Saturday, 31 December 2011

New Year's Eve resolution

Caroline's dog has been ailing for a while. Indeed, after a last operation (of many), the vet gave it a precise 56 days to live, which expired on Boxing Day. This morning, she bravely made the call to have her put down. Then it was just a question of communicating the sad news to the children and grandchildren.

A recent parish bulletin has an apposite piece, "Some signs and symptoms of inner peace." I set them all out below, with best wishes for the coming year.

A tendency to think and act spontaneously rather, than on fears based on past experiences

An unmistakable ability to enjoy each moment

A loss of interest in judging other people

A loss of interest in interpreting the actions of others

A loss of interest in conflict

A loss of the ability to worry - a very serious symptom

Frequent, overwhelming episodes of appreciation

Contented feelings of connectedness with others and nature

Frequent attacks of smiling

An increasing tendency to let things happen rather than make them happen

An increased susceptibility to the love extended by others as well as the uncontrollable urge to extend it

Friday, 30 December 2011


Our friend's Edmund de Waal pots can be rearranged ad lib., which gives him (and others) enormous pleasure. We had a jolly lunch there yesterday. Equally random seems the ability of certain streets to attract wealthy people to live in them.

Back in the mid- to late-Sixties, I shared a flat with Mark Fuller, Geoffrey Tilleard and Hugh Chatwin in Chelsea. It was on the first and second floors of no. 13 Bramerton Street, which runs South off the King's Road, not far down from Sydney Street. Then, with its gay nightclub in the adjoining basement, it really wasn't all that smart a place to live: I guess my rent might have been £6 a week. Now I read in the paper that Bramerton Street is in the top 10 list of dearest addresses in Britain.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Lord's Wood

Caroline dropped me off at Foston's Ash yesterday morning, to meet up with a friend and his dog: ours isn't up to much. We all later gathered for a protracted pub lunch.

From the busy Birdlip-Bisley road, you are soon it seems miles away, dropping down into the National Trust's Workmans Wood. A muddy track descends through the beeches, past a lake and into Sheepscombe. From there we climbed up the bank into Lord's Wood, before swinging round North of Ebworth House and back to the road. Many hares were started: few solutions arrived at.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

"Die Meistersinger"

On Boxing Night, Caroline and I endured a grim night at Cineworld: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows looked the best of a poor selection, but neither of us enjoyed it much.

By contrast, Die Meistersinger triumphed last night at Covent Garden. I was the lucky holder of a staff ticket, entitling me to sit at the back of the Orchestra Stalls at a fraction of the normal price. Within 18 months, I've heard it three times: I enjoyed the Glyndebourne production, with Gerry Finlay's notable Sachs, relayed to Malvern in June - a match for Bryn Terfel in the WNO version (which I caught at the 2010 Proms). But this consistently amazing Wagner score never sounded so well as under Pappano's baton at the Opera House, despite some quibbles with the production. What a treat!

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

"The Sense of an Ending"

Julian Barnes' Booker Prize-winning novella was on my Christmas list, as it's the current read for our book group. My sister Sarah kindly came up with it, and I've now read it (in what is - for me - record time).

It's a sad story, but intriguing, unfolding as it does right up to the penultimate page. Barnes is at his best writing about recollection of the past. "My memory," his narrator sighs at one point, "has increasingly become a mechanism which reiterates apparently truthful data with little variation." My feelings precisely.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

"No robin, no Santa"

There's a lull in proceedings following lunch for 15 here. So, here's the cover of my latest Blurb book, a copy having been given to Caroline this morning. Its brief introduction reads:

"My father, who was in the paper business, produced his own family Christmas cards some years. This sowed a seed, which started to bear fruit in 1992: it was then that I first contacted The Thought Factory in Leicester, with a view to their printing a card which made use of one of my photographs: they have continued to print cards for me every year since. This book brings together the collection (to date), along with subject descriptions, and a little background information on how each photograph came to be taken.

In concentrating on its religious significance, I feel, like Mrs. Partington with her mop, that I may have done rather little to arrest the process by which Christmas has become increasingly secularised. And anyway, you may ask, who wants a glossy throwaway card at a time when trees need saving and a second class stamp costs 36p? Well, now here’s a glossy book to compound my sin."

Happy Christmas all!

Friday, 23 December 2011

"Jack and the beanstalk"

Last year, Edmund and I took William to Cinderella at our Everyman Theatre: this afternoon, we felt it was the turn of the full trio of Davis grandchildren to come along. I'm not sure I can recall ever seeing Jack and the beanstalk before, but certainly not done to death as in this too lengthy, jazzed-up production: the stars of an over-blown show were undoubtedly the cow and the giant.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Toyota town

Our Toyota Corolla failed its MOT today. I suppose, at the age of eight, that should not be too shocking. In the light of its previous reliability, though, I was taken aback rather.

