Tuesday, 9 December 2003

A luxurious place for luxurious people

One way or another the planned summer holiday never happened, so Mopsa and I were treated to a posh country break near Ashburton in Dartmoor in December. Prepared to confront bad weather head on, we chose somewhere that could provide cosy log fires, a supreme location, fabulous food and on the doorstep woodland walks for the mega-pooch.
Doing the old Internet hunt (googling: posh country hotel dogs) we found Holne Chase. As we drove down the rutted drive six weeks later through undeniably ancient woodland to a smart but not too grand hotel facade, we did the metaphorical rubbing of hands at having made a sound choice, previously sight unseen. Things got even better as a very friendly Dutch member of staff walked us down to the stable suite where we were staying. Stable doors opened onto a simple but smart sitting room with what at first appeared to be a cast iron log stove (turned out to be gas-fired) in full flame. Squashy Knole sofa, rugs, even squashier dog bed and TV (never turned that on) made up the downstairs, and a good sized bedroom with seven foot double bed and decent sized bathroom completed the upstairs accommodation. We snaffled the biscuits, bathed and changed for dinner and headed up to the hotel restaurant for the first of several delicious meals. If you like game, seafood, and most meat-eaters fare, then you'd be happy at Holne Chase. The food is excellently prepared, unpretentious and substantial with great local cheeses, big wine list and good, friendly service. The geese, ducks and hens that roamed across the huge lawns made it feel very much like home and the walk to the river was beautiful.
But then we noticed a few niggles, which to our mind deleted the hotel's own determinedly held definition of luxury. First the wardrobe: it was a cupboard with hangers which contained a rickety melamine chest of drawers. Only trouble was you couldn't see what you had put in the drawers as the cupboard had no light, and there was a real sensation of not really providing space for personal possessions and clothes for more than a single night. Bedside tables had no drawers either - just the ubiquitous chipboard with mini tablecloth and glass top to give the impression but without the substance. The bath was shallow and there were inadequate shelves for putting your own things down in the space - but a nice fluffy towelling dressing gown was provided (but only for one and there were two of us). No extra pillows were in the room and I like to sleep on a good mound of them. Being specially offered as a hotel to take dogs, walking boots, fishing rods and other accoutrements of the country life, there was no hard floor area for these, and worse, no sink for washing the dog bowl, filling the kettle and doing stuff you wouldn't want to do in the upstairs bathroom. The cold water was consistently warm - absolutely yuck for brushing your teeth but the worst of the domestics was the rationing of the bogroll. Even the lady on reception had the grace to say that at a luxury hotel, you should expect to use two sheets per go! We did have a fabulous break, but we were constantly aware that some of the small things that make all the difference to your longed-for holiday were not quite right. We didn't complain about any of these things as we were there to relax and rest, and I knew I could get it off my chest with a backward looking blog. There were previously unannounced supplements for some dishes (an additional £5 for beef on a menu that was already £35 per head for three courses). However, our special request for lobster on day 3 of our stay was dealt with swiftly and we had no qualms paying for a supplement for this which we knew we would incur in advance. The owner of the hotel was much in evidence - a countryside alliance type of chap, who joshed his guests loudly and with vigour (causing occasional offence, but apparently harmless). It was only as we had paid and we were leaving that he let rip some appallingly homophobic comment, believing that I would, of course, agree with him! I would suggest that the place needs a few "home improvements" but that the most successful one would be for the owner to spend his time playing pooh sticks on the various bridges on the Dart and leave the running of his fantastically located joint to his excellent staff and their lovely dogs.

