Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Small but perfectly formed

The Presteigne Festival is tiny compared to most, yet attracts musicians of the highest calibre over its six days. We came in towards the end, for a chamber concert presented by five young and highly talented women. Amongst them were the violinist Sara Trickey, who stayed with us a few years ago when she was playing at Cheltenham, and pianist/composer Alissa Firsova: she has also played at the Cheltenham Festival, and her lively piece (in memory of Shostakovich) opened the second half of last night's eclectic recital. Sitting in the South aisle of St Andrew's Church, I had an excellent view, both of the performers and of the beautiful early 16th Century Flemish tapestry depicting Christ's Entry into Jerusalem, which hangs on the North wall.

It was impressive to see rubbish being collected in Presteigne on a Bank Holiday Monday, and also to see a device of such Heath Robinson appearance, by comparison - that is - to the mobile refuse machines which grind and whirr round Cheltenham.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Sunday lunch

Yesterday, I ate fish and chips off a paper plate at Cheltenham Racecourse: today by contrast it was substantial nibbles (concluding with old fashioned ice cream cornets) in Northamptonshire. We wouldn't normally make such an effort to go so far for a party, but our host was an old friend of Caroline's, whom we hadn't seen for many moons. He had recently been summoned to Cheltenham Hospital from his home, and so realised the distance for us coming the other way wouldn't be impossible. Nor it was. And who knows if and when we might meet again?

As can be judged, it was a large party, with marquee as well as jazz band. And, as often happens when you travel out of your country, we bumped unexpectedly into various other good old friends. Going back we had the most lovely drive through the quiet country lanes of North Oxfordshire: you wouldn't have thought it was a bank holiday weekend.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Greenbelt 2011

As always, festivals abound this bank holiday weekend. On Monday, we shall be at Presteigne for one of their final concerts. We passed the Reading tented city on the train on Thursday. Edmund and the boys are camping at a festival in Leicestershire, and Upton-on-Severn was also awash with campers when I drove through yesterday.

At Cheltenham Racecourse, meanwhile, there's Greenbelt, and I biked up there today, to do duty on the Christian Ecology Link stall: plenty of people showed more-than-polite interest, and it was good to catch up with other long-standing CELites such as Tim Cooper (on the right here).

When I wasn't talking to people at our stall in the G-Source exhibition area, I was taking photographs: my collection illustrates what a happy time apart Greenbelt offers for a wide range of people and Christian proclivities. All the encounters I had filled me with hope, everyone giving so much more of themselves than they do at a sophisticated Cheltenham dinner party.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Hortus Conclusus

This is the description architect Peter Zumthor gives to his construction in the garden of the Serpentine Gallery - a garden within a garden. Unlike in previous years, there is nothing much of beauty visible from the exterior, as you drive through Hyde Park glancing West. Indeed, the structure looks as much as anything like an industrial shed.

Fortune however favours the bold, who walk into one of the openings, turn left or right and then right or left again into the centre of the rectangular space. For there you will find a quite sumptuous display of flowers and grasses - mainly pastel colours, but with many delicate textures and hints of fragrance. I was there in mid-afternoon: it would be interesting to revisit in the late evening of a day that was hotter than yesterday.

So, I award high marks to the plantsman, Piet Oudolf for his tableau vivant; but Zumthor's architecture is surely only a very poor relation to cloisters such as to be found high on Mont St Michel!

Thursday, 25 August 2011


We've been by train to London today, with our grandsons. We managed to avoid the rain, and indeed it was warm and sunny for much of the time. So warm in fact that the boys' main memory may perhaps be of splashing about in the V & A pond after lunch in the adjacent café. More fun than most swimming pools.

On our return, the train glided (glid?) out of Paddington just as the sun was setting. Did Brunel design "God's Wonderful Railway" so as to afford an especially beautiful outlook at that hour? I doubt it, but all the way to Maidenhead the sky was a thrilling kaleidoscope of colour.

"The Syndicate"

Of the dozens of plays Eduardo de Filippo wrote, set in his native Naples, The Syndicate can surely not be the best; but with Ian McKellen playing the principal character (an illiterate murderer-made-good, who plays God), it makes for great entertainment. With friends, we went to see it last evening.

