Sunday, 10 December 2017

Spitalfields' non-Christmas festival

A great idea, in principle: invite in a radical and respected curator, André de Ridder, whose conducting of Prokofiev's The Gambler at Grange Park impressed me so much on a first visit there, and whose adventures in contemporary music have been consistent ever since; combine the old and the new in most programmes; make each event an epic. And, of course, avoid the usual Christmas fare of previous years. Of the opening three-parter, I could only make the first third, in itself a generous hour-and-a-half, before dashing off to the Royal Opera's Cav and Pag. That put an Arts Desk review out of bounds, so I report belatedly on what I witnessed last Saturday here on the blog.

The launch of the Spitalfields Music Festival 2017 (all images here by Robin Savage for the Festival) was in every detail worthy of respect, but a little crepuscular (as a punter said in the Music Discount Centre when I worked there many moons ago, of music from Wagner's Ring arranged for the eight Bayreuth horns). Two of the three works receiving UK or world premieres were minimal to the point of dematerialising: perfect for a late-night concert in the summer, when the body is relaxed enough to go into meditative mood, less so for lugubrious Shoreditch Church 9as immortalised in the wonderful Rev.) on the gloomiest of December days. Much as I love Anna Thorvaldsdóttir's haunting orchestral pieces, Shades of Silence hardy feels like more than a tentative improvisation (it was composed for the Icelandic period-instrument contemporary group I heard in Tallinn Music Days 2016, and so it fitted David Bates and players of La Nuova Musica well).

Much more effective, as I'd have been able to judge more fully had I been sitting comfortably and not with a crick in my neck, was Jocelyn Campbell's THEFT, a very subtle meditation on fragments of Monteverdi madrigals. Beautifully maintained on the cusp of silence by violinist Maya Kaddish and viola da gamba player Gavin Kibble (pictured above), it was true to the composer's definition (Thorvaldsdóttir's title was advertisement enough, too): 'I want the pieces to feel somewhat vacant, still containing much of the beauty of Monteverdi's writing but with none of the sense of progression, and heard somewhat faintly as if from a distance and with elements of soft disruption'.

Dynamic at last, by way of much-needed contrast, was Josephine Stephenson's Between the war and you, a song cycle the words of which were not always audible, nor the tones consistently projected, from The Hermes Experiment's soprano Héloïse Werner. The quartet's admirable aim to commission work for the rare combination of voice, clarinet, double bass and harp (all four musicians pictured above) remains impressive, though, and harpist Anne Denholm wove consistent magic.

The framing madrigals both astounded me (through the course of the evening there were five scheduled, all from the radical Book Eight - I was sorry to miss Ben Johnson in Il Combattimento). I confess I've never heard 'Or che'Ciel e la terra e'l Vento tace' live before - wonderful text, spellbinding start, queasy harmonies. Radical indeed. This is up there with the weirdest of Gesualdo, and all in the cause of creating a mini piece of music theatre. Even more so 'Lamento della Ninfa', with Katherine Manley (pictured above with three musicians from La Nuova Musica) realising the full force of the girl's heart-tugging plaint. Excellent work, too, from The Erebus Ensemble, a group of singers for once as fair of face as voice. Men only, of course, alongside Manley in 'Or che'Ciel'.

Wish I could go on the Schumann ramble around Spitalfields' Huguenot houses tonight - Dichterliebe distributed and, it seems, in some cases reworked; the great Uri Caine is among the range of performers. But since Sakari Oramo's unsurpassable Independence Centenary Sibelius has left me on a high, and Salonen did a wonderful job on the colour in the Four Lemminkäinen Legends the next evening, I have to go tonight to hear what the first as conductor makes of the second as composer. And, I know it's the obvious choice, but I only just watched Oramo's Last Night of the Proms performance of Finlandia, with choir (though it's the revised standard, otherwise, rather than the original with its hair-raising apotheosis, which we heard on Wednesday). Gave me goosebumps and brought a tear to the eye. So good to see so many of my pals in the BBCSO in close-up, too.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The greatest nature writing

I thought Robert MacFarlane was good - he is, if often a bit self-conscious in style - only to find Roger Deakin even better. Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Or, Life in the Woods is an in-the-beginning must for environmentalists and nature lovers, its very bumptiousness part of its charm (and it has the most poetic prose chapter on spring, to end the book, that I think I've ever read). But soaring highest of all, at least of what I've now read, is J(ohn) A(lec) Baker, page after page of whose 1967 classic The Peregrine offers lyrical writing of an order I've never encountered at the same visionary pitch. At the same time this is a study with its feet firmly planted on rough soil, with an acute awareness - shared by Steinbeck in Cannery Row's description of the tide-pool - about the destructiveness and ferocity of nature in Baker's stated intention to 'make plain the bloodiness of killing'.

