Friday, 31 December 2010

Happy New Year!

2010 has been an odd year for me, with some good things and some tough ones, but I feel on balanace it was a year of slow progress forwards. I hope to make more of the same in 2011; and hope very much that the same will be true for all my friends and family. Sometimes when the tough times strike one down it can feel almost impossible to get through and come out the other side. But it does happen; day by day one gets there. All of you who've had a stinker of a 2010, my thoughts are with you and I wish you better times to come; healing for your sorrows and strength for your hands and your hearts, and happiness to come. May it be a good New Year for you all!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Almost at Christmas...

...and really looking forward to the break. I have developed a cold in the head and a chesty cough, and probably thanks to being chilly for large chunks of each day for the last few weeks I'm quite ridiculously tired. Can't wait to get on the train tomorrow evening.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Love and life and fear and joy, and snow...

I was struck by these words today, mooching about online in my lunch break (I have avoided going out today after picking the wrong footgear and nearly falling arse-over-tit three times on the way into work – okay, so I’m a big baby and I have no shoe-sense, or no snow-sense, or something…):

“’The way to a woman's heart is through love and faith and trusting each other.’ That's what my mom told me, and in the long run, it turned out to be true. But I sure spent a long time getting through the stage where women only go for the guy with money or an athletic build. I was never that guy -- I was the dull trustworthy one.”

I just read that, and my heart gave a little skip of recognition. It’s different for girls, of course (what isn’t?!), but I have been stuck in the woman’s equivalent of that stage for so long now (ie, the stage where a guy only goes for the women who are either drop-dead gorgeous or else sweetly nice-but-dim), and it touched me to see a man admitting to having been through a similar experience. Because I’m the ‘dull trustworthy one’, too. I know exactly how it feels.

I can’t offer high-impact sex-appeal, or that humbler but more durable quality, real beauty; I can’t offer excitement; I can’t offer most of the classic “feminine virtues” (you know, the list that includes ‘good cook, sweet-natured, doesn’t answer back’…). I am reliable and a bit old-fashioned and I can cook, but I’m intelligent, and not ashamed of it, I’m not particularly sweet-natured and I have a mind of my own.

And I am single. That’s not to say my life is loveless; but most of the love in my life at present is the broad, joyful, general love I feel for the world and its beauty, for plants and birds and all living creatures, for art and music and all my friends, for good food, fresh air and a glass of decent whisky...

I wish that I could find that “special someone”, Der Richtige; a man with whom I could share these passions, a man I respected and loved and with whose life my life could walk in partnership, with whose roots my roots could grow together.

Although I am not getting any younger and not getting any better-looking, and my behaviour is not getting any more like the cliché model of proper femininity, I still hope one day to meet someone who fits with me and with whom I fit. A healthy, secure, intelligent man; a man I could do the garden with, and who liked my cooking. A man who wouldn’t mind my penchant for ballet and birdwatching, my ever-growing collection of bog-standard hybrid phalaenopsis, or the fact I’m probably too old now to give him any kids. There must be some of them still out there… I still believe it is possible to have an honourable relationship that is a marriage of true minds, despite my being rather quiet, plain, and downright wilful. In the meantime, the world is full of beauty, and miraculously there is always room for more, so that I cannot complain that my life is fruitless or unhappy, though it is lonely sometimes.

But sometimes I can feel as though all of this happiness has vanished. Sometimes I am consumed with such fear that it leaves me weak and drained of energy; sometimes I feel sucked dry with misery and depression. Will I never do my own true work? Will I never find human love? Will I leave nothing of worth to anyone behind me? When fear strikes it undermines everything that I have achieved, everything positive, every hope and every past gain. It kills me as surely as really being killed, and then leaves me still alive afterwards to cringe in dread and horror at my own inadequacy and hopelessness. I cannot deny this deep inner fear; it too is part of my deepest feelings, just as much as the joy and the love of life.

I sweat it out, each time it strikes, and eventually I come through and out the other side and I see that my life is still good, and still full of hope and worthwhile things, and the beauty and wonder is all still there; and I fall in love with the world again, when perhaps only days earlier I had thought it all mere dust and ashes.

The other things I love are the arts; the magical work of performing artists and the magical creations they perform or display. Although I know I am not a performer, I also know that I belong in that creative world, because that is what I find feeds my soul time after time; creative work, my own true work in this world.

I write and draw, and these give me a buzz that little else can equal; a delight in life that feels like being in love. Being in love with the world fills me with the energy to write and draw, too, so it is very often a circular process.

And whenever I have a muse, a man-of-my-dreams to whom in my mind I can direct my admiration, and for whom I can pretend I am working, this too inspires me to heights of creativity. It is partly simply the passion of the crush, but also a little inner dream that my creative work makes me somehow the equal, the match, of all those talented, successful people I admire from afar. I don’t really think that they would all like me – that idea is a bit daft, after all! – but this dream/hope says to me that if I could just met them as an equal, they would recognise me as such. In my dream, Imogen the writer and artist is not inferior to the musicians and singers I admire, to the writers I long to emulate, the actors I dream of seeing play my fictional characters, the brilliant botanists and horticulturists here at Kew. In my dream, I am their equal, their comrade in arms, even their friend. It is only that I’m really Imogen the office junior, and she is invisible to them. Invisible, as well as dull and trustworthy. No wonder I feel a tad blue at times.

None of that, Dent! – stand up, take a deep breath and head out into the snowy night. It’s beautiful world. No, really, it is. A big, cold, snowy, beautiful world.

Midwinter's Day

Midwinter Greetings to all!

Midwinter's Day

From tomorrow
We start back up the hill
And the year
Will remember the idea of spring.

From tomorrow
The fallen leaves
Begin to break down, renew the earth
As their fate demands.

From tomorrow, the day
Is a few seconds,
A few minutes,
A few bare breaths of time longer than today.

From tomorrow
Though the full moon wanes
The empty year
Begins to wax again.

And the world’s strength
Gathers anew.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Panic over least until the next one.

Journey down to Kent - smooth as butter. Journey back, last night, smooth as butter, but very slightly delayed (10 mins late, approx). In between, a lot more snow. Very pretty. Very cold! But I had a lovely weekend with my mum, set up and decorated a seven-foot Christmas tree, and hauled a large quantity of shopping home for her with an old-fashioned wheely basket (up a fairly steep hill, in the snow - great calorie-burning activity).

This year's Christmas tree is gorgeous, tall and columnar in shape. It's always a real tree, and we decorate it into a vast pile of ecumenical/pagan/multiple-world-view symbols. It features plenty of angels and stars, and regular baubles, tinsel and fairy lights, as well as dragonflies, birds, flowers, fruit, a donkey, a flying horse, several musical instruments, a mirror, miniature hatboxes and crackers made by my aunt, candles, feathers, mushrooms, a Caga-Tio and a goat.

Back at work for a few days now, and it looks as though the weather may turn everything upside down again for Christmas - but so long as I see my family and we all get a break and a rest together, I'm not bothered by anything else. Peace on earth and goodwill to all don't come from Sainsburys, after all...

Friday, 17 December 2010

More snow...

I’m meant to be going to my Mum’s in Kent this weekend, to help her with Christmas shopping and planning, getting the tree indoors and the decorations up, and so on. I’m about to set off; but it may turn out to be a bit of an adventure getting there…

Over the course of the day we’ve had a series of alternating bursts of heavy snow and sunshine. Bizarre, and very pretty at times, but the result is that today heads into evening the ground is fast refreezing, with a mixture of snow and ice, and more snow on top of the ice, and I think I can safely say this is not nice.

I felt a bit silly, first thing this morning before the snow started, putting on my proper walking boots in case the forecast icy conditions came along by the end of the day. Boy, am I glad I did, now.

As far as I can tell from the BBC and from assorted travel update websites, trains in the south east are still running fine at the moment. More snow is forecast for the weekend. I will set off, and travel hopefully – and hopefully arrive (& hopefully get back again, too).

Wish me luck, and have a good weekend, everyone!

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Carol service - success

The carol service went really well. I got the Berlioz almost right. Everyone else sang wonderfully. Nigel turned up and sang with us, which was nice. Tall Woman did a fantastic job. It all went off just fine. And I only wobbled once,one tiny bit, reading "In the beginning was the Word". I had been afraid I'd get choked up; but someone had brought a little child, about eighteen months old at a guess, to the service, and he/she was chortling and babbling away happily in the background, so that instead of getting a lump in my throat I was fighting not to giggle as I read "...children born not of natural descent..." etc. No easier to deal with, vocally-speaking, but at least funny rather than emotional!

Carol service

I'm very nervous. The kind of nervous that alternates tummy-status between queasy and hungry in successive waves. The staff carol service/concert is in a couple of hours and I still haven't managed to get to grips with the "Shepherds' Farewell" with its horrible key changes. I think I have managed to get the other three carols straight, but that Berlioz - ugh. I shall just have to give it my best shot, and try at least not to go flat. Smile, Magnolia, smile! (um, and I will also try not to sing "After the ball is over" instead...).

We had one rehearsal where one of the other altos kept turning in her seat to correct me - "You're doing this instead of this, you're singing that bit wrong, your voice is too deep" - etc - I know she meant well but I was a nervous wreck by the end of that rehearsal and considering dropping out. I know I'm not much good, but it is only an amateur choir, and we are just doing it for fun...

Final rehearsal is at 2.00pm, concert at 3.30. Just to add to my panic, I went and stuck my hand up when they asked for volunteers for the readings. Now I'm landed with doing one; and it's the opening of St John's Gospel, which even in the New Englsih Bible's stolid wording is still a fine bit of stuff.


At least St Ann's has good accoustics...

Wish me luck!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

A year ago today...

A year ago today, at about this time, I had just got home from the A&E department with a broken wrist. I had been x-rayed, examined, and strapped up in a Fortuna splint, and I had an appointment at the Fracture Clinic for the next morning. I trailed in, somehow got out of my coat, and then struggled round the kitchen, making myself a cup of tea and some toast, I rang my boss, then my mother, and then I sat down and felt sorry for myself.

