Monday, 26 July 2021

Bosky pleasures on hospital visits


Most recent contributor to the long silence here on the blog has been daily hospital visiting - my 90-year old mother is still in New Epsom and Ewell Cottage Hospital convalescing after a difficult time at its big sister in Epsom proper. The smaller establishment is in beautiful countryside, on what was once the mental-hospital conglomeration located on the Horton Estate by London County Council starting in 1900. At one time the patients made up 10 per cent of Epsom's population. I remember going to St Ebba's and West Park with the Epsom Youth Orchestra. Now it's a combination of quite pleasant housing, nurses' training schools, outpatients' facilities and NEECH.

I think I've made the most of visiting. Even when mum was in Epsom Hospital, I found solidarity among the stallholders of the market that's sprung up around the Clock Tower, made by narrowing the high street road to a single lane and building out the pavement area. The coffee and falafel sellaers have been good people to chat to. One Saturday was especially lively, and I was surprised to come across the Caldegrave Ensemble, wind dectet, at the centre of the action.

When slimmed temporarily down to wind quintet, they played some pieces I haven't heard since I played in the Glyn [Grammar School] Wind Quintet - a wayward bolero with a quirky oboe tune I remember having to practise rather a lot. So this was a nice link with the locale as I remember it from more than 40 years ago (daily school journeys were 164 bus to Epsom, 293 to Glyn or a 20-minute walk).

I also discovered how, on days when I didn't take the E10 bus, I could walk to and fro via Epsom Common. Growing up in Banstead, part of the happier aspect of my childhood was biking around Banstead Downs with my chums; but this natural paradise on the other side of Epsom was something I only ever saw from the car. On foot, the quickest route is via West Hill, where there are a few old houses among the suburban build, and down to Stamford Green, where the Cricketers Pub was one of several drinking establishments in the country we used to frequent as teenagers once we had our driving licences. There are also attractive paths nearer NEECH, one on the other side of the road from a rather good garden centre serving the only good coffee (or anything, for that matter) in the vicinity. Twice I startled this deer.

The bus also displayed useful information about local rarities in the fauna. I saw that if I looked carefully, in the shade, on honeysuckle or brambles, I might descry the now-endangered White Admiral - and on an afternoon devoted to that quest across Epsom Common, I finally caught one resting, albeit with a broken wing.

A gorgeous Purple Emperor also flew above my head at the Stew Pond, but too fast to snap. I did at least catch this dragonfly (which one? If anyone can identify, I'd be grateful) settling

and this duck from the place where I saw the Purple Emperor.


Couldn't work it out at all until entering 'duck with white eye-stripe' on Google produced evidence that male Mandarin ducks, so gloriously plumed in winter and spring, shed all their glory in the summer to look like this. Moulting has produced some surprises - the goldfinches still at the feeder in the back yard at home have lost their black polls and red sidebars


 and the blackbird is looking less glossy

though I did see the young 'un being fed a mulberry by dad on the wall this morning.

But back to the Common exploration. While the smaller pond had patient fishermen sitting around it, the big 'un is nicely preserved from human invasion on all but its north side, from which you get this vista.

That was a glorious discovery. So, too, was making a virtue out of the necessity of Sunday train chaos by going to Epsom Downs Station (which is not Tattenham Corner Station, as I had thought - initial confusion at the start of the route) and walking from there to the hospital on the hottest day of the year. Fortunately I was sustained by plentiful supplies of water and eventual shade - though not on the Downs, where the views down over London were captivating, but the long grass verges on the edges of the gold course even more so.

Here I saw plenty of Veined White butterflies, but not at rest, and this Brimstone,

as well as a fair few Pyramid orchids.

Crossing by the Grandstand

I took the shady route down Chalk Lane, with horse paddocks on either side

and saw for the first time The Durdans, grand old house with gates from elsewhere, where my schoolfriend's mother, who worked there, claimed to have seen a headless horse.

Funnily enough, this route took me out by Epsom Hospital, a grateful stop because I needed more liquids and a sandwich for lunch. Then I crossed Epsom Common via the Wells Estate, and found a new route to NEECH. 


The patient by now, enlivened by plenty of physio and an abatement of her COPD, was in good shape - not bad for 90 - and managed to stay cool throughout the heatwave.

They're very careful at NEECH to keep Covid at bay, so only one designated visitor can book in for an hour each day, though others can arrange a visit outside if they can manage the exclusive table-and-chairs slot. We sat outside again last Tuesday and enjoyed the view - a meadow with plenty of butterflies, sadly shorn on Thursday, plus the pine trees to the left.

