Not many people have heard me say anything nice about IKEA. Indeed, you could be the first. They have published a superbly funny sketch which pokes gentle fun at what I suppose we can call the Snapchat and Instagram generation. Click and enjoy.
Maybe I’m particularly wired up to foodie issues right now, having just returned punch-drunk from three packed weeks in Brazil, enjoying the delights of the food and drink that that amazingly diverse country can offer. You can get an idea about just a couple of days’ worth of that rich experience in the guest post I wrote for our lovely friend Rosana’s food blog.
Maybe, though, I’m influenced by living with someone who is just as much a foodie as I am and a skilled and enthusiastic user of social media. I’ve learned to draw conclusions about my cooking from whether the camera comes out, or doesn’t, before we can start to eat:
No camera, no commendation: draw your own conclusions
Camera + photo: a few seconds’ ‘immortality’ via Snapchat or Instagram
Camera + photo + invitation to present the dish so the photo can be captioned: high commendation followed by demands to reproduce the triumph repeatedly until some new triumph comes along.
Our old teacher Gerry Lafferty – a Scotsman with an Irish name who taught us English – taught us that putting food in front of someone on the table is a symbol of love and friendship. He was right about most things and I endorse this comment too.
What is better than cooking simple food that family, friends and I can enjoy? If anyone photographs it before diving in, why complain? But have a look at that IKEA film and enjoy its gentle, if not especially subtle, humour.
Oh! how I love, on a fair summer’s eve, When streams of light pour down the golden west, And on the balmy zephyrs tranquil rest The silver clouds, far — far away to leave All meaner thoughts, and take a sweet reprieve From little cares; to find, with easy quest, A fragrant wild, with Nature’s beauty drest, And there into delight my soul deceive. There warm my breast with patriotic lore, Musing on Milton’s fate — on Sydney’s bier — Till their stern forms before my mind arise: Perhaps on wing of Poesy upsoar, Full often dropping a delicious tear, When some melodious sorrow spells mine eyes.
Summer came back to these parts last week. Last week I finally got round to visiting John Keats’ house in nearby Hampstead: it’s well worth a visit, nicely interpreted and making you want to read some of his poems. The week before, on a fair summer’s Sunday eve, I took a short spin around Finsbury Park, even closer to home, sharing some of the simple pleasures he expresses in this sonnet.
Obviously I can’t improve on his words because he says it all really. Is there, in all honesty, anything genuinely better than just walking slowly – very slowly – past a well-kept border? Or walking barefoot on the grass, testing the theory that this gets unproductive electricity out of your system (no idea whether it works but it feels nice)? Or sitting down on the same grass just because it’s dry, and just because you can? Or seeing families full of children making hay in the safe play areas? Or taking a small boat around the pond, dodging the floating weeds and barely disturbing the ducks, who couldn’t care less anyway? Or doing all that without rushing, or feeling you actually have to do anything?
Simple stuff, I know. No one is going to say that Finsbury Park is the most special park in London. That’s just the point. Even here, in an area full of life but not totally prepossessing, we are on the doorstep of a large green space which is one of the key places where the local area goes to relax. And on a pleasant evening – is there any weather, anywhere in the world, as fine as a perfect English summer’s day? – you don’t need much else. Look back at the poem – you don’t need to be anywhere in particular to experience that.
So who are the 47 then? Well, for the past five weeks I’ve inevitably identified myself with the people we call the 48 – the 48%+ who voted to stay in the EU. Coincidentally I discovered the figure that 47% of London is open space, most of it green. That’s where we have it over most other big cities. Paris is as beautiful, Vienna is as historic, New York is as vibrant. But wentralhere are their green spaces? Mainly on the outskirts – even Central Park, glorious as it is, is one big space, tidily packaged and corralled into one place.
In London the open spaces are dotted all over town – either staring you in the face or tucked behind back alleyways or along water courses, where to come across them is always a welcome surprise. I’ve wondered for years what the point is of the Green Belt around London. Green Belts are supposed to be the lungs of an industrial city – which is plain enough where a city is so heavily built that it’s too late to do much about it. London’s lungs are where they belong – alongside its beating heart. The Green Belt has only one real purpose: to sustain the property values of the noisy middle classes across the prosperous South East.
That’s today’s sermon, but really all I want to say is that many of the simplest pleasures are usually associated with open spaces – and are usually available, as they say, free, gratis and for nothing. John Keats understood that. So can anyone.
