"Fair and rather mild. Good bye fair twenty-ninth for another four years." This is how my ancestor, Peter Davis opened his diary entry in 1836. I am preparing a talk on it, to be given to the church's 55+ Club tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, to mark today (when the weather was much the same as in 1836) with something unusual, I biked to Warden Hill, Badgeworth and Shurdington, to look at their three churches. This is one of Tom Denny's sensational windows in St Christopher's, Warden Hill - "The Ravens", made in 1986. It's inspired by the Western Counties of Ireland, where ravens are common, and Luke, 12:24, "Think of the ravens: they neither sow nor reap; they have no storehouse or barn; yet God feeds them. You are worth far more than the birds."
Thursday nights are TV rich just at present. Dennis Potter's masterpiece, The Singing Detective is in full swing, while as hors d'oeuvre we now have Richard Alwyn’s 3-part series on Catholicism today. The first one, "Priests" was last week - still available on iPlayer till 15th March. Its fly on the wall approach may try the patience of some, but on the whole it paints a fair picture, I guess. Not one, however, which I like totally, for reasons which Philip Endean SJ sets out very fairly in his Thinking Faith review. The giveaway was one of the candidates for ordination receiving communion on the tongue, not something our gentle, wise, post-Vatican 2 priest would go out of his way to encourage, I make bold to say. (He is rarely to be seen in a stiff dog collar either.)
We are all partial where our Alma Mater is concerned. (Should that be "Almae Matres are"?) I was accordingly delighted to get a call from Agnes today to say that she'd been offered a place on the Oxford University MSt Creative Writing course. She'd applied without much confidence of success, but I'm of course not surprised in the least that they've recognised her potential!
I'm never anxious to be one to court controversy, but my dander is up over the proposals to change the legal definition of marriage, to allow it to apply to the union of same-sex couples.
The Civil Partnerships Act, I support: it already gives gay couples rights which are equivalent to the rights of married couples. Marriage, however, has always been a contract between a man and a woman. Unlike a same-sex relationship, it normally involves a sexual liaison that is biologically capable of producing issue. Although same-sex couples are able to adopt and otherwise acquire children, marriage is and should, in my book, remain a unique man-woman relationship, one that's vital for a stable, flourishing society. If you, dear reader, agree, please think about signing - at least - one of the declarations going the rounds, like this one, which seems sensible to me.
We've been looking at Mini and Leo's photographs of Lisbon, following their return from spending last weekend there. I recalled our May 2010 visit to the same fleamarket they went to, this church forming the backdrop. Meanwhile, Spring seems to have arrived here, with temperatures in the upper teens, and lunch outside these past two days! Normally, I don't think of sowing vegetable seeds direct into the open ground till March, but yesterday I made a start with the Musselburgh (leek), Salad Bowl (lettuce), radish, Boltardy (beetroot), Early Nantes (carrot) - and of course the traditional spring onion, White Lisbon.
We took our Japanese student lodger along to the Cheltenham Music Society's concert last night, at which the Martinů Quartet played - not Martinů, but Smetana, and also (as an encore) a scherzo from a quartet by the little known (here at least) František Škroup. This second part of their programme we generally thought preferable to the first: Mozart K.590 and Beethoven Op.135. Not that there was much wrong with, in particular, the Beethoven: it's just that - having heard the Takács last month - we are currently feeling spoilt where pieces in the mainstream repertoire are concerned.
The quartet's cellist reminded me of someone: when I woke up this morning, I realised who it was, seeing a photograph of Elizabeth Gateley, my great-grandmother as a young, rather severe-looking bride. Not a musical lady, though, at least so far as I know, and certainly not Czech.
Having had a full picnic of bears on Saturday (in Warwick), I was confronted with another a couple of days later, this time at the British Museum. Grayson Perry's residency ends this week, so we thought we ought to make the effort to catch it, to see what all the fuss was about. No regrets, particularly with admission to Room 35 at half price on Mondays for oldies!
