Monday, 29 December 2008

Please, miss, I'm c-c-cold...

Monday lunchtime, back at work. The whole of Cambridge Cottage is freezing cold. Something went wrong with the heating over the weekend. In theory it is now working again but as yet there is no discernible difference in the temperature of the room. No-one here has a thermometer, so we can't tell for certain, but my guess is that by the end of the day we may just have reached the legal minimum working temperature. Luckily I come from hardy stock and don't object to working with my coat on...
Had a wonderful Christmas, doing very little, with my mum and elder brother. Ate rather too much, drank relatively little, took EXTREMELY bracing walks on the north Kent coast (in a howling north easterly gale), and talked. Read my Christmas present books (finished one and started the second, out of four, but one is an Editors' Dictionary so I probably won't settle down to read that cover to cover). Caught up on some sleep. Watched the birds on mum's assortment of birdfeeders. Counted the plants in flower in her garden on Christmas Day (18, down from the usual 23 or 24). Peace and quiet...
I've been asked why I have a link to "that dreadful right-winger Orson Scott Card"'s website. Ahem, well; I think he's a good writer and an interesting bloke. And he's fairly centrist, politically. Mormon's don't tend towards socialism, as a general rule, do they? I don't agree with some of his views, being non-christian and a dyed-in-the-wool leftie, but everyone has the right to hold their own opinions, and at least his are thought-through and coherently argued. I'd much rather be able to have an intelligent conversation with someone I don't agree with than be scared of them punching me. Heavens, I didn't agree with a great many of my late father's ideas about life, but that didn't stop me enjoying talking to him, nor for that matter loving him, even when I wanted to yell at him. How insufferably bland life would become if I only sought the company of those who shared my world view in every detail, and did nothing but echo my own words back to me. Not only bland, indeed, but extremely creepy, too. I find OSC's essays interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining.
No-one else has to follow that link if they don't want to. You don't have to follow the Geek, either. If you don't like it, don't look at it.
On the which for-me pugnacious note I'll take my dirty plate (Sainsbury's Instant Curry Noodles, a real cop-out lunch) to the kitchen and get on with some work.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Last day before Christmas great escape.

Last night I actually came home on time, straight from work, ran the washing machine, cleaned my room, packed my bag, went out and got a bottle of perry and a takeaway from Usha's on the Uxbridge Road, and was able to settle down and watch a movie I'd been looking forward to all day, and then go to bed at a reasonable hour. It was the first time I've gotten to bed at a sane time for absolutely ages. It's just a pity the film was such a tangled muddle.

It was Terry Gilliam's "The Brothers Grimm", and I had never seen any reviews when it came out, but Gilliam is an interesting - and staggeringly imaginative - film-maker and I thought it should be a great evening's entertainment. Instead of which it was - well, great fun, certainly, but total chaos, rambling and badly plotted, at times really badly edited (which was unexpected) and almost an outright waste of the very capable leads. The plot was a close echo of Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow" (a film which has the added benefit of total coherence [& Johnny Depp at his most hauntedly beautiful!]) with a lot of baroque trimmings flung on top, scattershot, in classic Gilliam "more is more" style. It had wonderful moments, and I liked the genuinely tough (rather than Hollywood "feisty") heroine. Heath Ledger and Matt Damon did their level best with underwritten and undermotivated parts, and both produced very creditable english accents. The set and production design was of course absolutely terrific. But it was an odd mixture, overall, of Gilliam-lite and what looked frankly like amateur pastiche Gilliam. As in "If we have a vaguely literary-referenced script and a real mess of a narrative everyone will think 'O, a Terry Gilliam movie', and we'll get away with it lacking the very real depth of ideas that a REAL Terry Gilliam movie has."

I think what pissed me off the most was a little moment near the end, when Jonathan Pryce's cardboard cut-out villainous french general is killed and his dying words are "All I wanted was a little order..." And I thought, Oh, Mr Gilliam, cheap shot!

Anyone who likes Terry Gilliam's work knows he is seriously into chaos; it is meat and drink to him, and I think in his book order is very probably toxic, inimical to life. But order is NOT inimical to life. It is inherent in all life, just as much as chaos. It's a fallacy, not to mention shooting at an an easy target, to say "Order is BAD, only chaos promotes life and growth!". Are the cells in a beehive disorderly? Are the petals on a dahlia, the scales on a pinecone, disorderly? No. But that is No and simultaneously Yes! And yes only because no, if you get my drift. In nature the two coexist, and cannot but do so. Order works because chaos breaks in; chaos works because it disrupts and revivifies order. As my favourite baritone is fond of saying, it's all about subtleties, nuances and laminations. I know that this praise of the multi-layeredness of the universe is itself a grotesque oversimplification of the complexity and subtlety of this interplay between forces, and my apologies for those who would articulate it better than I.

