Time Marches On…

…and we all have to do our best to keep up with it. Or do we? Surely, the truth of the matter must be that time is our master and, no matter what we do or don’t do, it will always march on regardless. The problem of our modern world must rather be one of our misconceptions that we perceive as having to keep up with something as intangible as time. As it is, on New Year’s Eve, the boffins controlling the world’s time will add one second to the global system to keep up with the earth’s rotation. Such a minuscule thing as a second becomes globally important!

In my opinion, all of this becomes even more to the point when you hear of someone retiring after very many years of loyal service and the milestone being regarded as “just the end of another day”. Perhaps those who used to be called “couch potatoes” were on to something. Is it so bad to sit down and do nothing for a stretch of time? Is it so wrong not to fill every passing second with activity of some sort (sorry Kipling)? Life would surely be richer for us all if we just side-stepped the escalator of time once in a [regular] while and took the time to just listen to the beat of nature or to the non-materialistic world about us. Thank goodness Christmas advertising is now behind us (endless pushing of what you really don’t need to be buying for that perfect, over-commercialized Christmas experience). But wait: January 1st could well herald the start of Easter advertising. Perish the thought. All of it rolled into an anthem for lost innocence and the disappearance of just about everything that actually meant anything. Do we really need electronic reminders to go home, eat lunch or even breathe?

We spent the week between Christmas and New Year in Belgium. Plucky little Belgium, where we always seem to be happy. The whole concept of time is thrust into sharp focus over there, by virtue of the simple fact that for so many hundreds of thousands, time suddenly and irreversibly stopped as they were blown off the escalator.

The Royal British Legion have launched a scheme whereby you buy a poppy lapel pin made from brass fuses and shell cases recovered from the Somme battlefields; the central dot of red enamel also contains grains of soil from the Somme. With your pin, you are invited to remember a soldier killed during the Somme. We went and found ours on the Thiepval Memorial; both of them have no known grave. I found the experience very emotional and penned these thoughts as a result.

Do You Hear?

Do you hear the rolls of the drum –

Two sets, mechanically even, with an unblocking break between?

Do you hear the shouted orders to form up and become

As smart a line as any parade ground has ever seen?

And then, rising up the hill from the lower land below, the pounding of the big bass drum

that shakes the ground before stilling the chattering tongue.

Listen, as the sound increases with the familiarity and expectation of martial sound.

Do you hear? The march, triumphant, thunders: The Voice of the Guns!

And the wind, freezing, unending, blows up that same hill,

for every mother’s husband, brother and son.

  

Do you hear the constant, unending rolls – too mechanical to be human?

The ominous thump of the bass drum, grown even more deafening in its authority.

And we wait atop the hill, in silent expectation of the regiment’s appearance with

band playing and bayonets fixed, parading for the thrill of the uniform

and the menacing grandeur of the march!

Or is it just the wind, laughing – or sighing – among the trees; but what trees?

There were none then.

The march, triumphant, thunders: The Voice of the Guns!

In the cacophony of the parade, a three-striped voice seems to whisper against the rhythm:

“23029: Bramhall, Edgar!”

For the shortest moment the biting wind is still, but there is no reply.

 

Do you hear the suggestion of a discordant melody, one at odds with that well-known tune?

Could this be something unwritten, or something already too sadly known?

Atop the hill the parade seems thinned and the pulse of the big drum dimmed: the wind knows,

but is not telling, sighing woefully as it blows over mud and wire,

the mire of the regiment, the remains of the smartly-assembled ranks.

The march, triumphant, thunders: The Voice of the Guns!

Over all, the staccato beating of the drum never falters – pausing only for a second

to load another belt or to cool the barrel.

Such is the cold message the wind blows up the valley from the lowlands below.

Do you hear that voice again?

“4931: Crabtree, Ede!”

For another grudging second the haunted wind is still, but again there is no reply.

 

Do you hear the mournful wind about the erected stones: but what stones?

There were none then.

The biting, unrelenting wind that plucks at the names when the roll is called

and sighs at the silent answer, known even before the question is uttered.

