A woman at last, on my first visit and on the last night…
I meant to write about my first visit to the BBC Proms, on Saturday 17th August, shortly after it happened, but I mislaid my programme for a few days and then decided that I’d wait until I’d watched the televised version of the Last Night before posting this account.
The two events had in common that they were conducted by Marin Alsop, a female American conductor who is one of the very few women to have penetrated her almost imperviously masculine profession and the first woman ever to have conducted the Last Night of the Proms concert. She referred to this herself when she gave a short but eloquent speech after the Last Night performance, saying that when she told her parents at the age of nine that she wanted to be a conductor they always encouraged her and that her message to other young people, especially musicians, with ‘impossible’ aspirations was ‘Never give up.’
Almost inevitably, male reaction to her appointment ranged from the overtly hostile (the Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko called her a ‘cute girl’; since she is twenty years his senior, I can only conclude that he was suffering from a small prod from the green-eyed god) to the vaguely patronising (although it’s understandable that newspaper accounts emphasised the fact that she was the first woman, less commendable was innuendo from some of them that she was very good ‘for a woman’), compared with Alsop’s own business-like declaration that Sir Henry Wood would have felt that her selection as conductor demonstrated ‘natural progress to more inclusion in classical music.’
All I have to add to this is that she was brilliant. It’s an over-used adjective, but the only one that fits. She conducted both the concert that I attended (No. 47, which featured works by German composers Brahms and Schumann and was also distinguished by being performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, whose members use only genuine period instruments, and the Choir of the Enlightenment) and the Last Night with an energy, fluidity of movement and grace that was more evocative of the performance of a distinguished ballerina than that of a conductor. She obviously lived every note of the music with passion as it was played under her tutelage. It was clear, also, that the orchestra loved her, and she quickly struck a rapport with the audience, too. I particularly admired the way she greeted us, with her hand on her heart, and the understated clothes that she wore (sober tailored trouser suits with just a touch of colour). She was elegant without being flamboyant, a genius imbued with genuine modesty. She also had a sense of humour, and clearly enjoyed conducting Nigel Kennedy as he treated the Last Night audience to his rich repertoire of improvised and impeccably-timed virtuoso antics.
Finally realising my ambition of attending one of the Proms in person and making my first visit to the Royal Albert Hall was even better than I had anticipated. The Hall itself is a monument to Victorian hubris, yet it is impossible not to revel in its magnificence. Above all, it stands as the symbol of hope in an age of expansion and continues to represent the best of culture that civilised society has to offer. The famous portraits of Albert and Victoria in their youth which hang in the foyer have a lightness and optimism about them which would later be all but eclipsed in memory by his early death and her dour widowhood. The Albert Hall was a sumptuous place for those who could afford to go there, yet it was Sir Henry Wood’s dream to make classical music available to all and he certainly, at the Queen’s Hall, enabled a much wider stratum of society to enjoy the performances. This still obtains today: those who are prepared to risk disappointment and don’t mind standing throughout the performances can still pick up tickets at short notice for only a few pounds.
The tongue-in-cheek jingoism of the second half of the Last Night never ceases to delight me, though it becomes more anachronistic year by year (and, worryingly, some of the audience seem to embrace it without quite enough irony). That it has become a meeting of nations, whose flags swirl colourfully, is the ultimate irony. I particularly enjoyed all the solos by Joyce DiDonato. Apparently her costumes were by Vivienne Westwood, which strikes me as very appropriate. However, for my money, it was Marin Alsop herself who stole the show.
Over the road from the Royal Albert Hall stands the massive gilded statue of ‘Royal Albert’ himself. I’d never seen this before, and found it quite disturbing. There’s nothing playful or democratic about this. It’s a construction intended to awe and impress, a monument beyond ostentation that celebrates the British Empire and this scion of its imperial family and, much as if he belonged to some ancient Egyptian dynasty, implicitly raises him to the status of demi-god. Sir Henry Wood may have brought fine music to the petit-bourgeoisie of his day, but at the same time others were busy building and legitimising the British Empire, carefully both ignoring and concealing the fact that it was being constructed on the labours of a British industrial class that could barely afford to feed its children and dependent on the suppression of many other fine civilisations throughout the world. It is difficult to believe that this was happening only three or four generations ago, that Britain only began the long road to true democracy with the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918 and, yet more surprisingly, that it only ‘gave back’ most of its overseas colonies within living memory.
