriad of amazing projects involving professional artists and enthusiastic participants. The Visual Arts Specialism has enormously enriched the experiences of Bournside students.

So, tonight's private view at the Parabola Arts Centre was also a time to say farewell to one of Cheltenham's most prominent artists, Jake's wife Gillian. Gillian's abstract paintings, inspired by music, form the stunning centrepiece to this year's main Cheltenham Music Festival exhibition. With weavers Sue Hiley Harris and Anna Glasbrook showing alongside, it's a vibrant display in excellent surroundings - probably Cheltenham's premier exhibition space of that size.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Freedom (again)

Over supper, we've been "listening again" to the first of this year's Reith Lectures, given this morning by Aung San Suu Kyi. Such a brave lady! I was struck by her statement that, notwithstanding her Theravada Buddhism, her commitment to non-violence was not for moral so much as practical political reasons. One of several Christian references however was to Jesus' plea, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass away from me."

Earlier, in the mass of SS Peter and Paul, the first two readings also spoke of what Daw Suu called "unfreedom" - that of the respective eponymous heroes of the day (or rather of tomorrow, since it was a vigil mass). We don't know how lucky we are; and yet how often do we pass over the opportunities so many Burmese daily make, to assert our claim to freedoms under threat?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

"A second barrel"

Over recent weeks, I have had back from the online publishers Blurb a couple of books comprising the posts to this blog - the first with those from May to December 2008, and the second (the cover is pictured above) January-June 2009. Indulgent? Certainly; but rather pleasing to think there is something more than just what's there on

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Population matters

In the evening yesterday, Caroline and I biked down to a meeting in our Town Hall put on by the NGO Population Matters: its Chairman, Roger Martin was on the platform with Jonathon Porritt, whom he introduced as "Britain's leading campaigner on behalf of future generations". Jonathon (speaking of himself as a sustainability activist) boasted that he'd been described by Ann Widdicombe as "completely bonkers" for suggesting that the time would come when having more than two children might be regarded as irresponsible.

He quoted the 2009 report by Murtaugh and Schlax of Oregon State University, looking at the relative benefit of decisions which have an impact on one's carbon footprint. Based on then current figures, doing an aggregate of "good" things like driving a fuel-efficient car, introducing energy-saving measures at home etc. might save one individual a maximum of 500 tonnes of CO2 in a lifetime. Deciding not to have another child, however, would save nearly 9,500 tonnes - six times the average US citizen's lifetime CO2 use.

It was our wedding anniversary: this is one of the few images we had of us on that sunny day 36 years ago - there were no group photographs. Since then we have acquired four children and three grandchildren...

Monday, 20 June 2011


In a family of cat lovers, it's hard to express anti-feline feeling; so I much enjoyed being able to read aloud a passage from Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" to the family during our holiday (on which Thomas even brought along his cat). The riff comes towards the end of this marvellous book, where our hero, Walter is seen as "a nutcase and a menace" for wanting to protect the songbirds around the lake - where his family have been coming over generations - from the domestic pets brought in by the households in the new development, Canterbridge Estates. "The older cat owners on the street did politely accept the [coloured neoprene cat] bibs and promise to try them, so that Walter would leave them alone and they could throw the bibs away."

Franzen's gift is to be able to see the funny side of any serious argument. And so the book cavorts along through its nearly 600 pages treating all manner of particularly green issues in a highly entertaining way. I enjoyed it even more than his earlier masterpiece, "The Corrections".

Sunday, 19 June 2011


At lunch in Coln Rogers on Thursday, we had news about our old house (situated about half way between there and here in Cheltenham): we were there from 1983 to 1994, during which time I planted more than 50 different varieties of roses in the garden. The news was that they have now all been uprooted, as the people who bought the house from us (Londoners) seldom use the house, and have ordered the garden to be turned over to minimum maintenance.

