Sunday, 31 May 2020

On Becoming a Hermit, Sort of ... Day 70 & Week 11

Day 70 and the start of Week 11
(Monday, 25th to Sunday, 31st May 2020)

Monday was a fairly ordinary day, as days on COVID-19 Lockdown and self isolation go. As I start to write this (on Wednesday) the only thing that stands out about Monday is that it marks the end of week 10 of our personal lockdown, which started for us the day after the announcement of the lockdown on Tuesday, 18th March. The lockdown officially began on Sunday, 23rd March.

From now this will be a weekly blog, because the number of posts down the right hand side of my front page is looking a bit overwhelming! I may also be more selective of Clemency Burton-Hill's daily choices of music from the "Year of Wonder".

Cactus flowers in the greenhouse
The garden is looking and feeling wonderful. Thank God for my wife, otherwise it would be a mess! And thank heavens for our fortunate situation, anxious though we are are because of what our children are having to deal with. 
Taz on the patio, waiting to run madly in all directions

Now, an update is due on the ravages of COVID-19: the peak of the daily death toll was 1,260 on 8th April. Daily deaths have now halved and (seemingly) halved again to probably around 300 per day. I say 'probably' because there are ups and downs according to when in the week the death is registered, which is not usually on the day it occurred. Weekends always show a dip followed by a rise later in the week because deaths that actually happened on the weekend won't be registered till weekdays. 

The rise in spread the case count and the case fatality rate was very steep through March to its peak after the first week of April. The decline, clearly with the aid of the lockdown and social distancing strategy, is clear but far more gradual. What happens next? As lockdown is relaxed, who knows what chances there may be of a second wave of infections, cases and deaths.  Given also the addition of the Dominic Cummings factor (a senior bureaucrat at No.10 Downing Street), who apparently - well actually, without any real doubt, he did flout the lockdown guidelines on multiple occasions during late March and early April and has caused an absolute outrage of criticism of Boris Johnson's government, who have sent the Spinmeisters into overdrive, with statements like that he was within the rules, following the guidelines and that what he did was “understandable for a worried parent”! I’ll not go further into this incident, because it would fill this blog to tell the full story. Suffice to say it is absolutely clear that the elite so-called leaders of the present government have withdrawn into a tapestry of lies and deceit, led, as has become the pattern of the man’s behaviour, by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cohort designed to ensure that all intelligent people now know for sure that it is ‘one rule for the masses and another for the chosen elite’. Many people are now using Cummings' flouting of the rules as an excuse to ignore the rules themselves. In summary, there is much stupidity abounding. 

We shall probably have to wait for two or three weeks to see how the ‘relaxing’ of the lockdown and the Test & Trace strategy (if you can call it that) affects the statistics, but my fear, which reflects the fears of many, many others, is that there will be an uptick in the rate of infections and the number of cases and deaths. As we stand (at 10:10 BST on Sunday, 31st May), there have been 272,826 confirmed cases, with the addition of 2,445 new cases, and now a total of 38,376 deaths, which is just over 900 deaths in the past four days or an average of 220 per day, which does include half of this weekend and, as we already know, the number of registered deaths for weekends does not appear until the following weekdays. As a comparison, at 09:00 BST on Friday, deaths had risen from 37,460 on Wednesday at 09:00 BST to 38,161. That’s 350 per day ... and I have to pause and dwell on either figure every time and wonder how many more lives, how many multiples of that figure, are grieving. have been permanently scarred by the loss of those lives or are themselves affected by the longer term side-effects of infection by the Coronavirus, which in some cases has been revealed to have had a serious longer term effect on the body’s organs, making recovery very difficult for some.

