Secret Santa Scores A Hit

Last Christmas, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW), our three sons and I, decided to replace the tradition of us each giving everyone else a present, with a Secret Santa arrangement.  In this, each person draws a lot to determine which single person they should buy a Secret Santa present for up to a (relatively small) price limit.  This allows more focus and so reduces considerably the stress of (useful) present buying and the chance of getting something unwanted.

The reason I recall this now is that last week I was able to act upon my Secret Santa present: a ticket to a gig by Yo La Tengo at Hackney Arts Centre.  Actually, the giver, Eldest Son (ES), was no secret and, indeed, I went with him.  But Secret Santa was, for me as a receiver, a great hit.

Yo La Tengo is a band I have loved since I started buying albums by them in 2000.  In fact, they have been together as a three piece since the mid 1980’s and, as ES said after the gig, they have become very proficient at what they do.  Their music varies from gentle muses to Velvet Underground-like wig outs.  Unfortunately they didn’t rock ES’s boat but I loved almost all of the two-and-a-half hour performance.  I’m still humming their tunes to myself every day.

The venue is a gutted old cinema with bare walls and the seats taken out (contrary to the picture of comfortable seating on their website!).  We had to sit on nicely preserved, but very hard, wooden steps.  My back and bum could only take hour of that but then I was able to stand at the front and the two halves of the gig from the two vantage points was nice variety.

Yo La Tengo

Yo La Tengo At Hackney Arts Centre

I made two separate trips to London last week.  During these I met with a fellow retiree ex-work colleague for lunch, caught up with Middle Son (MS) for breakfast and met up with ES and his girlfriend.  I also went once again to my favourite folk club – The Lantern Society – which was once again consistently good across 10 brief but high quality and varied acts.

Live At The Lantern Society

Live At The Lantern Society

I then travelled up to my parents in Nottingham and jumped on from there to Mansfield to see my football team (lose entertainingly again).

Forest Green Rovers At Mansfield Town

Forest Green Rovers At Mansfield Town (With 170 Fellow Travelling Supporters)

The most surprising element amid all this was a visit I made to the Guildhall Art Gallery.  Although it is only a 10 minute walk from where I lived for 20 years, I had never been before.  I went to see an exhibition of Victorian art portraying lives and perceptions of children.  However, I also walked around the rest of an impressive gallery and the very well exhibited remains of a Roman amphitheatre in the bowels of the building. London never ceases to surprise.

Guildhall Art Gallery

Guildhall Art Gallery (Pre-Raphaelite Section)

Roman Amphitheatre Under The Guildhall, London

Roman Amphitheatre Under The Guildhall, London

The main exhibition at the gallery, called Seen and Heard was interesting, informative and well presented.  It resonated well with a book I’m just finishing called A House Unlocked by Penelope Lively.  As it happens this was another Christmas present, this time from LSW’s Aunt. Lively uses her memory of artefacts and aspects of a rather grand childhood home in west Somerset to launch narratives on how various elements of social life have changed in the last 150 years or so.

The First Sermon and The Second Sermon By Millais

The First Sermon (Girl Sleeping) and The Second Sermon (Girl Not Sleeping) By Millais At The ‘Seen And Heard’ Exhibition

Lively covers childhood, gardening, hunting, immigration and marriage and much more.  The chapters covering childhood and parenting interlocked with some of what I saw at the Guildhall and it all rang true.  In particular, the section on her marriage got me nodding my head in agreement.  Here is an extract of one paragraph:

“Every marriage is a journey, a negotiation, an accommodation.  In a long marriage, both partners will mutate; the people who set out together are not the same two people after ten years, let alone thirty or more…… Our marriage was like most; it had its calm reaches, its sudden treacherous bends, its episodes of white water to be navigated with caution and a steady nerve…… We meshed entirely in tastes and inclinations, could always fire one another with new interest, and laid down over the years that rich sediment of shared references and mutual recognition familiar to all who have known long companionship. You are separate people, but there is a shadowy presence which is an entity, the fusion of you both.”

I’m expecting LSW and I to build another layer of sediment of shared memory over the next few weeks as we travel to Qatar and then tour Sydney, Tasmania and Perth in Australia.  Watch this space.

Winter Catching Up

At last, a proper winter seems to have arrived.  We don’t have the extreme of the polar vortex that Canada and the northern states of the USA are currently experiencing, but we have had some frosty starts and, now, a heavy layer of snow.  School seems to be cancelled and kids are in the field opposite the house, sledging to their heart’s content.  The silent garden looks magical now it is cloaked in snow.  I know it is the increasing climate extremes that are the worry but it is comforting that we can still have real winter weather amid the trend towards global warming.

Snow And Sledging Outside Our Front Door

Snow And Sledging Outside Our Front Door

Middle Son texted to tell us London just has rain and in any case, the warmth of London’s buildings normally means that snow we see in rural areas becomes grey slush in the city centre.  However, London has other attractions and I was able to pay another visit last week.

