Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Not a good place...

I officially start my new role tomorrow; and I've got a stinking head cold.  I feel grotty.  I know it's only a cold, nothing serious.  But I am stuffy-nosed and sore-throated, and terribly tired, and the front of my face aches.  Miserable condition; and not the way one wants to be when about to start a new job. 

I try to console myself, in my lunch break, with planning my May holiday.  I haven't yet booked any time off, but I can still day dream about going back to Crete, or back to Paxos, or that peculiar place on the north coast of Lesvos where there was nothing but a huge black sand beach and a few tavernas...   Outside the office window now a fine white sleet is drifting on the wind, and the thought of the sunlit mountains and shining seas of Hellas comforts me as I resign myself to February in England. 

Friday, 27 January 2012


Yesterday I got offered a new job.  Our department is being restructured slightly and everything has been a bit hassled and chaotic for the last few months while this was sorted-out and negotiated.  There were some glitches at an HR level, which needless to say did not speed things up, and all in all it's been an unpleasantly stressful patch.  But I think everything is now ironed out, and I get a new role out of it.

From February the first I will be working in what's known as Travel Trade, i.e. running group bookings.  It's an area I've covered some aspects of, and I'm looking forward to getting my teeth into it properly.  The job carries a slightly better salary and slightly more responsibility, too, which is pleasing.

I just wish the process of getting to this hadn't been a tad protracted.  I am more tired than I would like, going into a new job.  It would be so much better to be full of energy and as keen as mustard...

Mind you, I'm always tired in January.  I think perhaps I have a mild form of SAD, for I always spend a couple of months every winter simply longing for spring.  As it is I would really love to have a week off in February or March, but I feel I can't really since I'll be learning the new role.  Maybe by April I can take a break; I'm owed seven days of annual leave and in fact there are relatively few gaps where I can use it up....

There are masses of snowdrops out at Kew at the moment, as well as a sprinkling of crocuses and wonderful Schiapparelli-pink Cyclamen coum.  Today was cold but bright, but it has clouded over this evening and is now grey and dank-looking.  well, it is still winter, after all.  But the cyclamen are beautiful...

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Two guys named Ed

When I was at school, I was a great disappointment to all the people (i.e. my parents and my school teachers) who thought Bright Kids Go Far.  I didn’t go far.  I dithered and didn’t know where I wanted to go, and I would only work hard if I enjoyed something (I then worked like a nutcase, to the exclusion of all other interests - this hasn’t exactly changed, come to think of it).  I had the good brain, but my ideas of what I wanted to do with it weren’t considered much cop, and I soon learned to stop expressing them, since having them dismissed as ridiculous and unrealistic was pretty crushing.  So I was told I ought to go to A Very Good University and I would have a Brilliant Academic Career; and I had nothing much to say in response except “well, okay, I guess so.” 

Looking back, I marvel that no-one ever seems to have had any doubts about my suitability for a Brilliant Academic Career.   I suppose they were waiting for me to say something; but the only other thing I had to say (“I’d rather do something creative”) had already been comprehensively dismissed.  I had nowhere near enough confidence to fight for myself or for my vague and frightened dreams.  I acquiesced; and then rebelled passively by not working.

There was a lad at my primary school, the son of some neighbours, who wrote very good poetry, and read voraciously, and who did work hard.  Very hard.  He went on to go to the boys’ grammar school down the road from my girls’ grammar, and he went on working very hard.  His name was Ed, and I was regularly told I ought to be more like him.  I wished I were more like him; I wished I were capable of it.  He had all the drive and motivation I lacked.  He really wanted to go to Oxford and to be one of those people who choose their college very carefully because they are going to spend the rest of their life there.  Ed was academically gifted, he worked constantly, his creative writing got published, at seventeen he sang in a pub band; he looked like a hawk and he was going to go far. 

As far as everyone but me was concerned, I was meant to be like that.  I didn’t want it, but I knew I was meant to.  It wasn’t a comfortable position to be in.