A couple of hundred pounds needs spending on it, to put things right, which is not the end of the world. But what never ceases to amaze me is the soullessness of modern car showrooms! After sitting in a plastic bucket chair for two hours, with coffee machine whirring and television flashing in the background (I did at least locate the volume control), I drove home through our tree-lined streets pleasantly surprised that I was still on planet Earth.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Contrapuntal carols

Our parish carol service - held yesterday evening - attracted an enormous crowd! The church glowed in the candlelight. The choir excelled itself, which was just as well as the congregational singing - in traditional English Catholic style - barely exceeded forte. Fr. Bosco, succinctly distinguishing the Nativity from the incarnation, gave one of his uniformly good sermons.

It all contrasted nicely with the evening before: unlike last night, the champagne flowed, and our generous South Gloucestershire friends' Christmas party may serve as their sole involvement with the Nativity narrative for some of the regular suspects rounded up on this invariably jolly occasion. Having two pianos perhaps made the backsliders sing up a bit more willingly than usual. Florence, a precocious nine-year-old, led off Once in royal... Our host as ever took the part of Wenceslas. One half of the assembly sang The First Nowell against the other's Holly and the ivy.

Oh, and for We three kings, I was promoted from second to first this year!

Monday, 19 December 2011

Mary Webster RIP

Today the funeral takes place of my cousin Trevor Webster's wife Mary. In fact, it has already happened, the "venue" being Sydney, New South Wales. Mary and Trevor put Leo and me up for a few days when we went to Sydney in January 1998 - in fact more than that, they provided endless hospitality as well as introductions to places we would never have discovered on our own.

We had first met several years before that, following my father's death: then we lived up in the Cotswolds, and they came to supper while - by one of those extraordinary coincidences - staying with an old friend of Mary's from the next village.

The story of Mary and Trevor's emigration deserves wider publicity: together with their 18-month-old son, they set off from England in June 1958, along with another couple - two cars and much luggage - driving across almost the entirety of Europe and Asia. Arriving in North Australia by boat, they were all set to turn left for Sydney, but were warned against this: "you could never carry enough water to get through on that route!" So, turning the other way, they arrived in Sydney on 17th January 1959 via Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. On our 1998 visit, we saw the car they had come in. It was in course of restoration, subsequently completed.

Mary's last illness was short, her death (aged 81) sudden. She will be sorely missed by her three children and five grandchildren, as well as by countless friends; but in particular by Trevor.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Oxford catering

A different ceiling photograph today: I took this last night in Oxford's Divinity School, the venue for a dinner to celebrate John and Maria Paz's wedding earlier in the year, in Chile. (The elaborate lierne vaulting dates from the 1480s, we were told by the groom's father.)

While this setting perfectly matched the sumptuous dinner we were given (Chilean wines to accompany it), the lunch I had earlier was a discordant affair: Jesus College Hall dates from three centuries later (than the Divinity School), but with its portraits of Elizabeth I and Charles I, not to mention Lawrence of Arabia and Harold Wilson, inspires a similar degree of awe. All right, term had ended, and I was being treated, but "hot lunch" consisting of a sausage, fried egg, a few chips and some spears of broccoli - in a soup bowl - still didn't quite fit.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Jevons paradox

Coming back from Malvern last evening, I was struck more than usually by the degree to which people seem to have money (and carbon) to burn. Above is a detail from a photograph I took on a bright Summer day in a tent at Cheltenham Racecourse - Greenbelt: they should know better. Now, as Christmas approaches, I noted once again that there is hardly a house without its tree lit up, visible through the unclosed curtains. Worse still is the number of houses with flashing lights festooned over their exterior.

And, yes, the roofs of some of those houses even sport photovoltaic panels. Thus supporting the theory of W.S. Jevons, writing some 170 years ago: Jevons argued that improvements in fuel efficiency tend to increase, rather than decrease, fuel use: he observed that England's consumption of coal soared after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine, greatly improving on the efficiency of earlier designs. Watt's innovations made coal a more cost-effective power source, leading to the increased use of the steam engine in a wide range of industries. This in turn increased total coal consumption, even as the amount of coal required for any particular application fell. At that time, many worried that coal reserves were dwindling: some thought increasing efficiency would reduce consumption. Jevons however argued that further increases in efficiency would tend to increase the use of coal. Hence, increasing efficiency would tend to increase, rather than reduce, the rate at which England's coal deposits were being depleted.

Similarly, those benefiting from the feed-in tarrif are saying, perhaps: "What the heck? Now we don't need to worry about turning the lights off!" What prospect therefore of fossil fuels being left in the ground?

