Thursday, March 29, 2007

notes from andalucia

seville oranges

We walk to the church in Cadiz under the orange blossom: The great pithy sevillian balloons clump together in the trees and the white buds pour their scent like perfumed lava down the cobbled street.

In the bar the walls are plastered with posters of lurid saints and a faded bird flaps helplessly in a cage. During the concert someone steals seventy euros from my wallet but their guilt stops them before they take the camera, palm, phone or ipod.

The nuns push me onto the stage.

The audience claps after every movement of the Tchaikowsky serenade and it's oddly refreshing. In the Barber adagio they burst into applause at the fortissimo climax while we try to keep our bows in the air and wait for the silence which will permit us to continue in pianissimo. At the end of the concert we give them the Bach Hamlet advert and the nuns, crouched right behind us in their habits, chat all the way though. As I walk off I can't help wondering why the can't recognise the voice of God when they hear it and listen up.

After the concert we head for the bar Manteca where we eat every cut of jamon imaginable.

"Why don't you speak Spanish?" asks the barman, Manuel. I explain we are musicians and that we have just done a concert in the church. "Come back tomorrow lunch time and you will probably hear some flamenco" he says. "This is where the bullfighters and singers come to drink".

I try to persuade my friends to join me but the glistening beach and moorish domes and towers prove too seductive and at one o clock I am the only woman in the bar. The walls are covered with images of shocking pink torreodor capes fanning and flaring before the bulls, flamenco singers sucking fat cigars and gold braid decorating proud backs. Names jump out at me: Jesus Enriquez. Raul Bacelis. Edson Galindo. There is the occasional saint. This is not a place to open a book.

One of the best flamenco singers, apparently, is drinking fino next to me and offers 'the lady' the same.

"He will sing to you if more of your colleagues come." I text everyone in the band. My phone refuses to send a single text.

After forty five minutes Jane and Clare join me, and the singer is off. He grabs us by our pale forearms and draws us near. His eyes are ageless pools on a wrinkled plate. He puts his hand on his heart, tugs us closer and starts the seamless move from smoky broken speech to song. What he is telling us is urgent and his eyes never leave ours. His voice flows from his empassioned heart through every pore, his mouth merely accidental. Then, just as he has started, he stops and moves back into speech.

"That was a religious song" he says. We share our tapas, take photos, and sit together on the barstools content in the knowledge that we speak the same language.

That night our concert is in an unforgiving accoustic that is the equivalent to a mirror that magnifies every grit filled pore of one's skin. I'm scraping away, pulling the bow back and forth with very little result and not sure I'm going to make it to the end. I call up his memory, the urgency with which he sung to us and I swear that's what gets me through.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Banks and Hills


The metal strings are back on the Benjamin Banks cello for the first time in three years. The reason is that my best friend (witness at my wedding, my principal cello for twelve years in Glyndebourne, co-continuo mate on the life-changing voyage of Handel's 'Theodora', companion in losing a baby, fellow yoga traveller, Bollywood fan and many other things shared over the years) has bought a house in Cadiz and she and her partner have organised a series of concerts there starting on Friday.

I was just about to get my 'modern' cello operated on. It has been unplayed and unloved now for too long. 'I'm never going to play on metal strings again' I said to myself, deciding to return the cello to its original setup and to use it for romantic and classical repertoire, whilst using my other cello (a Josef Hill) only for baroque. In my decision, I didn't account for girlfriends popping up and asking me to hang out in Cadiz with a shit hot (albeit metal) string section, and how much that would mean to me.

My 'modern' cello is ancient. It was made in 1772 by Benjamin Banks, and is older than my 'baroque' cello. Let me tell you our story:

When I was six, my parents bought me a beautiful cello made by this chap in Salisbury. I played on it from the age of ten, fell in love with Brahms and Richard Gere and eventually even Bach whilst playing it. I discovered ocean waves and first love with it in-between my calves. I ate my first oyster and had my first kiss and came straight to it to express my wonder. I moved to Germany aged seventeen and it was the only language I knew. That cello was home until, on tour in Italy with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, I was told 'there had been an accident' with the instrument van.