Baker lived all of his too-short life (he died in  1987 at the age of 61) in Chelmsford, Essex. As anyone who has walked rural portions, and especially estuaries, of that much-maligned county, there is as much natural wonder to be found here as anywhere, though you need to search it out. Baker's stamping ground was, as Mark Cocker writes in his introduction to the Collins edition of The Peregrine and The Hill of Summer, 'a roughly rectangular Essex patch of just 550km, which includes the Chelmer Valley from the eastern edge of Chelmsford as far west as Maldon and the confluence of the Chelmer and Blackwater Rivers', and the author wrote that 'before it is too late, I have tried to...convey the wonder of...a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa'.

As Thoreau more bullishly puts it, and more about the inner than the near-to-hand:

What does Africa, - what does the West stand for? Is not our own interior white on the chart? black though it may prove, like the coast, when discovered. Is it the source of the Nile, or the Niger, or the Mississippi, or a North-West Passage around this continent, that we would find? Are these the problems which most concern mankind? ...Be the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clarke and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes...Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of though. Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice. Yet some can be patriotic who have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay.

But I'm letting Thoreau steer me, in his splendidly digressive way, off course. Baker's own introduction states how 'in my diary of a single winter, I have tried to preserve a unity, binding together the bird, the watcher, and the place that holds them both' - which he does by occasionally showing us how the watcher identifies with the bird.

But the first person is sparely used, never over-indulgent as it is in Thoreau, and the prose manages to be both rich and spare at the same time. Descriptions of the peregrine's soaring and then his stoops, those giddying plunges at speed, intoxicate the reader as they clearly did Baker. Daily descriptions of the scene have a physical force, partly through the Shakespearean use of vivid verb, some of them created or made intransitive, as here, all of which I recognise:

The sky peeled white in the north-west gale, leaving the eye no refuge from the sun's cold glare. Distance was blown away, and every tree and church and farm came closer, scoured of its skin of haze...New horizons stood up bleached and stark, plucked out by the cold talons of the gale...An iridescence of ducks' heads smouldered in foaming blue water...

In a freezing January, one of the coldest, and having killed a half-dead, bleeding woodpigeon, the writer records:

A day of blood; of sun, snow and blood. Blood-red! What a useless adjective that is. Nothing is as beautifully, richly red as flowing blood on snow. It is strange that the eye can love what mind and body hate.

The kill itself is brutal - here a soaring and a stoop, both thrillingly described in the previous paragraph, end in the final action:

And for the partridge there was the sun suddenly shut out, the foul flailing blackness spreading wings above, the roar ceasing, the blazing knives driving in, the terrible white face descending - hooked and masked and horned and staring-eyed. And then the back-breaking agony beginning, and snow scattering from scuffling feet, and snow filling the bill's wide silence scream, till the merciful needle of the hawk's beak notched in the straining neck and jerked the shuddering life away.

And for the watcher, sheltered for centuries from such hunger and such rage, such agony and such fear, there is the memory of that sabring fall from the sky, and the vicarious joy of the guiltless hunter who kills only through his familiar, and wills him to be fed.

Then there's this, of a close encounter with a tiercel perched on a post five yards away:

He looked round as I stopped, and we both went rigid with the shock of surprise. Light drained away, and the hawk was a dark shape against white sky. His sunken, owl-like head looked dazed and stupid as it turned and bobbed and jerked about. He was dazzled by this sudden confrontation with the devil. The dark moustachial lobes were livid and bristling on the pale Siberian face peering from thick furs. The large bill opened and closed in a silent hiss of alarm, puffing out breath into the cold air. Hesitant, incredulous, outraged, he just squatted on his post and gasped, Then the splintered fragments of his mind sprang together, and he flew very fast and softly away, rolling and twisting from side to side in steepling banks and curves as though avoiding gunshot. 