War is the statesman’s game, the priest’s delight,
The lawyer’s jest, the hired assassin’s trade …
We’ve just passed the centenary of the Battle of the Somme – a war crime so flagrant, so shameless, so inhuman that I would call it demonic if that did not risk absolving from responsibility the appalling humans who caused it. Watching Peter Barton’s excellent in depth documentary about the whole appalling catastrophe was as sobering as you’d expect.
Most of you know that I am a pacifist. It has to be my deepest conviction, though I confess at once that I can’t be certain exactly how I’d respond if the chips were really down and I/we were seriously threatened. And of course I have genuine respect for those who, following their own convictions as I follow mine, risk their lives in combat. Even more do I feel for the families who lose people close to them as a result of war, often without understanding why.
You can see, I expect, where this post is heading. But bear with me while I work my way there. Here are some more quotations to add to the one above (which is from Shelley):
The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend (Abraham Lincoln, apparently)
It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare (Mark Twain, as usual)
Before you set off in revenge, dig two graves (Old Chinese proverb, of course)
War is a coward’s escape from the problems of peace (Thomas Mann, surprisingly)
I’ve got a million of them, as music hall comedians used to say. But there’s nothing comic about this. A few years ago the BBC broadcast an even more extraordinary documentary. It was called The Fallen, and it was based on the simplest of ideas: to commemorate individually each of the 300 or so British service people who had been killed in one of our recent Middle East ventures – the pointless war in Afghanistan or the immoral, illegal one in Iraq. And it was probably the best documentary I’ve ever been unable to watch.
The film was based just on names, photos and chats with family members in their homes. At least I think it was. It lasted about three hours and I managed only a few minutes before literally (I mean that word literally) running from the room, pausing only to turn off the TV and delete the recording. Just the sight of a very ordinary mother showing the cameraman into her dead son’s bedroom, still laid out – football posters and other young guys’ paraphernalia – as if for his return, her sad face, and her simple, bewildered words, was stronger meat than I could digest. As a film it was intensely powerful, indescribably moving and, for me at least, unwatchable. But I’m glad it was made, and anyone who did not react to it with the profoundest grief needs to see a doctor very quickly.
Which brings me to the despicable Donald Trump. What on earth is he for, apart from spewing out bile and hatred, devoid of empathy or any concept of the effect he is having, insulting anyone who doesn’t fit his fantasy world and generally making his (great?) country a laughing stock? How can anyone, free of his delusions, possibly think it acceptable to attack a couple of ordinary respectable Americans, bereaved parents of a dead serviceman who happen not to think like him and, perfectly reasonably, took the opportunity to tell him off in public?
When will this overgrown schoolboy notice that the needs of the world as a whole are not identical to his own needs? When will he discover that his cesspit of a mouth has upset one person too many? When will he accept that the best of Hillary Clinton might – just might – occasionally be better than the worst of him? When will he listen to wiser members of ‘his’ party such as the honest, decent, independent John McCain – a man with whose politics, I may say, I disagree profoundly? Don’t trouble to reply. The answer is never.
Bullies, even ones who spout jejeune trailer trash rubbish, are often very clever. They’re also usually quite scared, hence the bombast, the evasion of blame, and the need to put down others. The trouble is, clever scared people are quite dangerous. Please, my American friends, think about who you want as a role model for your children. Think about what you want your country to look like, and the damage that’s already been done. And, come November, please be careful. You are better than this.
The Prince, of course, at the end of Romeo and Juliet, as the star-crossed lovers lie dead at his feet leaving both their families bereft.
And the sun barely showed his head to lighten today’s morning-after-the-night-before referendum hangover. The vote was called purely to still the (seemingly inexhaustible) disquiet in the Tory party on this subject and it has unleashed forces so powerful that I predict we do not have the leaders to control them. The outcome has claimed another high level Tory scalp and more will follow.
Party politics no longer interests me. It did once, but now I want only stable government. By and large the swing of the pendulum, between broadly centre left and broadly centre right, has served the country well throughout my political lifetime. I regard most party-ideological issues as fit for the playground, not for serious debate. And it would take a great more than political differences to make me fall out with a friend or colleague. I have close friends who have been passionate on both sides of the referendum campaign, and they will remain close friends if it’s anything to do with me.
But, however sick we all were with the unending campaign – with the paralysis it brought on the Government for several months, with the bizarre behaviour it drew from seemingly rational individuals, with the lies and misrepresentations, with the repeated exposure to people I would rather not be repeatedly exposed to, and all the rest – last night was compulsive, wasn’t it? I stayed up long enough to be sure the voting pattern had been clearly established. As a result, today I am exhausted, deflated, angry and seriously in shock. A genuine shock, shared widely today by all accounts.
