Up a Tree


Last weekend our village held an open gardens day. Anyone can come, buy a ticket and walk round all the gardens opened up for the occasion and  quite a lot of people did. As well as loads of bloody weeding, it involves making scarecrows. Ours (a study on on the effect the said weeding has on me) wasn’t very good at scaring anything.

Seriously, the whole thing is quite fun. We used the event as an opportunity for an artist friend, Howard Firth, to exhibit his cupcake sculptures:


And his model city:




Yesterday I went for a walk up the hill in front of our house. Close to the skyline there’s a tree. It’s one of my favourite trees. I go up to it now and again just for the pleasure of sitting there. A few feet up, where the trunk forks, the diverging branches have grown into a really comfortable seat. I sat there today reflecting on the fact that it’s so comfortable one might easily fall asleep there. I had a crazy thought: perhaps it’s an enchanted tree. I’ll fall asleep and wake up in 200 years time – to find that the tree has grown and that my seat is dangerously high in the air…


In reality, the possibility of being woken up by rain in the dark at 1am to find myself stuck half way up a tree didn’t bear thinking about, so I resisted the urge to doze. Instead, I took out my camera.  In winter, this natural armchair affords great views of the surrounding hills and, between them, the Vale of York. In summer, it affords views of, well, leaves mainly:



On my way up the hill to the tree I stopped to  take a photograph of this old shed:




Stonehenge comes to Wakefield

Today we had to go to Wakefield. We stopped off at The Hepworth Wakefield gallery to look at the art and get ourselves some lunch. It so happened they had two exhibitions on, one of the work of the Austrian artist, Franz West, another of the Independent Group.

First, the Franz West. I’d not come across him before. His work ranges from the tiny to the spectacular. It struck me as being both imaginative and witty. Take Epiphanie an Stuhlen (2011). Two chairs are arranged for the observation of what appears to be a giant virus. Very topical, in my case, as I’m wandering around with a particularly unpleasant cold:



Then there was  Parrhesia (2010). Parrhesia, it said, is a Greek word often translated as “free speech”. A parrhesiastes is a “truth-teller”. Bound up in the concept are the ideas that telling the truth is not without risk and that one is sometimes compelled to tell it. Multicoloured shapes suggestive of heads, or perhaps views of the world,  are mounted on rods. The arrangement of the shapes suggests a discussion.



Then there was Stonehenge. I really liked the way Franz West’s work manages to be playful and serious at the same time:


Franz West was a new discovery for me. What originally lured me out of the coffee-shop, though, was the room devoted to the work of the Independent Group. The bad news is you weren’t allowed to take photos in there. The good news is that the Hepworth Wakefield have made a Youtube video about it. Since they know a lot more about it than I do, I’ll refrain from reinventing the wheel and let the video speak for itself:

And finally, for no better reason than it’s a good song I’ve been listening to recently, there’s Patti Smith:


The Legs do it!


voiturepilotewebYorkshire went Tour de France mad this weekend. There must be shed-loads of servers somewhere in California (or wherever they are) full of nothing but photos of the TDF as it sped through the Dales and slogged over the hills of West Yorkshire. I can’t resist adding to them.

We joined the thousands lining the road through Leyburn to watch, as German rider Jens Voigt (168 -second from right- in the photograph) the oldest rider in the race, “rested” at the back of the peleton as it sped on to Harrogate, havingpeleton3web just secured for himself a King of the Mountains jersey by leading the race over the day’s big climbs.

The next day, 60,000 people lined the road over Holme Moss in West Yorkshire. The most gripping part of that stage, however, was the steep climb in Sheffield as the “big guns” of the Tour fought it out to assert their authority on the race. Sicilian rider Vincenzo Nibali came out on top (I’ve got 50p on him for the yellow jersey in Paris). The day after, London went crazy as the German sprinter Marcel Kittel made it 2 out of 3 and Slovak rider Peter Sagan came second to hold on to his Green Jersey.

Britain was spellbound – despite the fact that star British rider Mark Cavendish had, sadly, crashed out of the race in the first stage. Of course, defending champion Chris Froome is in there, holding his own against the likes of Nibali and Contador and if countries can be said to have self-exteem then Britain’s has been raised by the growing success of British cycling. The whole experience, though, got me wondering. Here were Frenchmen, Germans, Italians and Eastern Europeans (among others) bringing Europe to Britain. Britain couldn’t get enough: which begs the question, is this country really as Europhobic as it likes to think? I, for one, hope not.

