Thursday, 25 February 2010

Of strange and happy things...

I'm sitting in the office and there's a wren singing in one of the trees outside, belting its tiny heart out like the hope of spring personified. Such a magnificent voice from so small a bird. Above him, over the richly textured grey sky, gulls float by, cruising on the mild, damp breeze. It has not rained once all day (so far), the temperature is well above freezing, and on Kew Green the muddy grass is starting to grow again...

Last night I was at "The Elixir of Love" at the ENO with my mother and my friend Alan. It's a lovely, happy production, full of neat details, very succesfully updated (ENO have a pretty good record on updating operas, going by those I've seen) and well sung. Sarah Tynan continues to be deliciously good, as she has been in everything I've seen her do; John Tessier was a sweetly-sung, credible Nemorino, and Andrew Shore was just marvellous. It was frivolous and touching and romantic, it had a happy ending, and it was just what I needed, after the angst and anguish of "Mayerling" a few days ago. Not that I didn't revel in the brilliance of "Mayerling"; but this was fun, and sometimes you need fun.

We were reminiscing during the interval about other things we've seen at the Coliseum; in Mum's and Alan's cases, going way back to pre-ENO days, in mine only to about 1976. My father took me and my future stepmother there to see English National Ballet in "Les Sylphides", "Graduation Ball" and "Le Tricorne". It was my first ever live ballet and I was so excited I felt ill for most of the day; I said nothing, for fear I'd be forbidden to go and sent to bed instead. We had Dress Circle tickets (gods know what it had cost him) and I can remember exactly what we all wore: Dad in his "orchestra suit"; Jane in a blue and white dress with a low neckline, and a white shawl with a silver lamé fringe; me in my best dark pink blouse and the long skirt patterned with elephants which Aunt O had made me for my birthday. Oh-my-god that's a long time ago! Oh, strange and happy memory. It was an enormous thrill; beautiful ballerinas in floaty dresses, and wonderful music, and colourful sets... everything an excited little girl's first trip to the ballet ought to be.

After that we got onto joking about the names of the characters in "The Elixir of Love" - Dr Sweetbitter, Sergeant Goodheart, Little No-one... Belcore is usually played as a bit of a jerk, and was here, yet the name implies he should be seen as essentially decent. It's like the way that Shakespeare's characters' names often give one a clue as to who they are: in "Romeo and Juliet", for example - Benvolio literally means "I mean well", while Mercutio evokes Mercury and mercurial. And of course the Italian name Tebaldo, which is what the character Romeo kills is called in the original source, is more usually anglicised as Theobald. Theobald Capulet; he just doesn't sound very aggressive, does he? Theobald Capulet is fluffy and a bit wet; a drunk Sloane Ranger throwing up on the stairs. Whereas Tybalt Capulet sounds tough, snappy and short-tempered, from the moment you hear his name. Short vowels and sharp dentals versus long vowels and soft, labial consonants; it's all given away in the sound. Theobald is an Old English Sheepdog; Tybalt is a Jack Russell Terrier.

Hmm. Hard to imagine Thiago Soares or Gary Avis as a Jack Russell Terrier... Very tall Jack Russells.

After the opera, I walked back to the car park on the South bank with them and we sat in Alan's converted camper van chatting for a few minutes. Out of the blue my mother produced a small bundle of tissue paper and handed it to me, saying "I've been meaning to give you this, it's just a little present to say how much I admire how well you're coping with this broken wrist". It was a very light package of hastily-folded white tissue paper; I unwrapped the paper saying "Oh Mum, you shouldn't have - " - and my great-great-grandmother's Victorian rose gold five-bar gate bracelet slid into the lap of my skirt.

I daresay a Victorian bracelet doesn't amount to much in some families; not so in mine. This is one of my mother's few pieces of "good" jewellery. It is a simple thing, almost plain in appearance, but it is the plainness of something that does not need fancy decoration. It has graced the wrists of all those beautiful and indefatigable McLaughlin/La Faunte/Smith/Dent women whose pictures hang in Mum's hallway; and now it slipped over mine and lay there heavy and shining while I gasped my stunned thanks.

"You'd have it one day anyway," she said. "I wanted you to be able to enjoy it now."

I didn't know what to say. I still don't. I will cherish it as I cherish Mum herself, and all the heritage of my blood. I'm proud of my ancestry, of the mixture of places and cultures, of the history of brave decisions and strong determined people, of risk-takers, crossers of boundaries, holders-together of families... If only I had a daughter to pass the bracelet, and the bloodline, on to in my turn.

Strange and happy, indeed.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

How now, a rat! (stabs thru' the arras)...

I met a rat last night at the cinema.

Well, I hope it was a mouse, but in London you never know. It could have been a ghost. Whatever it is, it lives in number four screening room at the Odeon in Whiteleys, and it is bl**dy noisy.

I did go to the "Mayerling" screening last night. It was a bit of an adventure, as I’d never been on a number 27 bus past Hammersmith before, and discovered it follows an unusually convoluted route, even for London transport. At one point it was happily heading along Holland Park Avenue going the wrong way; I nearly got off in a panic, but hung on and had faith, and eventually after doing more loops than a dancing meercat was deposited at the top of Queensway.

