Flute Recital

The flautist Katherine Birtles and the pianist Emily Smith gave a recital yesterday in a church not far from here. They were playing, among other things, the Sonatine by the French composer Henri Dutilleux. They were also playing works by Bach, Debussy and Prokofiev. I went along, as  I liked the sound of the programme and a chance to hear some real, live Henri Dutilleux  so close  to home was too good to miss. Full marks to the Swaledale Festival who organised the concert for seeking out performers keen to play his music. There’s no need for me to review the concert here as Katherine Birtles can be seen playing the piece on Youtube. Her performance speaks for itself.


Talking about Freedom

I’ve just been watching a documentary about Jean Paul Sartre, produced by the BBC in 1999. The BBC being the BBC and he being a radical iconoclast, I half expected it to turn into a hatchet-job.  I was pleasantly surprised, though. It does portray the man ‘warts and all’ but one is left with the impression that his warts were, on the whole, the kind that might well be found on any thinking person who lived through the middle of the twentieth century, were they to be this closely examined. It comes round to a positive, affirming conclusion, I think.  ‘He gave our generation a sense of freedom that directed our lives’, says one of those interviewed.  ‘We made choices which I think we can still identify with. I’m just aware that at the present time, the message of freedom that Sartre is delivering is not accepted as if this burden of freedom that he’s putting on everyone’s shoulders is too weighty . Maybe we are in a time when people don’t want to hear about freedom.’

That was  17 years ago. These days, I would argue, people seem to me to want to hear about it even less. To be clear, Sartre was taking about the freedom that we exercise from moment to moment to choose what we do next and, by so doing, to shape the individual we become – a freedom which, as he said, carries with it inevitable anxiety.  Exercising freedom, for Sartre, is a risky business – it’s easier to conform. He famously said that people were condemned to freedom. He also said that the French were most “free” when under German occupation: there were no easy ways out, no comfortable fall-back positions. One had to make frightening choices. Similarly, were he alive today, he might say that the refugees who make terrifying sea-journeys to reach Europe are more “free” than the Europeans they’ll have to live among. The pursuit of freedom is the  assigned lot of those who are driven to make difficult decisions or feel empowered enough to stand up for themselves (and, for that matter, for others). For my money, Jean Paul Sartre still has the power to empower.



Walking through the fields at twilight

Walking through the fields at twilight 
it's as if this is the only time 
and that daytime and night-time 
are no more than dreams of longing. 
Little has changed since I first went 
walking through the fields at twilight: 
it's as if this is the only time 
and the new house on the hill 
is no more than a dream 
and the spinning of the earth 
is no more than a dream: 
the sun is set, the moon is risen and I'm 
walking through the fields at twilight. 
It's as if this is the only time 
and that I have always been a man 
forever neither young nor old 
and the stones are the same stones 
and the trees I walk under 
have hardly changed since I first went 
walking through the fields at twilight. 
It's as if this is the only time 
and that daytime and night-time 
are no more than dreams of longing. 

(c) Sackerson, 2016

A Trip to the Hebrides

I came across a documentary about one of my favourite films this morning and spent a happy half hour watching it. It dawned on me as I did so that I had seen it before but I enjoyed watching it nevertheless.

In the film, Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) takes a trip to Scotland to marry her rich fiancé on the fictional Hebridean island of Kiloran. Bad weather prevents her from making the final crossing to the island. Waiting to make the trip she is forced to spend time with Torquil MacNiel (Roger Livesey) and his friends. As a result, Joan discovers that she’d rather catch her salmon in a river than buy it in a tin.

Not only does the film tell a gripping story – it’s also peppered with the quirky details that make Powell-Pressburger films so enjoyable. There are a couple in that well-chosen, two and a half minute clip above. Most famously, perhaps, there’s a roadside telephone box at the foot of a waterfall. It was built in the Summer. No-one realised that the waterfall was so loud the rest of the year that no-one using the box would be able to make themselves heard. The box actually exists – on Mull. Powell-Pressburger fans make pilgrimages to  the island to see it.



Le Boeuf…

Seen from the front window this morning. I’ve been posting music by Darius Milhaud recently. I’ve avoided his ballet, Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit, as it’s the most famous thing he wrote and there’s a lot more less well-known music by Milhaud that deserves to be heard to choose from. However, when I got up and looked out of that window…


…I was left with no choice. Once heard, never forgotten…


I was standing in the kitchen this morning, washing plates in the sink, when it started to hail. It came as a complete surprise to me as, from where I stood, by the kitchen window, the sun was shining and the sky looked blue. The small, white beads bounced all over the slabs outside, each finally coming to rest. Less than a minute later, the shower came to an end, as suddenly as it had started. By then, the first hailstones to land had already melted.

