Sunday, 18 February 2018

Beulah: perfection of the life, and of the work

It may have been the best funeral I've ever been to, and if that sounds weird, my dear friend and opera course student of 20 years, Dame Beulah Bewley, had planned that it should be so before dementia took over. I always loved visiting her and Thomas, her totally devoted psychiatrist husband of 62 years (they were essentially together for 65), in their Grosvenor Gardens Mews home (oh, those bookshelves, and Thomas's collection of Irish masters). His favourite photograph of her hung on the bedroom wall and presumably has pride of place in the Wimbledon care home to which they moved, and where he still lives.

On the first occasion when the illness was some way advanced - Beulah had already survived multiple heart attacks - she described J and I as 'the musical side of the family,' which made us feel very honoured (we get on so well with the four surviving 'children', Susan, Louisa, Henry and Emma; Sarah, who was born with Down's Syndrome and a congenital heart syndrome, lived contrary to all expectations to the age of 44). On the last visit, I arrived after J to find Beulah sleeping, as she did increasingly, but she woke up, gave me the most beautiful smile and hug before turning to look at J and say 'you've lost weight' (which he markedly had). Those were the only words on that visit, but they made it all worthwhile; as it always was anyway, seeing Thomas and her sitting together.

Susan took a great many recordings of her mother talking about her remarkable life, which became this finely edited, proofed and presented book. I finally read it in its entirety in the week of the funeral. 'My Life as a Woman and Doctor' is apt, since I don't know anyone who has ever kept a more remarkable balance between life and work. I can hear Beulah's voice - direct, warm but unsentimental, wry and surprisingly flinty at times - in every sentence.

She describes her comfortable upbringing both sides of the Irish border, her determination to become a doctor from the age of five - an uncle who told her 'dentistry would be more suitable for a nice young girl like you' gets very short shrift - her studies at Trinity College Dublin, the early days from which the below photo in their home within Tooting Bec Hospital was taken, balancing part-time work in pediatrics and family planning (in which she was something of a pioneer, later finding her sensible views on abortion echoed in David Steel's pioneering bill*) before academic retraining in research into public health (starting with a major study in smoking among schoolchildren). She was made a Dame in 2000 for her services to women doctors, explaining the possible reasons with typical directness.

I personally treasure the friendship of Beulah and Thomas especially because they were among the few people I wanted to go out and have supper with at the time of my depressive illness (and they asked us a lot). There was never any pressure to 'perform', even if they also invited guests I didn't know, because boy, could they talk - usually at the same time. They also came to various events including our civil partnership lunch party - the below photo I don't have in electronic form, so it will have to do with the rather odd bleaching effect from the flash -

and to hear J singing. It was after a splendid concert to celebrate the work of 'Ireland's Minstrel', Thomas Moore, that Beulah decided she wanted J to sing 'Believe me, if all those endearing young charms' at her funeral. So he did, very wonderfully though I say so myself, between Henry reading Yeats's 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' and Emma giving the most evocative tribute.

I think we all admired Rev Ralph Godsall's sermon for reinforcing the 'woman and doctor' aspect, the sense of a life supremely well lived, and I'm grateful to him for referring to a memorable line and a half from Edith Sitwell's Eurydice:

                             Love is not changed by death,
And nothing is lost and all in the end is harvest.

Hannah, Beulah and Thomas's only grandchild, daughter of Susan and her partner Barbara, read Revelation 21: 1-7, and the professional choir sang superbly. I blush to say I didn't know either Tennyson's 'Crossing the Bar' - the poem he always wanted placed last in any collection of his work - or Parry's eloquent setting of it (one to set alongside the Songs of Farewell which are among the glories of a cappella choral writing).

Here's the only decent performance of it I could find on YouTube.

I felt that the music, including three of the hymns to which towards the end she could still sing along with, was like Beulah, too - unpretentious, seemingly simple but with a very singular lucidity. Despite a bitterly cold, wet day, St Margaret's Church also seemed so bright; I took this photo after the service more or less from where I'd been sitting.

At the refreshments in Church Hall, in addition to warm words with most of the family, I also saw a student I'd really liked who'd come along at good friend Beulah's behest, Kate Broadfoot, looking very stylish despite the fact that her legs won't do what she wants them to (at 87, she's like my mother, almost the same age, in that respect - indignant that her body isn't in as good a shape as her mind). I then had hours to spend in town before what turned out to be just the tonic, Iolanthe at ENO, so first I went to meditate, as I recently did very regularly, in Westminster Abbey's Chapel of St Faith, taking a look on a circuitous way out at the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots (this is the only shot I snuck in before I realised I wasn't supposed to, honest),

and then walking across St James's Park, where the pelicans didn't seem to mind a cormorant (or seagulls) sharing their rock,

to the National Gallery, which has a marvellous free exhibition of Degas pastels and drawings from the Burrell Collection, not all of which I'd seen up there - though 'Jockeys in the Rain' is still a highlight for me, such a singular composition -

and on to tea at Maison Bertaux, a rare treat these days (it's very pricey, but Michele - only just found out it's only one 'l' - keeps it as it always was). And there I read a substantial amount of the wonderful autobiography, which I finished this morning. Susan now has her work cut out piecing together Thomas's memoirs.