The main reason for the visit was to meet up with some old work colleagues, as we do once or twice a year.  We worked together in 1977/8 and those times that were so formative to our early careers remain pretty vivid in our collective and shared memory.  We recalled some of those memories again.  We also caught up with more recent life developments and steered away from divisive Brexit debate sufficiently to make the get together over beers and curry very pleasant.

When I travel up to London for an event like this I have the flexibility of no time or work commitments plus the availability of a sofa bed in the flat we rent out to Eldest Son.  That enables planning of extra-curricular activity to maximise the diversity of fun during my stay.

Almost always, I include a trip to Rough Trade Records so I can work my way around the listening posts there and catch up with latest music they are promoting.  This time I also attended one of their free gigs.  The band, Toy, is one I have followed since I enjoyed them at the same venue in September 2012.  I’ve seen them a couple of times since including, believe it or not, at a remarkable gig primarily for the deaf/hard of hearing in 2015.  They were worth seeing for a fourth time and I’m sure they now have even more hair.

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Toy At Rough Trade

I also went to the Good Grief, Charlie Brown exhibition at Somerset House.  It was interesting to read about, and see through examples, how Charles M. Schultz developed his cartoon technique and characters.  The exhibition was also instructive on how Schultz managed, even as a white, middle class and relatively conventional American, to dabble in modern day issues such as gender identity, race, abortion, feminism and psychiatry/mental illness while growing his audience for his modest and understated Peanuts cartoon strips.  However, one would need to be a very dedicated follower to review all of the material on show and I think I grasped the main themes without concentrating on it all.

Charles M. Schultz's Characters From Peanuts And A Sample Early Cartoon

Charles M. Schultz’s Characters From Peanuts And A Sample Early Cartoon

Following a rather overly meaty breakfast (of three separate dishes of merguez sausage, black pudding and chorizo), I headed north to Stevenage for a Forest Green Rovers Football Club away game.  I watched us notch up another excellent win with my Best Man (BM) who lives nearby.  I then stayed a couple of nights with him and we spent the weekend watching more football, walking around the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) site where he used to work (as we had last September), and visiting St Albans.

Views At The RSPB Reserve, Sandy, Bedfordshire

St Albans Cathedral

St Albans Cathedral: Naves, St Albans Shrine, Mosaic Floor And 17th Century Graffiti

I hadn’t been to St Albans for years.  It still hold happy, though blurred, memories of my first excursion out of London to St Albans with my now Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) in her unassuming, idiosyncratic but effective Citroen Diane.  This time, BM and I visited the Roman ruins, the very old and lovely Cathedral and a very nice pub.  But we also saw the lake LSW and I held hands by over 35 years ago.

St Albans: Roman Theatre, Roman Mosaic And The Romantic Lake

St Albans: Roman Theatre, Roman Mosaic And The ‘Romantic’ Lake

I had a very relaxed and amusing time with BM. He continues to do big corporate work and travels a lot.  It was good to catch up on events in his complex and busy life but also to mentally compare his world with mine.  I’m very happy with my simpler, leisure-oriented lot.

Snowy Garden

Snowy Garden

Retirement Time

Now I am retired, and no longer have to spend 50-60 hours a week working or travelling to and from work, I can extend what used to be rushed tasks at home over longer periods.  I can also take a few more risks with events that I invest time in.  There have been some good examples of both in the last week or so.

I have spoken before in this blog about what I called ‘speed gardening’.  This was the result of the pressure I felt to get substantial tasks in the garden done in the slivers of time available at the weekends before my Sunday commute back to work in London.  I rushed around trying to get things done and, while it kept me fitter than I am now, it wasn’t altogether satisfactory enjoyment.  Now, if a job doesn’t get done as planned on one day, well, there is always tomorrow!

This week’s example was ‘doing the bonfire’.  The pile of garden detritus requiring disposal – and burning it is the most convenient if not the most environmentally friendly way – had become huge following some recent tree maintenance.  I had the time to salvage logs and ‘loglets’ pretty thoroughly but there was a large amount of brash together with a solid mass of other woody matter.  I moved the base of the bonfire pile (so any small creatures could escape) and organised the brash so Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I could load it easily onto the flames in batches.

We managed to clear half the waste in a couple of hours before darkness descended.  The process was very satisfying in some base animalistic way.  In my more relaxed and retired mode, I wasn’t concerned that we didn’t finish.  There is always another day.

The example of having more time to take risks with events was that, when I went up to London for a couple of days this week, primarily to see the Jusepe de Ribera exhibition before it closes at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, I also booked a couple of other events about which I knew very little.  One was successful the other rather less so but, either way, I have so much more leisure time now that success or otherwise seems less crucial.