The only photography allowed was outside, this being a detail of the pink bike parked by the entrance to Room 35: on it, Perry rode to Germany a couple of years ago, carrying his precious bear, Alan Measles, in a shrine mounted on the back. “The Germans were the default enemy," he explained, "and so they became a metaphor for all that was bad in my experience. Alan and I needed to make peace with our old imagined adversary.” Bravo!
“Only in Britain,” said a German present when Grayson Perry won the Turner Prize in 2003.
En route for Warwick on Saturday, I changed trains in Birmingham. It's my birthplace, which is no doubt why I like to linger there whenever possible: this time, it was to visit St Martin's in the Bullring - for the first time - and to catch the Leonardo Drawings exhibition in the Art Gallery at the other end of New Street.
The Today programme this morning noted the Daily Express's support for investment in a National Water Grid. "Lets do something that will one day make our grandchildren proud of us!" it urges. Coming into Birmingham via Selly Oak, the train runs alongside the Elan Aqueduct, which - more than 100 years ago - was constructed to bring Welsh water to Birmingham, a distance of 73 miles. My father always said his grandfather, as manager of the Birmingham Corporation Improvement Scheme, was instrumental in this, though my researches so far don't throw up his name in connection with this - as opposed to other major projects of his time. "A splendid specimen of the Anglo-Saxon race, as all will admit who know him." So goes one of the many newspaper cuttings in our family album.
Arthur Henry Davis might have recognised the steam train berthed at Moor Street Station: Selfridges in the Bull Ring (behind), however, would have made his eyes pop.
We happened upon this today, making for Somerset House on a different mission - to see the Mondrians and Nicholsons ("In parallel") at the Courtauld Gallery. Chambers' elegant 18th Century courtyard was stuffed with marquees and thronged with people less than half my age either wearing outlandish clothes or carrying expensive cameras - often both. For once, I felt entirely unselfconscious, taking photographs of people myself. Caroline enjoyed it too, as indeed our Japanese student lodger would have, had she been with us.
What a contrast between the Courtauld exhibition's cool, controlled, abstract paintings, and so many outrageously costumed models - many thin enough to slip down the cracks between the paving stones!
I thought the elegant package looked like the usual chopsticks, but no: it was a more unusual present that 19-year-old Chihiro Kono brought us when she arrived to stay, one of a party from Tokyo who are currently in Cheltenham for a three-week study tour. Her home in Shizuoka is overlooked by Mount Fuji; she plays the trombone, and likes Chopin - and shopping: she also dresses extremely well!
I asked Chihiro whether she'd read any Haruki Murakami. "Yes," she replied: "We studied Norwegian Wood - IN ENGLISH!"
Though I was brought up no more than 16 miles from Warwick, we hardly ever went there, so it remains terra somewhat incognita. I read that no less than eight different families appear to have held the Warwick peerage during the past millennium, so anyone can be forgiven for getting muddled about who did what in Warwick itself. Richard Neville (the Kingmaker) built the Guildhall, whilst it was the earlier Beauchamps who adopted the familiar bear and ragged staff as an addition to their coat of arms.
This lovable-looking bear, though, holds his ragged staff in a rather unusual manner - he is one of several in different poses slung under the eaves of the charming courtyard of the Lord Leycester Hospital. The Hospital, really a glorified almshouse, was founded by neither a Beauchamp nor a Neville, but by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, favourite of Elizabeth I, and younger brother of Ambrose Earl of Warwick. Robert and Ambrose are entombed in the Beauchamp Chapel in St Mary's, Warwick, which is dominated by the golden 15th Century image of the Kingmaker's father-in-law, Richard Beauchamp - hands apart, so he can keep his eyes on the ceiling bosses portraying God the Father and Mary Queen of Heaven.
Those members of my book group who met in the Chapel this morning were lucky in finding a guide who was both unassumingly knowledgeable and generous with it. After we had marvelled at, in particular the carving and glass, she moved on with us to the Chancel, where we beheld the stunning alabaster images of Richard's grandparents: they were, it seems, my 20th great-grandparents for what it's worth - hardly a very exclusive claim, however, in this era of internet genealogy. (Added to which, we have - assuming no intermarriages - more than 8 million other ancestors of that generation.)
