Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Okay, going home now...

I've been taught some rather weird finger exercises by a nice physiotherapist, eaten far too many biscuits and Quality Street chocs, and answered a lot of 'phone calls (mostly asking "Are the Gardens open tomorrow?" - answer "NO!"), and now - I'm going home. Tomorrow I'm off down to Kent for a family Christmas of reading, eating, healthy walks, and finger exercises.

Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous New Year to one and all!

Monday, 21 December 2009


Midwinter greetings, everyone!

From today, the days get a little longer, the nights a little shorter, and the Blessed Sun returns. This is that day of turning wheels and dancing light returning, the winter solstice. From this day, daily, the night steps a pace back and the light steps a pace forward.

Blessed light and darkness
Here where your balance
Is tightest, where the tension
Moves close to breaking point,
You turn, and return
Coming back with the coming spring
To the spinning wheel of seasons,
To the balanced moment, to
The next imbalance; ever on,
Eternal, swaying between
One stress and the other,
Extreme and extreme
And all the continuum between
In blessed living dancing, in
Light and darkness.

Happy Winter Solstice, everybody!

Things you learn when you break your right wrist...

This, as most of you will notice, is not me. I've never been to a ski resort in my life...


It’s amazing what you can do one-handed. But -

Loo rolls with faulty perforations are really irritating.

Loo roll dispensers on the right-hand side of the loo are really irritating.

People who don’t look where they are going and bash into your plastered-up and be-slinged arm are really irritating. Dogs and small children, ie mobile trip hazards, likewise, though they at least have the excuse of ignorant innocence.

Washing up is really irritating – even more so than usual, that is.

My elderly glasses are really uncomfortable, at least they are after a fortnight.

Boiled rice and (ready-chopped) vegetables with sauce (out of a bottle) and (ready-grated) cheese on top is nicer than it sounds, but it gets monotonous, and creates more washing up (see above) than a vegetarian cook-chill ready meal.

Tesco vegetarian cook-chill ready meals are vile. Sainsbury’s vegetarian cook-chill ready meals are okay, but bland, and give me gas (anyone care to identify the additive responsible?). M+S vegetarian cook-chill ready meals are okay but tend to include pastry – difficult to deal-with one-handed. Waitrose vegetarian cook-chill ready meals are excellent but horribly expensive.

It’s a good thing I love toast. Sadly at present it has to be toast with small irregularly-spaced blobs of butter or jam, as actually spreading anything is quite beyond me.

It’s hard to believe I am normally someone who tries to look reasonably well-turned-out. Initially I had precisely one bottom-half garment I could get into, a pair of 1992 vintage tracksuit legs I normally wear as gardening trousers, and precisely one wearable warm over-garment, a baggy knee length woolly I normally use as a bathrobe. However, I have managed, with a little expenditure, to get past the bag-lady look this gave me. I have purchased a pair of navy blue perma-press polyester elastic-waisted trousers, a gents button-fronted cardigan, and an alice band. With my glasses perched on my nose, my shirt-tails untucked, my long hair floating loose like a frizzy chestnut halo, no bra (& enough bosom for this to be noticeable), and terribly sensible flat shoes, plus the perma-press-and-cardi combo, I now look like a comedy lesbian version of the classic absent-minded professor. I hope this is acceptable in the office – thank the gods it’s an office at Kew and not somewhere with, like, a dress code or something.

On Friday I had an appointment at the fracture clinic for a follow-up x-ray, which was apparently so good that they promptly (well, pretty slowly, actually – they were, pun absolutely intended, snowed under) whipped my plaster off and took out my stitches, and then put another plaster cast on. This latest one is mine till late January. My bare, slightly swollen and misshapen right forearm, with a puckered, bloodstained four-inch incision down the soft wrist side, was an extraordinary and curiously tragic sight to my eyes, but the consultant declared it looked “splendid” and told me to use my fingers as much as possible and to make an appointment at Occupational Therapy for my first physio session on Wednesday.

I would have liked to have seen the x-ray, but everyone was so busy, that first wildly icy morning of the Great Cold Snap, that I felt I had no right to take up their time. Now that I am over the worst I am finding this whole business weirdly interesting. I really wanted to see my own arm again, and examined it with compassionate fascination; sometime I’d love to see inside it, with the plate + screws added…

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

One-hand Sally...

...or, how I managed to do something bl**dy stupid straight after getting back from my holiday.

Last Tuesday morning, running late for work & feeling post-vacation-lazy, I sprinted for a bus, caught my foot in an uneven paving slab on the Chiswick High Road, and went flying; bang, flat on my face. Masses of bruises, and what turned out to be a badly broken right wrist. I could unfold a tale - but typing left-handed is so tricky that I won't bother. The details are pretty dismal, anyway, so you aren't missing much.

It's an impact fracture, so the break is distal rather than transverse, and the x-ray showed I had a chunk of my right radius completely detached. It was clearly unstable, so on Saturday I went into Charing Cross Hospital to have a nerve block (ugh, never again) and have a metal plate and two screws put into my wrist. I'll never get through airport security unquestioned again.

I'm now stuck in plaster and a sling, and doped up to the eyes on codeine. I refuse to let this spoil Christmas, but it will certainly slow Christmas down a bit, and I have had to drop out of the Kew staff choir, which is a pity. In about six weeks I get my arm and hand back, and by then of course I'll need some physiotherapy; by the time I go to the Bartok "Concerto for Orchestra" in early February I may be able to applaud again...


Monday, 7 December 2009

Home is the sailor, home from sea...

Well, I got back rather late last night and didn't get to bed till nearly one am, and my system is still on Cyprus time, so I woke up at 5.00 – ugh. But I’m back to cold, wet, British reality now. A day's work on only four hours' sleep is 'orrible, but I should sleep okay tonight...

Paphos in the off-season was peaceful and comfortable, with enough of the tourist infrastructure still operating to make a visit very pleasant. Until the last couple of days it was outright hot, with clear skies and scorching sun all day, and crisp, brisk evenings. I spent my birthday lounging on the beach with a fat novel and a picnic lunch of bread and cheese, fresh fruit, sesame pastelli and beer; I swam in the sea and lay under a palm tree coating my shoulders with factor fifteen. Swimming in the sea in December, and in Europe, too; bliss. Later I walked into the town to have a chocolate ice-cream sundae and watch the sun set over the harbour, then finished off with a thoroughly indulgent meal out at the improbably-named Viva Cyprus Steakhouse Restaurant – which in fact did some very nice traditional Cypriot vegetarian food (and steak) including decent melitzanosalata, lemony tahini dip, grilled halloumi and fried kolokithia with garlic, and a good house white…

The last couple of days the weather went off; first windy and stormy at sea, which was dramatic but put paid to the swimming, and then abruptly and spectacularly wet, with wild thunderstorms, torrential rain and all the sloping streets turning into small rivers. At least all the rain made it easier to come home. Now I have to think about Christmas cards, packing and sending parcels, getting a tree and getting it set up and decorated… and getting in some basic groceries, of course, and washing all those summery clothes that will look so incongruous on the line now.

It was a good holiday.

Friday, 27 November 2009


I'm off at the crack of dawn on Sunday for a week in Cyprus; nothing fancy, a tourist hotel in Paphos; but the temperature there at the moment is about 22-23 degrees Celsius - that's the low seventies Fahrenheit, for those like me who still shamefacedly convert temperatures to "old money" in their head.

The sun is shining over there at the moment and the humidity is low. I aim to spend my week eating tahini and grilled fish and baklava, swimming in the hotel pool, drinking cold beer, walking, birdwatching and sketching.

Have a good week, everyone!

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

A philosophical moment...

I went to "The Dream of Gerontius" last night. It was a bit cool and uninvolved at first, perhaps from the fact that I am used to Elgar's music coming on with umpteen hundred strings and all the stops out, if you know what I mean, rather than with the crisp, cool, rather small sound of the OAE. Adrian Thompson's heartfelt, lyrical Gerontius sounded terribly alone without that consoling cocoon of lushness around him. But when Roderick Williams stood up to sing the Priest, my hair stood on end. Gods, what a voice - golden velvet, warmth and clarity and ardour, wonderfully controlled, riding over the chorus like a magnificent roan horse, full of feeling but without a scrap of ham. And he's good-looking (understatement!).

& Please excuse the bad mixed metaphor there - I have no desire in truth to see the Ex Cathedra choir trampled by a horse, even one that can sing like Mr Williams.

Part two was full of such moments; right from the start, those delicate solo strings and Gerontius' hushed wonder at his awakening, a real shivers-down-the-spine moment. A slightly underpowered angel, I'm afraid; but the chorus of fallen angels, the big chorales, and the moment at the Judgement Seat, lifted the roof...

I don't always know in advance what is going to move me and sometimes get caught out, especially by music, which can open a direct current into my heart without my realising it is happening. At the interval I went out onto the balcony above the Thames for a breath of air, feeling vaguely melancholy, and by chance I looked up.

There were huge clouds rushing by overhead, and the stars came and went as they passed. The beauty and grace of the clouds, and the magical way that their speed did not in any way reduce their serenity, seemed to me to convey the majesty and wonder of divinity as beautifully as any church or prayer I have known. I have been in great churches, shrines and mosques, places that were full of hallow-ment and prayerfulness; yet that Cathedral of racing clouds, and the great edifice of music, equal them all.

But I can't subscribe to my late father's view, that because "Musik ist eine heilige kunst" it must therefore be protected from anything other than quality performers and reverent, strictly-controlled performances and forward development. Any art that is unable to live in the real world, the world where people experiment (& sometimes get it wrong) and where amateurs are having a go for personal pleasure and without any expectation of greatness, is an art that will die, shut away in its safety box far above the rest of us.