Saturday, 1 November 2003

To Trust or not to Trust

My time on the board of Arts and Media Training will finally be up after an extended and very rewarding 11 years. Having had a great deal of fun (yup, that's the word I'd choose) recruiting some extraordinarily talented new board members to join the still fresh and fabulous existing Directors, my time as Chair comes to an end in April 2004. So what next? Conscious that I could use the time for more reading, walking, dog patting or cultural enlightenment I am seriously looking instead at an alternative non-executive role. It kind of gets in the blood. But who with? Arts and Business have a Board Bank service to broker the right skills with the right organisation, so that's one route, but what about extending slowly, carefully and with trepidation into a new field? What about inveigling ones way into the huge beasty that is the National Trust? These days (and this is a very new development) places on the regional committees are advertised to all National Trust members, and you fill out an application which is very reminiscent of any job application you will have ever completed. And rather than referees you need three nominees, all of whom must also be members. In the West Midlands they are looking for 3 or 4 new committee members, and are interviewing 12 self-selecting bods, including myself.
Its the outdoorsy bits that get me; walking coastal paths, woodlands and beaches in the care of the NT is always a seriously appreciated pleasure, and Mopsa is always welcomed and able to get through the sensibly designed stiles and gates. The scourge of creeping commercialism is kept away from sites of natural beauty which are kept raw and accessible, balancing protection with access. Their own souvenir shops are only a minor irritant with their homogeneity firmly rooted in uppermiddleclass stereotype (yes, I think it deserves a singular description), and even so I do love the chocolate ice cream served in Heddon Valley, Devon. The gardens, the deerparks, the rarebreeds and all that countryside stuff has me all stirred up with positives, but I can't say the same for the properties, or at least how they are displayed and offered up. The Guardian ran a strong piece on how the art was displayed by the NT, and my recent visit to Attingham Park would support this blast of criticism; the rooms are so dark that you can barely see the outline of what might be a tantalising piece of beauty or a slab of dross. The many guides are charming, knowledgeable, articulate and too everpresent, and I cannot like the roped off approach that in one fell swoop diminishes the size and feel of the rooms and stops you with equally everpresent labels from touching anything, even solid marble-topped tables that could surely take the strain. However, I think we are supremely lucky in having the NT, and I am very curious to know what it would be like from the inside looking out.

Mopsas first sculpture trail

It's been months since my last blog and I can only blame a surfeit of work for that, but it hasn't just been all work and no play. To my delight, public art seems to be playing an ever increasing role in my professional life. Our recent visit to the Tyrebagger Sculpture Trail for a new client meant four hours of strolling through the Aberdeenshire heather and under the forest canopy in deliciously warm late summer to view the whole trail of twenty sculptures including the then about to be launched and fabulous new piece (Tyrebagger Circle) by Gavin Scobie. You enter a gap in the forest to see what might be an ancient wooden temple in a surprisingly gleaming new state, but with no apparent means of entry. As you circle around it, a narrowish slit enables you to squeeze into the high-sided cylinder to reveal a roofless room that has all the peace and calmness of a space intended for nothing less than contemplation. There are three magnificently raw, simple and substantial seat blocks which allow you to sit and look up into the forest, or down to the flickering shadows of leaves and branches. You are completely enclosed and simultaneously part of the whole forest. A magnificent experience.

Back at home, jealous of the Aberdonian dogwalkers daily arts-rich walking possibilities, I took Mopsa to Witley Court to see the Jerwood Sculpture Park - now moved to Ragley (unfortunately neither website does justice to the sculptures). A very different experience this time with just ten sculptures in a small woodland area - you can see the next piece pretty much as soon as you leave the previous one, unlike the journey of discovery approach at Tyrebagger. They have some of the biggest names on show: Lynn Chadwick, Anthony Gormley, Elizabeth Frink, and all the pieces are based on the human figure, so although some of the individual pieces were wonderful the overly thematic approach made the total experience rather boring - not enough of the unexpected or anticipation of discovery. I had to ask the staff in the visitor centre, who by the way loved Mopsa, for info on the sculptures. They gave me a leaflet that they kept behind the counter, with a scrappy photocopied A4 map of where the sculptures and other features of the site were located which they gave out only on request. You enter and exit the site through the visitor centre and on my way out I asked for a second leaflet on the sculptures to send to a colleague and the staff explained that they don't put them out on display as people just put them in the bin, but that as I was interested, yes of course I could have another copy. So unless you are committed to finding out about the sculptures or know they are there, there is no casual way of picking up the info, although you cannot miss the sculptures themselves as you walk to Witley Court. We sat outside - coats firmly zipped right up - and had a delicious cheese on toast at the tea room - before going back to the Court to watch the fountains whoosh spectacularly into action.

Wednesday, 16 July 2003

The glass that burns

Yeah, yeah, we all sat in the school playground with a magnifying glass or mirror and set fire to a heap of dry grass and mars bar wrappers, but that basic science lesson has never been one I thought would be of any interest in later life. Along with melting railway points and creating fury on the railways, the current summer heatwave has taken advantage of my mirror. Today, after a pleasant lunch out with a mate, I get back to discard the posher clothes for the necessary shorts combo, to find ash, scorchmarks and thankfully no more than that on the oak table top by an almost-south-facing window. I'm lucky the house didn't burn down. Just a few inches from the window is a strong magnifying mirror (yes, I don't wear make-up, but I like to see how gaping my pores are getting as the years roll on). I can see it now - laser-like sun driven power just about gets a hold when the rain clouds move in the way and prevent havoc and heartache and insurance claim. And Mopsa had been in the house the whole time. Doesn't bear thinking about.
Mopsa is off to the vet tomorrow morning for her annual jab. She loves it there and gets ridiculous amounts of fuss from the veterinary nurses and receptionists. I have booked an early slot as she is finding the heat too much for her thick coat and Bernese snow-loving temperament, and I have to take her in the car. She's also none too keen on thunder storms, so this isn't her favourite time of year. Big wuss!

