Friday, August 28, 2009

Who's for currants?

May I tell you a rather delightful story that was reported to me from our local Sunday School?

Apparently, during last Sunday morning service, the children in the Sunday School were encouraged to make bread. This, they were told, was to be symbolic of Jesus' great claim, "I am the bread of life", the culmination to other references to bread in the Bible. The bread they baked, it was explained, would be something that they could pass round to their family and friends after the service - just as Jesus did.

In point of fact, what the children baked were scones, rather than bread. But the message had been taken firmly on board.

"And what have you made? the Vicar asked one small girl afterwards.
"It's bread!" announced the proud cook.
"And you're giving it away?"
Here the small girl looked less enthusiastic. Her scone did look particularly tasty.
"Yes . . . " she agreed, rather grudgingly.
"I'm giving mine away," chimed up another small girl, eager to appear virtuous.
The Vicar looked at the burnt currants on top of her scone.
"What's happened here?" he enquired.
Determined to turn an accident to her advantage, the second small girl looked even more virtuous.
"Those are the bad things . . . " her tone was earnest, "the sinful things . . . they've all got burned away . . ."

The first small girl, who had been listening to this exchange, looked down at her own scone.
"But I like currants . . ." she said wistfully.

Theologically, I suppose, I should give whole-hearted support to the virtuous small girl. But I'm afraid my sympathies are entirely with the currant-lover!
Why were we given currants if not to enjoy them? Speaking for myself, I'm all for currants.

Next time you come . . . what about scones for tea?
With plenty of currants, of course!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The arrival of Olivia

Tuesday, 11th August, 2009.

Congratulations are in order!

The clamour of the phone ejected me from bed at six-thirty this morning. Yes, you've guessed! On the other end of the line was an inordinately proud, fledgling father.
Struggling with his happiness and excitement, Ben was eager to tell me that I'd just become a proud great-godmother (or should it be god-grandmother or even grand-godmother?)!

"She's . . . she's absolutely gorgeous . . .!" he declared fervently.
"Of course she is . . !" I agreed.
I didn't add that he'd clearly acquired an independent-minded daughter who had spurned the birthday chosen by the doctors and settled for a day of her own!

Little did Caroline and I think, when we sat enjoying a pub lunch in the sunshine on Sunday, that less than forty-eight hours later - ten days earlier than originally expected - the baby would decide to put in an appearance. There would certainly have been cause for excitement had she arrived in the pub garden!

So . .. I'll be off to the hospital tomorrow . . . and you can be sure you'll hear all about it . . .

Wednesday, 12th August

Oh dear . . . this is where words fail me!

Yes, I know . . . I know that we've all of us arrived by the same route. I know that it's an age-old miracle. I know that for every second of every minute, ever since time began, billions of us have been making the same exhausting journey.
But isn't it incredible . . . ? Isn't it breathtakingly wonderful . . . ? Isn't it totally, absolutely amazing . . .?

We sat and gazed.
That was all we wanted to do . . . simply to sit and gaze.

Olivia is such a beautiful baby. All right, I may be prejudiced, but the fact remains . . . look at the photo.

She is also a very fortunate baby. A much-wanted arrival, blessed with a loving family, and bound for a childhood, near to her grand-parents, in the gentle beauty of the west country . . . her guardian angel did her proud!

Time passed unnoticed as the three of us sat there, quietly marvelling at this day-old human being.

We marvelled at such tiny nails . . . such delicate wrists . . . such exquisite feet . . . such perfection in miniature.

"It's very strange," Caroline murmured in a bemused tone, "I don't feel as though I've just met her. I feel as though I've known her for years."

We all gazed back at the cot.

The concept was inexplicable . . . but it was wholly convincing. Had you been there, I know you would have felt the same.

This wasn't a first encounter, this was a reunion.

Somehow, at such moments, you don't say what you want to say. Instead, you mouth platitudes, make jokes . . . or just remain silent.

What was it that I wanted to say? Something like . . .

"Olivia . . . welcome! You've arrived, like a mystery surprise-package, to enhance our wonderful world. For it is a wonderful world. Despite its man-made troubles, it remains an overwhelmingly beautiful and miraculous place. You have, I promise you, an incredible adventure ahead.
What's more, the world is full of excited people - both in England and Australia - who can't wait to meet you and to love you.

Enjoy this peaceful moment in your cot, you're on the threshold of a feast of new experiences, a lilfetime of living.

As for the rest of us . . . ?
Well . . . open your eyes and look at our faces. They speak far more eloquently than I can. They'll tell you just how happy . . . how awestruck . . . how over the moon with pride we all of us are to have you!"

Something like that . . .

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cruelty to cats!

Oh dear . . . if, in the near future, I'm hauled up before the RSPCA, may I call upon you to speak in my defence?

As you know, Rupert and I went to Ham House yesterday for Ian's belated birthday celebration. We arrived, just before eleven, in the pouring rain. It was definitely not a moment to stroll around the garden. Huddled under umbrellas, we hurried to the shelter of the Orangery, and went inside for a cappuccino.