It was 5 to 7 and the film was meant to start at 7, so I dashed into Whiteleys, ran up the escalators (I need to do more of this; am out of shape after nearly three months of idleness), bought a ticket, and grabbed a classic cinema-goer’s unhealthy supper of cheesy nachos, fizzy orange and popcorn – so bad it was good, if you get my meaning. Only to find the film didn’t start until 7.30, despite the fact that everywhere that advertised it in advance had said 7pm. The nice bunch of Holland Park types sitting with me were all complaining, but the cinema wouldn’t budge, so we all sat in the dark for 30 minutes, me munching while they grumbled (in a well-bred way) about being kept waiting.

At last, as I chomped up my last nubs of popcorn, the film started. I didn't know then that soon I'd be hearing a lot more chomping, not of my own, and I settled down to enjoy the ballet.

“Mayerling”, as I mentioned before, is dark, dark stuff. It tells the story, in a compressed form, of the last years in the life of Rudolph, Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary - a deeply troubled bloke it would seem. Over the course of just over two hours we see Rudolph get married off to an eligible girl he loathes, flirt with her sister, break up with his mistress, express his neurotically intense love for his mother, get drunk with his other mistress, conspire with a lot of shifty Hungarians, fall madly for Countess Mary Vetsera and have a wild affair with her, and finally shoot both her and himself dead in the royal hunting lodge at, you’ve guessed it, Mayerling.

The leading role is huge; the dancer playing Rudolph is onstage for all but one scene, and does a total of (I think) nine long duets, with five different ballerinas, culminating in three with Mary Vetsera that are astonishing, even by MacMillan standards, for their athleticism and violent sensuality. Although watching filmed ballet has its downside – not least the simple fact that the choice as to what to look at has already been made for you – there are pluses too. The big gains are that one gets to see the nuances of expression, and that the extraordinary demands of the choreography are made fully apparent.

Demands to which Edward Watson rises magnificently. His portrayal of Rudolph is both vile and deeply tragic, and he hurls himself into the physical challenges with a bravura recklessness. I know I’m always rabbiting on about his work, but I do think he is an astonishing dancer. Beside him Mara Galeazzi produced the requisite intensity as Mary Vetsera; their duets were explosive. The role of Mary is odd; she barely appears until halfway through the action, and then has to come out of the start gate at full throttle, as it were. She is as neurotic and obsessed as Rudolph, she shares his infatuation with skulls and his death-wish, and once she comes on the scene there is really nowhere things can go for the couple but downhill.

Steven McRae was marvellous in the smallish part of Bratfisch, Rudolph’s “personal cab driver and entertainer” (now there’s an unusual job description). His second solo, which can seem evidence of the character’s idiocy – dancing like a clown while the despairing lovers plan their suicide pact – came over here with painful feeling. One suddenly sensed how as he dances he would be overhearing their conversation, and becoming horribly aware that by bringing Mary to Rudolph he has not so much done them a kindness as sealed their fate.

Cindy Jourdain, with her beautiful calm face and long eyelids, was an elegant, neurotic Empress Elisabeth, icy in stillness, then boiling in the ferocity of her arguments with her passionate son. Gary Avis was suavely sexy as her lover. Their duet, the one moment when we see the Empress allow herself to unwind and be a little human, was tender and sad and sensual. In the middle of this story of relationships based on violence, obsession and control, it is oddly appropriate that the one moment of gentleness reciprocated is in a pas de deux of two adulterers.

So it was a good evening at the flicks; all but the company in the cinema. I don’t mean the bevy of middle-aged and elderly West London balletomanes sitting around me. I mean the thing eating behind my seat. I was in the back row. It started up, champ champ chomp chomp, and made gnawing noises steadily through the whole of Acts two and three. Not much can distract me from brilliant performers doing their thing, but the nagging fear that a rat was going to run over my foot was unpleasantly insistent. It didn’t – run over my foot, that is – but it chewed and scuffled endlessly, right behind me, for well over an hour. Whiteleys, you have a problem in Screen Four.

Friday, 19 February 2010


No, not the steakhouse. Just the sentiment. Thank the gods, it's Friday.

This week has rushed by, which I ought to be concerned about. Isn't it horrible how time passes faster and faster as one gets older? Since it has been rather a rough week I'm relieved to reach Friday and see my two days of rest ahead. Although the weather forecast is for more bally snow tomorrow - rats!!

I had another physio session this morning and was commended on having made good progress with my flexibility exercises, but then told I had a good long haul still to go, and that after the first two weeks progress normally slows down a lot >loud and heartfelt sigh<. My wrist has ached for most of the rest of the day after being asked to do exercises with weights for the first time. Still, I've now got an extended exercise programme, and will push on with it. There isn't much else I can do, anyway. I want my hand back... please...

Tomorrow I have a concert at the Festival hall; Janacek and Suk, should be good. At the moment I'm thinking I'll go up into the West End a bit earlier and take a leaf out of Jana's book by having a sketching session in a café somewhere, with a light supper perhaps. She and her cohorts in California seem to do this regularly and I like the idea; and it does my aching and frustrated creativity good to get a little exercise. I know, because I managed to do a little bit of creative activity yesterday.

