16 February 2021

Winterreise

 A sad tale's best for winter....



These are the last words spoken
Soon I’ll be out of sight
A simple farewell message
Good night, my love, good night


I am sure there are those who know about these things, but I still find it fascinating that Black-headed gulls simply do not have black heads in winter......



Also, it may be perverse of me.  But the fact that Common gulls are not that common perks me up, just a little......



However.....  Here we are.  Life is not necessarily what we expected, or wished for, and winter conditions exacerbate that dull numbing feeling that swimming from the Titanic tends to excite....



There are clouds on the horizon.  They may not eventually blow our way, but they instil in us a sense of boding that exceeds the usual fore.....



Dark clouds are drifting
Across the bright blue sky
Soft breezes gently sigh
In the dark forest

But then the sky can suddenly be filled with the blare and honk of passing V signs, v signs to cold, to coronas, to contrariness.  We should go with the flock.....




Lynn (does it need the King's?) is cold and empty - of life, or trade, of laughter, as is to be expected in these ghastly days.




In 'my' village (how presumptuous can you get after three weeks?) no one knows what to do with themselves....  It could be worse.  It may well be colder, or wetter, or darker, or more infected, tomorrow, but we will worry about that..... tomorrow.




At least the Herdwicks don't grumble....




And on the coast there's Dunlin in good numbers to remind us that the essential is food.....




Not far away Castle Rising stands clear of the snowy carpet.  It's a hulking lump of masonry with some of the most splendid earthworks for sledging anywhere in these troubled isles. 

I photographed this keep one summer long ago for Treccani, the Italian Encyclopaedia of Medieval Architecture, and, for some reason I thought at the time that this had been the last home of Henry VIII's surviving wife, Catherine Parr, to whom I can claim a link. 




Funny how time plays tricks?  Catherine never lived here.  She died, aged 36, at Sudeley Castle, from complications following the birth of a daughter.  We are still related, but not quite as I remembered!




Not far away, close by another well defended castle, is Castle Acre Priory.  A Cluniac foundation that dates from 1049, and which was destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII in 1537.





These 'romantic' ruins stand empty in the winter snows.  We are finding our way around this corner of England, exploring as far as we dare, without the excesses of a Cummings. Our daily exercises are not distant from our new home, but we go just far enough to call it a winter journey. 

Schubert's song cycle Winterreise is painfully beautiful and perfectly fits my current mood. I listen to Ian Bostridge's interpretation, and read something he wrote about it in The Guardian....


Winter Journey – a cycle of 24 songs for voice and piano based on poems by Wilhelm Müller, was composed by Franz Schubert towards the end of his short life. He died in Vienna in 1828 aged only 31. Piano-accompanied song is no longer part of everyday domestic life and has lost its one-time primacy in the concert hall. What Germans know as Lieder – is a niche product, even within the niche that is classical music; but Winter Journey is an indispensable work of art that should be as much a part of our common experience as the poetry of Shakespeare and Dante, the paintings of Van Gogh and Picasso, the novels of the Brontë sisters or Marcel Proust.

The 24 songs are forerunners, in a sense, of all those songs of love and loss that have been the soundtrack of generation on generation of teenagers. But the loss of love, which is only sketched ambiguously in the first song, “Goodnight”, is just the beginning of it. Schubert’s wanderer embarks on a journey through a winter landscape that leads him to question his identity, the conditions of his existence – social, political and metaphysical – and the meaning of life.





Schubert himself wrote the following, in a manuscript of July 3rd 1822 entitled My Dream: With a heart filled with endless love for those who scorned me, I ... wandered far away. For many and many a year I sang songs. Whenever I tried to sing of love, it turned to pain. And again, when I tried to sing of pain, it turned to love.




There are no trains at Wolferton Station.  The snow lies untouched across the rails.  No Queen steps from the royal carriage.  No fat controller punches my ticket.  There is no journey here.




Is this nothing?
Why then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing:
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.


The Winter's Tale

(Leontes, Act 1 Scene 2)









8 February 2021

Life's a Beach.....

A Moving Experience.....




Dear Friends,


Let this be a letter to you.



Nothing is what it seems.  Nothing really matters.  Our mothers give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more, (Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot).....



But every silver lining has a cloud.  We may be brief candles, and our creeps may be crepuscular, but there are gleams....

Life's a beach, and then one buries one.....



To the point. We have moved, and there is no going back, as the bard did say, O, that way madness lies; let me shun that; No more of that.



For the record, in a shutnell, the move went as well as could be wished.  Days of preparation and packing culminated in a final trauma of finding that the guys who removed the washing machine at the last minute had kicked a joint on the central heating piping causing soaked carpet and a potential flood.... But we had to go, and then we had to arrive, and we were here, with an avalanche of boxes in every room, and no where to put things.

Of a sudden, apart from everything else, I realised how trammelled we are, how materialist and cluttered our (my?) life has become.  I have possessions that possess me; possessions from my grandparents, from my parents, from my children, from my past and from my present.  Such a mountain of ultimate uselessness that I cling to, as if it defines me, as if it matters.




A goose flies over my head.  No baggage.  Just living.  

More geese honk past.  

Not one of them with so much as a handbag. Not one clutching a phone or a water bottle.... Naked as nature intended....



And flying on from day to day, heedless of the perils of tomorrow, unfettered by the imagination of the past.  It may not be a 'better' life, but what does that mean?  We live; we die; we come; we go.  What makes me more or less than a silly goose?

We are lucky if we have homes. However grand....



We are fortunate if we can afford luxuries - however small......




And there is always someone worse off.





At the time of the Bosnian war I lived in Rome, and sometimes we thought we could hear the conflict.  When things were difficult for us, I used to tell myself that things could be worse: we could be in Bosnia.  