Sorry, that was another mixed metaphor...

I cannot bear to consign the creative and performed arts to the realm of Sacred Objects, relics in glass cases with "Noli me tangere" written on the label. Even if some - even if a lot - of the living and developing of an art is painful to the ear or the eye, it must still live. It must live. If the Almighty, whatever we conceive him or her or it to be, is living, then so must everything we do that works with god be living, or it must fail.

Music is a holy art; and so are all the others. But they must be free to race under the clouds, as well as to be made anew each time in the concert hall, slightly-low-key angel and all.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

A sketch! A sketch!

Can you tell what it is yet (because the quality isn't great)?

I don't know his name, but he plays the double bass with the Philharmonia and he was resting and having a little think, mid-"Rite", so I drew him.

Many thanks to Viveka Gaillard for her help - but I can see I'm going to have to find a better system for this. Still it's a start - this is what my thumbnail sketches look like and I have a gazillion more of them, as well, now, as two large A1 mixed-media drawings worked up from them.

Choir practice...

Yes, it's that time of year again. I am a trembling wreck after an hour and a quarter of trying to pretend I can read music - and that is with Margaret Ramsey, a "proper" choral singer who has a good voice and can sight read, standing directly behind me so that I can hang onto her voice as to a life-preserver. Why is something so nerve-wracking enjoyable? I must be crackers.

This year we're doing a French carol I learned at school - I have to keep a stern grip or I start singing it in french - plus "Unto us a son is born", The Somerset Carol, and a sweet one with a tune by Praetorius and lyrics about the virgin Mary being "a rose e'er blooming". Plus a chunk of "Messiah", which is a real buzz, but also scary - it's "And the Glory of the Lord", so the contraltos kick off. Help.

Lucky Nigel, our choir master, is his usual patient & encouraging self, though occasionally even he is daunted by the ineptitude of the noises we make - at one point today the only thing he could think of to say was "Well, you all got the words right"... Bless him, he must be crackers, to take this job on in the first place; never mind me for thinking I am qualified to take part!

Friday, 20 November 2009

Hero Worship

I know that I am
A blur to you, a dark
Voice from the back of the room
Grinding like a stiff door
In troublous song.

To me you are like
A day bright with excitement;
Leaping hands, and blue
Eyes sharply lit, witty
With the song’s delight.

I am okay with this.
My adoration snares
A real man behind shadows,
Absolving me from shame.
Regrets are unshed tears.

I hero-worship, I know.
You are the keeper
Of all wonders, the sun-bright
Face; I, the unseen
Shadow, falling at your feet.

Technical hitches and dream hopes

I'm trying to find a way to get pictures of my drawings onto this blog - without having to buy a pile of expensive new kit, that is (!!). So far, no luck. The friend who used to have one of those Blackberry glorified-phones has got rid of it, and I don't seem to be able to text 'phone pictures to anyone else who has the technology to convert them into jpegs and email them to me.

I refuse to buy a home computer plus scanner plus digital camera, just to play with. Rrrah! I have better things to do with my money, seriously.

So in the meantime, you'll have to be satisfied with my gushing descriptions of my own work, which is pretty surreal.

I had another great drawing session last night, once again working from my "re:Rite" sketchbook; assisted by a couple of U2 albums. I drew violinists and viola players this time, about eight of them layered one over the other. When you draw something, you look at it with an attention to details that is different from everyday looking; I've now noticed that the concert master, who revels in the glorious name of Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, looks in profile as if he could be related to the sexy vampire in "Twilight". I wonder if anyone has ever pointed that out to him?

Maybe I am going to have to bite the bullet and get a digital camera, just for this. Nobody blogs about doing art work and then fails to provide illustrations... Ah well.

On a more cheerful note, I had a wonderful dream a few nights ago. I was on a walking tour in Greece, and had been taken by boat to an Aegean island where I climbed a magnificent limestone gorge full of garrigue and singing birds, up into a mountainous hinterland. Suddenly I found a small village hidden away in the mountains. A little boy was charming the wild birds and animals; he called his parents and they made me welcome and gave me cakes and raki to celebrate my birthday, which was the same day as their son's. They put me up for the night in a little guest room with a view across the fields to the village church, and gave me the key to their home, saying I could come back any time I wanted to stay with them. Compared to my last two memorable dreams (one of which was about a certain Maestro and was, ahem, sexy, and the other of which involved finding a frog in my handbag), this was a pretty good dream-world place to wake up from. Every image in the dream was joyful and life-full, and offered hope and love and welcome. Admittedly I could say as much of the sexy dream, but lusting after married men does not make me feel good about myself, whereas this left me feeling a benediction had been passed upon me as I slept.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Haven't vanished...

...just rather busy. And I have had a bad attack of cystitis (you all really wanted to know that, didn't you?!). The constant nagging discomfort, verging at times into real pain, is beginning to get me down after four days.

Think positive, Dent.

I had a wonderful Drawing Day last Friday - I booked a day off work so I could indulge myself totally. I went back to "re:Rite", used up almost a whole A5 sketchbook, and worked a brand-new 4B pencil down to a stub, drawing musicians. I managed to get everything from detailed portraits to the most flailing Zen-Spaghetti drawings; to me, these all say something worth saying. There are no failures; there are only interesting experiments. Everything takes you somewhere, even if only to a place of knowing that "That didn't come off". Most of it, at least to me, carries so much resonance - of the music and the energy of the performance - that it fairly zings on the page, whether the image is a recognisable face and identifiable instrument, or Zen-Spaghetti loop-lah chaos.

I listened to the whole of the conductor's commentary on the headphones provided (& it was absolutely fascinating) and took advantage of this to also draw The Maestro, about fifteen times - again, managing to produce everything from a proper thumbnail portrait to a couple of Zen-Spaghettis. As he is a moving target, to say the least, the Spaghetti drawings were only to be expected. Some musicians sit comparatively still, others move about a certain amount, but in most cases they were moderately simple subjects, with at most face and hands in movement. The Maestro bounds about like a dancer, grinning, pulling faces, and waving his arms, never stopping the entire time. Wonderful to watch - and his commentary was illuminating, funny and oddly touching - but a tough challenge to draw.

I've done one large drawing since (cello section, focussing in, as it developed, onto the figure of principal cellist Karen Stephenson) and begun a second last night. It feels good to be doing some big drawings again.

I also danced my feet off a concert by Vieux Farka Touré (who was corking) and Rachid Taha (who may have been drunk; but his set was great fun, like a north-african-inflected early Rolling Stones). And I did some useful domestic things like grocery shopping and cleaning as well. And defrosted the freezer. I don't think this had been done for about two years. It took five and a half hours. Ugh. I deserved my whiskey and my drawing session, after that.

I also went to the triple bill at the Royal ballet. Melissa Hamilton is wonderful. Yuhui Choe is wonderful. Eric Underwood is wonderful.

So are quite a lot of the company, actually.

"Agon" looked a bit untidy at first - Balanchine needs precision and clarity and both were lacking somewhat in the opening ensemble - but then they got it together and the second pas de trois and the pas de deux were spot-on. The score is Stravinsky at his most spare and taut and spiky, the choreography appropriately a back-and-forth shifting, between lyrical beauty and angular abstraction. "Sphinx" was bonkers but terrific, Edward Watson was as stunning as ever despite a very silly mask, and the playing of the Martinu Double concerto was a treat. "Limen" was also slightly bonkers, and I'm not too sure it meant as much as it meant to mean, if you know what I mean. But it was splendidly danced, the staging was weird but very effective and the music (Kaija Saariaho's Cello concerto) was simply amazing.

On the way home, I found myself walking into the tube station just behind Gary Avis, also of Royal Ballet fame. I don't know if he'd been at the performance or doing something else (he wasn't dancing that night, at least not in the triple bill). He is less tall, handsomer, and more melancholy-looking in person than he appears on stage. He got on a different train to mine and stood there waiting to go, with a sad, downcast gaze. It would have been rude to bound on board and grab his arm and tell him I think he's wonderful; but I do. Gary Avis, you are wonderful; and I hope whatever was making you feel blue on Tuesday night is soon sorted out.

Now I'm off home to reheat last night's fish stew and get some more charcoal under my fingernails. Drawing board, "re:Rite" sketchbook, stinking fixative and all; here I come...

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Drawing madness

I spent yesterday evening working from my orchestra sketches, developing some of them into more carefully-worked drawings, trying to find ways to explore the things that fascinate me about the orchestra.

I can't express the music!! I haven't got the space to express the scale of this huge group of people and their monumental work. I can't do a portrait of each individual musician, I haven't got the time (though it would be tremendous fun). So where do I go with this? Because it has to go somewhere; I am fizzing like shook champagne at the moment, and this energy has to be poured out and made use of, or I will pop.

I am interested, visually, by the tension between the individuality of the players as people and the fusion of those individualities into a harmonious ensemble. Looking along the fiddle section, for example, every instrument is the same shape, every bow is the same shape, and every player is making more-or-less identical movements; but the individual human beauty of each player is unique. In formal visual terms there's an intriguing balance there.

I think what I am going to do is to work up to making some A1 drawings, like the pieces I did years ago based on sketches I had done in Canterbury Cathedral. Big, nuanced, multiple-overlayered charcoal pieces. I am excited just thinking about it. I am excited. I don't know who it was who thought of this idea, this crazy "digital residency" that has given me licence to draw musicians without getting in their way, but whoever you are, thank you! and blessed be!

Monday, 9 November 2009

Re "re:Rite"...

I'm so sad to see that only the Daily Telegraph have bothered to send someone along to have a look and listen to this extraordinary project. Darn it, I don't want to turn into a Telegraph reader; that would be embarrassing.

