Sunday, 31 July 2011

Rhino Mountain

The Yorkshire Dales, apparently, are a dangerous place to be these days. Seriously, I've been meaning to photograph this sign for some time. You can find it on a high road in the hills between Kirkby Stephen and Sedburgh. I'm sure it's cheered up a lot of tourists (or worried them, if they're slow on the uptake). It's been there for years now. Are "SEM" the initials of the artist? Who knows.


Not so long ago we paid a visit to Ormesby Hall, a National Trust property just outside Middlesborough. Prior to passing to the Trust, it was the home of Colonel Jim Pennyman and his wife, Ruth. They were an interesting couple: Ruth was a socialist while the colonel was an active member of the Conservative Party. It's a pleasant afternoon out: there's a lot to look at in the hall, especially since Ruth -in addition to everything else- was a semi-professional artist. The exhibits which stick in the mind, though, are pretty gruesome. Ruth kept one of her milk teeth and it's now in a glass case along with two sections of Jim's ribs: he received a bullet wound in the war and, as a result, they had to be removed surgically. He kept them, wrapped in cotton wool.

Having had a wander round, I came across a portrait of Sir Michael Tippett in a corridor close to the exit. I was quite excited by this as, if pushed, I think I'd have to name Tippett as my favourite composer. I headed back to the information desk to find out what he was doing there.

It turned out that Tippett had been a friend of Ruth Pennyman in the inter-war years. He had worked with her on a project for unemployed people in the area - first on a production of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera and then on an opera which he composed himself, Robin Hood. Ruth Pennyman wrote the libretto. As it was an early work he was not altogether pleased with, Tippett later withdrew the music and forbade its performance.

He did write his Piano Sonata No. 1 in the thirties, though (this is "1/2", so if you listen, and it captivates you, click on the "2/2" that appears at the end to hear the rest) :

Now I've seen it in a new light I'll have to go back to Ormesby Hall.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Birds

Writing my last-post-but-one got me searching Youtube for Messiaen's music. In the process I found these videos of the composer talking about birdsong. Birdsong was a huge influence on him: it found its way into a huge number of his pieces and, frequently, into the titles he gave them.

And here's Le Rouge-Gorge (The Robin), from Messiaen's Petites Esquisses d'Oiseaux (1985-1987), played by Thibaut Surugue:

I was reminded of Messiaen's music when I went to an exhibition of Marcus Coates' work at the Baltic in Gateshead in 2007:

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The Fall

You weren't there:
neither was I.

The evidence of
the tape, however,
is unequivocal: there was
an urgent, white crescendo
as the twigs
of the desiccated canopy
crumpled against the sand
followed by
a dark sforzando
as that broken branch
that had stuck out
for so long
like the stump
of a severed arm
buried itself after which
time (as before) continued
on its invisible way

Saturday, 23 July 2011

My Kind of Music (8)

It's a while since I added anything to this series of posts. However, I've been listening to this composer a lot recently and was reminded that one of his pieces, The Quartet for the End of Time, was a piece I got into as a teenager. At the time I was bowled over by its originality and still am.

Olivier Messiaen wrote the piece while he was being held by the Germans in a prison camp during WWII. It was scored for the instruments available: piano, violin, clarinet and cello. It was first performed in 1941 in Stalag VIIIA, to an audience of about 400 prisoners and guards. Etienne Pasquier, the cellist, described the event in an interview with Hannelore Lauerwald:

[The performance took place] in the hut that we used as the theatre. All the seats were taken, about four hundred in all, and people listened raptly, their thoughts turning inward, even those who may have been listening to chamber music for the first time. The concert took place on Wednesday, 15 January 1941, at six in the evening. It was bitterly cold outside the hut, and there was snow on the ground and on the rooftops.

This is the sixth movement, Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes:

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Night Run

Busy day again yesterday, tying up administrative loose ends. Went out for a run last night: I'd spent so much time sat in front of a computer or a steering wheel I desperately needed a bit of exercise. Stuck my headphones in and, fortunately, caught the Alastair Roberts Trio on Late Junction (Radio 3). (You can still hear the concert for the next six days here, on the BBC website if it's available where you are). I'm not usually a folk music fan, but this struck a nerve. I just liked what I heard (and not just because Roberts is credited, somewhat journalistically, with "reinventing Scottish folk music"). It certainly helped that the combination of bass, guitar, violin and voice is the same as the band I play in - only we're playing jazz. It was interesting to hear a texture that was the same, but different. It was musically thought-provoking.

I'm looking for a good book to read and had a browse through the local Oxfam shop this morning. Several things attracted my attention, but I came away empty handed. I almost bought a Doris Lessing scifi book, almost bought The Gormenghast Trilogy. Both were books I'd like to have read. But I read a page of both and couldn't see myself reading another few hundred in either. In both cases, something about the style got on my nerves. It's a shame - as I'd like to have read both and I'm sure I'd get a lot out of them if I could bring myself. I was left feeling that, having been around for half a century, if there's a book I've wanted to read for years but kept picking up and not reading, there's probably a good reason for it. Why voluntarily knock my head against a brick wall? If I picked up Titus Groan 1982, 1991 and 2001 and put it down again perhaps I should just resign myself to accepting that it's not "me", not bother and look elsewhere.

Or perhaps not. Certainly with music, I often find myself listening to stuff I'd heard years ago and thought I didn't like only to find something in it.

The fact remains, I feel in need of a good book to read, and can't find one. And although you can't make special things happen, I'd quite like it to be a life changing discovery. Some books are. It's not about whether it's a good book or a bad book - but just about the impression it makes on you when you read it. For one reason or another, things after you've read it are never quite the same again.