As things are, Amanda has struggled with our move.  She still just wants to go 'home' and she has yet to settle into a routine. We have had doctors and paramedics involved, and are now being advised by Chatterton House, but, I hope, she will adapt, and life will go on. 

And despite all that, I dedicate this piece to two of my dear friends who have recently come up against the big C. Forza amici! Un abbraccio forte forte.....

There is always someone worse off....




I wish we could all be together. Some whirling big dance in a natural space. Some laughter, some wine (some beer, perhaps?) Nothing viral.  Just clean air and smiling faces.  





It cannot all be bad.




As I said,


Let this be a letter to you.  To you, my friends.


We are OK.  


I hope you are too.




With love from


Richard





We are all born mad. Some remain so.

Samuel Beckett

Waiting for Godot (1955)



14 January 2021

A Farewell to Herts.....

To every thing there is a season.....



A time to get, and a time to lose; 
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;




We are about to move on.  After seventeen and a half years in a cul de sac in Harpenden, we are about to be uprooted and transported to a village in Norfolk.

Retirement from local education establishments, the eventual death of my mother in a care home near St Albans, the slow descent of my wife, Amanda, into the disorientation of dementia, and the independence of our two daughters - all of this warp and weft of life has led to a realisation of impermanence and the decision to move on.

Of course the options were endless.  If I were solo, I might have followed my ancestry and moved to Western Ireland, seeking Irish citizenship and a breath of Atlantic air.  Or I could have retraced my steps to Italy, to end my days in sunshine and vineyards.....

Or I could have stayed put.

But this man is not an island, and I have, at least for the moment, some residual responsibilities for others, and so the intention was to find a home with space for assistance for Amanda, and a stimulating environment for all.



Although I grew up in Berkhamsted, I'm not actually a Hertfordshire boy; my birth took place quite quietly in Southsea, Hampshire, a stone's throw from the boating lake, and I spent the first five or so years of life in Portsmouth, inhaling sea air and exhaust fumes from her majesty's (and others') navies.  



In fact, not one of my immediate family was born in Hertfordshire, though between us we must have lived here for a cumulative couple of centuries, at least..... 

Dad's father started it. After the First World War he was a schoolmaster and in around 1925 he moved to Northchurch, now almost absorbed by Berkhamsted, where he took up the post of Headmaster of the local school (as well as choirmaster and organist at St Mary's). In the mists of my misspent youth, my elder brother and I used to drink in the Red Lion, across the A41 from the school and church, and the locals would regale us with tales of our grandad, such as the time he lined the entire school up in the playground and whacked the lot.... What larks!  No intervention from erstwhile Fireplace Salesmen posing as government ministers then!




Dad attended local school, went to Uni, then to War. After which, following a period in Portsmouth, where I happened, he returned to live out his life in Berkhamsted, as master at the School and then as secretary of the Old Boys' Association.




When he retired, I tried to persuade him to move away, to start anew, but he would have none of it, and his ashes rest in Kingshill Cemetery, where mum has now joined him.




All this, and this scattering of local photographs, is why I am feeling apprehensive.  Hertfordshire, or at least a slice of it from Berkhamsted to Harpenden, spilling over the Chiltern scarp and down the dip, encompassing villages and farms, pubs and chalk streams, is a part of me and I am a part of it.




In the past year, for instance, Amanda and I have walked some thousand miles of footpaths in the area.  Sometimes glorious in their flowers and hedgerow blossoms, sometimes Somme-like in the sludge and slurry.




In the past sixty years and more I have walked, and cycled, most every lane and bridleway across this part of the Shire, and stopped to rest or take refreshment in villages that until recently showed little change since the Domesday Book.
  



In the early seventies, my elder bro lived in Stevenage, and I was then temporarily back home with my parents in Berkhamsted, living in the house where Graham Greene had himself grown up (and to which I, oddly, refused him entry, but that is another story....)

On a number of occasions I walked between the two towns, a 28 mile road hike (passing through Harpenden), taking a footsore seven hours, but never thinking of the traffic. I  wouldn't risk it now......




There are wonderful stretches of land here, whether in broody summer:




Or in moody winter:




There are great houses, with beautiful grounds, like Ashridge, where Amanda posed so youthfully just a few years ago....




My grandparents lived and then died near here.  An aunt and uncle and their three children were Harpendenians (?). 

And our dear girls grew tall and came of age round here - this was taken on Sarah's 18th birthday above Tom's Hill, Aldbury....  Happy days!




Amanda and I were married in Hemel Hempstead, and to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary - some good few years ago now - we returned with the girls to commemorate the day....




But, there are times to weep, and times to laugh; times to mourn, and times to dance...

In 2003 we settled in Harpenden, where there is the old:




And there is the new:




The town is famous for its science:




But also for some of its famous residents.  Eric Morecambe, for example, is still fondly remembered by many, while Owen Farrell, George Ford and Maro Itoje, all attended St George's School.  Maro, in fact was one of my most delightful English pupils, and a model boarder:




Owen shook my hand one parents' evening when he was chaperoning his sister, effortlessly crushing my fingers while he smiled, charmingly .....

There were good days.....




And now it is time to turn, turn, turn....




To fly to pastures new, and to open a new chapter.....

Moving on will be hard.  There's never a good time.  We came here in a heat wave.  The first night we opened all the windows, and I couldn't sleep a wink for all the trains hurtling past the foot of my bed.

Now it is wet, and wintry, and we are getting old.  We will lose all familiarity, and have to carve out new habits.....

But there's no going back.  However much you turn, turn, turn, you cannot go back....



And so we leave. Thank you to all who have travelled with us thus far, and who have been friends and supporters through thick and thin. And, though our ways must part, I sincerely hope this is not, in any sense of the word, the end of the road.....




Ciao!