Three pages later there's a no less compelling passage about a meeting with a tawny owl in a wood just before sunset. Other birds appear and are noted, though unfortunately many of them are the peregrine's prey, seen either before the attack or as kill to tell Baker where his main object has been. Their vocalisings are vividly captured - 'the squelching call of snipe', the scolding of blackbirds' alarms, robins' song 'clear as spring water'.

But I realise that I could go on excerpting passages for a lot longer, glorying in the language as I take pleasure in typing it out and hoping something will rub off. Just read it. And re-read. I'll go even further than my title by declaring that it's a towering masterpiece by any literary standards and has gone on to my all-time-favourites list. I'm saving The Hill of Summer for a time closer to what it describes, though I realise it is probably even better to savour the opposite of what one's going through. Which, these past few days, has felt like the bleak heart of winter. In the meantime, here's the only reasonably close photo I've ever managed to take of a bird of prey - a mere buzzard, I fear, but it was splendid to see this summer in the well (but not over) maintained common near Jill's place in Lower Southrepps.

UPDATE: I realise I let the centenary day of Finnish independence pass unremarked, though I did go to the superlative celebratory concert from Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican last night - all Sibelius, of course, part of the team's symphonies cycle - and reviewed it this morning on The Arts Desk. Was expecting an encore after the bleak, abrupt ending of the First Symphony, but there wasn't one. This bird-related beauty was Jukka-Pekka Saraste's choice of encore to mark the composer's own 150th anniversary in 2015. Here it is from Leif Segerstam and the Danish National Radio Orchestra:

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Fondest memories of Nick Wadley

I adored this Mensch. He and his beloved Jasia were always there for us, quietly and with discretion, during a difficult time. And I hope we returned the favour a little. Certainly I think only happy thoughts about Nick. Even though he suffered a lot in later years and was in and out of the Royal Free Hospital too much from 2004 onwards, he made art out of it, as I mentioned earlier on the blog, in a little masterpiece, Man + Doctor. Here's one more illustration which isn't actually in the book, expressing 'the feeling of liberation from hospital'.

In telling us that Nick had died, Jasia wrote eloquently (on 1 November, and I know she doesn't mind my reproducing this):

He died at 5.40 this morning on the 15th floor of the University College Hospital. It was his seventh week in hospital.

The view from his window was spectacular, the care excellent, but there was no prospect of a recovery.

For us, the last memory was a very happy one. Nick made a rare departure from home in August to come with Jasia and share a meal here with us and beloved mutual friends. He was frail but absolutely himself, and we laughed a lot. Here he is with Jasia and Maria Jesús.

We met through the humorously-named Cole Porter Choral Society, which he had set up with the assistance of Sylvia Libedinsky 20 years ago while they were working on cartooning and a cloth exhibition in Japan. At that time the other members were few, including Peter 'Joe Egg' Nichols and his wife, with Eva Hofmann at the piano.

Sylvia invited us to Liane Aukin's home - there's another dear one lost - and we joined as regulars, slightly putting out of joint the noses of those who preferred to croon rather than sing lustily (as one of them told me at the service). As with all groups, it wasn't without its frictions and defences, but what fun we always had rattling through selections from three books of songs by Porter, Gershwin, Berlin and others. Remembering the spontaneous singalong nature of the events, I suggested to our trusty pianist Kurt Ryz that we shouldn't rehearse the three for the service, and I told the assembled friends who packed the central chapel of Golders Green Crematorium how what we were about to offer was in the spirit of the meetings.

We should, I suppose, have sorted that we were going to repeat the initial verse of 'Chatanooga Choo-Choo' to embrace both Nick's variation and the original - it was chaotic beyond bounds when Kurt whizzed on to the next section without repeating. But 'You're the Tops', including Cole's naughty verse, rollicked before we hit another reef with 'Let's Face the Music and Dance', which wasn't in the books and turned out to proceed in a way that only J seemed to know (thank goodness).

