It’s depressing that something quite so wrong-headed can be not only discussed but encouraged by the government and parliament.

1) Who cares if a businessman can get to Birmingham or London half-an-hour sooner?  Why the hell are they travelling anyway?  Skype it or stay at home.  We need to travel less if we are to get anywhere near the carbon cuts that we need to reach in order to survive in anything like a continuing society or even race…

2) Why do we need to provide yet another spoke to London?  Apparently this HS2 will mean more business in the midlands and north west.  Bollocks.  It’ll just mean more commutable areas to London, with resultant rising house prices, etc.

3) Why do we need to batter our wildlife even more?  It’s bad enough with all these extra houses which we ‘need’ (more bollocks:  between empty homes and getting northerners and Scots back up north, we really have all the homes we need already), but HS2 will destroy ancient woodland and slice wildlife corridors.  We are not the only species in Britain, and we can’t survive without all of the other ones.

Aaaaaaaaaaargh.  When will Economics be seen for what it is:  unsustainable hogwash?

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Knight of the Burning Pestle

The new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe is fabulous – the woodwork dotingly authentic, the ceiling work convincingly Renaissance.  The play is an appropriate Jacobean comedy, with Jacobean costumes and a nice eye for period detail.

WHY was the music so anachronistic, then?  There were a couple of echt Jacobean tunes (Jolly red nose, for example), but it was largely disgusting 20th-century saccharine – so much so that I was really put off the entertainment.  It came from the backside of Nigel Hess, a TV composer of some merit, who really ought to have known better.  The band was largely authentic, with a cornet, viols, gitarres – but not entirely:  there was a modern violin. ?????

Emma Kirkby once pointed out, sadly, that TV and radio shows always used music of a later period than the one the programme was about.  Whilst the Globe lot are super-careful about visual details, they don’t seem to care about the accuracy of musical accompaniment.

Why does music, of all the arts, have to suffer like this?  Music was our first art; it is our premier art.  Let’s all strive to be a little more musically literate.

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Everyday sexism…

Unfortunately, I didn’t photograph the scantily-clad woman on a display stand for some tool or other when I went into Mackay’s in Cambridge a couple of months ago, but here are some other delights:





And here was one I found on a graphic design website – definitely putting the ‘graphic’ into graphic design.


Where is the wall-of-shame website that I can post these on?

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Claire MacDonald’s Parsnip Cake

Parsnip Cake – yes, really. C MacD says ‘It is delicious but I’m not brave enough to put “Carrot or Parsnip Cake” on the menu – we still call it Kinloch Gateau.’  It’s from her book, Sweet Things.

“Just under 1/2 pt sunflower seed oil
12oz caster sugar  [I only use 8oz - quite sweet enough]
3 eggs
6oz plain flour
1 level tspn each of bicarb, baking powder and cinnamon
1/2 level tspn salt
8oz grated raw parsnips [a large parsnip, of the sort we specialise in growing.  They're a bugger to get out of the ground.]

Filling and icing: 6oz each of cream cheese and butter
8oz icing sugar
1 tspn vanilla essence [a bit of lemon, too, I think]

8″ cake tin.

Mix sunflower oil and caster sugar thoroughly. Add eggs one by one. Add flour, bicarb, baking powder, cinnamon and salt and then the parsnip. Put into cake tin; bake at moderate oven for c.45-50 mins.  [Our oven temperature gauge has Hot or Very Hot.  This was at the top end of Hot.  About 180 or so.] (Do skewer test to see if cooked.) Turn onto wire rack. When cool, cut cake into 2 layers.

Whizz cream cheese and butter till smooth. Add icing sugar and vanilla essence and whizz till no lumps of sugar. (Can all be done by hand, if you’re feeling fit, but add icing sugar gradually, and then the vanilla.) Fill and ice the cake.

Better made a couple of days in advance.”  [But you'll have to hide it.]

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Dido and Aeneas

I ‘produced’ Dido and Aeneas last Sunday.  Everyone else did the hard work; I sat down and said, ‘why don’t you do x?’.  We had no budget and only slightly more stage, but it’s amazing what you can do with a few costumes and some delicious singing.

The music’s so great.  It can first seem a bit of froth, like the words, but it’s so much more, and gets deeper on every hearing.  I love the way Purcell gives Dido a ground bass as her first and last arias; I love, too, that a ground bass is the centre point, the song about how Acteon’s hounds ripped him to pieces – a (correct) presage of doom.  (Agathe Peyrat sang this with gory relish.)  This time, I suddenly realised that the couplet ‘Thus on the fatal Banks of Nile, Weeps the deceitful Crocodile’ is much more than the silly rhyme is appears, but really packs a punch – or does, at least, in the hands of the wonderful Grace Durham.  I had tingles down my spine at that moment.

Toby the Greyhound had a short but starring role, as he accompanied Aeneas (who brandished an antler, rather than a boar’s tushes – I don’t have the latter) onto the second act.  He was a bit bemused at having to rush past his audience, who were clearly only sitting there to stroke him, but he nonetheless performed the Hunting Hound immaculately.

I was so impressed by the cast, all Guildhall students – not least the first years, who lost their  inhibitions very quickly, and lolled their tongues and hunched their backs like true witches.  I want the Sorceress (Matthew Sandy) as a pet:  he sings like a dream (switching ridiculously easily between tenor and countertenor), acts superbly AND makes his own costumes.  WOW!!!

