Picture of CD cover 'Gok's Divas'Until recently I found Gok Wan irritating, possibly because I find the fashion scene irritating and he’s just a bit too ‘camp’ for me. It all changed when I heard him interviewed recently on Classic FM (UK of course). It was interesting to hear what I guess is the real person. It turned out that he loves opera, particularly the divas, and that he “likes, or needs, to be surrounded by strong women”. Perhaps not his exact words but whatever he said it could well have been me I thought. Moreover, I heard that he had curated an album of his choice of divas; so many would have been those I would have chosen, headed by the incomparable Maria Callas. The only amazing omission was Joan Sutherland – as Pavarroti said, “the voice of the century.”

When the interview finished I was on to Amazon and bought the album.

Back to the ’60s

Forgive any lapses of memory please – it is half a century ago and someone disposed of my record collection when I was in Romania. Several of his choices took me back to the 1950/60s; at that time I had several of the operas on LPs with divas he chose. Here are some:

Maria Callas did not have the greatest voice but she could stir the emotions like no other. “The Bible of opera” Leonard Bernstein called her. Like many thousands of others, I was stopped in my tracks when I first heard Casta Diva (Norma, Bellini). It still does it, as it did when it was played during the interview with Gok. Lucia di Lammermoor with Giuseppe di Stefano was among my LP sets in the ’60s.

Montserrat Caballe was just amazing when she sang pianissimo. Quite unlike any other. I had her 1967 recording of Lucrezia Borgia. Much more recent of course, she sang with Freddie Mercury.

Kiri Te Kanawa was quite a bit later. Always a delight to listen to, I can’t remember all the recordings of her I had but Die Fledermaus and Madame Butterfly were among them.

Elisabeth Schwarzcopf was an early favourite singing Wagner, having been taken by my grandmother to hear The Ring at an early age (not with Schwarzcopf unfortunately). The only opera I had been to before was Carmen at 7 years old, which began my love of opera though I had heard a lot before on radio and ‘gramophone’. I think Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg was an acquisition in the ’60s but a much earlier recording.

Victoria de los Angeles was rated no.3 in a BBC list of top twenty sopranos of all time (after Callas and Sutherland). I have two abiding memories of her: a recording of Carmen with Sir Thomas Beecham, from the ’50s I think, and a recording of Madame Butterfly with Jussi Bjoerling. Someone I shared a flat with had this latter recording on tape  (remember those? – 4 track stereo) but mine was on LPs.

Katherine Jenkins is much later of course and, as far as I know, has never taken a leading role in a staged opera. I’d have chosen her singing something Welsh.

Joan Sutherland is, for me, an inexplicable omission. I would have had at least a track of her singing the mad scene from Lucia de Lammermoor in place of one of the ‘musicals’, which I find out of place.

Interesting isn’t it that when we think of opera we think ‘Italian’ but there’s not an Italian among them – Greek, Spanish, New Zealand, Welsh and, with Sutherland, Australian? If we did a similar thing with the men I guess Italians might dominate, though I’d be torn between Jussi Bjoerling and Pavarotti to head my list.

Eclectic

That comment on musicals does not indicate a restricted taste in music, I doubt you’d find one much more eclectic. I just find the sudden change from grand opera to ‘musical’ too much. To make the point, last Friday evening, my first ‘night out’ for more than a couple of years (all down to the pills – I may become as camp as Gok!), I was with members of our writers’ club to hear a couple of indie bands and our own singer-songwriter in a superb smokey church venue (see pic – Left Bank Leeds). She can move me as much as Callas – almost. Click for her recently released CD, which is frequently in the player.

diaryRomanians in general are quite superstitious; Petronela is no exception and with that in mind the number 17 has become pretty significant for us. So, she assures me that the coming year will be good for us, because:

  • It’s 2017
  • We live at number 17
  • In Romania we lived at number 17
  • We’ll celebrate our 17th anniversary this year
  • P was born in ’71 (deci 17 reversed!)
  • Whenever P wins on Lotto, only ever a small amount so far, including New Year’s Eve, her selection includes the number 17

There are possibly a few more but I can’t bring them to mind for the moment.