In the sixth form, one of my best friends, Sísí, left our school and went to the local public school for two years.  Through Sísí I met some of her classmates; some of them were alright, some were ghastly, and every one of them had more confidence than me.  Oh well, that’s life.  Among them was an extremely ornamental lad called Tom who was the youngest of four brothers.  He was tall and slim with prominent cheekbones and a shock of dark hair, and because he was so gorgeous I was too terrified even to speak in his presence. 

His nearest brother, a year older than him, was another boy called Ed. 

This Ed was nowhere near so attractive – he was tall and dark, yes, but skinny and speccy and with sticky-out ears – and I was consequently just about able to speak to him.  He seemed a nice bloke.  But as far as Sísí and her friends were concerned, and as far as my family were concerned, he was just a tiny bit beyond the pale, because he had dropped out of school.  His parents had supported him, too, which my parents found shocking.  He had dropped out, and become apprenticed to a potter.

I envied him so much it hurt.  I knew I wasn’t meant to want what he had, but I really, really wanted it – not precisely to be a potter, but to be out of the nightmare race of academic success and failure, and constant comparisons, and being-a-disappointment; out of school, and into a life that made something.

I left school at eighteen, with bad A’levels, and I muddled through, and had some interesting experiences and some less interesting ones.  I learned to cook, and worked as a chef for a couple of years.  I discovered the joys of travel.  I kipped on friends’ sofas.  I got stuck on unemployment benefit a couple of times, and did some pretty rock-bottom things to get myself off it.  Eventually in my late twenties I began to accept that I needed to have a go at doing what I really wanted, and that I had the right and the responsibility to try, and if need be to fail, on my own terms.  So I quit a boring but sensible job in a book shop and went to art school.  I didn’t “make it” as an artist, but I had a fascinating time; I now have a life I am pretty happy with, and I have no regrets at all about that bookshop job.

The first Ed did go to Oxford.  He was a brilliant student, but then he had a series of breakdowns.  He went on doing creative writing, and song-writing, and he took antidepressants that made him put on weight and caused his hair to fall out.  He battled on, and did his best, and then in the end he took his own life. 

The second Ed did become a potter.  A very successful potter.  Then he became a writer; a very successful writer.  I’ve just finished reading his first book, and it’s good - this is one of those exhilarating occasions when a book that has been greatly praised lives up to the hype.  I look at the author picture on the jacket, and he hasn’t changed much.  I doubt if he remembers me, his kid brother’s schoolmate’s former best friend from her previous school.  It’s hardly likely to have been a memorable encounter, when you look at it that way.

So the Ed I was meant to aspire to be like is dead, and the Ed who I was told had done something rather infra dig lives and thrives, and his work is good, and is known and recognised as such; and I cannot for the life of me tell why one path led where it did and the other led where it did.

 I suppose the moral of this story is carpe diem.  Pues su vida es efemera...

Friday, 20 January 2012

Is being a romantic a sign of a weak mind? Discuss.

I should say straight away that my reaction to this question is an instant, and indignant, “No!” – but then it would be, because I am a romantic. I am a hopeless romantic; not so much in the sense of dreaming I’m going to meet Mr Right (although I wouldn’t complain at all if I were to bump into him some sunny day, at the London Wetland Centre, say!) as in the sense that I am determined never to become hardened inside into a complete cynic.

I still believe in human nature, and the human capacity to choose to do good, to be kind, show hope and compassion and put the past behind one.  I still believe in love, friendship and loyalty.  I do not think we are all going to the dogs; and I am depressed by those who do.

If we were all going to the dogs, and the world were really nothing but a bottomless pit, where the wisest seals gambol in piles of sh*t, as Alfred de Musset put it so charmingly (okay, I’m both translating and paraphrasing there, but you get the idea), then John McCarthy, Terry Waite, Terry Anderson and Brian Keenan would all have died in captivity - and Nelson Mandela too, for that matter.  The Good Friday Agreement would never have been signed.  The Old City of Dubrovnik and the Great Bridge at Mostar would still lie in ruins.  God knows the world is imperfect, and human character desperately flawed, but good things do happen, and to ignore them or dismiss them as inconsequential is bitterly cynical, and fundamentally false. 