It’s amazing, looking back on the last twelve months, to think I have accomplished anything at all this year. There were times when I felt I would never get through the near-eight weeks I was in plaster. Then there were times, after the plaster came off, when I feared I’d never get the use of my hand back. There were times when I felt I’d never again have a scrap of spare energy. Any kind of shock or anything remotely out of the ordinary could reduce me to tears. I slept badly for months and toiled through life bribing myself onward with meals out, trips to the ballet, chocolate and alcohol.

I am very, very grateful that that time is over. I am very grateful to the NHS for all the treatment and support, and to everyone who bore with me while I was so slow, so clumsy and so tired all the time. I’m very grateful too for having had the grit to stick at my exercises. I didn’t feel very gritty, but something reminded me, each time I wanted to fold up and cry, that there really was no other option. I’m grateful to the still small voice within, that shouted at me and kept me going.

And, above all, I am very grateful that nothing worse has happened to me. When I think of some of the horrors that people bear, the illnesses and accidents, the devastating effects of natural disasters and wars... my blood runs cold at the thought. A simple broken wrist gave me such a bitter endurance test, even here in a wealthy, civilised country like this. My prayers and thoughts go to everyone who is struggling with circumstances far worse than mine were; may their gods be with them, may their life not fail them.

I’d had all sorts of plans for what I meant to do in 2010; and despite the first six months of the year having been almost entirely focussed on getting back the use of my right hand and arm, I have still made some progress on them. Given the circumstances, this pleases me inordinately.

In particular, I’ve finally started on trying to get an agent for my writing. Agent No 1 turned “GY” down; the first three chapters are now with Agent No 2. If she also says no too, then I move on to Agent No 3, and so on down the list. It may take some time to get anywhere - I may never get anywhere at all - but I have overcome that huge, smothering fear about showing my work, and that means a good deal to me.

I’ve also begun on my “Working through the back burner items” project, and it’s proving really worthwhile. I’m trying to draft a synopsis and make a few notes about where an idea came from and what I see as the theme of a story, and the results are fascinating. Doing this really clarifies how ready (or not) a story is. It brings all the glitches and weaknesses to the fore, but it also fires up my creativity, thinking of the things I want to do.

Another odd discovery I’m making as a result of this exercise is the quantity of common threads between the stories. Some of these were expected – for example, I am a whole-hearted romantic, and I love Science Fiction and the fantastic, and it shows. But so far, if I had to pick an overarching theme of the stories I want to tell, it would have to be “redemption”, and I would not have anticipated that.

The “back burner” project also gives me something relatively simple to do of an evening, if I’m tired and feeling uncreative. Each synopsis is done-with in a few pages at most; I don’t need to follow through with the details, just explain the basics. It doesn’t stretch me, but at the end of each one I do I still feel I’ve achieved something.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Bad dancing and "entertainment"

I'm a "Strictly" fan. "Strictly Come Dancing", that is, for those who don't recognise the term. I can't handle the bear-pit of "The X-Factor" or those "we will make you a star"-type programmes, but "Strictly Come Dancing" is highly entertaining, involves people who already know what celebrity means, and usually features some very good dancing - especially by this stage in the competition.

This year I've been suffering a bit with "Strictly", though. One of the contestants was Ann Widdecombe, the retired former MP for Maidstone. She's a very short, very stout, very stiff (physically and in character) sixty-something with a very high opinion of herself, and she has been painful to watch. She simply cannot dance. Last night she and her professional dance partner (the rather odd but very patient Anton du Beke) were finally voted off. Next week is the semi-finals. The worst dancer they've ever had on the show nearly made it to the semis.

The public are very odd sometimes.

I don't agree with most of Ms Widdecombe's views, but that isn't why I've found it so hard watching her progress. She is, all questions of politics and religion aside, a game old bird, and she's stuck at this like glue for ten weeks. I respect determination, even in people I disagree with. But oh boy, she was so awful; and she got worse and worse, when other weak contestants have got better.

As far as I can gather, people have not voted for Ann Widdecombe out of liking or loyalty, or enjoyment of her dancing; they've voted for her partly because they are laughing themselves silly at her, and partly out of a desire to blow a raspberry at the judges. I haven't come across anyone who actually thought she deserved to win.

The unfortunate judges, whose job is to watch and guide the contestants and give them a critique of each week's performance, have over the years been shifted in the audience's view from being respected for doing their job to being abused for it. At first they tried to give Ms Widdecombe sensible advice, but she has been completely resistant to their tips (partly, in fairness, because she was physically incapable of acting on most of them), and the audience, having decided she was the best joke they'd seen all year, proceeded to boo and harrass the judges at every turn for daring to criticise their darling, and to cheer them to the rafters if they ever made a friendly comment (nothing so unlikely as actual praise, but remarks such as "I thought it was funny").

There were a couple of other very bad dancers in the initial line-up, but also a lot of middle-of-the-road also-rans. Many of the also-rans were far better than Ms Widdicombe; they were voted off ahead of her. Michelle Williams, for example, could have progressed a lot further (& I did enjoy watching her learn to control her enormously long limbs - tall women dancing rock!), as could Jimi Mistry and Tina O'Brien. None of them was terribly likely to be the final winner, true, but it is unpleasant to see someone who is working their a*se off and making real improvment ditched by the voting public in favour of a spectacle as ugly as Ms Widdecombe's attempts to dance.

Ms W herself appeared to think she had become the Nation's Favourite (rather than the "f*** it" brigade's) because of her charming personality and sense of humour; I don't think it ever occurred to her that many of those laughing were laughing at, not with, her. But laughing at a stout old lady making a fool of herself isn't entertainment...

And now, finally, she's gone. Thank you, heaven.

This leaves us with a line-up for the semi's of four very capable dancers, plus the gormless Gavin, who is slowly getting a bit better but still isn't anywhere near the rest. He's is also a preening wally, convinced he's flippin' terrific for no good reason except his enormous personal vanity. So I hope he's one of the semi-final knock-outs next week.

Who the other should be, I'd hate to guess. Who it will be, even harder. The voting public don't seem to be too hot on Scott Maslen, who is a funny-looking chap from the soap "Eastenders", although at his best he's excellent. Pamela Stephenson becomes more elegant by the week and Kara Tointon has looked like a dancer since week one. But Matt Baker has been a real surprise for me. I watch "Countryfile", so I had seen him in action many times, but I would never have guessed I'd end up with an out-&-out crush on him. I mean, he's an amiable enough fellow, and presentable in a skinny way, but if you'd asked me who was the best-looking "Countryfile" presenter I would have said "Adam Henson" without hesitation. Now, suddenly, I see that Mr Baker is in fact a sex-god... There really is nothing so gorgeous in a man as being able to dance.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Harry Potter and the edible hat

I had a lovely birthday evening, despite the bitterly cold weather. Met up with The Geek, had supper out and a good natter and went to see “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One” in Hammersmith.

“Harry Potter” was excellent; dark and scary, as it was bound to be, but with a good balance between plot exposition, unhappy teenage emotions, and things blowing up. It looks great, delivers plenty of thrills and is genuinely upsetting at times. The three young leads have gradually shaped up into capable actors and now they virtually carry the film, with all the big name actors having little more than cameo roles to do. The design and special effects were splendid. In short, it’s cracking good stuff.

Prior to that, we had a meal in a South Indian Vegetarian restaurant down the road, called Sagar; a proper Bhel Poori house, with real Indian goodies and Mumbai beach food on the menu. I could have eaten the entire menu twice over – bhel poori, dosas, idlis and so on (Dent drools quietly into her keyboard at the memory). I had the paper dosa masala; it was twice the size I expected and absolutely scrumptious (if messy – I was still licking sambar off my fingers on the way to the cinema).

My paper dosa, unlike those I’ve seen served elsewhere, came not as a neat scroll, but spiralled into what I can only describe as a giant edible wizard’s hat. Most appropriate. It was perfectly crisp and savoury, and the sambar, coconut chutney and potato and veg masala (think colcannon, but spicy) were plentiful and tasty. Proper tart tangy lassi, too. I can’t wait to go back.

More snow today; I was planning to go down to Kent this weekend but have had to cancel as there are virtually no trains going that way at all, and severe delays on those that are. My mum and stepmum are both going slightly cabin-crazy, cooped in their respective houses with eighteen-inch snowdrifts packed round the doors, and Big Bro is equally frustrated with the road outside his flat a sheet of ice and a publishers' assignment at HMS "Victory" cancelled because the photographer can't make it. I must get them all up to London for a day out when the weather improves, and take them for bhel poori in Hammersmith.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Who is Sylvia?

Marianela Nuñez, that's who. Delicate, smiling, cool as a kitten and twice as lively Marianela Nuñez, dancing her socks off at Covent Garden last night.

"Sylvia" is, to be frank, some of the silliest stuff that ever I saw. It's also absolutely gorgeous. Like another fairly preposterous ballet, "Le Corsaire", it's set in Greece, or rather in an extra-romantic alternative-history version thereof...

Act One: The curtain rises on a wooded glade and a shrine to the god Eros. Dryads and fauns are cavorting in the moonlight. They are interrupted by the arrival of Our Hero, Aminta - Aminta-nice-but-dim, to give him what ought by rights to be his full name. He is smitten with the beautiful maiden huntress and devotee of Artemis, Sylvia - Our Heroine. As portrayed by Rupert Pennefather, Aminta is tall, handsome, badly-dressed and a bit daft, but boy, does he jump beautifully.

He prays to Eros for help, then hides as Sylvia and her fellow maiden huntresses arrive, carrying a comedy dead animal and wearing delicious curlicue-shaped helmets. They dance together, doing increasingly showy things, led by the beautiful Sylvia doing even showier things. As Nuñez is beautiful, and handles all the showy stuff beautifully, one can see where Aminta gets his problem. But Sylvia is scornful of love, and mocks the statue of Eros defiantly.