That stormy-looking sky did not develop. Of course on a crucial Monday when storms and floods hit London and the area to the south, I would not have walked. I intended to, but when I reached the bus stop just outside the Horton estate, the sky looked like this

and I thought better - the E10 arrived with the first spots and torrents poured as I sat on the train from Epsom. At West Brompton, the downpour went on so long that I stopped sheltering, left my bike there and walked home with an umbrella for only partial protection.

On Saturday, thinking that would be my last visit since mum was due to be released today - it will now be Wednesday since they're sending her to Leatherhead for a test tomorrow - I planned a big route back, this time to Ashtead Station. Even the lane to the common is full of interest - what I saw here is, I think, a rare Jersey Tiger moth which flies about in the day as well as the night. Its russet interior is as colourful as the zebra stripes on the outside.

Epsom Common yields to Ashtead Common with a private wood in between, permissive paths around it. I meant to take the bridleway passing a Roman villa, but turned off too soon - on the Epsom side of the private wood - though this long path still yielded beauties like this stand of oaks

as well as identification of a butterfly I'd seen previously using its camouflage with folded wings on a dead leaf

as a Speckled Wood

alternating on brambles and bracken with the Gatekeeper or Hedge Brown.

What looks like a bee resting on a nearby leaf,

a hoverfly on the notice board at a junction (look carefully, it's taking the yellow path)

and more moulted mandarins in the shade by a small, over-algae-d pond.

Had an interesting chat with a man out walking his lovely collie; he told me this land, bought up by the City of London in 1870, was used for army training in World War Two, and you might find a black lipstick, remnant of camouflaging. Soon I found my way to the lovely meadow about Ashtead Station

and found a large flock of sparrows - not such a common occurrence these days - dustbathing and flitting just before the level crossing.

Dependency on public transport certainly doesn't leave one free as a bird. There was a bus replacement service to Epsom; station attendant told me to hop on the one outside, and it took me in the opposite direction, towards Dorking. So half an hour wait for the right one at Leatherhead. Still, these are peripheral irritations to visits that have much more pleasure in them than I'd anticipated. I may have sacrificed my usual time in Estonia at the Pärnu Music Festival - been lucky at least to watch the concerts on the festival's TV channel - but I know I did the right thing.

Friday, 23 July 2021

Another journey with Tristan and Isolde

Staring next Wednesday afternoon (UPDATE - now 4 August owing to an emergency hospital visit last week), I'm back on Zoom again along with anyone who cares to join me for ten glorious (I hope) two-hour sessions on Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. This course is under the auspices of the Wagner Society of Scotland, for whom I embarked on what should have been four weekend courses at beautiful Gartmore House in the Trossachs on the Ring. We managed Das Rheingold and Die Walküre - that was during a September heatwave, sun burning early morning mists away outside my bedroom window pictured below - 

then Covid struck, so Siegfried had to go online, and I followed up with Götterdämmerung later in 2020. We had hoped to return to live events this September, but apparently the booking for two options fell through. So here we are on Zoom once again, and in my experience it's been a great opportunity to welcome more special guests than we could have done live. On the Wagner front, I've welcomed John Tomlinson to talk about Wotan-as-Wanderer and then again about Hagen; Susan Bullock, Anne Evans and Richard Jones, in what turned out to be a fascinating three-way conversation; Linda Esther Gray (the greatest of all Isoldes? Discuss - we will, hopefully with her); and, belatedly, Jay Hunter Morris, perhaps the best Siegfried currently with us. Who knows who we'll get this time, probably not so easy as artists return to work? But I'm making enquiries. 

If you're interested, message me here with contact details; I won't publish them, but I shall respond. It's £100 for the course, which I think is a bargain at £10 per session (which may well be longer than two hours, dependig on interest). If you can't attend all or any of the classes, I can send out Zoom videos the day after.

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Scientific humanists: Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

In the beginning, at least as far as explaining 'cosmic evolution, science and civilisation' to the layman goes, there was Carl Sagan's Cosmos.


40 years later in 2020, his widow, soul mate, co-writer and creative director of NASA's Voyager Interstellar Message Project, produced a sequel, Cosmos: Possible Worlds.

I haven't seen either TV series, but a quotation of one of Sagan's wisest sayings - absurdly, I forget now what it was, which is why I need books to mark such things in pencil = led me to the first volume. As a book, a masterpiece, all the more so because you feel you are in loving hands. In fact the chapter that moved me most, though others might have made me wonder and reel more, is the one he calls 'The Persistence of Memory'. First he explains the 'gene library' and the 'brain library', taking us from the basic biological functions of the brainstem to the 'R-complex' capping it - 'the seat of aggression, ritual, territoriality and social hierarchy'. to the cerebral cortex. It ' regulates our conscious lives. It is the distinction of our species, the seat of our humanity. Civilization is a product of the cerebral cortex'.

