Friday, 11 July 2014

City, country

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.


David Damant said...

If you want more cash to flow to the government to - for example - subsidise opera houses, then REDUCE income taxes. Over and over again higher taxes have reduced revenues ( not to mention curtailing initiatives to the detriment of all). Since Mrs Thatcher's very large reductions in income tax rates the proportion of taxes paid by the very rich has vastly increased.

And the new Garsington site would not be as beautiful as it is if the oil magnates Getty had been clobbered for tax.

David said...

Whatever the practicalities of the situation, the very rich could still afford to pay vastly more than they do. As for the beauty of Wormsley, of course, but how many people get to see it? I must check the number of permissive paths. What I do know is that the admirable Erskines of Cambo House give plenty of access - virtually welcome walkers to come up their magical valley from the sea - and do all sorts of social good. And their sense of duty in preserving an important heritage for all to use is a model of its kind. More on them anon. I liked Sir Peter immensely.

David Damant said...

But the practicalities are in essence how much money is raised, not what anyone can afford. In 1979 taxes on income were 83% on salaries and 98% on investment income and the top 1% paid 11% of the total. In 2012 when the the top rate was 50% the top 1% paid 24% of the total. I would agree that there are other factors. And very many great houses have as a result of lower taxes recovered their financial position and are open as centres of local economies, and often of local pride (Chatsworth, Alnwick)

It is also probable that the NHS and the benefits budget would consume most of any increase in tax revenues since opera is seen as elitist. Not a view taken by the Attlee government after the war.

David said...

Well, you're the economist, so I bow to your superior knowledge whilst remaining sceptical about your Maggieliebe.

Re Attlee after the war, what about the democratic credentials of opera during it? Joan Cross wrote very movingly about the exhaustive touring around Britain, a crucial morale booster.

David Damant said...

David - you mention "Peace In Our Time" which I would agree is a splendid initiative, though the quotation is from 1938 ( Chamberlain) rather than anything to do with WWI - however I suppose it is pretty close to "The War To End Wars" It is interesting that the poetry of WWI is more powerful and better known than that in WW2. I suppose that WW2 did not seem so futile since it was clear that something had to be done about Hitler. The decisions taken by the WWI generals should be criticised for what they were, not for what we now think. Sassoon wrote of the two Tommies who thought the General " a cheery old card"

- But he did for them both by his plan of attack

It is said that originally the line was

- But he murdered them both in his plan of attack

I suggest that the newer line is more accurate, morally

I ought to add - how tremendously good your reportage. But one should say that every time

David said...

Exactly so re the Sassoon line - that was one of the two poems Sam West read out; I think a lady called Annette Campbell-White had bought the manuscripts. I understand the other one was, so appropriately to the day, on Beethoven. 'Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man' was compulsory school reading, but I must revisit it now.

And I'll give you the second copy of the programme in which I have the article. It's a beautifully produced piece of work, as is the main Garsington Opera brochure, and includes a wonderful Sassoon drawing of George V and Rudyard Kipling playing cricket (!), watched by an unusually excited looking Queen Mary.

David Damant said...

I myself would be excited to see a picture of an excited Queen Mary - even if only a drawing. Poor lady, she had a tough time. She was a Princess of Teck and although the Tecks were members of the Royal Family of Wurttenberg they were excluded form the line of succession to that throne because of a morganatic marriage. Also they were quite poor ( for royalty) and had to sell lots of things. Hardly surprising that Mary was plus royaliste que le roi and somewhat reserved

Anonymous said...

Such a lovely post, David, with a generous sampling of your always beautiful photos! Particularly interesting is the journey of the old tree. In these parts, we call them "Mother Trees," the ones that grow so old and large, taking over the area that houses and people want to claim. Not their fault, if they're planted too close to buildings! I like your name, "Queen." We pay them visits, and - when construction was being done in one's neighborhood - tie yellow tape around them to protect them against unintended harm. Wonderful to imagine the "new life" continuing for years to come, impossible in town, where even one branch falling down in a storm gets hauled away and tidied up. Nice shot of you, keeping close company with the trunk, soaking up tree energy! -- Elizabeth

David said...

'Queen Beech' isn't my invention, Elizabeth, and possibly not even Richard Mabey's - for it was he who led me to go and find it in the first place (you may remember we conversed about his Nature Cure and its painfully true - to me, at any rate - description of crippling depression). Read all about it in his Beechwoods, which as I found out to my dismay (I bought a copy and had to give it away) has been opportunistically retitled 'The Ash and the Beech' with framing paragraphs on ash dieback.

Anyway, you'll discover therein a great deal about English commons - how America would wish it had them, and their network of public paths - and how people fought against their enclosure. Now on National Trust land, this tree is safe to lie and metamorphose (I hope there is to be no tidying at all).

wanderer said...

Foxgloves gave us Digitalis - an wonderfully enduring drug (in a world of ever changing pharmacology) for improving cardiac strength and slowing the heart rate when the circuity runs amok, which mine does when the discussion gets into taxation.

Love the LED wall.

David said...

Presumably that's against how much tax you have to pay rather than wrath that other people don't like paying theirs.

wanderer said...

I don't mind paying, and do, but I am livid at how so much of it is (mis)spent and that there are black holes at one end of the spectrum from whence nothing or little escapes.

I've just spent more time on your Owen Wingrave review. Was it filmed, or will Edinburgh be?

David said...