Unknown to her, Sylvia has another man problem, for she and her companions are also being observed by the villainous hunter Orion, who is lurking on a nearby bridge and clutching his spear in lust (I kid you not. Very big spear, too). The huntress maidens discover Aminta, and Sylvia sneers at him, but when she makes to shoot at the statue of Eros (presumably to show how completely she despises Love), Aminta gets in the way and is wounded.

Eros promptly comes alive (poor Kenta Kura has by now stood stock still for well over twenty minutes, wearing nothing but the very sketchiest of lioncloths and a lot of stone-coloured body paint). Nocking an arrow to his stone bow he shoots Sylvia in the heart. She at once begins to feel emotions hitherto undreamt-of. She leaves with her friends, but she's soon back, literally shaking with confusion and grief (fantastic pointe-work here), to hover over the rapidly-failing Aminta. The arrow of Eros is working its magic, and Sylvia, apparently too late, notices Aminta's noble face, muscular limbs and fine body.

Meanwhile another set of muscular limbs creep behind her, for Orion The Evil Hunter is stealing across the stage. Orion has a beard, seemingly ballet short-hand for being dastardly, and even worse dress sense than Aminta - think satin trousers and a weird sleeveless shirt-waister with satin revers panels in the skirt, topped off with dashing but rather camp lilac suede boots. Good old Gary Avis manages somehow to convey virile villainy even in the teeth of this outfit.

He snatches Sylvia! She fights! She kicks and leaps, and they do some spectacular tricky lifts as she tries to get away. But it's all too much for her emotion-buffeted heart and she faints dead away, beautifully, at the climax of a big overhead lift, and is carried off by her wicked abductor.

Some harvesting peasants find the hapless Aminta at death's door, and Eros reappears, in a deeply dodgy disguise, to revive him and heal his wound. Inspired by Love, Aminta sets off - I thought, to rescue Sylvia...

Act Two: ...but - it turns out she can rescue herself, or very nearly so, without his help.

Act Two is set in Orion's rocky hideout, where he is getting drunk and ordering his slaves to heap gifts of jewellery and fancy clothes on Sylvia. Sylvia scorns everything and tells Orion she isn't interested, as bluntly as she can given that it has to be done in mime. Her refusal has no effect, and nor do tears - both seem only to increase Orion's interest. She decides to play along in the hope of distracting him long enough to get away.

She accepts some of the fancy clothes and jewels, dances provocatively, and refills Orion's wine goblet repeatedly. Two of his slaves dance a rather embarrassing "We are exotic oriental savages" dance, and then Orion and Sylvia do a kind-of pas de deux of increasing athleticism and eroticism. Things are getting pretty steamy, but at last all the drink tips Orion over the edge between amorous and incapable, and he passes out.

Sylvia looks for a way out, but cannot find one; however, she steals the arrow of Eros, now her most precious talisman, from Orion's drunken hand, and prays to Eros to help her. Light breaks over the cavern as the walls fall away, and Eros appears, carrying a torch and ushering in a beautiful little caravel, aboard which he and Sylvia set sail to find Aminta.

Act Three: Aminta and an assortment of peasants, dryads, demi-gods and gods are awaiting Eros' return, dancing a series of rather lovely divertissements to pass the time. The caravel arrives and Sylvia and her companions disembark with Eros. She pledges her love to Aminta, and Eros joins their hands in token of their betrothal. They do a gorgeous, fiendishly tricky Grand Pas-de-deux, packed with exquisite footwork and athletic lifts and jumps.

Everything seems to be resolving towards a happy ending, when suddenly Orion barges in to demand that Sylvia return with him. It transpires that he thinks she is His Woman, and he refuses to accept her gentle explanation that she was just leading him on in order to be able to get back to her True Love, Aminta.

Orion and Aminta fight (cue more spectacular leaps and lifts, and balletic throwing of one another about the stage). Sylvia hides in a nearby temple and Orion, having knocked Aminta down, tries to smash open the door. With a thunderclap, the goddess Artemis emerges, bow and arrows in hand, beautiful, majestic and fizzing with rage.

It's at this point we realise Orion is just not very bright. Confronted by an angry, armed goddess, he doesn't bow down, pay homage, or even make nice; he gives her attitude. Artemis shoots him.

Exit Orion, stage left, with an arrow in him - he has to die offstage or get trodden-on for the remaining ten minutes of the ballet.

Artemis, it turns out, is spitting-tacks furious with Sylvia, who wants to marry and therefore break her vows of chastity. She expressly forbids it, despite pleas from the young couple. But Eros sneakily reminds her of her own lost beloved, the shepherd Endymion, who fell into an eternal sleep and never consumated their love. Artemis, overcome by the memory (& possibly just a bit embarrassed at this airing of her little secret), relents and gives her blessing to the marriage of Sylvia and Aminta. Cue general rejoicing as the young huntress Gets Her Man.

It's lovely and daft, and technically very tricky stuff, and made for a perfect birthday treat (well, one day early). A final bonne bouche was to come out of the theatre to find delicate snowflakes falling over Covent Garden piazza, and all the christmas lights glittering. I walked on air all the way back to the tube.

Today it has snowed on and off all day. I was meant to be meeting a friend and going to see the new "Harry Potter" film tonight, but I'm wondering if we may have to postpone. In which case perhaps I'll treat myself on the way home to a birthday Pizza Express trip. Or a birthday Starbucks. Or something. It seems odd to remember that last year I spent my birthday on a beach, swimming in the sea and eating ice-cream, and here I am in the office looking out at Kew Green under a thick, white blanket of snow.

But at least I have the crazy loveliness of "Sylvia" to remember.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Wintertime nighs...

But no birds fainting in dread, etc, yet (& thank goodness for that).

What we do have, though, is snow – lots of it, too, and settling fast – and Christmas carols. It felt quite strange to be rehearsing “In the Deep Midwinter” today with heavy snow falling outside the windows. But rehearsing for the Kew staff carol service is another of those things, like baking my Christmas cake, that makes it feel Christmas is on its way.

This year we are doing “In the Bleak Midwinter” (unfortunately in what I think of as the “dirge” setting, not the folk-song-like one we used at school), “The Shepherds’ Farewell” (aargh! – I hate singing Berlioz; all those sharps and flats and key changes…) and “Unto us is born a Son” and the “Sussex Carol”, both of which are lovely.

Our regular choirmaster, Nigel, has sadly had to step back this year following a bereavement. My prayers are with him; I know how it feels to lose a parent, I know how it feels to find yourself absolutely wrenched apart by pieces of music you have never before thought of as emotional, and – well, my thoughts and prayers are with him. Standing in for him is the very capable Tall Woman from IT (taller than me! Yay!). She’s doing a fine job, though I miss Nigel’s unique capacity to be boundlessly encouraging in the face of the most disheartening choral noises. Tall Woman is managing okay with the conducting despite never having done it before, and she has a sense of humour, and I think we’re going to pull it all together and do her credit in the end.

The snow is still settling. Rats! Home through the snow, brrr...

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Wednesday night is...

...(or rather was)

Christmas Cake Night.

My mother's old Christmas Cake recipe - one of those handed-down things, tweaked slightly over the years and with odd marginal notes - makes the best rich fruit cake I know. If I ever get married, that's my wedding cake recipe. If I ever have a child, or get asked to be a godmother, it's my christening cake recipe. It's basically masses and masses of fruit stuck together with a wee bit of cake and then fed spoonfuls of brandy for a couple of weeks. Is your mouth watering yet? It should be.

It is also pretty easy to make. Almost everything comes in batches of 6 ounces. 6oz sultanas, 6oz raisins, 6oz cherries, 6 oz chopped peel or dried cranberries, 6oz butter, 6oz sugar. 7oz plain flour. 3 eggs. 2 oz whole almonds. 1 teaspoonful mixed spice. That's it.

Last night, a bit late this year, was Christmas Cake Baking Night.

First you prepare the cake tin. Mine is Victorian, a family heirloom; deep and solid and made of blackened wrought iron, it looks more like a piece of steam engine, but it's a cake tin to dream of. Grease it, very lightly. Line it with trimmed baking parchment or greaseproof paper and tie a thick layer of folded newspaper around the outside. Preheat your oven to Gas Mark 3 or the equivalent.

Next, prepare the ingredients. Get the butter and eggs out of the refrigerator. Sort all the dried fruit (checking the raisins and sultanas for stalky bits, chopping the glacé cherries, unsticking anything that is stuck together in lumps). Then blanch and halve the almonds and add them to the dried fruit. Next, weigh the flour, mix in the mixed spice, and sieve them both together. Then, cream together the butter and molasses sugar, mix in the eggs one by one, then add fruit-and-nuts and flour in alternating spoonfuls, stirring with a knife.

As you stir, make a wish. Call the other members of the household to stir the cake and make a wish. Then dollop the mixture into the cake tin, level off and hollow the middle slightly, and pop it in the oven, on the bottom shelf. Turn the oven down a scrap, straight away. After an hour, turn it down another scrap, to about Gas Mark 2.

Then wait.

It takes anything from three and a half to four and a half hours in total. Slowly the house fills with the glorious mixed smells of spices, fruit and hot newspaper. It's a classic smell that evokes childhood and the anticipation of Christmas as little else can do. On the occasions when it takes 4 1/2 hours (like last night) one is practically blotto with tiredness by the time the cake comes out. Then you have to wait another half an hour before it can be safely turned out of the tin. Do not be tempted to turn it out immediately! - it will sag unbecomingly about the midriff, or worse, come apart altogether. I've already got one saggy midriff, i don't need another.

Leave it to cool overnight, and in the morning, wrap in greaseproof paper and stick down with sellotape (or better still masking tape, which will undo and restick several times without tearing the paper). A couple of days later, unstick the tape, unfold the paper, prick the top surface of the cake gently with a fine-tined fork, and drizzle a dessertspoonful of brandy into the top, very slowly. Do this another two or three times at intervals of three or four days.

Take the cake out of the paper. Coat it with warmed sieved jam. Cover it with marzipan. Leave it out overnight to dry. Ice with royal icing. Leave overnight to dry. Decorate, in whatever way you fancy (the year I was eight, it had a pink plastic ballerina on top; the following year, for equality's sake, a toy tank in a green and brown iced battlefield diorama...).