Let’s not forget, in all the excitements of the day and all the ‘interesting times’ we will be living in for the foreseeable future, that one of the forces unleashed expressed itself in the terrorist murder of the defenceless Jo Cox MP, exuberant campaigner and irreplaceable mother of two small children. Her blood cries out from the ground. She died for her beliefs. Her terrorist murderer killed for his. Whose values do you prefer? What genie has been let out of the bottle?
Still, Christmases will be white again now, because that’s what ‘we’ voted for, isn’t it? For Nigel Farage, who could pick a fight in an empty room and wants everything to be just like they were when he was growing up. For Boris Johnson, who would love to think of himself as the inspirational, single-minded, out-there-on-his-own leader from the 1940s. For Bill Cash, who maybe belongs in the 19th Century. And that preposterous man-of-the-people-with-the-oh-so-common-touch Jacob Rees-Mogg, who hails from the 18th century at the latest and enjoys the inestimable privilege of knowing he is always right.
I predict that, whatever they do:
Immigration will barely fall, because the market will demand otherwise, and markets are far more powerful than governments
Wages in most low-paid environments will not rise, because bosses like the hard core Brexiteers are not that kind of boss
If wages rise in any sector, higher unemployment will follow
Lawmaking at Westminster will continue to be heavily influenced by, even dictated by, factors from outside the UK because that is the way the multi-national world now works
Whatever happens, my pension – maybe yours too – will be at risk
And Christmases will not be white again (even in the 1950s, Nigel, they hardly ever were).
And I fear unrest when the expectations they have aroused are not fulfilled, not only because they cannot be fulfilled but because the Brexit camp’s status as a very rum set of bedfellows will be exposed, now the campaign is over, for the pack of contradictions it is. UKIP alone fight among themselves like ferrets in a sack: try adding in the violent right, the politically homeless ex-Labour voters, the army of pensioners who’ve enjoyed the good times but can’t look forward, and all those sensitive Tories, young and old.
Members of independence movements (remember the IRA?) can usually be divided into the romantics and the hoodlums. Look at the Brexiteers and you can see the same phenomenon. Whichever type each individual is, they’re fantasists, the lot of them.
Never in my life have I so wanted to be proved wrong. There may be possibilities here, and hiding within the Brexit camp are some important points. It could hardly be otherwise – and the worst may indeed not come to the worst.
Enough – as usual I set out not to say much but to direct your attention towards a really excellent commentary in today’s Times by the perceptive journalist Philip Collins. Click on his name to read his wise words. He says it so much better than me.
The sun is not hiding his head any more and I am going to take my lovely partner for an hour’s relaxation before dinner, with some great views of my beloved home town. Why not an independence referendum here in London on the day the Scots hold their next one? Now there’s a thought. I like the idea of a self-governing City State. Boris liked the idea once – how about it now, Boris? We’re out of step with you these days, but I expect you’ve been too preoccupied to notice.
The club pro, an Australian, had been giving me some starter golf lessons, chosen by me during a spa holiday in Cyprus where the deal included an option of one free activity each day. I didn’t fancy the other options, to be honest, but I did enjoy the lessons, which unravelled a few unexplained mysteries. I can still remember the rules I was taught: stance, grip, routine … hitting the ball forwards rather than back … learning not say rude words …
Before we go any further, let me reassure you. This was seven years ago and I didn’t keep up the golf: I’ve never lived close enough to a golf course to get on and improve. Comforting I hope to know that, whatever else you read in this blog, you won’t have to endure a laborious stream of unlikely stories from what they call the Nineteenth Hole.
So what was he so sure about, this Aussie? Well, a couple of days in he asked me to tell him what I did for a living. I gave the usual, conversation-killing reply: “Professional regulation”. This confirmed his suspicions: “I knew – you’ve followed every instruction I’ve given you, to the letter, remembered all the rules, played it by the book”. He didn’t, of course, go on to say that I was also playing the game brilliantly and had a multi-million future ahead of me. Which already says something about the difference between obeying the rules and actually doing things well. As doctors are inclined to remark, from time to time, “The operation was successful but the patient died.”
If anyone I meet gives me an opportunity to go beyond the opening line of a conversation about my work, chances are it’s because they’re thinking “What on earth is professional regulation?” At that point it’s easy: regulation is about ensuring professional people (doctors, lawyers, accountants .. my tally is over 80 groups since I started in 1983) are properly qualified and trained, know how to behave in their daily work, stay up to date and don’t need to be disciplined. There it is in a nutshell.
