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I must start by apologising for the long gap between my last blog and this one. Life has been, indeed still is, extremely full and exciting; but I did say I would try to share a blog every few months. So here is the latest.
I recently had the great pleasure of attending a performance of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Jazz Concert, when Guildford’s concert hall, GLive, was packed to capacity. The series of songs and jazz pieces were composed by Ellington over a number of years and now form an impressive modern variation on the idea of an oratorio.
Jeremy Backhouse conducted the Vivace Chorus, which I last heard perform when I read some of my own poetry at their May concert last year. For this event, the choir was considerably larger than on that occasion, but even with the increased numbers they showed great versatility and control as they swung from energetic to peaceful and back, bringing life and force to the themes of praise, freedom and the majesty of God.
The soloist for this performance was Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, whom I happen to have known since she was a small girl. Now at the peak of her career, she has breath-taking talent and style, and personally I should be happy to listen to her for hours on end. As well as a long list of appearances, first as a member of the Swingle Singers when she was younger, and more recently as a highly sought-after soloist in her own right, she is also a composer of some renown, and has composed a celebratory anthem for the forthcoming coronation, ‘The mountains shall bring peace’.
I have always said that I adore all dance, with the single exception of tap dance; but following this Duke Ellington concert I have had to adjust my position and abandon my prejudice, because the tap dancer, Annette Walker, was nothing short of phenomenal. Interpreting several of the movements, she brought what was already a superb performance to glittering life, with dance that, while it was certainly tap dance, also often appeared to be akin to contemporary dance. One of the movements was entitled ‘David danced’, in which the chorus, jazz band and tap dance melded beautifully; but we were treated to her exquisite interpretations in several other movements as well.
The All Stars Jazz Band underscored and held the evening together with skill and verve. Members of the band were Colin Skinner (Lead alto sax), Alan Barnes (Alto sax / clarinet) Robert Fowler (Tenor sax), Karen Sharp (baritone sax), Steve Waterman (1st trumpet), Freddie Gavita (2nd trumpet), Ian Bateman (1st trombone), Paul Sykes (2nd trombone), Rob Barron (piano), Marianne Windham (bass) and Clark Tracey (drums). I mention them by name because each was worthy of note, and raised the temperature of the evening with their solo passages.
A truly magical and inspiring evening.
Last time I planned to go to a performance by BalletBoyz it was, like so much else in the last two years, cancelled because of covid. I wasn’t taking any chances this time, so booked tickets for their one-night visit, on the day that booking opened.
I may be wrong, but I get a slight feeling that the average age of the company is creeping up just a little, as it becomes more appropriate to refer to them as men, rather than boys; but even if this is true, the dancers have lost none of their youthful vigour, strength and inspiration. So I was treated, once more, to a spectacular performance.
The first dance was ‘Ripple’, an hypnotically lyrical piece choreographed by Xie Xin. In this dance, the dancers became the sea, constantly moving, swelling and subsiding, especially through the movement of their arms. Although quite a bit of the dance was scored for the whole troupe, there were several duets, in which a hand would reach out towards the partner’s hand, only to be retracted before they could touch.
This was followed by ‘Bradley 4:18’, inspired by a poem by Kate (Kai) Tempest, and choreographed by Maxine Doyle with music composed by Cassie Kinoshi. Here there was much more evidence of male angst and of frustrated isolation, with a recurring motif of running full tilt around the stage, and ocasional desperate tearing off of garments. But there were also moments indicating trust and there was some resolution as the piece progressed. The footwork throughout was clean and dynamic, and the dance ended with a startlingly dramatic leap.
Both pieces started with film material, in which we saw the dancers rehearsing and the choreographers being interviewed about their work. It’s quite difficult to explain exactly why, but it seemed right to me that the choreographers of both pieces were women. Although the dances were full of boyish energy and masculine strength, there was also a certain grace and tenderness to the works, particularly in the more lyrical moments, that seemed to be particularly in keeping with a feminine creativity. That is not to say, of course, that such qualities cannot be found in male-created choreography; it was just that in these pieces, the focus had, for me, a feminine slant.
All the way through, the bodies appeared to have no weight, so that the men seemed to float off the floor or, as quite frequently occurred, slide effortlessly over it. Added to this was the astonishing flexibility of their bodies, raising the question as to whether they actually had any bones at all.
