Diary excerpts 5

August 24, 2016

4 January
Today I worked out why the Cambridge Librarians in Training group calls itself Camlit.

13 January
Les Troyens from the Met at cinema today. Wondered why the Trojans were discussing Shakespeare, then realised they were singing ‘J’expire’.

20 January
A reading at evensong tonight about the impossibility of circumcision reversal. I shake my head, as if in regret. A man opposite laughs.

29 January
There’s usually an appropriate German word and it’s usually Sehnsucht. The feeling you get on looking up at someone’s window.

5 February
Walking home, ‘Le vent dans la plaine’ came on and I found myself thinking of J when we were sixteen and seventeen, talking about Zimerman and the Debussy preludes and playing two-piano improvisations for what felt like ages but might have been as little as half an hour or 45 minutes, and realising I’d found something important.

8 February
New German reader appears at the desk: ‘Am I right here?’ Hard to say no.

15 February
Granny is 88 today, and opening birthday cards with a knife. ‘Careful or we’ll be off to A&E!’ ‘I’d rather bleed to death.’

21 February
A man in a fluorescent jacket humming ‘Voi che sapete’ in Sainsbury’s.

10 March
You can tell how reliable someone is as a person by their past library fines. L is in his final year and has 38 books out but has never had a fine (and I suspect never will). I would quite readily give him a job here for life.

14 March
On Cesc Fàbregas: ‘His father was made of fibreglass and his mother was some wood shavings.’

Cesc

Edinburgh 2016

August 17, 2016

Another flying visit, another bunch of shows demolished. My findings:

The first show I saw was also probably my favourite, Mr Swallow – Houdini at the Pleasance Courtyard. Two years ago I loved Mr Swallow’s Dracula! so much that I went three times, twice in Edinburgh and once in London, but his Houdini tribute ups the ante. Not merely songs and hilarity and clowning and magic (and breathtaking magic at that; nice to see the return of the satsuma/sashu) but a genuine sense of danger and a mix of exhilaration and bewilderment at the climax. For logistical reasons I can’t see it going on tour, but a London run must surely follow that anyone down south would be foolish to miss. I marvelled at the all-round song-and-dance-and-physical-stuff excellence of Nick Mohammed and his stooges David Elms and Kieran Hodgson. The Guardian review is spot on.

Houdini

Another highlight, entirely predictably, was Kieran Hodgson’s solo show Maestro, Hodgson hotfooting it across town to the Voodoo Rooms every night. On further acquaintance it might even turn out be an improvement on last year’s unimprovable-upon Lance. It’s about Hodgson’s love of Mahler, his attempts to write a symphony, his unsuccessful love affairs. So much for me personally (as a freak of a child who not only listened to Classic FM aged ten but even appeared on it) to relate to. At some point midway through the show it became apparent to me that I was Kieran Hodgson’s ideal man; by the end I was devastated. It’s got a great deal of heart and an uncanny Christoph Waltz impersonation.

The established stand-ups didn’t let me down. Lucy Porter’s Consequences was cosy (this is a compliment) but incisive. I think her great virtue, as with Mae Martin (see below), is her innate likeability. When she’s not making you laugh, she’s making you smile. Paul Foot’s ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Piglet was a different beast. I’d never seen him live before. His manic aggression and posturing are a delight to watch if you’re not in the front row. The people on the receiving end of his scattergun attacks might have felt differently. I laughed most at the teacher’s absurd address to children informing them of the dismissal of a member of staff: ‘We always suspected Mr Trundle was gay, but what really took the biscuit was when he stole the minibus.’

Paul Foot

Mae Martin’s Work in Progress show is as enjoyable as last year’s Us. She starts with 15 minutes or so of material before answering questions submitted by the audience at the start and improvising a song. You just love her. Not stand-up exactly, but I also saw a great show by Dr Phil Hammond, Life and Death (But Mainly Death), a funny and moving story of his family history, ending with a stirring entreaty to love one another and embrace life. Hard not to leave without a smile on your face.

Of the up-and-comers, I enjoyed Naomi Petersen’s I am Telling You I’m Not Going. Ostensibly about her agoraphobia, it’s really a trawl through childhood memories and traumas. Favourite bit: ‘Jennifer’s teasing was water off a duck’s back – if the water was tears that I’d cried on to a duck.’ The Pizza Express aficionado will find a lot to identify with. Sam & Tom’s Peter Fleming and Wilbur Bilb: Over the Airwaves I loved very much, family loyalty or no family loyalty. Fleming’s twisted take on 1960s children’s TV had me helpless at times. The furore surrounding the ‘mechanical synagogue’ was one of many golden moments. I’ve never been less ashamed to be his brother. And the joke I contributed got a laugh, so I was happy. Sam’s semi-improvised anarchy provided an excellent contrast to Tom’s discipline and tightness. I was proud to be shot in the head by him.

