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. 

Saturday, 16 May 2020

On Becoming a Hermit, Sort of ... Day 60

Day 60
(Friday, 15th May 2020)

What happened today? I guess there could be a lot to report, but, as is the case occasionally, when I have given a commentary of my views on what's going on in the outside World, today I will simply give thanks.

To my wife, the saviour of my life.

To my children and their demonstrable abilities at surviving in a difficult World. To their children, our grandchildren, in whom we hope that their instinct not only for survival, but also for humanity, compassion, kindness and love will remain as strong as it is with my family.

To our regular Tai Chi sessions that are keeping mind and body tethered.

To the institutions of Family and Community as the roots of all that is hopeful in the World.

To my singing groups, Hallmark of Harmony and Fox Valley Voices, in which and in whom I have found great reward, huge reward from singing unencumbered, unaccompanied and uninhibited harmonies that resonate on so many levels.
To a couple of quartets, Needle & Fred, now sadly no more, and a budding one that's barely got off the ground yet, whose current name 'Quartetto Mista' needs changing. Yes I know the pedants amongst you will be thinking that's mixed genders; it should be Quartetto Misto, but you need to know it's a mixed quartet - two guys and two gals. So that should be all I need to say about that.

To all those, who give their time for the benefit of others, without expectation of pay or material reward.

To all those heroes in the World, who try to make it better for everyone else. They are not named here, but I will name them in the near future. To all those self-serving, selfish, greedy people, who are driven by some internal, uncontrollable force for self-enrichment ... that they may one day realise how important are all those aforementioned heroes, how important are the aforementioned human values in maintaining and sustaining all the flora and fauna of this glorious Mother Earth in some kind of harmonious coexistence. 

To music ... and today's choice from Clemency Burton-Hill is a song by Gabriel Faure that I used to sing in the first choir I joined nearly fifteen years ago. It is "Cantique de Jean Racine, Op.11". Even now I can almost remember my part, which in those days, before I learned some proper singing skills and became a bass, was the tenor part, which is demandingly high in places, but as beautiful as ever from this composer. Incidentally, Clemency tells us that Faure was nineteen when he composed this and submitted it for a competition at the Ecole Niedermeyer de Paris - and won it! The rest is history. Even if you don't understand the words, 'Verbe gal auTres-Haut', which in this case contains a paraphrase of a Latin hymn by French Playwright, Jean Racine, Clemency says, what I have already experienced myself, it is one of the great mysteries of music when it 'speaks' to you - "what it means to you is what it means". You don't necessarily have to understand the words because the genius of some composers simply communicates on another level. 

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. 

Friday, 15 May 2020

On Becoming a Hermit, Sort of ... Day 59

Day 59
(Thursday, 14th May 2020)

Following the amendment to government ‘guidelines’ at the beginning of the week, in particular the changing of the message from “stay home” to “stay alert”, I can make a few initial observations. Firstly, during the online Puppy class this morning, instead of joining in with our own dog, Meggie, as I have done in the past two weeks, I decided to take her out for a walk. As another change to routine, I decided to take her out in the car to somewhere other than walking the lanes between us and the moors above us.

So, for the first time in two months, I drove out beyond the bounds of Stocksbridge, and up towards Langsett and Flouch. We know Langsett is a ‘hot spot’ for walkers and hikers, on account of its proximity to Langsett reservoir and the moors beyond, but also perhaps because - in the good old days - of the village pub, locally known as ‘Billy Greens’. As I drove through the village I noticed the normal car park was empty. It soon became apparent why. Huge concrete Lego bricks had been placed across its entrance. In consequence, in their new found freedom to drive to somewhere else and walk (perhaps under the influence of said revised government ‘guidelines’), people were parking on the roadside and in the lay-by just beyond the village. It was awash with cars and people. Now I can’t say for sure that this may not have been happening before the announcement of a return to work and a slackening of the lockdown rules, nor should I claim that people were slackening the social distancing rules, but I can say this: when you give an inch, there are those who will take a mile. There will, I fear, be those who interpret the - and this has to be said - vagaries and lack of clarity on Sunday’s announcement by the PM in a way that gives them greater solace and relief at the thought that it ‘will soon be over’.