Sunday, 13 July 2003

Fancy a job, two days a week - unpaid?

Let's leave whimsy to look after itself for a bit and get furious instead. Yesterday's post (July 2003) brought me a letter and advert telling me that the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) have recently advertised the vacancy of Chair of the Arts Council England (ACE) now that multi-millionaire and John-Harvey-Jones-for-the-new -millennium Gerry Robinson is moving on. The letter asked me if I would circulate the advert amongst my networks. Unfortunately, I do not number multi-millionaires such as Gerry, or Lords Palumbo or Gowrie (ex ACE chairs) among my aquaintance who can delight in the rigours of ACE for no payment for two fifths of their working week. If I remember rightly, Gowrie didn't initially accept the role in the 1990s because of the lack of pay, and it would seem that nothing has changed. Are we really, so deep in new Labour times, still under the misapprehension that you need to be rich or richly retired in order to take on what is a pretty major public role? The Chair of the Arts Council of Wales is paid, and rightly so. I have several people in my "network" (ghastly phrase) who would be exceptional candidates for the role. I do not know the intimate details of their bank balances, but am horrified that DCMS expect that a glinting heap of gold is a necessary pre-requisite to becoming or even considering the ACE Chair. It's about time the Government and ACE stopped talking about Arts for All and started delivering arts for all by paying for the skill and dedication they require to advocate and develop policy at the very top. Apparently, arts policy making is only for the incredibly wealthy. Shame on you!

Thursday, 10 July 2003

Pure whimsy

Without realising it, I have been producing what can only be described as a whimsical blog site. It must be in response to past seriousnesses, an unconscious side-step away from the working day and the depressing nature of the news. So, in the spirit of what has gone before, a couple more animal-focussed tales to share.
Last week I found an inch in width and 30 inch in length discarded snake skin on top of the compost heap; I know because I measured it. Reaching for the Readers Digest Animals of Britain book from off the shelf, I am reassured that it is from a grass snake who will travel a mile or more to find a comfy compost heap in which to lay up to 40 eggs. A few days later a youngster (this time pencil slim and a mere 14 inches long) whirred its forked tongue at me and then slid off into the undergrowth. I want to know where the other 39 have gone, and now find myself gardening in gloves at a more than usually heightened state of awareness in case my curiosity is answered.
Last night a day-old bird sat in the middle of the road asking to be crushed or cared for. It's now under an infra-red lamp where the cats can't reach it. Wondering if it was an escapee from the local free range poultry farm, we retraced our steps to see if we could find it a friend. Mopsa's nose and my ears found a second huddled beasty in the long grasses of the verge and there are now what I think are two turkey poults considering whether they have a strong enough survival instinct to make it into a second or third day.

Friday, 20 June 2003

Focussing on the text

Back to the Belgrade Theatre for the opening show in their short but sweet new writing season. Conor McPherson's This Lime Tree Bower is the first offering of the season, a gently brutal piece that is a triple tours des forces by the three actors (Peter Quinn, Dermot Kerrigan and Nick Danan). The theatre space has been transformed from the traditional proscenium stage and stalls to a studio theatre by extending the stage apron-style half way across the auditorium, with additional seating arranged on either side of the stage itself. With minimal staging, and all but no physical or verbal interaction between the actors, there was nowhere for the performers or the text to hide. Separately, they wound us into the substance of their individual and collective lives: the adolescent worship for an undeserving but attractive new school mate; the world weary self-loathing of a lecturer of philosophy; the desperation created by the love and loyalty of a son for his desperate father. As each new character is revealed it becomes clear that the three are closely connected - fifteen year old Joe is brother to twenty year old Frank, and lecturer Ray goes out with their sister Carmel. For Joe and Ray, their thoughts about women are their most defining feature. Joe's sexual yearnings move from the safe abstract to the combined pain and pleasure from catching his schoolmate rape a drunk girl met at the local nightclub; that neither he nor the audience are clear that it is rape until much later adds to Joe's confusion. The memories of his dead mother drift in and out of his consciousness; his admirable sister makes minimal impression. As for Ray, if his cynical mysogynism had been revealed in dialogue, I suspect he would have become a hateful caricature. As it is, the monologue reveals instead a painful self-awareness and disgust, for all his surface cockiness.
Frank has no time for women; either frightened off by a female brush of the hand as a boy, or too encumbered by his fixation on the man who he perceives to have undone his father, the most apparently sensible of the three pursues the most reckless course with the result that he finds that money can indeed bring happiness, or at least freedom from desperation and subservience.
McPherson has built a platform that demands actors of significant substance - this production delivers the full package.