Bring forth, show off, cut in slices. And eat.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Invisible disabilities

I am a contact lens wearer. I'm not ashamed of it, the way I am about colouring my hair (yeah! - say it in public!). But it's an odd thing about wearing contact lenses - no-one knows that you do, unless you tell them. Then every now and then there's a day when one is running badly late for work, or one has a head so stuffed with head-cold that one's eyes hurt (that's today, FYI) and one goes out in specs. Ooh, specs. Girls who wear glasses, and all that.

My specs are perfectly ok. In fact, they're quite nice - plain and practical with neat black frames that turn out to be smokey-transparent when one looks closely. "Capable and slightly foxy" was the look I hoped to achieve when I chose them. I like them. But people are often quite taken-aback when they see me in them. I just got a massive double-take out of someone at work - you would think I'd gone out wearing a bra on my head, not a humble pair of specs...

At least someone else then gave me a free flowerpot. Thank you, David! But no-one made a pass at me (not that they would have done if I'd been wearing my lenses, either, mind you).

Poor eyesight is a pain, goodness knows. I wish I'd inherited my father's 20/20 vision rather than the severe myopia that runs in my mother's family. I have such bitter memories of being teased in childhood for not being able to see things in the middle-distance; teased even by people who could have worked out, if they'd thought twice about it, that I must be short-sighted. I mean, people who are short-sighted themselves! Because the world looked exactly the same to me as it had done for as long as I could remember, I wasn't aware that it was blurry. It was normal. I had no idea that other people went on seeing clearly, the way I could see my own hands, when objects were further off. I though the world was blurry. I thought my perceptions were the only reality.

The first time, aged eight, that I looked through the testing specs at an opticians, with the right corrective lenses, and saw that there was indeed a list displaying the letters of the alphabet hanging up at the other end of the room (I had begun to fear he was making fun of me, as until then I literally couldn't see it) - it was revelatory, and rather frightening. The world looked totally different to the place I had lived in until then (you will gather, I really do have lousy eyesight).

I wonder if my grandfather, who was severely deaf, went through a similar revelation/shock when he was first fitted with a hearing aid and realised that the quiet world he was used to didn't exist outside his own perception? Deafness is an far more invisible problem than poor vision; at least these thick-lensed specs make it quite clear what my problem is. Grandpa struggled for seventy-odd years against others' impatience, prejudice and ignorance about deafness, with all the considerable vigour and fury of a very pugnacious educated working class man with a chip the size of Manchester Cathedral on his shoulder. Towards the end of his life it used to wear him down sometimes. He would joke about inventing a series of badges to carry in his pocket, and pinning more and more of them on as he tried to communicate with some mumbling shop assistant. Badge number one would read "I am deaf - please speak up"; then the successive messages would get blunter, then outright rude and finally be quite surreal - I particularly remember "If you want me to listen, don't talk to your bosom". He never did it, of course; but it gave him a laugh to fantasise about it.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Lost in translation..

This is fascinating stuff (& a really lovely bit of smut at the beginning - I'm clearly not the only person who appreciates the infelicities, and worse, that computer translation can inflict on us). It reminds me vividly of the occasion when I found a really cheap edition of "War and Peace" in one of those "£1-Classics" series that appeared in the early 'nineties. I very nearly bought it; but a single brief flip-through the pages was enough to make me drop it hastily. The translator had called Pierre "Peter" and Prince Andrei "Prince Andrew".

Peter is a good name; I used to imagine that if I had a son I'd like to call him Peter, in fact. But to reduce Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Count Pierre Bezukhov, two of my greatest literary crushes, to mere Peter and (eeech!) Prince Andrew; it's horrible, it's shudder-worthy, it's yuk, yuk, yuk!

Mind you, although I agree with a lot of the points in that article (I can't agree with everything because I've never read "Madame Bovary"), I have to say that the best translations of poetry have to be relatively inaccurate. The very correct Princeton University Press translation of George Seferis isn't a patch on Rex Warner's stunning 1950s translation published by the Bodley Head.

Long before I ever went there, I knew Greece, her beauty, her history, her tangled present, through these poems, in Mr Warner's beautiful translations. I initially quoted a chunk of one of them here, from memory, but have just been reading an article (on "How publishing really works") on copyright, and realised with a dull sick feeling that I'd probably broken copyright in so doing. I was under the impression that one was allowed to quote other writers in small excerpts so long as it was attributed (which it was) - but it sounds from what I've just read as though I had this totally wrong. Ouch.

I was trying to pay tribute to a piece of writing I loved, and maybe even steer other poetry lovers and/or Philhellenes towards Mr Warner's great translation of Seferis. Boy, do I feel a fool now. I've taken it off, since I can't think of anything else to do, so now you'll have to go and look it up if you're interested. If you can track that edition down second hand (I'm pretty sure it's OoP), buy it - it's beautiful.

Monday, 15 November 2010


Holiday now over, sigh.

Cyprus was very hot and sunny. Far from doing lots of day trips and cultural things, we spent most of our week on the beach. Not that I'm knocking a beach holiday with Mum! - hot, hot sun, sitting under palm trees, swimming in the sea, eating tahini and garlic dips, salads toppped with olives and grilled halloumi, ice cream sundaes and bags of nuts, and drinking ice-cold beers at lunch and Brandy Sours at sunset. It was gorgeous. But based on the weather forecast I'd packed light-weight trousers, cardigans and cotton shirts, and only threw in some shorts and a couple of bathing costumes for the hotel indoor pool at the last minute. I spent most of the week either in the sea in one or the other of my swimsuits, or in the shade with a cold drink, wearing the shorts and my lightest tops.

So although not quite the planned holiday, it was a lot of fun, and perfect Girl Time with my Mum. I think the completely relaxing break did her the world of good, too. It's just such a pity one has to come back to Britain in the middle of the night to a thick fog and a hard frost; a temperature drop of about 25 degrees celsius, brrr...

Friday, 5 November 2010


The end of another busy week, and now I'm away on holiday till the fifteenth. Yay!

My regular pattern of having the week of my birthday off as annual leave has had to be discarded this year as I was planning to go away for some Serious Girls' Time with my mum and then she got landed with a hospital appointment in the middle of that week. As it's one of her eye injections and the window of opportunity for these is fairly small - they can be moved by a couple of days but no more - we had to change our plans. So last weekend I booked a trip back to Cyprus, flying out at 9am on Sunday morning. The forecast at the moment says sun, sun, sun...

I must just share the results of my latest tangle with spell-checker, though. It picked up the extra "s" I'd managed to stick on the end of "business", which was good, but then it got its teeth into some botanical names:

Pinus nigra = pin-up n*****
Heliconia rostrata = Helicon prostrate (bit tough on the Nine Muses, who are supposed to live on Helicon)
Thuja standishii = Thug sandshoe (surreal picture)
Zelkova serrata = Slovakian serrated (perhaps a kind of dragon?)

and my favourite, the beautiful Sacred Lotus, is
Nelumbo nucifera = Encumber Lucifer.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010


Yesterday I took a walk in the Gardens in my lunch break. It was a beautiful, misty autumn day, like an embodiment of Keats’ poem; the light was soft, the air mild, there were scarlet berries and fantastic fall colours everywhere, and more still to come. The red oaks are red and the lindens are golden now, but the Nothofagus have only just begun to turn. I even saw a goldcrest, Britain’s smallest bird, in the bare branches of the sprawling Canary Bird rose near the back door of the office. In the Princess of Wales conservatory the most recent Titan Arum has finished doing its thing and folded up, but the flowering Aloe abrupta was still going through the roof, the lithops were covered in bright little daisy-flowers like toys, and there was still a glorious display of tropical waterlilies.

Sometimes I feel as though I work in a magical place, where dirty, scrubby, anxiety-ridden modern London is trapped on the other side of the boundary wall and the spirit of Albion reigns within. These autumn colours are riches like treasure, poured out around me. The geese fly overhead in a long skein, heading for the river, and a tree murmuring with hundreds of starlings amid glowing foliage evokes William Blake’s visions of angels in the trees of Peckham Rye. Inside, the waterlilies look like Mughal cups carved from rare gemstones, floating in readiness for the hands of kings.

I needed the break; I need a break, full stop. Last week I ended up working through my lunch hour four days out of five. I’ve been so busy recently I feel as though I’ve barely sat down. I know I have sat down, obviously – apart from anything else, I have an office job, so like it or not large chunks of my working day are spent parked on my broad behind. But it’s been all go, at work and outside. I really needed to make that quiet reconnection with the air and the trees and the autumn gold…

Friday, 29 October 2010

The "back burner"...

A few nights ago something made me wonder about just what constitutes the contents of my mental back burner. Turns out it's a big old burner and no mistaking...

Some of the things sitting macerating there date back to my days at Art Colllege. I'd still love to make and film an installation of found objects on a beach; film it being built and then washed away by the tide, on a brilliant sunny day, add a soundtrack of summer beach sounds, and call it "All summer in a day". I'd still love to film the train journey from Charing Cross to the coast and synchronise it to the "Death and the Maiden" quartet. I'd still love to draw all the activitiy at a big theatre or concert hall; the spaces both empty and full, the rehearsals, the auditorium, the fly tower and storage areas and the stage in use and deserted...

There are stories that are ancient and stories that appeared very recently. The oldest dates back to my teens, the latest to just a few weeks ago, to a dream image of someone walking into a wood out of which blows thickly whirling snow, though there is no snow at all on the ground in the open. There are the stories I've been working on lately, and stories I have previously worked up into what I now realise was the wrong form. I've written three film scripts and three stage plays in my time and the Gods only know what possessed me to do so, since all of them would be better off re-written as straightforward narrative fiction.

I have, in total, besides "Ramundi's Sisters" and "Gabriel Yeats", both of which are finished and require only revision, another eight very promising stories, eight that are not quite ready, and eleven that are definitely not ready, but that still intrigue me. Plus three that are not fit for purpose, but have a grain of possibility lurking - a good central idea or a strong character waiting for the right home... twenty-nine healthy items all told, and three duds.