Romania, Romanian doctors and medication

Towards the end of 2016 the year became better as a very poor prognosis for me earlier in the year was revised to be much better and new medication (thank God for the NHS; I’m told it costs around £2,000 a month!) has resulted in me feeling better than for two or three years (though I think that 6 weeks of Romanian summer and food had something to do with that too! I’d add to that, odd as it may seem, ending up in A&E my first day in Romania, when the wonderful Romanian doctors identified why long journeys were causing me a problem, so now I can take preventative steps).

I had a lot of problems getting in the ‘Christmas spirit’ last year, with the slaughter and starvation of children in Syria and the Yemen, to mention just two, let alone the events in France and Germany. I’ll probably return to this in future posts.

To end on a happier note, I can do no better than end with my New Year’s post on what I think is the best social media site (I’m excepting WordPress), blipfoto, when I ‘blipped’ a photo of our ‘musical corner’, where the tv sits. I returned to this wonderful community, which has none of the ‘crap’ so often evident on Facebook, just before Christmas after a long health-enforced absence (it’s based on keeping a photo diary). I don’t privatise my posts on this so if you’re interested you can probably find ‘realgrumpytyke‘ there.

The world stops for Vienna (my 1 January ‘blip’)

vienna99-17

Little did Petronela’s younger sister (RIP) know what she was starting when she insisted that I, then a volunteer teacher staying alone in the school hostel in 1999, be invited to spend New Year’s Day with the family. We watched the Vienna New Year’s concert together, P and I married about 18 months later, and we have watched the Vienna concert together every year since that first time.

The concert combines two of my great loves, so-called ‘classical music’ and classical ballet, a love affair probably begun when I was about 7 years old, being taken to live performances at Bradford’s St. George’s Hall and the Alhambra by my grandmother after years of listening on the ‘steam radio’ and wind-up gramophone.

I think there was less ballet this year but it was great to see flashbacks to earlier years in this year’s concert, including ‘our year’, and to see students from the Vienna State Opera Ballet Academy dancing among the audience.

Thankfully no CCTV in our flat to catch P and I dancing/clapping to the Rodetzsky March in our pyjamas (the concert did start as early as 11.15am!).

PS. I see that unthinking I slipped in a word of ‘the other language’ – for me Romanian – above. I’ll leave it. We often do that in our conversations as I often cannot think quickly of the English word and P cannot think of the Romanian one! So our conversations are often a garble of the two languages. Very confusing for eavesdroppers.

I’ve always disliked Facebook. After resisting it for years I finally succumbed when teenagers in a project I ran in the village where I live said it was the best way to communicate with them. For this I created a private group. Later our local writers’ club created a private FB group and that remains very useful.

I have found limited use of Twitter useful too – letting me know of new posts from blogger friends who do not have a ‘follow’ possibility on their non-Wordpress sites but ‘boost’ their posts on Twitter, and to let friends who do not use WordPress, and do not wish to follow by email, of my new blog posts.

But the love affairs with FB and Twitter, if they ever existed, are over. On the other hand, my love for radio has regrown over the past few months. The following rundown refers, of course, to when I am home alone on weekdays.

Twitter

After signing up to FB and Twitter I was rapidly bombarded by ‘suggestions’  for new groups/people to ‘follow’. In Twitter particularly posts appear regularly from organisations or people I have not ‘chosen’. Almost never are these of interest. On the other hand I did sign up to several favourite musicians but most of these are just promotional rather than containing interesting information. Then there are ‘friends’ who rarely post anything original, they just ‘share’ posts from others. Again, these are rarely of interest. In Twitter particularly annoying are multiple, lots, of posts per day, and many repeats; TES (more sensibly named in the past Times Educational Supplement), which I chose to follow because my wife is a teacher, is really irritating in the respect. It’s no longer followed but I continue to follow GuardianTeach. (In the past I unfollowed quite a few WordPress bloggers who blogged multiple times a day and bunged up my reader and/or inbox).

