The round robins sent at Christmas usually provoke groans as the writer’s family’s achievements are enumerated in great detail. Mine however have a loyal following as I describe the ups and downs of our lives. We have always been ready to laugh at ourselves and we hope our friends laugh with us. I thought you might like to read some of my earlier letters in the run up to Christmas 2017.
If 2015 was quiet, the same cannot be said of 2016. It started with the sad news that Margaret’s rediscovered penfriend Carol died on Boxing Day. Margaret was pleased she had made the effort to find Carol and that they got to meet.
Planning and packing for the trip to Singapore and Australia took up the first two weeks of January. Margaret hates packing and there was a lot of huffing and puffing before she finally made her choice of what to put in her suitcase. The trip worked really well, our flights were all on time and staying in other peoples’ homes gave us a glimpse of the Aussie way of life.
That was particularly true in Perth where we were staying with our lovely friends Bev and John. We got up early to go swimming in the sea, notwithstanding sharks, and then after drying off, coffee at some local café. It was John’s birthday while we were there and we celebrated with dinner at the Royal Perth Yacht Club which had a curious outcome. One of the guest was quizzing Alan about where he worked in the UK and he said Sutton, to which the other guest said one of the State MP’s was from Sutton. Of course it was Bob Johnson who had been the Mayor of Sutton before he emigrated. Alan contacted him and we had lunch in the Parliament building with him and his wife Sue.
The work on the house did not begin while we were away. The conservatory was knocked down at the end of May. We sold it on ebay. The work finished in the last week of November. Rather longer than we expected. We are delighted with the new room and the canopy over the front door. Currently we are waiting for our decorator to finish the painting, new furniture to arrive and the books, tables etc to be recovered from storage. Hopefully we will be using it by Christmas.
We volunteered to foster Guide Dogs for the Blind while we looked for another dog. We had Siba for a week over the New Year and then Polly. Polly had been retired early because of her health and we had her for two months in order for her to see the vets and to organise the best treatment for her. Her teeth were in a very bad way and she had twelve removed. There is real pleasure in watching a dog revert to being a dog rather than a living guide and we are full of admiration for the way these animals suppress many of their natural instincts. Polly left to go to the IOW where we hope she is enjoying her retirement.
The week she left we adopted Lily, a six year old Springer with a few issues. We were given a long behaviourists report on her which was almost unintelligible. We decided the only way to deal with her problems was to go back to basics. So Thursday night is Dog Training Club at the Scout Hut in Exeter – chosen because the floors are washable and therefore suitable for small boys and dogs. We have enjoyed going and Lily has passed her Kennel Club Bronze good citizens award. We still haven’t sorted out all her problems!
We went to Cornwall to the Minack again. It poured down but we were well prepared and with raincoats and a picnic blanket the wrong way up we kept dry. The play/musical had a terrible plot but the actors were all students at the Central School of Drama – some amazing talented youngsters. The other trip was to Dunster on the edge of Exmoor. We stayed at the Lutteral Arms which is very dog friendly. The weather was warm enough for us to have breakfast in the garden every day. From the garden we could walk out into the park of the castle and the woods beyond.
In September we spent a week at the HPB property at St Simeon on the edge of the Champagne region. There are so few tourists the locals are friendly, almost unheard of in France. Lovely cottage and a great swimming pool as well.
Back in Devon we hired a beach hut at Budleigh Salterton. We went every day as the weather was very warm. So warm we both went swimming in the sea and not in wet suits! It’s the nearest thing to having a holiday without having to pack a suitcase. Margaret loved that.
It was the Budleigh Literary Festival during the time we had the beach hut. Some very eminent writers were speaking all lured to Devon by the patron of the Festival Hilary Mantel. Margaret introduced herself to Hilary as they have the same degree Bachelor of Jurisprudence from Sheffield University and they chatted about how they ended up doing this rather unusual course.
October we set off for St Petersburg again with our friends Rachel and Michael. This time flying and staying in a city centre, at the Astoria. We can recommend the hotel for its location and the staff who not only spoke very good English and were very helpful but also had a sense of humour. We spent two days with a guide, Liudmila, doing the tourist route, but we had one day to wander round the city, trying to get a taste of life in a museum piece. So many mansions all turned into Exhibition Spaces – what does one do with redundant palaces? We ate in local restaurants, some good, one terrible, and very expensive wine.
