Saturday 26 August 2023

ENO Xerxes, Class of '85

The wonderful Jean Rigby (on the right top in the above Zoom class, with Ann Murray top left and Christopher Robson bottom right) played her part, back when I was running my five classes on Britten's Albert Herring, getting others to come along who'd been in the immortal Glyndebourne production directed by Peter Hall. So we had, not all at the same time but all with so much to say, Nancy (Jean), Sid (Alan Opie), Albert (John Graham Hall, so funny), Mr Upfold (Alexander Oliver, ditto) and Florence Pike (Felicity Palmer, another hoot). I think that counts as some sort of historical reunion - and of course all concerned said it was among their favourite operatic experience of a lifetime. 

With Serse, I'd originally hoped that we might reassemble some of the stars of the new English Concert recording following on from an electrifying live performance. It's become my Desert Island Handel. Emily D'Angelo, Lucy Crowe and Paula Murrihy are megastars, but the first two very kindly told me they were busy (Emily on a new Handel production, Lucy on end-of-term stuff with her kids), while Paula I'd already prevailed upon to talk Octavian just before the Irish National Opera Rosenkavalier, along with conductor Fergus Sheil (and what a triumph that turned out to be). In the end Harry Bicket, whose skill is total in entwining orchestra with voices and who was working on a new production of Pelléas et Mélisande in Santa Fe, came along for a much-appreciated ten minutes at the beginning of one class. Before I move on, tell me if you know a more fiery piece of Handel than D'Angelo singing 'Crude Furie' (there is an equal, below, from La Murray, but can you get better than either?)

Get this recording: it's superlative in every way. 

Then we hit another bullseye - not only Jean, who'd played Amastre, Xerxe's discarded lover disguised as a man, in the groundbreaking ENO Xerxes directed by Nicholas Hytner, but also Christopher Robson, the Arsamene - and, wonder of wonders, the great Ann Murray, thanks to an Irish friend who knew her well, Joe Brennan.

She turned out to have as wicked a sense of humour as La Palmer, and had us all in stitches with candid reminiscences (not least about Charles Mackerras, who of course was never the easiest conductor to work with, but rightly a perfectionist). Yes, it was history: the production which marked the start of the Handel opera revival. It's been revived frequently and would still work now. The whole Channel 4 film is up on YouTube, but horribly distorted (I picked up a second-hand DVD). Three clips are, I hope, to the point. In the first Jean's major solos as Amastre have been stitched together.

The second has a duet everyone remembers - and not just because duets are rare in Handel operas, more because the English translation helped to make it such fun (the whole thing works in English, I think): Robson's Arsamene in a lovers' spat with the wonderful Valerie Masterson's Romilda.

And finally, the English version of 'Crude furie' from Murray. Piquant that the subtitles are the Italian original. Special visual rewards here, as always thanks to Hytner and the commitment of his singers. Ticks all boxes as a Great Operatic Performance.

What miracles of substance and design the ENO programmes were in those days. I still miss the chameleonic and brilliant Nick John, whose untimely sudden death was a shock to all of us. This is the cover of my first Xerxes programme - I caught it for the first time in the 1988 revival, which included the above three singers.

Inside, style and useful detail were one.

Now three weeks into my summer Wagner course on Zoom, and enthralled as ever by the peculiar world of Parsifal, I dug out my ENO programme from 1986. The articles and quotations within are numerous and useful even now. I confess to some shame in not remembering more about it than I do, since Goodall was conducting (I wasn't a fan in those days of his extended lengths) and - will you look at this insert, placed to the right of the programme cover. Jerusalem singing in German to an otherwise English cast was parallel to an earlier experience I had at the Royal Opera, when Rita Hunter sang the Trovatore Leonora in English to Carlo Bergonzi's very Italian Manrico ('what are you saying? I cannot understand you').

Only ten two-hour-plus Zoom classes will do for Parsifal, especially as I have to make way for guests. John Tomlinson will return towards the end, when we go back to his Gurnemanz in the Kupfer production, but already in the second class we had sense and inspiration from Andrew Gourlay, whom I saw in action live for the first time in a terrific complete Firebird score with the National Youth Orchestra. He's made a very careful selection of music to form a suite, with minimum interference and hardly any filling-in of vocal lines. Here he is top right, and this time I've done a close-up in case it's too difficult to make him out (I have 60 students and even though not all can make it live, we're still on two screens).

