Thursday, 31 January 2013

Marius Gray RIP

News reached us last night of a good friend's death, on Tuesday morning. We had been expecting the call, but it was cruelly premature.

Ringing Leo with the news, I was sad to hear he regretted never really getting to know his Godfather Marius. "He was a quiet, kind man, but there was a sort of distance to him." This was also the public perception, perhaps.

Marius, a chartered accountant, though one would hardly know it (he was far too civilised), was the supreme negotiator; and he was valued as such, but more so for his wise, all-round advice. This could be conferred anywhere: at trustee meetings in stately homes (a Woburn or a Welbeck Woodhouse), or in the Daily Mail boardroom; as Receiver of the Beatles or securing the Prokofiev royalties; as Chair of the King's Fund or alongside the late Tom Bingham on the two-man Government enquiry into sanction-busting in Rhodesia. We discussed directorships once during a plane journey: "I like it when I'm sole director," he said. "You can hold board meetings when and where you like: I think I'll hold one now."

How he kept all his balls in the air, at the same time as being senior partner of his firm, Dixon Wilson, may be attributable to his succinct style. When a letter from him landed on my desk, I rarely had to turn the page: indeed, often it consisted of one paragraph, or sentence: once, indeed, just a single word. It was invariably enough.

Belatedly, Marius was made CVO a couple of years ago. A man in a suit with a difference, he won respect not only in this country, but abroad too. He seemed to thrive on travel. I first met him in Paris in I think 1973: the above photograph was taken after lunch in the Piazza Farnese, Rome in October 1974. A Winter or two later, Marius drove three of us from Geneva up to Méribel: when he mistook a rock for a ball of snow, the puncture made us late for a rather important meeting, and dirty as well. Marius was, needless to say, entirely unfazed. Never did I hear him swear or display anger.

It seems only a very short while ago that Marius properly retired, and was able to devote himself entirely to his beloved gardens (Greenwich and Herefordshire), birds, stamps and books - and of course to the wife and family of which he was so justly proud.

Leo was right: Marius was never a man to make a display of emotion: matter-of-fact was an adjective made for him, but with his few words he was nevertheless a master of nuance. Despite his seeming caution and a relish for silences, life was never dull: he would pose, with a smile in his eyes, the most searching questions on the widest range of subjects. If - as frequently happened - you couldn't answer one, then it was seldom he volunteered to help you out. His cleverness lay in the questioning: his charm in the wit and laughter of an essentially shy man.

Invited to lunch by Marius one day at the Lansdowne Club, I noted him pause for a longish chat with an older man. "Who was that?" I asked. "My father," came the reply. And there might have been a Chinese streak in Marius' make-up, one felt, acquired as if by osmosis through Basil Gray, head of the British Museum Oriental Department for nearly a quarter of a century. In a more direct way, his love of visual art, from David Jones to Rembrandt came from his mother Nicolete, the celebrated letterer and daughter of the art scholar (and poet) Laurence Binyon. Nicolete's great friend, Lavinia Mynors charted the milestones of Marius' life in her - mainly still unpublished - diaries: from the little that is in book form (Alethea Hayter's "A Wise Woman" - the Erskine Press, 1996), we glimpse "Marius in a velvet jacket with glorious embellishments..." Later, she records: "Marius carved a pretty ham, and... distributed high class small glasses of high class wines." For his sociability if for nothing else, he will be so missed. Someone of such kindness, discretion, integrity, intelligence and faith is irreplaceable.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013


I spotted this one (left) outside a café in Barcelona: he's just emerged from a review of 2008 portraits, now sorted for my website.

Reports today indicate actual hedgehog numbers are in steep decline: 36 million when I was growing up - fewer than a million now. And what's more, the population has apparently gone down by a third in the past decade alone. (How this data on such notoriously secretive creatures comes to be compiled, heaven alone knows.)