I'm normally not too fond of either plays in translation or black comedy, but despite the irredeemably English setting of the Malvern Theatre, there was something splendid about this production. McKellen and the rest of the cast wisely avoid any attempt at Italian accents or even many gestures, but the mood is well created by both the elaborate set and an unusually large cast - which perhaps explains the high ticket prices. Our plans for a picnic on the theatre lawn were scuppered by some very non-Neapolitan rain.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

40 years on

Last night, I listened to the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, relayed from the Proms. And tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of this photograph being taken, before a performance of Der fliegende Holländer at Bayreuth. I am conspicuous (near the top centre of the picture), not so much for my height, as being one of the few men not wearing a dinner jacket.

My friend Clare and I had arrived at Bayreuth via three trains from London. I remember little about the journey save that Clare - about to go up to Oxford to read English - memorised "To his coy mistress" in next to no time. At Victoria Station, it had seemed like a good plan to book my suitcase in separately, but alas luggage didn't change trains with us. Result: I only had the clothes I travelled in. Our kind landlord at Bayreuth lent me a tie and his jacket - not a brilliant fit as can be seen!

Donald McIntyre sang the Dutchman in August Everding's production, conducted by Horst Stein. I recall nothing of the individual performances, but the chorus sounded magnificent.

Monday, 22 August 2011

A Real Madrid supporter

We have a 20-year-old Aoyama University student lodging with us for three weeks. "Have you been to England before?" I asked him. "No, but I've been to Madrid to watch my favourite football team play at the Bernabéu." Ah well.

Shohei is an intelligent and delightfully well-mannered young man from Sapporo, with a great appetite (which pleases Caroline): we haven't had anyone from that far North before. A former youth ski champion, he gave it up, preferring warmer-weather sports. He relaxes by performing heavy metal karaoke and reading manga online. When he leaves university next year, he hopes to join Barclays, to become an international banker. In six years time, he plans to marry his diminutive girlfriend, whom he met at school six years ago: she is over here also, staying with another host family.

Sunday, 21 August 2011


More than in most years, our garden is hosting unexpected, but welcome, visitors. This sunflower planted itself in a chimney pot tub outside my study window. A snapdragon found its way into one of a pair of urns (they came originally from my mother's garden) and sits there amongst some pansies: cornflowers are growing up unbidden in the other urn. Violas peep between the French beans. A cabbage appeared in the lavender, and an iris and a couple of cos lettuces are bravely growing in the cracks of the paving outside our tool shed. All this contrasts with the usual failed seed sowings of course. Very mysterious.

P.S. No, it can't be the chickens, which are safely fenced in, in our otherwise "municipal-looking" front garden.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Henry IV Part II

The 2010 Globe Theatre production of one of my favourite Shakespeare plays came to our local Cineworld last night. It was a long evening, as we had a false start - they put the wrong tape in, so we began with the first scene of Henry IV Part I ("So shaken as we are, so wan with care..." - rather a bonus). The production by Dominic Dromgoole was noisy, vivacious and only momentarily moving ("If I had a thousand sons..."): there was no foretaste of Chekhov as in Peter Hall's so-memorable RSC version in the early '60s, with Hugh Griffith and Roy Dotrice as Falstaff and Shallow. But the Globe gave us the marvellous, rumbustuous Roger Allam as the not-too-fat knight and a totally brilliant William Gaunt as Shallow. These apart, though, and save when it went down Gloucestershire way, the acting was one-dimmensional.

Monday, 15 August 2011

"Happy Time!"

This is the title of a book designed for pupils learning English in French primary schools. One of its editors, Pascale Spitz from Paris, is staying with us this fortnight, for one-to-one English tuition by Caroline. In between lessons, I have been trading the rules of cricket for new-to-me words and phrases such as le lait du coin; les locavores; les bobos; moi, ma vie, mon oeuvre, and n'importe quoi.

