I got a £34 ticket in the front row of the upper balcony for £10, where empty seats there were more plentiful than in the packed arena above – where sat cost-conscious youth. So not a great commercial success. Does Mulhy pull off this attempt at using 'conventional' opera to bring social networking to the stage?
I certainly enjoyed the show, but with some major reservations. It had the clarity that so won over Edward Seckerson in his five star Independent review. Too trite to say this was because of it's lack of sophistication, but musically it lacked depth, dynamics and impact, save for the final, climactic ensemble scene. The orchestral music in particular is way down the list of what impressed. There's also naïvete about the libretto which was irritating. Did it have to be dumbed down for its conservative Metropolitan Opera commissioners? Some of the lines were either just daft or merely prosaic. A middle-aged DI who doesn't know what a server is? At least the chat speak made for some entertaining surtitles.
No wonder the music sounds a bit like washed out Britten: the wicked boy-loving gardener is a Peter (Grimes?) There's even gamelan. The vocal writing and performances especially are excellent, particularly Susan Bickley as the Detective, Nicky Spence as Brian and young Joseph Beesley as boy treble Jake. Visually it's impressive - all grey and monolithic, with huge whirling projections that map the net. The chorus gaze moodily into their eerily bright laptops and sing out in silhouette on the stairs of the two towers on which the internet chat that drives the story is projected.
Overall verdict: dramatically it's a compelling enough old style whodunnit with the bonus of sordid webchat fumblings (if you like that kind of thing) 'in the netherworld where there is nothing but cheerless cheer'. The singers are stunning, and the music has its moments, but too much of it lacks real impact. From the enthusiastic applause, 'Two Boys' was a hit with a mostly much younger, geekier crowd than is usual at ENO, if not with the group of twentieth century music enthusiasts that I spoke to in the interval. The internet brought them together, but Muhly's opera about its sinister side had failed to impress. Elsewhere the iPhones were glowing praise even before the conductor took his bow. Muhly can only get better, I hope.
I very much enjoyed a visit to the Wim Crouwel exhibition on its closing day at the Design Museum. Looking at the show's design, which is very much in the spirit of his work, I was struck by a line in a video interview shown there. He attributes much of his success to an early collaboration with Chinese architect Kho Liang Ie, saying (if I paraphrase correctly) that he very much responded to the Eastern sensibilty in Kho Liang Ie's work, with its emphasis on atmosphere and simplicity.
Crouwel's huge influence and the freshness – even today – of his designs prove his success. Work by Peter Saville, Banks & Miles and 8vo were among many very evidently inspired by Crouwel. They also featured at the Design Museum. The exhibition asserts that Crouwel single-handedly defined the graphic look of Holland – from his work in the sixties on Schiphol to enumerable logos for companies like Fasson, Fodor, Makro, Rabobank and Randstad. The radical simplicity of these logo designs is very recognisably Crouwel, but how much has he caught the 'atmosphere' of the organisations?
Grids and fonts like Univers (and not necessarily Helvetica) continue to be key in his work. Some strikingly creative calendars were among my personal favourites. Crouwel is by no means averse to serifs, and attributes much of his early success to a fantastic relationship with an ideal client who only criticised his work after it had been published. If only they were all like that. In another memorable quote he describes a book 'as a three dimensional grid'. At almost 83, Crouwel is still productively and creatively working.
It's a pity that the slim and small format catalogue was so expensive at £17 and that it resorts to tricksy photography to show a great man's work.
Take one familiar Shakespeare play made up of mortals, immortals and a gang of rude theatricals. Turn into a popular opera in which half the play is gone, the fairies are all boys and the big story is Tytania’s mistaken love for an ass. Spice up in a new version set in a grey state school where Oberon wants to have his way with the boy, jealous Puck sulkily observes his own dream and all the fairies wear sun-glasses and blazers and smoke.