Of course, a successful event is still to be aimed at (time and energy is not infinite, after all). Certainly the Ribera exhibition, entitled ‘Art of Violence’, was riveting and impactful.  There weren’t many large paintings but those that were on show really conveyed the pain of martyrs on the way to their martyrdom.  As impressive were the numerous, much smaller sketches and wash and ink drawings of torture and martyrdom.  These were so intricate and compelling that they drew you into close inspection despite the horror they depicted.  My visit was complemented by the chance to catch up briefly with Eldest Son’s (ES’s) previous girlfriend who works at the gallery; we remain friends.

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The Martyrdom Of St Bartolomew By Jusepe de Ribera (sorry the picture fails to capture the piercing look of the Saint)

Examples Of Ink And Wash Drawings By Ribera

Another, more unexpected success, was that ES and I went to a lecture on, and demonstration of, how Russians in the Cold War created illicit copies of western music during Stalin’s regime (and often went to jail when caught).  The fascinating twist was that, because materials were scarce, the early copies were made by creating grooves on discarded x-rays with home-made lathes.  The resulting ‘records’ therefore had x-ray pictures on them.  Although the sound quality wasn’t great, the recordings were much sought-after snatches of the forbidden jazz and rock and roll of the west and each was unique.

Stephen Coates Explaining The X-Ray Audio Project

Stephen Coates (Ex-The Real Tuesday Weld) Explaining The X-Ray Audio Project And The History Of Illicit Music Recording In Cold War Russia

Pictures and video footage of interviews with some of the protagonists in the schemes to create the lathes, to procure the x-rays (being discarded by hospitals because they were inflammable and presented a fire risk) and to cut the recordings added extra life to some well told stories about the copying process.  These stories recalled, and tied in neatly with, aspects of the film Cold War by Pawel Pawlikowski that I saw with ES recently, books I read years ago by Josef Skvorecky about underground music in Czechoslovakia, and also an excellent book I read recently called A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

The evening culminated in Thurston Moore – a guitarist previously with Sonic Youth – recording a couple of things onto x-ray disks so they could be played back to us.  It was pretty visceral stuff – in a very different way to the Ribera exhibition – and ES and I will remember it for a long time.

The X-Ray Audio Project With A Thurston Moore Demonstration

Less successful, but entertaining nonetheless, was a gig I went to in one of my old stomping grounds in Homerton, Hackney.  Chats Palace was the venue and it seemed much the same as I could remember from when I was last there in the early 1980’s.  I saw William Doyle who I liked in his incarnation as East India Youth a few years back and who has produced some interesting ambient music recently.  He now has a new band who are preparing to release their first album together.  They were good in parts but, I felt, still finding their feet.

William Doyle In Full Flow At Chats Palace

William Doyle In Full Flow At Chats Palace

I may have much more leisure time now but, when I’m in London, I have to squeeze in plenty of activity.  Fortunately ES and Middle Son both had time for breakfast with me.  I also walked around Dulwich Park, visited Rough Trade Records (as usual), went to Southwark Cathedral for the first time, snacked in Borough Market and, in lovely weather, took in the scale of London from London Bridge.  I still love London and have the time to enjoy it.

Views From London Bridge

Views From London Bridge

Steady As We Go Into 2019

The first snowdrops have arrived.  I sensed a little more light in the kitchen when I came downstairs this morning.  Moles are extending their network of tunnels and earth mounds across the vegetable patch.  These are some of the diverse, recent signs that we are moving inexorably towards Spring.  Now Christmas and New Year celebrations have passed, I’m looking forward to that.

The First Snowdrops

The First Snowdrops I Have Seen This Year

The relatively quiet period following New Year is a good one for taking stock and making New Year resolutions.

This time last year, I was settling into retirement and thinking about how my first full year of retirement might go.  It felt important then to think about my New Year resolutions as markers for desired progress in a couple of directions.  Overall, 2018 was very enjoyable for me and retirement has lived up to expectations even though, as I pointed out in my last blog post, I didn’t achieve all my specific objectives.  Going into 2019, I don’t feel I need to change very much.

So, many of my resolutions for 2019 are to continue where I left off in 2018.  For example, the objectives I had around health – losing weight, drinking less, walking more – can be simply perpetuated with the targets I largely achieved last year, namely:

  • Get Below 11 Stone (and stay there this time)
  • Average 15,000 Steps/Day (a joy since the surrounding countryside is so lovely)
  • Have 140 No-Alcohol Days (increasing progress from last year plus starting to track alcohol units consumed too).

Also, I will carry forward the objective to implement better composting arrangements in the garden.  This sounds trivial but it requires me to get my achy back returned to something like full strength.  It also requires confirmation of new compost bin location. In turn, that depends on planning with Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) the future for the old and gradually collapsing stables in our field.  This is because installing the new bins will involve significant earth and rock moving and don’t want to have to relocate them nor restrict the options for the stables’ demise or transformation.  This resolution is therefore a proxy for taking a few significant interim steps as well as one aimed at improving my compost.

I only have three new resolutions.