A short York walk
For the past two days, I’ve been attending a conference in York. I used to visit the city regularly when we lived in Leeds. It was a favourite place to take our son when he was young: we’ve been boating on the river there, visited the Jorvik Museum and the Railway Museum and, of course, explored the Minster. We’ve been to the pantomime and plays at the repertory theatre and we’ve always also enjoyed simply walking through the streets. In the summer, York is full of tourists; in the winter, there may be fewer, though still plenty, and there’s often a more local festive atmosphere: we’ve seen jugglers and fire-eaters performing in the shopping precinct in Stonegate, where there are also chestnut sellers when Christmas gets close. Some time ago, relatives of friends of ours lived in one of the houses in Stonegate and kept a shop there. They had to carry out some repair work and discovered that the foundations of their house included beams from an Anglo-Saxon tithe barn.
That’s the magic of York: it’s steeped in history. The people of York have handled their historical past magnificently, too. Old buildings have been repaired but not ‘restored’: there are several roofless ruins that have been tidied up but not renovated with the dubious help of ‘artist’s impressions’ of what they might have looked like in the past.
I don’t think that until Wednesday I’d visited York for the best part of ten years (apart from an ill-fated train journey home from London one Friday evening, when a signals problem meant that all trains North were diverted to York and I was dumped there in the middle of a very cold February evening, reliant on my husband’s driving more than thirty miles to pick me up – which it has to be said he did with a very bad grace, as if I’d personally invented a way of spoiling Friday night. A venial crime on his part, perhaps!). I didn’t have much spare time, but I was determined to spend at least an hour revisiting old haunts.
Reassuringly little has changed. I saw the obligatory crowd of American tourists – mainly ladies of a certain age (and size!) – who were listening avidly to their guide. I listened to her as well for a few minutes, as she told them about the Plantagenet royal family and its strong association with York. What she said was only approximately correct, but I suppose that wasn’t the point! She captured the mystery and glamour right enough. The Minster was swathed in scaffolding, as ever, as was the Dean Court Hotel that stands opposite it. I’ve stayed in that hotel and spoken there at past conferences. It’s a picturesque place, but its fabric seems to suffer from perennial crises! I walked as far as Bootham Bar and took a picture of a plaque that I’d not noticed before, dedicated to a Civil War Royalist, and another, in Monkgate, of the ornate entrance of St. Wilfrid’s, the Roman Catholic church.
And so back to my hotel for more sessions about libraries (yesterday’s covered cataloguing, which is not the most exciting topic in the world, especially on the last perfect sunny day before the rain set in). The Royal Hotel stands adjacent to the station, so is very convenient for conferences. It is also right next to the only major innovation that I spotted during my short walk: a giant Ferris wheel, apparently named the ‘York Eye’ (I immediately thought, ‘pork pie’!). I scrutinised this from several angles, and decided that I wasn’t all that keen on it. Since the London Eye was erected to celebrate the Millennium, these wheels have become popular. I’m sure that they help the tourist industry, but I can’t help hoping that, like the Manchester Eye and the Birmingham Eye before it, this one will be a temporary installation. To me it was incongruous to see this monster looming over such an ancient city. There doesn’t seem to be much practical point to it, either. The argument for building these structures in other cities has been that they provide sightseers with a panoramic view: but in York this can be achieved simply by taking a turn on the wonderfully-preserved city walls.
Some reflections on my father-in-law…
Yesterday was my father-in-law’s birthday. If he were still alive, he would have been 103; he was already old enough to be a grandfather by the time his first child was born. My husband was the youngest of three boys, the first of whom was still-born. My parents-in-law had their children late because the Second World War intervened.
Already thirty, Dad volunteered for active service early in the war; because of his age, this was long before he would have been officially ‘called up’. In retrospect, it was a smart move: it meant that he ‘had a good war’ and, although he certainly found himself in some dangerous situations, he was not often in the forefront of the fighting. He elected to join the Coldstream Guards and was employed as the batman and driver of a brigadier who was also an aristocrat – someone whom the government wanted to keep out of harm’s way. Ironically, the brigadier was killed right at the end of the war, when the armoured car in which he was being driven to a strategy meeting in the field went over a Teller mine. By some fluke, he had taken a reserve driver with him on that day, so my father-in-law survived.