Finally, back to Jens Voigt. He’s 42 and this will be his last Tour. He’s now ridden in 17 and he last won a King of the Mountains jersey 16 years ago. He has a reputation of being a domestique-par-excellence. His record is not one of great wins but of working tirelessly for team leaders over the years, burying himself to put them into winning positions. He’s also famous for this soundbite:

He comes over as a generous-spirited, witty character who always has times for his fans. The likes of Jens Voigt crop up in all sports now and again. Here he is,  burying himself for Andy Schlek in 2010. It’s the teamwork that makes cycling such an engaging sport:


Anyone got a spare couple of hours?

Probably not. But if so, have a go at watching this.

I find myself getting into opera.  Benjamin Britten is to blame. I’ve only recently discovered how to enjoy his music and, in so doing, I’ve discovered that -as he primarily wrote operas- to do so usually  involves setting whole evenings aside. First it was Billy Budd, now Owen Wingrave.

Based on a Henry James short story, Owen Wingrave tells the story of a man from a military family who comes out as a pacifist. The plot -as is usual with opera- looks a bit of an eye-roller at first glance. The girl dares the boy to sleep in the haunted room, etc. However, it started life as a short story by Henry James and the house itself, laden with the history and expectations of Owen’s family, is a powerfully brooding presence.

I have to say, I don’t have two hours free at a stretch either at the moment. I’m watching it in installments on Youtube. I’ve just got to the chillingly creepy (I thought) bit where the women of the family discuss Owen’s imminent arrival. He will be snubbed. They will go upstairs to avoid meeting him and leave him alone in the hall to ponder on the portraits of his military ancestors. (It would have made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up if I had any, which I don’t as, fed up of clichés, I assiduously shaved them off the other day). I can’t wait for the next bit…

Funnily enough, while I was writing this, I saw that Rae Joyce has just posted an interview with Tom Vowler on her blog, snow like thought. They discuss his novel, That Dark Remembered Day. It’s just come out in paperback. I won’t say a lot about it, as I’ve not read it myself yet, but it’s about a soldier who returns from the Falklands with PTSD. Reading the interview triggered emotional civilian memories for me of that time.

Luckily for me, the worst thing that happened to me in the Falklands War is that someone spat in my face because I was opposed to it. The depth of irrational feeling that going to war stirs in the civilian population is astonishing. These days, rather than boil, it sort of simmers on as  Britain always seems to be involved -or be about to be involved- at a sharp end somewhere or other.

Of course it was nothing, but I have a vivid, “photographic” memory of that minor assault. It must be infinitely worse for those on both sides whose memories are of hot metal and cold steel.  A colleague of mine at the time of the war had been in the navy in his youth. He told me how the Exocet missile attacks on the ships haunted his imagination. He said the public saw the news photographs while all he could see in his mind’s eye was burning aluminium and mangled, burning, screaming teenagers. Soldiers and sailors are so young.

I have wrestled with the idea of pacifism all my life. The Second World War and the Spanish Civil War, being struggles against fascism, have always been a stumbling block. They always remind me of that dinner-party cliché someone always levels at you when you say you’re a vegetarian: if you were on a desert island  and there was nothing to eat but a sheep, would you kill it and eat it, or die? The answer, of course, is I’d kill the sheep. Similarly, as a Quaker friend put it to me, being a pacifist is not an absolute – you have to weigh up events on a case-by-case basis. This begs the question of how is one to weigh up those events? As I get older, the less convinced I am that the use of force ever achieves the ends it sets out to achieve.

I can imagine someone reading this and thinking “show some respect” (they might even, like Mrs *****, want to spit in my face). To them, I’d say, I’ve respect aplenty. My father was a Japanese POW and I’ve no illusions about what people are capable of doing to each other. And the thought of all those young men landing on the beaches in Normandy makes me quite emotional. When you’ve seen your own children reach that age it concentrates the mind wonderfully. I will say this, though. There is a tendency at the moment to try and rehabilitate the First World War. I was brought up to think it was an avoidable thing all countries involved should humbly learn from. I see no reason to change my mind, even though people in the media have started to refer to it as The “Great” War again. As Wilfred Owen said, “Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed – but do not kill“.

Back to Owen Wingrave. People get angry with pacifists. That’s not only one idea behind the story of the opera – it’s also one reason for its neglect. Both of Britain’s great, mid-20th century composers were of the same mind. Benjamin Britten spent the war in Canada. Michael Tippett, a consciencious objector, went to prison.

Owen Wingrave is being revived at the moment (there’s a good article in The Guardian about it) and will, in August, transfer from the Aldeburgh Festival to the Edinburgh Festival. Given the centenary commemorations of 2014, it couldn’t be more timely.

If you think you’ll never find the time to listen to it, you could listen to The Clash instead. It only took them five minutes…