Facebook

As far as FB is concerned, it seems often to bring out the very worst in people. One recent example was prompted by a mildly contentious post on the WordPress site/blog I do for the village in which I live. It concerned an organisation run by someone with whom I am regularly in contact; in fact only a few days before she had emailed me for some help, which I had given. However, when she did not like the post on the village site did she comment there or approach me directly? No, she posted her objection on a village FB page and, of course, this was followed by a host of FBers joining in.

The village FB page, despite the pinned post asking that posts be limited to “Anything that adds life to the village”, probably has more that do not do this than do, and so many are barely disguised advertising. Many have nothing at all to do with the village other than they may have been written by someone who lives in it but often promote events, and businesses elsewhere (and of course self-promotion is rife). I’m only too aware of the problems for the admin to control this. 

Going to ‘home’, the reader is littered with ‘suggested posts’ and advertisements which are almost never of interest, and other ads are often promoting ‘scams’.

Messenger

Something I do like is ‘Messenger’. Very useful for short communications with friends and ‘friends’, including my wife. It’s become even more useful as free WiFi has been introduced on local bus and train services. The telephone and texting have become almost redundant!

Drastic prune underway

I’m sure that anyone running a business should be using FB and Twitter but I do not so they have become more and more irritating and time wasting. Recently I decided to do a drastic prune of both. I am now in the process reducing ‘follows’ to a small number of friends (in the original sense) and an even smaller number of organisations with which I am involved in some way. I’ve not yet completed the job but already my daily FB and Twitter trawl is quicker and much more relevant. One of the first to go was the village FB group mentioned.

Radio

On the other hand a love of radio way in the past has been revived. It’s not perfect, but so much less superficial than tv. The few minute bites on tv usually leave me with a host of unanswered questions; more often than not a radio programme tackling the same subject satisfies my information need.

Classic FM

Most mornings I have Classic FM on the radio; I deliberately did not say I ‘listen’ to it!’ I have found a perfect low volume at which the music is a pleasant background but the majority of presenters’ interjections can be ignored and, even more important, so can the advertisements the perpetrators of which seem to have the view that the Classic FM audience is either senile or stupid.The station has improved a lot recently by running fewer of the assinine ads and also by airing the musical pot-boilers less frequently and introducing me to many new pieces and even previously unknown, to me, composers. I have found that I have a volume control in my head which I can wind up if something interesting or I wish to stop and listen to comes on.

I find the women presenters far more acceptable than the males with one exception, Aled Jones (and every time his rendition of Handel’s ‘Have you heard my lady’ is aired I wind up my in-ear volume control to experience the exquisite tingling in the spine which his voice and amazingly clear diction always provoke). 

At 1pm I switch to BBC4 to catch up on what to the media is the most important news, following which I get a host of facts and opinions on everything from gardening (even though I do not have a garden) to finances, books, science, medicine and the tortuous thinking behind Round Britain Quiz. I don’t switch off the Archers though I might use the 15min intermission to do some urgent small job. Although the 45 minute drama at 2.15pm is of variable quality it is always interesting to me as a would-be writer. I may make it until 5pm at which point I usually turn my attention to preparing the evening meal, often a bit before that.

Of course another advantage of radio over tv is that you can often do other things while listening, as I usually do. When the radio is in ‘background’ mode this includes writing, as now.

TV

At 6pm on goes the tv for the news as we sit down to our evening meal; I stick with BBC 1 mainly because I like to watch Look North, especially if my three favourite presenters – Lara Rostrom, Charlotte Leeming and Tanya Arnold – are on air. Lara is a fairly recent addition (a year?) but Charlotte and Tanya are old hands and whatever else I just enjoy watching the professionalism of all three (Tanya is a surprise as I’m not generally interested in sport!).

Back to blogging

Culling FB and Twitter should, I hope, allow more opportunity for blogging, both reading blogs – usually so much less superficial than FB and T – and writing them – so much more enjoyable!

A wonderful end to the year on Saturday afternoon for our local (usually Menston based) writers’ club, Writing on the Wharfe, ‘performing’ with short stories, songs and poems in the intimate setting of Ilkley library.

