Sunday 14 August 2011

An Interesting Week

First an apology.  I did mean to get round and visit this past week, but as I expect most of you are aware, we are living in interesting times in the UK at the moment and let me tell you it is truly the curse that Confucius said it was.  After what might be called 'a close encounter of the Hoodie kind' on Tuesday, I'm afraid my mind has been on things other than blogging.  In fact for most of the week there have been three bags by my front door, one full of necessary paperwork, one with a change of clothes and the third ready to throw The Bears into so that we could be out with the essentials at a moment's notice.  (Some of you don't know about The Bears, but those that do will understand - I am going nowhere without them!)  For the moment, things seem to have become more peaceful and I'm hoping that I will be able to unpack, but we all know about chickens and hatching and counting, so maybe I should wait awhile longer.

In the meantime, life has had to go on.  We had a very successful Music Summer School and I now know a lot more about the concerto than I did before.  Donna, I hope you're reading this and very glad that you chose to 'crawl out of the woodwork'.  I don't know of a book, but there is an excellent set of lectures published by The Teaching Company on the concerto.  I can't recommend them too highly.  In fact all their music series are superb.  They can be a bit pricey, but if you wait until they come round on sale you can often get a real bargain.

What has suffered this week has been the reading for the Literature Summer School.  I have managed to read The House on the Strand and do the background work on the historical novel in general (although I still have that to write up) but the other two books remain untouched and I absolutely must get down to them.  I did watch a really fascinating interview with Daphne du Maurier made for the BBC in the very early seventies, just after The House on the Strand  had been published.  Television has definitely changed!  She chain smoked throughout.  That wouldn't stand a chance of getting on screen these days.  What I found most interesting was that the only moment her eyes really sparkled was when she was asked how she felt about being the main breadwinner once her novels started selling.  "I loved it," she said.  "It gave one the power."  Very telling, especially in the light of the particular book we've been reading, which in many respects is about power and the way in which it is abused.  If any of you want to see the programme just put Daphne du Maurier BBC interview into google and it should be the first item that comes up.

Other than that it's been a relatively quiet week.  This afternoon I'm going to a garden party one of my goddaughters is organising to say goodbye to us all before she goes off on her gap year next week.  She's off to a remote area of Guyana to teach science and maths in a newly established school for girls of eleven to fourteen.  I am inordinately proud of her.  The Bears have a special invite and will be going in their Sunday best.  They say you should see a picture of them, so here they are looking as if butter wouldn't melt in their mouths.  Don't you believe it.

Have a good week.

Saturday 6 August 2011

Here I Am

Well, here I am again!  Still a bit wobbly, but definitely better than I was.  My current plan is to try and write just at weekends until I'm through rather a busy teaching period and perhaps stronger health wise.  Fingers crossed.

Next week is the first of our Summer Schools and so I shall be spending most of the forthcoming seven days listening to and discussing the development of the piano concerto.  I love music but am no musician, so I've had to do a lot of research to be able to organise this one.  We're focussing particularly on Beethoven, Schumann and Shostakovich, but of course we have to fill in round the edges as well and so the house has been resounding to the music of Corelli, Vivaldi and Mozart as preparation for Monday's opening session.  Not that Corelli and Vivaldi wrote for the piano, but you do need to know where the concerto started to be able to follow the later developments

Once that's underway then I really must get down to the reading for the Literature Summer School, two weeks later.  I have read the three books (Du Maurier's The House on the Strand, Emma Darwin's A Secret Alchemy and Rebecca Stott's Ghostwalk) before, but I do need to refresh my memory and organise the line through the discussions.  What I'm really interested in is why the historical novel has suddenly become fashionable again and I hope we can explore that as well as the books themselves.

And then, of course, there is the 1485 programme to begin to pull together.  A number of people have asked if there is any way that this could be opened up as an internet discussion.  I'll have to think how this might be possible and also ask the other people in the group what they think, but the very basic website that I'm slowly building is open to all, so if you're interested you can see what we're planning at

Integrated Studies ~ 1485

I'll try and come visiting this week.  I hope you're all well.