Friday, 13 June 2003

A Mr McGregor moment

"Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter..... 'Now my dears' said Mrs Rabbit, 'you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don't go into Mr McGregor's garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs McGregor'". So you 're out there early morning in your nightie and wellies to feed the menagerie, and notice a frantic wriggling in the netting covering the cauliflowers in the vegetable patch. You immediately think "RAT!!!" and feel the involuntary shivers leap up your spine to the top of your head when you realise that there is no tail to speak of and that you have Peter Rabbit entrapped. A very junior Peter Rabbit, all of eight inches long and completely entangled. Do you bop him on the head and make him into a sausage roll - not even enough meat there for a pastie - or do you say, ahh, poor little mite eating my vegetables, cut him carefully from his bindings and let him free? It was fish for supper.

Tuesday, 10 June 2003

Fox poo

Dog walking, meandering, rambling, striding, mooching - whatever you call it and whatever the pace to suit the mood, a daily activity in my life. Her name (obviously) is Mopsa. A big and most beautiful representation of six stones (I can only work weights in imperial), with every ounce making its presence felt. Today was a fox poo day. You are in your own sweet world, admiring the foxgloves, watching the squirrels do their tarzan impressions, catching your arms on a nettle, tussling with a five bar gate, when your canine chum announces her pungent presence with more than mere traces of fox shit adhering to her ears. Why do they do this? The rest of the walk has you shooing her away to keep the air around you breathable, and the first thing once home is retrieving the Marigolds and giving her the hosepipe or bucket treatment, which she detests. She then does the doggy shake thing, which has you leaping out of range before any trace lands on your own clothes. Vile, vile, vile.

Saturday, 7 June 2003

Foods to relish and regret

Why has it taken a (smallish) handful of decades to understand my stomach's true happiness? I'm not talking guilt here - the chocolate cake that tastes amazing but has equivalent energy for a full day's intake, if delicious in every way and has you curled up with a contented smirk is fine by me and my insides. But what about those instantly lipsmackingly gratifying things that mean regret in two hours time or are still lingeringly present the next morning in the form of lethargy, less than happy breath and the sense that today, you will be leading not with your head but with your stomach? Consciously knowing that your stomach is there (no matter how sizeable it may be) is a bit like sensing your feet all day - you only do that when they hurt. So what is in my relish column and what should be relegated to the regret side of the balance sheet?

Relish - lovely stuff

  • raspberries, lychees, mangos, bananas, lemons, limes, pears...... apple crumble, fruit tarts. Plus dollops of extra thick cream
  • fine plain chocolate
  • home-baked bread, croissants, real bagels
  • unsalted butter
  • lobster, langoustine, scallops, mega prawns, salmon (smoked, raw, grilled), tuna, squid, octopus, haddock (why is it so difficult to get this stuff where I live?)
  • Free range poultry
  • lettuces: butterhead, lambs tongue, salad bowl, romaine, webbs chinese leaves, iceberg
  • brussels sprouts - I can't be alone in this! Cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus,french beans, peas, mange touts, swiss chard, red cabbage. And roasted: parsnips, red peppers, beetroot, carrots
  • baked beans
  • duck eggs
  • lamb, pork, beef, - home reared or know the owner!
  • anything you could proudly call cheese from the cow, goat, ewe or buffalo
  • pasta - fresh, dried or spaghetti hoops
  • apricot jam
  • cashews, almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, pistachios
Regret (some I hate, some I just regret)
  • grapefruit, oranges, sharon fruit. Eccles cakes, mince pies and garibaldi biscuits. Single cream - what's the point?
  • Cadbury's Bourneville
  • do you remember Dinkum white sliced? Was it just a childhood nightmare? Was it really called Dinkum? And where have all the great bagels gone?
  • that Anchor stuff
  • fish and chips - in fact, most (all?) takeaways, kippers, herrings, roll mops
  • the other stuff (battery hens....)
  • spinach, curly kale, winter greens, green peppers, excess onions (wonderful french onion soup is now in the regret list), garlic
  • bakewell tart
  • goose eggs
  • too much lamb, pork or beef, whatever the source
  • fruit sauce topped cheese-cake
  • Heinz macaroni cheese
  • marmalade, mincemeat
  • dry roasted anything