The beating of the drum, too, is broken, as if the drummers’ arms can bear it no longer;

The unending beat now a vacuum-like silence,

as the rhythmic pulse that once was life now only sporadically fills the air.

Only occasionally does the bass drum speak, weary to the point of stillness.

The march, triumphant, thunders less: The Voice of the Guns!

Do you hear that? The heavy voice does not reflect the glory of the music.

“13571: Waude, J.C.!”

This time, amongst the whining wind, is that a voice that begins to answer, wearily?

But no – still, there is no reply.

 

Do you hear that? Voices confused in the wind, muttering that they got things wrong?

How the biting, numbing wind plucks at the names on the stones and sings an immortal song!

It moans that these are the best of men, who turned out for that promised parade,

When the bass drum first boomed and the staccato drum first played.

Don’t blame them – they gave their all and now stand proud as their regiments pass from –

But where is it they pass from?

They parade through the very air itself and that is why we stand atop the hill,

Chilled to the bone in the biting wind, remembering their song

as the beat of drum echoes through their incised names that will live for evermore.

The march, triumphant, still thunders: The Voice of the Guns!

Do you hear that? The voice sounds proudly defiant, reflecting the glory of disorganized futility.

“30506: Waugh, A!”

Against the wind comes a faint reply. This name is not among the missing on the

Stones of Thiepval.

 

Getting back on the escalator, the news on the book front is that book no.5 is due out around March, 2017. This is what the cover will look like:

 

The cover of An Eccentric in Lucca 3.

The cover of An Eccentric in Lucca 3.

Book no.6 – the third Rupert Winfield Journey – is almost finished proof reading and will go into the publication process once book no.5 has been released.

Other news is that we have bought a house in the middle of the countryside of County Tipperary, Eire, and yes, it has been a long, long way getting there! Trees, fields, bird song, detachment and tranquillity. Bring it on!

Still waiting for the Irish Land Registry to confirm to property boundary. such thngs take a lonftime over there, but the slower pace of life is the big attraction!

Still waiting for the Irish Land Registry to confirm to property boundary. Such things take a long time over there, but the slower pace of life is the big attraction!

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Progress…

…is just one step at a time!

FATAL TEARS, my first published novel, has just gone into a second e-book edition with a brand new publisher and a great new cover!

The new cover for Rupert Winfield's first Journey.

The new cover for Rupert Winfield’s first Journey.

Thanks to Emily and all those involved at SilverWood Books of Bristol. On the writing front, the third novel in the AN ECCENTRIC IN LUCCA series is just 6 pages from completion of the proofing process and will then go to SilverWood to commence the publishing process (hardback and e-book). The third Winfield Journey is also finished and over half way through the proofing process. This was planned to be the final novel in this series, making a Winfield Trilogy, but another idea has been “bubbling under” involving rocket testing in the Libyan desert just before 1939…hold that thought!

A new crime series featuring Inspector Balantyne-Rhodes and set in 1920s Cape Town is well under way and I’ve taken the opportunity to use my class a guinea-pigs to trial yet another strand of writing, this time involving a 10-year old with a very fertile and interactive imagination – Daydreaming Dillon.

Apart from all of that, there are blackbirds singing in the garden and there is some feeble sunshine as well, so Spring must be on the way at last. Hold that thought, too…

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‘Tis the Spirit of Christmas…

…but in an increasingly secular offshore island, what exactly is the Spirit of Christmas? Is it one of increasingly intrusive materialism, where the “essential must have” items cost a fortune and reflect the latest and, in my opinion, often pointless “advances” in modern technology, or is it to be found in a litre bottle of spirit, offered at heavily-slashed prices by all the supermarket chains, eager to either outdo their opposition or simply survive in an increasingly competitive world? We count ourselves lucky to know young children who still write their letters to Father Christmas and send them up the chimney. Quite apart from the belief in any religious dogma, isn’t that what the innocence of childhood is all about? Working with 9- and 10-year olds, and allowing for some of the challenging backgrounds from which some of them come, it occurs to me that most of them seem to have progressed from the womb to pre-pubescent, without allowing for any of the stops we of the older generation remember about our own childhoods. The affection we feel for our memories is one thing; I wonder what the next generation will value about tradition when it comes to their turn to sit and think as I am doing?

