Another Christmas…

…has come and gone, hotly followed by the New Year festivities. So here we go again, Christmas cards put away and the [minimal] decorations carefully stored until the next time. Hopefully, the endless attempts of seemingly increasingly desperate retailers, continually telling us (or is that actually pleading with us?) to celebrate the event by buying this or that over-priced piece of the unessential will also join the crumpled and discarded outer wrappings of presents in the rubbish bins. Don’t get me wrong: the recently past period is supposed to be one of giving, but has our over-commercialized modern Society managed to get something very seriously wrong with the way they approach things?

I recently watched two TV programs that made me sit and think. The first one was about the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That was inspirational, due to the efforts of their musical director (a retired pilot) and the citizens of Kinshasa, many of whom live in the most abject poverty, and who regularly survive their day on the promise of rehearsing music in the evening, often on home-made instruments. Repertoire ranges from original compositions to the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, both with choir (taught using sol-fa).

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The healing power of music…

 

Even more inspiring was the second program, which showed the re-establishment of a National Music School in Kabul. Again, this was due to the efforts of a single Afghan, who had been trained at the Moscow Conservatory before the Taliban vacuum descended on the blighted country. Some of the pupils learn their music during the day and then sell plastic bags in the markets to make ends meet. And we in the West are told that we simply have to have this or that unnecessary extravagance for Christmas…

Our extravagance for Christmas was to go back to Brugge for three days. Great time – got some writing done, but ever so cold – not that that put the locals off their street festivities and markets for a single second! They had erected a huge ice rink in the Groote Markt, where the Band had played in October. Lights everywhere, but being Belgium I suppose that they were all environmentally friendly and emitted but the smallest of carbon footprints…otherwise the electricity bill must have been horrendous!

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Groote Markt and intrepid skaters in Brugge at Christmas.

This May the Wadhurst Brass Band are off on a tour to Aubers in France. Wadhurst is twinned with Aubers and there were 25 men from the village, members of the Royal Sussex Regiment, lost in the Battle of Aubers Ridge in 1916. Following on from our short break in Brugge, we crossed into France and visited the town to get a handle on the place before the tour. On a very cold and frosty mid-morning we visited the Aubers Ridge British Cemetery; the wind chill factor would have frozen a windjammer going around Cape Horn and the grass was so frosty it was like walking on a crème brûlée. It was sobering to see so many graves marked simply “A Soldier of the Great War”; I subsequently found out that of the 25 Wadhurst casualties, only 2 were ever positively identified.

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Aubers Ridge British Cemetery near Aubers, France. So many of the graves contain unidentified casualties of the bloody Battle of Aubers Ridge in 1916.

We then went on to Thiepval in France to visit the Thiepval Memorial and pay respects to some of the dead and missing of the Battle of the Somme. It was bad enough walking around in temperatures that were even colder than they had been at Aubers, but it was even worse when we stopped to consider those in the trenches in this area a century ago. They had no option but to sit and wait – at least we could get back into the car and turn the heater on! By the time we encountered the chaos at the British border control at the Channel Tunnel nearly 2 hours later, my feet were still freezing, and that was with two thick pairs of socks on. That in itself focused the mind on the women’s groups who sat and knitted socks for the Boys in the trenches all through the First War. Having experienced a brief taste of how cold it can get there, those socks must have been a welcome sight to those lucky enough to receive them!

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Thiepval Memorial in France. 300 British and 300 French war dead and another 72,000 names of the missing from the Battle of the Somme engraved on the memorial. It was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and was built between 1928 and 1932. It is the largest British battle memorial in the world and was inaugurated by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) in August ,1932.

And to finish off this Seasonal Dispatch, we are now informed that something like £17 million of UK “Foreign aid” funds have been siphoned off with his usual flair by President Zuma of South Africa to build himself a modest little pondok suitable to his station! Thinking back to where we had just been – and the freezing cold – it raised the question as to whether or not the cemeteries and memorials had actually been worth the losses that caused them to be established in the first place? The residents of those places went off with a belief in the cause of right, as they saw it. These days, politicians are [generally] simply obsessed with preserving their [in my opinion] worthless continued existence. The bully is still in the corner to where he was driven at least twice during the twentieth century. Further afield, corruption has been raised to the level of a university degree! With an election due here in May, and their cushy jobs and all the rest of it at stake, nobody in Parliament is going to bother to question why so much hard-earned UK taxpayers’ aid money can be so easily miss-spent on one man’s folly at the other end of the world; they’ll be far too busy with domestic issues, telling those who can’t avoid listening to their feeble bleating that the other side is far worse than they are!

Meanwhile, for South Africa it was a bleak day indeed when the moderating hand of a great humanist and visionary was finally stilled in December of 2013. One shudders what is in store for the country without the positive influence and shadow of Madiba.

Time, which is a true constant, will tell.

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Meet the Contessa…

Cover Contessa 1


Introducing the Eccentric of Lucca, her singing “Angels”, her Maltese poodle and her irrascible maid…

…di Capezzani-Batelli, or simply plain Pen to her friends. She is also regarded as something of an eccentric by her army of admirers.

ERRANT ANGELS is the first in a series of novels about Penelope Strachan, the Contessa, and her group of dedicated opera singers in the picturesque city of Lucca in Tuscany. Just how a gifted English pianist studying at the Royal Academy of Music before the Second World War came to end up bearing an ancient and much respected Italian title is all part of the journey of discovery as you wander through the pages.

Now in her later 70s, the Contessa is the doyenne of the music circle in Lucca and, together with her Chamber Opera Group of Lucca – COGOL for short – is a major fundraiser for a whole host of charitable causes. She regards her singers as her “Angels”, but she has no illusions about their flaws, some of which could be considered as rather serious. Perhaps one of the most flawed characters, but for only the very best, well meaning of reasons, is Elizabeth McGraunch, her faithful maid of nearly half a century.

The character of the Contessa is based on two very real women, both of whom were instrumental in the establishment of an operatic tradition in South Africa during the 20th century: Désirée Talbot, my singing professor at the South African College of Music, University of Cape Town (and her pet Maltese poodle, who had a much better relationship with people than does the Contessa’s Carlo Quinto)

Désirée Talbot


Désirée Talbot, Emeritus Professor of Voice at the South African College of Music, University of Cape Town.

Albina Bini, founder of the Florence Chamber Opera Group.


Albina Bini, founder of the Florence Chamber Opera Group.

and Albina Bini, an early giant in the establishment of opera in South Africa and founder of the Florence Chamber Opera Group in Cape Town.

Visit my website for a full biography of both of these remarkable musicians.

What can one say about the assortment of characters who go to make up COGOL – not to mention the others characters who cross the pages at reasonably regular intervals ? When you get to know them I’m sure that you’ll recognize characteristics of people you have met over the course of time.

After all … it’s all really just observation, isn’t it ?

ERRANT ANGELS is published by the Book Guild in hardback and is also available in e-book formats and through Barnes & Noble in the United States. The next novel in this series – FEELINGS OF GUILT– is due for publication in 2014.