The cafe was deserted. Rupert settled himself happily on his chair whilst Ian and I sipped our coffee - they make particularly good cappuccinos at Ham House - and caught up on our news. Slowly, people drifted in. Slowly, the tables filled. As they did so, the grey clouds rolled back and, just as the forecast had promised, a welcome sun shone down from a stormy sky.
We must have been there half-an-hour when the sun outside proved inviting enough to tempt us out into the gardens. Rising from my chair, I attempted to transfer Rupert to his carrying bag.

Rupert had been thoroughly enjoying himself. No-one had noticed him, sitting quietly on his seat, and he had been having a wonderful time watching the activity. The last thing he wanted to do was to get back into his bag and, as he thought, go home.

And he said so! From being a totally silent cat, he suddenly became extremely vocal! The talking in the cafe instantly dried up, and a sea of surprised faces turned in our direction!
Could I get Rupert into his bag? Not on your life! He yelled his indignation . . . he hissed his indignation . . . he gave an Oscar-winning performance of a cat not wanting to go home!
Everyone was staring in shocked amazement at this unexpected pantomime.
"I'm so sorry," I apologised in embarrassment to the room at large, "I'm afraid he doesn't want to go home . . ."

Did they believe me . . . ? I don't think so. But, if they did, what terrors did they imagine this poor cat enduring in the privacy of its own home . . . ?
Their expressions were far from approving!

Finally, one woman rose to her feet and came over to see what was going on. To my relief, she fell for Rupert on sight!
"Oh . . . isn't he beautiful!" she exclaimed.
Mollified by this admiration, Rupert ceased to yell and blinked happily at his admirer. I took advantage of this cessation of hostilities to whip him into his bag.
"How old is he?" asked this new member of Rupert's fan club.
"Seventeen," I said.
"Good heavens!" she was flatteringly amazed, "You'd never think it."

By now Rupert's spirits were completely restored, and we hurried out for a happy walk round the garden.
As you can see, by the time we returned for an enjoyable lunch in the open air the indignant, yelling cat was no more than an optical and aural illusion!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mt. Cook goes underground

Guess where I'm going on the 17th September . . . I've been invited to the third annual Durrell Lecture at the Royal Geographical Society. I'm really looking forward to it.
It's a long time ago now, but have I told you about the time I worked with Gerald Durrell?

You must remember him . . . “My Family and Other Animals” . . . Jersey Zoo. A wonderful, larger-than-life character. I’m sure you know of his books, and of his outstanding work for conservation.
Gerry died in 1995, but the Zoo and the conservation work continue to flourish under the dedicated and commited leadership of his wife, Lee.

I was at the BBC in Bristol, working with Gerry, when he conceived the idea of Jersey Zoo. All of us in the Natural History Unit were fired by his enthusiasm, and many of us became Founder Members. I’ve been a Member ever since.

The reason that Gerry was in Bristol was because he was working on a series of wildlife programmes that the BBC had initiated and funded. This series took him and his first wife, Jacquie, on a tour of Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand. A BBC cameraman accompanied them on the tour, and they returned to the Natural History Unit with a welter of film that needed to be scrutinised and edited under the supervision of the producer, Chris Parsons. How was I involved? Well, I was part of the team working with Chris.

I’m telling you all of this because of an entertaining incident that occurred near the completion of the project. If you've a moment to spare, I think you’ll enjoy it.

Gerry had done a magnificent job. The series, to be called "Two In The Bush", had ample footage and plenty of thought-provoking topics. After several weeks of hard work, we reached the concluding programme which was set in New Zealand. But, with only a short time to go before transmission, the editor received a nasty shock. A critical link sequence had been overlooked. A shot of Gerry standing on Mount Cook had somehow been forgotten. There was no alternative means of linking two important sequences, nor of conveying the vital information.

You must remember that those were the days before editors could create clever, digital illusions. Very reluctantly, we discounted the option of taking Gerry up on the Mendips and pretending he was on snow-capped Mount Cook. The Mendips were gentle Somerset hills, this was mid-summer. The chance of fooling keen-eyed viewers was remote.

In desperation, it was decided to fake the scene indoors. A tight close-up of Gerry’s head against a white wall might, we hoped, be sufficiently convincing. After much searching, we finally discovered the ideal location . . . the storage basement below the Copying Room. It was perfect . . . off-white walls . . . plenty of space . . . no-one in the vicinity . . . as near to Mount Cook as you could hope to find in Bristol!
There was, however, one serious snag. The large machines in the Copying Room were constantly in use copying scripts. Standing in the empty basement it would have been as silent as Mt. Cook had it not been for the incessant, loud rumble of the copying machines overhead. The machines would need to be silenced for the critical five minutes whilst we shot the all-important sequence.

I went to see the Copying Manger and explained our predicament. She was anxious to help, but equally anxious not to fail the Producers who were awaiting her scripts. I told her that I understood her problem, but perhaps something could be negotiated.
Something was . . .

At three o’clock on the following afternoon, Gerry, Chris, Jim the camera-man, the sound recordist and I all gathered together in the basement. Jim set up his camera . . . the sound recordist set up his recording equipment . . . Gerry and Chris discussed the all-important link sequence . . . I stood by a chair, holding a broom handle.