Is it any wonder that so many thinking and compassionate people, particularly teachers, are worried that the relaxing of lockdown and a return to school as well as work for many. And, as I finish writing this on Sunday morning, a review of news of the week is such that the scientific and medical experts are now coming out in a united voice to say it is too soon; that there is a very real risk of a second wave of infections over he Summer, if we do not proceed with due caution. The Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan Van-Tam even went as far as to criticise the government over Dominic Cummings’ breaching of the Lockdown rules. It is all coming out. If Boris Johnson does not do something decisive about this, particularly in the face of a serious dip in his and the Conservative’s ratings in the polls, then it will confirm my opinion that he suffering from terminal arrogance. 

In the meantime, news just in from our son: a colleague of my daughter-in-law has tested positive for COVID-19. They are NHS staff, she, albeit in the labs of the Children’s Hospital, worked closely with the man. She is still expected to go to work! Concerning the new Test and Trace scheme, this begs the question what about front line NHS staff, who are in contact with the virus every day? According to the rules, they would have to isolate every day for fourteen days ... how does that work, for heavens sake?!

As we keep saying, these are worrying times.
Waiting to get into the garden ... or chase a cat!

Now, let us be cheered by some photos ... 

Our daily eggs in one basket

... and some music that Clemency Burton-Hill’s “Year of Wonder” recommends for us this week: -

Monday: “Milonga” by Jorge Cardoso (b. 1949). This was Argentina Day. Clemency tells us that Cardoso is a multi-talented musician, guitarist, composer, teacher and prolific author - as well as being a qualified medical doctor. (Seriously).

Tuesday: ‘Waitin’ from Cabaret Songs by William Bolcom (b. 1938). Bolcom is a prolific contemporary American composer. A student of Darius Milhaud, Bolcom has a similar curiosity for every musical genre.

The lyrics to this song, sung by the gorgeous voice of Kate Royal, are achingly familiar (for a parallel, see the poem, “Waiting for God, Oh Happy Days”) ...

Waitin waitin 
I’ve been waitin
Waitin waitin all my life

The light keeps on hiding from me
But it someday might just bless my sight
Waitin waitin waitin.

Wednesday: Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.78 (‘Organ’) Poco adagio by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). This, Clemency tells us, is the more major piece the composer was trying to compose, when he became distracted by “a certain carnival of musical animals”. She describes it as “epic in scope ... a work of magnificence”. Saint-Saens admitted apparently that he’d given this everything to it that he could give ... “What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again”.

Thursday: French Suite No.5 in G major, BWV 816 7: Gigue by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). The Gigue was a highly fashionable dance in the Baroque era. I need say no more, except gird your loins for some very fast movement!

Friday: Le Sacre du Printemps - The Rite of Spring’ Part 1: “The adoration of the Earth” - Introduction by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). In its time this was controversial, avant guarde, pushing audiences to the limits of what they could accept or comprehend. Evidence these snippets of alleged conversations from two other notables: 

“It’s terrifying” whispers Claude Debussy. “I don’t understand”.  “If that’s a a basoon,” utters Camille Saint-Saens in a neighbouring box, “I’m a baboon!”.

Saturday: Overture from Candide by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Sunday: Piano Quintet No.1 in A minor, Op.30 1: Allegro by Louise Farrenc (1804-1875). Another, the fourth this month, woman composer of considerable note, who fought fearlessly against the bias that prevailed on muscially talented and literary woman of this age. She prevailed of course, but not without a fight. She became a Professor at the Paris Conservatoire but not on the same pay as her male counterparts, until, after producing many prize winning students, she eventually achieved financial equity.

However you may be affected by anything I've written here, do let me know by leaving a comment below or, if you prefer not to, share your thoughts with a trusted friend or someone you love. 

Friday, 29 May 2020

Barbershop is ...

By way of an interruption in the tedious and boring - sorry I mean fascinating and riveting - story of our Lockdown lives at home, here is something a little different.

Some of you may already know that I have been singing for the past fourteen years of my life, in a community choir, chamber choir, a barbershop chorus and quartet, mostly a capella. Actually I started singing as a boy treble in the village church choir, may be at the age of seven, then at school a bit but, after that I resided in a choral desert for many years until my working and family life allowed me to commit to anything on a regular basis. 