It's a slightly scary total. I've decided to make proper notes about the state of each idea, to see if that clarifies how "cooked" they are, and which ones I should start on next. Wish me luck; it's a big undertaking I've got there.

Monday, 25 October 2010

A nibble!...

A few months ago I took several metaphorical deep breaths and sent "GY" to the first of the literary agents on my list; today I heard back from her. It's a "no", which is a pity, but it's traditional for tyro writers to get many "no"s before they get a yes. So it's realistic to expect and accept a "no". The good thing is, it's a good no. Yes, there is such a thing...

Firstly, it's a personal message, not a standard response. It's clear that the agent has read the material and considered it, and then taken the time to give me some personal feedback. As I understand the business, this is pretty unusual nowadays.

Secondly, the feedback is very positive. She thinks I write beautifully and am a wonderful writer. Those are not my words - they're verbatim quotes. The problem - the reason why she's saying "no" - is not the quality but the "fantastical aspects of the plot". She's tried to sell a magic realist novel without success recently, and says she doesn't want to raise false hopes when she would struggle trying to get a me a deal.

Thirdly, she says she'd be interested in seeing anything else I have written that might have a more straightforward story.

I have of course written straight back to say "Thank you for your time and your feedback, and I may take you up on that". And I've had a reply already, saying "Best of luck and yes, please do".

So although it's a "no", I'm feeling pretty chuffed about it. I have had something moderately close to a nibble, on my first try. And I may send her "Ramundi's Sisters" when I finish revising it, since there is nothing fantastical in that plot, just a lot of painting and stifled Sicillian passion.

Monday, 18 October 2010

A constructive weekend is a Good Thing

...and this was one.

I had lunch with my stepmum Jane and went to a ballet matinee with her - the mixed bill at the Royal Ballet, including a wonderful new piece by Kim Brandstrup, a good revival of "Winter Dreams" (also sad) and a lovely bonne bouche in the form of Balanchine's "Theme and Variations" with the lovely Sarah Lamb and gorgeous Steven McRae showing off their best bravura chops.

Afterwards we sat in a café on the Strand drinking tea and eating cake, watching the world go by, and nattering. Simple pleasures like an afternoon with someone you are fond of just never seem to pall...

What else? I made a tentative start on some new writing and had a little nudge towarfds clearing a hurdle in some other, ongoing, writing.

I did my Tax Return and sent it off. Ooof! - what a relief...

I managed to charm Dan into fixing the broken light fitting in the kitchen (after a slightly fraught beginning we seem to have found a friendly modus operandi, which is good). A working light in the kitchen is very welcome as the autumn evenings close in and the mornings get dimmer.

And I did a pile of needlework; let something down, let something else out, took something else in, and mended two bras.

The ballet and lunch with Jane was probably the most fun. The writing still feels a little unsteady, as though the muse is convalescent after a bad cold. The sewing wasn't exactly fun, as it was all fine handwork and very squinty stuff, but getting a garment wearable is rewarding and the results will be very useful. The Tax Return was grim, but I feel terribly worthy and aren't-I-good now it is out of the way.

I also watched "Strictly Come Dancing" - definitely fun - "Merlin" - most definitely likewise - "The Pillars of the Earth" - fearful twaddle, but done with relish and a lot of fake dirt - "Countryfile", in which Adam bought a new ram ("I'm looking for a tup with good teeth and good testicles" says he cheerfully; the tup next to him in the pen rather sweetly hung his head as if embarrassed) - and my new dvd of "Coppelia".

That was a good weekend, I think.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Grey grey day...

It's one of those extraordinary days when the sky seems to have fallen in and be just being held up by the buildings. Low, grey banks of murky cloud are hanging as if transfixed over London. It's so depressing. I'm trying to find an upbeat forecast, but the BBC weather page just says "Grey cloud" repeatedly for the next twenty-four hours.


Grey days make me feel grey.

Last night I wasn't grey - I came out of the Festival Hall after hearing an electrifying performance of Walton's First Symphony; some of the most energising music out - I felt rather as if I'd had several double espressos. Not quite the right way to feel on your way home to bed; but a brilliant performance of a thrilling piece of music. The opener, a new piece by Magnus Lindberg, was also pretty damn' hot, though I was less happy with the very cool and technically-flashy rendition of the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto. I like my violin concerti to be more emotional than that... The LPO were on cracking form, anyway (ooh those timpani!) and I think I may have a wee little crush on Osmo Vänskä...

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Quick plug for an interesting idea...

I just have to plug this - the "How Publishing Really Works" site led me to it, but it strikes me as a terrific idea.

I type slowly enough that my creative juice has become able to cope with occasional halts for spelling corrections and so forth; they don't really break the flow as it is so sluggish to begin with! But as for those tense moments when what stops me is some infelicity of phrasing, some paragraph that doesn't quite sound right - for those nerve-grating times I think this could be a trick worth trying. It's rather like the "Just write something" idea, but more subtle.

Letting the inner editor, as Andy Shack calls it, step up is not just a problem, for me; I think it is also a tacit procrastination tactic. If every time I am working on something, whether it be writing, drawing, painting or what, I let this inner nag lean over my shoulder whispering "That isn't much cop, you'd better fix it or there's not much point in going on", then I am setting myself up to stop and drop everything. And that is simply stupid.

So I will be trying the "hash key" technique; and if I start doing any more developed painting or drawing, I'll be looking for a visual equivalent, too.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Playing catch-up...

There's never enough time in the day, it seems sometimes (for example, I wrote most of this in my lunch hour but have had to save it & finish it after work). Yesterday in my lunch break I had meant to write about my first ballet outing of the season, the Royal Ballet production of Cranko's "Onegin"; and about gardening, and about the Muse having popped up and given me a wee nudge which may, just may, develop into something interesting. But I didn't have much time after picking up calls because it was busy, and then I got sidetracked into writing a hymn to the beauty of the Wetland Centre. Which is beautiful (and I'm happy to promote it - I don't feel obligated to avoid mentioning other west London visitor attractions just because I work at one) but my glorious Sunday afternoon there was not my whole weekend by any means.

"Onegin", on Friday evening, was terrific. Although they've had it in their repertoire for eight or ten years the Royal Ballet don't do it very often for some reason. Perhaps it doesn't put bums on seats the way "Romeo and Juliet" does, and the big nineteenth century classics obviously do. Also, unlike most of these, it doesn't have many of those juicy bit parts that give soloists a chance to step up and shine briefly. It does need five strong dancers who can not only dance but also act, though. With the best will in the world, some of the RBs current principals (naming no names!) can't act for toffee. Luckily I got some who could.

The plot of the ballet follows the opera fairly closely (I've never read the original Pushkin poem, so can't comment on how closely either adaptation resembles it). But it is such an eternal and human story that it bears repetition and re-rendering in different genres. A naive girl falls catastrophically in love with a man who isn't interested in her. Years later, they meet again and he realises what a fool he was to reject her love. He appeals to her, only for her to reject him this time. There's also an even more tragic secondary plot about her sister and his friend, whose lives are destroyed as a result of this primary plot situation. It's all pretty emotional stuff.

I was incredibly touched by the Tatiana of Laura Morera; she may not have the fame, or perhaps quite the diamond technique, of Alina Cojocaru, but her acting is if anything even more nuanced. Watching her grave, quiet face slowly come alive as she succumbs to the fascination of the attractive stranger, and her tight, reined-in desperation in the Act 2 party scene, when she has to put on a social face in front of the man who has broken her heart, my usual identification with the character moved up several notches. I am Tatiana (as poor Tchaikovsky said at one point) - I've been there, I know exactly what she is going through, and my heart bleeds for her every time I see this story. And it's quite an achievement, incidentally, to be so credibly gauche at the beginning while still dancing superbly. I've also never seen the tenderness in the pas de deax with Prince Gremin come across so strongly, or the absolute agony of the final duet with Onegin. I didn't expect it, but I think I have now found my definitive Tatiana. She was wonderful.

It was good, too, to see Federico Bonelli get his teeth into something with a bit of dramatic potential. I've previously seen him either in abstract work or in pieces where he plays the Handsome Prince and has nothing to do except look gorgeous and rise above his wig (I'm thinking "Nutcracker" here), and partner the ballerina beautifully. Given a part that requires him to do more, he seized the opportunity; he is a lovely dancer, clean and smooth and strong, and I now know he is also a very capable actor. That pirouette-ending-in-a-stamp move just before the duel in Act 2 scene 2 can look silly - or creepily childish - here it was a real outburst of bodily fury. He managed to convey both Onegin's charm and attractiveness to Tatiana and at the same time the self-absorption that she is too infatuated to see.

Part of the way through the letter scene someone in the audience began to shout and scream (apparently it was a woman whose husband had been taken ill); although the noise must have been deeply disruptive to their concentration, both leads carried on their duet with admirable aplomb. Bravo to both for that, too.

Olga was danced by Melissa Hamilton, and she was a delight. Each time I see her in action she seems to grow, both technically as a dancer and in stature and feeling as a dramatic performer. Luckily not physically, though - she's on the tall side to begin with. But her fresh beauty and her youth and enthusiasm suited Olga beautifully, and I was struck by the way that at Lensky's death, instead of the regular ballet-swoon posture, she really collapsed to the stage, then slowly curled into a foetal position - it was painfully realistic.

Her Lensky was my one doubt; Sergei Polunin is technically terrific, but I found him rather uncertain dramatically. He just didn't really seem to be as emotionally involved as the other three principals. By gum, he can't half dance, though. Very ornamental, too, especially if you like a fella with cheekbones! Still, on the ornamental front, I'll take Prince Gremin - my favourite, Gary Avis, giving his usual superbly nuanced and detailed performance and looking thoroughly noble in uniform.

The other main activity of the weekend, apart from that blissful afternoon at the Wetland Centre, was planting about 300 spring bulbs in the garden, and taking down the bean bines. Apart from pruning and tidying, that is my main autumn garden jobs done. I found about fifteen fat, woody, over-ripe bean pods, enough to get plenty of seeds for next year and hopefully some spare to share with friends (so let me know if you want to take up growing climbing French beans).