Life is too complicated for everything to be terrible, after all.  “It’s all going to the dogs” is just as much of a crude oversimplification as “Everything’s good and everyone’s happy!” 

I’m prompted to these rather banal reflections by my enjoyment of a new television series called “Eternal Law”.  It’s a fantasy, and it is profoundly romantic.  The premise, at least as explained so far, is that angels are being sent down to earth, all the time; they take human form and try to help humankind at times of personal need.  The main focus of the series is on two angels who have become lawyers in York, and the people they encounter through their work.  The cast is excellent, the story arc is batty but interesting, there is a basic internal logic (most of the time, at least) and a complicated but touching love story going on; and the ancient city of York is beautiful.

The TV critics have mostly hated it, right from the outset.  I don’t think they can handle its complete lack of cynicism.  The only character they all like is the unpleasant one; yet I’m sure none of them would like him if they met him in real life – he’s a bastard.  It’s a very clever piece of acting, true, but dear me, give me the angels any day!  The actors playing them (Ukweli Roach and the ever-watchable Sam West) are also both giving very good performances, and in much trickier roles – making virtue interesting cannot be easy, much less a character who wants to rebel and indulge himself and chooses not to do so - because he believes it would be wrong.  Good grief, he's got morals, no less...

Mind you, they do indulge a bit; it appears that angels are immune to the ill-effects of drinking and smoking, and our two heroes drink like fish and smoke like smouldering banksias.  On top of York Minster, no less.

Given that this is written by the team who came up with “Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes”, both of which sprang the odd twist on us, the eager viewers, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if things didn’t take the odd twist here, too.  I have some theories, which range from the tear-jerkingly soppy to the unsettlingly cynical (I’m not immune, I’m only human!).  But I’m enjoying it far too much to do anything but wait and see what happens.  And thank the gods that someone is prepared to make, and some other someones are prepared to act in, a story this romantic.

Okay - now I'm off to have supper with friends; to lament our woes, celebrate our joys, plan creative activities, and drink too much.  But not on top of York Minster. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Technical problems...

I finished typing up Fairy Story No1 last night (& started on typing up Fairy Story No2, as well as writing a bit more of Fairy Story No3) and put it on a floppy disc.  Brought it into work, together with the Lovely Bit of Kit.  But I just tried to open the file on the disc, using the Bit of Kit, and got a message box saying "Hi there, I need to reformat this disc".  Clicked "yes, go ahead".  Got a green counting-bar thing.  Then another message saying "By the way, reformatting will delete everything on the disc.  Still sure you want to do this, chump?"

Clicked "No".  Sighed.  Unplugged everything and put it all back in my bag.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the fairy stories, mind you; they aren't suitable for children, really, but aren't adult enough to be for adults, either.  Something is seriously askew in my marketing strategy if I'm writing for a non-existent market... 

Oh well.  Tonight I'll try putting the text on a different disc and see if that goes down any better.  After I get back from hearing Jonathan Biss playing Janacek at the Queen Elizabeth hall...

Monday, 16 January 2012

Good weekend

It was a bitterly cold weekend – all the bold little crocuses that had come through six weeks early have been felled by the frost, and the nuts in my birdfeeder have begun to go down much faster than usual.  I did my grocery shopping, and some cleaning, and some washing, and repotted a plant, on Saturday, and then on Sunday I closeted myself with tea and a chocolate-coated rice-crispie cake, and the radio, and wrote.  Bliss.  I had a breakthrough on one of the fairy stories; I realised the King had to be a major character, since another of the major characters is going to end up married to him – or rather already is married to him, except that at the moment he doesn’t know it (it’s complicated).  Yes, of course there’s a King – this is fairy-tale-land, after all. 

I wrote and wrote and wrote; the BBC National Orchestra of Wales played the Lalo Cello concerto and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, and there was a lovely Choral Evensong recorded in Tewkesbury Abbey.  Then the radio got talky, and I reverted to my cd collection, and had myself a little two-man lieder recital featuring Favourite Baritone singing Schumann, and Roderick Williams singing Vaughan Williams...  then followed that up with Joshua Bell and Edgar Meyer playing bluegrass, and Iarla O’Lionnard singing unaccompanied Irish traditional music.   And I wrote, wrote, wrote. 