Picture of all the 'performers' lined up after their performances in the Ilkley library, with book-fillwed shelves behind.

In the wonderful setting of Ilkley library, left to right: back row – Bob, me, Ruxandra, David, Catherine, Rich; front row – Alina, Emma, Dan, Becky. Sadly two valued members, Kelly and Marjorie, couldn’t make it.

Unfortunately I do not have the contributions available to post here or links to most though I did post my short story in a post recently and you can hear Emma’s wonderful Christmas song and buy it for £1 on bandcamp (should be No.1 in the charts in my opinion!). She also treated us to ‘In the bleak midwinter’, retaining Harold Darke’s melody but substituting her own lyrics, apart from a short spoken excerpt of Christina Rossetti’s original lyrics in the middle.

Becky, Ruxandra and David sharing a joke measuring something with hands

Picture of the day? Measuring what?

Click on any picture in the gallery below to see them larger as a slide show. Many thanks to Adam Nabarro-Steel for photo recording the event for us. Many thanks also to our wonderful ‘leader’, Ruxandra Busoiu, a remarkable young Romanian who founded the club and worked very hard to bring off this event and the previous one at Ilkley Playhouse.

Thanks also to the wonderfully supportive staff of Ilkley library who made this event possible. This library and those in my village of Menston and neighbouring village of Burley in Wharfedale had been scheduled for closure by Bradford Council. Against a background of  appalling illiteracy in the UK, especially in Bradford, libraries should surely be high on any local authority’s priorities. Thankfully, a lot of people from the local communities are now working to take them over and run them as Community Libraries. Let’s hope they succeed.

 

We did it! An exciting night with a lovely bunch of people: Writing on the Wharfe writers’ club – and our audience of course – at the Ilkley Literature Festival ‘Fringe’ .

rlfringe_8Petronela and I did intend to video the whole thing but neither of us knowing much about making videos we didn’t succeed to get it all. However, she did get me so if you have a strong stomach you can watch my effort by clicking

my video clip

 

I chose three of my haiku and one short short story, all previously published on this site, for my contribution.

rmmacd_6724_edAs the wonderful lyrical and musical talent of fellow club member Emma immediately preceded me I’ve nicked that for an introduction but other than that I wouldn’t publish clips of others, but will send them their clip eventually if we’ve got it.

Emma’s song is from her album ‘Leaving a Space‘, launched two days before. My usually preferred genre is what is generally called ‘classical music’ but her CD will be frequently in my CD player. Her song in the video clip – Delicate – is from the album. If you’re on Spotify you can stream it but if, like me, you prefer a physical CD (worth it for the lovely picture of her!) then you can purchase a CD (or a digital download) by going to:

http://emmanabarrosteel.bandcamp.com/album/leaving-a-space

Playing the trout. In the hot June sun, the fly arches towards a cooler spot, suspended for a moment then alighting, still yet ominous. Only the midges bite, swooping again and again on bare skin. The daisies behind smile at the sun, a white army, each bearing his shield of gold. Buttercups spread their delicious gold. No rod here, no hook with barb nor tortured fish. Just Schubert’s quintet, spilling with joy from an iPad.


Some of you will know of my love for the ‘traditional’ haiku, the discipline of writing to a very short set format – 5-7-5 syllables – to communicate a thought or feeling.

Recently I was introduced, by Becky whose blog is called Evening Scribbles, to another format which appeals to me for similar reasons: to write a story or introductory stand-alone paragraph of exactly 75 words. They may be published, if accepted, on the website: http://www.paragraphplanet.com/

I have just submitted my first, though have yet to hear whether it will be published on the site. It was prompted by seeing a neighbour loading his car to go fishing shortly before I ventured downstairs to sit in the sun for the first time since my recent surgery, where I wrote the above 75 words. 

I’m repeatedly surprised by wonderful, sometimes life-changing, experiences rising up out of dreadful situations. I had one on 11 March, when I returned by air to Yorkshire from seeing my grandchildren in Dusseldorf.