The Muse resurfaced briefly and has left a little idea fomenting in my brain. It's an opening line. A single sentence; but I can see where it leads (= to something running to three volumes or more) and I'm not sure I feel strong enough. I thought I had worked the urge to write multiple-volume heavy-duty fantasy novels out of my system as an adolescent, and it feels a bit strange to have one coming to a simmer like this.

It fascinates me, when I step back and detach from worrying about the actual creative activity itself, how many ideas my brain is capable of storing on the back-burner at once. Well over thirty ideas are sitting there biding their time; novels, drawing and painting projects, even a couple of arty videos I'd like to make. And I talk about there not being enough time in the day already! It's alarming, and bizarre.

And then I end up, as I did last night, putting the tele on, channel hopping and finding a good movie - "Aeon Flux" - on Film Four, and just sitting on my btm allowing myself to be entertained. I gather that if you were a fan of the animated original show or the computer game version of "Aeon Flux" it is considered correct to loathe the film. I'm not, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It looked great (and isn't overloaded with CGI effects, which is refreshing in a contemporary SF film); the script wasn't too bad and the basic ideas were actually quite good; it has lovely strong capable women characters and plenty of eye candy for everyone (Charlize Theron and Sophie Okonedo, both periodically with not many clothes on, as a splendid team of female assassins; Marton Csokas looking rumpled and sexy as a troubled dictator) and it's very well acted. It's just a pity about the main characters' names. To me, "flux" is a slightly archaic term for dysentery; and no-one, surely, can take entirely seriously a dictator called Trevor...

I can't reject letting myself be entertained; films like this leave me with mental images that go into all those metaphorical pots on the back of the stove of my creative mind, and meld their juices together (what a terrible extended mixed metaphor!). And it was good fun, anyway.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Autumn beauty

What a beautiful creature the humble moorhen is. I spent yesterday afternoon at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes. It was a glorious autumn day, with a perfect blue sky and golden, slanting sunlioght pouring down on the lakes and marshes and the shimmering purple and gold of the reedbeds. I didn't see anything rare, but I didn't care (I'm not much of a twitcher, though I do like spotting the odd bittern in the winter). There were lots of beautiful native and migrant birds - teal, wigeon and shoveller ducks, Canada and greylag geese, mute swans, lapwings, and hundreds of coots and moorhens. Seen close-to, the common moorhen is an exquisite bird, sleek and slender in its quakerly black and white plumage, with that wonderful ruby-red bill and front, and huge, wavy-looking green feet. (The photo is not mine, I'm afraid, but was pinched off a website called Birds of Oklahoma - it is the same species as we get in the UK, though, and it's a lovely pic).

Visiting the Wetland Centre always gives me a touch of heartache for the Kent marshes near where I used to live; Oare, Reculver, Seasalter, Sandwich Bay, and the huge skies and sweeping horizons of Romney Marsh. If I were a millionaire (unlikely, but still...), I'd buy a house on Romney Marsh, and have those big skies all about me for the rest of my life...

Friday, 8 October 2010

One other wee thing...

...that I forgot to mention about Faust; the Walpurgisnacht scene. Dear oh dear, what a tame affair. About sixteen hessian-clad zombies sat around a long table, eating pieces of steel cable and mixing cocktails. If it had been meant ironically, somehow, it would have made more sense, but I have a horrible feeling this genteelly surreal drinks party was meant to be scary.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

An odd few days

It’s been a patchy couple of days. On Wednesday I threatened to deck my new house-mate Dan, after hearing his views on my beloved garden (untidy, needs to be cleared up properly) and his opinion of my belief that actually I have been gardening (“Really?!?” uttered in a tone of mixed disbelief and amusement). He likes things to be neat. I don’t do neat; I do a sort of cottage garden/biodiversity fusion. I have struggled for eighteen months with deep shade, a thick undergrowth of pernicious weeds and a recalcitrant, concrete-dry soil of mixed London clay and builders’ rubble. I am proud of the fact I now have dahlias, aquilegias, alyssum, erigeron, Ceratostigma wilmottianum, Alchemilla mollis and Campanula persicifolia all flourishing there, and there are worms in the soil, and self-sown lunaria and feverfew popping up.

It does not need “tidying”. It needs a lot of soil improver, and more tough perennials and spring bulbs, all of which I am working on; and lots and lots of of TLC. Not “tidying”. If he tidies my garden I’ll scrag him.

Not a calming mood to be in. It’s odd to come close to losing one’s temper; I so seldom do (maybe once in a decade?). I will, of course, have to make peace with Dan. But I saw red when he said “Really?!?” like that. He’s lucky I only threatened to deck him.

Then there’s the fact that our landlady still hasn’t come round to see the house, over a week after the break-in. I find that weird, and frankly a bit nasty; she couldn’t make it clearer that we are just a cash cow if she tried. A cash cow that has now cost her money (locksmith’s fees are painful) instead of making money for her.


Last night I went to Gounod’s “Faust” at the ENO, hoping for a good evening out, and was basically disappointed. The director had some good ideas, but hadn’t always known how to develop them, and he had committed one of my favourite directorial sins by not checking the sightlines from the balcony. What I gather were often immensely visually effective stage images were near-invisible from where I sat, as they were hidden behind the proscenium arch. As I was only in row D, I felt short-changed. I can understand a director thinking “I can’t fix this so every seat in the house can see it, damn it” – but virtually the entire balcony? – that’s just cheeky.

There were some good ideas, although it would irritate my more scientific friends. Faust had been turned into a 1940s physicist and there was a very clear inference that he had made a pact with the devil already simply by doing science. I think he was meant to be regretting the military use of his work (we got Fat Man and Little Boy hanging from the ceiling at one point) - but this was one of the moments where I gather there were back projections at the rear of the stage, which were lost on me, so I may have missed the subtleties. But the updating made the timing of Faust’s return to his younger days very effective; this man’s youth had been spent in the run-up to the First World War, making Margeurite’s extreme innocence and the Victorian attitudes of her neighbours and her brother still seem credible.

It was also true to the religious elements of the original, which the Covent Garden production six years ago struggled with. Mephistophiles was indeed weakened and beaten back by the sign of the cross, as the libretto directs, and was defeated in his attempt to win Margeurite’s soul by her grim, dazed clinging-on to faith in God’s ultimate compassion. The Covent Garden production was so determined to mock the whole idea of religion that it had Mephistophiles wearing a crucifix and laughing in amusement at those credulous fools who think the Almighty gives a damn about them. I’ve nothing against the sharp comment this made about hypocrisy; I’m sure that in any period of history, including Gounod’s time and certainly my own, there have been people who made an ostentatious display of their religion while in their lives doing the opposite of what this vaunted faith teaches. But Mephistophiles is meant to be more than this; he is a symbolic figure, symbolic of the deepest, most profound evil, not a mere hypocritical libertine.

I liked Mephistophiles, though, which I’m not sure Gounod would have approved of. Iain Patterson is blessed with a big, smooth voice and buckets of stage presence – he was a splendid Amonasro a while back and I’m really looking forward to seeing him as Don Giovanni in November. For a big man, he’s startlingly graceful, and this was used cleverly - as if the energy within this tall and burly body were something slightly unearthly that could not be completely confined within human form. The devil certainly had the best tunes, and the best moves, this time, and he made the most of them.

Toby Spence looked good but moved awkwardly, as if his clothes were uncomfortable, and sounded as though he were pushing himself vocally. I never expected to be less than happy with him in anything; I hope he was not sickening for something. The Marguerite, Melody Moore, was a better actress than she was a singer; rather lacking in vocal sparkle and light, only just coming into her own by the prison scene. There wasn’t much chemistry between her and her lover, either, which hampered things rather.

So things at home are bit off, and “Faust” wasn’t much cop, and I’m a bit muddled and miz and patchy, really.

Such is life.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

A little autumn stroll

I went out for a walk after lunch.

It amazes me sometimes how different twenty minutes in the Gardens can make me feel. Colour and light and fresh, damp, scented air... Autumn crocuses lying prostrated by the rain, their lilac and cerise clashing with each other and with the grass. The first fall colours appearing on maples and acacias. Nerines poking up their Schiaparelli-pink spikes everywhere. In the Princess of Wales Conservatory, the graceful crowns of tropical waterlilies, cerise, violet, cream and gold, are still floating in the black water among dark lily pads. Huge, fantastical bromeliads, alocasias and anthuriums spring up or hang down, everywhere you look. The lithops are flowering, the giant Agave abrupta is still going through the roof and a Titan arum is getting ready to do its thing...

It's cool and misty, a classic autumn day, but in that balmy warmth of the glasshouse I can pretend I am in another place, another time... another world, maybe.

Monday, 4 October 2010

...and a good weekend

One very constructive weekend later:
I have mended my broken doorframe – admittedly my father and grandfather would have chuckled at the bodge-job I’ve made of it, but at least it is nailed in place again now instead of hanging loose and tripping me;
I have turned out all my winter clothes and put away all my height-of-summer clothes;
I’ve turned out the linen shelf (since I was turning out the rest of the cupboard anyway);
I’ve also cleaned and put away my sandals and got out all my winter shoes;
Cleaned my bedroom floor;
And planted about half my spring bulbs, in the rain - getting very muddy in the process.

What a bunch of early-autumn jobs!

I have a touch of backache today, as that was a lot of bending and stretching and crawling around on my knees. Now I’m off to find a bus to Brentford and have tea with a friend.

Friday, 1 October 2010

A packed week

Well, this has been a surreal week. Mostly good, except for the house being broken-into on Wednesday evening. It sounds surreal even to say it. But it truly would have been a good week if it hadn’t been for the burglary. Even that has a good side, for me at least, because mysteriously but blessedly my bedroom door alone withstood the crowbars and did not get broken down, so I didn't get robbed and trashed.