Explaining further distinctions, he moves back to figures: 'The equivalent of 20 million books is inside the heads of every one of us. The brain is a very big place in a very small space' (this after we've spent most of the book dealing with the immensities of the cosmos and its calendar). Then he talks about the miracles of actual libraries - how 'books can lie dormant for centuries and then flower in the most unpromising soil. The great libraries of the world...[contain] ten thousand times more information than in our genes, and about ten times more than in our brains'. And this is just beautiful writing:

The library connects us with the insights and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. Public libraries depend on voluntary contributions [in America, I guess he means]. I think the health of our civiization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.

That, of course, was written in 1980, but I think it still holds true in essence, as do all the great ideas and emotions. And the world wisdom is illustrated not only by the quotations Sagan uses at the top of each chapter, but also by how much was known so long ago - and then ignored by centuries of religious intolerance and persecution. In the third century BC, polymath Eratosthenes used 'stick, eyes, feet and brain, plus a taste for experiment' to deduce not only that our little world was not the centre of the universe, but to work out its circumference. 1800 years before Copernicus, Aristarchus of Samos worked out that the Earth was a planet and revolved around the Sun. To accept all this takes humility, and scientists, who know that what they may discover could be overturned by their successors, are mostly humble people. As Druyan puts it in her preface:

The scientific approach to nature and my understanding of love are the same: love asks us to get beyond the infantile projections of our personal hopes and fears, to embrace the other's reality. This kind of unflinching love never stops daring to go deeper, to reach higher.

This is precisely the way that science loves nature. This lack of a final destination, an absolute truth, is what makes science such a worthy methodology for sacred searching...The vastness of the universe - and love, the thing that makes the vastness bearable - is out of reach to the arrogant...

I know a way to part the curtains of darkness that prevent us from having a complete experience of nature. Here it is, the basic rules of the road to science: test ideas by experiment and observation. Build on those ideas that pass the test. Reject the ones that fail. Follow the evidence wherever it leads. And question everything, including authority. Do these things and the cosmos is yours....[Scientists and mathematicians] live a commitment to a consensual democracy that puts ours to shame.

This all has immense importance to the wider picture of where we are now (in a bit of a mess, but wasn't that always the case, more or less, with most periods in history?) But the details in each book back it all up. How fascinating are the portraits Druyan adds to Sagan's, among them those of Victor Goldschmidt, who took physics, chermistry, geology, mathematics out of their boxes and joined the dots; of Nikolay Vavilov, whose concept of a world seed bank was realised and protected by his co-workers during the Leningrad siege and who came up against the disgusting opportunist Trofim Lysenko, with tragic results in the Stalin era - yet the institute lives on (above image, which appears in Druyan's book, by Mario Del Curto from Seeds of the Earth - The Vavilov Institute); of Angelo Mosso, who took pioneering steps in neuroscience: of Gerard Peter Kuiper, who posited the idea of trillions of possible worlds. and whose protege, when he held a post as 'the only planetary astronomer on the planet' at McDonald Observatory, was the 21-year old Carl Sagan. Pictured below: artist's impression of a Kuiper Belt object (KBO), located on the outer rim of our Solar System at a staggering distance of 6.5 billion kilometres from the Sun.

Yes, all these pioneers were men; only a few women get a look-in across both books, namely Hypatia of Alexandria, martyred as a representative of learning and science, and Marie Curie. And Druyan flies the flag for women's involvement in all this.

Perhaps the most moving connection of all is one that Druyan tells us about at the beginning of her fifth chaper, 'The Cosmic Connectome'. She begins, tensely, writing as she waits for the results of delicate, microscopic surgery on her son Sam's AVM (arteriovenous malformation). When the surgeon, interventional neuro-radiologist Dr Nestor Gonzalez, finds out Sam is Carl's youngest son, he tells him 'but that is why I am here!...When you grow up in a poor country like Colombia and someone inspires you to pursue a life in science, as seeing Carl Sagan on TV did for me, medicine is the only avenue open to you'. I find Druyan's observation also very emotional: 'It feels as if, in a completely unsupernatural way, Carl has reached across the decades to help save our son's life'. The operation is successful; Sam's brain has not been damaged. 'All my life I have been writing love letters to science and today Dr. Gonsalvez has justified my love'. 