Now, I don't know where I'd be without it and, right now, in the first few months of 2020, is the hardest time imaginable for many like minded and devoted singers in harmony groups the World over. I wouldn't want to be without classical and contemporary choral repertoire, because there is so much beautiful music to choose from, which our MD at Fox Valley Voices chamber choir (of which I am fortunate to be a founder member) has in abundance in their repertoire. But it is my membership of Hallmark of Harmony that has provided another level to my singing experience.

Aside from its exceptionally talented music leadership and their continuous quest for and innovative ways in which they continue to achieve improvement in the quality of the chorus's vocal performance, there is something about completely a capella, close harmony singing in the barbershop style that has created a bond between its members, whose age range is evenly spread right across the spectrum from early to mid teens up to eighty plus! Perhaps it could be that there is no encumbrance imposed by the need to hold sheet music, or of the need for accompanying instruments, that enables the freedom to sing anywhere any time, particularly after a rehearsal or a show, at 'Afterglow' in the pub or a bar. Perhaps it's the synergy resulting from purely sung four-part harmony and its consequent over- and undertones. Perhaps it's the fact that the unity of voicing means that you can always hear the lyrics, that those lyrics are delivered, performed, emoted to tell their story, which rings true in the lives of many singers.

This bond extends beyond the chorus to the wider world of barbershop, which, in the 21st Century, is in the process of dispelling a myth - that image of older men with handle bar moustaches, in blazers and boaters, with sometimes shouty untrained voices, over-singing mid 20th Century standards. It is very different now, with so many young singers with fine voices and equally fine musicians populating the stages of the Barbershop world, singing non-barbershop, even some choral repertoire, as well as true barbershop songs, pushing the boundaries little by little to bring it gradually closer to the main stream. Hallmark has therefore been a major force in my life for over five years.

It will be six years in October, before I'd even done my audition to become an official member of Hallmark of Harmony (who had in the previous May just won the chorus gold medal and become the British Champions for the seventh time in their thirty six year history), when they asked me to sing with them at their guest appearance on the Saturday night show at the Ladies (LABBS) national event in the main theatre at Llandudno's Venue Cymru, to an audience of around two thousand. I had to learn five songs in less than three weeks, which I confess interfered a little with my then commitment to a local community choir, Waldershelf Singers, in their preparation for Christmas. That's history and this is now. As current British champions, for the eighth time, Hallmark have another year before they, hopefully, sing their swan song as champions in May 2021, after which they will be allowed to compete again in 2022.

In the mean time, it is something of a surprise that I haven't before written a poem about the effect that singing has had in my life, let alone barbershop (well, actually that's not strictly true, but more on that later, perhaps). I can't explain this. I blame the muse, who has a mind of her own, which she only shares with me occasionally by tapping me on the shoulder with an inspiration from a sometimes unexpected quarter. The inspiration for this piece came from a seasoned performance poet, Moe Seager, an American, who lives in Paris, whose poem "Jazz is" struck me as a very clever piece of writing about a genre of music, which I also happen to like. The natural consequence of this is "Barbershop is".

You can read the poem here ...

Sunday, 24 May 2020

On Becoming a Hermit, Sort of ... Days 68 & 69 (The Weekend)

Days 68 & 69 (The Weekend)
(Saturday & Sunday, 23rd and 24th May 2020)

I woke in the middle of Friday night for a visit to the loo, then couldn't get back to sleep. Brain on overdrive again. Twenty minutes before it was my turn to get up, at 7 am, I decided to lie and wait 'til that time, then promptly fell asleep for a solid hour. In the mean time, B had got up and was doing the jobs downstairs. Ah well my turn for the next couple of mornings. 

