Thursday, 30 July 2009

Last Post

To mark the death of WW1 veterans Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, this morning Radio 4's Today programme broadcast a poem commissioned from new Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

Last Post

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud…
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home-
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce- No- Decorum- No- Pro patria mori.
You walk away.

You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too-
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert-
and light a cigarette.
There's coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.

You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly write it backwards,
then it would.

(This text will be removed as soon as it is no longer freely available via the BBC website.)

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Flu in

Mr Gnome, with as good a grace as he can muster, supervises the medication routine in a household currently isolated by the widespread flu virus.

A call this morning to the government's advisory service was answered instantly and helpfully. A simple questionnaire led to a positive assessment and I was issued with a collection number for the Tamiflu antiviral medication.

A kind friend collected the tablets on my behalf and dropped them on my doorstep.

All very efficient. Now it's simply a matter of staying at home until I'm no longer a risk to others. Nice to get it over with.

Over and out.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Every prospect

High on the Cotswold escarpment, Mr Gnome spies stormy weather coming up across the distant Malvern Hills.

The location is Dover's Hill, above the market town of Chipping Campden.

Once a year the peace of this pastoral idyll is rumbustiously shattered by the ancient antics of Robert Dover's Olimpick Games.

Among the many events featured is the not particularly health-and-safety-friendly activity of shin-kicking.

An event, now he comes to think about it, at which he might excel...

Friday, 24 July 2009

Well above Parr

Serendipity, the life-enhancing arrival of happy happenstance, keeps on happily happening for Mr Gnome and his human associate.

Along comes an outrageously generous birthday gift (from super-chum RF): a superbly produced large-format book featuring the extraordinary work of the British photographer Martin Parr.

How kind.

A few days later, one finds oneself (as one very occasionally does) in a big city with a few hours to spare before departure for home.

The city was Paris, so I decided to check out the gallery nearest to my friends' apartment; the magnificent Jeu de Paume, on the corner of the Place de la Concorde.

And, as vast amounts of posterage proclaimed, the current show was Planet Parr. One was speechless.

I have to say it is well worth the nine euros entry fee. This is a big, serious show - and there was more on dispaly than I could properly examine in the time available.

Parr's photographs are, well, 'very Martin Parr'. I guess the broad category is documentary. The majority are of people in everyday situations: at home, on a weekend excursion, at the club - or on holiday.

Parr tends to pump up the saturated colour in his images, giving clothes, furntiure, wallpaper and faces a look-at-me prominence. Combined with the seemingly random, unposed compositions, these da-glo pictures can seem borderline freakish.

But, the more you look, the more you realise that you're not being invited to look at 'them'. Parr's eye is essentially compassionate. The invitation is to look at ourselves.

In fact, photographs form only a small part of the show. Vast amounts of space are taken up with images from photographers who infleunced Parr.
And then there is his extraordinary collection of objects: postcards, tea-trays, posters, memorabilia.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Is Paris burning?

How ripping to be barreling to Paris in the hyper-efficient comfort of the Eurostar train.

Two hours and twenty minutes from the faux-gothic splendor of St Pancras to the marginally less splendid Gare du Nord.

Well, it should have taken that length of time. Ten minutes before we were due to buffer-nudge our destination, the train stopped.

There was a trackside fire in the Saint Denys district and we were obliged to await the ministrations of the Parisian pompiers to extinguish the blaze.

The delay lasted a good ninety minutes, causing Mr Gnome and I to miss the 'Suprise!' element of the 'surprise' fiftieth birthday to which we were heading.

Bonjour tristesse?

Well, not really. Both gnome and human stiffened their upper lips and sat it out, pluckily. Having a substantial AS Byatt to hand was a indeed a boon.

The Eurostar staff could not have been more calmly professional and communicative, offering updates every ten minutes - and opening external doors to cool us down. The air-conditioning stopped along with the train.

Gnome and Human arrived at the party dramatically (two hours and fifteen minutes) en retard.

Fortunatlely, the birthday boy knew nothing of our delay as he wasn't aware we had been invited in the first place. So our entrance was not without its element of eclat. Satisfying.

And the cloud had an argent lining: our next Eurostar trip will carry a 50% compensatory reduction.


Sunday, 19 July 2009

Open house

A Bard time was had by all today at the splendid RSC Open Day jamboree at Stratford-upon-Avon.

Visitors not in the know may have needed shock treatment, given the on-street prevalence of so many men, women and children suffering from hideous facial scarring - and all of them smiling contentedly. Casualties (bottom right) were all, of course, courtesy of the RSC makeup department.

In past years, the town has been awash with thespian Sirs and Dames participating in the Open Day's dizzying array of activities - everything from scholarly text sessions to revelatory exposures of the intimate ministrations of the Company's small army of backstage dressers.

But this time, canny RSC executive director Vikki Heywood (top left) managed to pull off a truly star-trumping coup de theatre.

She welcomed visitors, for the very first time, to a privileged glimpse of what's going on within the Royal Shakespeare Theatre itself, currently undergoing a massive three-year transformation project.

So today I was able to stand on what will be the Company's main stage (top right) and view the auditorium that has replaced the vast 1930s theatre where I've seen dozens of performances since my first RSC show in, ahem, 1967.

And it looks to me as if Ms Heywood and her team are well on their way to making good their promise of creating a major 'theatre space' that will be simultaneously epic and intimate. The acting area is vast, but it is encompassed on three sides by a three-level 'audience space' in which everyone is remarkably close to the action.