Coincidentally, sales in France of Muriel Barbery's novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog were also around the million mark following its publication in 2006: Caroline read it with enjoyment, so was keen to accompany me to a local showing of the film version last night. Judging by the amount of nose-blowing around us at the end, I was not alone in being moved by it. Apart from the largely redundant music and a few non sequiturs in the plotting, it was great entertainment.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013


It wasn't the best morning for a longish outing, but we had arranged to meet an old friend to walk in Miserden Park, which he knows well. We had only just set off through the wonderfully ancient pasture, below the Park, when we heard the first shots: pheasants were fearing for their lives in the woods we were aiming towards. Having turned round to regain the car and look for peace elsewhere, I took this photograph: horses, 4: humans, 0 - about par for a Cotswold village these days.

We ended up parking at nearby Sudgrove, and walking from there N-W along the contour, opposite Througham: that hamlet, though close by, was hardly visible through the mist. It's another ancient landscape, and one we should return to discover in more detail on a sunny day - and when the ground is drier.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Seville comes to Cheltenham

This afternoon, the team were at work at the kitchen table on the oranges: it's marmalade making time again. As the Guardian described it the other day, a "tangy ritual".

Sunday, 27 January 2013


This time last week, this scene would have been a snowy one; but now there's hardly a sign of the stuff save high up. Here in Leckhampton, we are just left with massive puddles.

There has been a thaw too in Burma these last years: it would have seemed impossible for Aung San Suu Kyi to feature on Desert Island Discs even a year ago, I guess! (How many BBC people did Kirsty Young need to take with her to Naypyitaw last month for the recording I wonder?)

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Potato time again

The snow and ice last weekend affected the numbers coming to Dundry Nurseries' annual potato fest, and there were still plenty of varieties to choose from when I called yesterday afternoon on the way home from Gloucester.

So, for us this year it's going to be Red Duke of York, an old favourite, for the earlies, and Pink Fir Apple for maincrop. I've bought 3kgs. of each: we'll see how we get on.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

At Laud's

The Gloucestershire Churches Environmental Justice Network met today in the auspicious surroundings of Church House, Gloucester's Laud Room. The full-length portrait of William Laud - for many years Dean of Gloucester before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury - dominated the proceedings. I guess he might have lifted an eyebrow at the ecumenical nature of our discussion.

One of our number recounted a visit to her father's office, just off the Laud Room, when she was a lot younger: it was during the Three Choirs Festival, and there was a party in full flow. Dashing up the stairs, she ran into a large elderly man, nearly knocking him over: it was Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Three guests joined us: the Gloucester Diocese Churches Officer ("Solar panels can be eco-bling..."), a Vision 21 volunteer ("The question for me is how can I reduce my carbon footprint?") and a permaculturalist ("Nothing can be done without an internal change...").

A stimulating hour or so.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Thermal imaging

With the thermometer hovering around freezing, today was deemed a good day to try out Transition Town Cheltenham's new thermal imaging camera on our house. We therefore had the benefit of Matthew and Mike's expertise for two hours or more, while they pointed the lens this way and that, showing up where our warm air was disappearing faster than it should.

Tips we particularly noted: secondary glazing is more cost effective than brush strips around the sash windows. And we should put a silver foil panel behind our one radiator which is on an outside wall.

Ida enjoyed seeing the chickens photographed by the infrared camera!

Friday, 18 January 2013

Winter at last

The snow lies thick now, and it's due to last for weeks! So, thank goodness nobody is planning going far this weekend - at least now that Agnes brought forward her trip to Oxford and we have cancelled our book group meeting in Worcester tomorrow. I have had sinusitis all week, so today was the first day I felt like putting my nose outside for any length of time - to walk along and collect a prescription. I must have been feeling below par to skip going to the National Theatre's Cineworld relay of "The Magistrate" last night: I was looking forward to it. Instead, we have Ida to entertain us.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

"Arrow Vicarage"

Gertrude Louisa Davis' 1865/6 diary has recently been painstakingly transcribed by my Canadian cousin Bruce and his wife. Born in July 1847, she started writing a regular diary when aged nearly 15, and Bruce and Genie have now typed up four volumes/years. There isn't as much of significance in them as in her father's from three decades earlier, but part of the entry for 16th May 1865 interested me: "Papa went to a luncheon at Arrow Vicarage."

