Midsummer weekend was one of extraordinary contrasts. That Saturday afternoon I joined a rainbow of humanity - veterans, babies, folk of all colours and creeds (or none) - around Shoreditch's Arnold Circus for the 'happening' of Pulitzer prize-winning composer David Lang's Crowd Out! for 1,000 local performers (in the end it was more like 600, but in future it could fill Wembley Stadium). Among those snapped by official photographer James Berry was our dear friend Julie (far right in top pic, with nephew Rowan third from right), down from Scotland to stay with us and see another show in the Spitalfields Festival which by total coincidence I happened to be attending anyway.
For the Sunday I'd decided - and persuaded the diplo-mate, who came very reluctantly but exited happy enough - to brave the braying plutocrats of Garsington Opera: partly because I hadn't seen its new home on the Wormsley Estate, chiefly because I thought that underrated director Daniel Slater might have an interesting take on Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen.
He did - the utterly compelling Claire Booth as Vixen Sharpears with her Fox, Victoria Simmonds, pictured above by Clive Barda, a shot I had permission to crop to landscape for the Arts Desk review - and though many in the crowd were coming up with the usual absurdities ('I think I heard a tune at the very end'), the site is vast enough to escape and have, in our case, an entire formal garden to yourselves.
Two people had quite separately told me that the Wormsley cricket pitch is 'the most beautiful in the world'. I scoffed: how could the humble Chilterns envelop anything as lovely as a pitch on much higher ground? But I have to admit that as we got off the punters' bus at the pavilion, what spread out before us in a substantial valley, with hills on the other side and behind us, was picture-perfect. This shot doesn't catch the amazing green chessboard squares to the side.
Tea in one of the marquees overlooking it was enough to pre-empt a pricey supper under the aegis of the Jamie Oliver empire (we hadn't brought a picnic). The very friendly Clare Adams, one vital bulwark of the Garsington experience, offered to give us filled rolls and cookies for the interval: our solitude consuming it in the formal garden, with only very loud birds and the distant sound of the children in the opera playing football over the hedge, couldn't have been lovelier. And, as in the old garden to the side of the former Garsington marquee, there were still peonies.
We also got on a fine vintage bus - the smell of leather and plastic is so evocative - to stroll around the walled garden, actually only about ten minutes' walk away, as it happened.
This was peak season for philadelphus - mock orange with its heady scent - and delphiniums delighted in by innumerable bees,
foxgloves integrated into the formal planning
and poppies (though just wait until I get round to documenting the walled garden at Cambo House in the East Neuk, albeit - being cameraless - dependent upon the photography of others).
A few more peonies were flourishing by a flint wall
and the rose garden was at its height too.
Outside the gate
a bird of prey hovered overhead
and on the other side, a beech wood leading up the slope evoked Hukvaldy, where Janáček began and in effect ended his life: in fact the territory is even closer to that beloved, rolling homeland than Glyndebourne.
The Opera Pavilion of steel, timber and fabric, designed by Robin Snell with cues from Japanese kabuki buildings, deserves all the awards it's received, chiefly from RIBA.
Inside it's spacious - plenty of leg room, wide seats, unlike the old provisional marquee - and acoustically wonderful: maybe the back wall helps, but I could hear every orchestral texture. Fewer strings certainly helped. And there's just enough of a view of the profuse garden to the right, as there was of course at Garsington Manor. The punters? Well, J is right, of course: tax the rich more and you could afford another opera house truly for the people.
Yet I like what Douglas Boyd is doing on the artistic front: I wrote the notes for a weekend of talks, readings of recently unearthed poems by Siegfried Sassoon - who of course had connections with the old Garsington and Lady Ottoline Morrell - and concerts (Beethoven, Schoenberg, Bridge) called Peace in Our Time, which I wish I could have attended. Next year there are new productions of Strauss's Intermezzo, which wasn't taken seriously enough at the old house, and Britten's Death in Venice. Now what will the tuneseekers make of that?
I'd been surprised to find myself among the green at the previous day's Spitalfields Festival join-together. I knew I had to head up from Spitalfields to St Leonard's Shoreditch, the church which featured in the superlative television comedy Rev. But I had no idea that just behind it is a bandstand (and a fixed ping-pong table) in a beautifully planted central garden.