This is the recipe for an unnerving show booed by some and slated by one critic (who still loved it) as ‘nasty and gratuitous’. ENO is ambitiously setting out its stall as ‘the premier opera house for Britten’ in this new production by Christopher Alden of Britten’s A midsummer night’s dream. Iestyn Davies sings the counter tenor role of Oberon created for Deller, Anna Christy is a sparkling Tytania, Graeme Danby is Snug and Willard White is in excellent form as Bottom. However, whether Bottom really needed a band called the Tops is just one more than dubious decision on view at the show we saw last night.
The opera opens with warping, downwardly skidding glissandi and a chorus of boys. Britten brilliantly used different themes, chords and instrumentation – including a harp and celeste for Oberon – to delineate the mortals from the fairies. The 1967 Deller recording conducted by Britten establishes a bright and magical mood. His fairies are wicked, but not evil. At ENO a sustained evocation of grimness and corruption drained the first two acts of almost any hint of enchantment. The cast all moved like sleep-walkers and their dreams were far from pleasant.
In spite of the broodingly sinister treatment of the first half and the essay on paedophilia in the programme, Britten’s notorious pre-occupation with boys was chaste and connected with his own childlike psyche, not with corruption. In this production Oberon chain-smoked and chalked lessons in ‘amo, amas, amamus’ before leading his boy victim off to be initiated. The set was based on a photo of a Victorian board school, complete with a large sign over the central doorway advertising ‘BOYS’. Although Britten intended Theseus to be absent from the stage until the end, in Alden's interpretation he drifted about puzzlingly.
But for my promise that the best was yet to come we would have left at the interval. The best music and set pieces are certainly in Act 3, which played to 55 minutes after 100 minutes before the interval. In the mechanicals’ Pyramus and Thisby, Britten skilfully parodies a Donizetti mad scene. At the Coliseum the set was transformed, the players flashed and fellated and the immortals looked on from their box. The lovers’ quartet, with its interweaving rising themes, was delightful. Thankfully forgotten was the adolescent coupling by the school bins we'd seen earlier. All musically was very well indeed – but as troubled Theseus hovered, Alden’s intention was evidently to spook us still.
I have breaks but I'm not broken. This particular butterfly is re-emerging, almost nine months after a devastating cycling accident. I was knocked off by a hit-and-run driver, who left me unconscious in a ditch with a smashed face that took 12 hours of surgery to put right.
Thanks to seven or so titanium implants and more screws than I want to count, the cracked bones are back in place. I didn’t get a new front tooth at Christmas, but an implant or bridge will eventually sort that. Weeks of physiotherapy have strengthened weak muscles and restored almost all normal movement. The aches and pains have almost all faded. I’ve been incredibly lucky. The medical team were fabulous, and so were so many friends, who buoyed me up and helped me through the most difficult time.
For a good reason, perhaps, my mind was wiped clean of almost all memories of the accident and the first few days of my recovery. Now I've time to reflect on what happened and what it means for the rest of my life.
My bike had lights and good reflectors and I remember that minutes before the accident I was cycling safely. So why did I choose to cycle down an unlit road late at night without the luminous clothing I normally wear? The answer is that being seen at night was the last thing in my head when I set off for Paris on a sunlit afternoon a few days earlier.
Like most adult male cyclists, I wasn't in the habit of wearing a helmet either – and this is my legal right. Fortunately I sustained no injuries to the part of my skull a helmet would have covered.
I've always thought of myself as optimist, and someone who is by nature happy. Previously, long rides from Lake Garda to Venice, Florence to Sienna and the Hague to Bruges had all been without incident. Why should a 15 minute ride home be any different? This happy optimism turned out to be more than a little misplaced.
Inevitably, research has shown those who are happy really do die younger, perhaps because of a more happy-go-lucky attitude to risk. In addition, one in five Britons and half of all other Europeans are thought to be infected by toxoplasmosis, an ingenious parasite that lodges permanently in our brains, modifying our behaviour so that we are more likely to do dangerous things that might be to the parasite's advantage.
Read the press coverage of cycling behaviour and the emphasis is almost always on making cyclists ride safer (often with the implication that they are irresponsible), not on making motorists pay proper attention.
