Archive for April 2008

a poem for St George’s Day by Brian Patten

April 23, 2008


Today, 23 April, is St George’s Day, a day which the English are notoriously bad at celebrating;  in order to kick-start patriotic interest in England’s Patron Saint, English Heritage have commissioned Liverpool poet Brian Patten to write a poem.
When I heard it on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning, read by the inimitable Scouse-voiced poet himself, I knew I had to share it with you.  (I had a devil of a job finding it on line, but that’s another story.  Sort of QED – how much the English care about St George’s Day or poetry or the arts, or anything much at all really. Anyway…)
Brian Patten pointed out that 23 April is also Shakespeare’s birthday.  (Well, we don’t actually know when Shakespeare’s birthday is, but traditionally it’s celebrated today.)  You’re supposed to wear an English rose on St George’s day, but of course it’s the wrong time of year, as they’re not out yet.  Well, I’ll put a picture of one on here instead. 



 St George was out walking
He met a dragon on a hill,
It was wise and wonderful
Too glorious to kill
It slept amongst the wild thyme
Where the oxlips and violets grow
Its skin was a luminous fire
That made the English landscape glow
Its tears were England’s crystal rivers
Its breath the mist on England’s moors
Its larder was England’s orchards,
Its house was without doors
St George was in awe of it
It was a thing apart
He hid the sleeping dragon
Inside every English heart
So on this day let’s celebrate
England’s valleys full of light,
The green fire of the landscape
Lakes shivering with delight
Let’s celebrate St George’s Day,
The dragon in repose;
The brilliant lark ascending,
The yew, the oak, the rose
© Brian Patten 2008


English rose in my garden, oh no actually it's a French one!

You can hear the item from the Today programme — including Brian Patten reading his poem — by clicking on this link:

Radio 4 podcast — poems for St George’s Day

Harrison Birtwistle, ‘The Minotaur’

April 16, 2008

Harrison Birtwistle

Last night was the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s opera The Minotaur, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Breaking my rule about not commenting on performances I am involved in… I have to say it was amazing:  hugely powerful, great production, simple and dramatic (designed by Alison Chitty, directed by Stephen Langridge, lit by Paul Pyant), charismatic performances – Christine Rice warm, communicative and unbelievably accurate musically as Ariadne, John Tomlinson giving the performance of his life as the eponymous ‘Man-beast’, Johan Reuter giving his all as Theseus despite not being totally at home with the English language (for once I imagine there won’t be any complaints about having surtitles in English).  And Antonio Pappano supremely in control of this vast and difficult score.

Birtwistle’s music polarizes opinion – remember the rumpus about ‘Panic’ at the Last Night of the Proms a few years ago?  I was at ENO when we put on The Mask of Orpheus, and operas don’t get much more monumentally complicated or unapproachable than that was.  But The Minotaur seems to me one of his finest scores, with many of his hallmarks – lots of noise, two growling tubas, screams and shouts, angular lines, stomping rhythms, strange sounds such as cimbalom and contrabass clarinet – but focused, singer-friendly, often very still and beautiful.

The text is by David Harsent (who also did the libretto for Birtwistle’s previous ROH opera, Gawain).  As soon as I read the libretto I got shivers up my spine, and they really haven’t gone away since!  He absolutely captures the essence of the Minotaur story – the duality of half-man, half-animal, the resonances of his conception and birth, the fact that he is locked in the labyrinth away from human eyes, the whole story of Ariadne and the thread that enables Theseus to get out of the labyrinth… Harsent doesn’t flinch from the brutality of sacrifice and murder – the Minotaur’s sacrificial victims, the Innocents, are raped and killed on stage (watched by an excited chanting crowd of spectators), and vulture-like Keres descend to disembowel the dead bodies.  Not for the squeamish!

this is on my wall!
I have felt a very personal link (more…)

Spring, the sweet spring

April 13, 2008

rosa xanthina spontanea
Everybody knows the English only like to talk about the weather… But it’s been a funny old spring this year, mostly cold and drab, and despite global warming we had SNOW last weekend – but only a couple of days earlier it was the warmest day of the year so far, sunny shirtsleeve weather.  What’s going on?

Anyway, as far as Nature is concerned, spring seems to have been mostly very slow in coming (despite daffodils appearing in the flower shops ever earlier:  we never used to see them much before March, just in time for Mother’s Day, but in recent years they have been around before Christmas –  flown in from the Channel Islands or somewhere – and I swear I saw some for sale in October last year.  But some of the daffodils growing in gardens really are late, and are only now just coming out).