A variety I never tried was one of my mother's favourites Iceberg; but my sister Charlotte gave Caroline a pair of the climbing version of Iceberg a few birthdays ago: we planted these up against our old apple trees, and - as you can just see from my photograph - they are doing really well.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Fresh Air 2011

Lucy and David Abel Smith's Quenington garden seems fuller than ever this year, with weird and wonderful sculptures - 170 listed in the catalogue. "Fresh Air" has been going every other year for two decades now, a remarkable achievement on the part of Lucy and the other organisers. We were invited to the Private View today - it's on till 10th July. Coming round the corner of The Old Rectory, you see the Mill Race with Giles Rayner's copper Island, and on the far bank three of Rebecca Newnham's haunting Fledge figures, giant seed pods drifting in the breeze.

Friday, 17 June 2011

"The Diary of a Shropshire farmer" - again

It's arrived! There can be nothing much more satisfying than to receive a copy of one's own book in the post. Or seeing one's name as author on Amazon.

As trailed previously, my great-great-grandfather, a farmer, wrote a diary, two volumes of which have only fairly recently come to light. They cover his mini-Grand Tour of the North of England and Scotland as a young man of 23, and his day-to-day life in Shropshire during the two years following. Together, they give a snapshot of what British life was like in the 1830s. I have included an introduction, sketching the changes that he witnessed, and that our landscape faces today. This is the bare outline, anyway: it conceals an awful lot of hard work, and not just by me. Let's hope for some reviews!

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Hits and misses - 2

Still to do is the sorting of photographs taken during our fortnight away - and the deletion of many of them. Some of the "hits" include this early morning scene from just outside our lofty Castillian B&B, where we spent the night we arrived in Spain. Wind turbines were everywhere to be seen in both Spain and Portugal. How do they get them up to some of those high places!

And we admired the engineering of all the many tunnels and viaducts on what is an astonishing motorway network: especially below the Picos de Europa, the views of both coastline and mountains are breathtaking, but no photographs alas! I was sorry also to miss the chance of trying to snap the pod of dolphins that accompanied us as our ferry made its way through the rather uncomfortable swell of the Bay of Biscay on Monday evening: my mind was on other things.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Hits and misses

Plenty of time is needed in the Asturian city of Avilés if you are looking for the new Niemeyer Centre there. The shining white architectural shapes of Oscar Niemeyer's design stand out a mile off against the harbour backdrop, but as you approach closer by car, the cultural centre itself seems more and more inaccessible. The signage seems non-existant! Eventually, we gave up, so the nearest I came to a photograph was when we saw Caroline's young cousin wearing the T-shirt.

Other cities' attractions, however, proved a hit on our trip: gliding out of Portsmouth with Brittany Ferries, we admired Nelson's Victory. Burgos Cathedral was distractingly beautiful for our Ascension mass-going. Picking up Agnes from Porto airport terminal (it opened five years ago) meant we could admire its brilliant design at close quarters - an extraordinary contrast with nearby Braga's mediaeval heart.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011


We arrived home safely today after 18 days away with the garden looking very overgrown. It's not the ideal time of year to be away. Meanwhile, in Cantabria yesterday morning, before catching the ferry, we revisited Santillana del Mar, that astonishingly perfect (and surprisingly unspoilt) mediaeval town with its stone-paved streets and luxuriant window boxes. Everything is way ahead in Spain (and Portugal), with the main problem access to water, as I hinted last week. The smallholders of our village open and close the channels diverted from the mill stream by an elaborate dance movement, so giving life to their maize crop. We just turn on the hose.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Old and new in Portugal 2011

We are getting to the end of a fortnight at a rented mill house, Casa do Lagar, a few miles North of Ponte de Lima, in the Portuguese Minho: I have been on holiday from blogging as well as generally. The first week was hot, but the weather has changed rather, and as some of the family has now left, I have returned to the computer, despite snail-like connectivity.

We are only half a mile from the A-3 motorway, with a working quarry a similar distance away the other side, but the main sound reaching us is that of running water, with the occasional ox cart trundling past on the lane. Apart from our garden with its swimming pool, all the land around is intensively cultivated – sweet corn, grapes, cabbages etc. The vines mark the boundaries of small fields hardly bigger than allotments: their owners are out both early and late with hoes, diverting streams of water for irrigation.

In the huge Ponte de Lima market, these same smallholders can be seen seated with their produce about them, or perhaps a basketful of rabbits. They stare at us, as we do likewise by training our cameras upon them.