Friday, 25 February 2011

Die Zauberflöte, and TG it's Friday

It's Friday, yay! (in case you haven't noticed). I'm going to try and do my grocery shopping tonight, so I can take advatage of this milder weather and do a bit more pruning on Saturday, and just enjoy my crocuses, my handful of snowdrops and solitary daffodil, as well as all the birds singing and feeding and beginning to think Spring. But first, I never did get around to reviewing “Die Zauberflöte” on Tuesday; and it’s Friday already. I’ll try to do it briefly now, while I sit eating this slightly bizarre lunch of a chutney-and-potato-salad sandwich (end of the week fare if ever I saw it).

It’s a production I’ve seen before, a couple of times, and I also have a Dvd of the first run. The Dvd was filmed just after Favourite Baritone fell through the stage at a rehearsal and smashed himself up good’n’proper – by the middle of Act 2 you can tell he’s in pain, but he soldiers on, acting his socks off and singing like an angel right to the end. He’s certainly the star of the show, for sheer heroism as well as his superb performance; which is saying something, in a cast that also features Dorothea Röschmann’s luscious Pamina, not to mention Franz-Josef Selig as Sarastro and Diana Damrau as a fearsome Queen of Night. The one weak link is the character who is a bit of a weak link anyway, namely the Tamino. I can’t even remember the singer’s name; he was dry-voiced, and he couldn’t act, and consequently made very little impression.

Tamino can’t be an easy character to play. He can very quickly seem a bit of a bore, and a not-very-bright one at that; one doesn’t instantly recognise a hero in this bland stuffed shirt prince, and Sarastro’s insistence that “Noch mer, er ist Mensch” can sound a little desperate. I’ve never seen a good Tamino (until now), certainly not one I’d call a mensch, and have always wondered if I’d respond differently to the whole piece if he could hold his own as a character beside Papageno and Pamina, who are so real and full of life and feeling.

Well, now I know he can. Joseph Kaiser is blessed with an expressive, attractive voice - not flawless, but warm and sweet, and big enough to sound healthily gutsy; he makes a lovely job of “Dies Bildnis”; he’s tall and very presentable, too, and he can act. Result? – for the first time ever I believed in Tamino; I liked him and was convinced by him. Suddenly he was no dull prig but a real man, brave and open, easily misled because he has been sheltered, not because he’s dim; genuinely scared, genuinely learning and growing; falling in love, facing fear and change and responsibility, and learning the depths of what being royal, in an inner sense as well as a worldly one, means. I rooted for him; I wanted him to do right, and to get the girl.

“Die Zauberflöte” can be seen as proposing two alternative philosophies of how to live; the way of the Pure Quest, and the way of the Full Life. Tamino and Pamina choose the Pure Quest, the spiritual rigour of the Initiates, and Papageno takes the other path, engaging completely with real life and turning his back on the binary world view, the whole idea of the “pure” and “impure”. I’ve always tended to side with Papageno; to think “Why would anyone in their right mind choose to go through all this fear and struggle, and be tested this hard? - even to having to reject the one you love, having to break their heart and act as if you don’t care - all to show your obedience to laws you don’t even know, much less understand?”

I realise this tells me that Papageno’s way is the way for me; oh yes, definitely the Full Life for me, gut glas wein, Ich bin ein Natürmensch and all. But it was good to see the Pure Quest seem credible instead of baffling; and it was good, just for once, to be glad Pamina falls for Tamino, instead of thinking “That lass has no taste in men!”

In this revival, the production is perhaps tending a little more to the warm-hearted and comic, but there’s room for plenty of laughter without masking the depths, here, after all. Christopher Maltman may not have Favourite Baritone’s astonishingly subtle acting skills, or quite his rich delicacy of voice (Favourite B’s voice still gives me goosebumps), but he was an honest, warm, charming Papageno. The stand-in Queen of Night sounded tense. Franz-Josef Selig returned to Sarastro and was in lustrous voice; he may be built like a wardrobe but he sings like a demi-god, and conveys the required air of lordly gravity without pomposity (& I’ve seen a pompous Sarastro or two…). The three boys were terrific. The sets still look lovely. The choruses were moving and the orchestra were in good form.

In short, it was everything I’d hoped for, when I asked Jane if she’d like to come to the opera; a lovely evening, both heart-warming fun and quietly thought-provoking, just as a good Magic Flute should be.

And Baby Bro has decided to intermit for a year from his degree; so he can concentrate on getting well again, and we can all stop worrying about him.

Looking forward to the weekend, though I'm sorry it doesn't include any more parties. But what with the garden, "Ramundi's Sisters", and cooking, plus "Parsifal" on Sunday afternoon, I think I'll be busy enough. Have a good one, everyone!