I have to agree with some of Ivan Hewitt's remarks, too. I think it's the first time anyone has done something like this, on this scale. It is hugely ambitious; and they certainly didn't pick a nice, safe piece of music to use, either. I used to use "The Rite of Spring" on my headphones when I was an art student, playing it over and over; staying late so I could get the studio to myself, dancing and drawing together, getting filthy with charcoal and acrylic and practically hurling myself at the walls as the energy built up and up. I got a touch of the same fever yesterday, and I was just doing pencil studies in an A5 sketchbook. What I want is for someone to make over to me a final, unused room in the Bargehouse, and give me charcoal and paint and a sheet of paper about six feet by twenty, and let me loose for the duration. I know that isn't going to happen; but I can go back and draw some more, at least.

One problem is that it was full of kids, and the "try out the percussion" room was consequently a nightmare of toddlers and parents squabbling over the gong, the tambourines and the bass drum, and a fearful racket was resulting. One had to simply tune it out. Then there is the problem that the screens in each room do not recreate the experience of being in the middle of an orchestra, because almost without exception they each show only one section of the orchestra - violins here, clarinets there, and so on. It is still amazing to get up close and personal with some of the best clarinetists, violinists, etc, out. But one doesn't get the surrounded-by-musicians feeling, the awe-inspiring sense of a huge collaboration, and the tension of that collaborative effort holding together, that I remember being such a buzz when I was a terrified and inept teenaged percussionist.

The up-close-&-personal thing is a little strange, too; it is odd to be so close to life-sized filmed poeple, and their indifference is somehow of a different order to that of filmed people on the small screen of the tele. I felt at times as if I were snooping on them; and I did catch myself once or twice muttering "Give us your profile again, lad" or "Please show me that fingering again" at the screens. And even (forlorn hope indeed, this!) "Keep still, Maestro!"

So I'm not sure the project accomplishes all that was hoped for it, but I still think it is exciting; and it has given me a chance to do something I haven't done for ages. I'm now so fired up about drawing I don't believe myself. Good heavens, did I actually go through a phase recently when I no longer carried a sketchbook around with me? Weird.

When you come to work for a rest...

It's been a busy weekend. I wouldn't change a scrap of it, but it has all been a bit rushed. I managed to do at least some of the week-in, week-out sensible jobs, like grocery shopping and clothes-washing. I made a disgracefully good risotto, and an even more disgraceful chocolate & chestnut mousse. I had lunch with my mother and went to an exhibition at the Royal Academy - an odd yoking of cool, formal, very-knotted-up Eric Gills, powerful early Epsteins, and a roomfull of stunning pieces by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Then on Sunday I passed several blissful hours standing drawing musicians at "re:Rite" - I'll probably never again get the chance to draw members of an orchestra that close up, and I intend to make the most of it, so I'll probably go back at least once. Then I went to a live concert to follow up the weird filmed and played-in-a-warehouse one ("re:Rite" is really rather peculiar altogether; more of that in a moment), and finally crept home, via my local indian takeaway, because I was too knackered to think, let alone cook. And I like their Saag Paneer.

The live concert was lovely, luckily. I was concerned that I would have wired my brain to modernism at "re:Rite", which is, as the name suggests, a performance of "The Rite of Spring". This is one of my all-time favourite pieces of music, and that is a good thing, since if I am going to spend a lot of time at it, drawing, I'll be hearing the piece several times over. I got about two and a half rounds of it yesterday, and didn't stop thinking it brilliant.

But I did worry, as I dashed, wolfing a small sandwich, back down the South Bank to the Festival Hall, that Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov and Sibelius were going to sound a tad, well, conventional, in comparison with the Total Immersion Stravinsky Experience I had just had. The Tchaikovsky "Voyevoda" overture, to be frank, did (& I may now have added insult to injury by spelling it wrong); loud and jolly. Then Nikolai Lugansky came on and played Rachmaninov (piano concerto no.3) and blew me away; it was as though my brain had hopped across a bridge and come into a perfect place for this. Utter lush romantic passion, manly romantic passion that is, not sugary gambolly stuff in the manner of Hollywood. Mr Lugansky was wonderful - and he is delightfully ornamental (his picture in the brochure is very unflattering - he turns out to be about 6 foot four and fair, with a long nose and ravishing hands >sigh<). If he had been feeding me champagne and christmas cake on the side (between cadenzas!) I could hardly have been happier. And the Sibelius (no.2) went down a treat. The last time I heard this, it was played (with brio but a distinct feeling of "oh christ we are out of our depth now") by the amateur orchestra my stepmum and baby bro play in, so it sounded rather more clear and polished here in the hands of the Philharmonia. On whom, I have to admit, I am developing something of a collective crush...

It was a good curry, too.

All in all a great weekend; but I am tired, and a steady day answering silly emails seems restful in comparison. Tonight I am off to a performance of bluegrass banjo music. Ickle Miss Eclecticism, that's me.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Only tangentially relevant...

I am just finishing a lunch of something wonderful: bread, with
Delphi Fresh Aubergine Dip.

To see that picture, you have to scroll to the furthest right of the selection at the bottom of the page; this is the next to last one. Not that seeing a picture is helpful - it's pale brown goo. I just like the fact I have now learned how to do hyperlinks.

It's melitzanosalata. Quite a smooth one, and not too smokey - obviously mass-produced, so not perfect - but a pretty good substitute, for a raving philhellene stuck in damp, chilly London in November. The first bite filled me with memories of holdays in Greece. Sigh...

I bought it by accident - I thought I was getting two pots of hummous but I didn't check the labels properly and the second one was this. Now I'll be looking out for it.

Eating melitzanosalata is tangentially relevant to writing about the creative life, honestly. I won't go on about Proustian moments (this wan't quite of that order!) but anything that makes me think of Greece gives me an emotional boost, and an emotional boost always helps to keep the creative fires stoked. I think I must have been a Greek in a past life. Several past lives, even. Or maybe I just love the place anyway.

And it has reminded me with a little thrill of anticipation that I am off on holiday to Cyprus in just over three weeks time. I'll need to get out some lighter-weight clothes, and check I have some sun lotion to protect my now autumnally-pale skin. At the moment, the BBC website's weather page gives the conditions out there as being sunny, with temperatures in the mid-twenties C and low humidity. Good food and wine, sunshine and hopefully some birdwatching, wildflowers and a few ruins. And the hotel has an indoor swimming pool, so I'll get to go swimming even if the sea is cold (which it well may be). Heavenly.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Watch this space...

I am about to issue my second small self-published collection of poems. "The Date Indicator" will contain recent poems about love, music and the wheel of the year. I hope to have it out soon (barring misfortunes in internet cafés). I may also do a second edition of "Downriver" since that was so succesful (ten copies "sold" - or rehomed at any rate - not everyone paid for it!).

The official price will be a mere £5, and with fifteen poems that is a snip at three poems for a squid; but you can probably blag a copy if you talk to me sweetly enough.

And it may, just may, be illustrated... Still working on trying to get the hang of the technology of that (with a lot of help from my colleague Viveka), so don't get too excited...

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

This looks really interesting...

I haven't played in an orchestra since I was 17, when I acted as Assistant Percussionist in the University of Kent student orchestra (my father was their timpanist and he needed a spare pair of hands he could trust sometimes). I've always remembered it as tremendous fun, and absolutely terrifying - something of the same terror that goes with trying to cope with life in a foreign country when one knows almost none of the language.

Now my favourite orchestra, The Philharmonia, are doing this
and it looks bonkers but incredibly exciting. I shall have to go and see... I hope it isn't too much aimed at kids - always a possibility these days when accessibility is the top criterion for so many arts-based activities. But I'll take a sketch book along - if nothing else, I can draw double-basses (& double bassists) to my heart's content...

Monday, 2 November 2009

Tengo un coliflor...

Yum. Reheated cauliflower with cheese is the tops. I am ridiculously hungry.

This has been an interesting weekend. The first thing that happened was that on Saturday morning the laptop suddenly decided it was no longer ill, and in fact was as good as gold. I am now right up-to-date with my backing up on disc, as I no longer have complete faith in it. But I am baffled as to why it decided to behave again in the first place. I took nothing out, put nothing in, gave it neither reiki nor toast, and was unable to remove its bottom because although this unscrewed it did not come off. Yet it decided it likes me again. I am not complaining - this is not complaining! - this is rather a bemused cousin of joy. With a sidelong glance of deep mistrust.

Still, I have rescued the latest versions off all my projects. That is a Good Thing.

To celebrate I went shopping, no longer for a new laptop but for, appallingly, some shoes. Didn't buy any; bought a jacket instead. Then bought a cd of "MGV"; a marvellous, beautiful, thrilling piece of music by Michael Nyman; restrained myself from buying the whole of the original three "Star Wars" movies on dvd; got the ineffably silly but thoroughly enjoyable "Stargate" (which was in a sale) instead, as well as "Let the Right One in", which will undoubtedly scare the living daylights out of me but is based on a terrific book and is probably worth seeing - just the once, at least.

Then yesterday morning I got all the cutting-out, tacking and fitting of a new skirt done, which just leaves the main sewing (I do this by hand, so it's a slow job, though durable when done). In the afternoon I worked in the garden, and in the evening I went to Club Night at the Chiswick Scottish Country Dance club, which meant several hours of non-stop dancing, plus a slightly odd supper of smoked salmon sandwiches, shortbread and tea.

I am exhausted, and I ache all over, but it was a good weekend.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Full Moon at Samhain

Bright-browed Lady
From whose spread cloak of light
The wild leaves fall
Rushing into the autumn’s first hard gale;
Ride with me through the ever-circling sky
As I prepare for my next pilgrimage.
Moon of the gathering dark
Be at my side tonight.
O opener of gateways,
May your powers guide
The wild hunt of the heart
With your wisdom of ending,
Your voice of summoning,
Discernment and wise dividing,
And calling of the ghosts of our honoured dead.
Through the door of the New Year,
Riding on the storm wind
In the cold-silvered night.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The darned laptop, and a bit of philosophising.