He didn’t talk much about the war or, indeed, about his own youth. I know that he was the eldest boy of a family of seven (he had one elder and two younger sisters, and a younger brother; two other siblings died in infancy). His father was a chicken farmer who was gassed in the First World War (like one of my own ancestors). I don’t know how long he survived after this, but he certainly didn’t work again. When Dad married my mother-in-law, he was still taking responsibility for his own family and continued to send his mother money regularly until she died.
He wasn’t bitter about the war, nor did he question the way it was run. He had a small fund of stories that he told, but he always related them in a matter-of-fact way, as if what happened was inevitable. For example, he was part of the second wave of D-Day landings. He said that he and his colleagues ran inland from the beach, saw a German tank ahead and ran back towards the sea again (discretion the better part etc.) – hardly the glorious unstoppable heroics celebrated long afterwards in books and films! (I remember noting the very gradual shift away from unrealistic, partisan and fictional representations of the war to a more balanced and gritty portrayal of its truths.) Soldiers were issued with cans of corned beef as emergency rations – the type that had a metal strip round its middle that you pulled to divide the can into two halves. He remembered that, when it was very hot, as soon as they pulled the can apart, the meat was covered with blowflies. But they ate it, anyway. As they worked their way up through France and the Netherlands towards Germany, one of the more amazing tasks that befell Dad was to dig daily a ‘foxhole’ in the ground for his superior; though the trench was a defensive measure, he would arrange a waterproof tarpaulin and fill it with warm water so that the brigadier could take a bath. Shades of Blackadder indeed! He also remembered the many corpses of bloated cows that littered the French countryside, dead because their owners had fled and no-one had been left to milk them. Always an enthusiastic but never obsessive gambler, Dad made modest but often successful bets on dog- and horse-racing, which still took place in various places along his route, and had to obtain permission from the brigadier to send his winnings home.
From my observation of my father-in-law and my own father and the fathers of my friends who were half a generation younger, I’d say that there was a great dividing line between those who fought in the war and those who didn’t. Dad belonged to a generation which dealt in absolutes. He believed in authority, hierarchies, decorum and The Queen. There was a way of doing things and he liked it to be observed. My husband relates that his father met him off the train after his first university term with: ‘That’s a very disgraceful pair of shoes that you’re wearing.’ He didn’t ‘get’ that his son didn’t value polished toe-caps. He always meant well, having a kindly heart, but wasn’t very attuned to the sensitivities of others. When I first met him, we drove to find him on the day’s estate shoot; at the time, I was not keen on any kind of meat, but, since he happened to be carrying a brace of duck, he thrust them into my hands as an intended kindly gesture! Later, when I revealed that I was scared of moths (a phobia that I’ve since conquered), he caught a large one and informed me: ‘Now I’m going to show you what a beautiful creature a moth is.’ When he discovered that I disliked Christmas pudding (an aversion to which I have remained constant), he lay back in his chair, shut his eyes in disgust, and announced: ‘Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Christmas pudding.’
It interests me, though, how people can be cut off from the era in which they live by an event that those younger than themselves cannot wholly relate to. Dad survived the war by more than forty years, but he never really belonged to the era that succeeded it, which, in this case, saw the children of retainers (like himself) to the landed classes develop through educational opportunity an independence that challenged the authority of the class system. I suspect that this has also been true of others who have lived in previous centuries through sudden seismic shifts of values: from the Civil War to the Restoration, for example, or from the Regency to the reign of Queen Victoria.
I haven’t talked to my husband about yesterday’s date, but I’m sure that it won’t have escaped his notice. His father was a more remote ‘father figure’ than fathers are today, but he was loved and respected and is still remembered; indeed, his last generous act, shortly before he died, when he was not really fit to drive, was to take his car and head off to a local orchard, in order to bring us back a whole box of Cox’s apples. He lived up to his own very high standards. They were just different from ours.
No crime here, at all, apart from some crafty behaviour!
Last week my husband and I were looking after the neighbours’ dogs – all twenty of them – for two shifts a day. This may sound like a lot of dogs, but in years gone by there have been more than twice as many. Let me explain. The neighbours used to be professional greyhound trainers. They’ve almost given this up now – they’re both approaching seventy – but they haven’t given up on the greyhounds. You may have read about how racing greyhounds are often maltreated by their owners: beaten, starved, abandoned or put down once they have become useless for the track. Well, our neighbours have always stood by their dogs and taken care of them until they die naturally, sometimes at a great age (in greyhound terms) because they are so well cared for. These dogs live in a greyhound hotel.