Thursday, 15 December 2011


The jolly quintet in Lilas Pastia's Tavern was by far and away the highlight of Co-Opera Co.'s Carmen in the Forum at Malvern this evening. You could see from this where Gilbert & Sullivan went for their inspiration. We were sitting in the second row, quite a gap between us and the orchestra, which was on the level in front of a fairly narrow rostrum stage, with the permanent backdrop of some Moorish-looking arches. The cast of nine singers had its work cut out to convey the flavour of Seville and its mountainous hinterland - Act 3 ("A wild and deserted rocky place at night") looked more like an apology for the Occupy movement, with its trio of wigwams; but the drama somehow won through. Certainly Adriana Festeu looks the part of Carmen, and I was impressed too by the band of 15, James Holmes conducting. This young company is one to encourage.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

"Is your work post-modern?"

This was the first question put to architect Sir Richard MacCormac after his lecture in Cheltenham last evening. He called it "Intentions in Architecture". Illustrated with drawings and photographs of many of his projects, he claimed to have reevaluated the past, without adopting a classical language. "Why aren't we comfortable with the word beauty?" he asked.

The invitation to speak came following the presentation of a Civic Award to Sir Richard for his work on our local Maggie's Centre (mentioned in a post last September): "It's a building about love," he said, the care he had taken over it clearly being a sign of the affection in which he had held the late (eponymous) Maggie Jencks.

Before I left, I had a chance to ask Sir Richard whether he felt any constraint in designing buildings to be energy efficient. "No," he replied: "Look at my new St John's, Oxford design: though it is nearly carbon-neutral, you can't tell from its appearance." He conjectured later, "Shall we always be able to go on using so much energy to heat our living spaces? It's only such a recent luxury - think of the days of warm indoor clothing and people huddled together on settles in front of a wood fire. Don't sheep have the right idea?"

My photograph shows Sir Richard with Mary Paterson, in whose father's name the lecture took place - it's an annual event organised by the Cheltenham Civic Society, which I suppose I ought to join.

And the answer to the question? "Yes, in its strict sense: post-modern as a word has been trashed."

Monday, 12 December 2011

"It's called losing"

A great-grandmother of mine was born in Daventry: we went there briefly on Saturday, but not for family history purposes. A short way South of the town lies the village of Canons Ashby, dominated by the remains of its Priory and an Elizabethan manor house, the home for many years of the Dryden family, now owned by the National Trust: we didn't have time to pay a proper visit, but this delightful early 18th Century statue caught the eye when I had a peep over the garden wall from the roadside.

Segue to Chris Heaton-Harris, Daventry's Eurosceptic MP, who numbered himself amongst the 100 or more Members putting questions to the Prime Minister in the Commons this afternoon: unusually, I found myself watching more or less the whole proceedings. You couldn't but admire Cameron's stamina and courtesy, in keeping up the appearance of considering each question on its merits. But he surely suffered from Ed Milliband's early barb: a veto, he said, was what one deployed to stop something from taking place. If what you tried to stop goes ahead anyway, it's not a veto - "it's called losing."

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Durban platform

Two items have dominated the news this weekend: in Europe, our Prime Minister reached for the unilateral opt-out (surely a better description than "the veto"); whilst in South Africa some sort of legally-binding climate treaty looks now to be on the cards - thanks largely to the EU's climate chief (Connie Hedegaard)'s efforts. (What better illustration do you require Mr. Cameron, of the importance of us playing a full part in Europe?)

Both events will impinge far more upon a four-year-old than on someone of my age, but so far from this being the public perception, all we hear are Hooray Henrys on the Tory right apparently regardless of the significance of the Durban roadmap: it may only be a mouse, where a lion-sized compact for humanity's future is required, but it's better than nothing.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

"Operation Greenfield"

Today's photograph was taken less than a mile from last Sunday's (of another old tree). This field, however, is not under threat, being virtually part of the Cotswold escarpment. Nor does the church in the distance, St Peter's, in any way resemble that portrayed in the play we saw last night, at our local Parabola Arts Centre. "Operation Greenfield", a presentation by Little Bulb Theatre, received warm commendation in the national press ("recklessly talented... insanely brave"), but it went off like a damp squib with the meagre Cheltenham audience. Was it meant to evangelise or (mildly) scandalise? Whatever, it was nothing like the piece of theatre brought to Cheltenham last month by Kneehigh: The Wild Bride.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Guy Edwardes

Cheltenham Camera Club put on a special event this evening, a lecture by the photographer Guy Edwardes. I didn't bother to book a ticket in advance, and when I arrived ahead of time at the Town Hall the room was virtually full, all seats sold. Happily they squeezed me into a hot corner at the back.