Anyway, it wasn't about us but about Nick - and a lovelier remembrance couldn't be imagined. The MC was his good friend Dr John Besford, with whom I had a lively communication before the service and who brought along two jars of 'Dr Besford's Aubergine Pickle' from Mr Todiwala (spicy and intense) - one I was to make sure reached Alina Ibragimova, whose masterclass John had attended and whom he promised a sample.

John filled us in on essential details. I've extracted what  he calls 'a synopsis of Nick's life in three short chapters provided by Jasia Reichardt.'


Nicholas Wadley was born in 1935 in Elstree, Herts, the youngest of four children. Went to Reed’s School, Cobham. After National Service (during which he worked as a Morse code operator) he studied painting at the Croydon and Kingston Schools of Art and then art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art under, among others, Anthony Blunt.

He has two children, Caroline and Chris, and six grandchildren, a quorum of whom are here today.

He lived in London for most of his life. 


Nick's principal teaching work for 25 years was at Chelsea School of Art, where he became head of department of Art History in 1970. He took early retirement in 1985 to do research and concentrate on his own work, writing and drawing.

Nick wrote some ten books dealing with art history, including a book about Gauguin’s manuscript Noa Noa (1985) and the standard volume on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Drawing (1991).

He wrote countless articles; reviews; catalogue introductions, gave countless lectures. He curated many exhibitions (Kurt Schwitters, London, 1981 ), Franciszka Themerson Drawings (Ålborg 1989), Gaberbocchus Press (Paris, 1996), 'The Secret Life of Clothes' (Fukuoka, Japan, 1998), UBU in UK (London, 2000), 'Franciszka Themerson, European Artist' (London 2013). He was the chosen illustrator of several authors including U.A. Fanthorpe, Lisa Jardine, John Ashbery and others. He also spent many years working on the Themerson Archive with Jasia, writing about Stefan Themerson and Franciszka Themerson's art and preparing her catalogue raisonné. 


When asked to describe himself, he wrote: 'Nick Wadley writes and draws'. After 1990, he became increasingly involved with drawing, or perhaps thinking through drawing. Many of these drawings appear in his books: Man + Dog; Man + Doctor; Man + Table; and Man + Book for which we have to wait until December. The next one he planned, a Franglais edition, was to be called Man + Homme. In collaboration with Sylvia Libedinsky, Nick contributed weekly cartoons from 1997-2002 to The Daily Telegraph and Financial Times and through her made his connection with Argentina where they both exhibited. The Otros Aires neo-tango music for which Nick provided the cartoons in Big Man Dancing comes from there and will accompany us as we leave this building. And then, there are the cards, like short stories or aphorisms, each on a subject to be deciphered or thought about. He had exhibitions of his drawings in London, Tokyo, Warsaw, Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile. During these 17 years he still wrote about art, mainly for the TLS.

John finished very eloquently:   

Auden...wrote (regarding the Golden Rule): We are all here on earth to help others. What on earth the others are here for I don’t know. But Nick did. 

My loving and beautiful wife Sonja tells me that there is a Jewish concept called tikkun olam which is expressed as acts of kindness performed ‘to repair the world. Nick and Jasia together have been practicing tikkun olam and inspiring ‘the others’ to do the same for decades. 

There followed four readings, from which I take this poem by Nick, read by Richard Nightingale: 

At night,
  when thoughts walk naked,
  unrecognised without their clothes,
  they're neither words nor pictured quite.
By day,
  they seem to go more one way 
  or the other.

Neither the Golders Green event nor refreshments afterwards at the Camden Arts Centre off the Finchley Road - which to my shame I've never visited before - offered much space for sadness; that came, for me, the day after. But it was undoubtedly a life well lived - and its effects will last, not least in the launch of another book very soon and with any luck another exhibition at the 12 Star Gallery.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Dmitri Hvorostovsky (1962-2017): this says it all

This is from the beginning, at the 1989 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, when he was up against Bryn Terfel. Yeletsky's aria from Tchaikovsky's Pikovaya Dama was one of those things Hvorostovsky sang like no-one else - the vintage cello of a baritone voice just loved those rising scalic phrases, and the breath control was always extraordinary. It was the first thing I thought of today, hearing the awful if expected news (he was four months younger than me). Tomorrow I'll turn to an Arts Desk tribute and listen to a lot more (the Russian folk songs disc, Verdi as well as more Tchaikovsky) when I have the time.

