Thursday, 29 May 2014

Abducting a General

I’ve been reading and re-reading lots of Patrick Leigh Fermor recently – including his trilogy covering his walk across Europe in the 1930s from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople and a fine new biography. He remains a favourite writer, whose life is as fascinating as his work.

He is perhaps most celebrated for the events surrounding the abduction of a senior German officer, General Kreipe, in Crete in the Second World War – a daring raid by a mixed team of SOE and Cretan partisans.

For several days they marched with their captive across the mountains and then paused… This is how he describes the situation:

We woke up amongst the rocks, just as a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of [the snow-covered peak of] Mount Ida… We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the General, half to himself, slowly said: ‘Vides ut alta stet nive candidum / Soracte…’

I was in luck. It is the opening line of one of the few odes of Horace I know by heart (Ad Thaliarchum, I.ix). I went on reciting where he had broken off: ‘…Nec iam sustineant onus / Silvae laborantes, geluque / Flumina constiterint acuto’* and so on, through the remaining five stanzas to the end.

The General’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine – and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’ It was very strange. ‘Ja, Herr General.’ As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.

*See, how it stands, one pile of snow / Soracte! neath the pressure yield / Its groaning woods; the torrents’ flow / With clear sharp ice is all congeal’d.


Monday, 26 May 2014

Prima le parole?

To Birmingham for a concert performance of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. It was preceded by a study day created and led by David Nice on four German operas to be performed in the city in coming weeks – Götterdämmerung, Ariadne auf Naxos, Moses und Aron and yesterday’s Rosenkavalier.

The rich heart of the study day was four presentations by leading scholars (William Mival, Michael Tanner, Stephen Johnson and David Nice himself), together with some Richard Strauss songs from Birmingham Conservatoire students (soprano Carrie-Ann Williams, baritone Samuel Oram and pianist Shah Johan bin Shahridzuan).

But the major revelation was the performance of excerpts (sans music) from the librettos of each opera by a group of our finest thespians Dame Harriet Walter and her husband Guy Paul (both above) taking the lead roles, with Daisy Boulton and Joel MacCormack as the young things.

What it showed so clearly was how persuasive and powerful Wagner himself was as a dramatist, and how brilliant was Strauss’s librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

We tend to think of operas as being predominantly the work of their composers, yet in a few cases the words are so important that we would do well to consider them fundamentally as co-creations – Da Ponte-Mozart and Hofmannsthal-Strauss top of the list, together, of course, with Wagner-Wagner. Not so sure about Schoenberg-Schoenberg.

Here is Harriet Walter as Lady Macbeth. Strong stuff:


Friday, 23 May 2014

A nation of weeds?

David Stewart-Hunter, a friend in Sydney, characterises England as engulfed in weeds. I understand what he means, but I prefer to think of them more as wildflowers.

Encouraged by an ideal mix of sun and rain, the early summer has emerged here on the Northamptonshire-Oxfordshire border as green as can be. Almost Ireland green. The last trees to burst into leaf, the ashes, are finally joining the parade.

In the fields which were left to grow au naturel, the green is matched by yellow, a dazzling mixture of buttercups, self-seeded oil-seed rape (all along the railway verge in these parts) and despised dandelions.

But, in amongst these, easy to miss, are the cuckoo-flowers ‘lady’s smock’ which arrived in the spring. They are said to coincide with the arrival of the first cuckoo. Small flowers, a delicate mix of pink and white.

Weeds indeed!

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

My Lost Kentucky Home

I’ve been listening to recordings made in the 1930s and early 40s by the black American contralto, Marian Anderson. She’s one of my very favourite singers, not only among altos, and one of the finest songs on the CD is her rendition of Stephen Foster’s ‘My Old Kentucky Home’. 

It seems such a pity that so many of Foster’s songs – which include ‘Campdown Races’, ‘Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair’, ‘Oh! Susannah’, ‘Old Folks at Home’ (also known as ‘Swanee River’), ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ and ‘Old Black Joe’ – are no longer deemed PC in modern America and have fallen out of the repertoire.