Monday 18 July 2011

I Am Still Here

This is just to say that I am still here.  As some of you know, I have various health problems and life is a bit on the difficult side at the moment, but when this bout is over, I will be back.

Take care of yourselves.

Sunday 3 July 2011


So, I have this problem.  I have a basic understanding of the timelines of each of the individual arts.  I know how Shakespeare relates to John Donne, I can place Mozart in relation to Bizet, at a pinch I can even put most of the major artists in some sort of accurate order.  But, when it comes to integrating those timelines, or, even worse, tying them up with what was going on historically or in the worlds of philosophy and religion, forget it, I'm hopeless.

When I first came back home after training to be a teacher there was an extra mural course at the local university that took a period in history and, drawing from all of the relevant departments, explored the social and political events along with the prevalent religious and philosophical movements and scientific discoveries.  It then placed the arts within that framework and asked how they had been influenced by the cultural climate in which they were created.  I really wanted to do that course but it ran during the day and of course I was working and couldn't get there.  So, I promised myself that when I retired I would beg the extra mural department to put on something similar, if necessary, just for me.  What I hadn't anticipated was that by the time I retired there would be no extra mural department.  In fact, no community education programme of any sort.  (I could wax lyrical about this abdication of civic responsibility, but that's for another day.)  Thwarted again!

Well, some of you will remember that this time last year I was getting extremely het-up about another education problem, namely the cost of Summer Schools.  My answer then was to stop grumbling and organise one of my own and not only did it go extremely well, this Summer we have expanded and have two Summer Schools running.    (Bromsgrove U3A Summer School)  Perhaps I could do the same thing again?  So, starting after the summer break I am going to bring together a group of like-minded people to see if we can't do something about this.  The idea at the moment is that we will take a pivotal year in British history and explore what was going on in as many areas of academic interest as we can, not only in Britain but across the world as it was known and understood at the time.  We aren't going to confine ourselves just to that year; if something vital happened a couple of years earlier, or a dozen years later, then of course that will be covered as well.  The one stipulation will be that we can't go beyond the date we have chosen for the next set of meetings, the ones that hopefully will begin in September 2012.  (Ever the optimist!)

At the moment the putative schedule looks like this:

September ~ General Meeting

October ~ Historical Events

November ~ Philosophical Movements

January ~ Religious Thought

February ~ Scientific and Medical Discoveries

March ~ Art and Architecture

May ~ Music

June ~ Literature

July ~ Review and Forward Planning

The basic idea is that one or more members of the group will research each month's area and then come back and present a paper to the rest of us.  Gradually, over the year, we will garner more and more understanding not only of the different topics but, more importantly, of how they interrelate one with another and this will then be the subject of discussion over the substantial pot of tea and gargantuan plate of biscuits that will be provided half way through the afternoon.  (Gillian, if you're reading this and panicking, don't worry, I'll bring the biscuits!!!) What this means for those of us involved is that no one will have to research and present more than once a year, which I hope will make it easier for those members of the group who, unlike me, are not far too fond of the sound of their own voice and lack confidence to speak out loud.  We shall see.

Of course, it may not work.  It is going to depend on our having people who are interested in covering each of the areas.  We are having a preliminary meeting a week tomorrow to see where we stand on this.  But it certainly won't work if we don't try.  As you will have seen the year we've chosen as a starting point is 1485, the year of the Battle of Bosworth and the beginning of the Tudor monarchy.  Not the happiest of years in the life of a Yorkist like myself, but one that I think will provide everyone with interesting material to research.  I'm thinking at the moment that we might set the upper limit at 1534, the year of the Act of Supremacy, when Henry VIII broke from Rome, but that will be up for discussion when we meet next week.

If we do get off the ground then two further ideas I'm playing with are building a website and possibly putting together a pamphlet at the end of the year containing all the contributions.  If I do get those established and anyone is interested in having access then let me know.

What really worries is me, of course, is after the Summer Schools last year and now this, what bright idea am I going to come up with next year.  If you see one beginning to burgeon, nip it in the bud straight away, will you?  There are only so many hours in the day!