Those of you who are familiar with me or my writings will know that I am an enthusiastic fan of contemporary dance, which I feel is the closest other art form to poetry. The main character in my latest novel, The Elder Race, was a contemporary dancer, and I enjoyed writing about her recovery of agility and strength on a Cornish beach after a period in which she had had little opportunity to dance. I have a feeling that some of the BalletBoyz would have enjoyed the dances she choreographed to the accompaniment of the sound of waves and cry of gulls. In any case, I like to think so.
I was never particularly keen on brass instruments until I met the man who was destined to be my husband. To my delight, he actually serenaded me on his trumpet with Caro mio bien, … and my life was changed for ever.
However, he was shy about playing if anyone else could hear him, so it took quite a lot of persuasion to get him to join the Kingsbridge Silver Band. Once there, however, he started to enjoy himself so much that I reckoned it might be worth joining in the fun. I therefore borrowed a flugel horn and, after a few shaky weeks (I’m sure you know that a flugel horn played badly can sound unnervingly like a cow farting!) I joined the band as well. My moment of glory arrived in 2016 when I won the band’s cup for the player who had made the most improvement; but I’m sure that was only because I had started from such a low base!
Over the next few years we played in plenty of gigs: at Christmas there’s always been a huge demand for us to play carols at pubs, open air gatherings and the local nativity play; and in summer, we expended all the breath we didn’t know we had, by processing down Fore Street from top to bottom playing the Floral Dance (ad infinitum), while the rest of the town danced along in their festive clothes behind us. This is generally great fun, though the year we had to do this in pouring rain took slightly more determination. More restfully, we played each summer for an open-air service at Hope Cove, put on by the Methodist church; in November we normally do our civic duty by playing for the Remembrance Day Parade; and we perform in the bandstand in Kingsbridge on various occasions.
Most of the members of the band, including the wonderful band-leader, Irene, are long-time local residents; and some of them have been in the band for more decades than one could imagine (over 70 years in one case!). The age range has therefore been between 12 and 90 plus.
Not surprisingly, because of covid we have not been able to play as a band for nearly two years now; and this is particularly disappointing as this year, 2021, was our centenary year. The Kingsbridge Silver Band might, in fact, be the only band in the country that, until the pandemic, has played without a break for 100 years, as the practices and some gigs continued right through both world wars.
We had hoped to celebrate the centenary in style, but not only was that not possible, but we also got almost to the end of the year without playing together once. Fortunately, we managed a couple of outdoor events this December, and are now all hoping against hope that we can resume normal activities before TOO long. With some luck and imagination, we might even find a creative way to make up for our disappointment over the centenary with a delayed celebration in the next year or two.
Happy New Year to you all, and may you make music, sweet or otherwise, in 2022.
We were planning a tour of the South Coast art galleries before covid struck. Now, sixteen months and a new camper van later, we have finally achieved it – or, at least, most of it.
After a slow and gruelling stagger along the M25, we arrived in Margate and made for the Turner Gallery, which is a simple building immediately next to the sea. It is an unassuming gallery, clearly able to put on fairly large-scale and interesting exhibitions.
I was very pleased to be introduced to the work of Ellen Harvey, a New York artist born in Britain. One room housed her large-scale work, ‘The disappointed tourist’ (oil on cradled Gessoboards). This comprised a huge wall of meticulous paintings of buildings, structures and sites that are ruined or no longer functional; and these were combined with a group of Turner paintings of ruined temples and towers. The effect was moving and thought-provoking, and seemed to make sense of the work of both artists.
Among Harvey’s other works on display was ‘The alien’s guide to the ruins of Washington’, which presented a similar theme,
and a fascinating project entitled ‘New York Beautification Project’, in which she painted tiny, perfectly-executed graffiti cameos on items all around the streets of New York, intentionally confining herself to sites on which she did not have permission to paint her work. Here are some examples of the paintings with which she ‘beautified’ some items that are normally considered ugly.
In the foyer of the gallery was a series of huge figures in charcoal and chalk, with accompanying audio, by the artist, Barbara Walker, entitled ‘Place, space and Who’. These magnificent figures represented different Caribbean characters.
Outside, down on the beach, was an Anthony Gormley figure in the same series as his Crosby figures. As with those, I found this sculpture disconcerting as it was slowly drowned by the incoming tide
The next day we moved on to Hastings, where we had a ‘busy’ day, enjoying not only our visit to Hastings contemporary art gallery, but lunch with two (poetry) friends and tea at the home of another couple of (poetry) friends. It felt like the good old days of socialising.