And Saturday night was BABS Live ! Two hours of indulgence in British Barbershop, with its best on view and some important international guests. This being a well conceived substitute for the BABS Annual Convention, which had been cancelled because of the Coronavirus pandemic. The full BABS Live is two hours long, so watch it if you're a fan, but if you only want to see Hallmarks 'performance', which would be quite understandable, than simply watch the second embedded video below; the one with the lovely Mark Pickin looking at you and pointing meaningfully!

The song that was new to Hallmark of Harmony's repertoire just before the lockdown, had to be learned, rehearsed and 'performed' virtually, digitally, with individual audio recordings from each of the singers, woven into a multi-tracked musical masterpiece with video overlays of each of us playing the fool, by our musical maestro DM, Tim Briggs. Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in The Dark", seemingly a metaphorically appropriate title for a song of our times. 


Sunday has been a lazy day, writing, thinking occasionally playing with the dogs, but no great adventures ... and posting the poem, "Barbershop is ..." in My Poetry Library.

Saturday's music choice by Clemency Burton-Hill, as if you haven't already had enough wonder for the day, is a gem. "Romance for Violin and Piano", Op.23 by Amy Beach (1867-1944), who was another pioneering woman born in the 19th Century. As with Clara Schumann and Alice Mary Smith during this last week, this was a difficult time for women to make waves in the music (or literary) world. And this piece is beautiful. Many men of that era, least of all her husband, an eminent Doctor, who restricted her recitals and prevented her taking lessons to improve her composing, never knew what they were missing, what a genuine genius she developed, perhaps as a result of being dependant on her own abilities. I think we understand now that music has the power to overcome prejudice with a vengeance, but it is sad that she was never allowed to become as well known as she might now be.

Sunday's music is "Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major, Op.73 ('Emperor') 1: Allegro by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). This was Beethoven's final piano concerto. Described by Burton-Hill as a 'colossus' and, given that the first, allegro, movement lasts for twenty minutes, it is an engrossing listen. The above link is to the first movement, but it is worth indulging yourself in the whole magnificent work for the full duration of its forty minutes. It will reward you.

However you may be affected by anything I've written here, do let me know by leaving a comment below or, if you prefer not to, share your thoughts with a trusted friend or someone you love. 

Friday, 22 May 2020

On Becoming a Hermit, Sort of ... Days 63 to 67

Days 63 to 67
(Monday 18th to Friday, 22nd May 2020)

The days have slipped by in a blink. What happened!? Lots of Zoom meetings have happened and I read a poem (about Barbershop) to my Hallmark colleagues, at the end of rehearsal on Tuesday evening! An unexpected first ... particularly at short notice. It hadn't seen the light of day before then. Not sure how it was received and may never know, because, whilst poetry is even more left field, marginal and unappreciated than Barbershop is (outside the wedding and funeral business) we are also manly men, who don't necessarily 'do' poetry, at least that we'd be prepared to admit. Although over the last few months there have been two or three members who’ve come up to me on a Tuesday evening to say they enjoyed reading my poetry.

New cases of Coronavirus, deaths and struggle continue as I sit and listen to music and write. How long can this go on? As long as we have to bear it, each in our own way, each in our own corner of the World, in our own unique minds, along our own paths to resolution. We shall come to look back on this period in our own history as something else, perhaps not what it seems to be right now: purgatory for some, respite for others, destitution for a few, grief and sadness for many, separation for many more, maybe like a kind of imprisonment that we could not have imagined before the pandemic. Whatever we come to view it as, whenever that may be, perspectives will have changed.

The weather's good, though. Temperatures have been increasing over the past two or three days. Yesterday and Wednesday were almost unseasonably warm. 

Five Zoom meetings so far this week: Wentworth Castle Archive team Tuesday am, Hallmark Tuesday evening), Tai Chi Wednesday am, Fox Valley Voices Wednesday evening (that no one turned up to for the first time!) and Guide Dogs Puppy Class Thursday morning. Another one on Saturday morning with the family will make it six this week! 