I'm glad I went, as Edwardes' work is thrilling, if rather more artificial-looking than the effect I strive for. One of the 300-odd landscape/nature pictures he put up must have been taken from a similar vantage point to the one above. (His result is very considerably better!) My photograph dates from April 1999, and I was standing by the Belvedere at La Foce, Iris Origo's former home in Tuscany.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011


I took the bus to Witney today, almost the first time I've been to (as opposed to through) that town. I seem to recall a visit with my mother, who had worked for a little while in the famous Early's factory in the 'Thirties as part of her social studies diploma experience: we came away with a bright red blanket. Now, it's almost a decade since blankets were made in Witney, which has seen much redevelopment alongside its original heart - full of the usual charity shops.

I was there to see a friend who was hospital-bound: the only place for a chat was apparently the landing by the lift and stair-head, not exactly an oasis of peace. Whilst bureaucracy ensured that the patient had plenty of scope for cultivating... patience, it was still evident that a culture of very personal service prevailed within the hospital. It contrasted interestingly with the situation portrayed in Sebastián Silva's The Maid, which we saw this evening (at the Film Society). Its protagonist is of a type more commonly found in Silva's 21st Century Chile than in 21st Century England, where next to nobody is called to the vocation of a maid. What the film expertly sketches is the degree of genuine attachment members of a family can feel for their long-suffering servant, brilliantly acted by Catalina Saavedra. "I love them and they love me. I'm part of the family," her character confesses.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Joint Core Strategy

This comes up for public consultation shortly: the three local authorities have combined to present a plan for the future of their considerable area - and this they say means more housing, but where? Our "amenity land" in Leckhampton is particularly vulnerable, only one of several targetted pockets around Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury.

I have photographed this magnificent oak tree before, captioning a warning about the future of its location. My best man and his wife (plus dog) being with us for the weekend, we all walked past it again today in its late Autumn majesty.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Down the Bath Road

All the fun of the fair is to be had this weekend in our Bath Road. There’s nowadays a regular weekend market on the Robert Young site, where I had a useful photographic chat with one of the stallholders. We then visited the Cheltenham Connect Christmas fair at the Exmouth Arms, and I met another photographer, seasonally decorated. A jolly musical accompaniment was provided by Ukaholics. I felt I'd come a very long way from Leicester here!

Since its inception nearly three years ago now Cheltenham Connect seems to have become rather well established on various fronts. You always wonder how long the enthusiasm of volunteers for any given cause will maintain itself. The best thing you can hope to be able to say is that if it didn't exist you'd have to invent it. Might that not now just be the case with Cheltenham Connect?

Friday, 2 December 2011

Royal address

‘Spirituality and the Earth Community: Responding to the Spiritual Challenges Facing People and Planet’. This was former Professor Ursula King’s theme for her Cheltenham lecture last evening. It deserved to be better attended. Possibly the title was what put people off, for after a somewhat analytical start, she took off in the latter part of her talk, and ended with several almost impassioned responses to audience questions. Not for a long time have I heard such a free thinker, open to so many differently stimulating channels of thought! “I was mighty impressed,” as a friend put it.

Amongst challenging questions Professor King herself raised were, “Are modern societies predominantly secular?” (Answer: “Pace Richard Dawkins, no.”) “Does spirituality only concern the needs of the individual?” (Answer: “Again, no.”) And, echoing Indira Gandhi at Stockholm almost 40 years ago, “Will the growing awareness of ‘one earth' and ‘one environment' guide us to the concept of ‘one humanity'?” (Answer: “We must sincerely hope so, notwithstanding the signal lack of progress to date!”) Finally, and she gave no answer to this, leaving us each to take up the quest for a response ourselves: “How do we live a good life?”

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Water +

"We've had the driest 12 months on record," said Jim Naughtie on the Today programme this morning. This chimes in with something even more disturbing that Nick Reeves, Executive Director of The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, wrote recently. (It came to mind following yesterday's visit to Leicester.)

“While we have been making headway in cleaning up our rivers and beaches, the air we breathe and the water we drink . . . we have created trashy inner city settlements where the poor, the vulnerable, the hopeless and the unhinged have been kettled into urban breezeblock ghettoes that have become a breeding ground for disaffection, anger and feral behaviour . . . These rotten environments turn on its head the notion of sustainable development. Sustainability is about much more than water and energy efficiency, insulation and recycling. The human dimension somehow got forgotten. The environment is about the condition in which we all live together, not just the well-connected, the empowered middle class and those with sharp elbows and loud voices.”

I took this photograph of the sluice on the 37-hectare Retenue de Brousseau in Les Landes when walking on the Voie du Puy in April 2009.