You can watch Andrew conduct the LPO in the whole suite here on YouTube, though I heartily recommend the Orchid CD:

Still my favourite performance of the Prelude is Bruno Walter's.

Wednesday 23 August 2023

From Tweet to X-crete to X-it


Well, dammit, I DID go, in the end. Cutting off nose to spite face? After all, there are so many lovely musical folk on there, and I found out about performances of whichI wouldn't otherwise have been aware. But the endless procession of hated faces being cursed - Letby, 30p Lee, Sunak, Braverman etc - was lowering to the spirit, and when along with endless gadget ads Marjorie Taylor Greene turned up in my feed, where the despised are usually only there because like-minded folk are shouting about them, it was time to go.

Nor are alternatives left. Mastodon proved hopeless, my guilty return to LinkedIn was terminated by another blocking - here's the post about the previous one - because my objection to brave Russians being arrested, imprisoned, tortured, even killed in Putlerland was classified as bullying. Would I recant? No. So I'm out of there for ever too. Do I regret it? No. Once the decision re Twitter was taken, pop-ins to pick up private messages showed how small and toxic a world it was, even if I didn't get the haters piling in. And when a supposed colleague lashed out at me over a criticism of an artist with 'who cares what you think?', I realised the headspace occupied thereby wasn't worth it. Much better to spend more time on this, reading, maybe even getting on with Prokofiev Vol. 2 when I return to health. And remember, Tweeters stuck in Muskville, there is a world elsewhere.

Saturday 19 August 2023

Bánffy's Transylvanian Trilogy: not found wanting

To call it 'the Hungarian War and Peace' doesn't do justice to Miklós Bánffy's three-volume chronicle about politics and the aristocracy in the decade leading up to the First World War: it is of equal fascination in the nuancing of its characters, that very Tolstoyan way in which we find sympathy even for those who start off as dislikable. It has a special value in that the Count lived through all this and, writing from the perspective of the 1930s, pours much of himself into the main character, Balint Abady. 

Like Abady, Bánffy had diplomatic experience before he became an independent member of the Hungarian House of Representatives, fighting for the rights of the Romanian-speaking population in his native Transylvania. At the time of the novel, 1904-14, Transylvania was part of Hungary; after it, part of Romania. Between the wars, Bánffy made a crucial contribution to his shattered country's reappearance on the world stage as Foreign Minister from 1921-2 and later resettled on his home estate, Bonczhida (Denestornya in the novel); in 1945 the retreating Germans trashed it. I understand that with the Bánffy family's assistance, it's being gradually restored, but even the shell is fascinating (Bonczhida Castle pictured below in 1893-4). Nearby Kolozsvár, now Cluj-Napoca, is also described in loving detail. 

With its three subtitles taken from the 'writing on the wall' episode in the Book of Daniel which ends with the downfall of sybaritic Belshazzar, the trilogy can seem forbidding before you start reading - and then, in the very first chapter,  Bánffy sweeps us straight into the world of the doomed aristocratic milieu as young Abady finds his carriage one among many heading for Var-Siklod, the country place of Count Lacock who's holding a house party following the Sunday races at Vasarhely. With incomparable vividness  Bánffy introduces us to many of the main characters, expanding upon their behaviour in the following chapters devoted to the house-party. The first two volumes especially teem with vivid descriptions of hunting meets (to shoot foxes and hares), balls and other social extravaganzas. Bánffy doesn't intrude too much with authorial judgment, but we know he's telling us that so much of this is TOO much. They're paralleled with sensitive evocations of the beautiful countryside and the mountains: time for a visit next spring. 