What I see as social decline is also reflected in the radio and television broadcasts in the UK. We have access to over 150 television channels and – more often than not – for us, the best and most appealing entertainment to us is found in watching shop-bought DVDs. Only occasionally does BBC 4 have a series of programmes that actually teach and inform which, after all, is part of the BBC mission. The same can be said of the radio, where the myriad stations – including those of the once-hallowed BBC – are often worse than the television programmes on offer. It says something when, with some holiday time on hand, listening to a CD of Paul Temple (recorded 50 years earlier) is more appealing than the rest of the fare on offer over the airwaves!

At least the Queen’s Christmas Message is still what it was: Her Majesty, at the age of 89, still manages to bring a touch of reality to the time of the year through an informal “chat” which, nonetheless, contains a very real message to everyone who chooses to watch it.

HM The Queen during her Christmas Broadcast.

HM The Queen during her Christmas Broadcast.

That’s Christmas sorted!

In October we endured the chaos at the UK Border (hardly confidence-inspiring!) and went back to Belgium for a week to visit Waterloo in the bicentenary year of the battle. We are very fond of “plucky little” Belgium, even if General de Gaulle reportedly thought of it as “a country invented by the British to annoy the French”. Historically and totally inaccurate nonsense, of course…

The "Fallen Eagle" monument, honouring the last soldiers of Napoleon's Imperial Guard, who fought at Waterloo.

The “Fallen Eagle” monument, honouring the last soldiers of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, who fought at Waterloo.

There is a brand new museum at the battlefield, built underground and so totally hidden from view. The vital Hougoumont farmhouse has also been restored and contains a brilliant audio visual presentation that is well worth the visit. The whole “Waterloo 1815” concept is possibly the best museum(s) we have ever visited and is well worth a (lengthy) visit the next time you’re in the vicinity (!)

Waterloo1

The Butte du Lion mound on the British/Allied front line. I always thought it was the British Lion with his paw on the globe: Pax Britannica. Apparently not. It is the Dutch Royal lion with paw on a cannon ball. The crown prince of the Netherlands was wounded on this spot during the battle. Still very impressive and yes, we did climb all 220+ steps to the top!

We also took in Brussels and were once again forcibly reminded of just how comfortable, inexpensive and reliable Belgian Railways are in comparison to some. Hmmm…. Belgium being a small country, we also drove across to Brugge. Beautiful city, not to mention the chocolate shops…

Brussels on the left, the romantic canals of Brugge on the right, not to mention delicious orange slices dipped in Belgian chocolate....

Brussels on the left, the romantic canals of Brugge on the right, not to mention delicious orange slices dipped in Belgian chocolate….

Earlier in the year we lost Ben, who had been with us for 12 years. Sadly, an intestinal tumour developed and was untreatable without causing the chap a lot of discomfort for probably no positive outcome. So now we have treasured memories of his company.

New kid on the block, Boris. He’s already taken control of Baxter and also, interestingly, shows an interest in literature (!)

Baxter was pining, so now we also have Boris, whose energy levels make us wonder if we are just a bit beyond the child-rearing stage! Anyway, he comes from the same breeder as Ben and is settling in – taking over! – quite nicely, thank you.

Books 5 and 6 are now in the final stages of proofing and a new line of writing is well-advanced, too. I also have a new publisher for Fatal Tears, which is in process of a second edition. All very exciting…

And on that happy note, it’s time to put the kettle on and wish you all a prosperous, peaceful and successful New Year 2016.

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What is it that makes us …

…who we are? I read with interest in the August edition of GRAPEVINE magazine (www.luccagrapevine.com), that expats in the Bagni di Lucca area near Lucca can now purchase their gourmet reminders of the old country through the enterprising Paolo and his Catene Café. Thinking about this caused me to reflect on a simple, yet highly complex question: What makes us who we are?