As the photograph indicates, cookery comes as part of the package. The cake was to honour another visitor, Leo's Godmother, also a teacher (in an inner-city school). And yet another teacher, now resident in Zimbabwe, came for lunch yesterday. So, over a sunny weekend there was plenty of time in the garden to reflect upon the hot topic of education as both a cause and remedy for our present troubles, not to mention the long-term problems facing us all on account of the suffering of African peoples.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

King Panther

Almost exactly eight years ago, we went in my brother-in-law's boat to Cowes, to watch the start of the Fastnet Race. Edmund was crewing on board Panther: here it is just before the start.

In those days, Panther was wont to appear discretely down the list of finishers. The crew, however, has stayed together and this year - with Edmund still leaping around the foredeck - it not only won five out of seven starts, but topped the table for Black Group Overall (that's all boats with cabins capable of racing offshore). So, while Thomas watched the America's Cup from near his flat in Cascais, Edmund was winning Cowes Week!

Friday, 12 August 2011

The Wiltshire Cotswolds

Out with a regular, but infrequent walking companion today, we set off from Kemble Station on a warm if overcast morning across the stubble to Oaksey. From there we veered West, aiming for lunch at The Potting Shed in Crudwell; but we went wrong somewhere along the way. So, trespassing, we brought ourselves up in front of this charming farmhouse, one of many substantial properties we saw with a distinctly Cotswold flavour albeit in Wiltshire. Its new owner, into horsiculture rather than farming, rightly chastised us.

Our food venue was excellent, this gastropub having gone through the usual gentrification process in recent years. (It's made a cheap lunch out now seem rather a distant prospect.)

Curiously, each of the churches we saw - Kemble, Oaksey and Crudwell - is dedicated to All Saints. In the latter we came across some interesting 15th Century glass depicting the sacraments and a rather startled-looking Risen Christ in pink, still wearing his crown of thorns.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

John Wood RIP

I once read that every building in Chipping Campden High Street was listed, plus of course many others in the town. One of them was the much-loved home, more than 300 years old, of the actor John Wood, who died last week and is now rightly and lavishly mourned in the newspapers. Of his obituarists, Michael Coveney surprised me by writing that "His real passion was architecture, which he rated the most important of all the arts."

Only a day or two ago, when clearing out, I threw away theatre programmes bearing Wood's name as star of the show. Whether in Shakespeare or Stoppard, Gorki or Etherege, comedy or tragedy, he always seemed to me to excel: indeed, he was one of the few I actors whose performances I would invariably seek out. Why did he never get a knighthood? No doubt because he was too self-effacing.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

"Winchcombe welcomes walkers"

This afternoon I travelled back on the bus from Winchcombe with Georgi, a tour guide from Sofia. He had spent the day exploring Sudeley Castle - "But that's not a proper castle!" we all exclaimed. He said he was off to Warwick next: "Now you're talking!"

I had been walking the dusty field footpaths around Alderton with a group from St Nicholas' Parish in Winchcombe: it included the parish priest, who sported a cap with the above WWW slogan emblazed on it. You needed a hat for today's sunshine.

Returning home, I did a double take when I heard that Cook and Strauss were at the crease, both on 0. Can it have been raining most of the day, a mere 40 miles North in Birmingham? No, we'd bowled them all out cheaply again, it transpired. Michael Vaughan was purring, having had that Shane Warne and (Winchcombe's) Liz Hurley in the box - osculating what's more. ("Too much information," tutted Aggers, who, 20 years on from letting slip the words "leg over", knows about these things.)

Ah, the really important things of life...

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Blackberry Messenger

Someone must have given these cousins a message that there were blackberries around; from which you can tell that I am (a) dangerously facetious and/or (b) something of a mobile phone Luddite, certainly unfamiliar with apps. The other sort of BlackBerry must cost well over £100 a throw. So, the hoodlums organising the rioting in London and elsewhere, who seem to be using BM to coordinate their forces, are not exactly going to be on their uppers. Or perhaps the Blackberries themselves were looted?

Nausea quickly overtook me as I listened to the horrific news on the Today Programme this morning. So I turned to Radio 4 Extra, where I found a rerun of To the Manor Born. This is of course hiding one's head in the sand: there can be no peace without justice. Nevertheless, it's perhaps what David Cameron would like to have been able to do when advised to break his Italian holiday.