If I had to name a favourite Sondheim musical I’d probably be torn between Merrily We Roll Along and Company. This festival I saw productions of both, each excellent in its way. Eltham College’s Merrily We Roll Along was slick right from the off, the overture underscoring a montage of images and newspaper headlines moving forward in time up to the starting point of the musical, which occurs in reverse chronology. Condensed into a single act of under two hours, I didn’t miss the couple of songs that were jettisoned, but I did regret the absence of the reprise of ‘Not a Day Goes By’, which should be a gutting moment. Most reviews and online comments have (rightly) drawn attention to Ruari Paterson-Achenbach’s Charley, but the central quintet were all remarkable, and I was blown away by Sophie Holmes as Gussie, who wouldn’t have been out of place in a professional production. The band was impeccable. The Lincoln Company’s Company was on a smaller scale, a ninety-minute abbreviation with an unmiked cast of ten, an electric piano and a few black boxes in the cavernous Saint Stephen’s Stockbridge. When (female) Bobbi asked ‘Are you ever sorry you got married?’ and the play moved straight on, my heart sank. How can you have a production of Company without ‘Sorry-Grateful’? But it worked, multiple gender switches and all, because it’s such a malleable show and because the talented performers were so committed to it. The nature of the building’s acoustic meant their diction had to be excellent, and it was. Alice Saxton’s ‘Getting Married Today’ justifies the price of admission alone. It runs for the rest of the month and deserves an audience: do go, and sit near the front.

Merrily We Roll Along

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, on the other hand, is a play that defies truncation, given the mathematical precision of its perfection. Could the Pembroke Players’ 90-minute abridged version possibly satisfy? Not wholly – I missed Septimus consoling Thomasina over the loss of so much Ancient Greek drama – but there were a number of things to love. Not the performance space, perhaps, which was sweltering and had the players competing against ceiling fans to be heard; but the performances, especially those of Daisy Jones, the embodiment of Thomasina, sweet with a hint of archness, Colin Rothwell as Bernard, and Xanthe Burdett as Hannah (doubling well as Noakes). If Os Leanse’s turned-up-to-11 Chater felt a bit overdone (he was excellent as Valentine in the modern scenes), it was at any rate audible, a virtue not shared by everyone on stage. I also missed Gus; but with limited resources and playing time this must count as a success. I saw the first performance; I suspect its fluency will grow.

Last but not least, a play by the children of the Dolphin School Theatre Company, Tales from the Tent by Judy Seall, the final performance of which I caught on Saturday morning. It’s a piece that grew out of the school’s involvement with the Refugee Relief charity. Two Russians (played touchingly by bilingual brother and sister Andrei and Ulyana Roberts) pass through a refugee camp, whose other residents pass the time by retelling familiar stories. One girl is the Librarian, who looks after all the books. She has one member of staff: ‘I’m the Assistant Librarian, and I … help.’ One boy plays the violin throughout. The highlight for me was the story of the Hare and the Tortoise, the boy playing the Tortoise (Jamie Thorogood, I think) quite remarkable in his comic instinct. I don’t think you can coach such things: this was an innate funniness, as (for instance) in his deadpan lament when the Hare upsets tea all over his tank top. Some great physical theatre (lights waving in the air), and at its heart a message of tolerance. Very hard not to be inspired by the talent for acting and music and dance on display. Looking at the pictures here brings back how magical it was.

Tales from the Tent

I also had my first deep-fried Mars bar.

Piano progress

July 23, 2016

Four weeks ago, as a refuge from despondency, I decided to learn some new piano music. I love the late Brahms piano pieces, but don’t play many of them. They always sound so forbidding, but although the music is complex the notes aren’t, always, and so I made a longlist of about ten that I thought were surmountable, starting with Op. 118 No. 2. This is how it’s sounding at the moment.

Simon at Stuck in a Book writes that ‘maintaining the good things in life in the face of evil is as much a defence as most of us can manage’ – more or less my attitude in turning to Brahms. On a possibly related note, I’ve been pleased recently to note that I’ve not lost my ability to fall in love with new things. So many of my favourite books, films, pieces of music are things I’ve known since childhood or adolescence, but within the past week I’ve started to explore for the first time the piano music of Billy Mayerl, which contains many jewels, and just last year I watched for the first time Carlos Saura’s spellbinding 1976 film Cría cuervos, which has already become important to me. In that film, Geraldine Chaplin plays for her daughter Ana Torrent this Mompou piece, which I learnt last weekend. (Only now does it occur to me that one of my childhood memories of my own mother, rather neatly, is of her playing the Brahms intermezzo, Op. 117 No. 2.)