I was watching "The Culture Show" after an early supper. There was an item about the Royal Ballet and on impulse I picked up my sketchbook and tried a little drawing; to my immense pleasure I was able to produce a thumbnail sketch of Jonathan Watkins that actually looked like Jonathan Watkins! Yippee! So I did another, rather sketchier one (he moves a lot). Then I started one of Laura Morera, but the interview cut away from her before I could finish that, leaving her with no eyes (eeee, zombie ballerina ahoy). Finally I managed to grab a hasty back view of one of the dancers Watkins was rehearsing. After that the programme went to an interview with Anthony D'Offay, who is considerably less easy on the eye, but I drew him too, anyway.

The lines went where I wanted! The sketches of people looked like people! Yes, yes, orgasmic yes - I will be able to draw again!

It gave me such a buzz that I followed on by typing another page or so of the Work In Progress. So it was a good evening, and it has inspired me to try some more this weekend. Wish me luck; and have a peaceful weekend yourselves, out there...

Thursday, 18 February 2010

New York Fashion Week; drool...

If I were four stone lighter and had pots of money, I would be wearing



Wonderful, the things people are concerned about…

I’ve just noticed that the Odeon at Whiteleys is screening a filmed performance of the Royal Ballet in Kenneth Macmillan’s “Mayerling” next Monday evening – I’m thinking of going (especially as Edward Watson is dancing Rudolph, yum – and yes, I know that’s a fairly kinky yum). But I loved the caveat posted on Odeon Cinemas’ website: “Warning: Contains a scene of suicide, a bordello scene and smoking”. Don’t take your ballet mad little daughter to this, she might see a cigarette

Funny how they omit to mention that “Mayerling” also contains a fair quantity of Macmillan’s signature balletic sex, including a pretty frightening rape, as well as intravenous drug use and a scene in which the main character practically gets it on with his mother... Ah, but smoking is serious.

Still, if it’s Mr Watson doing it, whether it’s smoking, having copious amounts of ballet-sex or shooting himself, I’d like to watch. As I said, it’s a kinky yum.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

A revelation and a mystery

It's so cold and wet, and my right wrist aches and creaks and my left thumb twinges at odd moments, and yesterday evening thanks to all this I lost my grip on all my resolve and slid into feeling thoroughly blue. Coming equal first with Emmanuel College Cambridge in University Challenge couldn't assuage my mood. Even a piece of apple pie with clotted cream didn't help. So I took refuge in the world of romantic love; or rather, in the bittersweet, romantic-yet-anti-romantic version that you find in the films of Powell and Pressburger. Those magic words on the screen in the opening titles - "A production of The Archers - Written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger", with the arrows thumping into the target behind, are an instant guarantee of quality...

I once wrote an essay on the Archers films for college - rather to the surprise of my tutor, who didn't think Michael Powell had made anything worth considering apart from "Peeping Tom", and so hadn't seen any of his other films (and this was a professional lecturer in film studies - shame on her!). I was able to burble about them to my heart's content with impunity, since she couldn't criticise my work without first working her way through more films than she had time for. I probably displayed the depths of my nerdiness to great advantage, but I was happy.

Last night I put on my dvd of "I know where I'm going!", which is one of the most wholeheartedly romantic of the Archers films. Tonight I'll probably follow it up with "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp". Movie heaven; my perfect cinema date would be these two films, in a double bill at the Riverside Studios with a good meal first and a glass of shiraz in the interval.

"I know where I'm going!" is a love story, filmed in 1944 and released in 1945. Joan Webster, a confident and self-possessed young woman (played by Wendy Hiller) has by the age of 25 convinced herself that the way to happiness is to marry a wealthy man who she does not love and enjoy all the good things his money can buy her. On her way to the planned wedding in the Hebrides, however, the great British climate intervenes, stranding her on Mull for a week. Under the influence of a mystically beautiful landscape and of the friendly local people, and especially of Roger Livesey as the handsome but impoverished local laird, she is forced to face the folly of her dreams. As the film ends she decides to give up her planned marriage and acknowledges her feelings for Livesey. Returning up the hill from the little port accompanied by three pipers she joins him in the ruins of Moy Castle - and I have a lump in my throat the size of a tennis ball.

Summed up like that, it sounds like the worst, most formulaic Hollywood sludge, yet it couldn't be more different. It is subtle, ironic and delicate, treating its gold-digging heroine with sympathy even while pulling holes in her values, and allowing her to retain her astringent determination to the end. Her relationship with Livesey's warm, sardonic, honest hero is human and credible. I want to cheer when they get together.

Visually the film is absolutely sumptuous, creating more richness with black and white than many a colour movie achieves, and offering a succession of haunting images. The first entry of Pamela Brown's character Catriona, whistling on a hillside in the thick fog, surrounded by wolfhounds; the shots of the local girl Bridie waiting on the quayside, afraid her sweetheart has been drowned trying to earn the money to be able to marry her, her tension and grief conveyed through her stillness; countless outdoor shots of the local scenery; perhaps above all the wonderful sequence of the ceilidh at Ardnacroish, where the locals dance and sing puirt á beul and the lovers watch first the dancing and then one another (Powell having a lovely time here mucking about with all those po-faced theories about "the fetishistic Gaze"); over and over one is jolted by simple yet stunning imagery that tells much through little and draws you imperceptibly into the film's quiet magic.