This week's Tablet carries an article about the late Roger Bevan, musician, and his amazing family. His granddaughters Sophie and Mary are both ENO solists, Sophie recently receiving acclaim for her part ("an eager little minx") in Der Rosenkavalier.
I came under "Mr. Bevan's" influence in the mid-50s, shortly after he had arrived to teach music at Downside. I was in my last year at the nearby prep school, All Hallows, and the school choir was co-opted to supplement the treble line for Messiah in Downside Abbey. (From the photograph, you can judge that it wasn't a minimalist performance. Incidentally, I spy Canon Thomas Atthill standing just behind Roger Bevan.)
It was the first time I had sung in a proper choir, and I still recall the buzz it gave and my huge debt owed to the unassumingly great Mr. Bevan - much the same sort of debt (albeit in a minor way) that his children and now grandchildren owe him: for a lifetime's love of music.
Out of sight, below what you see in this photograph is Wellinghill Farm, so one may perhaps assume this is Wellinghill itself, though my books of reference don't go so far as to confirm this. Anyway, we passed down this way into Charlton Kings today at the end of a walk which began at Whittington.
The temperature both yesterday and today has been a good deal higher than last week, so no wonderland effects, though vestiges of snow remain on the top. In the watery sunshine, we passed the entrance to the old stone mines just West of Whittington, amidst trees tangled jungle-wise with very old man's beard. Below Colgate Farm, they are building a large stone house in traditional Cotswold style overlooking the reservoir: the next thing we shall see, no doubt, is notice of a request for a footpath diversion. Or the owners may just do what neighbours nearby have done: put horses in the field for long enough to turn the entire footpath area into a sea of mud.
When I came to Gloucestershire, nearly 40 years ago, amongst the first people to welcome me into their circle were dear Christopher and Juliet. In exchange for a bottle of wine, they would feed a fair number of us as we struggled of an evening to learn to sing madrigals, before eventually performing (badly) in public. On a couple of occasions, Christopher's eminent father Richard, teacher of Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr, came and rapped the kitchen table, in an effort to bring us to heel. Usually, though, it was the cherubic Adrian's more compassionate beat that we attempted to follow.
He it was, still lacking many grey hairs, who (with Christopher and others) sang and played yesterday at the Bathurst Arms, for Juliet's birthday: neither Pat nor Bridget had I seen for years. The rest of us (leaving aside those mentioned of course) all look terribly old.
I waxed lyrical about an opera set last May: it was after seeing the Met. relay of Robert Lepage's production of Die Walküre. That same set is naturally used for Lepage's new Met. Götterdämmerung: it came to us in our local Cineworld by the same magical means last evening, but I found myself less inclined to enthuse. Indeed, the gyrations of what look like so many giant Kit-Kat pieces (sometimes more resembling magnified USB sticks) made me dizzy, and distracted me from the all-important transition passages played luminously by the Met. Opera Orchestra under Fabio Luisi. This techno solution to the Ring staging worked well for the Ride of the Valkyries, each of the sisters mounted on her own piece of Kit-Kat. Last night however, we were given a pseudo-realistic Grane - the first attempt at a proper-looking Valkyre horse I think I have ever witnessed. Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde even climbs aboard as Siegfried's pyre is lit - but do we see them gallop (even trot) into the flames? No.
I have no hesitation, however, about either the singing or the acting, which were uniformly excellent. The Act 1, Scene 3 duet between Voigt and the legendary Waltraud Meier will remain long in my memory. If forced to choose amongst the rest of the cast, I might - perhaps surprisingly - single out Iain Paterson as Gunther. My photograph shows a curtain call at the first night of a very different Götterdämmerung: Phyllida Lloyd's excellent Coliseum production eight years ago, conducted by Paul Daniel. And the Gunther, alongside the mighty, pocket-battleship Brünnhilde, Kathleen Broderick? Iain Paterson.
Alberich's theft is a sin against the integrity of creation; but so is Wotan's cutting into the world ash tree, to make for himself a world-dominating spear: both actions upset the balance of what was ever a sustainable world order. Rather like us, exhausting fossil fuels and destroying the rain forest?