King’s College School miscellanea

July 16, 2016

A month ago I picked a slim volume, R.J. Henderson’s 1981 History of King’s College Choir School, Cambridge, off a library bookshelf, hoping it might provide some entertaining anecdotes. It did.

A History of King's College Choir School

The school was founded alongside King’s College in 1441 to provide somewhere for the choristers to be educated, and has grown into a co-educational prep school on West Road, a place I used to walk past in student days to get to the Music Faculty. The book’s fun, full of details from dusty archives and the unpublished memoirs and diaries of its members, and features plenty of people called e.g. Scrope, which is reassuring.

Two eccentrics spring off the page, the first being Charles R. Jelf, Headmaster from 1912 to 1927:

It might be thought that a headmaster who had accepted the post of Master over the Choristers at King’s College might well believe in the spiritual value of choral services and that the school existed primarily for the benefit of the choristers. On the contrary, Jelf’s extraordinary mixture of Anglo-Catholicism and Evangelicalism produced an attitude of derision towards the chapel services, which he openly decried as being nothing more than a concert of sacred music. He himself was a vicar-warden of St Giles, which he attended regularly with his family but, although he attended all chapel services, he derived little inspiration from them.

A similar contradiction was his extraordinary attitude that Oxford was superior to Cambridge in every respect. He refused to pay King’s College the compliment of incorporating as an MA of Cambridge University, wore an Oxford hood in chapel and never dined in College, although entitled to do so.

The other is his successor, the scatterbrained Cedric Moulton Fiddian:

Having sent a boy to his study to be disciplined at 9.30 in the morning Fiddian then forgot about him until, on returning to his study at four o’clock in the afternoon, he asked him why he was waiting there. The boy did not know, nor for that matter did Fiddian, who sent him back into school. On another occasion the headmaster instructed [senior matron] Miss Aikin to prepare a bed for a new boarder, a brother of one Bayliss, already at the school. The new boy was to arrive that evening. A brief remonstration from the matron that Bayliss was an only child was quickly waved aside. An hour later a shame-faced headmaster was forced to apologise and explain that he had only just that day opened the letter advertising the arrival of the ‘real’ Bayliss, who in fact had entered the school three years earlier. Like a good deal of Fiddian’s correspondence, it had disappeared under a sea of books and papers.

~~~

Some time ago I found a 1979 copy of the school magazine Fleur-de-Lys, from which I excerpt the following story, a magnificent tribute to a young girl’s imagination:

IF I WASN’T ME

I was madly in love with my pony, Misty, and I said to my dad, “Could I marry Misty?” and he said, “Of course you can’t,” and I said, “Why not?” and in the end he said, “Oh, all right,” and we married. The next day we got married. Only my sister came to the wedding. The next day I was grooming Misty and I looked in his water trough and realised I was a horse. The previous day dad had been told that there was a pony coming that I had to look after and he mistook me for that pony and he gave me some oats which I thought was the most disgusting stuff I had ever had and I spat it all over my dad and he was furious. Misty said that was delicious and kept on teasing me so a divorcement was made.

K.H., aged 10

~~~

If this sort of thing piques your interest, see also the brilliant King’s College Choir Book edited by Jonathan Rippon and Penny Cleobury, published in 1997. Full of delightful details, including this letter home from a 1950s choirboy that anticipates The Very Hungry Caterpillar:

Dear Mummy + Daddy,

I hope you received the Travel Form. Please return it as soon as possible

Last night was Founders Feast I ate.

1 Tongue sandwich
1 cheese     ”     (Dutch cheese)
2 chocolate biscuits
1 sausage roll
1 Orange
1 Ice
1 Banana
1 Apple
6 Dates
1 Candy sweets
3 glasses orangeade

BUT it was spoilt by Poor Nicholas (Steinitz) who turned white and fainted at the end He wasn’t drunk but I think he ate something which does not agree with him. I don’t know how he is but I expect he is better now.

Yesterday was the Fellowes match. A dog joined in and it kept running after the ball and worrying. In Mr Gaskell’s speech last night he said, “With the aid of some 3-year young research fellowes and a dog we managed to withstand the savage onslaugt put up by the choir school and beat them 2-0.” All clap except us who B-O-O-O-O! and then some chaps go S-S-S-S-S at the other end of the Hall!

Don’t forget Travel Form please

Much love

Clifford

(XXX) 1000,000.


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