Thursday, 24 February 2011

More writing difficulties... and a daff

I went on with the writing yesterday evening; got through the next scene okay, then got bogged down again. I want to yell at it, but know this wouldn't help. I have committed one of the classic beginner's bad-writing errors, right at the end of the story, and I have to sort it out.

The characters do what I had decided the plot required, rather than what real people would do in their situation. Ah, horsehit and a pile of it, to quote Rhodry Maelwaedd. I have to completely rewrite the last two scenes. Sorry, this may take a few days, and I have to resist the distraction urge meanwhile ("Why not make a start on those short stories again?" "Why not put on a U2 album and draw?" "Why not make muffins?"...).

Never mind; it will get there, in its own good time. Meanwhile, the first real daffodil is out in my garden. Kew has quite a lot of them by now, of course, but I'm a lot more proud of my own personal one.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Writing difficulties

I’ve been feeling rather dopey today after being up till after midnight, writing and rewriting something that simply wasn’t working; a love scene. Gods, I hate love scenes!

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve no objection to being involved in a love scene (¡ojala que sea!)! But writing them is another matter. It is, to be blunt, bl**dy difficult stuff. I’d rather write about any amount of things I’ve never seen or experienced (what’s research for, after all?), I’d rather kill off a major character (been there, done that, easy-peasey), than have to describe two people making love. It’s not that I’m not particularly prudish; I am irritated by the way so many love scenes are either coyly sugary or jarringly (and gigglily) explicit, and frequently out of keeping with the rest of the writing as well. But trying to write a love scene that is true to the characters involved and is honest about what’s going on, but without being either fluffy or embarrassing, is really tough.

I’ve been working lately on typing up and revising something called “Ramundi’s Sisters”, which was first written a good long while ago. It needs a deal of revision in places, as some of it is dreadfully purple. I’m almost at the end now, and the last chapter needs more work than anything else. It has three tricky scenes between two of the protagonists, which are meant to bring their relationship to a natural conclusion. The first of these scenes is the love scene I was struggling with last night. It isn’t particularly intense, in fact all they do is kiss. But the characters in question have each been carrying a torch for the other for a long time; they are both very fired up, and very awkward, with one another. There’s also the fact they are both good Catholics, and it’s 1927, so nothing particularly vigorous is going to happen, but it is going to seem absolutely momentous to them.

The original version was desperately overwrought. I struck a line through it last night and started again from scratch. Version 2a read like Barbara Cartland on hallucinogenic drugs; version 2b, like Barbara Cartland trying to write porn. 2c isn't too bad; tighter and shorter, with almost all the adjectives chopped off. When I went to bed, I was feeling quite happy about it. But I may re-read it tonight and think "Oh no!"

I've also finally managed to put right a couple of the points when the narrative point of view shifts mid-scene from one person to another. This is very sloppy writing, technically speaking, but I had not been able to see my way through to how to handle the narrative from just one PoV at these particular points. When struggling with something tricky, like the aforementioned clinch, the mind springs up with distractions. Ironing and filing begin to seem appealing. I think "Hey, why don't I set up a still-life with the fruit bowl and the guitar and some glasses, and draw instead?" I get up to change the cd, to make tea, to dance to the cd (I was writing to early Bill Nelson, very danceable stuff)... So I made myself go back to these other revisions, instead; when stuck on something tough, try something else tough. There, now the first problem doesn't seem quite so isolatedly awful! It worked rather well; by midnight I had solved two of the PoV glitches and typed up version 2c of the kiss.

Off to see "The Magic Flute" tonight with my stepmum. By the time I get home there'll just be time to open up the file, look at version 2c, and scream... and then start again.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Weary of lying alone...

This is a little story about a subject that is on my mind today; not letting things fade and go to waste...

Years ago, just after I’d stopped working as a chef, I had a summer job for a couple of weeks cooking for some wealthy friends-of-friends while they were on holiday (in a borrowed country house - they were seriously monied). I got to cook all my favourite show-off food for an appreciative audience, I had bed and board provided, I got to look after the chickens and ducks, and I was very well-paid. At the end of the fortnight they also gave me a bottle of rather posh wine as a little thank-you present, telling me it would probably be better for “a couple more years waiting”.

Wine that benefits from being laid down is pretty damned posh by my standards so I decided to keep it for a special occasion; but no particularly special ones arrived, and then I had to move to my mother’s place for a spell, when I became a student again, and the posh bottle went with me; it ended up in the back of a cupboard and was forgotten about.