In 2012 we went to the opening of what was, at that stage, the Jerwood Gallery, built partially to house the wonderful art collection of the Jerwood Trust. Unfortunately, it appears that some time in the last few years there has been an acrimonious falling-out of the gallery with the Jerwood Trust, which has consequently cut all ties with the gallery. This must have left the gallery pretty bereft of art works, but they have compensated for this by borrowing widely, with the result that the collection is well worth a visit.
One of the local celebrities in Hastings is Quentin Blake, who has maintained his connection with the gallery from the start. The large gallery downstairs (which used to be called the Foreshore Gallery) is given over to works by him. Being more used to Blake as the artist of whimsical, humorous sketches, I was quite taken aback by the power of the works on display in this room. A whole wall was taken up by a work entitled ‘The taxi driver’ (2020, acrylic on paper, but it looked more like charcoal), a work that, like other examples of his work displayed in the room, expressed his anxiety over the present state of the world.
Another wall displayed a series of stone heads, fallen in various positions and all slightly disturbing, There was, however, one series of drawings in what was more like Blake’s old whimsical style. This was called: ‘Hand in hand’ (2021, pen, ink & watercolour) and, with all the old punch of earlier drawings, they portrayed easily identifiable human emotions with just a few simple lines.
Unlike the Margate Turner and the Bexhill De la Warr Pavilion, there is an entrance fee for the Hastings Contemporary. But this great feast of art is worth every penny. There are, at present, works by so many wonderful artists, including David Jones, Eric Ravilious, Laura Knight, Paul Nash, L S Lowry, John Piper, Alfred Wallis, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Bill Brandt.
Our next visit was to the De la Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, a gallery built in the Bauhaus style back in 1935-6. This has only a couple of rooms, and nothing very striking in the way of art. One room was taken up by an exhibition entitled ‘All in the same storm’ which comprised a number of mixed media sculptures, a couple of which were also situated outside on the terrace. Another room, upstairs, housed a collection of patchworks, writings and video on the theme of welcoming refugees.
I had never been to Bexhill before, and must admit it had something of the atmosphere of a time warp from the 1930s, so it felt appropriate to sit on the promenade eating ice creams before moving on to the campsite on Normans Bay for a delicious bathe in the sea.
All the art galleries were closed on Monday, so we knew in advance that the next day would not involve art. We had therefore planned to spend that day on the beach before moving on to Eastbourne on the Tuesday to visit the Towner Gallery. However, the weather had other ideas, and as the rain poured down and the temperature fell to 13 degrees, we decided to make for home, and visit the Towner on another occasion.
After weeks of depressing news, wet weather and dark skies, temporary relief arrived in the form of SNOW. It wasn’t half-hearted; it wasn’t wet and slushy; it wasn’t accompanied by biting winds. What’s more, it fell, conveniently, on a Sunday morning. With no home-schooling, no Zoom meetings scheduled, no piles of papers waiting to be processed, children and adults tumbled joyfully out from their warm homes to build a nation of snowmen (snowpeople?) and the occasional snowdog. The sky was light, the grime of modernity was whitewashed over and all traffic ceased, as the ludic took over from the worried and depressed.
Our own creation sported an organic carrot nose and a red plant pot hat and settled happily on our white lawn.
Never have I seen so many snowmen. Every garden sported one, the pavement was littered with all shapes, sizes and genders of snow-white people and animals, and on the downs it looked as though there had been an alien invasion.
… And then the thaw set it. Slowly, sadly, the brave white creatures shed tears. Inevitably their beauty faded away, as the whole world returned to the normal mix of good, bad and indifferent. Consequently, there are now damaged snow-beings in all our gardens and limping their way to nothingness on the downs.
What is to be done? Obviously this isn’t a very important, or even sensible question, and we all have more pressing concerns on our minds at present. But after providing us with so much fun and delight last weekend, I think we owe it to them to at least consider a graceful demise.
One possibility to would to use them as wintry Aunt Sallies, and compete with each other in aiming snowballs at them until they surrender. This is not a great idea, however, first because if there were enough snow to make snowballs, most members of the tribe would still be confidently displaying their handsome shapes, so such a massacre would be premature; and secondly because one doesn’t really want to encourage any such form of aggression and war-play.