My perception of the risks of cycling has changed dramatically, as it should perhaps in other areas of my life. Cycling always seemed the most innocent and carefree of activities. But the truth about cycling, as James Cracknell and several friends have found out recently, is quite different. One set of statistics claims the length of time one would have to travel to have a one in a million chance of being killed is:
By air – 4,300 hours; By car – 10 hours; By pedal cycle – 2 hours & 40 minutes
So if you ride, ride as safely as you can manage. A helmet won't stop you getting killed, but it may prevent brain injuries. Be aware of the risks. And when you drive, always be on the look out for cyclists. Please.
‘The trouble with religions is they talk far too much about God!’ These words, spoken to the Revd Jamie within five minutes of meeting him, say a lot about mother. She disliked showiness, pretence and anything bogus. She had a very sharp mind – and it was sharp right to the end – and a knack for cutting to the truth when you least expected it.
She was the second eldest of five children, born to an engineer and saintly mother – who was herself one of 13, and people said took after the Queen Mum.
Doris grew up on the edge of the Fens in Peterborough surrounded by many friends and this large and loving family. I know she would be so delighted to see you here today.
We knew that we could always depend on her for quiet and sure counsel – even if it wasn’t necessarily what we wanted to hear. She shared with my father Noel a delight in providing impromptu hospitality, sometimes for slightly bemused complete strangers he brought home from Sonning.
Doris’ family moved down to Reading before the war, and her first job was working for old Mr Heelas at what became John Lewis. She loved returning to Peterborough to keep the books for her uncle Joe, who had peacocks, ran a farm and took her to watch his horses race. Later she worked for a remarkable insurance broker called Sam Loades. It was there she met her first husband, Stan. Mr Loades was famously generous, showering the newly-married couple with regular gifts even after she was assigned to war work for the Inland Revenue. There she was asked to set up Reading’s P45 section ‘because you know as much about it as any of us’.
Doris and Stan helped her younger brother Ronald Allen realise his dream to become an actor, supporting him through RADA and seeing every production. She loved the theatre, and remembered meeting stars like Richard Burton and Vivien Leigh who she met on the set of the first Titanic film, A night to remember. Stan’s work took him to Birmingham and especially Newcastle where she delighted in the warm character of the Geordies.
Doris and Stan eventually parted and she was whisked off to Australia by Noel who she met on a Farmers’ Union holiday on the river Rhine. They were amazed to discover they had been born in the same street, and she was enthralled by his stories of sheep-shearing in the bush and dam-building in New Zealand. In Adelaide she worked on the Australian Stock Exchange where she said it was pointless speculating ‘because even the brokers never made any money’.
When they returned to England ‘because you’d better choose between Australia and me!’. She persuaded father to take a job at the flour mill in Sonning, which she remembered from her childhood trips along the river.
For Linda & I, that we were brought up by the most wonderful mother almost goes without saying; she brought these same qualities to her role as grandmother to Sarah and Katy.
She threw herself into community life, having great fun organising a fund-raising auction for the primary school. She became secretary of the Pearson Hall and helped oversee its refurbishment. She was produce show secretary, founded the Sonning Art Group and was an enthusiastic member of the village table tennis club. She loved the Burns Nights, the Elizabethan evenings at the White Hart and a famous ‘tramp supper’ where everyone dressed as vagrants.
Our mother loved the natural world. She took great pleasure in sharing what we children called her ‘kitchen sink discoveries’ – an upturned glass that moved on its own on a meniscus of water, or the sudden flash of a colourful bird seen from her belovèd kitchen window. She loved the SUMMER, and especially our three-week escapes to a beach-hut at Mudeford. There she rested from the hard work of making ends meet, whether providing bed and breakfast for four students or keeping the books – and my father – on track in the newspaper business they ran together.
Our mother loved the AUTUMN, as a time of harvest. She and a group of friends had great fun helping out with the potato picking in Sonning Eye and she made pots of jam with the soft fruit my father grew in the garden.