Tuesday, 3 June 2003

The teeming aviary that is Talking Birds

One of the most extraordinary and invigorating multi-media performance companies to be found anywhere, the three artists who make up Talking Birds (Nick Walker, Derek Nisbet and Janet Vaughan) (see also Nick) never fail to surprise or create an itch to be scratched. Try calling their Telephone Exchange +44 (0)845 2255918 and get a different one-minute story for each day of the week; log onto Web Demographic to re-determine the definition of mundane; fall from a great height into the novel Blackbox; jiggle about impatiently in the hope that they come to a venue somewhere near you sometime soon. Next public piece from a Tbird will be the Coventry Mystery Plays (5-23 August 2003), held in the every-time-you-see-it-jaw-droppingly-awe-inspiring Coventry Cathedral ruins for which Derek composed the music.

Monday, 2 June 2003

Two black piggies

It was seriously hot here on Friday, so we took a break from work to clear heads and loosen muscles. Now that I am all grown-up and don't need to ask teacher, we were working in the garden. As we had managed to down six litres of water between four of us in two hours, I took the opportunity to check that the menagerie inmates were finding adequate shade and water. First prize went to the pigs, who at twelve weeks old had just about managed to climb into their water trough, squished together side by side, snouts and ears emerging like a pair of mini-hippos. By the time they reach maturity they will be lucky if both their heads fit in at the same time. Exponential growth seems to be the piggy order of things, even though they have permanent run of a large grassed area which they use as a formula one race track, and are not fed over generously. I should point out that we will in due course be doing the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall thing and hugely enjoying the produce.........

Friday, 30 May 2003


Don't you just love 'em? I realised it wasn't just a personal deliciousness recently, when in the middle of her office a friend whipped up her top to show me the well-fitting bright fuschia bra she had just bought. I don't know if the sparkle of her smiley face was brighter than the colour of her new undergarments, but it was a close run thing. Years ago, when we visited Brazil together (working trip, honest, and it really was Brazil) the same friend was so intrigued by my collection of all black bras that she tried them on even though you could fit several of hers into.............you get the drift. On our return, finding an example of a black one in her company's lost property basket (well, it is a theatre company), she parcelled it up and sent it to me anonymously. It caused what I can only call a ruckus in the post-room.

Wednesday, 28 May 2003

Larkin with Women

Went to The Belgrade Theatre to see Larkin with Women by Ben Brown. Came away feeling it had been a worthwhile evening and that doesn't happen enough, for sure, and at home looked again (briefly) at Larkin's poems, which led on to Marvell and then Donne..........

The difficulties with "biopic" plays is that the actor may not be portraying the person as we had envisaged them. Sometimes the essence of the individual is overridden by the supposed need for facial and physical verisimilitude. I always, perhaps mistakenly, thought of Larkin as someone far more prickly and difficult, not just in his insistence on how he wanted to live his life - that was more than well displayed through the writing - but as an enduring part of his personality (altho that would apparently contradict with his attractiveness to women, but we are meant to be a contradictory species; that's all humans, not just women). I felt that John Arthur who played Larkin was not quite there, and in particular didn't click with his readings of the poems. Perhaps the diffidence in the readings was reflective of the man - but I'm not entirely convinced.
There were some lovely bitchy comments on Ted Hughes and the nature of poet laureateship. I see in my mind's eye a shortened version, but a two-parter, counterbalanced by seeing Larkin through Ted Hughes' eyes, both poets enlivened by their clutch of intriguing women. Did the men ever meet I wonder? The bitchiness would suggest so.

Friday, 2 May 2003


Our gander has lost the lead in his pencil. After two or three years of more (and often less) successful reproduction, all the eggs the goose is laying remain unfertile, and friends are peeved at the absence of their Christmas goose. The pair must be seven years old by now, but as they live for about thirty years, I don't see any reason for this sad state of affairs. After a fox scared the goose off her nest last year and she refused to sit as a potential self sacrifice on the offchance of hatching the eggs herself, investment was made into an incubator but still no joy. She keeps squirting out those eggs every other day in an ever hopeful fashion and I hate to disabuse her. The hunt is now on for some fertile eggs, but my small ads research is failing to bear fruit.