I don't think so, though it could be very interestingly filmed. Not that Owen Wingrave hasn't done well on DVD already, with the original BBC television version and a later one with Gerald Finley. This cast, though, was superlative.

Laurent said...

I like the expression ''Braying Plutocrats'' I can use it with effect in Ottawa when speaking of PM Harper and is minions. Thank you for the bon mots.
As for David Damant comment on taxes, we have the same debate here. However the rich pay less and less and its the middle class, seniors and poor who pays more and more. While the Arts getting little or nothing, we do not have a tradition in Canada of giving to the Arts. I am working at two National Museums in Ottawa and volunteers now perform all manners of work simply to keep things going. So I do not believe in less taxes for the rich.
One Chef I like on the BBC is Nigel Slater is food looks good and simple. Unlike some other chefs who are all business and profit.

David said...

Exactly - it's a volunteer culture across the board. Which, whilst it is excellent for involving enthusiastic people, means a drop in professionalism because there are things employers feel they can't ask a volunteer to do. And of course online it means a general amateurism, which in the best sense is no bad thing, but look at the amount of shoddy or woffly 'journalism' there is on specialist sites (and I hope The Arts Desk is truly exempt from that).

Yotam Ottolenghi, now there's a chef who has something very individual to bring. We're just luxuriating in his beautifully produced Jerusalem, and finding it eminently practical, too.

Howard Lane said...

Too much to comment on, or almost to take in, in this extensive and most informative post, not to mention the last one (ditto what Mr Diamant said), except to mention that Arnold Circus features briefly in a meandering book I picked up recently called "Liquid City" by Iain Sinclair with photography by Marc Atkins. Although I reckon you could give them both a run for their money in the London documentation stakes, and many other cities as well. The book focuses on the city's "eastern and south-eastern quadrants", where Arnold Circus is "a place to be photographed at dawn or dusk".

Tangentially, it was really great to hear Stephen Johnson on CD Review today on some recent Russian releases and re-releases. Incensing that Discovering Music was axed! Hope it gets reinstated.

David said...

Why thank you, Howard, and isn't Sir David Damant indeed a scintillating diamond? Must give Iain Sinclair another try. I was rather put off the man when he spoke at a County Hall (or whatever it's called) celebration of an A13 art project. Unlike Robert Macfarlane, who as I've already noted spoke as he writes (and unless he's memorised all his bon mots, he's a very eloquent off-the-cuff talker).

As for Arnold Circus, dawn or dusk may be magical times, but none will be more glorious than this event precisely because of the rainbow coalition of Londoners there in multitudes. It made me very proud to be a citizen of this capital, however under pressure it is now from global wealth. Shoreditch and Spitalfields may have become remorselessly trendy, but like so many other parts of London there's still a myriad of stories going on there. Explore The Gentle Reader's blog for daily proof of that.

Bob Davis said...

We are still canvassing views as to how we celebrate/mark the passing of the large beech in Frithsden – I notice you quote Richard Mabey in calling it the Queen Beech – on the estate the Queen Beech stood in the area known as Golden Valley which is the valley that links the north and south parks. It is situated between Ashridge House and Little Gaddesden. The tree was a very tall tree and looked like a very good “stick of timber” – the first branch was over 60 foot from the ground. When the tree came down (I am unsure if it was felled by man or nature) it was completely hollow. In the same area we have a tree known locally as the King Ash which is visible as a growing stump – again it was a large noticeable tree but its decline started when it was struck by lightning.

The intentions are to allow the tree to decline in situ.

Bob Davis
Head Forester
Ashridge Estate

David said...

Hugely informative, thank you, Bob. Clearly an expedition to Golden Valley is due. I look forward to hearing more about how to celebrate the Big 'Un.

Having just reached the end of Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places, I note this:

'The beech will be among the first to die out in southern Britain if the climate continues to warm. Studies of beechwoods show that big old beeches are already beginning to lose their vigour long before their usual time, and trees of fifty years' growth are showing decline more usually associated with trees three times that age.'

So we'll just have to travel further north to where the beeches migrate...

Unknown said...

Just listening to Ms Booth's latest CD : Very imaginatively put together disc of song cycles by Jonathan Dove. Also on the disc is tenor Nicky Spence and the incredible Patricia Bardon singing harrowing Lorca a settings and then settings of Vikram Seth's 'All You Who Sleep Tonight' which are gems. First class piano accompaniments from Andrew Matthews-Owen throughout. Recommend. So sorry I kissed vixen : role I hope the soprano will be invited to repeat for years to come...

David said...

That I must hear, John Will - love Bardon too and always forget Nicky Spence when I reel off the list of fine young British tenors. Interesting that Dove has set Lorca: George Crumb's settings are so haunting and really turned me on to his poetry (must learn Spanish).

When you kissed the Vixen, did she turn in to Terynka?

Unknown said...

The Lorca settings of Dove are beautiful but, as the programme notes explain, are imbued with tension, a sense of unease.
I cannot stop listening to the All You Who Sleep Tonight moving!

David said...

So are Crumb's (but then so is most of Lorca's poetry): listen to them if you don't know them. As I shall endeavour to do with Dove's.

Unknown said...

The Crumb are incredible; so hyponotic, disturbing, ethereal...everything!

Adding here both the Dove (samples):
and the Crumb:
They couldn't be more different, but they are both important and utterly beguiling.
Enjoy !