I was on the Tube a few nights ago next to a guy who had clearly come from the USA that evening - he had a huge suitcase with a tag from NYC, and was reading the New York Times. I looked over his shoulder at one point and saw an advert whose headline was "No-one was ever reassured by complexity". And I wanted to shout "Speak for yourself, you lack-wit advertising copywriter, you!". Because I, personally, am enormously reassured by complexity and almost invariably am dubious about, or even alarmed by, simplicity. Simplicity, in my experience, too frequently means active and deliberate over-simplification. Long live the complex, the intertwined and the nuanced, and the interplay and tension between tangled forces! Long live frenziedly busy weeks of rushing about, drinking rather too much, dancing, seeing friends and family, getting to bed late, singing in public, smiling at the choirmaster, and having fully-decorated christmas trees fall on me, as well...

Probably won't get to write any more until after christmas, so on that perhaps apprpriately chaotic note, Merry Christmas, everyone, and a happy new year to you all.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

A minor note...

My colleagues have been joking about wanting music while we work "since it's christmas", and this afternoon Katherine brought in a bunch of christmas cds. First up was a sharp, wavering soprano who made my teeth grate. I finally said miserably "Is this my punishment for having kept singing at you all last week?" Only to be told it was the famous Charlotte Church.

I was then rather rude about Ms Church.

Crikey, voice of an angel, that tripe? Eeuch.

Going home to listen to some decent music!

Thursday lunch break...

Further thoughts on singing... Largely caused by the realisation, last night at about 10.30, standing at the bus stop waiting for a northbound 65 bus, that I was softly singing the alto line of "The Shepherds' Farewell" without even being aware of it. I had got to "Shelter thee with tender care", too, so I'd been going for a while (& I wasn't particularly tipsy, either).

I think I have finally gotten all the sharps and flats into my head - and I don't need to know them any more. I have in fact got the four pieces we sang as a choir, and the five congregational songs, all on the brain constantly at present. It's bizarre, like being becalmed in a Sargasso Sea of carols.

I do love singing (as those who work with me know!) although I know I'm not much good (and I can't read music, which hampers me at times). I wish the staff choir ran year-round. And then, casting my mind back to school days, I remember Miss Porrer (if there are any old Langtonians out there you may find this rather controversial) and her teaching technique, and it astonishes me that I can even open my mouth at all. She was, apparently, the Greatest Music Teacher Ever - IF you were musical. I was officially Not Musical; I didn't play an instrument, and there was no money for me to learn one had I wanted to; my singing voice was low, scratchy, and rather unnattractive; I couldn't read music, or even grasp the basic concept of how one does read music... And I was ignored at best, and frequently shouted at and told to be quiet. I think perhaps music really was a sacred art to her; one that was profaned by talentless people like me who just wanted to enjoy themselves with it.

Incidentally, I still can't really grasp how one reads music, unless one has perfect pitch. Sure, "that line there is the first note of the national anthem". But do I start 'God Save The Queen' in the same key every time I sing it? Frankly, I doubt it. So how can I know that any note I sing is right? And how on earth does anyone calculate an interval of a third, or a fifth, or whatever, in their head, in silence? Maybe there is something missing in my brain.

At any rate, confronted by a choirmistress who glared at me and told me I sounded like someone driving nails through sheet metal, I cringed and failed and felt sick with shame and inadequacy; confronted by a choirmaster who beams at me, and whose teaching method boils down to Boundless Encouragement!, I sing out gladly, practice endlessly (even after the event...), and watch him giving the beat as if the future of life on earth depends upon it; and am simultaneously terrified and blissfully, indescribably happy.

So, no, I don't think Miss Porrer was the greatest music teacher ever. I don't think she was even a good teacher. No-one who subdivides her students into those worth bothering with and those not worth bothering with, and has such obvious total contempt for the latter group, can be called a good teacher. You can keep your great music teacher; give me a scientist who does it for fun, any day.

Which gets me on, in a sideways sort of way, to one of the topics of conversation last night at the Kew Inn; how does one give one's children an appreciation of something one is not terribly knowledgeable about? I was astonished to hear one of my friends saying she would not feel able to introduce her (at present hypothetical) children to classical music, history, The Arts in general, as she knows so little about them. I've always thought that if I had kids (increasingly unlikely these days, sadly), I'd rely on exposure to the natural world and the wonders of nature, etc etc, to give them an avenue into the Sciences - about which I know sod all, in truth. Would I in fact be unable to avoid predisposing them to have a bias towards the Humanities?