Trying a while back to write a query letter for "Gabriel Yeats" I found myself thinking it would appeal to fans of Powell and Pressburger; watching this film last night I found myself thinking how accurate a description that was. It's almost as if I had been trying, unconsciously, to script my own Archers' movie. It's rather embarrassing to realise how much "Gabriel Yeats" pulls together themes and motifs from all my favourites.

One other thing I had never realised until last night was how much my protagonist owes to that wonderful actor Roger Livesey, who appears in this and two other great P&P films. I'd never seen it until now, but just as "Gabriel Yeats" is a fantasy Powell and Pressburger film, so Simon Cenarth is a dream Roger Livesey rôle. It's a revelation to me. How oddly the mind works; I've been looking for "the right face" for Simon for years, when all the time he had been right in front of me in three of my favourite films. If that hyperlink has come through okay, by the way, it's a still from "Colonel Blimp"; the beginning of the duelling scene.

There's a long-standing family mystery about Roger Livesey; according to the story, his family and my father's are connected. But no-one now can fill me in on the truth of it; my father couldn't remember the background when I asked him shortly before he died, and went off onto a tangent about the school his stepfather ran; my mother only knows the gist of the family story and none of the facts; the grandparental generation, who would have known the truth, are all dead now.

There is one piece of evidence, if one can call it that. When my parents married in 1962 they were given, by someone (no idea who) in my father's extensive family, a wedding present of a piece of glazed stoneware made by a potter called Evelyn Livesey. My mother still has the piece of pottery - it's gorgeous, a large dish shaped like a flattened cylinder seal, decorated with incised patterns and abstract shapes in a rich greenish glaze. It always serves as the main fruit platter on the Christmas dinner table, and I have adored it since I was a kid. My mother was told at the time that that Evelyn Livesey was a relative of Roger Livesey's and that the Livesey family were connected to my father's family, and I have always cherished this tentative connection, though I do wonder if it is not in fact a case of Chinese whispers. I've tried looking up the name "Evelyn Livesey" online but have got nowhere. I'd love to find out the truth about this someday.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Olivier awards

Very pleased to see that the wonderful Stuart Skelton has been nominated for an Olivier for his "Peter Grimes" at ENO last year. It was one of the finest performances - musically fantastic, dramatically almost unbearably moving, and almost frighteningly risk-taking - that I've seen in an opera house in many years. That's Mr Skelton in the pic; yes, he's no oil painting, but he's ginger and he has a voice like a god, and he can act, and I think he's bl**dy brilliant. And next month I get to see him in action again, as Boris in "Katya Kabanova", yippee!

Less pleased to see that the chaotic and undie-shedding muddle of Fabulous Beast's "Rite of Spring" also gets a nod. Granted the only "Rite"s I've seen that worked for me are Kenneth Macmillan's, Bangarra Dance Theatre's marvellous "Rites", and what one saw of the reconstructed original in the television film "Riot at the Rite" (featuring Favourite Baritone's wonderful Ballerina Missus as the Chosen One)... So - I'm picky. So what? I thought FB's Rite was a mess of weak flailing movement and no-longer-shocking "shock-value" motifs. Keep your kecks on, don't waste your energy pretending to shag the earth - just give me dynamic, underivative, real dance.

A few more signs of spring...

The huge wisteria at the back of the main admin building is being pruned (big scaffold on wheels like a stage tower, team of four gardeners with wicked mega secateurs, trimmings falling everywhere) so I went out of the side gate to go round to the Orangery for my lunch. So I got to check on a few more areas, and saw the following further tiny signs of spring:
Cyclamen coum - masses of them, in purple and Schiaparelli pink, smothering the ground under a big Atlas cedar.
Clematis cirrhosa covered in delicate pearl grey bell-flowers.
The very first plucky (but possibly crazy) Scilla siberica (see pic).
Witch hazels, wintersweet and Lonicera fragrantissima all flowering their socks off against the high brick wall of the Cambridge Cottage Garden, wafting their strong perfumes (respectively sharp and dry, vaguely chemically-clean, and of limoncello liqueur) into the raw, cold air.
Male pigeons (pushy) and male Canada geese (noisy) trying to persuade female pigeons and geese that Love is in the Air, Yeah, Baby; coo-coo-roo, honk-honk honk...
oh, and the Alpine House is an absolute picture at the moment.

Pity the sky is so grey and the temperature skirting along just above zero. I watch out like a spy for these signs of spring, and cherish every one, even if it is cold or wet or threatening to snow again...

Friday, 12 February 2010

Bartók poem

Concerto for Orchestra: Bartók (for the Maestro who can)

All that is richest is here;
Great ghost clouds floating in the dazzling sky,
Memories of spring in the swan-courting valley.
All riches; all danger and all tears, seasons
Of grace, of mockery, of delight;
The breaking mirror above, the unbroken
Dance, and the first love of your life.

Spring-loaded, slender as a boy
You bound ahead of these gathered souls.
Their energy catches and flames
Beneath your outstretched hand.
Off from a glancing touch on air
The wildfire sings in leaping flight,
And all that is richest is there.