I'd spent the weekend in Kent, down at my Mum’s. We had a splendid afternoon in a nature sanctuary near Sandwich Bay and went to a Food Fair where we bought and ate far to much in the way of gorgeous edibles from all over Europe; biscuits, mustard, onion chutney, smoked garlic, sweets, cider, mead, vegetables, bread, cake, pies, nuts, wine, olives…

On Sunday I went to a fabulous performance of “Tristan und Isolde” at the Festival Hall, with the sort of cast one could die dreaming of, including a fantastic American tenor named Gary Lehman who I’d never heard of before but will now watch out for. You wait years for a good Wagner tenor and then two turn up! – what with this chap and Stuart Skelton, I have the happy thought that Tristan, Siegmund at al are safe and secure for another generation. Well, a happy thought for a person with tastes like mine, anyway – I do realise not everyone cares a hoot if there are any good heldentenors about…

On Monday I went to a funny and touching Farewell Talk by someone at Kew who is retiring after 40 years (& who will be much missed). Then I had fish and chips, another good thing in my book. Tuesday I actually went home and cooked my own supper, finished re-reading “The Enchanted April”, and had an early night. On Wednesday I went with three colleagues for a behind-the-scenes tour of the Tropical Nursery with one of the Kew diploma students, which was fab. The Tropical Nursery is a simply gorgeous place packed to the rafters with, as the name suggests, tropical plants, of every kind imaginable including the very beautiful and the very weird.

That evening I’d managed to pick up a returned ticket for an Open Rehearsal at the Royal Ballet, so I then charged into the west End, eating sarnies on the tube, and spent an hour and a half watching Kim Brandstrup working on his new ballet with Ed Watson and Leanne Benjamin, two of my very favourite dancers. Then I went home and found the front door hanging wide open, the lock busted, Jennie standing in the hallway trying not to hyperventilate, and the place in chaos.

The front door had been broken open with a crow bar and so had Jennie’s bedroom, while Bethan’s room, where the door doesn’t even close properly, far less lock, they had simply walked into and turned upside down. They’d had a damned good go at my door as well, but it has a stouter lock and somehow it withstood the assault, though half the door frame has been ripped off. There was a heck of a mess everywhere and the girls had both had all their small portable valuables, like laptops, i-pods, jewellery and so forth, taken.

We were like three shell-shocked soldiers, incoherent with disbelief and stress. Jennie’s boyfriend Andy came straight over when she called him, and was a rock, as was Beth’s brother, who she had been out with for the evening. As for me, I had to be my own rock, but I’ve had plenty of practice at that, after all.

We were up till about 3 am, what with ‘phone calls, hysterics, and then police and more police… Matters were made worse by the fact that neither of the others had ever been a victim of a crime before, so they hadn’t a clue what to do or what would happen. I felt a little weird saying “Oh, I have, several times...”. Purse stolen x3, Assaulted x2, Home broken-into x1, Bicycle stolen x1. It’s interesting, in a horrible way, to realise the feelings of insecurity and vulnerability that come after being robbed or attacked don’t get any easier with the greater experience. I still feel like a jelly whenever I think of it, and I didn’t lose anything… I also seem to have a sort of survivor’s guilt; I ought to be delighted that my room wasn't entered, but it’s really quite uncomfortable to be the only one who didn’t lose anything.

Then more hassles the next day (mercifully I was told I could take the day off); trying to get some sense out of the landlady, finishing clearing up, trying to have a rational conversation about something this upsetting, getting a new Chubb lock fitted on the front door, and generally trying to get our respective heads around things. As well as the mess there was fingerprint powder everywhere, which turns out to be strangely clingy stuff; I have a towel thick with it in my washing basket now.

I also got mistaken for a bloke while queuing outside the public loos at Sainsburys, when I went out to get some yoghurt and a time switch for my big lamp. Grr; talk about adding insult to injury.

It always baffles me when I am mistaken for a man. I’m a bl**dy double-D cup, for crying out loud. I do not expect to have to say “Actually I don’t use the gents, I am a woman”, and nor should any woman with good, big, perky boobs. Like mine.

So yesterday was spent getting things sorted out, and then in the evening I made myself go out, as it was my one chance to see my Aunt Juliet, my darling Dynamo-Auntie from Oz. She was in London for two tourism-packed days; she’s now in Paris, then on to Venice, then Florence, and then a week on the Nile before she flies home to Adelaide again in three weeks time.

She’s my favourite aunt, as she was my late father’s favourite sister, and she never seems to change; although we only ever see one another every three or four years, I always spot her instantly. The exact same spruce, cropped-haired, colourful figure as ever came bounding towards me and, keyed up as I was, I nearly cried as we hugged. Juliet was the perfect person to see, full of warmth, common-sense and humour. We had a stiff drink followed by a light supper, and we talked and talked and talked.

And then - I went to a concert. I was determined to hold out against the urge to hurry home and check everything was safe. I had booked a ticket and I was going to use it, god damn it.

I was rather surprised when “Finlandia” made me cry, as normally I find it buoyant, rousing stuff. Something to do with being at such an emotional pitch, and all the timps, and having seen Juliet, and talking with her about my Dad. The Beethoven was lovely (good grief, Helene Grimaud is so small; I never expected to see a pianist so tiny) and the Lemminkäinen symphony (if it isn’t technically a symphony it might as well be) was simply superb. Dear Philharmonia, knocking my socks off once again. And of course, the house was all fine when I got home.

I'm planning a quiet weekend, though. I think I ran on pure adrenaline for twenty-four hours straight; I have felt completely shattered today. I know this sense of anxiety will pass, and the best thing I can do to help it is to be gentle with myself, and as normal as possible in my life. In the name of which, on with the weekend motley, and homeward with me, via M&S for some groceries and perhaps a bottle of wine – I think we all deserve a drink.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Autumn arrives

It's pouring with rain - steady, quiet, sheeting rain - and we are having discussions at work about autumn foliage in the Gardens, and what is turning already or likely to turn soon... The leaves of a creeper on a fence near the office are brilliant scarlet already, the lindens are gilding themselves, but most other trees are still deep, uniform green.

Outside my office window now
Conkers and yellow leaves;
Autumn arrives.

Or, in the words of a far better poet than me:

"Now is the time for the burning of the leaves,
They go to the fire; the nostrils prick with smoke
Wandering slowly into the weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin, and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.
The last hollyhock’s fallen tower is dust:
All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! the reddest rose is a ghost.
Spark whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.
Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before,
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there:
Let them go to the fire with never a look behind.
That world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.
They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring."

-Laurence Binyon.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

A low is not just a weather system...

It’s been a bit of a depressing week so far. I tell myself it’s a post-holiday low, but trying that idea out on a colleague I got laughed at wolvishly and told not to take holidays in that case – gee, thanks for the suggestion. But several not-good things have happened since I came back from Cornwall and the upshot is that I feel “stale, flat and unprofitable”, as Hamlet puts it (or is it Macbeth?).

I’ve been ticked off at work (for doing something extremely stupid, so entirely deserved, but no less embarrassing for that), I’ve made the deflating discovery that someone I rather fancy thinks it is funny (& yes, I know disgust would be worse, but amusement as a reaction doesn’t exactly boost the self-esteem either!), the Muse seems to have gone walkabout, leaving me bereft of creative inspiration for weeks; and now I have lost about 90% of what had promised to be a bumper tomato crop, to the vile condition called tomato blight.

The blight is the worst, to be honest, because it is irremediable. It struck while I was on holiday, so I wasn’t able to get straight in there and pick the tomatoes themselves before they were destroyed, and make chutney out of them. When I went away, I had fifteen tall, gangling vines dense with scarlet and green toms. When I came back, I had fifteen crumpled, blackened dead things, hung with blotched wrecks of fruit. It was a heart-breaking sight. So I won’t be pressing bags of my lovely toms on friends and colleagues with proud cries of “Oh, it’s such a glut this year, I can’t keep up with it!” >sigh<

To make matters worse, I feel as though I had abandoned my plants to their fate by going on holiday at the time I did. I know the law doesn’t recognise “cruelty to plants” as a crime, but I feel criminal just the same.

With regard to my Muse, I know she’s a crotchety creature, and I must await her return with patience. I have a tried-and-tested technique for keeping the creative juices in suspension, as it were (that’s probably a very bad metaphor, scientifically speaking – suspension of juice, anyone?). I’ll do a bit of quick sketching, and I will garden, sew and cook. They’re all creative activities. And I’ll avoid looking at the easel or the laptop, and do my best to hush that nagging inner voice that says “What if you never get inspired again?” because it does no good at all to listen to it.

I used to get in trouble at Art College for doing this; I was told roundly on several occasions that it was pathetic self-indulgence to talk about “creative inspiration”, and that any artist worthy of the name had no problem at all working systematically and to schedule. At first I protested, but putting your tutors’ collective backs up isn’t a good idea; in the end I used simply to apologise and say I’d try to discipline myself better. Then I’d go back to the studio and generate empty rubbish, piles of bullsh*t, until the Muse came calling on my brain again.

I wonder if the denial of the existence of inspiration is one of the reasons why so much contemporary art is derivative drivel and cr*p? Ooh, contentious thought there, Dent. But I wonder, nonetheless…

I remind myself that this weekend I am going to a European Food Fair and a concert performance of “Tristan und Isolde”. I can combine my Food-vulture and Culture-vulture hats in one, which is nice, and “Tristan” should be super. Low patches happen, one just has to weather them and be grateful they are not something worse. Autumn is a time of consolidating and digging in, setting the structures for new developments and next stages; the concert and ballet seasons are just starting; the weather so far is balmy and sweet; Kew Gardens are full of cyclamen and colchicums, and the glasshouses are full of gorgeous bromeliads and the like… I can’t complain, I really can’t. Low patches happen.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Cornwall, and back again

Cornwall was so beautiful; huge open skies and blissfully quiet.

I cannot pretend it was absolutely silent (seagulls, swallows, robins, working boatyards, the wind and passing ships all make a noise of one kind or another) - but compared to the steady rumble of London, the traffic, tube trains, aircraft flying over on their way into Heathrow, and so forth, it felt like the middle of nowhere. And the cold, sunny, bracingly fresh air was like an energy shot to the heart. I feel cleaned out and washed free of clutter, ready to plan and sort out my autumn.