No, it was no good; that is one seriously ill laptop I am nursing there. I think it may have got a virus. I used one of those discs in an internet café a few months ago; it was a café I've used many times without trouble, but I guess that may have lulled me into thinking it was safe...

When I get my Dad's legacy in December I think I might treat myself to new laptop. A Mac laptop; the computer that speaks english instead of computerese. Now that would be nice.

It is particularly frustrating because I was making good headway on something, and am full of ideas to move another thing on. I'll have to go back to using the old-fashioned paper and pen method. Cor, real hand-made writing! - I'm such a retro chick.

Better news arrives from the box office of the Philharmonia, who, bless them, are holding three seats for me for a concert that is selling out fast, although my booking form has got lost in the postal strike. Now that is customer service! And it means I will get to worship at the altar of Joshua Bell at the end of March, and industrial action be dammed! I shall go to the ball; size eight glass slippers and all.

Had a very interesting conversation last night with my new housemate Jennifer (tall, thin, Hungarian/Canadian hybrid, a gentle rather absent minded young woman with a great sense of humour and a penchant for junk food). She had a near-fatal accident a few years ago and a near-death experience as a result, and was fascinating on the subject. She told me how strange it was trying to square in her mind the medical information about what really happens in such experiences with the overpowering vividness of what was an entirely objectively real experience to her at the time. She also spoke of how true it was for her that the brush with death gave her a strong sense of wanting to remake her life into something more fulfilling and less materialistic, and made her aware of the importance of living in the day and appreciating the moment. I still remember sitting in Christchurch on Ealing Broadway after I'd been told my ovarian cysts were normal cysts and not the pre-cancerous kind; and I agree with her wholeheartedly. Life is too precious to pass chasing after work promotions, power-based relationships, and new shoes.

So tonight I'll get out a nice, fat, clean notebook, and get on with some old-fashioned hand-made writing.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The darned laptop

Very tired and frustrated after an appallingly bad night’s sleep. My dear, ancient, antiquated laptop had a seizure last night and I’m not at all sure if it will be okay tonight. I’m going to go home after work and try switching it on, and see what happens. But it went so completely haywire yesterday – and in ways that I haven’t seen before – that I am seriously worried about it.

I had been writing for several hours, and was just going to back up what I’d been doing onto a disc, for safety – but the disc wouldn’t read. Then the next one wouldn’t, and nor would the one after that. All of them were discs I have used before, that in theory still had plenty of space on them. Then the machine decided to “rescue” the entire contents of one of the discs, without my asking it to do anything of the kind. It started making a horrendous roaring noise, and went on doing so for about twenty minutes while very, very slowly copying the disc onto the hard drive.

Then it wouldn’t shut down. In the end I just unplugged it, which is not a good thing to do at all; but the alternative was to leave it running all night, chirruping and clicking to itself at intervals, and getting hot (it gets very hot – it’s an antique, as I said). I knew I’d never sleep if I did that; so I crashed out of it instead. And then, of course, I didn’t sleep anyway.

Once I was well stuck in to the White Night thing, I began to sweat my way through a whole raft of minor concerns and worries, all of which at dead of night seemed disproportionately looming and monstrous. Would K be okay in her new flat? And has she got any bedding? – How is mum getting on as she gets over that mysterious bout of food poisoning, and should I have rung her more often, and would it help if I were to go down to Kent this weekend to see her? – Is P okay, after that odd reference to having “work done on the guts”? - Will I be able to afford the next gas bill? - Did I remember to put a stamp on that letter? – Did I remember to put my credit card details on that booking form? – Have I ever given the WWT my new address? – Have I ever given the Inland Revenue my new address? (I know I have, but once one is set on an all-night worry-fest one can get very bogged down in these irrational fears).

And, of course, round and round came the refrain – What if the laptop is permanently deaded, and everything I have on it is lost? I know I am not up to date in my backing-up-on-disc. That’s what I was trying to do last night, when it went kaput, krank unt möglich todt bin ich, bleaahh…

Woe’s me, woe’s me, I have been seduced by technology, and now it has shot me down. It was my man, but it done me wrong.

I never should have stopped writing in longhand on paper. It’s slower, true, and it has to be typed up afterwards, which is boring; but it is secure. I don’t lose sheets of paper, and they are unable to lose themselves spontaneously. The computer may facilitate, but when it goes wrong it causes far more trouble than my nerves can stand.

Friday, 23 October 2009

My "Private Passions" playlist

I've been working on this for a while; a little bit of fun. I don’t think I can cope with the eight-disc limit of “Desert Island Discs”, though, so I am insinuating myself into the far classier (& more flexible!) format of "Private Passions" instead. .

I’ll start with rock music and related areas:

Jazz/Folk: Spiro “Lightbox”. Just lately I cannot seem to get enough of this. Magical and mad, jazzy serialist versions of traditional tunes on traditional acoustic instruments - dancingly light yet rich music.
Jazz/Folk/Rock: Rodrigo y Gabriela “Rodrigo y Gabriela”. This is astonishingly high octane wow! stuff – hard to classify, though. Marvellous, rocky, acoustic Spanish guitar duets (+ a smoking arrangement of “Stairway to Heaven”); gutsy, grabbing music, totally energising and dynamic.
World/Blues: Ali Farka Touré “Red & Green”. Simply a classic. The late great AFT could do amazing things with that old steel-string guitar of his.
Rock: Channel Light Vessel “Automatic”. This is one of those “Soundtrack of my life” albums – especially it conjures a winter college field trip to Paris; sketching in the biting cold wind along the Seine, drinking cheap Sauvignon Blanc with friends in a scruffy spit-and-sawdust bar in Montmartre, and of course the miles and miles of rainy motorways in the Pas de Calais, seen from the window of the coach.
Rock: The Icicle Works “The Icicle Works". Just superb; rocking, poetic, dramatic. The crême de la crême of the eighties Liverpool scene.
Rock: Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon”. Another classic album, full of wonderful tracks that still hit the spot years after composition. “Wish you were here” comes a very close second, but is somehow, for my money, too personal; too visibly about the band themselves and their feelings for Syd Barrett, and hence in a way tangential to the listener. Whereas “Dark Side of the Moon” is rock truth for all of us.
Rock: Hawkwind “Quark, Strangeness and Charm”. There’s really nothing like the driving insanity, stunning rhythms and general bonkers wonder of this great, great album. Every track is terrific. And it has a song based on a Roger Zelazny novel. And jokes about Einstein. Visceral and yet intellectual, this is the album where Hawkwind got the balance between metal, sci-fi, pomp, psychodelia and straight-forward guitar-and-drum-driven rock absolutely right. My first ever rock concert was a Hawkwind gig; Maidstone Art College, 1979…
Rock (single): U2 “All I want is you”. Richly lifting lyrical guitar riffs, soaring and shifting; a lovely piece of complex simplicity, and great, honest, evocative lyrics.
Rock (single): Dexy’s Midnight Runners “Come on, Eileen”. A bit of a frivolous addition, but any time I hear this it makes me smile. This was the soundtrack to my sixteenth summer. Need I say more?

On to classical music.

I wish, incidentally, that the two classes of music (“classical” and popular/vernacular/rock) weren’t shut apart like ferocious beasts that would devour one another if they every made contact; it is rather like the Humanities/Sciences ne’er-the-twain-shall-meet thing, only worse, despite being on a smaller scale and within just the one art.

Chamber: The three Brahms Violin Sonatas. The G major sonata especially is a piece of music I could not live without. Oh, and I’ll have the Josef Suk and Julius Katchen recording, thanks.
Chamber: Schubert String Quartet in D minor “Death and the Maiden”. Another piece of music I simply couldn’t bear never to hear again. The first variation in the second movement is heartbreakingly beautiful. Brilliant simplicity; in fact damned close to perfection.
Piano: Janacek “On an Overgrown Path”. This makes me cry. Solo piano music, and it makes me cry.
Orchestral: Stravinsky “The Rite of Spring”. Preferably in a recording coupled with “The Firebird”. The “Rite” is stunning music, as passionate as life itself, and gives me a rush like a drug with its sheer wizardry and dazzledom. A world without Stravinsky would be a bitter, dull, tingle-less place.
Orchestral: Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. This is an incredibly tough one, actually; would I rather have the Barber, or the Walton, or the Stravinsky? Or the Sibelius? Or Elgar? Or Beethoven? Or should I ask for the Walton Violin and Viola concertos? On balance I’ll plump for the Barber, because I adore it, and because if I can have Joshua Bell’s recording then I’ll get the Walton and Bloch’s “Baal Shem” as well…
Orchestral + soloists: Mahler “Das Lied von der Erde”. Another very, very tough choice. Can I have a boxed set of all the Mahler Symphonies, plus a selection of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs, please? If not, with tears in my eyes I will let the rest go, though 2, 3, 6 and 9 will have to be torn from my clutching hands; but I’ll hang on to the “Song of the Earth” even if you hit me. The Klemperer recording, please.
Choral: Vaughan Williams “A Sea Symphony”. Choosing one big choral work is hard, too; if I have this, I lose the “German Requiem”, all the other requiems including the “War Requiem”, the “Glagolithic Mass” (this hurts), Beethoven’s Ninth, and “Messiah”, and “The Dream of Gerontius”…
Honestly, this process is like chopping my fingers off one by one.
Choral: Rachmaninov “Vespers”. Okay, it will have to be two big choral works, because this is indispensible. Different kind of choral, though; unaccompanied liturgical singing, in Russian, with harmonies to make your hair stand on end. You can’t praise god any finer than this.
Opera: Janacek “The Cunning Little Vixen”. (I won’t even try to write the original Czech name – it’s full of x’s and z’s even before you get to the diacritical marks). One of the greatest, saddest, most beautiful and humane of twentieth century operas. I had to have an opera, and it is hard to choose, but since I can’t download my memories of great performances I’ve been at, my brain not being a computer, I’ll go for one of my all-time favourite recordings. The last scene of this is another of those things that makes me cry my eyes out. “From the House of the Dead”, also by Janacek, comes a very close second, but I think that final scene, and the love scene between the vixen and the fox, swing it for me. Also this is a fairy tale where the main character dies, and that is unusual; and it is probably the quietest, most realistic death in the whole of opera. She gets shot, she dies; two bars at most. I’ll have the Mackerras recording, please.