Wound down at last with a bit of typing-up, a curry, and an early night.  The only problem with a day spent so happily is that I have to come into work the next day and earn my living, when all I want to do is take Hierra and Sir Robert, and King Juan, and the stroppy horse, on to their next adventure. 

Thursday, 12 January 2012


I am enjoying myself in the evenings at the moment; I’ve begun typing up one of my fairy tales, and when that is finished there’s another one ready to type up and a third on its way.  I have no idea what to do with them when they’re done, but I suppose I can always send them to friends to make them laugh...

The interesting thing about typing-up is that it is becoming rather a favourite activity of mine.  It is easier than original first draft writing and not as painful as revision (especially third or fourth revisions!).  But it’s still an essential element of writing anything; if it wasn’t written on a computer to begin with, it will have to be typed up at some point.  So it is both creative and relaxing. 

At the moment I’m getting home from work each night, cooking some supper, checking if there is anything I want to watch on television later, and then typing up until the start of the programme if so.  In theory after my dose of tv I then go to bed early – this was one of my resolutions for January – but in practice the siren call of typing is drowning the voice of common sense, and I am tending to go back to the laptop and get stuck in again.  Then the next thing I know it is nearly midnight, and my supposed early night is nothing of the sort.  Even then I have to make myself stop, for stopping doesn’t come easily – I want to be able to go on till silly o’clock. 

It’s something I’ve been aware of for a long time – as soon as I’m doing something I love, I can suddenly understand how people become workaholics.  Sitting in the office, at work, I find workaholism baffling; but once I am sitting at my own little computer at home, doing my own work, it makes perfect sense.  How could anyone not want to devote all their time to that which they love?

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Busy busy bee

It was a busy weekend (shopping, gardening, washing, cleaning, writing) and has been a busy week so far.  Work isn’t so busy, but that means it is good catching-up time, which is useful.  Then I go home, cook, and spend the evening at the laptop, typing up my fairy tales.  So far, by dint of setting myself that as a project, the “something creative daily” plan has worked. 

On Friday evening I went to the ENB “Strictly Gershwin” show at the Coliseum.  No-one would call this a show for purists, but, boy, is it fun!  The music is, of course, gorgeous, there is some lovely dancing, and as well as a couple of professional tap dancers (one of whom also has a stab at singing), a good twenty of the company get their tap shoes on for a very creditable chorus line number to “Lady Be Good”.   The staging of “An American in Paris” is a bit of a jumble – this is the one point when one can really tell that this was originally an arena-style show, set-up for a much bigger stage.  But the only other negative is the startlingly ugly shirt worn by the male dancer in “Summertime” – it looks like muddy curtain fabric.  When a bad shirt on stage is the worst one can say of an evening out, and one comes out of the theatre tapping one’s toes and grinning, then there’s not much to complain about.

The highlights are two swooningly romantic duets – one for Elena Glurdjidze and Arionel Vargas, to “The Man I love” and one for Daria Klimentová and Vadim Muntagirov, to “Summertime” – a lovely vocal arrangement of “But not for me” for two of the singers, and best of all the treatment of “Rhapsody in Blue” as a sort of “Sapphires” tribute to Balanchine’s “Jewels”; a full-on one-act tutu ballet with a beautiful central pas de deux.  The lovely Daria Klimentová sails through this with a rapturous smile, total panache and some beautiful balances, and even manages to make a very silly hat look cool. 

Right – back home to do some more typing.  It pays to have a project of some sort at this time of year, as I always get itchy feet in January.  I start to dream of blue skies and warm seas and sunlit forests and golden mountains, and next thing I know I’m collecting package tour brochures and trying to work out when is the earliest I could get a holiday in Crete at a reasonable price.  Oh Hellas, my heart’s home!  The scenery – the wildflowers – the swimming – the archaeology – the walking - the food!  Mia birra, parakalo...

Friday, 6 January 2012


Does mending count as a creative activity, do you suppose?