The adventures to find out more about other planets, which started with Sagan's work on the Mariner, Viking and Voyager expeditions, continues. I don't follow Druyan's concluding optimism that we might settle on other planets, other stars, but she earns enough trust along the way to make the case.

Saturday, 29 May 2021

The week of opening up

 This (the destination for my second jab last Wednesday)

has, in essence, made possible this,

namely my first sight of an auditorium since December, and my first time within the main Royal Opera House since March 2020. Does the classical curia give a clue? It's Richard Jones's production of Mozart's La clemenza di Tito, all of a piece with the superlative conducting of Mark Wigglesworth and a vibrant cast, half of whom I'd never heard of, but all of whom were classy indeed (just heard that Emily D'Angelo, the Canadian-Italian mezzo who sang Sesto, has a contract with Deutsche Grammophon. Seems that RJ wants the Vitellia, Nicole Chevallier, for Weill's Lady in the Dark, as she loves musicals and is a real stage animal). The Arts Desk review of first night is here. Later in a week of wonders, I filmed a Zoom interview with Richard for the fifth of my Zoom Opera in Depth classes on Clemenza this Monday. 

Mark W and Ian Page of the Mozartists, a generous presence throughout the classes, joined us live and we watched the first 22 minutes of the interview; I ran the rest in an extra half hour. Living with this incredible music, Mozart often as minimalist, has been like treading air while dealing with heavier stuff on the Russian Music course.

There was nothing heavy about Tuesday's London Symphony Orchestra concert back at the Barbican (queueing for a very well-organised entry pictured above). Simon Rattle actually prompted the tears that hadn't flowed in the excitement of the previous night in his opening speech (a one-off, he said). The music to excite 'that noise you make with your hands' was celebratory with a dash of wistfulness: Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, three numbers from Faure's incidental music to Pelleas et Melisande, Dvorak's first set of Slavonic Dances. Review here and photo below by Mark Allan.

After this, the first of the two LSO concerts, I had time before the 'finissage' of partner J's first exhibition for a year at the 12 Star Gallery, so I paused for a blissful coffee and caramel brownie outside Konditor in Waterloo. Then on to the show, where the select few (or rather more than a few) had temperatures taken before admission. Simone Bergmann's photos of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival - or rather of the happily naked attendees rather than the performers have created quite a stir, The exhibition finished on Friday, but this little film is still worth watching,

Our lovely friend Katharina von Ruckteschell-Katte, head of the London Goethe Institute, who features in the film, also made a speech on Tuesday evening alongside head of the European Parliament representation in London Susanne Oberhauser. Would you believe it, this photo by the resident expert Jamie Smith was banned from Facebook because of the bottom in between them. And some attendees were irritated that other private parts weren't properly shown (though there are some distant willies). Anyway, this prudishness or prurience are both irrelevant - it's a joyous celebration, a symbol of what we're missing. And they're fab photos.

Susanne used some good lines, but didn't adopt J's 'Arsch for Art's Sake'. And that is probably Best Bottom, but what I particularly like is that the cool dude has round his neck what look like gun cartridges but turn out to be harmonicas.

We were allowed to take our masks off once seated at tables with a good distance between us. So good to be able to meet and talk to friends. I look a touch ernst here talking to Lucy Hannah (on the right) and her surgeon godson.

General shot, good as always from Jamie.

Probably the first time in ages I've been a bit hungover (from several glasses of wine). and there was no lingering on Wednesday morning as it was second jab time. J had booked his for 10.50, mine was at 10.30 so we overlapped and I was able to stroll around the Science Museum for a bit.

It was especially exciting to look a bit closer at the spare section, as I've just finished reading the two Cosmos books by Carl Sagan and his wife/widow Ann Druyan, scientific humanists both: more on those in a future post.

My vaccinator turned out to be opera singer Annabel(le?). We started chatting because she commended my EU mask, and I just happened to have one in my bag to gift her. She seemed very spirited but obviously disappointed because Savonlinna, where she was due to be covering Rosina, had just cancelled its operas for the year, The following week she was auditioning for English National Opera; I hope it went well for her. As I left I heard her calling after me: I'd left my precious vaccination card on the table. That at least meant I could take a shot of her in the main area.

There was a lively protest/bit of street theatre outside against the Science Museum's acceptance of Shell as a sponsor for an exhibition about the environment.

Then we went on to have coffee in the sun outside the South Ken Comptoir Libanais, and I cycled off through the parks to Wigmore Street, where it has another branch, to hear Sean Shibe's lunchtime recital at the Hall: haven't been parted from live concerts there for quite so long. The system for admittance is as admirably rigorous as ever.