I was staying in the tiny harbour village of Polruan, overlooking the Fowey River. Fowey proper, across the water, was still quite bustling and crowded, but Polruan was peace itself. The Old Foundry was huge, and had the best-equipped kitchen of any holiday property I've ever stayed in. The lounge looked out across the river to Fowey, a pretty pink and grey and cream coloured town scattered along the steep riverside between two ferry landing stages - Whitehouse Quay, for the foot ferry, and the slipway at Bodinnick for cars. One could sit all day and watch the comings and goings on the river. Big china clay ships came in daily to load up at the little docks upriver. An aircrew training ship came in twice, and a HM Customs vessel called, and a dredger. The local lifeboat bobbed quietly at her pontoon, and fishing boats, yachts, dinghies and sailing skiffs assorted bounced by in all weathers. The different types of dinghies and skiffs have lovely names; Sharpies, Toppers, Laser Stratos and Firefly class (I'm so pleased there is a real Firefly class out there!).

I walked along rocky cliff paths where the world's granite bones seemed to be right against my feet, and inland paths above wooded creeks full of birds. I ate too much (a regular feature of my holidays, I'm afraid) and did a couple of pages of sketches, and re-read "Hornblower and the Atropos"; I went rockpooling like a kid at Readymoney cove, and scrambled all over Henry the 8th's little harbour fort, St Catherine's Castle, and the ruined World War Two watching post in the woods behind it... I've had such a lovely break.

I wish I were still there, up to my eyes in beauty and history and wildlife and fresh air.

The train journey home was rather hellish, which was a pity; the train had been overbooked and was fearfully crowded, with people standing jammed in the corridoors and outside the toilets, and luggage toppling into the gangways. The two railway staff on board dealt with it all with amazing courtesy and aplomb; a lesson in quality customer service in the face of extreme difficulty. Watching them in action made a rough journey easier to put up with.

And now I'm back at work. Ah well, at least I like the place where I work. If I lived in Cornwall, who knows? - I might start to take it all for granted.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Funnies (pt 2) and freedom

The joys of spellchecker, part two:

Rudbeckia hirta = Rebecca Hart.
Wow - this could be a new way to invent names for fiction characters.

Less helpfully, a nice winter-flowering scented shrub comes to a smelly end:
Mahonia = ammonia. Ugh.

I'm off down to Cornwall tomorrow, hurrah - staying in a converted anchor foundry in Polruan. A week of sea air, decent fish and chips and proper scrumpy cider, walking and watercolour-painting. Peace and quiet and open air...

Have a good week, everyone!

Monday, 6 September 2010


The joys of using Spell-checker:
a way to cook eat and veg = a way to cook meat and vet
Arroz con leche (Spanish for rice pudding) = arrow con lechery

Oh, and in my lunch break I was copying out a recipe for a friend and I typed the marvellous term "bicarbonate of sofa". Which no spell-checker is ever going to spot.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Three day weekend, four day working week...

I had a wonderful Late Summer Bank Holiday, walking, cooking and relaxing on the beach (shingle, so don't get any exotic mental pictures!) in Kent with my mother and my elder brother Steve. The weather has suddenly improved almost beyond recognition, too. Apart from a spectacular rainstorm while we were walking across Dungeness (where there is no shelter whatsoever!) we had wonderful warm sunshine otherwise, all weekend and on Bank Hol Monday.

Please, please may we have a full-scale Indian summer? August has managed to be both chilly and muggy most of the time; nasty.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Fascinating and funny...

I was trying to track down a violinist I once (many, many moons ago) shared a house with - and I think I've found her, teaching music and running the string orchestra at a German secondary school, which is pleasing as when we lost touch she was resigning herself to having to give up the fiddle altogether and getting a sensible office job. Bravo, Beaney, I'm so pleased you got back your mojo and your strings!

On the way to finding her, though, I also found this.

Which is irrelevent to my long-lost friend, but fascinating and funny - and oh, how many instances of this I have seen over the years!

Monday, 23 August 2010

Pick-of-the-Proms, and romantic comedies...

There were seven concerts I wanted to go to in this year’s BBC Proms season. Two were sold out by the time I came to book, and one clashed with a previous arrangement. I was able to get tickets for the other four, though. As an experiment, I had seats in different parts of the hall for each concert; this was interesting, and useful, though of course putting what I’ve learned into use next year will still depend on availability of seats.

My first Prom was “Meistersinger”. I like “Meistersinger” although it is five hours plus of bum-numbing Wagner; because it has buckets of thrilling music, because unlike most of his work it has a happy ending, and because I have played in the overture (& I still know the triangle part!). I had a seat to the side of the gallery, with a fair view and pretty good sound, and despite the heat it was a good afternoon.

My second Prom was number 32; Tchaikovsky, Janacek and Berlioz. I went with my stepmother Jane and we sat in the choir stalls. The sound is surprisingly good from here, though of course it is off-balance. Jane is used to this, as she plays regularly in an orchestra herself. I’m less adapted to it, as I haven't done so for years, but I also have a less-sensitive ear. We were right above the percussion section, with a splendid view of them and of everyone else except Maxim Rysanov. Recommended if you like watching the conductor (which I like to do occasionally) and don’t mind being blown out of your seat when the timpani let rip (not a problem for someone whose Dad was a timpanist), and of course provided you don’t have a crush on a string soloist.

Third Prom was Lugansky playing the Rachmaninov “Rhapsody”, reviewed last week. For this I was right at the back centre of the gallery. Seats here sell out ahead of the sides of the gallery, but my feeling was that the sound was worse - small and a bit muzzy - and the view awful. The back of the gallery is great, sound-wise, in the Festival Hall and the Barbican Hall, and even in Canterbury Cathedral (most of which has bl**dy lousy acoustics). Not so at the Royal Albert Hall. I have a bit of an “I-love-you” thing about Nikolai Lugansky and I’m sorry I wasn’t a scrap closer to him; it’s amazing just how far away the gallery is from the stage, in that huge building. It’s like trying to see the action from the back row of the Colosseum (NB not the Coliseum – where the cheap seats have surprisingly good sightlines).

My fourth and final Prom was on Friday, and it was easily the best. Of course, it was my favourite orchestra and my favourite maestro, so there is a remote possibility I was prejudiced... I’d splashed out on a seat in the side stalls for this. For me, that gave the best of both worlds; close enough to give me crisp, clear sound and a really good view, but far enough back that I wasn’t swamped by one section of the orchestra. It was a terrific concert.

It’s available on BBC iPlayer, at least for the next few days; sadly iPlayer slots only seem to last a week. The four pieces were well-matched; the Mosolov thrillingly hot stuff, the Pärt symphony haunting, tensely meditative and melancholy, the Ravel a jazzy treat. The final piece, Scriabin’s “Poem of Ecstasy”, which I didn't know before, absolutely blew me away. And Esa-Pekka Salonen was simply wonderful. Do have a look and a listen if you have the time (you can fast forward, in a rough-and-ready manner, to get through the applause and the talking-head presenter). I know I am a creature of crushes, and very boring it must get listening to me rave about them, but honestly; watch the Maestro, and marvel. Now that is one brilliant guy, and a damned attractive one too. And it is corking good music.

I had a constructive weekend afterwards. I got several small irritating jobs done - like retuning my television, which I’ve been meaning to do for months, and mending the handle of my nail scissors. I did a lot of gardening, bought my spring bulbs and made another batch of jam (strawberry and blackberry – oh yes, it’s good!). But I slept badly and had weird dreams on both Friday and Saturday night. On Friday it made sense; I was hyped-up after the concert, fizzing with energy after the magnificence of the Scriabin, and couldn’t shake the mental image of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s honey-and-silver hair and elvish smile, and his marvellous energy.

But Saturday puzzles me; I’d had a good, busy day, spent plenty of time outdoors in the fresh air, and had a very nice supper of home-cooked fasoladha and roasted squash with feta cheese. Then I dreamed that someone I was at college with had gone to live on the island of Hvar in Croatia and got in trouble. I woke up and said to myself “It’s just a dream”, got back to sleep – and had the same dream again. Creepy.

Last night I really wanted a relaxed, no-need-to-think evening. I cooked a dead-simple supper of pasta, veg and tuna, and sat down and watched tele. So I’m a slob. I ended up with a film called “Sweet Home Alabama”, which I’d heard was a good straightforward romantic comedy. It starred Reese Witherspoon, who is such a delight in the first “Legally Blonde” film (& is so badly let-down in the second by a truly dire plot and script). It didn’t look too intellectually taxing, which was fine, as I wanted fun, not intellect. I have plenty of opera and classic French art movies on dvd if I want to be intellectual.

But it just didn’t work for me. I didn’t really like any of the characters. I felt the heroine was silly, shallow and mean, and so was the husband she had fled from. There was no explanation of why their marriage hadn’t worked, beyond a nasty story about him throwing up at the wedding. I have no doubt that that would be vile, and infuriating – but grounds for separation? Not among grown-ups, I hope. The man who wants to marry the heroine seemed far too old-fashionedly decent and nice to be in love with her. It just – didn’t work. I gave up about halfway through, so I may have missed the moment when suddenly it all came together. But I don’t want to have to sit with a film for over an hour without a single character getting my sympathy.

It’s funny what works and what doesn’t, in films, tv, fiction, you name it. I guess it’s partly a matter of taste. Comedy is such a personal thing, too; and romantic comedy must be particularly hard to write and to play. I loved “Legally Blonde”, I enjoyed “Maid in Manhattan” and “Pretty Woman” – and the latter is about as air-headed a fantasy as they come – and “While you were Sleeping”, and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, and “Practical Magic” and “Hitch” and “Mystic Pizza” and “Moonstruck” and “Groundhog Day”… So I know I am perfectly capable of sitting down with a chocolate box Girls’ Night-type movie and enjoying it for exactly what it is. I just wish I’d had one last night.

At least I slept okay afterwards; and no bad dreams. But no lovely orchestral ones, either.