I went on a Manual Handling training course this morning - which was useful and not too heavy on the grisly medical stuff.  It turns out my lifting technique was already pretty good, which is pleasing (it probably comes of having had several bad backs over the years).  But the chief way in which I distinguished myself was by splitting my trousers with a resounding ripping noise, halfway through the practical part of the training.  They weren't particularly tight or particularly old, but the main vertical seam up the bum split right the way up.  Bah!

I'm now sitting eating my lunch dressed in a scarf wrapped round my hips, and sewing.  A fetching look, especially with black ankle socks.  >sigh<

The weekend can only be better than this, anyway...

Thursday, 5 January 2012

A long post; January already, and the Immies for 2011

Thursday already.  Heck, January already.  Hey, it’s 2012...

It was, as I had hoped, a very peaceful Christmas and a quiet New Year (apart from the massive firework display down the road and the madly barking neighbourhood dogs this set off).  Walking and relaxing with my family, doing a massive jigsaw, seeing a few friends, sleeping ten hours a night, eating too many Pringles...  Sometimes it’s good for one just to do very little and simply rest, body and mind.

And now it is January again.  Happy New Year, everyone.  The weather has been all over the place today; one minute we have had sun falling across the grass of Kew Green and bare trees shining against a chilly blue sky, then next moment the skies turn black and rain lashes down in curtains.  It seemed quite sensible to think of new beginnings and new resolutions without irony, each time the fresh-washed sun reappeared; but those periodic bursts of wintry rain make me want to hide my head and go to sleep underground instead.

I’ve had a couple of odd encounters over the last week.  At a New Year’s party I thought I saw an old school-mate across the room – she was a tough lass in her youth, so I’ll call her Tuffisa.  Tuffisa hardly seemed to have changed at all in almost thirty years; still the same curly black hair, girlish figure, casual clothes and determined expression.  I wondered if she would remember me, and was hesitating whether to go over and say “hi” when beside me someone said “Oh, Imogen, Tuffisa Jones is here, do come and say hi” – and led me across to a totally different woman.  The real Tuffisa had changed beyond recognition; she is now blonde, elegant, gracious and decidedly voluptuous (not that I can talk!).  The weird bit came when she introduced me to her partner, since she was the woman I had thought was Tuffisa herself.   She turned out to be really nice, and it was good to see Tuffy again after such a very long time; but it did give me a funny turn to start with.  Is it odd of me to have been spooked by an old friend’s new partner looking so like the adolescent appearance of the old friend? 

Then on Tuesday night I was at the wonderful “Slava’s Snow Show” (SEE THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T- IT’S BRILLIANT!!) and two rows in front of me was a chap with whom I could have sworn I used to do amateur drama, back in the day.  He seemed to be with his family, and I used to have a terrific crush on him when he was single, so in the circumstances I didn’t like to butt in.  The last time I had seen him was while I was a student, when he was a tall, handsome Malcolm in “Macbeth”, and I was doing costumes.  When I thought about it I realised this must have been nearly fifteen years ago, and that gave me a funny feeling, too.  It just doesn’t feel that long.

The moral of this (other than “Hi, ‘Malcolm’, if you’re reading this!”) is Tempus Fugit.  Time flies, so have fun, do things that interest you, and don’t let life just slip away. 

In the which spirit, I have decided to try and do something creative every day during 2012.  I’m hoping that by making my definition of “creative” as open as possible I can avoid the usual backsliding and collapse of New Year’s Resolutions.  After all, do something creative covers a pretty wide remit.  So far I have made notes, written a bit more of a story, and made more notes about something else.  Even if all I do is make notes, I’ll still achieve something if I make a few every single day...  That’s the idea, anyway.