Our mother loved the WINTER and delighted in remembering how we children, just arrived in England, were got out of bed to watch the magical snowfall down by the river, in the light of the French Horn floodlights.
Our mother loved the SPRING most of all. She was an accomplished artist and in that season took great pleasure in going out to paint. She joked how, long ago, she had studied art and was awarded the prize for ‘the most promising student’ – because she had come on from such a very poor start.
For her, the Spring was a time for new beginnings; for the reawakening of nature after the dark of winter. So whatever we are now feeling, I know she would want us to be comforted and to look forward – just as it says in our second reading.
Doris began to succumb to debilitating illness three years ago, stoically bearing the pain and discomfort, with the regular support of so many loving friends and neighbours. She kept her ability to look on the bright side, even to the end.
The day she died, she listened at Sue Ryder – where they took the most wonderful care of her – to a choir that sung ‘Hark the Herald’. Jamie said prayers with her. Two days before she had told me – somewhat wondrously – that she’d taken communion for the first time in some 70 years.
This was a good life, a simple life, a true life, and a life of LOVE. ‘May she rest in peace and rise in glory’.
Whatever it is usually taken to mean, the word 'holy' seems to be derived from kailo which actually means 'whole'. It seems to me that some of the greatest holy people, like Gandhi or Mother Theresa, have been very much engaged with the world and its problems. So you don’t have to get yourself to a monastery to be holy. I think the derivation of the word suggests that a holy life needs to be as much as possible a 'holistic' one – fully rounded. Shared with others and lived in full.
But holiness and asceticism, in the sense of withdrawal from wordly pleasures, are two ideas often linked. Why?
If our lives are choc-filled with work and pleasure there isn’t much time to think spiritually at all, never mind tussle with what holiness might mean for us personally. Asceticism allows for devotion to God and through this devotion some achieve holiness. Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddharta’ talks about the Hindu notion of withdrawal from life towards its end – a time set aside for the quest for holiness.
A sense of the sacred must be essential for the holy life. This sense teaches that life is a precious gift, nothing should be taken for granted, least of all others, who must always command our respect.
An ability to be trusting (to the will of God if you think that way) and to accept the twists and turns of our destiny seem also essential.
They also include the idea of purity, and this is another key part of the western historical idea of holiness. Respecting the body by not misusing it enables greater devotion to God.
Many holy people (including Gandhi) have chosen to be sexually abstinent. Not because sex is wrong but because it is a distraction from the holy life. If casual sexual encounters encompass love and respect and are part of a life that is fully-lived rather than driven by obsessive need, can they too be part of an existence that is holy?
Christ spoke to children, but he also raged when something was wrong. So courage and determination to fight for the right must also be essential components of the holy life.
The trap is in the phrase ‘holier than thou’. Holy people don’t think they have a monopoly on the truth or that they are superior to others.
And then there’s love. Love for ourselves and for our fellows, and for God.
Quite a shopping list. And no doubt of one thing at least - 'for now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face'.
This is Nuneham Park, the work of the enjoyably-named architect Stiff Leadbetter. The house has an additional wing by Smirke and decorations by 'Athenian' Stuart. Leadbetter was also responsible for Newton Park near Bath, as well as Taplow Court in Bucks, the UK headquarters of the Japanese lay-Buddhist order, SGI-International.
The first Earl Harcourt, who was a favourite of George III, had Stuart build his 'temple' after finding the medieval church inconveniently marred the view of the pleasure grounds he commissioned from William Mason (and that were inevitably later elaborated by Capability Brown). He also destroyed the churchyard. The then rector complained of the site of the churchyard: 'He mows and rolls it at his pleasure'. The Earl also found the village of Nuneham Courtney inconvenient, so he demolished it and re-located it in what were undoubtedly better houses on the main Oxford Road. But the new grounds were good. Painted by a young Turner, they were admired by monarchs including Victoria, and used by Dodgson as a setting for Alice's adventures.