Parallel to this is the charting of Abady's growing social conscience, his observations of a parliament in Budapest obsessed with matters of local and national interest only. The wider European picture only really emerges when Balint learns of it from a cynical political operator, Hawlata, well in to the second volume: 'at that time [1907] no one believed in the possibility of war in Europe. Everyone accepted that the race for armaments was just a device of the great powers which was nothing more than a safety-valve used to save everyone's face'. A placid patriot up to this point, 'it hurt him to hear such a low opinion of his countrymen coming from a foreigner'. Part Two Chapter Six ends with a breathless Abady at the window of his room, wondering 'what price would be paid by his own country, by Hungary, and by his beloved Transylvania which had always stood as a proud fortress on the road from Rome to Constantinople?' He looks down on the distant light of a train passing through the Vag valley and realises

That would be the road down which would go so many of the flower of the nation's youth to the horrors of war, to their death in battle...and against such a vast enemy their sacrifice would surely be in vain...

The very last chapter of They Were Divided sees the nightmare come to pass in a nihilistic (or realistic) epilogue, as Abady, defeated in his personal as well as his public life, curses his generation and his people. Among others,

He saw before him the magnates and noble families, who thought only of social prominence, who forgot their European affiliations and threw the weight of their great fortunes and moral influence behind all that nationalistic nonsense of which they did not believe a word and which, in consequence, had poisoned the nation's politics...

Now this land would perish, and with it that deluded generation that had given importance only to theories, phrases and formulae, that had ignored all reality, that had chased like children after the fata morgana of mirage and illusion, that had turned away from everything on which their strength was based, that denied the vital importance of power and self-criticism and national unity.

One virtue alone remained: the will to fight.

And that too would prove in vain.

A truly great novel, though, stands not by the power of its rhetoric but by the living, breathing complexity of its characters, and here Bánffy yields nothing to Tolstoy in detail and shifts of register. The author makes us aware of his alter ego's weaknesses - we follow his early attempts at speechmaking with concern - while making sure that Abady holds the moral compass. The other main character is his cousin László Gyerőffy, a young man of potential genius as a musician who throws it all away on gambling and a dissolute life due to a fatal weakness of character stemming from his early orphaned state. Surely we all know someone like this, someone with friends who want to help him (or her) but ultimately prove powerless. In Book Two, there's a very moving and unexpected scene between László and the outwardly crabby 'Crookface' Kendy, who determines to help the dead-drunk young man because he remembers his irredeemable second cousin Daniel being in the same state.

The psychology of László's angry defensiveness and his surprise capitulation is masterly, but the most moving words belong to 'Crookface': 'There isn't enough love in the world for anyone to throw it carelessly away'. But László does, every time. And it's in connection with his capacity for destroying others that the two strongest women in the novel make their mark.  First is the ravishingly beautiful Countess Fanny Beredy, puma-like in her movements, who has musical talent to equal the man with whom she falls in love, resourcefulness and a fascinating personality. László's pride ruins both their lives; incapable of loving anyone else, Fanny's only realm of power remains in wielding what influence she can as the mistress of various powerful men - though Banffy makes it clear that she doesn't hold all the cards. Her disappearance half way through the saga is very troubling; we expect her to re-emerge, but she doesn't, and I wonder if the mysterious benefactor who keeps the destitute László going for as long as possible is supposed to be Fanny. But we never find out. This portrait by Jozsef Rippl-Ronai isn't quite how I imagine Fanny, but it has elements.

Another woman's Calvary, as Bánffy puts it, with even more of a 'don't do it' on our part when faced with László's ongoing self-destruction, is placed in the personage of handsome and independent Sara Lazar, farm manager and better at it than most men in the district. Bánffy's chronicle of how she comes to help the once again degraded youth out of practical sympathy, and falls in love with him, is infinitely nuanced and touching. We think it doesn't have to end badly. But Gyerőffy's character ensures there can be no happy ending.  

Alongside Fanny and Sara, the great love of Balint's life, Adrienne Miloth, cuts a less consistent picture. Banffy is frank about sex, and rape within wedlock, which makes the early stages of Adrienne's miserable married life very shocking. And her Mephistophelian, perverse husband Pal Uzdy doesn't always behave quite as one expects - this is another of those complex portraits at which Banffy excels. But even though she's modelled in part on a Bánffy muse, Carola Szilvássy (pictured below), Adrienne remains a frustrating and elusive figure - perhaps that's half the point. 