The first is less news and more music.  This recognises that, in recent months, I have been listening to a lot of news (especially related to Brexit and President Trump).  On average, I estimate I have been listening to 4 hours of radio news each day in addition to reading the Guardian newspaper reasonably thoroughly and watching the late evening news on TV.  I want to stay current and have an informed view but this is probably excessive (especially as I get so frustrated with what I hear).  On the other hand, I have multiple lists of new music I want to listen to and I want to re-appraise some of the best of what I already know.  Simple: dial down BBC Radio 4 news, dial up Spotify, and keep going to gigs/concerts.

The second is to step up the number of trips of 1-2 days that I make with LSW to other parts of the United Kingdom.  I have started the way I mean to carry on we made a short-notice trip to The Gower Peninsula in Wales when we saw the weather was going to be nice earlier this week.  We re-visited a bed-and-breakfast, a restaurant and some coastline we had good memories of from almost three years ago.  The two days away were a good template for further excursions we will make on top of the frequent trips to London I plan to continue well into 2019.

Worms Head: The Gower Peninsula, Wales

Worms Head: The Gower Peninsula, Wales

Coastline Near Worms Head

Oxwich, The Gower, Wales

Finally, although I’m still not ready to add a commitment to voluntary work to my 2019 objectives, I do think I should try to develop a plan for a plan for volunteering in the next year.  I know that I should find time for ploughing something back and finding a new sense of purpose and so will look at some options.  Frankly and selfishly though, and with the brief but quite intense experience of helping with the local village’s Neighbourhood Plan last year behind me, I don’t want hard new commitments to get in the way of everything else I am enjoying so much.  I won’t be rushing into anything.

Two Exhibitions And More

For those who followed my last post, no, I didn’t write this on the train home from London.  No, I didn’t stay awake either but I didn’t snore (surely not!).

I was tired after my trip to London.  I didn’t get back until late on Monday from seeing Malcolm Middleton (an indie-rock Scottish depressive who somehow always manages to cheer me up with what he calls his ‘downbeat shite’) in a converted old men’s club in Hackney.  Then, on Tuesday, I went to see the Japanese film and Palme D’Or winner called Shoplifters with Eldest and Middle Sons and that didn’t finish until quite late.  Those relatively late nights were each followed by a couple of nights on a sofa bed which is never as restful as my own bed, a lot of walking through Christmassy streets and a nice lunch with an old ex-work colleague.

Malcolm Middleton And Band At The Moth Club

Malcolm Middleton And Band At The Moth Club

Quite a lot of the walking was around a couple of exhibitions.

The first was Fashioned From Nature at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) which is on for another month or so and which I would recommend.  The V&A has an amazing permanent collection of fashion but this exhibition was more interesting for me (I am hardly a fashionista!) because it dealt more with the social and environmental impact of fashion than the development of fashion through the ages.

There were certainly some remarkable individual pieces of clothing but the focus was on how humans initially used nature to cloth ourselves – using flax for linen, fur, cotton, silk, bone, feathers and even beetle shells – and then how fashion and clothing manufacture has damaged nature through mass production/consumption.

Fashioned From Nature Exhibition At The V&A

Fashioned From Nature Exhibition At The V&A

That environmental damage began even before the industrial revolution.  I learnt, for example, that the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ came from the mercury poisoning common among those who made felt hats.  They breathed in the mercury nitrate they used and that disoriented them before they flushed it into the water supply.  As synthetic materials were developed and mass produced, so the risk of chemical damage increased, the demand for agricultural monocultures grew, slavery became rife, and the problems of pollution and waste (such as management of micro-plastics resulting from clothing) became more complex.

There were a wide range of interesting exhibits showing sustainable fashion.  Others illustrated how fashion has been used to highlight the importance of clothing reuse and repair, and the impact of fashion on nature.  Overall it was an impressive, relevant exhibition and an absorbing hour or two.

I also visited the Modern Couples exhibition at the Barbican which was subtitled Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde.  This exhibition pulls together work of 40 couples active in art in the last century.  It attempts to show how these couples, through their passion, ideas, contacts and often experimental and strange relationships, influenced the work they produced.

As with the Fashioned from Nature exhibition, there were some very strong individual pieces on show.  Many of the relationships that were described were very interesting with several of the featured artists (Max Ernst and Man Ray, for example) cropping up two or three times in apparently intense but short-lived liaisons.  Some of couples’ relationships ended in suicide or murders of passion.  As I navigated the exhibition, I became increasingly thankful for my rather more straightforward and stable married relationship.

I Am Beautiful by Rodin

I Am Beautiful by Rodin (An Amalgam Of Two Previously Separate Works In Celebration Of His Love)

Over 40 interwoven themes were explored across the 40 couples presented – including how the men in the relationship tended to become the more famous even where the participants were libertarian and feminist.  These themes and the sheer number of couples covered made the exhibition large and rather complex.  It was impressive but I confess that I had to absorb it over two sessions; fortunately I now have the time to do that sort of pacing.