*I modified this sentence slightly following Susan's comment thus: 'I think her views were probably formed well before 1967. As part of my own thinking about this as an Obstetrician/Gynaecologist, I remember the stories she told me as a medical student seeing a woman die of septic illegal abortion, and knowing that the safer option for rich women was to come over to the UK if they got pregnant even in 1940s/50s.'

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Lights in the dark, cold and wet

Lumiere came to London for a second time to brighten a January weekend, and though what I saw only had a couple of highlights to equal the more widespread success of 2016, I'm glad I made it out on a beastly Sunday evening to see them. Westminster Abbey was again the classy zenith, with another contribution from Patrice Warriner lighting up new aspects. Then it was the 20th century saints above the west door; this time their surroundings, in a constantly shifting light-show,

and the triple north porch, a very convincing Gothic pastiche by Giles Gilbert Scott.

Possibly the best view of Hawksmoor's west facade is coming from St James's tube, and crossing the road which leads to Victoria,

though fine details without a zoom were best seen from standing right in front of the towers,

and there was another good viewpoint further away, between London planes, from the terrace of the QEII Centre.

Scott's door, completed after his death by his son, has all the right Gothic ingredients for the same sort of illumination that 'painted' the west end saints.

Over the main entrance are figures carved by Messrs Farmer and Brindley. Christ in Majesty blessing the Church and the World is surrounded by angels.

Below them are seated figures of the Apostles and underneath are figures in procession which represent the science and the arts alongside the royal builders of the Abbey. On the central pillar the Blessed Virgin Mary holds the Crowned Christ in her arms.

The pillars to the side are fine, too.

The rain stopped as I walked up a (nothing doing) Whitehall. The illuminated balloons by Collectif Coin in Trafalgar Square would have been fine without the soundtrack - a problem of quite a few installations; less son, more lumière, please.

It was quiet in St James's Square, though well peopled as I walked through the centre admiring the multihued cords hung from tree to tree - Spectral by Polish artists Katarzyna Malejka & Joachim Sługocki.

I'm glad I walked through the passage of St James Piccadilly to reach the thoroughfare, because I had forgotten that Arabella Dorman had followed up her first response to the humanitarian refugee crisis, Flight, with a second, Suspended - a harrowing explosion (I think she called it a bomb) made out of hundreds of items of clothing discarded by refugees arriving on the beaches of Lesbos.

It hangs like our bad conscience above the heads of the congregation. How could one not be moved by this, especially by such details as the bib with 'My 1st Christmas Ever!' on it. 

Some Christmas that would have been. Sadly the installation has now been taken down, having run its due time, but St James is such an impressive institution for commissioning work like this.

Here seems as good a place as any to put up some long-withheld pictures of another striking illumination, from a year back (there was another before Xmas, but we didn't make it).

I came across the Chinese-lantern illumination of Chiswick Park and House by chance, on one of my regular cycle rides down there via the riverside. There was an admission charge to the display proper, but the tree-lined avenue was free and had some pretty blooms along the way like this one behind snowdrops,

and this,

as well as an even more impressive gateway the other end.

I walked back, wheeling my bike, and snuck into the garden in front of the greenhouses which accommodate a major camellia collection.

The sounds of the distant fun-ground blended with the chatter of multiple blackbirds at sunset.

The illuminations made a fine foreground to the Palladian villa

and created another, forbidden-city palace to rival it.

As the last of the natural light began to fade, I walked back, catching a reflection in the greenhouse window

and one more general vista.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Flaming frauds and frivolous flibbertigibbets

Forgive the excessive alliteration, but it seemed a neat way of conjoining this week's Dante and Bach discoveries. The latter is Richard Stokes's suggested translation for 'Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister,' the title of Cantata BWV 181. The former refers to Ulysses and Guido da Montefeltro, speaking as tongues of flame in, respectively, Cantos 26 and 27 of Inferno. The Eighth Circle, heading towards the bottom of the funnel, is reserved for 'Simple Fraud', and the eighth of its 11 bolgie contains these 'counsellors of fraud in war'. If we widen that definition to 'fraud in words', then it suits the three mini horror clowns I've rather crudely coloured in flame tones above - Gove, BoJob and J Rees-Mogg, the GoBoMo triplets, folk who use a rather silly form of cleverness to deceive the gullible, though God knows they're petty demons compared to Dante's heroic hell-dwellers.