The big set-pieces tail off in They Were Divided, and this is no doubt deliberate: the rapid unfolding of events leading to war overshadows everything, though there are two brilliant narratives which bring a kind of light relief - the ridiculous circumstances of a duel challenge resulting from a spat between two comical Anglophiles at a reception for the French Prince Gaston d'Orleans promotion of his anti-duelling league, and the ridiculous Pityu Kendy's 'execution party' for Brandy, which amuses Balint and then disgusts him as the epitome of Hungarian fatuousness. The political disquisitions mount, making the final volume a different kind of book; but I'm sure Bánffy intended no less.

If the author was unlucky to be neglected under Communist rule, the endless hard work of his daughter Katalin Bánffy-Jelen and Patrick Thursfield in translating it all has to be acclaimed as a miracle - without them, so many Bánffy admirers would know nothing of his genius. It's fascinating to find references to his diplomatic and artistic lives which minimise the 'writer' aspect. But even Bánffy's surprising championship of Bartók's ballet The Wooden Prince and opera Bluebeard's Castle as Intendant of the Hungarian State Theatres is underdocumented, at least in English. Scenarist and librettist Béla Balázs has a very caustic style in his recollections of Bartók for the composer's 60th birthday,  but concedes that the Count was 'a talented and intelligent man, and painted lovely scenery'. I suspect you have to go to Budapest to look in the Raday Library for these designs; the only photos I could find were in a lively piece of Banffyana on the website of the tour company Reality & Beyond: I hope the link is enough to reproduce these two images, for what it isn't clear, but the landscape could well be for The Wooden Prince.

A biography of the great man in English is clearly overdue. Thanks to the indefatigable work of Bánffy-Jelen and Thursfield, though, we do have two substantial chunks of memoirs which take us beyond where the novels stop, From My Memories (1932) and Twenty-Five Years (1945). It seems cruel to have gathered them together under the title The Phoenix Land, because Bánffy makes it clear in his introduction to the latter how 'the annihilation that the second catastrophe Fate has brought down upon us is infinitely worst than the first'. He died in 1950, and would be horrified anew at the cynical manipulation of nationalism to feed prejudice that continues under Orbán's ever more disastrous 'Führerdemocracy'.

There's a queasy parallel between the two sets of memoirs. The first begins with Bánffy's imaginative role, as theatre intendant, in creating the spectacle of the last Habsburg coronation in 1916, right in the middle of the First World War. The second includes the comic-operetta haplessness of 'King' Carl's first attempted putsch within Hungary, and the potentially lethal consequences of his second, which could easily have seen Bánffy and others executed had it succeeded (fortunately the vanity and weakness of this impossible creature put fatal delays in the way of a proper Budapest siege, and as Bánffy points out, the Czechs and Romanians would have invaded immediately). I still see Habsburgists waxing lyrical over this coronation without any thought for what the pathetic Carl became. Anyway, it was Bánffy's theatrical instinct to swathe the entire Coronation Cathedral in deep red.

There is some comedy in Bánffy's descriptions, but Part Two of 'From My Memories' turns dark as revolutions threaten his country and he finds himself first trapped in Berlin just as the Spartacist uprising begins, then not too unpleasantly marooned in The Hague, where he turns his hand to portrait painting (plenty more humour here). His most important time as a politician, detailed in Twenty-Five Years, follows the fall of Béla Kun's communist regime, when he serves as Foreign Minister to the honourable István Bethlen, trying to minimise the damage done by the Treaty of Trianon. There's a totally dazzling character sketch of Bethlen adapted from an article originally in the Nouvelle Revue Française, comparing his political emergence to the evolution of life on earth from amphibians to four-legged mammals. I'd love to quote it in full, but I'll let you have the pleasure of seeking it out. At any rate Bánffy also turned out to be a first-rate caricaturist during his time at the 1922 Genoa Conference; it's frustrating not to find more than a couple of reproductions online, and no version of the book subsequently produced, but this is his Bethlen

and this Maxim Litvinov of the Russian Delegation, the arrival of which had all nations holding their breath.