But what the heck is wrong with us, or our culture, or our school system, that an intelligent, articulate adult can feel that their reasonable layperson's knowledge is so useless, so inadequate, that they cannot introduce even a child to a whole area of human culture? Rhetorical question, I know, but I like my rhetorical questions, and it is going to bug me... As is this whole issue of the great Sciences/Humanities divide. "And ne'er the twain shall meet..."

Time to get back to work, Imogen!

Daft news item...

Courtesy of the Grauniad online...

Wednesday, 17 December 2008


Things are hectic at the moment and I am pie-eyed with tiredness after a very late night last night. Overslept horribly and wasn't in to work until nearly ten. I'm too sleepy to function properly and too sleepy to work or write coherently.
A pity, as the last week has been good in many respects. I went to a wonderful performance of "The Messiah" at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday - period instruments and a smallish choir, very clear bright sound (though they did still manage to sing "Oh we like sheep" instead of "ALL we like sheep" - enunciating l into w clearly, and on a rising note as well, seems to defeat pretty much everyone). I didn't like the soprano soloist, a plump blonde with a very wobbly, vibrato-heavy voice; but the tenor was good, and the mezzo and bass both were excellent. The bass was built like the proverbial brick outbuilding, but with a lovely, rich, dark, 80% cocoa solids kind of a voice. The mezzo was the New Zealander Wendy Dawn Thompson, with whom I once briefly corresponded (in before-she-was-famous days). I remember her performance of "Musik ist eine Heilige Kunst" at the Cardiff Singers competition a few years back as one of those moments when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. She hasn't a huge voice, but it is plangeant and expressive and has a wonderful tone - I'm thinking Highland Park and roasted hazelnuts. Her "He was despised" was heart-rending.
Saturday I met up with my stepmum Jane, had a meal out and a good old talk about everything under the sun, and then came down to Kew for a brisk walk in the rain and a spot of open-air carol singing, also in the rain. According to Jane, who listened with interest to the peculiar sound I produce, my singing voice should be classified as "contra-contralto", whatever that is. Dad was a very deep bass, basso profundo, so maybe it's genetic.
A lot of singing lately - I sing in the Kew Staff choir christmas carol service, and we have been rehearsing quite frequently and then yesterday afternoon were doing our thing in St Anne's church. Our immensely hard-working and supportive choirmaster Nigel turns out annually and with ineradicable good cheer and patience encourages us into giving a performance worth hearing. Every year at the first rehearsal I think "Oh god, we're going to be hopeless!" - every year Nigel calls forth gold from straw, and behold, our nervous pipings and creakings become music. I know he does something involving nuclear magnetic spectroscopy in the Jodrell Laboratory, but I suspect he may also be a bit of an alchemist on the side...
The carol service was followed by the famous (?infamous?) "Pies and Punch", and then full of mulled wine and goodwill to all men I hurtled across Town to meet Helena at Edgeware Road, got out at the wrong exit and stood flabberghasted by the Marylebone Flyover at rush-hour. Hell on earth would look something like this, I think. Managed to connect with Hel and had a lovely meal and a great deal to drink, and again talked our heads off. Got home at about 2 a.m. I am so knackered I am not for real! And in theory tonight I am going to Jill Preston's Christmas drinks and then the Visitor Services Christmas bash at the Kew Inn. I'd hate to miss the latter as it was so pleasing to be invited when I left VS nearly six months ago. But I don't think I'll last very long. It's also Hernàn's leaving do, and I really want to bid him buen viaje y buen suerte.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Back a week...

No, not back in time by a week. In fact, it's a week today since I got back from my wonderful holiday in Cuba. I've already burbled about this at some length to a lot of people, so won't bore any readers I still have with a repeat performance. Suffice it to say, it was wonderful. It's an incredibly beautiful country - in particular I'll never forget the day hiking in the Sierra de Escambray national park - and the people are marvellous. The whole place has an energy and a laid-back charm that have totally seduced me. Go - now! - if you possibly can! - and pray with me that President-elect Obama, on becoming president, talks to the Cubans, removes the blockade, but doesn't try to take them over.
Work is busier now, as Christmas is upon us. And life is also busy - friends and parties, carol concert practice, "Messiah" (in period costume!) tomorrow evening, trying to catch up with all the family, trying to find time to write and post greetings cards and presents...
But I had an amazing dream last night about going to a drawing class and then starting to make huge charcoal drawings - woke up with almost the same feeling of exhileration that I would have had if I had been drawing. It reminded me all over again of why I have to keep the creative juices flowing, somehow, because it is what makes me feel more alive than anything else I know - better than being drunk or being in love, even.