Once again, following on the heels of the talking twigs, our artists are confounded by the fact that it's the flames that speak, not figures within; but you have to allow Blake and co their visual licence. What's said, as our reader Dr. Alessandro Scafi and interpreter of deeper meaning Prof. John Took underlined in Monday's Warburg session, is tauntingly selective and if you don't have the entire context - even this Ulysses/Odysseus narrative departs from the Greek sources, and Guido da Montefeltro is not as familiar to us as he was to those living shortly after his death - you need plenty of glosses even before the meaning can be plumbed.

Dante gives us Ulysses' last journey, but not as we know it from Homer. After leaving Circe, he does not head for Ithaca and the moving/violent homecoming of The Odyssey: 'neither the sweetness of a son, nor compassion for my old father, nor the love owed to Penelope, which should have made her glad, could conquer within me the ardour that I had to gain experience of the world and of human vices and worth' -

    dolcezza di figlio, la pieta
del vecchio padre, 'l debito amore
lo qual dovea Penelopè far lieta,
   vince potero dentro a me l'ardore
ch'i' ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto
e de li vizi imani e del valore...

'A devenir del monde esperto' - this had been an earlier stage of what Prof. Took calls 'Dante's problematic humanity'. After the death of Beatrice, he spent time in the Florentine philosophical schools acquainting himself with Cicero, Boethius and, for him the greatest, Aristotle. His discoveries are noted in the Convivio. But this absolute enthusiasm for life-knowledge needed rethinking in the contet of his spiritual existence - 'quickened by grace and revelation' (Took) - and the Divina Commedia marks Dante's 'theological encompassing of reason'.

So did Dante see Ulysses as a dark image of his own earlier, 'recklessly self-confident' reasoning? He certainly refers to him a lot; and elsewhere he uses the idea of a physical journeying as the image of a spiritual one (the oceanic image crops up in Paradiso's Canto 2).  The below Doré illustration, by the way, is for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but it fits Ulysses' last journey towards the extreme west well.

Here Ulysses goes beyond the boundaries, marked physically by the Pillars of Hercules, and his crime is to use his tongue to persuade his old remaining company to follow him to what turns out to be extinction: 'you were made not to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge' ('fatti non foste a viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza'). Is this hubris? Or, more precisely, in John Took's so-eloquent phrase, how 'the word fractures communion for pure self-interest'?

The end finally comes in the whirlwind from the high mountain surmounted by Eden; it sweeps the men to destruction.

There's fabulous drama in Guido's speech. The man of arms became a Franciscan, 'believing, so girt, to make amends; and surely my belief would have been fulfilled, had it not been for the high priest, may evil take him! who put me back into my first sins' -

   Io fui uom d'arme, e poi fu cordigliero,
credendomi, cinto, fare ammenda;
e certo il creder mio venìa intero,
   se non fosse il gran prete, a cui mal prenda!
che mi rimise ne le prime colpe...

This is Pope Boniface VIII, Dante's deadly enemy, who asked Guido's advice in subduing the Colonna family in Praeneste/Palestrina.

I love the dark humour of the black cherubim who seizes Guido's soul (depicted above by Joseph Anton Koch in a drawing in the Thorvaldsen Museum - he is also the artist below), saying, 'Perhaps you did not think I was a logician!' ('Forse tu non pensavi ch'io löico fossi!'). Then he drags Guido off to Minos, who twists his tail furiously eight times in judgment on the sinner destined for 'the thieving fire'.

 Next week we descend to the very bottom to meet Judas, Brutus, Cassius - and Satan. Io tremo.

Bach's BWV 181 takes us from the threat of hell to heavenly consolation via the New Testament reading for Sexagesima Sunday, the Parable of the Sower in Luke 8.4-15. The sower in question casts seed on four types of ground which image the varying types of receptivity to Christ's word, from stony to fertile. 'Leichgesinnte Flattergeister' is unusual in beginning with a bass aria in which some have detected the pecking of the birds who gather up the seed on the worst soil.

There's a helpful connection to Dante and Milton with the appearance of Belial in the aria's central section.

It feels to me more like an operatic number by Handel, strengthening the notion of theatricality in the cantatas. The recitatives are highly expressive, and in the short tenor aria, I love Rilling's choice of vivid harpsichord, mirroring the thorns of the text, against the bassline - throbbing at 'höllischen Qual' ('hellish torment'). The second recitative turns us to comfort, and a chorus at last, bright with trumpet and a soprano/alto duet in the middle. Gardiner praises its 'madrigalian lightness', a good way of putting it. This is a short cantata, but as original as any.