Impoverished, Foster died in Manhattan in 1864, aged just 37. America’s Schubert!

Saturday, 17 May 2014

British joke, right, Rog?

Humour, wit, seems to be both time and place bound. So much so that what we Brits found deeply amusing on the tellie in the past can seem lame to us nowadays. The recent flood of reruns on British TV from the Musée d’Eric ’n’ Ern only reinforces that feeling for me.

I myself have been known to make little witticisms, occasionally involving irony.

At the company I used to work with, Synectics, based in Cambridge Massachusetts, I would do that in meetings there, face properly straightened.

There would be a pause and then one of my American colleagues would carefully check back: "British joke, right, Rog?"

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Dream time

Early morning.

I’ve been repairing working relations between the Brazilians and the Argentinians in my team. There have always been tensions. Although they live so close to each other, they are continuously at each other’s’ throats, finding fault, failing to clarify and resolve misunderstandings, undermining mutual projects and so on.

What’s to be done?

I’ve tried all sorts of things up to now. For example, I got them into a room together to try to understand the other’s point of view by role-reversing, so that the Argentinians became Brazilian and vice-versa. I taught them how to paraphrase what the other was saying in order to create clarity of meaning. I had them try out English as a mutual language instead of Spanish, which always puts the Brazilians on the back foot.

Nothing seems to work.

But the real problem is: none of this is real. I don’t have any Argentinians or Brazilians in my ‘team’.

It’s all in my dreams.


Sunday, 11 May 2014

A Talent for Happiness

My inspiring English teacher at Uppingham half a century ago, Gordon Braddy, has just published a book of his own short stories, written over the past five years. Although clearly fiction, each taps into aspects of his own life, rich with his particular voice.  

I was struck in the last of them, the powerful ‘Visions and Revisions’, by an observation made by a headmaster to a young teacher in a job interview: ‘I do hope you have a talent for happiness… Oh yes! It has been my experience that even the most gifted schoolmasters only achieve the really important things when they are happy.’

A talent for happiness. Such a simple concept. So elusive.

My sense is that it’s important in many walks of life.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

At the urinal

Chairing an innovation conference at what was the CBI HQ, Centrepoint in London, I noticed that, at the very moment we needed video, sound etc, the boys in the communications booth had gone AWOL. On their tea break it seemed.

Quite cross, I called a brief halt to proceedings, went to find them (unsuccessfully), and then I went to take a leak. At the urinals, I vented, sharing a full richness of language with the bloke next to me, and returned to the conference.

It was only when I got back there that I discovered I had been fully miked up throughout, my whole foul-mouthed tirade shared fortissimo with the entire roomful of delegates.

It seemed to be the high point of their day.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Aiming straight in Sydney

I ran a strategy workshop in Sydney for the Domestos brand. What might be its future role in Australian bathrooms?

Included was a mix of Unilever managers from various functions and an equal number of Aussie 'consumers', all women.

I can’t quite remember how it started, but the women got into a group rant about the inadequacies, the incompetence, the total hopelessness of men. This went on for what seemed an age until they paused, quiet, perhaps to draw breath.

Then a tall blonde announced with an air of game, set and match : “They can’t even bloody AIM STRAIGHT.”

Friday, 2 May 2014

Say cheese, Ma’am

It used to be that smiling, showing one’s teeth, was regarded as evidence of inanity, even insanity. Think of the Cheshire Cat.

In the nineteenth century and on into the early part of the twentieth, in photographs both formal and casual, people kept a poker face.

Was it during the First World War that the turning point came? Folk were enjoined then to pack up their troubles in their old kit-bags and ‘smile, smile, smile’.

And in no time it became de rigueur to beam endlessly, especially when a camera was pointed in one’s direction.

I thought about this a few days ago, when a new birthday portrait of the Queen by David Bailey was published. Over the past half century or so, Her Majesty seems to have evaded the need to conform in this regard… until now.

Say cheese, Ma’am (rhymes with Spam).