In other news: the Volkswagen is back.  Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) has been grudgingly reliant on my ailing and rust-ridden Saab to get to work.  But now the local garage has replaced the Volkswagen’s engine (and more) following the cam-belt assembly failure a couple of weekends ago.  They did this all at their cost since it was the cam-belt replacement they had done that prompted the problem.  The garage even gave us a bottle of wine for our trouble so we will continue to use them and recommend them – provided the car gets us to the airport tomorrow on our way to the Christmas markets of Cologne.  We’re looking forward to them.

London's Regent Street Christmas Lights

London’s Regent Street Christmas Lights

Remember, Remember

The week has been busy and I have had a number of interactions with the United Kingdom’s national commemoration of the armistice at the end of the First World War on 11 November 1918.

Commemorative Poppies In Our Local Town, Nailsworth

Illuminated Commemorative Poppies In Our Local Town, Nailsworth

When I was in Lincoln last weekend I saw rehearsals for a memorial ceremony while I visited the cathedral.

Remembrance Service Choir Practice At Lincoln Cathedral

Remembrance Service Choir Practice At Lincoln Cathedral

Then, at the football match I went to see in Lincoln, there was a pre-match rendition of The Last Post, a minute’s silence and a collection by, amongst others, a man dressed as a huge poppy.  There was a similar pre-match marking of the armistice when I went to Oxford United’s stadium for another football game there.  On both occasions, the bugle playing was eerie and moving as the notes swirled around the windy stadia.

Remembrance Ceremonies At Oxford (Top) And Lincoln Football Grounds Prior to Matches With Forest Green Rovers

Remembrance Ceremonies At Oxford (Top) And Lincoln Football Grounds Prior to Matches With Forest Green Rovers

During my visit to London last week to see a band with Middle Son (MS), I also fitted in a visit to the ‘Beyond the Deepening Shadow’ installation at the Tower of London.  This consists of 10,000 hand-lit memorial flames and it was as impressive as the installation of bright red poppies spewing out of the Tower of London a few years ago.  The flames are a remarkable and imaginative way of marking the end of the First World War and the sacrifice of so many soldiers during its execution.

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The scale of that sacrifice became even starker to me as I visited another exhibition – ‘Shrouds of the Somme’ – at the Olympic Park to the east of London.  In contrast with the Tower of London exhibition where the crowds were enormous and the queues were hours long, the Olympic Park exhibition was very accessible and there was more time to think about what I was seeing.

1st World War Commemoration At The Olympic Park, London

1st World War Commemoration At The Olympic Park, London.

The main display here consisted of 72,396 shrouded figures – one for each of the British Commonwealth servicemen killed at the Somme whose bodies were not found – laid out in rows across a field.  There was then a separate set of the same shrouded figures – one for each day of the First World War – labelled with the number of servicemen killed on each day.  It was a very impactful exhibition.

The numbers of dead in the First World War are quite well known but still incomprehensible.  The 72,396 are just the dead whose bodies were not recovered mainly because they were simply fragmented and lost in the mud.  The 953,104 total dead represented at the Olympic Park are just those from the UK and the Commonwealth.  The 9 million soldiers from all nations who died were far outnumbered by the more than 20 million wounded and beyond that there was mental scarring beyond understanding.  It was a crazy, horrific war.

The nationwide commemoration and remembrance of the First World War – the centrepiece exhibitions I saw in London, the faces of soldiers etched on beaches around the country I saw on the TV news, the processions and the local displays and events, including a poignant and unexpectedly long roll call of the war-dead in our own little village – has all been very impressive and moving.  At the Olympic Park especially, I had time to reflect on the importance of remembering the disaster of past wars and avoiding a repeat.  The current rise of nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic makes the lessons of the past especially timely.  Unfortunately, it is one thing to remember the lessons and another to act on them.

On a jollier note, MS and I had a really good time watching Roosevelt, a German electro-pop artist.  I can’t recall smiling so much during a musical performance.  The music is straightforward and the next note always seems exactly as anticipated – does that make it predictable or just perfect?  Either way, we both had great fun seeing Roosevelt again.

Roosevelt At Oval Space, London

Roosevelt At Oval Space, London

Co-incidentally, he is from Cologne where we are having a Christmassy city-break next month.  However, we went to dinner last night with a couple who are fascinated by bio-dynamic agriculture, the annual equinox cycle and creativity tied into the seasons.  As usual, the discussions were fascinating but they didn’t want to talk about Christmas or our Christmas market visit until next month.  Instead they wanted to continue focus on the joys of autumn. They are right; the autumnal weather is still good and the colour on the trees and bushes remains marvellous.  Autumn is still out there waiting to be enjoyed.

I make no excuse for including yet another set of pictures from my walk into town this morning.  I am privileged to have the opportunity to enjoy these walks every day.