I find it fascinating that my other polymathic, complex discovery of the year, Count Harry Kessler, whose diaries I should have tried to encapsulate here, overlaps with Bánffy at the Genoa Conference. Both give equally vivid impressions of the charismatic Lloyd George especially. Both also had so much in common, balancing diplomacy with their many cultural interests, both fluent in other European languages. Bánffy encapsulates the essence of good diplomacy: always tell the truth in what you actually say - what you don't say is also important - and the essential maxim that 'if one is to confer successfully with foreigners, it is essential to know their way of thinking and be able to put oneself in their place'. Working so assiduously with slippery characters, though, brought him to the edge of a nervous breakdown.

In a way I wish Bánffy had kept diaries like Kessler, but the 'Red Count', as the latter was called in a much more dramatic volte-face than the Hungarian's flexible sympathies, wasn't entirely honest, so it comes to more or less the same thing. Kessler left us another important legacy, but Bánffy's must be seen as the greater literary figure, creating a masterpiece on a level with Tolstoy and Lampedusa. And so readable - when I announced that I'd picked it up halfway through Vol. 2 in hospital, some were concerned that I wasn't going in for lighter material. But I was soon in that world again. I urge you to go for total immersion - once you start, you should be hooked.

Saturday 12 August 2023

Happy places recollected in convalescence

I still think it was something of a miracle: given notice of my big operation at Charing Cross Hospital that it would take place on Tuesday 18 July, I ruled out this year's chance of visiting my favourite annual event anywhere, the Pärnu Music Festival. I'd been booked to arrive on the 17th; J would join me on the 19th, and the following week we'd spend discovering Lithuania. I simply hadn't thought of what mover and shaker Lucy Maxwell-Stewart proposed: why not see if we could shift my days to the beginning of the festival? Amazingly, the festival agreed: I would leave the previous Wednesday, and return on the Monday evening before going in to hospital the following morning.

Between them, the PMF and the NHS swung into action. My brilliant Macmillan nurse, Anne Moutadjer, fixed up five appointments for me on the Monday and Tuesday before my departure on the 12th: another MRI scan, outpatients, stoma, plastics team, surgeons. So I was good to go.

The festival always has an enchanted air, but this year for me it was especially magical. Starting with our driver from Riga Airport, ex-bassoonist Marcus now in the middle of his national service. Traffic in Riga was awful, so we arrived late, but perfectly happy. Here's the moment of unloading with Marcus's harpist girlfriend Kaisa, who also works in the office, our flattering Marcus - 'when you two speak English in the back it's like some kind of fairy-tale' (let's not ask which one) - and Lucy. 

Though it was an immense bonus to catch the first concert, which is conducted by my hero Neeme Järvi (who turned 86 this June), I didn't mind missing the first half too much: after all, as Auden pointed out, Mozart's divertimenti were composed as background while 'Milord chewed noisily, Milady talked'. We were glad of the excellent coffee and a snack, and I told Kristjan Järvi how thrilled I was that he was putting on a 'Babylon Berlin' spectacular - another plus of being there for the first five days. The Divertimento, meanwhile, is burbling away on the screen behind us.

My dear friend and photographic artist extraordinary Kaupo Kikkas didn't think I'd make it, and was very moved when we stepped in to the hall at the interval. For a full (very long!) account of all the events, with the usual superb photos by Kaupo, read my Arts Desk coverage. I just wanted to add here that I really did feel the great warmth and concern of many of the great musicians I've got to know there: the first visit to the Passion Cafe found many familiar faces sitting round a table. As Alec Frank-Gemmill knew about my condition, word spread fast and I felt very love-bombed. 

I also got to know more of the top viola players present. Andres Kaljuste (pictured left) has been a good friend since we first met one Passion lunch in the company of his wonderful pianist partner Sophie Rahman (alas not there at this year's festival). But I hadn't spoken before to Julia Dinerstein - teaching at the Järvi Academy, had just played in Strauss's Capriccio Sextet that evening - and her husband Alexander Zemtsov, former LPO section leader, soloist and conductor. It's a viola-oriented family: their daughter Dana and AZ's brother Mikhail (currently undertaking a surname change, I gather) also play in the Zemtsov Viola Quartet - and there are others...