Update (23/11) My Arts Desk homage is here, with excerpts from a 1992 interview for Gramophone and two more YouTube clips. My thanks to Cheryl Madden over on LinkedIn for citing the folksong 'Nochenka' as her favourite Hvorostovsky number - unaccompanied, he is at his nuanced best.

Eight from the Gedda collection

I had an amazing, impression-packed three days in Stockholm: three stupendous concerts in the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic's HK Gruber festival (including the great man's definitive, legendary performance - conducting, singing, shouting, kazoo- and recorder-playing - of his ever-startling Frankenstein!!), a brilliantly staged production of the new, hit-and-miss Dracula opera by Victoria Borisova-Ollas and a vulgar, fun one of Turandot at the still-cultish Folkoperan, costumes from Bergman films brilliantly curated in the oppressive but fascinating Hallwylska (House-)Museum. But the biggest surprise was on a freezing Sunday morning when the square between the Scandic Haymarket Hotel where I was staying, formerly the Art Deco department store where Greta Garbo was discovered while working as a shop assistant,

and the Konserthuset, proudly proclaiming its star composer,

was transfigured from a fruit, flower and vegetable market - chanterelles very much the prominent items -

into a fleamarket.

Better than any I've encountered in the UK, its antiques were interesting, a print-stall led me to buy two illustrations from Lindman's 1920 Nordens Flora for less than £6 each - and then I discovered the records. First - on my way to a cash machine to pay for the prints - mixed boxes of LPs at about £1 each, where I snapped up Decca Phase 4 Ketelbey, Drottningholm Court music, an old Melodiya choral disc featuring Rimsky-Korsakov's Tatar Captivity, and this,

the great Gedda singing Swedish patriotic music including gems by Stenhammar and Alfven. Would that I'd discovered the real treasure house earlier. The boxes in question started with what must be the complete discography of the Serge Jaroff Don Cossacks Choir, progressed to a variety of tenors from Russian vintage via Caruso through to more recent contenders, hit a strand of HMV's old Viennese operetta recordings and ended with classic Swedish artists like Elisabeth Söderström. I asked the guy on the stall how much? He replied '30 kronor each'. I pointed out that what I'd already bought were only 10, he reduced it to 20. When, having made a selection, I asked again, he explained why these were more, launching his thunderbolt. This was the private collection of Nicolai Gedda, from his Stockholm apartment on Valhallavägen (his main home was in Switzerland, where he died on 8 January aged 91. A clip from the tribute programme to which I contributed on Radio 3 can still be heard here).

What, break up a treasury, fail to establish an archive? That seemed sad to me. But better that someone should make a selection who really loved the tenor and his wide-ranging artistry. And it turned out that the choice I'd made was actually quite representative. The DG Serge Jaroff LP I chose signalled the involvement of Gedda's adoptive father, Michail Ustinov (distantly related to Peter), who sang bass in the choir.

To be honest, listening was quite a shock - such comically terrible intonation, especially from basses trying for the low notes. But also such esprit and some fine solos. The back of the sleeve was annotated - Gretchaninoff's Credo has 'fakral' (farewell?) beside it, and 'God save thy people' 'Tchaiokvsky OBS'. This is the hymn arranged at the beginning of the 1812 Overture (and sung, in Karajan's recording, by the Serge Jaroff Choir).

There were so many volumes of tenors from Melodiya's 'The World's Leading Interpreters of Music' series, including Yershov and Sobinov. I chose the one dedicated to Nikolay Figner, since his history went back furthest: he created the role of Hermann in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, opposite his wife Medea as Lisa. The recordings date from 1901-2 and 1909, yet sound amazingly present - enough to tell that this was not a beautiful voice, at least when the tenor was in his early forties, but certainly one full of character, and one hears the heroics not in the Hermann aria but in Davidov's 'Away, away'.