The Chapel is also very much in the best possible taste, with all manner of Italianate fitments including a statue of a pretty curtesying girl and a piteous monument to the first son of a later Earl, who is carved naturalistically as if in sleep, clutching pristine flowers forever. The chapel also contains funerary wreaths for Edward VII, some carpet left over from his funeral service, and any amount of baroque candle-powered lighting equipment, since the place became redundant long ago and was never connected to the electric supply.
Earl Harcourt himself is not I think commemorated here, but was buried at Stanton Harcourt. The Estate he took so much pleasure in re-modelling claimed him in the end, since he drowned in a well there, after he attempted to rescue a favourite dog which had somehow fallen in.
Just once a year there is a service in the chapel. This year it coincided with a national church music festival. Gibbons and Tallis and the choir of Dorchester Abbey provided the music. Sounds from long before the chapel took shape spilled out past the white plastic congregational seating and into the clear blue afternoon where the land falls away to the Thames and the English landscape seems to roll on forever.
Afterwards we were entertained to tea in the house. I'd been promised vegetable samosas, but very happily ate miniature curved poppadums and scones and jam. Seated on elegant chairs on thick carpet and surrounded by immaculate gilt and plasterwork, the scent of the rose garden wafting in to us, we were served by white-clad, clear-eyed volunteers from the Brahma Kumaris, a worldwide 'spiritual university' which has made Nuneham Park its global retreat centre.
This new religious system was founded in 1936 by a diamond dealer from what became Pakistan. Brahma Kumari means 'daughters of Brahma' and women make up most of the leadership of the movement. Rising before 4am to meditate open-eyed, followers are sexually abstinent strict vegetarians (who according to some) believe the world will end in 2036 (They revised the date when one they had chosen earlier passed uneventfully). Their meditation system is based on the 2nd cent. BC treatise of Patanjali, which also inspired Transcendental Meditation and your local yoga evening class.
The 'Murli' is a collection of what are thought of as spiritual revelations, providing guidance on avoiding the unenlightened (including family and friends) and the cinema. I spoke to a Liverpudlian follower who had a quietly intense passion for the 'concentration' achieved through meditation by the leaders of the movement.
A website for 'exiting' Brahma Kumaris denounces the movement for its practice of taking money from followers. Since the world is soon to end, you don't need dosh, and had better store up credit for the life to come instead. Suicides of former followers are discussed together with the Brahma Kumari habit of taking money from young girls as dowry, so that they are not 'dumped' on the order.
As I drove back down the long drive to the new village of Nuneham Courtney, I passed a long line of sari-wearing Indian girls and their mothers. Full of tea and scones and the beauty of Nuneham Park I smiled broadly. None smiled back, and they seemed uncomfortable and apprehensive.
I've been swimming again at tumbling bay. Not some exotic Carribbean destination, or even a disused swimming place in Oxford, but the weir pool near here. My nieces had some canoeing practice and I swam down to where the local swimming club used to have its hut. When I was a child I used to wonder what the mysterious abandoned building was, lost in trees close to the river. Then I was given an account of an annual swimming race which used to be held from here to the next village, about 3 miles downstream.
Before foreign holidays, the river was the place for energetic recreation. In Edwardian times the village had its own annual rowing regatta, and for many years boats were for hire at Mr Light's refreshment stall.
Rivers gave life, providing water for drinking by both humans and livestock, and they also carried away the dead. A local mill-owner is still remembered for having punted his wife's body the same 3 miles from the house where she died to her burial place in the family plot in a churchyard close to the river.
The Thames was for work as well as play. Besides the corn ground at the watermill, which was listed in the Domesday book, the damp water meadows round here were perfect for growing willow osiers for the basket-making industry, which had their bark removed (stripping the willow) after soaking in the ponds which several houses still have in their gardens. More than one 18th century local listed his occupation as fisherman - presumably trapping eels in basketwork traps made from osiers taken from the same local withy beds.
As I swam in the fast-moving water I remembered a solitary swim I took years ago when a pair of kingfishers swooped low over the water down at tumbling bay - held in tight formation by the same short stick they both gripped tightly as they flew. So landscape joins our lives with the lives of others, like ours, but lived no more.