It struck me, why travel the world when the world will come to me? Molecules of water in these hailstones will have traveled the world themselves, flowing down the Amazon, spending centuries locked in glaciers and ice floes, plumbing the deepest parts of the ocean, towering in the sky as cumulus clouds. They may have been lapped up by dinosaurs. They may even have orbited the sun as part of a comet. And when you look at it like that, astronomy becomes the only science.


Of Wellingtons and Hot Water Bottles

Just spent  a week and a half in Wales, the first three days in a caravan on a farm at the top of a hill. The view was as magnificent as the weather was cold. You could take photos from the doorstep – with a hot water bottle stuffed up your jumper.

I must have been about seven when I stayed with my parents at the Tyn y Coed Hotel, at the foot of Moel Siabod. From the hotel, its profile appears Matterhorn-like. The sun catches impressive-looking craggy outcrops around its pointed summit. It is impossible not to want to climb it. I pester my parents until they take me on an expedition to conquer it. To their relief, I think, a quarter of a mile from the hotel I step into a stream that is too deep for my wellington boots. The water flows over the rims. Cold water rises inexorably up my legs. We have to empty my boots and turn back.The second, successful attempt on the summit has to wait over forty years. From the caravan where we are staying, the mountain’s profile is less imposing but it still exerts a magical attraction on me, nonetheless.

moel siabod

From the doorway you can see not only Siabod, but all the tops of the Carneddau mountains. If you stand in the right place, you can see the Snowdon group and the Glyders, too. In the photo, Moel Siabod is just to the right of the farmhouse.

ffridd ucha panoramaBandW

In a bookshop in Porthmadog I come across At The Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. I glance at it and get the feeling that if I buy it, I’ll not be able to put it down. I buy it and, no, I can’t put it down. In the first chapter she says how in the past two or three decades, the world has changed:

Some of those fashionable movements that knocked existentialism out of the way have aged badly themselves…

Quite*. Given the problems of the 21st century, she says,

there is a certain refreshment of perspective to be had from revisiting the existentialists, with their boldness and energy. They did not sit around playing with their signifiers. They asked big questions about what it means to live an authentic, fully-human life… They tackled questions about nuclear war, about… the environment, about violence, and about the difficulty of managing international relations in dangerous times….

Above all, they asked about freedom, which several of them considered the topic underlying all others…

The book is a compelling mixture of anecdote, history and philosophy. She has the knack of explaining potentially difficult ideas in a way which is easy to read. She riffs on the newsreel that survives of Jean-Paul Sartre’s funeral. Watch out for Simone de Beauvoir and for the bearer who takes off his hat – only to hurriedly replace it when he realises that the other bearers have left theirs on, in deference to a man who defied convention.


As I think I’ve said in previous posts, all through the eye problems I’ve been having this year I’ve been listening to a lot of music. This increasingly meant the music of Les Six, and of those six French composers, the music of Germaine Tailleferre and Darius Milhaud. Milhaud was prolific, writing over 400 pieces. There’s a case for saying he’s one of the best kept secrets of twentieth century music. In Cob Records, a record shop in Porthmadog, I find a NAXOS CD of Milhaud’s piano music. It includes his Saudades Do Brasil:


It also includes Milhaud’s own selection and piano arrangement of  his film music for the 1934 film of Mme Bovary. This is quite special, as it includes the actress Madeleine Milhaud, the composer’s widow, reading extracts from the book between the  short movements. Listening to it, I can’t help but wonder why his music’s not played more often. There is  sometimes a deceptive lightness to it which perhaps leads people to take it less seriously than they should. With another prolific composer, Haydn, he shares a humane sense of humour. Also, being prolific is not always good for popularity: if you write hundreds of pieces (the same probably goes for  creating books and paintings) people can find it hard to seek out your best work and “get a handle” on what you do. Added to that, Milhaud wrote a kind of music that fewer and fewer people seem to think they have a use for. Perhaps, like the existentialists, “there is a certain refreshment of perspective to be had from revisiting” his music. I certainly think so.


*Noam Chomsky has written about this.