We could rush out and try to sculpt the remaining pillars into interesting new forms; but the moment has passed: we are back at work, the pristine white snow has been replaced with a patina of mud-speckling, grit and grass.
It might be possible to lift the whole item into a bucket, imprison it with a lid, and keep the soft snow-melt for future use, but that would not be a very dignified end for a noble creature; and the number of buckets that might be needed would get in the way in the garden.
If you’ve got a good idea for a worthy sequel to our fun and games last weekend, please let me know. But in the meantime, I intend to look out of my window at our snowman with affection each day, watch him diminish and melt down into the earth, to nourish new life and then be replaced by welcome signs of spring.
Literature festivals are important for writers; and, more specifically, poetry festivals are precious for poets. They provide, of course, one of the most successful arenas for selling our books and introduce us to new audiences. They also provide opportunities for us to hear the work of other writers and discover good books that hadn’t crossed our desks before. They create space to relax, have fun and make new friends.
This past autumn, as usual, there has been a good crop of festivals for our delectation. However, in a difficult climate for the Arts, some of these are at risk, and others have had to call a halt to their activities. I attended two festivals in Italy and two in England, so will report, briefly on those, and on their chances of survival.
Villa Pia, Umbria
The first wasn’t, strictly, a festival but a Ways with Words house party at Villa Pia, a beautiful old house in Italy. My reason for going was that I had never been able to get to one of these holidays before, and it was advertised that this would definitely be the last one. Sadly, Kay Dunbar, who with her husband Steve Bristow has been the instigator, organiser and inspiration behind these residential literary holidays, is unwell and therefore unable to continue in the rôle she has so ably filled for nearly twenty years. Several of the guests had been back year after year, some staying for two weeks, rather than the one we managed.
There was a writer in residence, Mark McCrum, who was generous with his time and encouragement; there were Italian lessons on offer, and there was a day trip to San Sepulchro. Apart from those pleasures, there was time to relax (and in my case to get some writing done), beautiful countryside to explore, a deliciously warm swimming pool and fantastic food. There was, naturally, some sadness that such a lovely annual event was coming to an end – but I was just pleased that I’d finally managed to make it at the eleventh hour.
Poetry on the Lake, Orta San Giulia, Italy
The other Italian event was the wonderful Poetry on the Lake at Orta San Giulio in northern Italy, which I have attended for most of the last few years. Many of us first attended this festival when we were successful in the poetry competition that preceded it each year; and then we became addicted and continued to travel to Italy each autumn for our annual fix, even without the carrot of competition success. For several years both the last Poet Laureate (Carol Ann Duffy) and the National Poet of Wales (Gillian Clark) used to attend; but they were not there this year.
Orta is a very beautiful small town on the edge of enchanting Lake Orta, the smallest and most westerly of the northern Italian lakes. Although various members of the public, and some school parties from Milan do turn up to Poetry on the Lake, unlike most other poetry festivals, it is not primarily a public event, though we are always pleased to see the delightful Countess who comes to listen to us each year.
Instead it is a convivial get-together of poets, who read to each other at a number of events over the weekend and catch up with each other’s news. The organisation is always unpredictable and exciting, and most of us have learned that, whatever the official programme suggests, one should never turn up at a reading without a batch of poems secreted in one’s pocket. One morning of the festival is spent walking on the Sacro Monte, where we stop at each of the various shrines to read poetry.
My husband and I generally drive down to Orta in our little campervan, and stay at the lakeside campsite just outside town. The walk into town and back for events is easily compensated for by the magic of waking up to sunrise over the lake, and the joy of swimming in the warm soft water each day.
So, is this a festival that is ending or continuing? Well, the rumours were that this was to be the last one, and this was even announced in a poetry magazine over the summer. When questioned, however, the festival organiser, Gabriel Griffin, prevaricated. No, the format would not be repeated in future, and there would certainly not be another competition. But maybe, just maybe, it was just possible that something different might happen. Who knows? But even if it does not continue, many of us have hugely enjoyed returning to Orta each year and meeting up with poets who have become firm friends.