Another lively spirit, interested in everything, is Xandi van Dijk. I had no idea he was married to Kärt Ruubel - first-class pianist and admin both here and for the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra. Somehow the news made me joyous - two more delightful people you couldn't hope to meet among musicians. Their young son was here too.

Xandi also played viola to Kärt's twin Triin's violin - I heard the Ruubel sisters as a fabulous duo in Berlin -  in Mozart's Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, a surprise highlight expertly conducted by someone I've got to know a bit on Twitter, Mikk Murdvee. But there's more about this on TAD.

Finally, the master-co-ordinator who brings all these people together, forging ties across the musical world which will last for a lifetime. Paavo Järvi also happens to be one of the world's great conductors, of course - I'd put him in the top five - and Estonian Festival Orchestra concerts are always events, a parallel to what Abbado achieved in his last 10 years in Lucerne. Glad I got to talk to him again at the end. There he is above on the right with Tea Tuhkur, former bassoonist in the orchestra, now working for the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, and that classiest of leaders Florian Donderer.

Pärnu was also an opportunity to get as fit as possible before the op would curtail my movements for some time. So I swam daily in the sea

and the river, actually much better for instant depth because you have to wade a long way in the Baltic, though I enjoy that too,

as well as plenty of walking - up to the meadows and marsh at one end of the bay, where there's a fine boardwalk around the latter

and plenty of tern action along the way. 

They don't hesitate to swoop above their weight, as it were: when babies are around, even the crows are likely to get it.

The boardwalk at the other end of the beach I took on an afternoon when mass cumulo-nimbus clouds seemed to be heading our way: I have memories of being drenched a couple of years back.

But while Kaupo told us of torrential downpours on the main road from Tallinn, the storm passed us by.

I did take a big long walk from one bridge over the Pärnu River

to the next

and back on the opposite bank, swim included, but I didn't cycle. My last time on a bike for the foreseeable future - since after the op I'm not allowed, given my plastic behind, to do so for at least six months - was during the other blissful close-to-op festival visit, covering three fabulous events in Ravenna. I remembered the peaceful setting of Sant'Apollinare in Classe, the only UNESCO World Heritage Site outside the city centre, from two concerts there. 

This time I had it more or less to myself - otherwise, there were only a few other tourists in twos or threes. Not bad for one of the wonders of the world, both in its apse mosaic and in its colonnades of beautiful pillars.

The bike path is parallel to a minor road, with sunflower fields on the other side, and then there you are in total tranquillity.

Always happy to look back on my first coverage of the best mosaics in the world from my first festival visit (though I'd seen quite a few of them Interrailing in 1982). In addition to meeting old friends in Ravenna and making, I hope, a couple of new ones, I was so happy to welcome the irrepressible Sophie Sarin, inspiration for this blog when she maintained her own much more exciting one about building and running a mud hotel in Djenne, Mali, and what happened next. She's now just set up a guest house in Siena and was in the midst of its taking off, which is why she could only visit for less than 24 hours. But once past a meltdown finding her air B&B, I think she had a lovely time. She conceded that la cucina di Emilia Romagna is so much better than Tuscany's - I took her to the Alighieri which does a range of utterly distinctive dishes with various home-made pastas (the festival folk, who have offices above, use it a lot).

I insisted that, as a first-time visitor, she saw the so-called Mausoleum of Galla Placidia - my favourite small bulding in the world, much raved about here - and San Vitale. We also had to walk around the Zona Dantesca, including his still very much in use parish church, San Francesco

and of course Dante's tomb.

I think Sophie eventually 'got' the special magic of Teatro delle Albe's 'Don Chisciotte' Part 1 - like the stunning Dante, it will be spread over three years - but she absolutely did love the supper afterwards. I'd had a super lunch with three of the regulars, and always feel welcome on the big table outside at the restaurant they've been coming to for 40 years, Al Passatore. I love these people, above all their guiding spirits Marco Martinelli (to my left in the photo) and Ermanna Montanari (just beyond, with her back to us), more than ever. Sophie was especially tickled to be driven home by Quixote himself, Roberto Magnani - who started off as a teenager in the company - in what he called his four-wheeled Rosinante...