It’s less about rules, actually, than principles: be honest, put your patient/client/customer first, keep secrets, stay within your competence, and so on. Not so far from everyday life, in fact: in most situations it’s enough to follow one’s personal principles: be honest, put others first, keep secrets, etc. Alongside that are some rules that everyone has to follow: minor ones like not killing each other, more significant ones like not standing on the wrong side of the escalator or putting the tea in before the milk.
You know what I mean. Stay with me, because here’s the important bit. Rules, like religions, must be homes rather than prisons. No aspiring young artist ever wants to be constrained by rules made by previous generations – they want to be free. And so they should be … except … except … no art or craft, whether of the ‘artistic’ kind or the kind that underpins a profession, works as well if not supported (I use that word deliberately) by a framework, often expressed in certain rules: harmony, rhythm, science, language and the rest. Young artists, writers, engineers, architects, doctors may not like it, but the paradox is that creativity is diminished without discipline.
So do I mean nothing can ever be changed? Of course not. Good regulators do not stifle innovation. I can make the point for myself but as usual I prefer to let a great musician do it for me. In The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, his great hymn to art, life and love, Richard Wagner makes a number of points which are central both to high art and – bear with me – to good professional regulation. Using the historical poet Hans Sachs as his mouthpiece, he outmanoeuvres the Mastersingers’ Guild whose natural instinct is to cling for comfort to rules and practices handed down from the past. Confronted by the arrival of a talented, radical young musician, Walther von Stolzing – what the BBC would call a ‘new generation artist’ – they fail utterly to understand his art so turn their backs on him.
Arguing for his acceptance, Sachs points out that where Walther learnt his art (what regulators call an ‘input measure’) is irrelevant by comparison with the quality of the art itself (an ‘output measure’). Later, in what I venture to call one of the greatest scenes in all opera, he coaches Walther in how to turn an inspirational dream into a ‘Master Song’. He advises the young man to follow the rules. Walther asks what the rules are. Sachs replies with the simplest of statements:
First make your rules, then follow them.
In those few words Wagner encapsulates the solution to the discipline/innovation problem. If a framework is evident – albeit one constructed by the artist/doctor/architect/engineer/singer in question – then art and craft can flourish within it, people will see the value of the work, and it can be appreciated.
Fanciful? Old fashioned? He would say that, wouldn’t he? Well if you know a better way through the dilemma, let me know.
I am writing on Monday 23 May after a swim, a bike ride and a brief replanting session in the Community Garden. The rest of the day is ‘protected me time’: spring sunshine, some Bach cantatas, a cottage pie followed by a large pot of English tea. Maybe a bath later. Even the enforced leisure of a footbath. And I will cook a lamb curry. But no timetable, and anything that doesn’t get done will get done some other day. “When God made time”, my old dad used to say to me, “he made plenty of it”.
What’s all this in aid of? Well it’s in honour, actually, of that man – who would have been 95 today if he hadn’t died pitifully young at the age of 69. If he is unsung as the hero of my life, I will sing him today. Ron Kershaw was no intellectual (Oldham cotton mill at 14, Lancashire Fusiliers at 18), but he taught me more wisdom than anyone else I ever met, and I hear his voice every day.
Planting out young lettuces this morning, I saw the childlike surprise and delight on his face every time the seeds he had sown came up, as they usually did. Turning on the TV and accidentally, for a few seconds, witnessing the horror of politicians talking about this ridiculous referendum (still all of 31 days away, heaven help us), I heard him solemnly declaring his firm belief that things were so bad that the government of this country could not but be in the pay of a foreign power.
Fixing a loose window blind, the image ran before me of his countless DIY efforts, usually successful but occasionally catastrophic, which could reduce my mum and me to tears of laughter. Reading some comic remark, or recalling one of our countless private jokes, I remember always that he taught me the most important of all lessons: how to smile, how to laugh – at yourself above all, but also at the foibles of others, at the state of the world, at life itself.
Eating that curry tonight – taste being the most powerful memory of all – I will remember him complaining that a hyper-Vindaloo he had ordered barely tasted of anything, used as he was to the real thing in India and Burma, where he’d spent part of the war. I will reflect yet again (I am not alone in this) on how stupid it was not to get from him much more than I did about his early life and wartime experience. That he suffered recurrences of malaria for many years afterwards, with fearful nightmares, I know only because an aunt told me.
Growing up in the 60s had much to commend it but a serious downside was the impression that we, teenagers in a world we expected to be dominated by youth, no longer had much to learn from our elders. That, coupled with the almost universal reluctance of his generation to talk about their more painful memories, means I have virtually nothing by way of first hand information about the war that so shaped his life.