The population of this ancient island of Britannia is a distillation of many national origins – who can say they are “English” with any clear understanding of what “English” is, any more than someone in Italy can easily define themselves as “Italian”? Despite this, we all feel something inside us that makes us feel we belong somewhere. On my many trips to La Bella Italia I have always felt very much at home; even on my first trip, when my then embryonic Italian language skills were put to the test, I felt comfortable in a land of strangers. Perhaps this is because of being uno straniero myself in someone else’s backyard?

So, what triggers a feeling of “home”? Expat Australians can be moved to tears by the smell of eucalyptus leaves; South Africans munch their biltong and Brits long for a good cup of tea or even the taste of Marmite. Why do I go to an Italian family-run restaurant in the Weald of Kent, and feel so relaxed surrounded by the taste and sounds of Italy? I am not Italian. Why do I feel so proud conducting my forty-strong concert band playing God Save the Queen? Is it because I am British? On the other hand, why am I so moved by hearing Inno di Mamelli?  I am not Italian, but would be quite happy to become an expat in Italy.

What is it, therefore, that takes someone out of the land of their birth, but seems unable to take the land of their birth out of them?

In Britannia, things often seem to be less than ideal. Perhaps it might be the weather – what other country makes an art out of turning the sun-starved failed tomato crop into green tomato chutney? Or perhaps it might be the perceived dithering indecision of those at the helm. One of the larger political parties is currently in search of a new leader, but the candidates’ vision for the future of the nation seems to be as uniform as the typical weather – shades of indifferent grey.

For me, the only true voice of Britannia is the great music of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Parry: music that stirs the soul and reminds us of a glorious past that was definitely better than the present – or was it? Could it be an invention of the collective imagination that this was ever the case? What drove the expats to become just that; what makes us look for greener grass on the other side of the path? What makes us seek for a remembered “better” time?

We are currently remembering the carnage of the First World War and the anniversary of the Battle of Britain in the Second War. Recently, Italians have commemorated the appalling massacre of more than 500 civilians in the Tuscan village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema in August, 1944. These were hardly better times than the present. Perhaps the important thing is to hang on to the memories and try to make the best of the here and now.

Even the potholes that littered Britannia’s over-taxed roads after the recent bad winter weather are slowly being filled in, so that now suddenly seems a little better than then.

Therein might lie the secret – sit back and enjoy your cup of expat PG Tips whilst you savour a Hobnob or sink your teeth into a slice of Marmite-smothered toast. It’s the simple things in life that really count, even in the embrace of your adopted land.

Speaking of simple things, it’s amazing how excited you can make someone just by giving them a book!

Roberta in the Tuorist Information office in Lucca.

Roberta with her copy of FEELINGS OF GUILT in the tourist information office in Lucca.

Mind you, it does make a difference when that person is the model for one of the minor characters in that book. Meet Roberta, an extremely competent operative in the tourist information office in Lucca. I met her on my first visit to the city and, with the passage of time, her persona became the inspiration for one of the characters in my “An Eccentric in Lucca” series of novels. Very recently, she was given a signed copy of the second novel in the series and burst into tears…that’s so Italian!

Tanti saluti da l’antica isola!

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Gone …

… but most certainly never forgotten.

Despite the lovely weather today in our neck of the woods  – sunshine at last and quite warm – our friend and housemate of nearly 63 years (12+ years in our time) left us this morning.

Velvalura Romeo - or Ben to his friends - on top of the fishtank, his favourite spot in winter, because of the warmth from the lights under the lid. Clocking in at 6kg, there were winters when we wondered if he would go straight through and join the fishes!

Velvalura Romeo – or Ben to his friends – on top of the fishtank, his favourite spot in winter, because of the warmth from the lights under the lid. Clocking in at 6kg, there were winters when we wondered if he would go straight through and join the fishes!

 

Benjamin, or just plain Ben – a Blue Burmese of considerable self-importance – had been wasting away for the last few months, victim of an intestinal tumour that finally reduced him from the dimensions of a Medieval war horse to a skeleton. His head and long tail seemed to be unaffected by the weight loss of the rest of his body, which made the situation even more difficult to come to terms with.

Despite this, he remained bright eyed and talkative and it was only in the last week that we became concerned for his quality of life. Sadly, by first thing this morning his hind legs had become very wobbly and the look in his eyes – not to give it too much of a poetic slant – hinted at the fact that he probably thought it was very nearly time to call it a day.