The second observation I make is that during the applause for the NHS at 8 pm this evening, I noticed that our neighbours had sort of gravitated towards the middle section of the street so that it appeared there was a closer gathering. There were also one or two extra people I didn’t recognise. There wasn’t a breaking of the two metre rule, as far as I could see, but there had been a movement towards convening in a larger group, rather than, as in previous weeks, standing outside our own houses. Fortunately, our street is populated by intelligent people, who are well informed. In fact, generally when walking the dogs up and down the lanes above us, even though we see many unfamiliar faces, there has been a respect for social distancing. We are lucky to live where we do. 

The points I make, nevertheless have purpose. Firstly it highlights the fact, already well criticised by the media and interest groups during the Monday evening briefing by the PM, which is that there is a serious lack of clarity, particularly for those, whose lives have not equipped them with the ability to see below the surface; to understand the subtleties of risk and it’s assessment. Statistical assessment of risk is a crucial tool of the scientific minds, whose advice government keep saying they are following. But even that came into question on Monday with a point I referred to earlier this week, that an answer to the question asked of the Chief Scientific and Chief Medical Advisers - did they agree with the change in the message (from ‘stay home’ to ‘stay alert’ etc.) - had not been forthcoming. They steered round it like the politicians they aren’t and it was glaringly obvious that they did not agree with the change in message. 

So political and economic expedient, perhaps with a sprinkle of concern for the risk of civil unrest, has ruled the day. I have to add that I agree with the ‘adaptive’ approach to progressing through the three stages of relaxing the lockdown, according to how the numbers begin to change, in particular the ‘R’ value, which must be kept below 1.0, which would reflect that the spread and rate of infection is diminishing. If the ‘R’ value becomes greater then 1.0, then it's back to full lockdown! Having agreed with the approach, I have my doubts that the applied maths and statistics and adaptive approach will be understood by enough people to make it not only palatable but also workable. We’ll have to wait and see. 

One thing I feel is certain about is that we won’t know the result of this change for at least a couple of weeks, when current public activity and consequent transmission rates become reflected in the infection and death rates. I hope this will see a reduction, but if I were a betting man, which I’m not, I would put money on there being a resurgence; that the Coronavirus will kick off again. The responsibility for this will lay firmly at the feet of this government and those foolhardy, foolish and misguided souls, who have taken a mile when they should only have taken an inch and who have, in fairness been misled by the mixed messages given to them by those, who should and probably do know better, but who care more for the health of their bank balances than for the health of the nation. 

In the mean time, I missed a very demanding Puppy Class! Our stand-in Guide Dogs Supervisor, whose normal area is West Yorkshire, where she has laboured the importance in the training of Guide Dog puppies of the ‘three Ds’ for some time it seems. This is a new technique and approach to this problem for Puppy Walkers in South Yorkshire. The ‘three Ds’ stand for Distraction, Distance and Duration. Distraction is, as we already understand very well, one of the main and most difficult tasks Puppy Walkers have to apply ourselves to. Anything that distracts a Guide Dog whilst it working presents a risk to its visually impaired owner. So the training must employ what they call the ‘positive interrupter’, which is simply a means of interrupting undesirable behaviour, not with admonishment or sharp words such as “no” or even “uh-uh”, or a sharp tug on the lead, but with a word or words, or even a sound like a whistle, or a kissy squeak, that will bring the dogs attention to look at you, for which they will receive a reward of kibble (food). Over time, this technique will work without treats, because they have simply become accustomed or ‘habituated’ to the stimulus, such that it feels like a reward to them, when “good boy” or “good girl” will suffice or, preferably in the end, no vocal reward at all. And so it goes to show that ‘Puppy Walkers’ have rather more of difficult job to do than that title suggests. ‘Puppy Trainers’ would be more accurate.

Since there are a lot of words in today’s post, here are some photos of where I took Meggie for a walk this morning. At a place where there used to be the Flouch Inn, that, beyond our own recollection was knocked down to build a rather exclusive small development of houses three years ago. This demonstrates how, when you drive through places you just don’t notice things. When you walk there, however, you do and it is always revealing. 

Today's music choice from Clemency Burton-Hill's book "Year of Wonder" is "6 Melodies, Op.5 No.3 in E flat major: Andante soave" by Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847), who died on this day. Her younger, but equally gifted brother, Felix, died only a few months later, apparently traumatised by the loss of his sister. 

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.