When he died, over 25 years ago now after a year sliding downhill following a kidney tumour, I felt lonely: this is not special to me, it’s a very common feeling. I guess it comes from the sudden realisation that it’s over to you now – you have to carry it all on, without the support that may have become weakened but was always still there.
The knowledge, too, that it’s suddenly too late to say things you might have said. Also, though, looking back from today, the relief that someone died too early to have to experience some of the things that might have tortured them later. He would have done anything to see my children grow up and become the adults they now are, raising children of their own. But he might also have had to watch my separation and divorce, and their various consequences, which would have caused him and my mum (who, incidentally, died even longer ago, and much younger, almost destroying him) such pain through no fault of theirs. They were spared that, knowing us only as a young, growing, happy, united family.
Anyway, as a character says in one of the profound Narnia stories of CS Lewis, “No one is ever told what might have been”. For our sanity, that’s just as well.
Some years after his death I began to realise that, in the days running up to his birthday, and especially on the day itself, I was likely to be on a shorter fuse than usual, easily moved, easily thrown. Today is no different: writing this reduces me to the sort of state which used to cause my spaniel, when I had one, to come and put his chin on my knee with a look that said “Don’t worry, I’m with you”. So I keep this as a quiet day. But my memories today are, like almost all my other memories, happy ones.
The older I get, the more I realise how important anniversaries are – dates to be celebrated and made the most of. I rarely celebrated my own birthday that much in earlier years, but I make up for it these days with festivals of Middle Eastern proportions. Everyone likes to feel special from time to time, and I love it.
So, dad, as you rest in peace you can feel a bit special today, the way your powerful love and unconditional support always made me feel special. Happy birthday and (you will never know why I am learning Portuguese but I wish I could tell you): Feliz aniversário papai.
In traditional ‘classical’ music concerts, direct engagement between performers and audience is still quite rare – though performers are learning slowly that, for generations younger than me, it is going to be essential if live music making is to survive.
But there has always been the occasional moment, precious just because it is so rare. Let me tell you about my moment.
Felicity Lott – Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, no less, but known across the musical world as Flott – is a tall, striking, stunningly beautiful woman, now later on in her career but still thrilling audiences. She always did. She has charm, sparkle and a creamy soprano voice. Furthermore, as a graduate in French she is that great rarity among singers – a native English speaker who can sing idiomatically in French. Unsurprisingly, she is very popular indeed over there.
A few years back she was singing in London’s Cadogan Hall: Berlioz’s great song cycle Les Nuits d’Été. It’s a challenge for any singer – six songs with widely different moods, stretching the voice beyond normal limits, a single singer required to command the stage for over half an hour.
Well, for me the highlight is the quietest of the songs, Le spectre de la rose – hushed, simple and a glorious melody, requiring the singer to maintain a faultless legato in little more than a whisper. When it’s sung well, you can hear a pin drop. And Flott sang it well that night.
So there was I, sitting dead centre three rows from the front – in effect, directly below the Dame herself on the platform. It’s a wistful song (text below if you enjoy wrestling with the French language), and ends in a mood that you might call silent ecstasy: pure ‘tingle factor’.
She finished, holding the final note until it drifted into eternity. She was standing stock still, head slightly inclined in a Damely kind of way, eyes closed, and held the pose. When she opened her eyes she was looking straight into mine. It was a reflex action to smile straight at her – and she broke into a smile straight back. It was just a moment, but a moment of communion, performer with audience member. She had four more songs to sing, moved on and the mood changed, as it had to.
It was the kind of magic live music exists for. At a rock concert, or in a jazz club, that sort of engagement may be ubiquitous. At classical concerts it is rare indeed. But if you have such a moment, please share it with me.
In one sense I have never met Flott, and probably never will. But in a more important sense I met her that night, and floated home.
Le spectre de la rose
Soulève ta paupière close Qu’effleure un songe virginal. Je suis le spectre d’une rose Que tu portais hier au bal. Tu me pris encor emperlée Des pleurs d’argent de l’arrosoir, Et parmi la fête étoilée Tu me promenas tout le soir.
Ô toi, qui de ma mort fut cause, Sans que tu puisses le chasser, Toutes les nuits mon spectre rose A ton chevet viendra danser. Mais ne crains rien, je ne réclame Ni messe ni De Profundis, Ce léger parfum est mon âme Et j’arrive du Paradis.
Mon destin fut digne d’envie, Et pour avoir un sort si beau Plus d’un aurait donné sa vie. Car sur ton sein j’ai mon tombeau, Et sur l’albâtre où je repose Un poète avec un baiser Écrivit : “Ci-gît une rose Que tous les rois vont jalouser”.