Torbay Poetry Festival
I was back in England in time for the Torbay Poetry Festival, one of the friendliest festivals of the annual calendar. And this time, sadly, it really was the last one. Patricia and William Oxley have run the weekend festival for nineteen years, but this year they did not manage to secure Arts Council funding. I have read at the festival several times in the past, but this year I went to enjoy other people’s work. Some highlights this year were readings by Laura Potts and Imtiaz Dharker and a fascinating presentation on John Betjeman by the president of the Betjeman Society. (Yes, I know: Betjeman isn’t my favourite poet either; but it really was a most interesting and entertaining presentation and I ended up feeling friendlier to Betjeman than I had before).
I’m delighted to say that although the Torbay Poetry Festival will be no more, the poetry magazine, Acumen, also edited by Patricia Oxley, continues to flourish. Also, in terms of festivals, there are new ones each year, including the Teignmouth Poetry Festival, just along the coast, which is going from strength to strength and the more established Exeter Poetry Festival.
Poetry at Aldeburgh
Finally to Aldeburgh, which has been home to a poetry festival for years. When the plug was pulled on the old Aldeburgh Poetry Festival a few years ago, fans were so outraged that they decided to continue in an amateur, not-for-profit capacity, without financial backing. Presumably because of the lack of funding, Poetry in Aldeburgh does not, in general, attract the very biggest names; but it presents a cornucopia of equally good, if slightly less well-known poets.
I was one of the poets reading for the launch of Coast to Coast to Coast at Aldeburgh, for which a number of us wrote poems from locations all around the coast of the British Isles. The resulting reading gave a beautiful feeling of embracing the whole of these islands. My own poem was written on Halwell Point beach, in the Salcombe Estuary in Devon.
One of the highlights of this weekend was a dramatised reading of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. I greatly enjoyed Martin Shaw’s story-telling session and his joint presentation the next day with the artist and sculptor Maggie Hamlyn, who stepped in at the last minute when Gillian Beer was unwell. The Ambit cocktail party was also highly enjoyable, giving the opportunity to catch up with people who most of the time were rushing from one event to another.
Poetry in the Pink, Pembroke College Oxford
While most of these festivals are residential, there are others that are on-going. Among these is Poetry in the Pink at Pembroke College, Oxford, organised by Peter King, which brings good poetry to the dreaming spires on a regular basis. I was delighted to read there this last month, and have every confidence that, unlike some of the other festivals I’ve described, the future of this one is secure.
This spell of festivals ended with a meeting in Glastonbury to plan, with a group of Poets for the Planet, for an event we will be presenting at the Lyra Festival in Bristol in March. By then we will be into a new year of poetry events, and our diaries, which are already filling up with next year’s poetry events, will sparkle with pleasures still to come. In the meantime, it’s good to know that even when it’s so hard to get financial support for such important events as poetry festivals, they can continue to succeed, foster new talent, encourage good writing and bang the drum for poetry in the dark days of political upheaval and tragedy.
I happened to find myself in Assisi on the day of the international School Strikes demanding action on climate change, led by the Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg; and I felt that the theme fitted well with the Franciscan ethos that is still evident in Assisi.
There are various reasons why a visit to the Church of St Francis in Assisi is inspiring, the chief one, as far as I am concerned, being because of the number and quality of the paintings by some of my favourite artists, that adorn the walls, including Cimabue’s portrait of St Francis, which forms part of his majestic painting of the Virgin and Child with angels. Nowhere else can one find so many frescoes by Giotto and Cimabue and I could (and do when possible) spend many hours contemplating the vision of these artists. This does not mean, however, that I am entirely uncritical of the treatment of all the subjects portrayed.
For most of us, Francis is renowned for his love of nature and his respect for all Creation, and at a time when so much of our natural environment is bespoiled or at risk of extinction, these aspects of his story are more attractive than ever. Born into a well-to-do family and initially living a life of pleasure and ease, Francis had an epiphany that caused him to give up all worldly wealth and privilege to become a humble friar. It may well be that he appeared at a point in history when his message was needed, and he simply ignited a fuse that was ready to burst into life; but he was also clearly a charismatic character, who quickly attracted huge numbers of followers and gradually formed what became known as the Franciscan Order. As is often the case with these special personalities, stories accrued around the basic facts of his life, and a number of miracles were ascribed to him both during his lifetime and afterwards.
The fact that St Francis was a remarkable and inspiring man doesn’t mean that we have to accept the veracity of all the stories portrayed, lock, stock and barrel, though the fact that some of these are far-fetched is not necessarily the fault of the artist, who was simply reproducing myths and legends that were handed down through haggiography or folklore.