Autumn Views And Colour On My Walk Into Town

Autumn Views And Colour On My Walk Into Town

Autumn Gardening

The summer weather has been terrific this year and the sunshine and relative warmth has continued into the beginnings of autumn.  The sun now sets too early behind trees and the gradient of our paddock for Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I to continue our pattern of evening drinks in the new walled garden that we established earlier in the year.  However, the weather has been conducive to relaxed walks through the gently browning countryside and to steady clearing and digging over of the vegetable patch ready for winter.

Autumnal Sunset From My Vegetable Patch

Autumnal Sunset From My Vegetable Patch

Despite the dry summer, there is still plenty of beetroot and chard to harvest.  Also, I have managed to keep my leeks alive and, having transplanted them in newly dibbed holes, I find I have over a hundred to nurture and then eat through the winter months.  That’s a lot of leeks to go into soup with the sack of potatoes I dug up a couple of weeks ago!

Leeks All Over The Vegetable Patch (With Beans, Beet and Chard)

Leeks, Leeks and More Leeks All Over The Vegetable Patch (With Beans, Beet and Chard)

Once again I am reminded of the relatively slow and relaxed pace at which I can undertake gardening since my retirement.  I have always loved this time of year (and early spring) in the vegetable garden, when creating tracts of freshly dug earth is the main task.  Since retirement, I have more time to pause between bursts of digging, to rest my back and to admire the neatness of the bare earth that, following application of some manure, will be poised for next season’s planting and growth.

The past couple of weeks have been a pleasant mix of pottering around the garden, social events with family and friends, and more sightseeing in London.  My trip to London was based around an irregular but broadly quarterly get together of old male friends over a restaurant dinner (dubbed ‘The Boys Night Out’).  This is working through an alphabet of nations cum culinary styles and we were up to O for Ottoman last week.  It was cheap and cheerful and good to catch up.

I also walked for miles to and around the vastness of Hyde Park (with its tediously noisy and ever more numerous green parakeets) and visited the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum.

Views of Hyde Park

Views of Hyde Park (The Round Pond, The Princess Diana Garden And Christo’s Floating Pyramid of 7,506 Oil Drums)

The Kahlo exhibition focused on her way of life rather than her art.  The exhibition makes clear what a tour de force she must have been.  She was fiercely determined to overcome adversity (including polio, a near fatal accident, a miscarriage, leg amputation, periodic political ostracism) and she constantly underlined her strong sense of identity.  Her love life was lively and complex and her life-long partner – a muralist called Diego Rivera whom she married twice – must have been a patient man.  The exhibition is sold out so my recently instigated V&A membership (giving me free, unlimited entry) paid off.  The investment of time was very worthwhile.

Frida Kahlo Exhibition

The V&A Frida Kahlo Exhibition Including Her Prosthetic Leg With Bells On, A Hand-Painted Corset And Typical Mexican Dress

Eldest Son (ES) and his girlfriend stayed with us for a weekend.  It was lovely to have them and the highlight – apart from the curry and the roast dinner that ES asked LSW to make – was a visit to Gifford’s Circus.  This is an internationally famous but locally based circus that LSW has seen a few times.  It was my first visit and I really enjoyed the energy, innovation, daring and clever humour; it was a real treat in a packed, traditional circus tent.

LSW and I also had a sunny late summer day in Bath.  We were there to see Olafur Arnalds, an Icelandic multi-instrumentalist who combines electronica, piano and strings to create atmospheric, evocative music that both of us love.  The concert was a great success – great sound, good seats and LSW loved it (always important since I want to go with her to more gigs).

We made time for dinner and also a trip to the American Museum and Gardens set in beautiful countryside to the east of Bath.  The gardens are being renovated and extended and will be worth another visit in a year or two.  As ever, it seems, we were blessed by wonderful weather.

The American Museum And Gardens, Bath

The American Museum And Gardens, Bath (House, Pumpkin Garden And Lovely Views)

But autumn with its shorter days and colder, wetter weather is here.  That will bring different pleasures.

Neighbourhood Activity

For over three years, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) has been helping development of the village Neighbourhood Plan.  This aims to set out for the District Council how the people of Horsley wish to see the land in the village used and developed over the next 25-30 years.  The Plan has required much consultation, drafting of fine words and picture taking, and very many meetings for LSW.  I also got involved earlier this year in drafting and formatting a particular section on preferred green spaces in the village.

Horsley

Picture of Our Village Taken From The Draft Neighbourhood Plan Consultation Leaflet

The group co-ordinating the Plan development, including LSW, are now on the final push to get the plan to a state ready for review by the Council and a further round of local consultation.  Last week they asked for help to structure the Plan appendices and to achieve greater consistency of look and feel across the whole document, mainly by reducing the range of formatting quirks employed by each contributor.

Following prompting from LSW, I volunteered. LSW has long wanted me to get more involved in village affairs and this was my chance.  Little did I think that it would end up echoing the intensity and effort of my pre-retirement days but, after 25 hours of sitting at my PC editing the document over four days, I’m done!