Nearly forgot to mention we took the dogs out in the car on Monday for a walk in Wharncliffe Woods. A pleasant change and not too crowded and a very warm day, with barely a breeze through the trees to cool us. It was a refreshing change. The car has managed around 40 miles in the past two months! That must be a first. Saving money no going anywhere, whilst the Treasury is mounting up huge national debt that we're going to have to pay back to someone, some time. Let's hope we don't have to sell our souls to the devil in order to do that.

I've been reviewing the business of how to progress with our boiler replacement, whether to go with the Air Source Heat Pump or to get a modern efficient gas boiler to replace our old G rated juggernaut of a gas guzzler! The latter is still working very well, but we are consuming more than twice the national average in in gas (28,000 KWh vs 12,000 Kwh per year). There's also the decision as to whether we should get battery storage as well.The aim is not only to future proof ourselves, but also to make best use of renewable energy sources; make best use of what we've got. Decisions, decisions, decisions. Or should we simply not make any decision at all until such time as we know how the current crisis begins to unfold and resolve itself, one way or the other? Or until the current boiler finally gives up the ghost, which would be bad if it happened in the midst of Winter! Then there's the tricky business of how you deal with installation team tramping all over the house, whilst trying to maintain appropriate distancing and hygiene. Oh I don't know! Let's play some music and sleep on it for the weekend.

Saturday evening will see the BABS Live event on YouTube, which Hallmark will gather to watch. This is the accumulation of material, chat and music put together by the British Association of Barbershop Singers to replace the cancelled Convention weekend, at which we would have done a show and enjoyed the swan song of a championship year, but that has to wait another year now. It'll be on at 8pm. An indulgence in barbershop for a couple of hours.

Speaking of music, five days worth, now, from Clemency Burton-Hill’s “Year of Wonder”, now. 

Monday: "Der Trunkene im Frühling" (The Drunkard in Spring) from Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of The Earth) by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). A work that hoisted him out of the gloom of being deposed from his position as Director of the Vienna Court Opera because of rampant anti-semitism at the time. A friend had sent him some ancient Chinese poetry, which he used to compose this, one of his best symphonies. Mahler died on this day in 1911 ...

And when I came to sing no more,
I fall asleep again,
for what is Springtime to me?
Let me be drunk!

Tuesday: "Symphony No.1 in C minor" 4: Allegro maestoso by Alice Mary Smith (1839-1884). Smith was unusually a woman, who, it seems, was a bit a trailblazer in 19th Century music circles. This is one of two major orchestral symphonies she produced. 

Wednesday: "Scherzo No.2 in C minor, Op.14" by Clara Schumann (1819-1896). Clara, wife of Robert, was a force of nature and prevailed to write some astonishingly great music, despite dealing with an over-protective father and with Roberts debilitating mental illness. This would be an achievement even today, let alone in the midst of the 19th Century, when woman were not considered by social 'norms' capable of such things. So she published much of her work under a male pseudonym. Clara Schumann also died on this day in 1896.

Thursday: "Vesti la Giubba" (Put on your costume) from Pagliacci by Ruggiero Leoncavallo (1857-1919). This was a controversial opera style known as 'Verisimo', which meant literally 'true'. It spoke on subjects not normally deemed suitable for this level of high art. Here it is in all its glory sung by the inimitable Luciano Pavarotti. It is very moving. Prepare to shed a tear.

Put on you costume, powder your face.
People are paying and come to laugh.
Laugh, clown, at your fractured love!
Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart!

Friday: "Au Gre des Ondes" (Along the waves) 5: 'Hommage a Bach' by Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013). Dutilleux died on this day in 2013 and, despite a long and illustrious career, he left behind relatively few pieces to remember him by. This is one of six pieces he was commissioned to write in 1946 as, albeit classy 'jingles' for French radio. This suite, as Clemency puts it, 'prefigures much of the music that was to come. 

Enjoy your weekend.