Friday 1 July 2011

Making Connections ~ The Time Line

Having managed to get as far as London once there is now absolutely no holding me.  The National Gallery last month and now, this month, the Courtauld Gallery, tucked away amongst the buildings of Somerset House, just off the Strand.

The Courtauld is one of those small galleries, of which there are several dotted around the capital, where you turn a corner and suddenly come across one of the world's great paintings, like this one by Manet.  If you'd asked me where I thought this was I would have hazarded the National or the Louvre or the Prada.  I wouldn't have expected to find it tucked away down a London side alley.

I had actually gone to see the Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril exhibition.  Jane Avril was one of the dancers at the Folies-Bergeres who Toulouse-Lautrec used as models for the posters and pictures he created for the theatre.  We normally see her dressed in bright colours, legs flying, as she entertains the punters in the can-can.  This was the picture that took my attention, though, showing the dancer in a much more somber mood as she leaves the theatre in the early hours of the morning almost unnoticed in her classic blue suit.  There is something so contained about her in comparison with the abandon she displays in the more well known paintings.  She looks separate, lonely.  This is the canvas I could live with.

I had as much pleasure though from looking around the rest of the gallery.  As well as the Manet they have some wonderful Van Gogh and Degas as well as an interesting collection of paintings by Rubens and it was the Rubens which brought home to me gaps in my knowledge that I know I have to do something about.

Where each of the individual creative arts is concerned I have a reasonably good understanding of the time line through from the medieval to the modern day.  I know where Rubens comes in relation to Degas or when Mozart was composing in relation to Brahms.  What I don't know is how they relate across the artistic boundaries.  So, I find it amazing that Rubens was painting this picture of Moses and the Brazen Serpent at the same time and in the same place as Shakespeare was writing The Tempest.  It isn't that I thought they were from different time periods, I just have no real understanding of how they relate at all.

Well, there is no point in simply bewailing my lack of understanding, is there?  I need to do something about it and I'm going to, but that is for another post.

Oh, and before any of you ask, yes, of course I went to Fortnum and Mason for afternoon tea.  This time I replaced the scones with a slice of Raspberry Yoghurt Cake but unfortunately I can't find a picture of this magnificent confection.  I should have taken one before I demolished it.  Anyway, I can definitely recommend you treat yourself, just be prepared to explain the bill to your bank manager next time you see him!

Wednesday 29 June 2011

The Torso ~ Helene Tursten

Thank goodness!  I really enjoyed Helene Tursten's first crime novel, Detective Inspector Huss, but you know what it's like, you get a first novel that is absolutely wonderful and then the second disappoints and the author just never seems to manage to push those same successful buttons again.  Not Helene Tursten, who is without a doubt the best of the Scandinavian crime writers I've discovered over the past couple of years.  Her second book, The Torso, is every bit as good as her debut and my frustration at discovering that the library only has one copy of her third novel and that there is a long queue is immense, although not entirely unexpected.

Irene Huss and the other members of her investigative team are called in when the torso of a body is discovered on the Swedish coast line wrapped in a black plastic bag.  Not only has the body been dismembered, but it is clear from the obscenities inflicted on the remains that the victim has been horrendously tortured and mutilated.  Searching across Europe to try and identify the corpse, Huss discovers a similar crime in Denmark and so is sent by her Superintendent to Copenhagen to see if there is any evidence there as to who the body parts may have belonged to.  The information that Irene is able to pull together suggests that a necrosadist is operating in both countries, killing in order to get sexual satisfaction from the desecration of the bodies.

Very quickly, it becomes apparent that the killer is aware of the police's interest in him and that he appears to have some level of access to the investigation.  A succession of people identified as having likely connections with the murderer turn up dead or are viciously attacked and the fear grows that he will target members of the team themselves.  There is also the possibility to be faced that it may be one of their own who is the perpetrator.