I didn't get to swim on the coast - my plan for the last day, to cycle again and hit the woods and the sea, was khyboshed ny the heatwave that begun, fortunately, the day I was leaving (it was 37 degrees at Bologna Airport in the early evening). But before that, I'd achieved my target of a swim a day while in Ireland - seven in Dublin Bay, mostly at Sandycove

and most of them with my New Best Friend Catherine Bunyan (here she is at the Forty Foot on the right, with visiting friend Marcelle Hanselaar).

My first swim alone nearly killed me - as noted here on a previous reconnaissance, the water at Coliemore Harbour looked so inviting, 

but once out of the harbour entrance, the rip tide between mainland and Dalkey Island is notorious. Thought I'd have to shout out for help as I got weaker, but managed to get near to the harbour wall and wade along touching the kelpy, rocky bottom (just as well Ireland doesn't have sea urchins). The currents are notorious - wish I'd known, didn't see a notice on one of the quay arms - and folk have drowned. Anyway, to complement my gannet sequence, I mustered energy enough after a little lie-down to catch tern action

and the distinctive white  ovals on the back of a White-Winged Scoter (correct me if I've identified wrongly).

Then there were two swims on a beach we had more or less to our (four) selves (we were staying with friends in Midleton, a trip based around going to see the phenomenal Siobhán McSweeney in Happy Days at Cork Opera House, which did not disappoint). This is Ballynamona near to Ballycotton, good as the tide's coming in for quick immersion.

Ireland's coastline didn't have the benefit of a National Trust/Operation Neptune to provide anything like the 598-mile South West Coast Path we walked over a decade. But the Ballycotton Cliff Walk is as lovely as anything in Devon or Cornwall.

Nature was out to oblige - a Stonechat or two kept us company

and this beauty, which turns out to be not a bee but a very large fly, rather basically named as of the Yellow-Faced variety.

We stopped for a picnic at Bryony's and Jon's favourite spot

and J and I went down to the beach with its splendid rock formations

while diverse shades of green tumbled down the cliff close to a cave entrance.

More familiar companions on the route back.

As coda to the swimming time, I got two more delicious early morning plunges at Aldeburgh around a cluster of sensational festival events

and the daily dips in rnu. The good news is that I can swim with my stoma, too... But my, does that take some getting used to. The first four days in hospital weren't so good, though thanks to the epidural I mostly slept through the first two, and then vomiting sessions meant I had to be intubated - the ghastliest thing I've ever had done to me while conscious. But the staff were a joy, a model of collegiality, professionalism and good humour. I'm glad I got a fair cross-section of them together for this shot, which I treasure.

So many wonderful visitors, too, whom I welcomed in the second week - first, I wasn't really up to it - and the biggest surprise of them my beloved godson Alexander, who came down from Scotland specially. Not a bad view from the window either, looking out over to the Wetland Centre.

Having completed my stoma diploma, I was free to leave on the evenng of 31 July, and amen to home being so close via the Margravine Cemetery that I was able to walk home. J put this out on WhatsApp as 'David putting the hospital behind him'.

Since then I've been blessed with many home visits and tried to do a daily walk. Tuesday's circuit of the cemetery with friend Simon and therapy dog Max

was exhausting, but it's been getting a bit easier. On Thursday I went by foot and tube to meet friend Jill at Paul, South Ken tube, before J's birthday supper at Ognisko. And yesterday, before he departed back to Dublin, I took a bus to meet him at my favourite of all the gardens along the river (yes, even including Kew), the Walled Garden of Eden (as I call it) within Fulham Palace's grounds.

Let's end with some cemetery visitors, as I've just embarked on Patrick Barkham's The Butterfly Isles. Margravine shows what happens when you let No May May extend, in part, throughout the summer. Butterflies everywhere, but my absolute discovery was the beautiful Marbled White, first seen with the eyes on its undercarriage, then displaying.

Their season is now over, I think. Earlier I saw a Comma

while Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers are still abundant.

The distinctive yellow and black caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth, overlooked by a ladybird that might have consumed them, promised much, but not yet seen the results. 

One thing Barkham tells one is about the different rates of progress from egg to caterpillar, pupa (or not) and butterfly. Looking forward to learning so much more.