Lunch break

I went out, intending just to buy a sandwich in the Orangery (Kew's main restaurant) and got seduced into taking a little walk. It's milder than a couple of days ago, though it drizzled on me pretty steadily; but there were birds singing in the bare trees, and odd wafts of scent from winter-flowering shrubs, and masses of snowdrops are now out. The first Crocus thomasinianus are appearing, too, like crowds of little mauve ghosts in the ragged grass. The air was cool and misty, a mistle thrush made drilling alarm calls at me from the lilac garden, and under the big cedar of Lebanon where I hid for a while from the rain the ground was warm rust-orange with fallen cone scales. It's a beautiful, damp, be-here-now spring day, when one can see the very earliest peepings-forth of the energy of growth, of life recreating itself endlessly, all around. Blessed be; and (since it's Mahashivratri today) om namyo Shivayai...

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Writing convoluted floriferous obfuscation...

...or boll*cks, as it should properly be called.

This is something of a speciality of mine, at least at work (I try to control it in my own personal writing). I'm not boasting, in fact I'm rather ashamed of it, but at times my job requires it. I tend to refer to it, with what is meant to be irony, as "blinding the public with waffle".

But I've just been reminded forcefully of George Orwell's famous rules on writing good English, in his essay "Politics and the English Language". This is a great piece of writing and I recommend it to anyone who hasn't come across it before. I don't agree with everything he says, but I agree with a heck of lot of it.

I admire the way Orwell manages to be perfectly even-handed, and even humourous, too, about a serious subject which clearly was hugely important to him. Re-reading the essay, I am reminded of how often I use what he calls "verbal false limbs", and I chide myself on my sloppy habits, and the sloppy thinking to which these habits are connected, as well as my tendency towards luxuriant verbiage.

It's a pity that the only place I've found the whole essay quoted online has the text in a form that is full of typos. That's ironic, too, and I can only hope Orwell would have found it funny...

I've just been reading a report from Defra, Kew's major government sponsor department. Draw whatever connections you like between that and the above...

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Knit up those ravelled sleeves...

There's a lovely article in this month's "Resurgence" on knitting as an art form. Here's to the reappropriation of neglected feminine crafts!

Here's, too, to lush colour, to orchids and bromeliads and the joy of being in a hothouse on a miserably cold day; take a look at this for a fun film of a bunch of my Kew colleagues speeded up (including my friend Katrina - very briefly - blink and you'll miss her). They're setting up one of the displays for what behind the scenes we call Tropex; the annual Tropical Extravaganza. Yes, I know a real Tropical Extravaganza would include Cuban musicians and dancers, and a lot of mojitos, rum collinses, helado de coco and fresh tropical fruits; nonetheless, I am plugging my place of work, because even without the salseros and rum I think Tropex deserves a plug. Come and feast your eyes.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Determined to be buoyant

You will gather, I'm trying resolutely to be cheerful and to look for things to laugh about. It's meant to keep me from fretting, since I have reason to fret just at the moment.

Yesterday afternoon, coming home from Morrisons in Acton (yes, apart from The Geek's birthday bash it was that exciting a weekend), I dumped my bag of shopping in the rack near the driver and was making my way down the bus to find a seat, using the overhead straps for balance. The bus jolted; I lurched and wrenched on the strap, and a sharp pain stabbed through the Mount of Venus on my left hand. The good hand. Or perhaps I should say the "good" hand, since it now isn't very good at all; it hurts like heck and I can't move my thumb properly any more. So I now have two damaged hands and am feeling pretty frustrated and frankly a bit scared.

What happens if whatever it is I've pulled in my left hand gets worse? Because my right hand, twitching about on the end of the rigid rusted-shut hinge that is my right wrist, ain't much use at present.

Managed to sublimate these self-absorbed worries for a while last night by watching "La Belle et la Bête" and marvelling again at what an extraordinary piece of film-making this is. How much Cocteau achieves with such slight means! How weird and wonderful the psychology of the story is, and how rich the black-and-white photography looks! And how marvellously sexy and scary and moving The Beast is. By gum, Jean Marais had presence, even under that make-up job. Perhaps I should say, especially under that make-up job...

And more, this time at Donizetti's expense...

...but don't worry, he's long dead and very famous, so he can take it - & "Lucia di Lammermoor" is very ripe for this.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Emotional barometer going down again

Feeling rather low after a physiotherapy session this morning which was a mixture of encouraging and deeply dispiriting. There are not going to be any quick fixes with this wrist of mine.

Some aspects of the session were encouraging. My flexion is "pretty good considering" and my finger strength is "excellent". My pronation and supination - the pivoting-from-below-the-elbow movements - are much as expected. But my extension - the bending-back movement - is non-existent and my radial deviation is poor, and both of these may be affected by the position of the plate in my arm. I have a list of exercises as long as my arm, and two different types of massage; all of these have to be done several times a day. No starting on strength exercises until I have more flexibility, since strength exercises will not lengthen the muscles but if anything shorten them; I need to lengthen them back to a good normal standard before i do anything else. I've also been given a night-splint to wear; rather like a brace for one's teeth, only to stretch the tendons instead of straightening the gob.

I came out feeling tired and shaky and rather dismal, got as far as the tube station saying "Pull yourself together, woman" to myself, and then gave up, and limped into Starbucks for a large coffee and an apple doughnut. It's no good; when you feel weepy and wimpy sometimes you just have to accept it. I dropped my teaspoon in the café and nearly cried at that; so clearly I am hardly emotionally robust at present and I'd do best to be honest with myself about it.