The lower basilica in Assisi contains twenty eight frescoes painted either entirely by Giotto or, possibly in some cases, by his associates. These images relate stories from the life of St Francis, the majority of which are more or less credible, while one or two are rather less so. Among the examples of these rather more ‘magical miracles’, I would include the fresco that shows the brothers in Rivotorto observing Francis riding about in a fiery chariot, when he was at the time, in fact, safely earthbound and praying in Assisi. Then, in another picture, the artist portrays the friars watching Francis ascending heavenward in a cloud.
In fact, the life St Francis is so inspiring in itself that there are not as many far-fetched miracles portrayed here as is the case with some of the other saints. To paint Francis hearing a voice speaking to him from the crucifix does not cross the credibility line because it is not implied that the voice would have been audible to anyone else. And many of the other images show striking and unusual events that are not beyond the bounds of possibility, such as Francis preaching confidently before Pope Honorius III, Francis giving his cloak to a poor and destitute nobleman, Francis returning his clothes and possessions to his father or even, with a touch of poetic license, Francis preaching to the birds.
But the miracles that impress me most in the story of this humble saint, also handed down to us in the story of St Francis, don’t relate magical incidents, but the sort of miracles we are more likely to encounter ourselves. Those that are illustrated here include the following:
As well as these miracles, illustrated in the frescoes of the life of St Francis, I believe that we frequently witness miracles in our daily lives, but sometimes fail to realise the wonder of what we are seeing. The fact that a tiny seed can fall into the earth then grow into a mighty tree is nothing short of a miracle; the birth of a baby is a miracle; reconciliation between people who have been in conflict is a miracle, and love that lasts through thick and thin is a miracle. And, as I have mentioned, it is nothing short of a miracle that a young teenager can motivate so many people all around the world, to rise up and demand action on climate change, and can also be invited to meet some of the movers and shakers of the world and speak with authority at international events.
Having recognised these as miracles, I am left wondering whether there is any hope that we might witness an even greater miracle that will save the planet before it is too late. Inspired by a 13th century itinerant preacher, can we, perhaps, hope for the miracle that would bring about the agreement of world leaders to make immediate and radical adjustments to policy and commerce, along with the even greater miracle that would lead all of us to love and respect our environment to such an extent that we are prepared to change our behaviour and our lifestyles in whatever ways are necessary for the survival life on earth?
A few years ago, I wrote a blog about the Words by the Water Festival of Words and Ideas. We have continued to visit this lovely festival most years, camping in our little van on the shores of Derwentwater and walking across the hill each day to the Theatre on the Lake, for an enriching series of talks, readings and lectures.
This year, following an unseasonably warm, dry February, the elements decided to greet us in Cumbria with rain, hail, snow and ice, which added a certain interest and spice to our camping.
The first night, as we slept, the lake crept up to meet us, so the next morning we were moved to a slightly higher pitch, where we were safe from inundation but could still enjoy the glorious view.
The following day, snow crept down the mountains to chill us a little, and the dramas of extreme weather continued through the week. After three nights on the campsite, we arrived back late at night to find our little van all alone. All the other camper vans and caravans had been evacuated during the evening because of the imminent risk of flooding, but as we had been watching the film of Oscar Wilde, with our mobile ‘phones turned off, we hadn’t received the message asking us to head for dry land. We drove out and found a quiet spot beside the road on higher ground, where we enjoyed a peaceful night’s sleep. The next day we booked into a b&b for the rest of the week, which was just as well as the campsite had still not re-opened by the time we left. By then, not only was the campsite underwater, but most of the surrounding fields and woodland.
This year’s programme of events at the festival looked as promising as ever, and we had ‘phoned the theatre on the day booking opened, to make sure we could get tickets to all the ones we wanted to attend. Tickets are not cheap, so it is necessary to be a little circumspect when selecting. But between us we covered a fair percentage of the treats on offer.
Rather than going through the programme to report on each event, I’ll mention some of the highlights of the festival, and pull together a few threads from the week.
Two of the best events we attended were on the first weekend.
Mike Berners-Lee gave an informative and balanced talk about climate change based on his new book, ‘There is no Planet B’. The well-researched information in his talk could not fail to shock, but he also found a way to offer at least some hope that all is not yet lost – as long as we all take the threat extremely seriously, and act now to save the planet.