Helen1

What has this lovely lady to do with disaster at Dusseldorf? – Read on

This is usually a very quick, easy (and low cost) journey thanks to Jet2.com as my grandchildren live only 20 minutes from Dusseldorf and I live even closer to Leeds/Bradford.

The security personnel at the German airport decided to have a 24 hour strike. We were warned to be there at least two hours before our flight was due to board. I took heed.

If anyone suggests to me again that the Germans are masters of organisation they will get a very rude retort. This usually efficient, pleasant, modern airport descended into complete chaos and the most obvious measures – like getting passengers to sit comfortably and call the flights in order – did not happen. I stood in a queue for 2.1/2 hours but even after that I would not have got on the plane had I not used some subterfuge. I was one of only seven passengers who made it on to the plane, despite delaying the take-off till a minute before the airport closed (yes, this major German airport closes at night!); over 50 were left behind.

“I’m going to Istanbul!”

The subterfuge? I noticed that passengers for Turkey were being escorted through (there are a lot of Turks who work in Germany – at the airport too?). So I said I was going to Istanbul and in I went!

Then wonderful things began to happen. At the boarding gate I began to chat to a fellow passenger – clearly not British but speaking English extremely well. However, on the plane I saw that she was anxious to study a music manuscript so I left her alone. But as we arrived at Leeds/Bradford we began to chat again and I mentioned that I was lucky as I lived close by, and hopefully the buses would be running. She said she was being picked up by a friend, asked me the name of the place where I lived, and promptly telephoned her friend and asked whether I could be dropped off there. I was taken to my door.

In the car, remembering the music manuscript, I asked her what instrument she played. “The human voice”, she said. “And what is your name, so I can look out for your singing?”, I asked. “Helen Lepalaan”, she replied.

Now Helen Lepalaan (pictured above) is a wonderful Estonian mezzo soprano, and it turned out she was coming to sing with Opera North, in a production of Mozart’s ‘La clemenza di Tito’, a work of which I was unaware though I’ve been going to the opera for about 65 years. There were only two performances left in the season – the nearest in Manchester but I could not make that, the final one in Nottingham. So I determined to go.

Tito

I was not prepared for ‘La clemenza di Tito’. A stupendous production which belied what seemed at first to be a sparsely simple set with equally understated costumes. Without exaggeration, I was on the edge of my seat from start to finish, as gripped as in any episode of Spooks (a UK television ‘spy’ series). David Cameron would do well to watch it attentively. I can tell you it was the most exciting experience of opera since I saw Aida in Verona, elephants and all, or my first opera ever – Carmen with the Carl Rosa company, in Bradford over 60 years ago.

I’ve come to expect excellent voices from Opera North. It wasn’t always so. When I first began to go to their performances in the late 1970s I was often disappointed; I was used to the likes of Renata Tebaldi, Joan Sutherland and of course Maria Callas on my vinyl discs at home. I usually found the men even less satisfying – but with discs of recordings from Tito Gobbi to Robert Merrill and Jussi Bjoerling, and of course Pavarotti, at home that wasn’t surprising.

No such reservations now. The singing was superb and it was an odd satisfaction that the tenor Paul Nilon (Tito) is a fellow tyke; he comes from Keighley, a few miles from where I live now and where I went to school.

Sesto - the man that Helen becomes so convincingly, even to me

Sesto – the man that Helen becomes so convincingly, even to me

But I came to Nottingham to hear Helen Lepalaan. I had listened to a short clip of her singing on YouTube so her beautiful voice was no surprise; what was a surprise was her acting. Cast in the role of a man, despite the ‘affinity’ I felt I had with her having met her off stage, she just became Sesto.

He (she) has two wonderful arias, one in each act. What a pity there’s no recording of the production. I’d be listening to it again and again, especially these two arias.

Of course one of the great roles for a mezzo soprano is Carmen, for which not surprisingly I have a special fondness. Helen has played the principal role and you can hear her singing from it on the following clip.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GsyYYeSv0EU

So my disaster in Dusseldorf introduced me to a fascinating opera and a beautiful woman with a divine voice. I could live with that kind of disaster on a regular basis.