Last night's Philharmonia concert was exhilerating; George Benjamin's "Dance Figures", which I didn't know and liked enormously; a dazzlingly icy and bravura Stravinsky concerto from Viktoria Mullova (in a very strange nightdress-like frock worn over black cigarette pants - not sure this was a good look, though it did leave her arms free), and the Bartók "Concerto for Orchestra", which I adore and was duely blown away by once again. The brass practically lifted me out of my seat. The first time I heard this it was being played by the amateur orchestra my godfather Jim Clinch used to conduct - it's probably one of the most ambitious things they'd ever tackled - and at the end, in the split second before the applause started, Jimmy could be heard hissing "Well done!" as he laid down his baton. I think that was the concert when he lost a dress-shirt button ten minutes before the start and I got hoiked into the Green Room to sew him back together (I am one of those odd people who carry needle and thread, and sticking plaster, and a rubber band, and a pencil sharpener...). Sadly I don't think I'll ever get to rescue Maestro Salonen from a sartorial whoops, but one can't have everything in this life of ours.

I know the Benjamin piece was choreographed (by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, I think) on its première, but someone ought to play it to Wayne Macgregor anyway; I'm sure it's right up his street. For that matter, I don't think anyone's ever made a dance piece to the Bartók, either, and it practically cries out for movement.

I came home on a high, trying to write a poem about Bartók. Must remember that, when I feel low. There is so much beauty in the world, so much of excitement and passion. My little woes amount to less than a grain of sand in comparison.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Rambling around a couple of random topics

I’ve come back to the world, after an evening of fantastic Sibelius (more on this anon) and a night when I actually slept moderately well and didn’t bash my right arm at any point. I am glad to be less miserable than yesterday.

Sadly the office still reeks of solvents (downstairs is being refurbished and the pong of glue and paint is pretty extreme). But I am awake and alive; I am wearing my new dress; I have another concert tonight and physio and The Geek’s birthday party tomorrow; and next week I have another concert (Ravel, Poulenc, Debussy), my cousin Richard’s birthday party, and a Portuguese contemporary dance group to look forward to. So life can’t be all bad, now can it? I must learn to go with the flow and not howl like a dog when I feel tired; as the cliché has it, it is all part of life’s rich pattern.

Onward, ever onward.

Reading Henrik’s recent post about the question of male dancers and masculinity leaves me painfully aware that pretty much every time I go to a ballet performance I come back raving about the men. Raving as in “Cor, X is such a hunk”. Now I feel like a bit of a letch.

I know it’s partly because I don’t have the knowhow to comment on anyone’s dancing technique. I only feel qualified (for want of a better word) to write about their overall performance – did they stun me? did they move me? are they musical? are they compelling on stage? did they tell the story well and convince as a character? best of all, did this wonderful and extraordinary medium called ballet transcend itself in this performer’s hands? Watching “Ondine” last summer, the answer was “yes” to all of this. But I couldn’t tell you why, technically, Miyako Yoshida and Ed Watson knock me out; just that they do. Mr Watson’s extraordinary looks are a plus, though (I have this thing about ginger…).

I know that “porte de bras” means “carriage of arms”, for example. But, frankly, to my eyes most dancers carry their arms pretty beautifully; it seems to go with the job. So I can’t say “His/her porte de bras” is terrific/appalling/unusual” as I don’t know what I’m talking about, and that goes for almost everything technical.

I feel just about able to say a chap’s partnering is good. Trust between performers cannot be faked on stage, and some guys just seem to know how to partner a ballerina without either a) looking nervous, b) making her look nervous, c) upstaging her, or d) vanishing behind her into switched-off non-presence, hoisting and parrying her body while he thinks about toast, or how much his corns are hurting. I watch a man who can lift a fully grown woman into the air and hold her up there with one arm, make it look both elegant and easy, and act as well, and my heart beats a little faster, because that is, to put it bluntly, bl**dy amazing.

One of the reasons I find ballet an astounding medium is because it offers me athleticism (and of a particularly superb order, at that) at the service of beauty. There are very few opportunities elsewhere to see this. Sport certainly offers the spectacle of magnificently trained people exercising their skills; but to the end of scoring runs, winning titles, or honouring their country. And (with the exception of figure skaters and some gymnasts) they can be as ugly as they like about it, because competing and if possible winning are all that count. They can pull horrible faces, stagger, stick their bums out, and scream aloud if they want to. Dancers do all those astonishing physical feats, but they do them with beauty and in the service of beauty. They do them with a smile, and no more sound than a little graceful and rather sexy panting, while the average tennis player is grimacing and grunting like a warthog with every stroke (yes, Mr Murray, I am thinking of you).

As one of the articles linked in Henrik’s piece says, boys are taught that “the real Man definitely does not express beauty”.

That’s the crux of the issue, of course; that toxically-loaded term “real Man”. Huge cans of worms are opening under me as I write, I expect. But I want to throw up when I am reminded how widespread this idea and its associates still are. "A real man can’t dance, or wouldn’t want to be able to. Therefore men who can dance are gay. Gay men are not real men". Oh, what a load of bollocks.