I can feel a list coming on - books I've read, which have had this effect on me, in no particular order. I've excluded overtly philosophical books as what I'm interested in here is how books that are not directly so can affect the way one thinks. There's no poetry there, either - I decided poetry would warrant a list of its own.

Mountaineering in Scotland and Undiscovered Scotland by WH Murray
Waterlog by Roger Deakin
Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome
Lord of the Rings by Tolkein
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Composition With Twelve Tones Related Only To One Another by Josef Rufer
The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch
Dune by Frank Herbert
The Collected Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle
A Year From Monday by John Cage
Piggly Plays Truant by AJ MacGregor
Fun With Short Wave Radio by Gilbert Davey

It strikes me that there's quite a few doorstops in there. I seem to like big books. That having been said, I've stalled on a few. I'm just over half way through Middlemarch. I had decided to "rest" it (after all, it came out in installments) but when I picked it up again, it suddenly seemed to be hard going. It's billed as "A Study in Provincial Life" and it suddenly seemed very, well, provincial. Did I really want to wade through it? Perhaps I don't like novels - certainly, many books on my list aren't novels.

I'll have to keep looking...

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

To the Secret Harbour

I felt a little apprehensive clicking on the "New Post" button this morning. It seems a long time since I last strung words -as opposed to notes- together for the fun of it. The last few weeks have been very busy: always the case where the summer term is concerned.

I'm a great believer in the maxim, you should work to live, rather than live to work, although this tends to go by the board this time of year. It's also true, as my grandad used to say, that if a job's worth doing, it's worth doing properly, so needs must. Fortunately, things are about to even themselves out: by lunchtime today all the exams will be over and I'll only have a handful of reports to sort out. Sadly, if recent years are anything to go by, the summer will be all but over too, to be replaced by the "rainy season".

The last period of free time ended weeks ago. It ended so suddenly I didn't even have time to blog about it. My friend Alick and I borrowed an inflatable canoe belonging to a friend of his and made for the Lake District. Our objective was to follow in the footsteps of Arthur Ransome's fictional children (and Arthur Ransome himself) and seek out Wild Cat Island, the idyllic camping-place of the Swallows and the Amazons.

Of course, Wild Cat Island only exists in fiction. it is, however substantially based on Peel Island on Coniston Water. Ransome camped there in his youth and visited it frequently. He was great friends with the Collingwood family, and a great fan of WJ Collingwood's book, Thorstein of the Mere. As Ransome says in his introduction to the book, quoting Collingwood:

Far up the lake was Peel Island. "When you see it from the fells it looks like a ship in the midst of the blue ripples; but a ship at anchor, while all the mere moves upbank or downbank, as the wind may be. . . . And to make the likeness better still, a long, narrow calf-rock lies in the water, as if it were the cock-boat at the stern: while tall trees stood for masts and sails." We had seen it so from the high fell, and as for the calf-rock, we ran our boat in alongside it when we rowed down to the island. We knew that someone had lived there, in the narrow place between rocks in the middle of it. For twenty years I treasured an old nail found there, now gone, like so much else.

Alick, with boat, in the secret harbour

                                                                           Photo: Alick Bridger
Of course, the geographical details are altered slightly in Swallows and Amazons, but when you land on Peel Island you are left in no doubt that you are stepping into the pages of a book. It's most famous feature, the secret harbour at the Southern end, is exactly as you would expect it to be. Photos, we felt, are called for, and we snapped each other. This is my photo of Alick. We both look very serious in the shots. Anyone who read and reread Ransome as a child could not help but feel slightly awestruck in that place - much as you might feel walking into a cathedral.  We pulled our canoe well up on the shore and set off to explore. The real island is not big -its fictional counterpart has been stretched a few yards- but big enough to capture the imagination. It is essentially a rocky wood. Almost everywhere on its coastline the rock slopes down steeply into the water. Apart from the secret harbour there are only one or two nooks and crannies where one could land or launch a small boat. In the centre there is a depression, surrounded by rocky hillocks, where traces of a Viking settlement have been found (none are visible  now). At the Northern end -much used in the book as a lookout point- I could not resist climbing an oak tree.

Once we'd explored the island, we ate our lunch and returned to the boat. I was slightly worried that we might return to find a crumpled plastic bag instead of a canoe. We had had the foresight to bring a pump with us, just in case. Thakfully, the boat was just as we'd left it - I had underestimated just how good a good inflatable canoe could be. I'd seen cheap versions in action in the past and had not been impressed. This one was quite a ship and we were amazed to discover just how fast we could travel in it. We set off North to the steamer quay half way up the East side of the lake, landed briefly, then set off back to Peel Island and landed again. Then we circumnavigated it... In short, we spent the afternoon, to borrow a water rat's famous phrase, messing about in a boat.

We'd parked the car and launched that morning at Low Peel Near (someone -not us- took a great photo of the place and posted it here). By the time we got back there we were feeling quite bold. The far side of the lake didn't look that far away anymore, so we set off to Brown Howe. It only took us a few minutes and, on the way back, we passed the Gondola, a steamer that carries tourists up and down the lake. Could we outrun it? We gave chase and kept up for a while, but soon wore ourselves out. The wash from the thing was a bit choppy.

Back at base, we decided to end the day with a swim. The lake was surprisingly cold (this was May), but not too cold to swim without a wetsuit. (We'd been wearing wetsuits all day, but I don't like swimming in them unless I have to - the bouyancy makes me feel like a bobbing lump of polystyrene). When we got out, we discovered an aspect to the place that features in Ransome's fiction not at all - midges! On Peel Island we'd said we'd wished we'd brought a couple of bivi bags and stayed the night there. Dressing on the shore while trying to beat off the blighters we were glad we hadn't.