So now we have Baxter, who was with Ben at the end, and happy memories of a very loyal friend.

Perhaps this emphasises the true value of our own existence – our memories. Hopefully, for the majority of people, largely very pleasant to recall and something that can never be taken from us – unlike the contents of an external hard drive computer disc, but that’s another story! Who’s to say that Altzheimer’s wipes our internal memory bank? Suffers might not be able to recall verbally, but the memories might well still be there, for internal use only. In the last month it’s been time to remember the death of my mother and the birth of my godson (on the same day), the passing of my cousin André in South Africa and, of course, Ben this morning.

Of course, there is another side to all of this. I remember how my father suffered during his final illness and “endured” existence whilst the medical profession did what it could to “manage” his condition, when there was absolutely no hope of an improvement, let alone a recovery. Let me leave you with this thought: Ben went peacefully into his final sleep with the dignity that he had not yet lost; for the rest of us perhaps things need to be reviewed in the medical world of the 21st century.

But Life and existence within Nature is unstoppable – barring extinction for whatever reason – so we face the future remembering the more pleasant and happier moments of our past. Although it has to be pondered that, perhaps, the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland is on to something …

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Never forgetting…

…to remember to remember. Yes, a mouthful, but considering why it is that we should do so does tend to put things into perspective. All the nameless and now largely forgotten women who brought about the female vote; innocent victims of circumstance, such as the passengers on the Lusitania, the centenary of whose sinking has just been commemorated; the millions forced into brutal labour because of their views or the blood in their veins…it doesn’t take much pondering to add to this list.

This past weekend I was on a tour with the Wadhurst Brass Band – more on the music later. Amongst other things we squeezed in a visit to Vimy Ridge and to the bombed remains of the Bunker in the forest at Eperlecques. This is a V2 rocket site of Star Wars proportions from the Second World War: massive concrete walls, very damp and dark and haunted by the presence of the forced labourers who were driven to construct it, a presence which I found disturbing (I had felt the same when visiting the underground hospital complex constructed on Guernsey during the Nazi occupation). It is extremely well presented as a historical site, including an audio introduction presented whilst visitors are stood in a cattle truck – shades of Auschwitz and extremely unsettling: at least I had the promise of getting out into the sunshine… How incongruous to be surrounded by the beauty of Nature, through the reborn forest, on a pleasant early summer’s day with trees full of singing birds and yet to be so close to so much human misery! That’s why we should never forget…

Blockhouse

Part of the Bunker at Eperlecques, Northern France. It was intended as a V2 rocket launch site in World War 2. Allied bombing prevented that. Pictures can’t give an accurate impression of just how massive it is.

The Canadians turned out in some force when we also played under the Menin Gate in Ypres on Friday 8th May. Princes Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry had just been awarded the Freedom of the City of Ypres and were remembering their dead of the First War, together with the Edmonton Police Pipe Band (an interesting musical mix to the proceedings!). When you visit Vimy Ridge perhaps you also understand why Canadians cross a mighty ocean to be nearer the reason for their remembrance: today, sheep graze peacefully amongst the shell craters from a battle, the objective of which must have seemed impossible. After all, who would run up a very steep hill straight into blazing machine guns? And yet the bravery of soldiers thousands of mile from home did just that. Voilà pourquoi le Canada se souvient.

The Canadian memorial on the top of Vimy Ridge. Impressive in it's almost austere simplicity.

The Canadian memorial on the top of Vimy Ridge. Impressive in it’s almost austere simplicity.

The village of Wadhurst (about a 12 minute drive from Rotherfield, provided you don’t get stuck behind a farm vehicle on the road!) is twinned with the town of Aubers in Northern France. Those of you who have read my previous blogs will know about the march I was commissioned to compose to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Aubers Ridge on 9th May, 1915. Firstly, I have to say that the people of Aubers and the Twinning Association made us all feel very welcome indeed. We performed a concert in Aubers Church on the evening of the anniversary, which was well attended. You can watch a live recording of the march AUBERS RIDGE here:

Je présentai ma marche au public en français et aussi en anglais. My mother, who was a fluent French speaker, would have been quite proud, I think!