Of course there are gay male dancers; and there are lesbian dancers and straight ones too. Just as there are gay, and lesbian, and straight, accountants, film-makers, tree surgeons, optometrists, police officers and effing bl**dy zombies... Simple population distribution means that every sub-set within the species is likely to be represented within every field of activity which that species performs.

A real man can’t dance, ergo a man who can dance is not a real man? Excuse me while I choke on my nasty instant coffee. So - a bloke who can lift another human being above his head and not even look mildly pushed by the job is effeminate? A man who has the strength of character to work that hard, year after year, who attains and maintains that degree of physical fitness, and faces that much daily risk of painful and possibly dangerous injury, is, whatever his sexuality, not a Man, simply because he is doing it for beauty rather than for Olympic gold? Bloody hell; that stinks worse than all the solvent fumes in hell. It is heartbreaking that such rubbish is still so widespread, and promulgated without hesitation even by otherwise perfectly intelligent people. Good for Henrik and the others he offers links to for standing up and ranting about it.

Incidentally, and moving sideways slightly, did you know that in classical Greece male bisexuality was the norm? It was not just socially accepted but socially expected; and, surprise, surprise, the vast majority of men in that society were bisexual and perfectly happy about it. Granted the view of women then was pretty gobsmacking to a modern mind (some classical writers claimed there was doubt as to whether we were even fully human – the male being the real human and the woman a kind of poor imitation). But anyway, sexuality is not a line in the sand. It is a wonderfully natural and (if given the chance) pretty fluid thing which is an essential part of being human, in all its manifestations.

And - it is none of my business. Other people’s private lives are private, unless they choose to talk about them.

That being so, I shall continue to come back from a trip to the ballet saying “Cor, X is a hunk”. I have no idea who is straight as a die, who is bi, who is gay as an Easter bonnet, among the hothothot dancers I so admire. I love them all, indiscriminately, because they are brilliant at what they do and they inspire my awe and delight. They are supreme examples of magnificent, primal masculinity, and they are beautiful with it. And at the Royal Ballet, several of them are even ginger.

I’ve probably offended against all manner of sacred cows now; never mind, it won’t hurt me if they bite, since their teeth only exist online.

Onward, or rather back, to the concert last night.

Osmo Vänskä is rather special, too; not a hunk, in fact skinny and with thinning hair. But he moves around the podium like an imp on fire. (A "Maestros Strictly Come Dancing Special" would probably come down to a dead heat between him, Salonen, and Gustavo Dudamel - I have a lovely mental picture of the three of them tangoing about the place with – let me think – Erin Boag, Ola Jordan and Kristina Rihanoff. Okay, calm down, Dent).

The concert was the third of four that the LPO are giving, working through a bunch of big Sibelius works including all the symphonies. Last night started with “Luonnotar” with an amazing Finnish soprano called Helena Juntunen (I may have spelled that wrong) giving a riveting performance; incantatory and chilling. Then Symphonies no 4, (which I’d never heard before) and no 5 (which I know and love). No 4 turns out to be bleak, majestic and lost; a taste of the sublime, but in the most unearthly and unheimlich way. No 5 by contrast takes all the uncomfortable elements from this and restates them (I’m thinking in aesthetic terms, not musical ones – please don’t misunderstand me) with joyous certainty and a grandeur like the restoration of a cathedral or the growth of a forest.

I was struck, both last night and at the first concert, last week, by how incredibly modern Sibelius sounds, when played with this sort of precision and perfectly-controlled yet risk-embracing attack. (Should mention at this juncture that, just as with ballet, I lack the technical knowledge and vocabulary to express what I want to say, and I may be talking complete balls as a result). I was vividly aware of how often there is this structural device of tiny, endlessly repeated segments of music, particularly in the string sections, giving a sort of rhythmic chugging within which endless slight variations carry things forward through the changing of single notes or the adding or subtracting of a layer of sound from another section of the orchestra… I was reminded of Michael Nyman, and I hadn’t expected to be. I’m sure “rhythmic chugging” is a dumb turn of phrase but it is the best I can do, so apologies to anyone who doesn’t like it. It was a lovely concert, anyway.

And since I am going to another concert tonight - Benjamin, Stravinsky and Bartok, yum! - I had better pack up and stop rambling on, and get out of the pongwhiffy office.

Or maybe it was yesterday...

At Newgrange they think that Imbolc was yesterday, not the day before yesterday. Confusing. But it rained here yesterday, too, so if it please the gods, it will still be "Winter is gone"...

The Newgrange/Knowth etc website, incidentally, is terrific. Have a look at this. And this.

Blessed be!

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Trying to find a more positive note to end the day...

Yesterday was Candlemass, aka Imbolc, and it rained.

"Candlemass Day, if thou be bright
Winter will have another flight.
Candlemass Day, if thou be rain
Winter is gone and will not come again."

Hope so!

Not-so-good day

I'm feeling rough.