Alan has joined the Exmouth Choir; a much shorter journey than driving to Chagford every week. He is now a fully fledged member of the Samaritans which takes up a few hours every week, including some night shifts. Coming back from his 12-3am shift after a weekend of heavy rains he misjudged the flooding of the River Clyst (car came through the water on the opposite carriage way) and wrote off the Volvo. He wasn’t hurt only wet feet. At least the decision to change cars has been made for him.
Margaret’s next novel is being rewritten but she has published on Amazon a short book of the stories from her blog. The book is called Trials and Errors and is available as a paperback or on Kindle.
The vote to leave the EU and the election of Trump as the next President has left us feeling uncertain as to what the future hold. Keep calm and Carry On is probably the only approach.
There is always a good exhibition somewhere in London, often too many. A trip to the Royal Academy on Picadilly is usually worthwhile. We wanted to see the Matisse exhibition this time. How fascinating. There was not an enormous number of painting but they were exhibited alongside some of the objects he used for his work. The idea was to encourage the viewer to look at the objects the way an artist might. I love his use of colour and textiles and this exhibition was no exception. I’ve often thought that if I was asked what books I would want on my Desert Island, a copy of Matisse’s work would be the first thing I’d chose.
There was also an exhibition of the work of Charles Tunnicliffe in the same building.
He was a Royal Academician best known for his illustrations for books. Think Tarka the Otter. (Memo to self – must read.) What became more interesting was copies of the cards he did for Brooke Bond Tea. The cards were in the packets of loose leaf tea and one could send away for a book in which to stick the cards. Seeing those cards and the book brought back all sorts of memories. I’d collected the Birds of Britain. We started talking to the room steward who told us his had collected the Birds of Africa as he had lived in Uganda as a child. He showed us the Ladybird series of books ‘What to Look for in Winter’, and it’s companion volumes. Tunnicliffe was an amazing artist and deserves to be remembered.
One of the exciting things about the summer months in London is the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. We haven’t been to a concert there for quite a long time. It was so hot on the last occasion we left before the end. This summer we didn’t have that problem — it just hasn’t been that hot.
We hadn’t booked in advance so we took a chance and went to whatever we could get tickets for. It proved a blessing. The first concert was a French choir singing Monteverdi’s Vespers. I love these pieces for their mathematical precision and the music was enhanced by the choreography. It began with the singers facing away from the audience, the backless dresses of the ladies showing Gallic sophistication. Then as the evening proceeded the choir divided and moved around the stage and then regrouped. Soloists peeled off and sang from different parts of the auditorium, adding another dimension to the music.
Three weeks later we went to a concert by the BBC Orchestra and Singers of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. The Resurrections. The orchestra was augmented by extra timpani – five sets of drums I think- and by the addition of brass instruments. Big choirs filling that huge bowl with sound. The music was visceral and I was close to tears in the final movements.
Thank you to the BBC.
We had always wanted to visit Carlyle’s House in Cheyne Row Chelsea and this summer we finally got there. When Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane moved there it was in an undesirable part of Chelsea. They paid the princely sum of £35 per year. The house is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public. https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/carlyles-house It has been kept much as it was during his time – very Victorian. Virtually anybody of importance in 1830/40 visited him and his wife, including Dickens, Robert Browning and John Ruskin His books are very rarely read today, but he was the founder of the London Library and instrumental in the establishment of the National Portrait Gallery.
Today this is one of the most expensive parts of London but many of the houses are simply investments, not homes and a large number stay dark and uninhabited from one year to the next. When I first moved to London I lived in the next road, Lawrence Street, in a very similar house. I loved this part of London.
One of the pleasures for me of London is the unexpected meeting with someone of interest. We were upstairs in the house when the warden came into the room. She lives in the house and I asked her if she felt haunted by the presence of such an influential man and his equally important wife. She said she did feel their influence. We went on to talk about the area. She remembered the wine merchant’s in Justice Walk and the Cross Keys Public House before it became a gastro pub. The houses were all occupied; a mixture of young and old, city lawyers and bohemian artists. The nearby Kings Road the place to be for fashion. We reminisced for a while, before leaving one of my favourite places.
It is quite a while since I’ve done a post. I have been very occupied with trying to write my second Cassie Hardman novel and it’s proving difficult. Possibly because the subject is a rape trial, so it has been very easy for me to get distracted. A trip to Norway cruising to the North Cape and back; a trip to see relatives in the North and then a week in the Yorkshire Dales have eaten into the time. Also, we have spent some time in London feasting on some of the events the city has to offer.