The other big thing I like to do in January is to think about the highlights of the past year. So here is my list of “Immies” for last year:

The Imogen Awards 2011

Best concerts:
“Infernal Dance”, the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Bartok season, was everything one could wish -  thrilling and revelatory; the Violin concerto no 2 with Christian Tetzlaff, Yefim Bronfmann showing off in the Piano concertos, the delicious “Wooden Prince” Suite, the complete “Miraculous Mandarin”, a marvellous performance of “Contrasts”...  The whole thing concluded with a gobsmacking “Bluebeard”.  Marvellous!
Prom 32 – Christian Tetzlaff (again – oh swoon) playing the Brahms concerto superbly, followed by the extraordinary “Das Klagende Lied” with the BBCSO under Edward Gardner.
Prom 41 – the BBCSO again, under Mark Wigglesworth, in a lovely programme, mainly of Britten, ending with a life-enhancingly energetic “Spring Symphony”.
Best exhibition:
Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, Dulwich Picture Gallery.  No contest!  This runs for a couple more days, finishing at the end of this weekend, so if you like powerful dynamic landscape painting, hurry down to Dulwich...
Best dance:
I have been seeing a lot of ballet this year.  I’m not quite sure why, but for me it is perhaps the most consistently thrilling of all the performed arts.  This year was particularly good:
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Christopher Wheeldon for the Royal Ballet.  This was simply gorgeous, and tremendous fun!
“Metamorphosis” by Arthur Pita at the Linbury Studio Theatre.  An extraordinary new piece; deeply terrifying and deeply moving.
The ENB “Black and White” mixed bill was excellent, especially the revival of “Suite en Blanc”.  At the risk of sounding daft I am going to say it - the moment the curtain goes up on that panorama of dancers is practically worth the ticket price on its own.
The many “Manons” of the Royal Ballet!  I saw four performances in total over the year – three in the summer and another one in the autumn.  All were excellent, and it was marvellous to have a chance to see the subtle differences of interpretation between performers.
The Royal Ballet’s mixed bills were excellent this year: Asphodel Meadows/Enigma Variations/Gloria and the one that included Ashton’s “Rhapsody” both epitomised everything that is going right for the RB at the moment; ravishing beauty, emotional truth, and technical mastery at every level, from the principals right down to the newest members of the corps. 
Best World Music
Ealing Global Festival.  What a great day out this local mini-WOMAD is every year!
Best opera
La Bohème at the ENO.  I caught one of the last performances of the run; it’s a lovely production with great sets and naturalistic direction.  Elizabeth Llewellyn was a revelation; she certainly ought to wind up as a very big star indeed.  She has a glorious voice and she can act.  She’s also very beautiful.  A perfect Mimí in a perfectly-judged production.
“Pelléas et Mélisande” at the Barbican (concert performance).  No staging at all, just excellent singers lined up in front of an excellent orchestra, all led by an excellent conductor.  Favourite Baritone was an intense, passionate Pelléas and Laurent Naouri a magnificent and tragic Golaud.
Best individual performers:
1)      Ballet:
Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo in Swan Lake, for a partnership of regal scale and brilliance.  La Rojo was even better in the beautiful in “Marguerite and Armand”, a real cry-into-your-lap performance.
Steven McRae; passionate and doomed in “The Rite of Spring”, febrile and anguished as Prince Siegfried in “Swan Lake”, or just showing off his bravura chops in “Rhapsody”; every little thing he does is magic...
Edward Watson, astonishing in “Metamorphosis”.
The lovely Hikaru Kobayashi getting a chance to shine, and seizing it with both hands, as Princess Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty”.
2)      Opera:
Elizabeth Llewellyn in “La Bohème” at the ENO – see above.
Kristine Opolais in “Madame Butterfly” at the Royal Opera was terrific and had me crying my eyes out.
Stuart Skelton, John Tomlinson and Iain Paterson, all deeply moving in “Parsifal”.
3)      Concert:
This has been rather a year for virtuosos:
Nikolai Lugansky’s fabulous solo recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, playing Chopin, Brahms and Liszt.
Christian Tetzlaff playing Brahms at the Proms and Bartok at the Festival Hall.
Gil Shaham restoring the Bruch violin concerto no 1 from saccharine to stunner in Prom 62.
Stephen Hough playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto no 1 with the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Ivan Fischer.
And last but not least
The ever-magnificent Sarah Connolly, heart-breaking in “Das Lied von der Erde” at the Festival Hall last February.  Worth missing part of The DipGeek’s birthday party for (and I do not say that lightly, as The DipGeek throws a good party).

May 2012 be as good, culturally and in other ways!