Finally, Chris looked around . . .were we all ready?
We were . . . he turned and nodded at me.
Mounting on the chair, I took the broom handle and carefully lifted it as high as I could. With the end of the broom handle, I made three, sharp knocks on the ceiling above our heads.
It took a minute or two, but, slowly, the dominant rumble of the copying machines died down. Total peace descended on the basement.
“Camera . . .!” cried Chris, “ . . . Action . . . !”
Gerry made eye-contact with the camera lens, `”Here, on Mount Cook . . .” he lied with aplomb.

And, do you know, of all the millions of people who watched the series, I don't think a single one noticed that Mt. Cook had gone underground!

Now you can see why I'm looking forward to meeting Lee Durrell at the lecture on September 27th.
I'll tell you all about it!

In 1988, Gerry buried a time capsule in the grounds of Jersey Zoo. This was the message he sent to future generations . . .

We hope that there will be fireflies and glow-worms at night to guide you and butterflies in hedges and forests to greet you.
We hope th
at your dawns will have an orchestra of bird song and that the sound of their wings and the opalescence of their colouring will dazzle you.
We hope that there will still be the extraordinary varieties of c
reatures sharing the land of the planet with you to enchant you and enrich your lives as they have done for us.
We hope that you will be grateful for having been born into such a magical world.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A transfigured window-sill

Believe it or not, this is going to be one occasion when I keep absolutely quiet and let the photos speak for themselves.

Do you remember how I told you about the Morning Glory seeds that I'd planted in a pot on the window-sill?

Do you remember the struggling seedlings . . . and my grandiose dreams . . . ?

Well . . . all on their own, they did it! I claim not an ounce of credit. How could a mere mortal claim credit for such ethereal beauty?

I now understand why they're known as Morning Glory. Each bloom lasts for no longer than a few hours. They open in the morning and, by the afternoon, they are already on the wane.

But . . . oh, what glorious, breath-taking (albeit brief) lives they live!

That's enough from me . . . now, sit back and enjoy . . .

See what I mean . . . ?

And another one . . .

How could mere words have done justice to that . . . ?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

An orb at the Opera

Have you ever been to an opera by mistake? Come to that, have you ever had a birthday present five months in advance?
Since this week's surprising events, I can answer ‘Yes’ to both those questions.
If you've a moment to spare, you might enjoy this story . . .

I’m very fond of Angela, but even she would agree that her IT skills are spasmodic. Some days everything works perfectly, other days . . . well, this is an entertaining example of what I mean.

Angela had a cousin, a talented musician, who, for many years, performed regularly at Covent Garden. On account of this, she had been privileged to know the Opera House as an insider. She had loved the building, loved going backstage . . . the community had felt part of her family.
When her cousin died, Angela retained her love of The Royal Opera House and, a few weeks ago, having received exciting news from her daughter, felt a need to celebrate. What better form of celebration than a visit to the ballet? She went on-line to book herself a ticket.

As I say, Angela's IT skills are spasmodic. Having, so she thought, booked one ticket for the ballet, it came as a considerable shock when, two days later, two tickets arrived in the post!
It was far too late to do anything about it.
She thought quickly and, soon afterwards, I received a phone call.
"Er . . . look . . . ," she said, "I know that your birthday's still a long way off . . . :
"Yes," I agreed, puzzled.
"I was wondering," said Angela, and it all came out . . . the mistake . . .the two tickets . . .
"It's a ballet," she concluded, "quite short . . . but I think you'd enjoy it . . . I'd love to take you as a sort of birthday present in advance . . .?"
I assured her that, never having been to Covent Garden before, I could think of nothing more enjoyable.

A week later we took the bus to The Strand and wandered happily through the side-streets up to the theatre.
Oh, what an incredible building! Do you know it? It felt a privilege just to be able to wander around inside . . . admiring, marvelling . . . regardless of any performance on offer. We had half-an-hour in hand, and, with considerable pride, Angla took me on an extensive tour.
Finally, a little later than we intended, we reached our seats in the auditorium. The lights were dimming, and the overture was about to start. As we settled down, I gave a quick glance at the programme. It was only then that Angela's spasmodic IT skills became fully apparent!
We weren't about to enjoy a short ballet . . . the pleasure that lay ahead was three hours of Verdi's dramatic opera, 'Un ballo in maschera'!
Angela looked at the programme in bewilderment, "But it was supposed to be the ballet . . . ?" she whispered, "Is this all right for you . . . ?"
The curtains pulled back on the opening scene.
"Wonderful!" I whispered back.
And it was!

I need hardly say that the singing was superb . . . the sets visually stunning . . . the direction highly imaginative. It was wonderful. . . of course it was wonderful . . . it was Covent Garden at its very best.

And a highlight of this totally unexpected, advance birthday treat?
I couldn't share it with the other opera-goers, but I can share it with you.
At the first interval, just after the house lights had gone up, a moment when the sense of heightened excitement was palpable and the packed audience sat back to reflect on all they had heard . . . I took a photo . . .

. . . see for yourself . . . orbs clearly enjoy the atmosphere at Covent Garden!