A few months ago, she was doing some turning out and found it, and I brought it up to London. I wondered if it was still any good, but there was only one way to find out. On Friday evening, tired and hassled after a fairly argy-bargy-ified week, I drew the cork and poured myself a glass of beautiful, garnet-coloured well-aged Posh Wine.

It was corked. It tasted absolutely vile. I poured the lot down the sink and rinsed my mouth with good old London tap water.

I’d also been keeping a bottle of Moschato, a Greek dessert wine from Samos that to me is one of The tastes of Greek island holidays. I’d bought this three and a half years ago, at a point when I expected to be sharing it with a particular someone, on another of those mythical special occasions, fairly soon. The someone in fact moved out of my life fairly soon after, and the special occasion never arose. On Friday, with the foul taste of the spoiled wine vivid on my tongue, I opened the Moschato in a panic. Supposing it too was ruined?

It wasn’t; it was fabulous, if a little on the rich side to go with an omelette and a green salad.

Thank goodness I hadn’t opened the old posh bottle on a special occasion lately! Thank goodness too that I opened and enjoyed my Samos wine while it was still good. For how often I have waited and how much I have stored up, waiting for that special occasion. Food, clothes, opportunities, gift vouchers, chances to do something or see someone; all of them in their time I have stored too long, waited too long to use, and then lost, because the waistline expanded, the voucher expired, the food went stale and the loved one died, or moved far away, or blew me out…

Saturday night I was at a performance of “Das Lied von der Erde”, which just reinforced this mood. The spring of my life has passed, and I’m weary of lying alone, and altogether mein herz ist müde

“There's a neat sweet little flower in this garden alongside me.
Take it away, sure it's all but your own,
For the flower it will fade and so also will the maid,
Though she's weary of lying alone, alone,
She is weary of lying alone.”

After the concert, I went on to a birthday party. It was a lively gathering of good friends, at a rather pricey bar, and gods be thanked in no time I had all the fun and laughter I needed to stop me thinking mein herz was müde, and even met a very nice man who I would love to see again…

Well, who can ever tell, from minute to minute, what will come next? Crossing Waterloo Bridge I had felt as if I lay in the bruised heart of melancholy, and would lie there forever. Half an hour later I was drinking cider and laughing uproariously, snatching and treasuring the moment of joy, once again, the life and the light of life, and trying to shout over the sound system to a bloke who looked like a skinny version of Liam Neeson in glasses. You never can tell.

You can never tell; but don’t store all the wine for a special occasion, for the special occasion is now, today and this very minute.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Tea-stains and drama queens

Oof, it's been a hectic Friday.

I'm not quite sure why, but we've had a solid streamm of bizarre enquiries coming in to the office - the sort where one puts the 'phone down and says "God, poor woman!", and the sort where one puts the 'phone down and says "Good grief, what a weird question!", in about equal quantities. We're short-staffed, and it has all seemed a bit frantic at times.

To add to this, first thing this morning I had a message from my stepmum saying Baby Bro had been admitted to hospital with something gone wrong following his recent kidney op - it later turned out he was okay, but it gave us all a couple of hours worrying. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was panicking unecessarily after waking up in pain. It's not actually that unnatural a reaction, when you think about it, but apparently this is par for the course; it's going to happen for the next few weeks and he is just going to have to put up with it. Lucky lad; not only in pain but having the casualty doctor imply he's a drama queen as well... I bet he enjoyed that. NOT.

Have made an interesting discovery, after making a cup of tea in a hurry without washing my mug (yes, I know that's disgusting). The previous cup of tea had been ordinary black china tea - I never have milk (why spoil good tea?) - and I shoved a cranberry tea bag in on top and added the boiling water.

By the time I came to drink it, the tannin stains from the China tea, which normally require plenty of soap and scrubbing to shift, had almost completely vanished. One is always reading about the acidic properties of fruit-based herbal teas, and I think I may have just demonstrated it (& then drunk the evidence - ooh, lovely, tasty tannins, delicious...). Another Science Experiment You Can Eat, perhaps?

But at least the sun shone and the crocuses and snowdrops, and the very first daffodils, are looking beautiful... It's possibly my favourite time of year - from Imbolc to Beltane, the Wakening Quarter.