The programme was a mesmerising winner; review here. And as, unusually, it wasn't livestreamed/broadcast on BBC Radio 3. I had to take a curtain-call shot of Sean in his ruff. 

Hmm. He can just about carry it off, as he did the reddy-pink boiler suit for his electric guitar shocker the last time I heard him at the Wigmore. Glad that most of the programme, plus magical Rosewood pieces by Irish composer David Fennessy (which he played in the quieter half of the previous Wigmore spectacular), has been captured in his recital for the delightful and enterprising Fiachra Garvey's West Wicklow Festival, also from London but sans ruff.

Here you get some enlightening chat (at 15m6s) before the recital at 28m50s. Love it that one of his earliest memories is his dad (potter Paul Tebble of a great Edinburgh institution, the Meadows Pottery, with Sean's mum Junko Shibe) singing him and his sister to sleep with 'anti-Thatcherite coalminer anthems'. Then there are some deliciously off-piste observations, which briefly fox even Fiachra.

Being in the vicinity of Regents Park, I cycled up there - haven't been for months - and was pleased to find St John's Garden open again. Still some wisteria at the gate,


irises flourishing against an early rose of sorts


 and a beautiful, post-rains light for general views across to the villa which once owned this garden.

Then on, eventually, to divobass Freund Peter Rose around the corner, where his usual mirthfulness was doubled with the presence of director Paul Curran. Photos I have of them aren't very good, unfortunately.

More garden scenes, but also rain again, for the opening of the Glyndebourne season: kudos to the Christies for agreeing to four productions, three new, a concert staging and quite a few concerts too. The decision was taken a year ago - very bold. As was Damiano Michieletto's production of Janáček's Káťa Kabanová, which is not to say I liked it or thought it served high musical values well. Here's why I didn't. If only the angels had stayed in shadowplay; this, among many images by Richard Hubert Smith, makes the production look better than it ultimately was, though focus was retained throughout.

Only wish I'd thought of David Thompson's thoughts when the Act 3 curtain for the storm rose, very predictably, on more gyrations: 'it's raining men'. 

It was raining cats and dogs when my friend Deborah and I emerged to take up our place on a bench at the head of the lake, so we moved our picnic stuff to the wonderful new covered area they've put up on the croquet lane. Gone are the exterior excrescences; this looks good (pictured later, when the rain had cleared away).

We did manage a good stroll before the performance, everything uncut looking lush after so much rain.

Deborah, who has been on a campaign near her home in Lacock to stop the National Trust cutting down bee orchids for a car park, was thrilled to see numerous specimens of the least exciting looking variety by the lake, the Common Twayblade (Neottia ovata; like the Dunnock, it may look ordinary but has a fascinating sex life, as Darwin pointed out). Couldn't decide which shot to choose, so take your pick.

Copper beech beyond the fence at the far end of the lake (quite a few of them in the vicinity) looking handsome

and even once the rains set in, there was a poetry (apart from these people, we had the lake to ourselves).

Windows of the Organ Room through budding mulberry (soon it will be too thick to see them).

Can't resist reproducing Deborah's cartoon in the card that arrived yesterday:


Just joyful to be there - especially as I have finally liberated myself from DJ conformity with my advance birthday present from J, a Nehru jacket - and clearly the staff felt the same; there was a wonderful energy about the peripheral circumstances, and great care too, though people WOULD keep taking off their masks once they were seated.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings were devoted to the white-heat-as-usual Ragged Music Festival of pianists and partners Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy. I've written myself out on the subject for The Arts Desk here, but again the peripherals are fun. Hadn't taken the canal path behind the row of buildings before. Usual suspects among birds, Canada Geese and coots, but their offspring were amusing, and Saturday afternoon was the first time I've ever been to the Ragged School Museum when it wasn't raining (it was on Friday and Sunday).


Irises had been planted in front of the graffiti-ed walls

and this was a novel approach (for me) to the building

After the renovation, it will have changed beyond recognition, and I wonder if the atmosphere Pavel and Samson love will have gone. Probably best, though, because there must be health hazards. There's beauty in peeling paint and general decay, though.

One last glimpse of the journey there on Sunday afternoon: geese contrasting with Canary Wharf skyline

and obstructing the towpath. You don't mess with protective parents. I and the cyclist heading for them had an amused chat about it while we waited for them to move.

This week has seen a necessary break from concerts and opera, and a return to more consistent nature here :the London Wetlands Centre, where the hides are now open again, and Chiswick House, where we saw the massive walled garden for the first time. But that's for another time.