And a Leviathan in action

I should have also mentioned the concert itself, shouldn't I? Slightly odd one to start with, very cool and collected, Mendelsohn and Brahms. A little too cool for me, and I was left feeling a trifle unengaged. I'm not good at engaging with music using just my mind, I'm afraid. I guess I'm too somatotonic. I want the visceral, physical oomph of the music hitting me; the sensual pleasure of it. Live orchestral music can feel like being literally bathed in waves of sound; it caresses my skin and flashes through my guts, the vibrations entwining with my heartbeat and taking life as they meld with my own living tissue.

Last night this wasn't really happening at first. But then, after the interval, although we stayed with Brahms, the temperature was shoved up close to boiling by the monumental playing of Yefim Bronfman. This is one big man. Big in every sense, ability as well as build, and more than a match for this big concerto; he looks as if he could crack walnuts with one fingertip. He was terrific. He played with drama and precision, tightly together like twins in a neck-and-neck race, both the scale and the delicacy the piece needs, and he brought the house down.

I had heard good things of him, I went primarily for this, and the man (or should that be The Man?) delivered, in large, perfectly judged spadefuls.

Eavesdropping on the great and good...

Slightly weird experience last night at the Festival Hall, waiting for the concert to start. I was sitting quietly on a bench eating my sandwiches, and a very beautiful middle-aged asian woman sat down behind me talking to a bloke I never got a good look at. They chatted animatedly and it swiftly became apparent that they both worked in the performing arts; probably in dance; probably were connected to something happening at the QEH that same evening; and the penny dropped at this point. I was snooping on the private conversation of the (marvellous) choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh.

Note to self: Snooping is not nice. It is not nice even when it's snooping on an ordinary person like myself, and the Great and Good have the same right to privacy as I do. Do try to remember this, Dent, there's a good girl.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Good things - list for the day

Good things about this time of year; because I have to remind myself, being essentially a spring creature and not an autumn and winter one.

Russet apples. Picasso painted them, I eat them. Their strange, furry-looking skins and rich-flavoured, firm flesh are a joy of the season. Like the wonderful Discovery and Worcester Pearmain, they are strictly seasonal and are one of my reasons for continuing to live in the UK. Seriously – British apples are a reason to live here. Try Spanish apples if you don’t believe me.

Autumn leaves. Do I need to say more? Sheer beauty, and all the evanescence of spring with the added poignancy of fading and ending instead of new life…

Booking tickets. I’m partway through a binge of bookings for concerts and ballet and opera for the winter. As the weather gets colder and the days get darker, at least I have lots of goodies to look forward to, from Vieux Farka Touré, to two new pieces premiering at the Royal Ballet,
to this
to Stuart Skelton singing Boris in “Katya Kabanova” (can’t wait, can’t wait; have to wait, bah!).

Conifer pollen. I used to have dreadful hayfever in my twenties but it eased off gradually as the years went on, and by the time I started working at Kew it was a thing of the past. At this time of year a lot of coniferous trees are flowering, and if, like today, it is rainy (which is what they need, as it is via the action of raindrops that their flowers are pollinated), the paths and pavements around here are speckled and streaked with the pale gold dust of fallen pollen. It reminds me of the line in Seferis’ “A Word for Summer” – “A few pine needles left after the rains/Raggedly strewn, and red like tattered nets” – only with blonde pollen not rusty needles. As the rest of the northern hemisphere’s plant world thinks “Time to shut up shop for the winter”, conifers are going “It’s that time of year again – hey, let’s make babies!” On windy days the pollen dances off the trees in clouds, like millions of tiny blonde sprites leaping together into flight.

Evenings when the muse is tired, watching movies on my new dvd player. I tidied up my dvd collection last night, sorting it into feature films, opera and concerts, and ballet... In the process, whetting my appetite for a good wallow in all three categories. Next rainy evening, I think I might settle down to "Swan Lake", or possibly "The Devil's Backbone", or possibly "The Cunning Little Vixen" (which I have bought a new copy of since my old one has vanished into the unknown tender hands of someone else who likes Janacek...

Migratory birds. Redwings. Beautful geese flying in from the artic. Chilly afternoons at the London Wetland centre blowing on my numbed fingers, trying to draw Great Crested Grebes in their stark, spare winter plumage.

Winter walks in the arboretum here at Kew, listening to robins singing and nuthatches and goldcrests and long-tailed titmice trilling their signal calls, and soaking up the bleak, misty, dripping atmosphere under the dark pines.

Monday, 19 October 2009

A virtuous weekend and a bit of opera gossip

This has been a weekend of virtuous tidying, sorting out and clearing-up activities. Very tiring, and not terribly creative, and I’ve probably inhaled a lot more dust than is good for me, but I feel I’ve achieved something useful, and my conscience is now clear if I spend most of the next few weekends sketching or writing or birdwatching or baking biscuits.

On Saturday evening I flopped in front of the dvd player and gave my brain some time off. I bought several new movie dvds recently and I watched one of these; “The Red Violin”. I won’t say it’s a complete masterpiece, it’s a bit too rambling for that, but it is completely haunting. There are some odd holes and peculiarities in the plot (for example, at one point the whole story hinges on a bizarre act of grave-robbery which is completely unmotivated), and there are times when it feels a little bit rushed as the director tries to cram in all of his ideas; some of the plotlines are cramped for time and feel underdeveloped. On the other hand, it looks stunning, although it’s episodic it is very moving, it conjures the magical and transformative potency of music brilliantly, it has Samuel L Jackson in it, and best of all it has a gorgeous score by John Corigliano – I shall have to buy a recording – played, wonderfully, by Joshua Bell.

Now he’s another of my big heroes, is Mr Bell. The technique of a Heifetz and the passion of a god; delectable. I’d be happy listening to him playing whatever is the violin-equivalent of reading aloud from the telephone directory. It’s the same thing I was burbling about a few weeks ago, in re. Maestro Salonen and the Philharmonia; absolute technical mastery combined with absolute sincerity of emotional engagement.

“Emotional engagement”, nb; not emoting. No ham, please, I’m a vegetarian.

Thinking of ham, talking to my mother on the ‘phone on Sunday I learned that the so-called “Golden Couple” of the opera world are getting a divorce (I have my own views on who could be said to constitute a golden couple; not Mr Alagna and Ms Gheorghiu but Favourite Baritone and the Ballerina Missus – now that’s class).

Mr Alagna seems a nice chap, and judging by what I’ve seen of his work he can take direction (always a big help in an opera singer who is not a great actor), but Ms G has always struck me as a truly awful example of what happens if you believe your own publicity. For my money, her speciality, right from the start, was what my Dad called “ham, spam and strawberry jam”. She emotes, terribly (in both senses), but she can’t act to save her toffee. I’ve never liked her voice that much, either; I’ve heard more than one young soprano at the Coliseum in the last couple of years with as much talent in one finger as Ms G has in her whole glamour-puss person…

Now, I’m being bitchy, and I don’t want to sound as if I’m glad they’re divorcing. After more than a decade, sadly, this particular marriage hasn’t worked out. I’m the child of a divorce, and I’ve now witnessed several friends going through it, and I know how painful it can be. It is always, always sad, no matter what the circumstances, no matter who the people. I’m very sorry for the Alagnas; if the breakdown of a marriage weren’t enough pain and mess to be dealing with, they are also having to do it in public. True, they have brought their own lives, voluntarily, into the public eye; but then, as performing artists (whatever my personal opinion of Ms G’s abilities as such), they really had less choice than the rest of us about that particular issue. One cannot hope to make a career as a performing artist while shut away in a nice sealed box of privacy.

I must say, though, by avoiding Ms G I have avoided some desperately over-priced opera productions. I’d really rather not see or hear her in action. (If I ever learn that Covent Garden has a new production of “Tannhäuser” fielding Stuart Skelton as Tannhäuser, Favourite Baritone as Wolfram and Ms G as Elizabeth, I will want to jump in a lake). I think she’s an overhyped ham, and, too, rather like Callas, hearing her in action one is always aware first and foremost that this is The Great Performer, and only secondarily that this is Violetta, or Mimí, or Amelia, or whoever.

Hm; I’ve been rude about a Very Famous Singer and implicitly rude about two others, one of whom is possily The Most Famous Singer Of All Time (to my bewilderment). Will anyone now be rude to me, I wonder?!?

Friday, 16 October 2009

Mythical figures in concert

Last night at the Festival Hall was a nice concert of uncomplicated happy music; a complete contrast to “Wozzeck” last week. Just as there is a place for cartoon comedy in the world, so too there is a place for the full-on, heartily relished, colourful romanticism of Dvorak and Glazunov…

The Glazunov Violin Concerto, which I hadn’t heard before, was rather lovely, with a fast, tangy finale. It was played with delight and passion by Nicola Benedetti, in a wonderful dress that made her look like a mermaid. And conducted by Leif Segerstam, who I only knew from the radio until now. He looks like Father Christmas. So like, it’s uncanny. He stands at the rostrum to acknowledge applause, opens his broad arms and beams at us; Father Christmas, his very self. You just want to run and cuddle him. Damned good conductor, too.