PS Thomas has drawn my attention to a brilliant post here by Rosamicula: don't be put off by the fact that you have to consent to reading adult content: there's no need for the warning on this particular post. Indeed, reading it should be compulsory.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Music for cats

I spotted this front door when we were biking through Eardisley a few years ago.

We listened to the first part of last night's late evening Prom in bed; and I Listened Again (on my new Pure Evoke Flow bedside radio - a great acquisition, this) early this morning, still in bed. What magisterial solo Bach playing by Nigel Kennedy, particularly in the D Minor Partita! And he's an Aston Villa supporter. Cats apparently made up at least part of the large Albert Hall audience: Kennedy seemed to think so anyway: "It's wonderful," he said, "to see all these cats here."

A fuddy-duddy question nags me: why is my enjoyment of such sublime musicianship tainted by the artist's voice and words failing to match up to Received Classical Musician Speak? How much better, even than RCMS, to let the music speak for itself!

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Art, public and commercial

In today's Guardian, Simon Hoggart tells us all about his Baltic cruise, and seeing Copenhagen's famous harbour statue: "This was paid for," he writes, "by Denmark's best-known brewer, and if it were in Britain it would be known as the Carlsberg Little Mermaid." Indeed. The evidence is there for all to witness in Cheltenham, with the placement this week of ten fibreglass horses in public places throughout the town centre. The one in my photograph, decorated by local equestrian artist Sally Lancaster, is less commercially-adorned than some. The sponsor's name is nevertheless prominent on the plinth, only hidden by the lady pushing her shopping along.

Why does promotion of art have to go so inexorably hand in hand with promotion of its patrons? It's the same story with our recent Holst statue. But not in the past. Even as recently as 1997, when Sophie Ryder's Minotaur and the Hare was purchased for its Promenade site, the donors' contributions were only quite unostentatiously acknowledged.

Friday, 5 August 2011

UK ladies?

Our music festival was at one stage billed by its organisers as "The Cheltenham International Festival of Music". Now, its image is thankfully less grandiose; but we remain a magnet for street musicians from all parts of the globe, it seems. I was thrilled by a brass ensemble playing outside Marks and Spencer one day, and to discover they were members of a touring St Petersburg orchestra, there to eke out their fee. Today, this ukulele trio was making a merry sound, and giving passers by something to smile about.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

"Seeing by doing"

This - Seeing by doing - was the catchphrase of Robert Lyon, in the 1930s a Master of Painting connected with Durham University. He it was who was instrumental in the formation of the Ashington Group, made up mostly of miners intent on improving their education through evening classes. One of them survives, and paints every day still: he has a current exhibition on in Newcastle.

Meeting the group's frustration at having to sit and gaze at Lyon's black and white slides of the Madonna with cherubs and its ilk, he challenged each of them at the outset to make their own attempt to create an art work. "The Pitmen Painters" tells the story in dramatic form, and a very good play it is (by Lee Hall, who also wrote the screenplay for Billy Elliot): we saw it last night at Malvern.

This photograph of the Malvern Hills was taken from Farmcote earlier in the Summer.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The maize maze

On this, the last full day of our grandsons' stay with us, I took them over to Hidcote, near the edge of the Cotswold escarpment. There, almost opposite the entrance to the famous gardens, an enterprising farmer has, in recent Summers, turned some acres over to what I guess is called diversified agriculture. You drive into a field, park and then pass through a marquee into a large play area, with sandpit, go-karts, slides etc. From there you can enter an even larger area planted with maize, an extensive maze within it. Great fun, and well spiced up with notices about various mythological animals - a quiz sheet is handed out when you pay for admission. Suffice to say, the boys loved it, though for that age group it's quite hard to keep going the whole way. (We cheated, against a promise to return next year.) "I wish I was bigger," said Laurie.

Every so often within the maze there is a wooden bridge giving a view over what was once leafy Warwickshire. In my photograph you can see the mysterious Meon Hill, scene of a grisly killing some 66 years ago: I recall being thoroughly spooked by it as a child.

One of my earliest memories was of being with my mother in her car, stuck in the 1947 snow on the adjacent hill leading up from Mickleton to Campden. Driving down that way today, possibly the hottest day of the year, I was finding it hard to envisage a blocked road.