There may be further rounds of such intense effort required following review and consultation.  However, I’m a Windows user and the bulk of the others who have technical and design input are Mac users.  The two are not compatible and so I’m ready to bow out.  Even if I am not required going forward I have earned some ‘brownie points’ with LSW.

That is just as well since I have proactively planned to be away during the village fete where LSW has a key role organising the Village Hall catering.  Some time ago (admittedly when I knew the date of the fete), I arranged to meet up with my Best Man (BM) in Cambridgeshire and to fit in Forest Green Rovers’ (FGR) away game at Milton Keynes Dons.  My absence this coming weekend, which will include a trip to London too, is being frowned upon by LSW.  But at least I moved the Neighbourhood Plan forward beforehand so, on balance, I’ve got away with it.

I have been away from home quite a lot recently.  In late August I was in London to catch up with a couple of past work colleagues and to see a band that I have been tracking for about 5 years.  They are The Correspondents and, although the music is not all to my taste, the live act is as full of energy as anything I have seen.  I even played a part in the lead singer’s crowd surfing exploits and got my hands on a (minor) celebrity for the first time.  I recommend checking out video of their gigs – the lead singer’s moves are amazing.

The Correspondents

The Correspondents At The Old Queens Head, London

Following that, I went to Nottingham to visit my parents and see FGR win at Notts County.  It was great to be able to show my Dad how far FGR have come since I first started supporting my local team 20 years ago.

Despite being away so much, there has been time to participate in a couple of regular village events which I used to miss when working in London: the monthly Village Quiz Night (we came second again) and the monthly Men’s Night.  Both are good ways to keep up with village gossip.

The quiz is particularly well constructed and run and is a very enjoyable challenge. Our team, usually of six but occasionally augmented by visiting offspring (Middle Son (MS) joined us a month ago and someone else’s daughter joined us this week), is varied.  That means our knowledge doesn’t overlap too much and we are contenders.  I usually can contribute on sport and geography but I’m too slow or too dense to add much elsewhere.  These events are nice slices of rural life I didn’t have prior to retirement and both events help to keep our pub in business.

One less alluring aspect of rural life this week was an invasion into our garden of 70 sheep through some broken fencing in the adjacent field.  Our grass got a welcome trim and some unexpected fertiliser but a few of the fruit trees and my leeks took a bit of a battering.  Fortunately the farmer was nearby and available.  He shooed them back within 30 minutes or so and damage to garden and sheep was insignificant (indeed, the sheep probably enjoyed the change of routine).  Oh, the joys of country living!

Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It

Will Smith’s ‘Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It’ was hardly the sort of music that was available at the Cambridge Folk Festival and so is a slightly misleading title for this.  But, during my visit to part of the festival last weekend, there were a lot of jigs and I did do a lot of foot-tapping and unobtrusive swaying to the sounds on offer.  They were primarily various forms of folk music but also blues, soul and Americana.  The sun shone, the atmosphere was relaxed, the festival facilities were first rate, and the music – while not entirely my favourite genre – was very easy on the ear and some was excellent.

Cambridge Festival, Stage 1 With Kate Rusby

Cambridge Festival, Stage 1 With Kate Rusby, A Laid Back Audience (So Many Folding Chairs!) And A Big Sky

I went with an old friend of mine – my Best Man (BM) at my wedding just over 33 years ago.  I was able to stay with at his house, a 30 minute taxi ride away from the festival, for the weekend.  We chatted, caught up on our respective lives and plans, ate and drank well, and enjoyed both the folk festival and the surrounding countryside (which, in a refreshing contrast to the deeply incised valleys around our Gloucestershire home, is open and undulating).  It was, as hoped for, a wonderful change from my routine.

Once again, my retirement meant that, for me at least, the weekend was more relaxed than would have been the case a few years, or even a few months, ago.  I was able to drive to and from Cambridgeshire in a measured way outside of peak traffic hours, there was no rush to do anything and we got the gentle pace of our activities about right.

On the Saturday of the folk festival we arrived when it opened but realised that an 11 hour stint of listening to the array of bands across several stages would exhaust us physically and mentally, especially given the hot and sunny weather.  We saw about 15 bands/performers over about 8 hours that day.  The best of these, for me, were The East Pointers (Americana) and Eric Bibb (blues) but the majority were traditional and rather basic folk bands.  We left early for a curry dinner, thereby missing a couple of headline acts, but, frankly, we were sated.

Cambridge Festival: The Shee, Eric Bibb And Alison Russell From The Birds Of Chicago

Cambridge Festival: The Shee, Eric Bibb And Alison Russell From The Birds Of Chicago

On the Sunday we decided to only attend the festival towards the end of the day. That enabled us to fit in a visit to Ely.  The town was gorgeous in the sunlight and history oozed from every turn.  Ely’s cathedral is terrific; it dominates the town and also the flat, fenland countryside for many miles around it.  It lost much of its ornamentation during the 16th century Reformation and then during Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan reign (he lived in Ely after all!).  But the grandeur and sheer engineering feat of its towers, nave and Lady Chapel remain.