So Father Christmas conducted, and a mermaid played the violin, and the Philharmonia did themselves proud with a lushly romantic programme, and I had a very pleasant evening, complete with a glass of tender, cold, liquid smoke on the balcony at the interval. I mustn’t make a habit of that, but I wanted to treat myself, and a measure of Laphroaig isn’t that much more expensive than an ice-cream.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Cultural relativism

Last night I felt really low, so I went to the cinema to see “Up”. I wanted some fun, and to be entertained. Tonight I have a concert of lush nineteenth century classical music, which will also suit the way I’m feeling just fine. I couldn’t handle anything too heavy just now. Hormones, you know?

I’m a great believer in the idea that there is a place for pretty much everything, culturally speaking. For some of it (horror movies, the more saccharine end of pop music), that place is not part of my life; but I’m pretty eclectic in my tastes. I listen to Stravinsky in the afternoon and The Icicle Works in the evening, and I love them both. I read Rebecca West, and then Anne Zouroudi, and I am blown away by “Rashomon” only to sit hooting with laughter at a Pixar cartoon the following week. Does this make me a relativist or just lacking in properly defined tastes? Do I care?

I don’t, actually. I like my tastes, and that is enough for me.

“Up” was good fun. A bit of a “switch your brain off and enjoy the ride” movie, but not totally mindless. The animation is superb and the plot although daft is entertaining, and the dog characters are gorgeously, hilariously spot-on doggy. The only problem was that getting up to leave at the end I hit my right leg on the metal drink-holder on the next-door seat so hard I thought I had cut it open. I hadn’t, but I now have one of my characteristic violet-and-rhubarb coloured bruises down my calf muscle; it looks as if I was in a kick boxing match, not out for a peaceful night at the flicks.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Trivia for the day

Totally daft factoids...

1) The average healthy human being has one hundred trillion bacteria in their digestive system, weighing around one and a half kilos altogether.

Got that from BBC News.

2) The average woman in the developed world eats a kilo of lipstick in the course of her adult life.


Got that from a less reliable source, who shall remain nameless, so it may be Just One Of Those Rumours; I certainly hope so.

And one good fact...

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, have succeeded in collecting and storing seed from 10% of the world's vascular plants in the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place. The official announcement is tomorrow, apparently, so I am a Very Bad Girl in mentioning it today (although Associated Press beat me to it). This was the MSB's initial goal when it opened in 2000, and they've made it on schedule.

Now all they need is the funding to go on.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Currently reading

Currently reading this:

A Dream of Wessex, by Christopher Priest.

It seems to be out of print in the UK at the moment (I picked it up in the Oxfam shop), so I can’t give a link to the publishers, only to Amazon. Better than nowt, I suppose.

A strange, thought-provoking book. I guess it does reflect the time it was written (the mid-seventies), and I would take issue with some of the author’s views about female sexuality (can’t really say more about that without giving away half the plot!) but that one quibble aside this is haunting, weird and very, very interesting. It is SF, though, so don’t say I didn’t warn you; but what Ursula Le Guin calls “soft” SF, rather than the “hard” sort with hyperspace drives. No ray guns, no space ships. Just possible futures and mind-bending mind-games.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Wozzeck (pt. 2)

Another attempt to express it; written standing on the Hungerford Jubilee Bridge last night at 9.30 after coming out of the RFH.

After Wozzeck

The water’s black, writhing
Radiance, a vile sheen,
Licking the river beach.
A white half moon
Waning, rising,
Over the city glow.
Emerging to the night breeze
I have to blink, forcing
The light to be again
No curse, a blessing.

To be flayed as I am now
Is an exercise
In considered pain.
Submitting to rape
At the hands of a god
To learn how it feels;
Broken by genius
That is itself breaking
Under the ghostly moon,
And the dead black wave.


I went to “Wozzeck” last night. Oh God. Oh God oh God.

Don’t get me wrong; Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” is a brilliant opera. Brilliant. It is one of the great fusions of music and drama – dissonant, atonal music is the perfect medium for a story of this nature. But it is so utterly, unremittingly bleak and harrowing. I am an optimistic person with an imperfect but very happy and busy life, and I came out of the RFH last night feeling as if I lived at the bottom of a mine and had never seen daylight or breathed fresh air. It was that good – ie, that shatteringly upsetting – a performance. I doubt if I can ever face it again, though.

I was once in a production of Buchner’s “Woycek”, the original play on which “Wozzeck” is based. This is also deeply bleak, yet it was one of the happiest productions I was ever involved with. The director had decided to do a Shared Experience-style ensemble production. Normally amateur drama is very straightforward; the actors learn the lines and do the acting, the backstage people move the scenery and do the lights, and so forth. Whereas this was all team work and Improv and theatre games and actors’ exercises, and crouching on the ground making odd noises, and actors being scenery, and me singing (the final mad touch – I do have a deep voice but I do not sound like Yanka Rupkina – just marginally more like her than anyone else in the company).

Working on it was fun, and stimulating, and by the end of the run had resulted in a very closely-knit team, with none of the usual stratifications of a conventional production. I suppose it was that which enabled us all to get so much enjoyment out of performing a play about a basically decent man trapped by his social circumstances in a crushingly impoverished life, bullied and humiliated by everyone around him, who eventually goes insane and murders his common-law wife because she is the only person at whom he can lash out.

When you add Berg’s music to this tragic and profoundly nihilistic story, you push up the emotional impact by a couple of orders of magnitude.

Favourite Baritone did himself proud in the lead, his human-scale, slightly husky voice and deeply inward acting style perfect for this character. Katarina Dalayman was a beautiful and sumptuous-sounding Marie. The Drum Major sounded good although he didn’t look the part (for my tastes – skinny and balding do not a hunk make; sorry, folks). Robert Murray was a lovely Andres; I am more and more impressed with him each time I see him in action.

It was semi-staged, which I hadn’t expected. The singers were costumed; they came and went, clutching chairs and props, in the narrow bit of platform in front of the orchestra. Immediately behind them, indifferent and passionate as an army of recording angels, the Philharmonia tore through the wrenchingly powerful and difficult music as if it were no harder than a nice orchestration of Chopin. Esa-Pekka Salonen leapt about his rostrum in a pool of light like a heavenly glow, while at his feet Wozzeck was beaten and broken and driven to his crime and his pathetic death. The contrast between the divine focus of the musicians and the torment of the protagonists was so intense it added an extra dimension to the tragedy. By the time it finished I don’t think I had breathed normally for at least thirty minutes, I was so swept up in the pain and the tension, so carried beyond myself by the brilliant, terrifying music.

It was great. Honestly. Just very, very depressing.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Atmospherics after dark (with apologies to Tom Robinson, who may not even like Janacek)

Last night I discovered that the concert I had been to last week was on the radio, so I settled down with my plate of macaroni cheese to listen. The reception was terrible for about the first fifteen minutes – the start of “Sinfonietta” sounded as if it were being played in the shower – and I had to keep springing up to fiddle with the tuning. Every time I touched the dial, the reception improved dramatically, only to go off again the moment I let go. It made no difference if I had actually altered the dial or not – the improving factor was physical contact with me.

I am forced to the conclusion that my body is a gigantic radio aerial, an idea I find vaguely worrying. I am not made of metal, and I am not terribly technical (anyone who does know about radios is probably laughing at my naivety at this point). Besides the slightly disturbing “radio waves are dripping all over me” feeling, this also meant I had to stand up constantly, which interfered with my appreciation of my supper.

But then, oddly, the reception suddenly improved. The shower noise stopped and I could appreciate the rest of the Janacek, and the whole of the Lindberg and the Stravinsky, in comfort. It really was an excellent concert – I hope they consider releasing it on their own recording label. After all, clearly a recording has been made, by the BBC, so why not make use of it? As well as the quality of the performance, it was a superbly chosen programme, with two modernist masterpieces and what I feel on second hearing is certainly a natural successor. The three pieces complemented one another beautifully; like one’s handsome cousins at a wedding, they were delightful as individuals and as parts of a family relationship. It was particularly good to hear the Janacek played with such clarity and what I can only call lack of sugar. It was a great illustration of just how wide is the gap between that thick viscous layer of sweetness, like cheap salad dressing, that is sentiment, and powerful feeling, expressed with sincerity and commitment but without ostentation.

The upshot of all this, though, is that I have decided to treat myself to a decent new radio. It was so much more pleasant to be able to sit and eat, and then get on with my sewing, without having to keep tweaking the tuner.

I am working my way through a large pile of items of clothing that are nice but that don’t fit me, turning them into slightly different (& sometimes slightly odd) items of clothing that do fit me. If I had a digital camera and the means to upload pictures I’d do a fashion-shoot sometime – some of the results are actually quite good, and they bring me both the satisfaction of creative needlework and that of demonstrating an efficient household economy.

After the concert I put the sewing away and sat up till 2 am finishing “The Birds Fall Down”. I’m slightly pie-eyed today as a result; and tonight I am off back to the Festival Hall for “Wozzeck” (pauses to take deep breaths). I fully expect to be pulverised, both aurally and emotionally.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Currently reading this...

I’m currently reading – to be precise, re-reading, having retrieved it and a few other things from a box at my mother’s – this:

The Birds Fall Down - Rebecca West.

I had forgotten what a masterly piece of writing it is. I have been completely gripped and cannot wait to get back to it tonight. I’m not sure I can collect my thoughts enough to explain why it is so superb.