Peter Sanford appeared in the main theatre to give a talk entitled ‘Angelology’. Peter is a gifted lecturer and held us spellbound as he explored the history and mythology of belief in angels. He quoted the surprising statistic that one in ten Britons claims to have experienced the presence of an angel. It would appear that many of these people believe in ‘guardian angels’, rather than in the more general, and more interesting idea of angels being messengers from God.
Among the other exceptionally good events were Diarmaid MacCulloch on Thomas Cromwell, Kenneth Baker on Sins and Sinners, Marcus du Sautoy on Artificial Intelligence and Melissa Benn on Education – all inspiring speakers. MacCulloch gently filled some of the gaping holes in my knowledge of history and Baker had fun with the seven deadly sins, amply illustrated by slides. Du Sautoy gave an informative and lucid presentation of where we are in the development of AI and although I heard some of the audience afterwards complaining that he had scared the life out of them, he was honest about the advantages as well as the dangers of AI. Melissa Benn was lucid, charming, ideological and practical as she proposed a better model of education through a National Education Service built on the same model as the NHS.
Marcus du Sautoy Melissa Benn
As usual, there were some well-known celebrities in the programme, such as Roger McGough and Melvyn Bragg. As one would expect, both of these spoke or read well, though perhaps being extremely celebrated can make it a little more difficult to stun an audience in a new way. There were also some quirky events, such as Christopher Skaife, the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London, talking about the ravens of the Tower (very good), and Irving Finkel, the Assyriologist at the British Museum, giving a rather strange and histrionic introduction to his latest book.
We enjoyed a couple of evening events: first a talk about Oscar Wilde by Michèle Mendelssohn, followed by the film, ‘Wilde’, starring Stephen Fry; and later in the week, a highly entertaining hour with the comedian, Robin Ince.
I chaired the Poetry Breakfast, at which 30 poets enjoyed coffee, croissants and fruit juice and read poems, either their own or from well-known poets. Without prior knowledge of the chosen readings, there is a always a certain risk to chairing an event like this, so it was gratifying that as the last reader finished, the clock showed that we had landed fairly and squarely on our advertised end time.
There was a philosophy day, at which Raymond Tallis and Julian Baggini spoke; an interesting talk about Gypsy Britain by Damian Le Bas; an inspiring story of a walk round the SW coast path, by Raynor Winn; an exploration of labyrinths and mazes by Henry Eliot; and a fascinating talk about Katherine of Aragon and Juana of Castile, by Julia Fox.
At a festival planned many months in advance, there are always likely to be a few changes and cancellations, but we got away fairly lightly this time. I was going to get my husband to report on the events he went to without me, particularly the political ones, but I think I have included enough here to give a good taste of the festival. Unfortunately, we had to leave before the final day, so missed a few events that would have been of interest.
This was the first year in which Kay Dunbar and Steve Bristow were not with us for the whole festival. Between them, this ‘Mr and Mrs Ways with Words’ not only started all three festivals (Dartington and Southwold being the others), but have run them brilliantly ever since their inception. They are now taking a back seat, and have handed on the Directorship to Leah Varnell, who with the rest of the Dartington team, especially Jane Fitzgerald and Philip John, is well-capable of maintaining the high standard of festivals that we have come to expect.
Last summer, Mark Oakley, who was at that stage still Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral before his move to Cambridge, invited me to the cathedral to see the two Bill Viola installations/films there. ‘Martyrs: Earth, Air, Fire, Water’, was installed in the cathedral in 2014. Set across four vertical plasma screens, it depicts four individuals being martyred by the four elements. The work is silent and deeply moving.
The second video, ‘Mary’, was installed in the cathedral in 2016, and is a celebration of women, using depictions of Everywoman. I found both artworks extremely moving, so jumped at the opportunity to visit the Royal Academy last week for their exhibition, ‘Bill Viola and Michelangelo: Life Death Rebirth’.
Despite mixed reviews, the exhibition did not disappoint. The main exhibits were by Bill Viola, but they were accompanied by a number of small drawings by Michelangelo. Both artists, of course, demonstrate the beauty and power of the human body, particularly the male body. Michelangelo’s specific meditations on the Resurrection become, in Viola’s work, celebrations of both transformation and physical rising.