One of the things that I find admirable in Tursten's work is that she doesn't glory in the horrors that she has to describe.  She doesn't hold back, but there is no sense of her using the terrible scenes that are involved to draw the reader in.  And believe me, in this book she could well have fallen prey to that temptation.  The point is made on several occasions that necrosadism is extremely unusual and for that we should all be extremely thankful.  Nevertheless, while she leaves us in no doubt that the actual murderer is a monster, Tursten is also careful to explore the manner in which more 'normal' humans can find themselves drawn into the environs of such appalling practices and, for the most part, these people she depicts with a welcome level of sympathy and understanding.  It would be all too easy to judge.

As before, there are certain things about Tursten's work that don't necessarily translate well in either the literal or figurative sense of the word.  I'm fairly sure that only one translation has been commissioned and it is definitely an American one.  Even so, I think something audacious takes 'the biscuit' rather than 'the cake' in both versions of the English language and there are several other incidents of such infelicitous renditions.  And then there is the detective set up.  Do the Scandinavian police really not ring each other up after five o'clock because everyone would have gone home?  I find that rather scary.  And do they really turn a blind eye to some of the excessive drinking on duty that goes on and the behaviour towards colleagues that results.  There are a couple of Tursten's detectives who, if Quintin Jardine's Bob Skinner was to ever to have them under him, would find themselves back pounding the beat before they could blink.  That is if he didn't throw them out of the force altogether.

However, these are relatively minor points and I wouldn't want anyone to be put off this series, which I think is one of the best to come out of Scandinavia in recent years and certainly one I hope continues through many more volumes.

Sunday 26 June 2011

Summer Time

There are certain sure signs that Summer is here.  For each of us they are probably very different.  It used to be the sound of the first ice cream van jingle, but round here they were still trying to ply their trade when I couldn't get the car out of the garage because of mounds and mounds of snow, so I've had to ditch that as one my sure fire indications.  Sadly, these days I complete the statement

I know that has Summer has come when.....

with the words

I can drive onto campus at 11.00am and find a parking space.  

Usually you have to be there well before nine.  The pleasure of not having to fight for a place is immense.

One universal signal, however, is the appearance in the Sunday papers of the lists of Summer Reading and this morning, the first really warm day we've had this year, The Sunday Times has provided fifty fiction and fifty non-fiction choices along with a handful of audio and children's suggestions.

I always pour over these lists with real interest.  The New Year equivalent, when people are asked for their 'books of the year', are terribly 'worthy' and I don't believe for a moment that half of them have ever really been read.  They have just been chosen to make the people recommending them sound good.  These Summer recommendations are different.  Oh, very few people actually come out with the real 'beach reads', but what you do get are suggestions of good, solid readable fiction; the sort that will see you through the next six months or so whatever the weather.

Amongst this morning's list there are several books that I have earmarked for any free days that I might discover hidden in my diary, including Ann Patchett's new novel, State of Wonder and Jane Harris's story of an English spinster who attaches herself to the family of a painter in the Glasgow of 1888, Gillespie and I.  There are also a couple that I seem to have missed when they came out, but which look very interesting.  I've enjoyed Justin Cartwright's earlier books, so I shall definitely see if I can find a copy of Other People's Money and Cynthia Ozick's Foreign Bodies set in post-war Paris sounds fascinating as well.

Reading through the list made me think, however, about all the plans I have made for Summer Reading over the years and about how rarely I have been able to stick to them.  When I was studying or teaching there was always a reading list for the following term that needed attention and each year I promised myself that I would get started early and make sure that I didn't end up having to rush.  After all, how many people had the privilege of a working life where reading fiction was a central activity?  How many would have killed for such a life?  But it never worked out like that.  There was always something on the library shelf, or something I'd been storing up all year that found its way into my hands instead.  And I don't suppose this year will be any different.  I might state my intention of reading certain books, but I strongly suspect that the same thing will happen as in the past.  I have eight books that have to be read for one reason or another before the second weekend in September, all excellent novels in their own right, but I don't mind betting that I shall be desperately trying to finish them at the last moment just as in previous years.

Am I alone in this?  Or are you all far better at meeting your objectives than me.  If so, what is your secret?  Please, do share it.