It’s quite slow to get started, and quite a solid read; someone who disliked solid novels would find it hard going. But the steadiness of the beginning becomes meaningful as the story goes on. I won’t give away any details of the plot in case anyone reading this hasn’t read the novel and is intrigued, because it’s a mystery, and a thriller, in the truest sense of the words. It’s also one of the finest examples I’ve ever come across of a very tight third-person narrative; and in this case the narrator is both aware of some things that other characters are not, and helplessly unaware of other things which the reader can see – yet which we see through her eyes, aware ourselves that she is so uncomprehending as not even to see that she is missing something. In that respect it is a dazzling display of the technical craft of writing. But Rebecca West also pulls off my favourite trick of creating a balanced tension between technical genius and emotional sincerity; one suffers with Laura, with the Count, and one feels the dreadfulness of the betrayals that are exposed during the narrative, and the further layers of betrayal they provoke, and the further betrayals underlying these. And the quiet, steady build-up of tension is horrendous. Hence my desire to get to the end of the day, go home, and settle down to reading again.

Rebecca West once said something along the lines of that in her opinion Mozart was at the highest end of a scale of genius that also encompassed someone baking a good cake; in other words, talent is a continuum and is not the privilege of some tiny elite. In celebration of that honourable and democratic thought here’s the recipe for the bread-and-butter pudding I baked last night. It’s an easy recipe, great for using up slightly stale baked goods of almost any type, and far nicer than its simplicity would suggest.

Bread-and-butter pudding

A couple of slices of slightly stale bread per person. Or fruit bread, fruit cake, malt loaf, teacake. Probably good with most sorts of biscuits, too. You name it, really. Not sure it would work with shortbread, or with Mrs Crimble’s coconut cakes…
Dried fruit. I like to add chopped candied ginger or chocolate chips as well.
One egg per person

Butter the bread/cake/whatever. Make dried fruit (& ginger/chocolate) sandwiches and cut up. Put in a greased oven proof dish. Sprinkle with a little sugar – less if the bread is rich fruit bread or cake, more if it is plain bread. Beat eggs and milk together – about ½ a pint of milk to every three eggs, although obviously also bear in mind the depth of the baking dish so you don’t end up with a huge amount of excess fluid. Pour the egg and milk mixture over the bread and fruit and leave to soak for 30-40 minutes. Bake in a medium oven for 30 minutes or so until the egg custard is set and the top is risen, golden and puffy. Good hot, warm or cold.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Erato strikes again...

At least I think it would have to be Erato - the Muse of lyric poetry. The other two poetic muses (Calliope and Polyhymnia) deal with sung poetry and epic poetry... I seem to have had an attack of poetry, anyway. The first piece is a bit ironic in retrospect, as it was written on the RFH terrace before the concert in which the lights failed; brighter dusk, indeed...

I had an encounter with Terpsichore this weekend, too, as yesterday evening was the start of the Scottish Country Dance class I have signed up for. Tremendous fun, though my legs ache horribly today. I am out of shape!

Back to Erato; thank you, dear Goddess, dear Muses!

October the First.

Nine months of the year
Gone by
Already, and I
Sit here
Under the luminous
Blue rosé wine
And cloudless sky
For the concert to start.

Trees still in full leaf,
Men still in shirtsleeves;
Handsome, some drunk
In the dusk
For the darkness to come
For the Thames to turn
Fire-red with sunset
Like my neighbour’s wine.

They shake hands, noisy,
Hearty, talking
As the evening
Draws closer in.
I rise to go.
The neighbour with the wine glass
Makes eyes.
The concert hall
Offers a brighter dusk, and I
Go in.

Saying goodbye.

Easy to let go
One who is so happy.
Your hope, your shape
Of the world
Once would have matched
So well with mine. Still
No matter. You stand
Grim with embarrassment
Admitting it – yes,
You’re happy, you have
Enough to have enough
And contentment
Has caught your sleeve
While you were planting
This garden.
I can step back
Releasing dreams,
Letting you go.
It is better so.

Sinfonietta. (for E-P S)

As autumn begins,
Cercis and sweetgum,
Cherry, rowan tree,
Also in turn begin;
Virginia creeper, berberis,
All turning, in
The light, the wind, the cold.

Autumn's brisk wind
Along the river
Slants through the trees,
Filling my mind
With light and air.
The bright leaves
Fall to the water.

The season spins
Its clear-coloured skein
On the spool
Of my mind, and rings
Bell-like, singing
With the memory
Of fanfares in the wind.

From the river
To the stars
Through the way of the leaves;
And from the music
To living heaven;
This turning world,
The light, the cold,
The fanfares on the wind.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Salonen the Golden, or, The Joy of Having Specialist Interests

I know the autumn has really begun when my Philharmonia subscription starts. Last night was the first concert I’d booked this year (I can’t afford to go to every one but I try to do six or eight in a season). It was a stunner. What with this and “Don Carlos” last week, my cultural life has restarted with a marvellous bang after the sluggish hiatus of summer.

I’m a big fan of the Philharmonia; partly for sentimental reasons – my father and my godmother both sang in the Philharmonia Chorus in their younger days – and partly because I happen to think they are a cracking good orchestra. Last night was a perfect case in point. Apart from being a breathtaking performance of three terrific pieces of music – two huge favourites of mine and something new that knocked my socks off – it was a concert marked by a rather unusual event, namely a power cut.

The band, as they say, played on.

They were only in total darkness for a few seconds, but prior to that the lights had spent about ten minutes flickering on-and-off, then dimming and brightening again, dropping to fifty-per-cent strength, and generally mucking about. Then suddenly boom! – pitch blackness. Right in the middle of “The Firebird”. After a moment, someone somewhere switched to a different lighting circuit, bringing on a very cold harsh light just on the stage and leaving the rest of us in Stygian gloom, instead of the normal soft warm ambience throughout the whole hall, and the concert finished under those conditions.

The orchestra were so unfazed one would have thought they rehearsed in darkness just for the discipline of it. I almost wonder if Esa-Pekka Salonen even noticed. I mean, he must have done; but on the other hand, he always gives the impression of being totally physically immersed in the music to the last fibre of every muscle, all of his energy swept into this one wondrous goal. Watching him on the rostrum is like watching someone dancing in a very confined space.

I’m a big fan of Esa-Pekka Salonen. Everything I’ve ever heard him conduct has come out as if new-minted; revelation after revelation. It’s thrilling. I don’t know enough about music from a technical point of view to know what it is he is doing, but he hits the spot for me. He just has the golden touch; he seems to be able to bring to everything he does that combination of perfect lucidity - so that the whole piece is explicated with absolute clarity and I sit there thinking “Of course, how wonderful; that’s how it’s put together and that’s how it works!” - with an equal and heartfelt measure of passionate feeling. That capacity to explore both structure and emotion, the interlayered play between tensioned forces, is one of my biggest delights. So many great performing artists are either great technicians or great stage animals, but not both at once. Those who are both are my big heroes.

I know, I know - it isn’t just him; there’s a big group of people down there, all of them highly skilled and at the top of their game, working with him. It’s just that the conductor is easiest to single out, for obvious reasons. To work as a united force is a significant part of being an orchestra; the conductor is the unifying factor, the wire through which all their multifarious energies are fused (not a good metaphor, excuse me). The musicians all come on quietly, and take their seats quietly, and quietly they tune up – that lovely stage when one is sitting in blissful anticipation – then suddenly this slender man with beautiful hands and hair the colour of manuka honey springs onto the rostrum, looking like a slightly wild hobbit in a suit, and everything just takes off.

Sorry, bad attack of the purple prose there. I have a bit of a crush, you will gather; if the man weren’t a) happily married and b) several inches shorter than me, it would be a huge crush, but these two useful limiting factors keep it to manageable proportions – small bureau rather than double wardrobe, size-wise.

I’m attracted to genius; and that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Anyway: They played “Sinfonietta”, with half the brass section up in the choir stalls to make the fanfares really ring out. I adore Janacek (why can I never find the right diacritical marks for Czech words? Grr…), and in particular I adore “Sinfonietta”. The end, when the fanfares and timps return, everything melding together like a triumphant yet yearning heaven, pulverises me, and this time I just gave up on being a True Brit, and sat and cried. It was wonderful. Then they played a new piece by Magnus Lindberg. I’m not familiar with his work and had come hoping not to be depressed by half an hour of atonal screeching; I was in luck, it was dramatic and lyrical and full of lovely open spaces – I think he was using a lot of very deep and very high sounds layered around the clear place between – I don’t know how to describe it, or indeed exactly what I am trying to describe – but it was one of those pieces of contemporary music that make one want to cheer and stand on the seat. And the text was lovely – Latin graffiti from the streets of Pompeii, everything from crude abuse through cries of “I love so-and-so!” and lists of market days to scribbles of incorrectly-remembered Virgil.

Then the whole of “Firebird”; absolutely gripping, dazzling, revelatory. The genius of Stravinsky, so complex, so subtle, simple and yet showy, brilliantly precise yet full of huge wallopping showstopping moments.

And with this wonderful example of group sang-froid when the lights went out, at one of the stillest and most delicate points in the score, the evening was altogether an absolute joy.

Yep, classical music may be a specialist interest, but I love it. Here’s to a good autumn. Next week I am going to “Wozzeck”; gulp. My Favourite Baritone is singing Wozzeck, and E-P S is conducting, so although I may need to take a few deep breaths, if I can cope with being harrowed halfway to hell and back it should be an impressive evening.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The date indicator

Today is Thursday
September 31st;
I am living in magic time.
No wonder the sky
Is this soft mystery of blue
No wonder the light
Is balmy with bees, the air
So scented
With the pure musks of autumn,
The sugar of ivy blossom.
On a mythical day
Anything is possible.
Still, I change my watch.