The theme of water is so universally present in these works that it almost appears to be an obsession, but it is clearly a metaphor both for life and also for transcendence. Walking through the semi-darkness, watching the videos, some of which take around a quarter of an hour to play, one is transported into Viola’s world and receives a glimpse of his spiritual awareness. The cleansing of one’s normal attention also made the Michelangelo drawings that much more striking, as one became conscious of the way in which the artist conveys so much of the important essence of the figures with so few strokes of the brush or pen, whether it be a depiction of Christ’s crucifixion, the risen Christ (pictured right) or the tenderness of a nativity scene.
Before I went into the exhibition, a couple of men in the café told me that they had got round it in 10 minutes. I was therefore surprised to find myself still in the darkened rooms after an hour an a half; and even more surprised to find that the images, and Bill Viola’s meditation on life and transcendence, travelled with me when I left.
Summer holidays are, for most of us, over, and we are now recapping the new experiences we have enjoyed, the different people we have met, and the beauty of the world that has been revealed to us as we have travelled. Those who can afford to take holidays and to travel are extremely fortunate, and in general it is good to expand our horizons, increase our understanding of different people and learn more about the world.
However, tourism has also thrown up a number of problems over the years, with the appropriation of cultures, interference into people’s lives, overcrowding at popular landmarks, the proliferation of litter, the introduction of foreign money and moralities and the destruction of local community life. Interestingly, this has all come into much sharper focus since the emergence of AirB&B which, with no regulation or limit, is causing dramatic and unsustainable crowding in some of the most popular city resorts in Europe. Venice is suffering, Florence is heaving and, apparently, Barcelona is being destroyed.
An article in the Guardian on 30thAugust this year described in words and in photographs the demise of Barcelona, in a photo essay entitled ‘How tourism is killing Barcelona’.
I was reminded of this when I visited Iceland this summer. We had been trying to get there for some years, and finally decided to sail there from Newcastle on a cruise ship, which then stopped at most of the centres of habitation or interest all the way round the island.
The natural features of Iceland are well worth visiting and the people are delightful, many of them displaying a particularly Icelandic wry sense of humour. This is just as well, as the country is having to deal with an absolute explosion of tourism, as visitors from all over the world flock to visit this small northern island. Here are a few of the features that attract the crowds:
Excuse the strange sepia colour of the Blue Lagoon photo: it was taken through a window.
The natural hot water, full of minerals, is so relaxing and refreshing that we stayed in for over an hour – until we were getting soggy.
Not all the attractions are natural. The concert hall in Reykjavik is also striking:
And the Botanical Gardens in Akureyri are bursting with flowers, giving the lie to assumptions about Iceland being a cold inhospitable country.
With so many attractions, it is not surprising that so many people are drawn to this erstwhile quiet country. But the question is: what effect will the explosion of tourism have on Iceland? Is there a danger of killing the goose that lays the golden egg?
I was told that by August, 1.3 million tourists had already visited Iceland this year; and in the small port of Akureyri, apparently, 170 cruise ships had docked over the summer. Given that the total population of Iceland is under 350,000, these figures represent an astonishing level of invasion.
So far, the people appear to be dealing with this mammoth increase in tourism with grace and efficiency; and one reason for this, apart from their natural good nature, is that the same tourism that is threatening to overwhelm the country, has also saved it from bankruptcy. We might think that the bank crisis of 2008 affected us badly, but this was nothing in comparison with what happened in Iceland, when all the banks went bust. For two years, life was extremely grim, and it has taken considerable time for the country to recover to something like a normal economic situation. This has been hugely helped by the influx of so many tourists and the money they bring with them.
So is the over-popularity of Iceland as a tourist destination a good or a bad thing? It’s a complex question which requires complex answers beyond the scope of this short blog. There is certainly a danger that some of the sites will become unpleasantly over-crowded during the high season; but Icelanders are relishing the increased wealth which, not surprisingly, is much more to their liking than the situation when money leaked away into nothingness. Incidentally, they dealt with their errant bankers rather more robustly than the UK did, with the result that at least 26 bankers are serving prison sentences!
So much in the country is good; but nothing is perfect, and it is sad that Iceland is one of the very few countries that still endorse whale hunting, in contravention of the UN whaling agreement. When questioned about this, they tend to put at least some of the blame on the tourists who, it is claimed, want to eat whale meat. I’ve not idea whether this is true or not; but if it is, it means that visitors have the potential to change this, by politely declining whale meat.