Monday, 14 February 2011

A good weekend

On Friday we bade goodbye to my line manager Curlywoman; blast. I liked Curlywoman and she was a good boss, but she’s got a “dream job” selling hotel bookings - her idea of a dream job, not mine! – and in the end you can’t blame someone for pursuing their dream job. We all had a good evening at The Botanist, one of the local pubs, and I made the most of feeling okay again after my gyppy tum of earlier in the week. Many jokes were told, a fair number of glasses of wine were drunk, a lot of nachos and chips were eaten, poems were read, I bought a drink for someone I barely know because I thought she looked sad (only to find she looked sad because she was Very Very Drunk and feeling ill) and one of the Press Office suddenly cornered me with a barrage of questions about why-are-you-still-single-Imogen, to which I couldn’t give a satisfactory answer, largely because I don’t have one.

Got home at midnight, slightly tipsy despite having been sensible and had plenty of fruit juice as well as nice Aussie plonk. Dan v amused – “I’ve never seen you drunk before!” – I think he had a picture of me as a sober, wholefood-eating, sketchbook-wielding yoghurt-weaving type who never lets her hair down even a teensy bit...

Saturday – posted a birthday present, sent “Gabriel Yeats” off to the third agent on my list, fixed a problem with my rent payments, bought groceries, ran the washing machine, tidied and weeded in the garden, typed up some more of “Ramundi’s Sisters”, made cauliflower cheese, and watched a lovely sentimental movie.

Sunday – sorted out a lot of stuff, cleaned and tidied my bedside cabinet and my desk, typed up a lot more of “Ramundi’s Sisters” and dealt with a tricky revision, made braised quorn with lemon and herbs, and watched the last part of “Lark Rise to Candleford” (largely to report on it to my mum, who was out and whose video is out of action) and the latest episode of “Being Human”; then to wind down after that I finished another of the "back burner" project summaries, and started yet another. It took a while to wind down, truth to tell, as “Being Human” was a cracking good episode, funny and touching and thoroughly scary. When they get the balance right, they have a lovely little series there...

Typing and revising doesn’t leave anything concrete behind, the way working in the garden does, but it is very satisfying to see the pile of dog-eared manuscript getting smaller, and the size of the typed file getting bigger. I’ve got to the last section of “Ramundi’s Sisters”, I’ve reached 1927, and I’m just five scenes away from the end of the story.

Then I’ll need to re-read the whole thing, clean up typos I’ve missed, decide how much further revision it needs, and finally try sending it to the first agent I sent “Gabriel Yeats” to, since she did say that if I had anything more mainstream she’d like to see it. I’d be a fool if I passed up on an offer like that; as a tyro writer, I’m incredibly lucky to have that chance of further attention.

“Ramundi’s Sisters” is a different kettle of fish from “Gabriel Yeats” in many ways. I guess it is still magical realism, though; but it is at the end of the spectrum that has relatively little magic proportional to realism – “Gabriel Yeats” is right at the magic end, and possibly a little off it - the deep end, that is - as well. The other major thing they have in common is that they are both very romantic. It’s perhaps an embarrassing admission, but clearly I still Believe In Love.

Perhaps an even more embarrassing admission today. This Feb 14th I have had, for the twelfth year in a row, no Valentine cards. The frenzied month-long promotion of Valentine’s Day does get a little grating when one is long-term single; the only good thing about it was seeing the flower stalls I pass on my way into work, all packed with extra flowers today.

Finally, and I know this is a bit of an odd segue, but here’s Mr Orchid Nursery himself, telling you how to trim and repot your Phalaenopsis. A few nice shots of the interior of the Orchid Nursery (& a lot of footage of Mr O. Nursery’s hands – perfectly nice hands, I hasten to add, but the orchids are better).

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Been off, come back...

I've just come back to work today after three days off with a suspected case of the infamous winter norovirus, ugh. You don't want the details, it's a miserable condition, though luckily fairly quick to pass. It was either that or food poisoning (I did have a takeaway on friday night).

Have spent today trying to sort out sensible things at work and making sure I had a proper lunch break. Went for a walk in the rain and appreciated the sweet smells of eary spring - snowdrops, Chimonanthus, winter honeysuckle, damp pine needles... The big displays of orchids and bromeliads in the Princess of Wales Conservatory look wonderful. The rainy dusk is calling me home now, though; home to eat some nice wholesome boiled rice and steamed veg.

Rambling wearily; I'm off...

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Trop-Ex takes shape!

There’s a time-lapse film of one of the big displays for this year’s Kew Tropical Extravaganza on YouTube now:

I like these things; they give one a taste of the display and an idea of how much work is involved; and when they’re filmed at Kew I can play is-that-so-and-so? guessing games as well, as the figures flicker into sight and out again.