We had tickets for the NT production of Angels in America. I like going to the theatre in London as the average age is much lower than similar events (hard to get in the provinces apart from live transmissions in the cinema) in Devon. But, even by London standards, the number of young people attending this production was very high. There are two plays, Millenium Approaches and Perestroika and the audience was very enthusiastic about both. Rising to their feet at the end and clapping wildly. I can’t say I felt the same. It is a tour de force for the actors particularly James McArdle who plays Louis Ironson.
Some how it seemed dated although the issues of the treatment of minorities are.still live. Aids has not at least in the West been the ‘end of the world scenario depicted here. And so much has been achieved as far as gay rights are concerned. The relevance today is in the view of politics and how far individuals are prepared to go to hang on to power in the form of Ray Cohn. In addition the perennial topic of deceit, self-delusion and hypocrisy in our relationship both with ourselves and with others.
Our recent trip to Australia was quite long, nearly seven weeks. I always keep a log of the places we visit and this journey was no exception. What I’m not very good at is making a note of my reaction to the cities and places I visit. I think I’m too busy doing and not analysing my feelings. Now we have been back a couple of weeks and I have downloaded all the photographs to the desktop computer I have started to ruminate about the experiences. I probably need more time to really reflect on the places we went and the people we met. The picture is of Sydney Harbour from the Botanic Garden on Australia Day. I claimed my Australian heritage and walked around carrying an Australian Flag.
I must get back to writing next week, but the last few weeks have been spent frittering the time away and having fun. I’ve been in Morocco for a week. What a delightful country, France with added spice, India but better food. I mention food because I did a course at L’Atelier Madada http://www.lateliermadada.com/fr/ I made a tagine for lunch The trip began at La Roserai Ouirgane in the Atlas Mountains. Then a few days in Marrakech, including the souk and the Majorelle Gardens. www.jardinmajorelle.com Then to Essaouira (has all the vowels) on the Atlantic coast. A picture beats a thousand words so …….
I recent trip to Buckland Abbey, the home of Sir Francis Drake, left me asking about the nature of experts and just how qualified they really are to offer their opinions. The National Trust, who own Buckland Abbey inherited the painting as one of a group of five from the estate of the late Lady Samuel of Wych Cross. The portrait is clearly that of Rembrandt, his features are instantly recognisable, but it was thought that it was by one of his pupils, such as Govaert Flinck, rather than
by the master himself. I assume that attribution was made by experts in the field. However further inspection by the Rembrandt expert and former chair of the Rembrandt Research project led to the NT allowing the painting to be subject by the Hamilton Kerr Institute. They used the latest scientific techniques to establish the painting was contemporary with the artist, and the panel was made of a wood available to him, as well as the paint comprising pigments he worked with. But does that point to anything more than the portrait coming from the studio of Rembrandt. Further work on the painting involved taking it out of its frame and careful cleaning allowed the expert, Professor Ernst van de Wetering to examine it closely. He now says and no one is disagreeing with him that he believes the painting is by the master. What has changed. Certainly cleaning has enhanced the painting. The use of light coming over the shoulder is skilful. Shadows concentrate the viewer’s gaze onto the eyes of the subject, and they look out at the observer with real intelligence. The velvet cloak looks as if it would be so soft to touch. But why didn’t previous examination of the painting see the quality of the work? Surely experts would know the effect the process of ageing would have on any painting, wouldn’t they? I don’t understand why the change of heart in less than four years. Still it is a wonderful portrait whoever painted it, and well worth the visit to Buckland Abbey.
I haven’t posted anything for over two weeks because I have been on a cruise around the Baltic and had very limited internet connection – far too expensive on the ship and too little time to find an internet cafe on shore. We visited Copenhagen for an afternoon in the pouring rain, Rostock and Warnemunde on the German Coast with a watery sunshine, Tallin, where it rained again. The furthest destination was St Petersburgh where the temperature dropped and there was a smattering of snow. We spent two days there before returning to Tilbury calling at Helsinki where the temperature dropped to minus 5 and then Klapedia in Lithuania – never heard of it, neither had I- but it was sunny and the band played in the town square.
St Petersburgh was the highlight of the trip. Two days in not enough to see the city, its churches and palaces but we did our best.
We liked these beach chairs we saw in Warnemunde and thought we might like one for our garden.
Tallin is like a film set from Walt Disney, but we found a great restaurant and sat watching other tourists scuttle around the Town Hall Square whilst we enjoyed beautifully cooked rabbit followed by a raspberry parfait.
In St Petersburgh, I was reminded of the novel ‘The Seige’ by Helen Dunmore – chillingly graphic description of the days the city was surrounded by the Nazi’s during the WW2. Catherine’s Summer Palace was trashed by the German Army but has been restored to it’s former glory.