And Dido and Belinda made my dad weep.  Which was one of the objects of the exercise.  I had Dido (the wonderful Grace Durham) sing her ‘When I am laid’ almost motionless, just holding Belinda’s hands; then walking off, through the audience, in the ritornello, with Belinda looking out after her.  Belinda kept this pose throughout the last chorus.  Magic.

I soooooo want to do it again, with the same cast.  They were fab.  (Needless to say, the accompanying ‘orchestra’ was as professional as ever.  The MD, Catherine Norton, is heading back to New Zealand when her visa runs out in June.  WHAT are we doing letting her go????)

The cast was:
Dido:  Grace Durham
Aeneas:  Daniel Hawkins
Belinda:  Sarah Loveys
Sorceress:  Matthew Sandy
Chorus:  Agathe Peyrat, Elizabeth Desbruslais, Matthew Healy, Adam Maxey
And starring Toby the Greyhound as himself

Enough gushing, darlings.

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English Concert’s Theodora

The EC have been touring Handel’s late, great oratorio Theodora to critical acclaim, and with a fabulous cast.  At the Barbican, Tim Mead shone particularly brilliantly; Sarah Connolly sounded slightly under par, but still gorgeous; Neal Davies, as ever, marred his dramatic performance by too much, and too tight, vibrato; Kurt Streit could have been warmer on occasion, but was a fine soldier.  Rosemary Joshua isn’t up to the eponymous role:  she suits a lighter character such as Semele, but she lacks bottom for a Theodora, and she has too much vibrato, all too often masking out-of-tune singing.

The choir was excellent, and mainly managed decent English pronunciation.

The cuts were fine – abridgements of recitatives – for this is a long work (four hours).  Why, though, he chose to insert an extra aria for Theodora towards the end, I don’t know – it’s not in the original or in the revival; it was added sometime later, and is superfluous.

My gripe, as usual, is with the conducting.  There’s no one in Britain who can conduct Handel properly.  Conductors tend to subscribe to ‘mean Handel’, taking the slow bits too fast and the fast bits too slow.  Bickett is a case in point.  The man seems to know no distinction between largo and andante, and andante and allegro.  This causes severe problems for pacing, which at various points he tried to cover up by cheap orchestral surges (oh, this bit needs drama – let’s give it a string attacca and lots of plinky-plonky theorbo:  this is current early music fashion, and it’s crass), or by changing the orchestration, putting in solo instruments where the score calls for tutti.  (Harry, dear, trust Handel – he really knew what he was doing.)  Continuing on general pacing before getting back to tempi, he’s almost got the idea of differentiating pauses between numbers, so that a recit may go straight into an aria, or there may be a little pause, and an aria may go straight into the next recit, or there may be a little pause.  Most conductors pause too much, meaning that arias become a bit stand-alone, and the drama is broken up.  He tended to much the other way, and a few occasions a dramatic pause was kicked out in favour of rushing in with the next bit of recit.

Onto some specifics.  Valens’ first aria is marked ‘pomposo.’  There was nothing pompous about it – it was pretty well the same tempo as his next utterance, the allegro ‘Racks, gibbets, sword and fire’.  The sarabandes at end of Acts I and III weren’t slow and sarabandish enough.  The Menuet at beginning of Act II wasn’t danceable at all – it was far too allegro:  it’s supposed to be the formal dance of the Roman sacrificial ball.  Septimius’ aria ‘Tho’ the honours’ calls for solo cello:  Handel actually writes that in the score.  Nowhere else:  this did not deter Bickett, who put in random solos when he felt like it. This may sound trivial, but it’s not – lots of strings have a different effect to one string, and Handel knew what sound he wanted.  The end of Act II ‘He saw the lovely youth’ is a very complicated chorus owing to its several messages; it is marked Largo. It has rests alternating between treble and bass lines, and the full effect of this is only achieved if you take it slow enough – Bickett didn’t. Handel’s incredible subtlety was completely lost.

Ivan Hewitt’s review in the Torygraph is fair and good, for a non-specialist.  However, I’d like to take him up on a couple of points. ‘Really it was the expectation of another heavenly number that kept me riveted, not the drama.  But each one fixed a mood of resignation or heroic fortitude so perfectly that those cardboard figures on the Barbican platform actually flickered into life – which really was a miracle.’ Well, not really a miracle – just what Handel’s music does. You can find the same in his other oratorios. It’s nothing to do with the performance.  ‘And there was some light relief, such as the moment when the chorus (playing the Roman citizens) look forward to some torturing of Christians in a jolly little number.’

‘Jolly little number’.  Sort of.  I presume he means the chorus ‘For ever thus stand fix’s’.  It’s in 12/8 – just the same, for example, as ‘Happy we’ in Acis and Galatea. It’s also in a pastoral F major (with 2 horns to boot!). The F-ness shows their comfort with the punishment – i.e. execution’s perfectly normal:  this is to heighten the contrast with Valens’ next move – an unacceptable decree that Theodora be raped.  The trouble is that by conducting every other andante and allegro in exactly the same way, you don’t get this at all.

In short, some superb singing and playing; not lamentable conducting – just entirely unimaginative and lacking any depth.

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Billionaire’s Row

According to More or Less, the average EU immigrant worker contributes more to the British economy than he or she takes out of it.  That’s to say, Europeans are net contributors – unlike native Brits or non-EU immigrants.

In the news recently has been the scandalous state of ‘Billionaires Row‘:  huge mansions in London which lie empty, but belong to hideously rich furriners.

Here’s my solution to the problem.  Give local councils the power to reposses – not repurchase – any property that has been empty for over two years (and is not actively being sold).  Make Billionaires Row into flats and give them to the new wave of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants, who will then make a net contribution to the economy…

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