We also had a staff talk from the Director today – as ever, well-worth attending, but oh what a soporific room the Jodrell Lab’s big lecture theatre is! It’s a warm, unventilated space to begin with, and with 250-odd staff packed in it rapidly becomes seriously stuffy and humid. Prof Hopper is an interesting bloke and he had plenty to talk about, but I was having to scratch the palms of my hands to stay awake. At one point I was looking surreptitiously around for people I recognised, only to find myself watching my favourite choirmaster in the row in front as he fought to keep his eyes open, too… It’s one thing to nod off in a boring lecture, but really maddening when one isn’t bored and does want to hear everything.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Darkness and light at Imbolc

Today is Imbolc, or Candlemas (or Groundhog Day if you’re in the US). The midway point between the midwinter solstice and the spring equinox; the moment when with the approach of earliest spring, the growing light begins to be visible. True to that expectation, as I look out of the office window I can still see the Green outside in the lowering, dank dusk. It’s literally only in the last few days that there has still been partial daylight at 5pm. Home by daylight; it’s a treat and a comfort, after winter’s cold darkness.

Various traditional sayings tell us that a sunny Candlemas is a sure sign of another blast of winter weather to come. But today has been grey and damp, and that is supposed to mean spring will now find the way clear. Hurrah! Winter seemed to start horribly early last year and I am thoroughly tired of it now, and itching to see my first daffodil.

I know, rationally as spiritually, that darkness is something we cannot do without. Joan Aiken expressed it beautifully in one of her short stories. A foolish king, thinking the dark is worthless, sells all the darkness in his kingdom for some fancy prize or other, but finds that without it life is a living hell; his courageous daughter and her horse have to steal a seedling of night from the edge of the world to save the kingdom.

I know both literal and metaphoric dark are essential, fundamental, necessary parts of life. Just as death is. I look back on dark times in my own life, and know that these were necessary, too. I look at friends’ and strangers’ troubles and know that although I’ll do what I can to ease them, if I can, still they have to go through the dark too, just as we all have done, all have had to do. The dark is essential for growth – some seeds will not germinate unless they have a spell of dark and cold. The dark is as much a symbol of Goddess and God as the light. And I am not afraid of it.

But I still wince and toil through winter with my head bowed, and right from November onwards there’s always a secret wish in my heart for the next couple of months to pass quickly.

And now the dark is passing, and spring is coming again, as the wheel turns. Blessed be!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

I've joined the Kew Press Office...

…at least for twenty minutes.

It’s always interesting to get a chance to dip a toe into something new, and I like variety in my work. It’s one of the reasons I like my job, where every day can bring something new to deal with or something odd to sort out. Today I got asked to be a stand-in press office member for a brief spell; the PR team all had to go into a meeting and one of them was meant to be meeting a photographer from the local paper, the Richmond and Twickenham Times. She came scuttling into the Info office and asked if one of us would meet and escort this character to the Princess of Wales Conservatory, to photograph the setting-up of the Tropical Extravaganza (yes, it’s February; it's Trop-Ex time again already).

I stuck my hand up, of course, and half an hour later found myself taking a friendly woman with a huge case of photographic equipment over to the PoWC in the rain. Yesterday was a glorious day, bitingly cold but with sunshine and a brilliant blue sky, but today is grey and damp and drizzly. Such a pity, from the photographer’s point of view; the light is soft and muted and flat, where yesterday it was bright and full of high contrasts.

But the PoWC is looking gorgeous. They’ve finished the pillar displays, with massed orchids and bromeliads encircling each of the big roof supports; the decorated archways in the upper walkway are almost done, and they’ve just started on a series of giant hanging baskets with anthuriums and hybrid phalaenopsis in great bowls of colour. A display in the big pool, recreating an epiphyte-smothered tree trunk in the Amazon, is beginning to look realistic (yesterday it looked like a large metal framework with a few tufts of greenery tied on...).

I prattled about nothing much (small talk is not my strength) and managed to hand my charge over quickly to Mr Orchid Nursery, as she wanted to photograph a Kew person and I was determined not to get caught up in that (Mr O. N. promptly dashed off to look for someone else, so I’m guessing he doesn’t want to be on the cover of the Rich & Twick either).

The progress since yesterday is impressive. Getting Trop-Ex set up is a major undertaking and every year they manage to surpass themselves with the displays. This year, as well as the main display, which basically concentrates on lavish massed colour and show, there’s also a smaller display about rainforest conservation, with recreations of banana and coffee plantations and a mock-up of an area that has been subjected to slash-and-burn clearance (this, as you can imagine, is pretty drastic-looking in the middle of Kew). Signs in this area will plug the “Adopt a seed” programme to raise support (& hopefully funds) for the Millennium Seed Bank, and promote sustainable produce such as shade-grown organic coffee.

It looks like another winner… Now I just have to pin my folks down to visit.