Ely Cathedral, The Ouse And Oliver Cromwell's House

Ely Cathedral, The Ouse And Oliver Cromwell’s House

Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral

After tucking into a craft beer and lunch we walked around the town and down the Ouse River before popping into Anglesea Abbey on the way to Cambridge; another weather-enhanced treat.

Anglesea Abbey

Anglesea Abbey

We then returned to the folk festival and timed our arrival to see Kate Rusby (lovely voice) and, my BMs favourite, Birds of Chicago (excellent, radiant harmonies with a vibrant and emotional – almost tearful – female lead).  We also saw a clearly famous and popular John Prine but we looked at each other during his set and it was clear we had both had enough folk music for one weekend.

We left the music, sandals, tattoos and occasional whiffs of pot at the festival for a snack and a final bottle of wine back at my BM’s comfortable house and listened to some of his vast collection of CDs.  We congratulated ourselves on getting the pace of the weekend right.  As we looked back on a very good time, my BM prepared for a new working week and I considered the prospect of the leisure of another episode of relaxed retirement.

And so it is…..

Getting Hot In London

The highlight last week, in most ways, was a trip to London. However, the timing turned out to be awkward given the extreme temperatures.  It was baking on the London streets, even warmer on the tube and there were fewer places to hide from the heat than I can find at home in the country.

It was great to see and catch up with Eldest and Middle Son over dinner.  We drank and ate well at Bar Duoro in Southwark in a reprise of the feel of my time in Porto the previous week.

The other main reason for my trip was to visit, for my first time, the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy.

This year the Exhibition has been curated primarily by Grayson Perry. I was keen to see his stamp on the event having read a book by him – The Descent of Man – last year.  It was an unusual book about masculinity, its origins, its role in society and its possible future.  It provided some insights into his own childhood and emotional development and so I was keen to see how this was manifest in the Summer Exhibition.

Extravagance And Colour At The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

Even the rooms not curated by Grayson had his imprint and he co-ordinated the Exhibition into a rather crazy and exuberant whole.  As usual (as I understand it), the Exhibition comprised a huge number of works (about 1,350 this time, varying in price from £100 to more than £100,000 and 95% sold already) which, in many of the rooms, were crammed into the space available so that it was almost impossible to focus on any one work.  The overall impression was one of irreverence, humour, colour and fun.

Works By Phylida Barlow (lost In Thought) And Debbie Lawson (Red Bear) In The Summer Exhibition

There were undercurrents of left wing politics, social justice and anti-establishmentarianism that occasionally burst out in individual pieces.  But most of any seriousness was seemingly wilfully undermined by the overwhelming scale, the hints at subversion and the sheer ‘bonkersness’ of several of the selections and their layout.  It was fun but a bit overwhelming.

Some Of The More Overtly Political Pieces At The Summer Exhibition

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A Work By El Anatusi At The Summer Exhibition That Reminded Me Of Similar Items By Him I Had Seen In Cape Town Earlier In The Year – It Was Nice To Make The Connection!

The BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery was much smaller scale and more accessible.  The little stories accompanying the pictures were helpful in providing a ‘way into’ the art that contrasted with the feeling of being hit by a colourful sledgehammer at the Summer Exhibition a couple of hours before.  The National Portrait Gallery was busy but I enjoyed the feeling of intimacy with the art there.img_0513.jpg

Winner of The BP Portrait Award 2018 – The Angel At My Table By Miriam Escofet

At least it was cool in the galleries.  On my second evening in London I ventured to a gig at Rough Trade to see three ‘up and coming’ bands (Echo Ladies, Linda Guilana and Grimm Grimm).  They were all interesting in their way but the heat near the stage was excessive and it was too hot to get excited.  I was glad of the chance to browse the listening posts at Rough Trade but appreciated getting back out in the gentle dusk breeze on the walk back to the flat.

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Hot In Rough Trade Records With Echo Ladies

I had planned to visit the Asterix Exhibition at the Jewish Museum on my last day in London, but the prospect of even higher London temperatures prompted me to cut my visit short and I returned to Gloucestershire early that morning.  My retirement means that I have the flexibility of rescheduling and planning another London trip soon and that is already in train.

Back in Gloucestershire, I am licking my wounds from the barbs of Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) remembering our (33rd) wedding anniversary while I completely failed to do so.  Usually we both forget the anniversary but LSW has upped her game and I will need to respond in kind.

Also back here in Gloucestershire, the extended hot spell has finally broken and we have some rain at last.  Already, the pasture opposite our house has shifted almost imperceptibly from brown towards green.  The rain feels like a relief but I’m looking forward to resumption of normal sunny service next week before I go to the Cambridge Folk Festival with an old friend.  I’m looking forward to the next break in routine that will bring.