Had to take a token of Gedda's great Swedish predecessor, Jussi Björling, especially as two weeks ago, searching 'Che gelida manina's for the Opera in Depth classes on La bohème, I found the ideal - not his later recording for Beecham (which overall is still THE classic), but one made with Nils Grevellius conducting in 1938. That's not on this LP, but other Grevellius-era recordings are, weirdly remastered with echo-chamber around them in 1961, the year after the troubled tenor's death at the age of 42 (a tear shed here, incidentally, for the news today of Dmitri Hvorostovsky's death from a brain tumour at 55).

I didn't realise Gedda's own debut recital came out as early as 1952. When I went into the BBC studios to record a Radio 3 tribute in January, the aria they played was Lensky's from this LP, with Alceo Galliera conducting the Philharmonia. So delicate, so feminine. The gutsiness came later, but Gedda never pushed like Björling, which is why we heard him singing so well at the age of 72 in the Golders Green Hippodrome (I reproduce the signed ticket on the blog here). The French arias are ravishing, too. This was my most treasurable find: on the inner sleeve is inscribed 'Dorogoi Mamochke, na (can't read the word), ot Koli, Chicago 26/4/1952'). Presumably dedicated to his adoptive mother Olga, his aunt. His real parents were Swedish and half-Russian. To know more about Gedda's humble and clearly not easy beginnings - after which he was swept from being a Stockholm bank clerk to overnight stardom in Adam's Le postillon de Longjumeau at the Royal Stockholm Opera - I've ordered up a second-hand copy of his autobiography, mercifully translated into English.

I could have chosen from the two LPS each of The Gypsy Baron, A Night in Venice and Wiener Blut as the operetta representative, but since it's closer to my heart I went for the excerpts - all that were recorded - from Richard Strauss's Arabella. Gedda features only very briefly in a scene from Act 2, and Schwarzkopf even in her younger days was predictably mannered and faux-girly as the heroine, soubrettish-sounding too. But the prizes here are the Philharmonia horns, presumably led by Dennis Brain, the Mandryka of Josef Metternich, a baritone I'd never paid much attention to before, and the pacy conducting of Lovro von Matačić - would that he had left us complete R Strauss rather than Lehár.

Had to have a specimen of Gedda singing Russian folk music with balalaikas. This is all good, but the two bell numbers at the end with a cappella support are especially magical. As for this,

which I selected before I know whose records these were, it's the original of a CD which has long been such a favourite at home. The CD only has four overlapping songs, including the consummate original version of Soloviev-Sedoy's 'Midnight in Moscow' seductively sung by Vladimir Troshin, and the extras on here include more surprises as to how jazz-oriented Soviet Russia could be in the late 1950s, not least with three guitarists playing the St Louis Blues. When I stayed in St Petersburg with the Romashovs, the grandmother, Elizavata, was fond of a radio station which played nothing but songs by Soloviev-Sedoy and his colleagues. I bet that no longer exists. Anyway, what superb arrangements and fine vocalists on this LP.

Well, you're spared further chronicles of further purchases because first, I had no Swedish notes left before I had to dash in to the afternoon concert, and second, I had reached the limit of what I could pack into my hand luggage. I had to look in two batches - about an hour into my first market browsing, I was heading towards hypothermia and was splendidly revived by fish soup with celery in the wonderfully old-fashioned (and extremely popular) Café Avenyn just down the hill. Which I returned to after the concert to take a breather before catching the Arlanda Express back to the airport, and indulged myself with the rich chocolate of a 'Sarah Bernhardt' (you can get these in the wonderful Bagariet in Covent Garden's Rose Street, too). It had been packed at lunchtime, by the way, a very lively scene, but this was 5pm on the same Sunday, so much quieter.

To scoop up more Geddaiana was so tempting - I now realise from reading how Gedda collected books on art, Russian art especially, that beautiful old volumes on another stall would have been his, too. Someone else was going through a box of letters, but didn't move on in time so I didn't get to see whether those were his as well. I repeat, how sad when the collection of a great person gets broken up and no archive is established. Heck, there ought to be a Gedda Museum in Stockholm. I hope a Swedish musician reads this and heads to the marketplace next Sunday - these mementos need an appreciative home. Anyway, I've done my bit. Watch this space for more on the Bergman exhibition, and The Arts Desk for both an overall Stockholm/Gruber piece as well as a transcription of a very emotional 65-minute interview generously granted by HKG.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Autumn about town

Taking us from late September to last Thursday, between which times I hadn't been able to make it to my NFP (New Favourite Place, at least since the summer), the walled garden of Fulham Palace. Only had ten minutes within, the closing time now moved back from 4.15pm to 3.45. The beds of vegetables and flowers had changed from this

to this

and here are the beehives in September

not long I bought my first jar of honey, among the best - so little is needed on toast to give the distinctive tang, so a small £10 jar can last a long time - with the even smaller yield from the Garrick Club roof and the unique chestnut honey flavour from Valvona & Crolla's Italian source, a jar of which I picked up on my Edinburgh afternoon.