With friends staying the weekend, we were dropped at the end of the Stockwell lane this morning, and set off to walk home, via Coberley. The inch or two of snow that fell over the past few days had frozen, making walking easy on this windless morning, provided you avoided the icy patches: no mud, at least! But the real pleasure of being out today was to see trees glistening as if coated in caramel. Nature, in suspended animation! Hard to describe such rare beauty, and to capture it in a photograph: I had forgotten how necessary it is, in a snowy world, to stop down, to compensate for the glare. So, thank you, Lightroom!
(Today we are celebrating the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.)
We were attracted to the latest National Theatre cinema relay by the presence in the cast of Anthony Sher. Nicholas Wright's play title reflects the imagined passage of a Lumière camera from deep in Eastern Europe to the West coast of America, transported by our hero, the orphaned son of a forgotten Jewish cinema pioneer. Sonny and Sher both, however, disappointed last night: Damien Molony looks good, but his wooden acting in the final scenes was exposed by the close ups. Sher's magnetism, so attractive when first we went to see him at Stratford, has now it seems worn off. But worst of all Travelling Light, for all its large cast and Hytner's elaborate production, has none of that true lightness The Artist has, a film echoing a similar era but with more finesse and magical delight.
Nor would Travelling Light work as a film: indeed, the best parts of the evening were the alienation effect of seeing a film of a play about a film, and the discussion at the end - in which (as Emma Freud pointed out) the author was the only gentile.
The stained glass - photographed in 2008 (in Oxford's Christ Church Cathedral) - looks like Kempe: another young Jewish boy on the run.
As an eight-year-old schoolboy, what I recall about the death of King George VI, 60 years ago yesterday, was just one thing: all day long boring (so it then seemed) music, and music alone, poured out of the radio. Today, we celebrate another anniversary, 200 years since the birth of Charles Dickens. His recent biographer, the indefatigable Claire Tomalin, writes a Happy Birthday letter to him in the Guardian: she wishes she could summon up for lunch "in a cheerful restaurant" some of his friends - amongst whom she mentions my 4 greats-uncle Clarkson Stanfield, to whom Dickens dedicated Little Dorrit. I bought this photograph of him in old age a year or so ago on eBay.
The temperature rose, snow falling at last on Saturday night - our first of the year. As usual, we "suffered" less than in the East of England, and indeed it was pretty much a non-event. Certainly, there was nothing like enough to put us off driving to meet friends for a walk along the river.
Passing Frampton, we parked at Fretherne, walking from there N-W towards Arlingham. Awre church tower stood up on the far side of the channel, breaking the flatness. It feels odd looking North to May Hill from here; but then we know this part of Gloucestershire hardly at all. The last time I came to Frampton was with a motley bunch of bikers, en route for Slimbridge to help launch the National Cycle Network.
Meantime, hub for Cheltenham's alternative art scene, is currently presenting something of a cross-cultural show. Downstairs, eight Gloucestershire artists exhibit their postcard-sized interpretations of the relationship between stone (and in one case lead) and music: I particularly liked Jacki Storey's take - scenic views, collaged with OS map sections and perforated by a hole punch, to echo Gregorian chant. Upstairs, Mike Adcock supervised a mixed-age bunch, conjuring up a soundscape out of different-sized slates - a primitive gamelan.
When Fr. Felix Stephens and I were in the same house at school, we scrambled to get the county cricket scores, he supporting Gloucestershire and I Warwickshire. Bumping into him in Oxford on Sunday morning after a long gap, neither of us had anything to say about the dismal performance by England's batsmen in Abu Dhabi.
It was chance that took Caroline and me to the Catholic Chaplaincy for Mass, and chance also that Felix happened to be preaching: the desert and the marketplace was his theme - expounded at rather greater length than I'm currently used to sitting through, but probably not so fully as in the discourses we were subjected to when I was an undergraduate (and Fr. Michael Hollings the Chaplain).
Felix, evidently not at present able to live up to his name, hinted that, not just he but all of Oxford was seething at the decision to withdraw him from his post as Master of St Benet's at the end of the current academic year.