So, it would seem from my experience that remembering has no time limit: we remember events without having any idea of who the people were who were involved in them; we trek to all sorts of places – from Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift in Zululand to Waterloo to the Bunker in Eperlecques forest – and we ponder and, hopefully, think of history and those who were part of it and, in so doing, we also become a miniscule part of that same history. And that brings me to the simplicity of a single Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone in Wadhurst churchyard. The only one of the 25 Men of Wadhurst to return home (as a fatality) is buried there. Through the simple act of placing a poppy, a person who is long-gone and is a total stranger to me is remembered.

 

Remembering Sergeant Freeland, 5th Battalion, "Cinque Port", Royal Sussex Regiment.

Remembering Company Sergeant Major Freeland, 5th Battalion, “Cinque Port”, Royal Sussex Regiment.

After all, if we do not know from whence we have travelled, how can we possibly know who we are and where we might be going?

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I’ve been reviewing…

…not the situation, but a performance of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle for Kent chorus. You might like to read it. They really are a highly-accomplished choral group.


 

Kent Chorus

If the sparkle of his music is anything to go by, I think that meeting Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) would probably have been an enjoyable experience. The same can most certainly be said of Kent Chorus’ latest presentation, the composer’s Petite Messe Solennelle. Despite the title, this work is anything but solemn although, if performed credibly, as it was this afternoon, there are moments of emotion and pathos. Indeed, there are many who hold with the notion that it is simply not possible to take the theatre out of Rossini, any more than it is to take Rossini out of the theatre.  The composer was fêted internationally, retiring from active composition at the age of 37, a wealthy man. During the rest of his life he composed purely for his own enjoyment, referring to these works as his Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”). Petite Messe Solennelle is one of these “Sins”, being commissioned in 1863.

Kent Chorus opted for the original version for soloists, choir, two pianos and harmonium. Personally, I think that, on balance, I prefer Rossini’s orchestrated version, but that did not in any way detract from my enjoyment of today’s performance. The choir was not far off 120 voices and, as I have recorded before, produced choral music of the highest quality. Their entries, particularly in the fugal passages, were flawless and, from the expressions on their faces, they were thoroughly enjoying themselves! Their dynamic observation is also to be highly applauded – the range is quite considerable in the printed score and this was followed with great effect. I was particularly moved by their entry at the end of the Gloria (Adoramus te), only one page long, but it was quite magical, almost as an ethereal reaffirmation of what the solo quartet had just sung.  This same feeling of calm and outstanding chordal balance was also achieved during the Dona nobis pacem interjections (sotto voce) during the final movement, Agnus Dei. For me, the real highlights of the afternoon were the Cum Sancto Spiritu in the Gloria and the Et vitam venturi in the Credo. This really was edge-of-the-seat, electrified singing!

Another accolade must go to Marcus Andrews (primo piano): his playing was highly supportive and thoroughly competent throughout. He was ably supported by Anthony Zerpa-Falcon (piano secondo) and Christopher Harris (harmonium). What a pleasant combination of keyboard instruments.

The soloists fared best in their concerted items, although there were some highpoints in their solos: soprano Alessandra Testai (O salutaris); mezzo-soprano Virginia Stone (Agnus Dei); tenor John Upperton (sustained phrasing in Domine deus); bass Michael Bundy (Quoniam).

Of course, none of this very considerable choral achievement would have occurred or, indeed, even have been possible without the drive and attention to musical detail from the musical director of Kent Chorus, Richard Jenkinson. Watching and listening to a performance, it is obvious how much of his enthusiasm spills into the ranks of his singers. Long may it continue!

Kent chorus are due to visit the Netherlands in early May, returning a visit made earlier by the Royal Dutch Orpheus Choir. On the strength of today’s performance, I feel certain that they will do our musical heritage of choral singing proud. Bravi!

Kent Chorus welcomes enquiries from interested singers. If you are interested in finding out further details, please e-mail  kentchorus@gmail.com or visit www.kentchorus.co.uk .


 

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