For some reason, I don't think I'd featured any of the Tudor bee-bole holes in the Fulham Palace wall. That was then

and this is now.

The most spectacular colour right now, many specimens having already shed, is that of the gingko near the gate into the walled garden

beyond whose leaves the east facade of the Palace can be glimpsed.

Visitors to whom we've become so accustomed all along the Thames and in the London parks could be heard before one of those pesky but still oh so exotic parakeets was seen.

The beech hedge along the north wall is also flaming

while the garden at the front still has some floral colour

and the fading light beyond gives a good indication of where we now are in the year.

I'll return to my route back along the river at the end. But now for the interstitial period. Autumn at Kew was essential. While the Palm House stays more or less verdant throughout the year, albeit lit up by the late afternoon sun on this occasion,

the lilies in the neighbouring glasshouse will soon be over and starting again from scratch in the spring,

and this was the last of the gourds.

Roses were still abundant in the beds between the Palm House and the long walk towards the river.

The big trees did not disappoint. My favourite of the grandest, the giant oak by the Thames, Quercus x Benderi, which also has Q. coccinea x Q. rubra on its label (a dendrologist would need to explain that one to me), looked fine from across the lawn

and looking out from underneath the branches towards the river.

A pure Q. coccinea (crimson) lived up to its colour-coding, again from without

and within,

while the beech grove, with autumn crocuses before it,

gave several interesting perspectives, both up

and across to acers via vast roots.

Memories of Dawyck in the Scottish borders were conjured by a cluster of birches, the finest being the Chinese red-barked variety (Betula albo-sinensis).

Soon I was back among the magnolias, normally only distinguished by their flowers in spring, but Magnolia salicifolia, the willow-leafed variety, is an autumn beauty.

So too is Fraxinus angustifolia 'Monophylla', with its stippled bark.

I was going off-piste among the trees to search for fungi, but specimens found I few, other than this bolete - I'm guessing, from the redishness on the stem - uprooted

close to something fascinating I couldn't identify (but, thanks to Caro in the comments below, can now suggest as magnolia seeds in a broken-off piece of poddery).

The bracket fungi back nearer the Palm House never fail.

An earthstar? (Loose guess- my handbook usually doesn't help).

And I think this is honey fungus attacking a tree that's not long for this world - common, but impressive.

One fleeting afternoon visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden - Hans Sloane through seasonal leafchange

reacquainted me with the Mediterranean spitting cucumber, Ecballium elaterium, not yet ready to do its stuff - the cucumbers were then only the size of poppyheads before unfolding.

I headed back down to the CPG environs on the afternoon when the tailend of Hurricane Maria was whipping up the Thames at high water with its blustery winds. The exhilaration can't be captured, but you get a sense of the swell looking over towards the Buddhist temple in Battersea Park.

Black-headed gulls (yes, their heads are almost white at certain times in their development) were bobbing among leaves from the Embankment plane trees clustering in the water.

A cormorant bobbed, disappeared, resurfaced and skimmed the water as it flew away.

Looking towards Chelsea, one big cloud gathering that only deposited a quick shower

and walking along the houses of this stretch of the Embankment, which for some reason I've never passed before. And there are some gems - the terracotta of Garden House -

and the much more celebrated Swan House, Norman Shaw's work,

'the finest Queen Anne revival domestic building in London,' says A Guide to the Architecture of London, ''with three first floor caged and fully glazed oriel windows'

Crossed the river on my bike and did a circuit of Battersea Park, where the leaves were clustering at the edge.

and then wove my way back through Chelsea Street, past the heron panels of a building on the Embankment I've not been able to identify, 

somehow ending up by the house that's always fascinated me in the attractively named Glebe Place.