Talk about arrogant!

Have a look at this saga of horror!

An appalling story of plagiarism... Gives me the creeps just to read it, as well as making me very angry.

I do wonder, actually, if the perpetrator is not in fact an art student - the whole thing sounds to me rather like the kind of self-congratulatory bullsh*t that some of my contemporaries from KIAD would have got up to, with the long-term goal of "exposing" the whole story as a "Work Of Art"; winning a First in the process, I expect. But perhaps I shouldn't even mention such things, in case it gives this person ideas!

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Creative isolation or arrogant self-absorption?

Overheard yesterday evening on the bus: a young woman and a slightly older man, discussing her dreams and hopes. Hard to tell what their relationship was – he was supportive to an indulgent degree, but not old enough to be her father, yet didn’t act or talk like a lover, either. I would normally want to be supportive too – I know what it is like to have dreams and hopes, after all! - yet I found myself increasingly irritated by her.

She was one of these people who think they are already perfect, and who believe they don’t need to pay any attention to the rest of the world. She wanted to be a singer, but said she didn’t listen to other singers “because I don’t like being influenced by other people’s music”. She also thought she had a book in her, but couldn’t tell her companion what sort of book she would write because she didn’t know what kind of book it would be, owing to the fact that she didn’t ever read anything, because “reading is so boring”. I kept thinking the guy would say something gentle about not living in a vacuum; but all he did was tell her how great she was.

Now, I realise I do not suffer fools gladly; it is and always has been one of my big faults in personal relationships. I am also aware that I am intolerant of people who seem to be getting buckets of praise and support for doing absolutely b*gger all; and that is simply pure envy, which is hardly something to be self-congratulatory about either. So I was getting thoroughly irritated - with this lass holding forth and being praised, when it seemed she had very little to offer except a big head and a conviction that so long as you are original that will be enough to make your fortune, and also with myself because I knew my irritation was so characteristically pompous. All in all a rather uncomfortable experience.

But it has made me think. She reminded me of the people I was at Art College with who if taken to an exhibition walked through it as fast as they could so as to get to spend as much time as possible in either Prêt à Manger or the nearest pub. I have no right to be prescriptive, I know, but it shocks me when someone wants to be successful in the creative arts yet has no interest in the continuum within which they are working. I don’t feel that the excuse of protecting one’s originality from contamination will really do; it seems rather a small fig leaf to me, given the scale of what it is being asked to cover. Excuse the mixed metaphor!

How is a would-be writer who doesn’t read ever to learn the first thing about how to write well - how to construct a sentence and a paragraph, how to put across a point or create a believable situation? How is an artist who doesn’t look at anyone else’s art to discover the medium and the technique that most excites them? How is the musician who doesn’t listen to music ever to get beyond singing in the shower? Setting aside the self-indulgence of my irritation for a moment, I simply can’t see how anyone really thinks they will get to be any good at anything if they try to pursue it in a vacuum. Isolation is one thing, and we are all creatively isolated when we start out, trying to find our voice and our way; but this cool refusal to engage with the rest of the world smacks to me of blind arrogance.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

More on the good weekend...

Firstly – to continue where I left off, with John Ward’s murals in Challock Church.

I nearly modelled for John Ward, not long before he died. I met him and arrangements were made, but then he was unwell and it was postponed; then I moved to London and the postponement became indefinite, and then he passed away. I remember him as a lovely old guy, as deaf as the proverbial post but full of joie de vivre nonetheless. I have to say, too, that a lot of the time I didn’t like his work; cool and academic and a tad whimsical, it just wasn’t my cup of tea, though I could see it was marvellous draughtsmanship technically. I suppose for someone who makes most of their living as a portraitist it must be very easy to slide into playing it safe, to be sure of pleasing the clients – many of whom one may find tiresome in the extreme, but still have to charm.

I didn’t know until this weekend just past that he also painted murals in the church of St Cosmas and St Damian, which stands in a wooded valley on the outskirts of the tiny village of Challock Lees in the Kentish stretch of the North Downs. An old friend of my mother’s decided to take us to see them at the weekend.

He painted a rather over-tidy sequence in the Chancel in the 1950s, but then came back in 2000 to produce, with his friend Gordon Davies, a huge painting depicting Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, set in the local Kent landscape, along the whole north wall – with the Challock Lees’ annual Summer Goose Fair standing in for Jerusalem at Passover, and local people in contemporary clothes crowding the scene. It sounds twee, but it isn’t. It works. The figure work is fairly conventional, but what makes the whole vast spread of the painting sing is the mass of details – the magnificent tree overarching the whole composition, and the animals, birds and insects amidst the foliage; the giant angel releasing little winged leaf-spirits into the air from abreast of the west wall; the classic Victoria sponge on the cake stall at the fête, the cat lurking under the table, the child clutching a teddy bear, the key to the church lying on the table in front of the current vicar, the girl caught just lowering her camera from taking a snapshot of Jesus passing by. The whole thing is packed with all the richness of life and painted with all the love of a long life richly lived. There is nothing chilly or academic here, the painting is very free, and full of delight, with the flowers of every season scattered over the whole. And, too, this is a world with no hierarchy. The vicar is as worthy of grace as the lapwing. And quite right too.

Mind you, if you want really great twentieth century art in a Kent church, then head for Tudeley, near Tonbridge. John Ward’s murals are lovely, but Marc Chagall’s stained glass windows in All Saints, Tudeley are simply astonishing. The first time I went there I wandered around the church crying with delight. Admittedly I cry easily, but usually that is at the theatre or over a book (or at funerals – I’m one of those people who always cry at funerals), or in some other situation when tears are being intentionally provoked. Not simply from being immersed in the pure perfection of colour and the miracle of light. Not from the seven days of creation in Chagall-esque imagery, complete with flying donkey…

In fact, if you only ever go to one Kent church, make it Tudeley; you will be blown away.

Monday, 28 September 2009

A good weekend and a great evening.

I hate to seem as if I’m moaning, but it is tough sometimes having to work for my living!

I have just had a lovely long weekend off, and I suppose that is what has precipitated this sensation of being ill-done-by. Even the fact that today it has turned cloudy and cool doesn’t completely assuage my regret that I am no longer sitting in the sun, drinking cold drinks and eating cashews, on a seat overlooking my mother’s large, ramshackle, richly-flowering garden and the fields and woods beyond.

“Don Carlos” was fantastic: an excellent production, honourable, illuminating and clear, with nothing imposed and no specious directorial tricks cluttering it up; good, striking designs that were visually strong and that used the stage pictures to help tell the story and intensify the atmosphere, an orchestra at the top of their game; and a top-notch cast. It is hard to know who to single out among the singers; hard, indeed, to know where to start in praise of the performance as a whole. It’s an opera I have loved ever since I first heard it; for the wonderful music and for the fact the tragedy is driven by serious issues and not just by a culture that is sentimental about doomed love affairs. To my father’s evident bewilderment, it was the first dvd I bought when he gave me a dvd player – the Chatelet production with the little-and-large act of Alagna and Hampson as Carlo and Posa. That’s a good production, too, but this had the added, immeasurable, benefit of being live. There’s nothing quite like live performance for the additional thrill factor.

Jonas Kaufmann was a wonderful Carlos. His voice is a thing of beauty, manly, bronze-coloured and baritonal, strong yet with the delicacy to move into an exquisite mezza voce; I would even venture to say I was reminded of recordings of Jussi Bjorling, and for me, you can’t say better than that. Factor in on top of this the fact that he looks the part and he can act, and you have one very happy Dent. This Don Carlos was not merely a sad and misunderstood boy, but clearly unbalanced from the start; painfully shy, then sliding rapidly into real neurosis and moments of wild hysteria. The character’s tragic lack of self-control was all the more intense when compared with the lucid and almost calculating intelligence of Simon Keenlyside’s marvellous Posa; (Favourite Baritone done good - that's Favourite Baritone, above, by the way; picture reproduced, with grateful thanks, from

Marina Poplavskaya was a steely, exciting Elisabetta, John Tomlinson a scary Grand Inquisitor, and Ferruccio Furlanetto a tremendous, deeply complex King Philip; a figure almost as tragic as his son, full of fire, anguish and iron, bitterly lonely, cruel and troubled by his cruelty… He has such a rich, warm voice, yet conveyed a man capable of implacable coldness, eternally harsh towards the son whose own flailing character he cannot cope with; then consumed with grief as, alone, his voice blanched and empty, he struggles to come to terms with his loveless marriage and broken family life. The confrontation with Posa was almost unbearably intense; two great singer-actors, both at the peak of their powers, performing with heartfelt conviction and stunning musicality, as these two intelligent men face up to one another, pushing and pulling at the tensions and the power-play between them. The King shifts from anger to sudden respect as suddenly he sees the thing he has been longing for, an honest and honourable man who will tell him the truth, but he is agonisingly aware that the opening out of possibilities this offers him is an illusion; his heir is the volatile and disturbed Carlos, not this decent, brave, rational man who will take such staggering risks for what he believes in. In the moment when Posa challenges Philip outright, crying out, in response to the King’s claim to bring peace, that this will be only “la pace del sepolcro!” – and the whole orchestra explodes with a huge blast of fury to back him – this production puts him upstage, suddenly completely dominant and literally rounding upon the king, yet with arms outstretched in an almost Christ-like gesture; a veritable embodiment of moral force before which Philip visibly falls back…

It was a hell of an evening.

The rest of the weekend was taken up with a trip to a food festival (much sampling, of goodies wildly assorted, and subsequent mild indigestion), a trip to Challock church to see the murals, a couple of nice pub lunches, some walks and a fair amount of sitting in the sun.

I’ll write more about the food festival and the murals another time.