However you may be affected by anything I've written here, do let me know by leaving a comment below or, if you prefer not to, share your thoughts with a trusted friend or someone you love. 

Sunday, 17 May 2020

On Becoming a Hermit, Sort of ... Days 61 & 62 (the Weekend)

Days 61 & 62
Saturday & Sunday, 16th & 17th May 2020)

I think it’s time to update the depressing statistics for the victims of Corona Virus, as of Friday, 15th May.

Globally, confirmed (COVID-19 tested) cases have reached a staggering 4,637,130 of which 1,425,793 have recovered. Deaths (the case fatality rate) stand at 312,000. This leaves 2,899,494 unaccounted for, presumed still poorly with the virus.

In the UK, confirmed cases stand at 233,151 of which recoveries are not reported (in the Guardian), so I may have to go and dig for that figure. Deaths in the UK have risen to 33,614, which is 11% of the World total. With a mere 0.86% of the World’s population, isn’t that damning?! Ok, the population density in the UK may be higher than the global average, but the fingers of the World’s press are pointing very noticeably at the UK government’s handling of this pandemic. At home, it appears that things are on the verge of unravelling for Boris Johnson’s administration, which is under huge pressure now. Donald Trump’s credibility, if he ever had any, is looking more fragile than ever, particularly in the eyes of the rest of the world. Is the US our only hope as an ally..? If it is, then God help us! And I mean absolutely no offence to my many good friends in various parts of the USA; you know that I'm talking about the corrupt corporate and political communities on both sides of the Atlantic.

Enough of the negative now. It’s the weekend. Let’s indulge in some culture, some music and perhaps some poetry ...

I have discovered, in the quieter, calmer, not to mention cleaner atmosphere of Coronavirus lockdown, that there are some souls, who are seemingly less able to cope with the quiet. There is an intrinsic need for sound, which sometimes translates into noise: the radio, their favourite upbeat music. For me it is singing and listening to music, but only indoors - if ever I leave a window open then I apologise to my neighbours, if they don’t like my personal choices of entertainment. When youth with their boy-racing cars, fly on down the road with windows open, sub-woofers thrumming, loud rhythmic voices rapping the beat of their lives, I am inclined to the view that they have a need to demonstrate their excitement in their music of the moment, which of course is neither to everyone’s taste nor what they want to listen to in that moment. 

Encouraged over the years by my wife, I have come to appreciate nature’s voice, nature’s music, nature’s sounds, nature's silences ... 


Do not fear organic sounds
embrace the mood of calm,
the voice of reason in your head 
that yields a mindful balm.

By listening to nature’s own
true voice of those who care
for musicality from all
of those, who own the air.

Let not your peace be overruled
unhinge your own true grace
when zest for superficial life 
adulterates your space.

Cloying sounds of weekend nights
are ringing in the ear
overflowing in the garden
I'm praying for air to clear.

There is a kind of therapy
embracing this stillness 
by letting go the ego’s drive
to share so much excess.

There’s always an alternative
hiatus in the scream
a heavenly place where you might hear
the trickling of a stream. 

There is no time more peaceful
the quietest minutes on Earth
an hour before the sun’s first light
'til birdsong dispels our dearth.


And the music choices for this weekend from Clemency Burton-Hill's "Year of Wonder" are : 

Saturday: An irresistibly cheering little 17th century dance by Andrea Falconieri (c. 1585-1656) Chaconne in G major 

Sunday: Lyric Pieces Book 5, Op. 54 No. 4: Notturno by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). Today, Sunday, is Norwegian Constitution Day or National Day of Norway and who best to celebrate it than, as Clemency calls him, the ultimate poster-boy for Norwegian classical music. It is interesting to note that Grieg was originally from a Scottish family, Greig. But music has no boundaries, except insofar as it is able to express the diversity of humanity and its local influences and traditions. 

However you may be affected by anything I've written here, do let me know by leaving a comment below or, if you prefer not to, share your thoughts with a trusted friend or someone you love.