I'm not sure why, but my wrist has swollen up badly and is very uncomfortable today. It aches all the time, and I am back on the paracetamol because life is too short to sit around in pain all the time. But it has really depressed me to be like this. I realise how "close to the edge" I am. I've used inverted commas there because I don't want to give the impression I may suddenly top myself or strip off and run screaming through the office; it isn't that bad an edge. It's the edge of tears and the edge of wanting to pull a sickie, that's all. But the thing is, I don't do those things, so I am up against my own standards, and that is a hard, flinty wall to be backed up against. I cry at the theatre, I cry at books, I cry at funerals; but I don't cry for self-pity. Self pity is for babies and the gutless, and tears are for those who like to play helpless because it makes life easier if someone else will deal with your problems for you. Pulling a sickie is for the lazy and the undisciplined. Good grief - where did I get my standards from? - Rooster Cockburn's School for Masochistic Machismo?

I am tired; just so tired.

Last night I tried to draw something; just a quick sketch of the man on the tele. Let's just say, the results were more tangled spaghetti than usual. This morning I wake to a painful, puffy hand that is even more immobile than before. I arrive at work to find the place reeks of carpet glue and the usual collection of weirdoes are writing and telephoning me, and I want to hide. I want to cry. I really do want to cry.

I want to be able to draw a line on the page that I shape, not my f***ing raspberry rippled hand; I want to be able to draw a line through the air with my fingertips, too; and to be able to open a screw top jar by myself. Oh gods, I want to weep; everything is still so difficult, and there is such a mountain ahead of me still to climb.

I will come through today, and the next day; I know this, rationally. I wish I had a little more strength to go and actually do it, though.

Plenty of people (Lance Armstrong, Amitabh Bhachchan, Alina Cojocaru, at least half the England cricket team, to name but a handful...) have come back from far worse injuries or health problems than this. I am being a total wimp. I am gutless and have no self-discipline. And I went to Rooster Cockburn's Masochism School. Please feel free to ignore me until I get my act together again.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Another little bit of progress...

I actually had enough energy yesterday evening to do some typing after work. I no longer have to type completely one-handed - I can now use the side of the middle finger on my right hand as well. This speeds things up considerably. There is a downside, unfortunately; I've got so used to typing with my left hand only that my bilateral thinking is a little askew, and I find some very odd spelling errors appearing as the two hands sometimes get out of synch with one another. Thus "cosnitsnet" for "consistent" and "etdnecyn" for "tendency".

I rather like "cosnitsnet", actually; wonder if I can find a use for that one? If it were "cosnitset" it might be something statistical...

Anyway, I turned on the old laptop, opened up one of the Works in Progress, and moved things on a little. I had been thinking about "Fortitude" and it had occured to me that one other character was as important as the three I had been forgrounding, and that he needed to be a pov character. But he was being sidelined - as things stood Iain Siward's lawyer got more "screen time" than him. So I have left Iain & co chugging through space and gone to see how James Fairlight is coping. And he is having a rough time; aliens who meddle with your brain (not from sadism but because they are trying to figure out how your species communicates when, bewilderingly, you appear not to be telepathic) are pretty hard to cope with. So it was an interesting evening's writing.

Monday, 1 February 2010

I make progress...

On Friday my cast came off!! Hurrah, free at last, free, free...

Actually, while I may be technically free, my right forearm is almost completely immobile, and my wrist is aching more than it has done in weeks. But the wretched, chafing, clunking, bally great cast is off. Gone. Kaput.

I have a Fortuna splint, but have been advised not to use it more than is absolutely essential. I'm practising gently pivoting my arm through the limited degrees of the circle that it will cover (about 55 degrees out of the usual 355 or so) and waggling it back and forth through the roughly 35 degrees (out of the normal 170-ish) that it will flex laterally. And still doing my tendon exercises. And hoping for the best.

At least I'm now allowed to lift small items. I can raise an apple to my mouth! - though once there, I have to move my mouth round the apple rather than turning the apple about in front of the mouth. Still, this is progress. But it is bizarre to reflect that the wrist is in normal circumstances one of the most flexible joints in the human body. It sticks out, this limb of mine, a frail flipper, swollen and nobbly, its scant remaining muscles floppy with weakness, its pallid skin dry and pimpled. Down the soft fleshy side runs a dramatic scar, pinkly puckered, rigid and tender. But free, free, free...

The best moment was when the consultant held out his pinkie finger to me, as one would to a baby, and said "Will you hold my finger, please?" I reached up and gave it a good squeeze, and he beamed; "Excellent grip, well done!" So the creepy-looking finger exercises have paid off. I'm not used to going around squeezing strange men's fingers...

Friday afternoon, when I got out of the hospital at last, I took a train down to my mum's in Kent, feeling rather shell-shocked, and spent most of the rest of the weekend sleeping on her sofa while the heavy white frost fell in the garden. Now I'm back at work, and back discovering what I can and can't do; all of which has subtley but definitely changed from when I had the cast. I am slower at getting dressed, for instance, but I can now walk briskly without jolting myself painfully. It will be a long time before I go dancing again, though. But by Thursday when I go to the Festival Hall to hear the Bartok "Concerto for Orchestra", I just might be able to applaud, at least softly, at least for a few seconds, in the normal way, instead of thrashing my left leg resoundingly. Which feels quite as weird (and painful), and looks just as kinky, as it sounds.

Plenty of great sportsmen have made full recoveries from worse injuries, as has Favourite Baritone, and as have innumerable dancers. Now I get to share what thay have been through.

And there are more snowdrops out at work. Progress all round; every day, and every experience, a new piece of the richness of life to savour.