My guides all wax lyrical about the 19th century artists' studios, one of which was Charles Rennie Mackintosh's studio-house in the last years of his life, and The London Encyclopedia mentions a brickwork cottage (No. 51), 'reputed to have been a hunting lodge of Henry VIII but this is unlikely. It was used for a long time as the Chelsea Open Air Nursery School,' as the charming plaque still reminds us.

But what of No. 50, built for the advertiser Frank Lowe between 1885 and 1887? Think of its folly what you will, but it catches the eye with its tower, its six statues on the mansard roof and the painted design blow them.

I'm glad my curiosity led me to step into the porch, because quite apart from the intricately wrought door

there's also a tabernacle with portrait which clearly intends to evoke Renaissance Italy

and the ceiling is curious too.

If anyone knows more about this curious building than I've been able to discover, please let me know. But it's time for some brutalism now - a view from Sophie's top-floor flat on Ladbroke Grove across to Ernő Goldfinger's once-hated, now-treasured Trellick Tower (1966-72) against black skies that threatened rain as I left on my bike but fortunately failed to deliver.

And the skies were even more extraordinary one evening as I walked to pick up my bike at West Brompton Station where I'd left it one day and cycle on into town. The brute here is the 28-storey Empress State Building, built between 1958 and 1961 and renovated in 2003 to a design by Wilkinson Eyre Architects (I've only just found that out, plus the fact that there's a revolving restaurant on top. I thought it was for police occupancy only).

Earl's Court Exhibition Centre next to it is no more; the whole space is one big building site, and I understand the massive luxury developments planned have been halted in their tracks. But it does give a nice open wasteland feel to the place which is not without its strange attraction. That evening, though, the sky was the thing, planes on their way to Heathrow adding a feature

And the pink was still there by the time I passed the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Smoky, cloudy sky, too, over the Barbican Centre

and clearer twilight in front of St Giles Cripplegate before a not very good BBC Singers concert preceding the stunning second instalment of Sakari Oramo's Sibelius cycle over in the Barbican Hall.

Even the 'western wastes', as Henry James called them, of my vicinity were lit up on another evening, here with the excellent Bhavan Centre at the end of the road.

I have no photo documentation of two very different Monday afternoons cycling to my opera class at the Frontline Club. On one, I looked above the treeline in Hyde Park to see an orange sun - later found out this was causes by a sandstorm from the Sahara and forest fires in Portugal. And last Monday was the sharpest, most crisp, brilliantly blue-sky autumn day imaginable.

Last Saturday we went from watching a noisy (pumping-music) and mildly interesting Bayswater firework display from the comfort of a high-up apartment to supper near Baker Street. As I walked around Dorset Square

I was dazzled by the brightness of a just-past-full moon.

Not only that, but the craters were clear on the edge.

But back to last Thursday. I must give a salute to my favourite new local haunt, visited en route to Fulham Palace - the Jaffa Bake House on the North End Road. The premises used to house a large but indifferent bakery; now they've been transformed into something you'd be happy to find in Beirut or Damascus - and my mouth waters at the thought of za'atar (the delicious spice mix) on man'ouche or flat bread, done on the spot in the capacious wood-fired oven: this flavour brings back mornings staying at friends Juliette and Rory's place in West Beirut one Christmas, when I'd go down to a hole in the wall and bring back man'ouche to eat on the balcony with a bit of a sea view, along with cardamom coffee. The North End Road Market has improved immensely over the past couple of years too - heck, you can even choose the fruit and vegetables - and there are even more Middle Eastern food shops, of ever better quality.

So to the images up top, and on to Bishop's Park, heading past the pond by what used to be called Margate Sands,

the fiercely defended edge of Fulham Football Ground, the sky busy with birds heading back to the Wetlands Centre - which I must visit this year, when the Bewick and Whooper swans have arrived -

and a bit of fiery orb (look carefully at this small size) behind the now deleafed trees.

One final surprise - the prunus over the back wall has only a few leaves left, but one stubborn blossom insists on emerging when all we thought we could expect now were the flowers of the ivy, last source of nectar for the bees.