Arrow was six miles North of the Davis home in 1865, Bickmarsh Hall. And Arrow Vicarage (photographed, above, at around the time of Peter Davis' visit) was purchased by his great-grandson, my father, 89 years afterwards.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Letting the train take the strain

It had been suggested a couple of times previously that I might like to join a particular group on its adventurous walking journeys in different parts of the world. I have had the excuse of being busy, but my underlying concern these days is only to commit myself to trips that don’t involve flying.

I feel we have been lucky to live in a time when it has become so relatively cheap and easy: my own air travel for holidays in four continents has brought me enormous pleasure. The time has come, though, to say enough is enough. We are all aware of the impact of climate change, and the need for urgent action on a worldwide basis, but these are just words. Unless we in the affluent West are prepared to make some sort of step change in our own lives, how can we hope to arrest the carbon use of the rest of the world?

Going to any faraway place will always involve a large quantity of emissions. But I would like to visit Transylvania, the destination this May for the group I mentioned. It is something of a time capsule, from which we may have things to learn – from its past, but also its threatened future. It seems especially appropriate to come and go to Romania, therefore, as benignly as possible. And so I’ve signed on, and will travel by train.

Of course you may ask: “What difference does the emissions saving make in the grand scheme of things? Isn’t your approach just tokenism? Conscience-salving? We are busy people, and can’t afford the two days each way it will take. Or, alternatively, we are poor people [really?], and it’s certain to cost a lot more to travel by train than by air [true!].”

Calculating and comparing the actual emissions is perhaps more of an art than a science, and anyway I am no scientist. However, for what it’s worth, using the International Union of Railways’ methodology, the comparison between doing the trip from London to Bucharest by train versus plane works out as follows: the emissions of carbon dioxide by train are 21% of those when you fly; and nitrogen oxide and non-methane hydrocarbons are each 16%. Only the particulate matter emissions are more (122%).

So, I’m wondering if any other members of the group are interested in joining me on the train? We shall see.

I took the photograph during one of the stops when we went to China via the Trans-Siberian Express a decade ago.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

"From A to B? Or making A a good place to Be?"

This was the title of the Christian Ecology Link workshop I attended today. In doing so, the Government-funded transportdirect website calculates I created 21kgs of carbon emissions on my train journey: this was, it seems, less than a quarter of what it would have been had I driven, but nearly double that of a coach passenger.

I looked these figures up after my return, having been stirred by the workshop's presentations into taking more interest in the way in which I travel around. One of the speakers, indeed, urged us all to consider a pledge "to live within rations". 500 kilograms a year is suggested. Only by doing so would we avoid the pitfall of "vague good intentions, such as This year I aim to be driving less, flying less, using less... All use-less!" he said.

So, I now have a strategy for action. Measure my carbon footprint, first: record car mileage, train and longer bus trips. (Air travel is out at over a kilogram every two kilometers for CO2, multiplied by about three if you take into account nitrogen oxides etc.) Secondly, live locally. Thirdly, when driving, never exceed the speed limit.

There were other exhortations, but you can only take on board so many at a time, and that's plenty for me to be going on with. And besides, there's the big unspoken challenge: how to avoid being Holier than thou?

The workshop was the first meeting to be held in the newly-refurbished basement of St Aloysius' Church, Somers Town, just behind Euston Station - where I saw an encouraging number of bikes stored, for weekday commuting.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Peak oil? No, but...

By chance, I have just caught up with yesterday's BBC HARDtalk interview with Fatih Birol, one of the most influential people on the world energy scene. I wasn't expecting a lot of realism from someone who has spent much of his life defending the oil industry. But his final words were these: "With the current trends, we are perfectly in line for a temperature increase up to six degrees Celsius, which would have devastating effects for all of us, rich, poor, South, North... and if there are no major international agreements very soon, around 2017... we may well lock in our energy infrastructure and... say goodbye to our current lifestyle."

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

High definition performance

It was Kenneth Tynan who coined the phrase "high definition performance". Tonight's Film Society film, last night's Royal Opera live stream and Sunday's Something Understood all come under this useful heading.

The Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won plaudits at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival for A separation: I had meant to catch it when it first came out, but failed. It was well worth waiting, though, for its superb screenplay and mesmerising acting. Only at the end, when music plays, do you realise there has been none throughout.

Music aplenty though from the Royal Opera House throughout yesterday, during the 10-hour live stream of backstage activity, available through and We only watched a little until the evening, when we were rivetted by the relay of the whole of Act 3 of Die Walküre.

And Mark Tully's Something Understood is always worth listening to, but this week on "Dignity" he was on specially good form, particularly with his main interviewee, an eloquent Buddhist.

Tynan wouldn't have marked our High Street accordionist with "HDP", but I have recently been enjoying one particular tune he keeps playing. I don't know what it's called - we correspond in smiles, as he's from Hungary and speaks no English.

Monday, 7 January 2013


Sarah kindly gave me an iPod Shuffle lookalike for Christmas. I took it with me on the bus today, and listened to Die Winterreise: I have the Werner Güra/Christoph Berner recording on CD, the first music I've transferred to my new gizmo. Descending (from the bus) at the Cockleford turn on a dull day, I crossed the swollen River Churn at the start of a mini-Winter's journey through the flooded woodlands en route towards Cowley.

Mindful of "O unbarmherz'ge Schenke, doch weisest du mich ab?" I had booked a table for lunch at the Green Dragon.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Twelfth Night

We visited Mini and Leo today, for coffee, and took their Christmas tree back to its resting place in our garden. They bought a living tree 13 months ago, when it was even smaller than it is now: it survived the heat of their flat last Christmas, and looks as if it is still alive after this one. So long as we remember to water it, there's no reason why it should not be good for quite a few more years, until it's too big to move around.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

War horse

Les Troyens is on this evening, relayed from the New York Met. Caroline and I went along to our local cinema at 5 o'clock, plus picnic, ready for the five-hour big screen session; but by mutual agreement we came away at the first interval. After eating the picnic round our kitchen table, I find I'm much happier listening to Berlioz in the warmth of my study.

In the 'Sixties, I was an avid fan of this composer: Benvenuto Cellini with Nicolai Gedda was one of my earliest experiences of opera at Covent Garden; and three of us drove specially to Edinburgh in May 1969 to hear Janet Baker sing Dido in Scottish Opera's Trojans. This evening, though, in Cineworld I was bored. Was it the production, the singing or the music? Perhaps a combination of all three.

The ghost of Hector's appearance in a puff of pantomime smoke, stock still and dressed in white on top of a cave, with Aeneas kneeling below, brought the Grotto at Lourdes awkwardly to mind. Deborah Voigt as usual seemed unable to stop smirking, unfortunate when you're playing Cassandra.

Yesterday, we came to the end of the Radio 3's relay of the Ring Cycle in 10 instalments (a recording of the Covent Garden production last Autumn). As then, I listened to pretty well every bar; and that probably explained why tonight's rumpty-tum Berlioz left me squirming on my cinema seat.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

"Myth" busting

My friend Adrian emailed last week. He wanted me to consider writing to the local paper, to respond to a letter headed "Addressing the global warming myth" - printed with no inverted commas round the word myth! He had replied to the same reader's earlier letter on the same theme, and "We must knock this nonsense on the head," said he (quite rightly). So, write I did (for the second time within a month), and today, not only mine, but two other (sensible) letters are published - following on from one yesterday from Kit Braunholtz.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013


Our dear daughter-in-law tells us that her beautiful New Year card recalls a traditional Japanese game played on New Year's Day. Players take turns to be blindfolded, and then to arrange the features of a human face on a board. Very Cubist!

Mini has hand-drawn more than 40 of her cards this year, all different. (She was not wearing a blindfold during this exercise!)

Tuesday, 1 January 2013


We drove to Charlotte's for New Year drinks today, in the sunshine for once: the rain has been virtually incessant over the holiday period. I have never seen the River Avon valley so flooded (Bredon looked like a seaside village from the M5). At Upton, the level of the Severn made it unlikely you could even pass under the road bridge in a canoe: the water was across the road by the marina. Cars were naturally getting stuck on Bill and Charlotte's paddock, flat though that is.