I certainly wasn’t expecting any roses yet;  in England at any rate, single-flowering roses usually do their stuff in June or July.  So it was a great treat to look out of my bedroom window earlier this week and see a huge display of Canary Bird, busting out all over.  Now, this fella is noted for being the first rose to appear, but that would normally be in May, certainly not the second week in April.

At the moment it’s cold and dark and rainy again (good news for London Marathon runners trying to keep cool today, less good news for the onlookers).  But Canary Bird tells me that spring is on its way at last – whether early or late I can’t tell.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

April 4, 2008

ukulele orchestra of great britain

Well, there’s a thing. 

Thanks to a kind invitation (thank you, Rona) to help celebrate my dear friend Rex’s… er… somethingeth birthday, and in furtherance of my New Year resolution to Go To More Things, I have just been to a concert by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain – at another delightful venue, the Drill Hall in Chenies Street, off Tottenham Court Road (the concert was one of a series to raise money for the Hall, which needless to say doesn’t have enough to keep going).

Rex has, to say the least, eclectic tastes – besides being THE world expert on pianolas (well, one of two, and Dennis was there too:  we have met them before in these pages…), so this was going to be a treat for Rex as well as for the rest of us.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is eight assorted people – six men, two women – strumming on a variety of ukuleles ranging from small to tiny, apart from the guy on the end with his – to my ears over-amplified – electric bass ukulele (not a bass guitar!  ‘This is the future:  you can’t fight it’).  It was made very clear that ‘banjo’ and ‘guitar’ were both dirty words in this company.  However, the ensemble could give amazingly realistic imitations of orchestras of bouzoukis, banjos, mandolins, balalaikas, Paraguayan harps or flamenco guitars.

What is their act?  Impossible to describe – is it a ‘novelty act’?   ‘Comedy turn’?  Serious music?   They present themselves with that sometimes infuriating and very English offhand pretend-cluelessness laced with surrealism (I wondered what my American chums would have made of it;  in fact the audience was just about as weird as the players – and not just the 29 of us in Rex’s party).  But the ‘cluelessness’ masks some fearsomely accomplished playing, inventive sounds and disciplined ensemble. 

What they played was certainly ‘eclectic’;  I was reminded of the Penguin Café Orchestra.  We had bluegrass, hillbilly, trad, Django Reinhart, ethnic music of all sorts, and stuff I couldn’t begin to categorise.  Some of the musical references went over my head;  others didn’t, but probably went over other people’s.  Likewise the verbal references:  one number was introduced as a ‘folk song in the style of Nina and Frederik…  Hans and Lotte Hass… Armand and Michaela Denis (On Safari)…’ – taking some of us back to our black-and-white BBC childhoods.

Each of the eight players turned out to have special talents in both playing and singing (no programme, no names, none the wiser).  I would have liked to be able to see more of their techniques – some strummed, some used a plectrum, I couldn’t see if any had finger picks or other devices.  ‘Dave’ at the end (with the pony tail, and Spike Milligan face and sense of humour) at times seemed to withdraw into a world of his own, making magical slide guitar sounds with what appeared to be a bottleneck on his tiny instrument.  The MC and guiding hand (George?) was the master of ‘witty banter’ but also played mean solos.  Everyone sang, nearly everyone sang solo at some point.  One of the chaps, hitherto quiet and unremarkable (but very tall), launched into a Shirley Bassey belter of ‘Thunderball’, complete with impossibly long held final note.

What to say about the music?  Where to begin?  ‘Be-bop-a-lula’ and ‘Anarchy’ received wildly inappropriate treatments.  In one ‘homage to plagiarism’, an apparently original (and very beautiful) song turned out to be also, and simultaneously, ‘My Way’, ‘Born Free’ and at least two other numbers.  Highlight for many of us was ‘Leaning on a Lamp-post’, from ‘George Formby’s stint with his balalaika orchestra’, in relentlessly minor key with appropriately cavernous Red Army Chorus voices and zippy balalaika sounds. 

Towards the end of the set, ‘George’ responded to a request for ‘Wild Thing’ by saying that he was too hoarse and perhaps they could do ‘Tame Thing’ instead – which turned out to be ‘Je t’aime moi non plus’ (complete with heavy breathing) as you have never heard it before.  Hilarious.  (‘T’aime’… Geddit…?)

And they had another show at 9.30!

Impossible to describe – you have to be there.  So BE there!  If you get a chance to hear them, don’t miss it.  It will be unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before.

(I meant to ask them why the novelist Malcolm Lowry called his ukulele a ‘taropatch’ – but thanks to Google I know now:  It’s a four-course eight-string Hawaiian ‘slack-key guitar’, precursor of the ukulele.)

Lots of info on the Orchestra’s website.  And lots of clips on YouTube.



(and I’d always thought it was spelled ‘ukelele’…)


picture stolen from — thanks!