I'm excited.

It'll be a while before the players are able to tread the renewed boards: the contractors are due to hand over the building to the Company in July 2010.

Middle row shows friendly architect Alasdair McKenzie (right) and Tim Court (project manager) on site to answer questions.

Bottom left: Open Day ended with the company director Greg Doran ruffing up the partcipants in the annual Great Shakespeare Quiz.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Hold it!

I'm sure that zillions of amateur snappers will recognise the regret of allowing shyness, diffidence or good old British reserve to make a barrier between camera and a potential subject.

Heading across the Jubilee Footbridge on Saturday morning, I couldn't help noticing these two gentlemen who were walking towards me.

Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about them, except for one fact: they both seemed to be very, very happy. Nothing more, nothing less.

And I passed them, and walked on.

Then I paused, reflected - and ran back to them to ask if I might take a picture.

As the picture indicates, they needed no persuasion.

So this is to celebrate Steve (left) and Iglesias - and their happy traversing of the Thames on Saturday 11 July 2009.

May all their journeying be as happy.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Diva fever

Mr Gnome alerts his friends to the fact that this is definitely not everyone's
tasse de the.

The glorious lushness of the songs of Richard Strauss is not universally appreciated. But for many listeners, these works become a bit of an addiction.

This very short song 'Zueignung' is a perfect example. In three verses, the lyric conveys an almost ecstatic sense of gratitude for the life-transforming power of love, each verse ending with 'Habe dank' ('Be thanked.')

Here the great soprano Jessye Norman gives it her not inconsiderable all in a performance that combines total vocal assurance with, well, a thrilling experience of joyful release and benediction.

If you get it, you get it. If you don't, you'll see and hear a big woman make a lot of noise while waving her arms around.

And for anyone who has heard Norman perform on the concert platform, it will be a reminder of the power of this remarkable artist, who, with imperious ease, re-defined the concept of Diva in her glory days of the Eighties and Nineties.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The trees are singing

To Hereford and the Cathedral Close, to view Jemma Pearson's rather wonderful sculpture of Edward Elgar who lived in the town shortly before WW1.

Cycling attire has come a long way since the de rigeur Edwardian costume of tweedy jacket, plus-fours and boots. One feels that, compared to contemporary Lycra, EE's stylish 'look' has much to recommend it.

In the manner of the new Betjemann sculpture at St Pancras Station, this is very much a 'site specific' work - with the cathedral dramatically involved as Elgar, manuscript notebook in hand, gazes up at its tower.

Pearson has lovingly recreated Elgar's splendid Sunbeam cycle, which he nicknamed 'Mr Phoebus'. Such is the attention to detail that one can identify the saddle as manufactured by Brooks, the ne plus ultra of cycle saddlery.

I'm more than a little excited to discover that, in terms of personal comfort a-wheel, the great composer and I have so much in common.

The plinth carries the inscription: 'This is what I hear all day - the trees are singing my music - or am I singing theirs?'

Later I was delighted to discover that the cycle shop, pictured below continues to flourish close by. This unashamedly old-fashioned establishment may well have been trading in Elgar's day.

It was certainly going strong in 1987 when I purchased from it my Dawes Galaxy (complete with Brooks saddle).

Said bike has just been through its umpteenth service and is girding its bottom bracket for a major ride in 2010. Watch this space.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

K, Mr K and Ak

Almost thirty years separate these pictures of my friend KB.

The first was snapped in the spring of 1980, when K and his father invited me to join them on the family's boat to celebrate K's ninth birthday.

The location is the Gastineau Channel, near the city of Juneau in south-east Alaska.

I was nearing the end of my year as a US/UK exchange teacher, working with a third grade class at a local elementary school, where K was one of my students.

K was one of those children who come along every so often in a teacher's career: bright, inquisitive, eager, puzzling, funny, thoughtful - and voracious.

With K, it wasn't a case of him keeping up with what I was attempting to teach. The big worry was that I wouldn't keep up with him, so rapidly did he Hoover up the work.

Fortunately, it was here that my exchange teacher's 'unique selling point' came into play.

I'd brought with me a stack of materials about varied aspects of British life and culture: Guy Fawkes, red letter boxes, postage stamps and, my trump card, the Royals.

This was in those deferential pre-Diana days, when the Top Family was riding high after the success of the Silver Jubilee of 1977 - and was more or less divorce-free.

Consequently the simple family-tree diagram I'd prepared made it easy to see who was related to whom over several generations of assorted Windsors.

K was particularly intrigued and, under his own steam, began researching his family and forebears.

The busy school year rattled on to its conclusion. I left Juneau, travelled the Alaska Highway and celebrated my thirtieth birthday at the Grand Canyon - and returned reluctantly to the slightly less than Alaska-rugged milieu of my home and school in southern England.

In subseqent years I kept up Christmas-card contacts with K's family until, inevitably, changes of address (and my carelessness) ended such exchanges.

Until about ten years ago, when thanks to the www revolution, we re-established contact.

K, a man of deep and questing faith, now lives in Utah where he serves voluntarily on the staff of the local Roman Catholic Cathedral. And he pursues an international career as a genealogical researcher and lecturer.

The up-to-date picture comes from K's recent visit to the glaciers of Argentina.

I'm proud to count K among my friends.