There are seventeen greyhounds left now (the other three of the twenty are house dogs), all residing in a converted turkey barn. All but four of them have a kennel each. Then there are two pairs sharing: Tiger and Kim, and Imogen and Bonnie, who are litter sisters. Looking after them takes the best part of the morning each day, starting at 06.30. It would take longer if there weren’t a strict routine which the dogs understand. Nevertheless, they love a rookie and miss no opportunity to get one over on you if they can. For example, Imogen and Bonnie are apt to dash out of their kennel when you go in to collect their food and water bowls, so it has an elaborate strap attached to the door, allowing you to hold the door to behind you while you’re in there. Both sat demurely on their beds watching me struggle with this contraption. If I hadn’t bothered with it, I’m sure they’d have slipped out to race around the barn.
My husband mucks out the kennels while I supervise the walks. First on the rota are three stately old gentlemen, Des, Laddie and Woody. They’re all black (which is why I haven’t taken their pictures: they don’t photograph well), apart from their now slightly grizzled noses. They walk out together, sedately. Unlike ‘the girls’ who come later, they don’t knit their leads into knots as we go round the paddock, twice. All the dogs wear muzzles, not because they’re dangerous to humans (they’re extremely affectionate), but because kennel dogs have a pack mentality and can’t be relied on not to gang up on each other. By the same token, several of them together would chase and kill a domestic dog if they got the chance. When I’m walking them I hope they won’t spot a pheasant; otherwise I know I’ll be flat on my face and they’ll be disappearing over the horizon!
When we return, if the old boys’ kennels aren’t ready, their leads are hung on hooks while they wait. Usually they stand patiently, but on one occasion last week when the four girls – Imogen, Bonnie and Harriet, who are sisters, and Katie – were being prepared for their walk, they danced at the old boys and got them all worked up. I was worried that one might have a heart attack, like overly-titillated businessmen with weak hearts at a lap-dancing session. The girls are much younger than the other dogs – though youth is now a relative concept in the turkey barn. I’ve taken a picture of the girls, and one of Harriet (Hattie) on her own, because she’s my favourite.
Meantime, Charlie, cunning but quite decrepit, and Norman, fairly robust but not very bright, are released into the pen, an indoor exercise area, because they’re not up to going out. Charlie has always been a sickly dog and is usually on some kind of medication: last year just pills, this year a different kind of pill and an ointment rubbed between his toes every day. Charlie is a bit of a lead-swinger and sneaky with it. Because of his sore paws, he has to be led carefully out of his kennel and helped over the kerb on the pavement outside, but when he’s allowed back to eat he’ll take every chance to shoot slyly past me, with a sprightliness that defies expectation, sideways into Norman’s kennel so that he can consume both dogs’ breakfasts.
Finally, there’s the crew round the corner in a row of converted stables: eight dogs in late middle age who are allowed out for a romp round the paddock on their own: Tiger and Kim, Lottie and Pete, Walter and Minnie, Holly and Buster (this last a beautiful dog, a gentle giant who always comes for a cuddle, a prizewinner in his day). These dogs are considered too elderly to leap the fence of the paddock if a rabbit has the temerity to pass in the adjoining field: though I wouldn’t want to put it to the test, especially as they hurtle out at high speed for their temporary freedom!
Breakfast for the dogs is cereal and milk with an egg in it; their main meal, during the second shift, consists of biscuits, meat and gravy with a dollop of margarine. The gravy is a kind of everlasting stew, heated up daily in an old First World War field kitchen boiler. The barn is full of such useful relics: the scoop for the milk is a handle-less saucepan, and this year, as in previous years, I’ve had to hold my thumb over the holes where the handle used to be riveted as I fill it. The dishcloth is recycled from domestic use, and in ribbons. The food is stored in a series of old chest freezers, to deny the vermin.
After the dogs have had their main meal, bowls are collected and washed and the whole of the kennels settles down. There is no more whimpering, squealing, jumping up and down or barking, just a deep sense of peace: all needs met, all dues paid.
It’s exhausting work, but I still look forward to next year, albeit with a certain sadness that some of these dogs by then will be no more. There’s a blackboard in the kitchen in which the food is prepared: it carries an ancient message: ‘Hugo: if doesn’t lift his head and look at you, he doesn’t want his breakfast. Pedro: doesn’t like beef, chicken only.’ It’s an informal memorial to two departed friends (they were brothers) and simultaneously bears witness to the standards of quality maintained in this magnificent rest home for greyhounds.