This is Arnold Circus, centre of London's first big social housing project. In 1890 the East End rookeries were swept away by the London County Council under a new Housing Act. "So conveniently situated and nicely laid out is the Boundary Estate', writes Harold P Clunn in the only comprehensive volume of the many I possess on London, 'that many people would doubtless prefer it to Fulham or Barnsbury as a place of residence'.
That day in the East End did make me wonder. Sure, no big park is in striking distance, but I further sensed what I'd felt at a Huguenot Festival last year, that there's a really diverse community here, and that even the new money sweeping in from the City is going to obliterate entirely the old pockets of character. And how hip did I feel when, as we hit a nearby Shoreditch cafe on the estate, I was hailed by none other than super-cool Brazilian Henrique Paiva, leading former habitue of Sophie's salons, and his girlfriend Yasmin. He got Rowan to photograph us against embossed wall art just over the road.
Then it was back to Toynbee Hall - which, as a place of good works by Oxford graduates since 1884, is another slice of social history - to hear the first third of the music-theatre triple bill I'd missed the previous evening.
More inner-city regeneration a week and a bit later on with an invitation to attend the opening of the House of Illustration at the back of Kings Cross. First came Kings Place, and I remember scoffing when one of its movers and shakers declared that the whole area would become a thriving civic centre in a few years. It's well on the way, and with St Martin's College of Art and Design now occupying the warehouses going to rack and ruin some time back, and the square in front deckchaired and big screened for Wimbledon it felt like a very pleasant place to be on a warm summer evening. The standing figure in the picture is godson Alexander, down for a big celebration the night before, about which more anon.
And this is us walking down the newly opened pedestrian tunnel to Kings Cross tube. I just found out more about it: it's called Pipette and was created by Miriam Sleeman and Tom Sloan. The length of this 'LED integrated lightwall' breaks a record, apparently, at 90 metres. Hope no-one messes it up.
The exhibition opening couldn't have been blither: is there anyone who doesn't love the illustrations of Quentin Blake? The exhibition opened my eyes to so much more than his work for Roald Dahl - oh, those Twits! - including drawings for Candide, which I wanted to buy for Alexander but couldn't, a fascinating Russell Hoban story and Michael Rosen's Sad Book, a way of trying to come to terms with the death of the author's 18 year old son. That I did manage to buy on the spot. These are the pages that break my heart.
Blake, a very sprightly 81 in his trademark white shoes, made a lovely, natural speech, as fine in its way as the extraordinary motivational rhetoric of Joanna Lumley.
Another city/country 'only connect: before a stupendous Owen Wingrave at the Aldeburgh Festival, smoked salmon sandwiches with the divine Maggi Hambling and ever-affectionate Tory Lawrence just down the road. Danger - artist(s) at work (though when isn't Maggi, love her to bits, slightly dangerous?)
Of course I curse myself for having left the camera which contained photos of studio work on the platform at Watford Junction the other week, where it was not, alas, handed in. So I'm reliant on the few shots J took on his iPhone, including the above and just one - with Maggi's immortal scallop all too distant, as am I photographing it in vain - of Aldeburgh beach on a splendid birthday.
The camera loss was the infuriating end to a lovely afternoon. I'd promised to take my young friends Ed and Kristaps to see the Queen Beech, the gigantic result of endless pollarding, on the forested common above Berkhamstead. We'd even fixed the date when a National Trust lady left a comment on my blog about the first, Mabey-inspired expedition, telling me that the great tree had finally given up the ghost after hundreds of years. Its life is to be celebrated and in a sense - as Mabey would be the first to say - it takes on a new existence as home to fresh fauna, fungi and birds. Awe-inspiring as it once was - a reminder here -
there was something splendid about its fall, the orangey-red bark and the pollarded globules inspectable on an easy clamber. Which Ed and Kristaps, keen barefoot walkers and tree climbers, were keen to do. Here's one of the few shots Ed took, relying on me only to be let down.
And this is where I draw the line. Our young, barefooted nature-lovers were soon shinning up a standing beech nearby and twigging that the platform would be a perfectly good place to spend the night. I was content to study the bracket fungus on its trunk.
And all this chimes nicely with a new bout of reading more Robert Macfarlane, being struck afresh by how he spoke as he writes at an extra-musical event of the East Neuk Festival. Which ought to be the next stop but one here.