I was advised not to look. Indeed I never did see my soul mate in a hundred pieces. I just saw the box, like a coffin. A friend of the friend offered to help. I agreed to lunch with him in some barrat home corner of Bedfordshire. As we ate -probably, given the era, a tofu stir fry with brown rice - there were two cello cases lying silently at the back of the room, watching us. One of them had my beloved in bits inside. The other, as far as I knew, was just a box.

"Actually I have another cello by Banks here" the friend of the friend said. It was like having one's partner killed in a car crash and someone saying breezily that they had another just like him. I wanted to slap him. I knew, even if the cello were my cello's brother, I would never love him as much.

Actually my cello's 'brother' turned out to be a much better instrument and so I have played on a Banks cello (with a short break during which I grieved for and was haunted by my old instrument) for thirty three years.

At the time of my loss there was a film out called 'Truly Madly Deeply' directed by Anthony Minghella, with Juliet Stevenson. It was about a woman being haunted by the ghost of her dead husband who had been a cellist. In the film there was a scene with the ghost playing the cello under the London arches of Waterloo Bridge.

'That's your old cello' a friend said to me one day.
'What? My old cello is in a hundred pieces'
'No, it was put together again, and that's Matthew Lee playing it in the film. He bought it.'

I wrote to Juliet Stevenson to tell her the parallel story of the ghost cello in her film. She never wrote back. Anyway, Benjamin Banks and I are still very happily married, and vibrato or no vibrato, gut or metal, nothing will change the true voice of my soul-mate from Salisbury.


ps. due to archive problems, I have gone back to the old blogspot address.

Friday, March 16, 2007

A bird called Julian

Stop Press. Back to the old blogspot address for the meantime because of archive problems. Sorry.


Yesterday, as we sat on the lime pocked rubble splattered ground which will grow up, in May, to be a terrace, eating ham salad and drinking rosé, we noticed a fringe of people crouched up against the trees that lined a distant wheat-field. It was a group of American art students.

"Are they painting us boozing at lunchtime, do you think?" I asked Julian. I couldn't help but wonder if there was, amongst them, anyone spying for the New York Times; trying to catch the star of Shifting Light slacking....

"No, silly" Julian said. "They're painting the Mont Ventoux. From that close it's a mammoth task, like trying to paint the world. I'm constantly painting it out the window, but mostly I paint the clouds. What is sad is that right behind them is a road with beautiful shadows that is much more interesting."

This morning we walked up to Pierreavon to see the kissing almond trees in blossom but alas they had already turned to leaf. However, as is always the case here when one thing dies, if we look further afield, another is budding. In this case, a dreamy plum orchard in tight bud, the trunks of the trees standing in pools of forget-me-nots.

Stopping on the Grand Randonée 91 while Julian hopped up a path to find a good rocky view, I sat on the white stones, closed my eyes and listened to the birds. Realising it was all too easy to concentrate on the one pretty song of the robin, I tried to open my ears to the whole winged community - to the chirps in the distance and tweets in the wings. Suddenly I heard a sound approaching, a melodic hum closely related to a folk song we got closer and closer and suddenly, in front of me, there was the bird called Julian.

plum blossom

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Salade Niçoise and Juice


The earth has suddenly spewed out all its latent colours. There are clumps of violets hugging the base of the vines and canopies of blossom, and there are seas of golden stars running in streams between the trees. With nature's growth has come fresh enthusiasm to get on with the house, and tonight we actually made a date with the tiler, Fréderic!

"Julian doesn't see it because he doesn't go out and, more importantly, he doesn't come back" my friend Kate had said over both our first 'salades niçoises' and rosé of the season on the terrace of a café in Vaison La Romaine. Crouched by the table legs and preventing the waitress' passage between clients were abundant bunches of daffodils - one for the very fine polished kitchen of her vineyard near Séguret, and one for Julian to paint - and spinach for her family of five. We were supposed to be having a business lunch about the concert we are giving at her domaine on the 27th April. "He's in it all the time and it's just like when you don't notice a new crack after a few days..."

"Yes, you're right. I've only just realised that I actually come back from four star hotels to what essentially looks like a gypsy camp and, though it's home and I love it, I can't bear the look of it any more!"

The next day, Julian and I took off to the seaside for a day. Sitting over my second and his first 'salades niçoises' and rosé on a café terrace, this time with a view of bobbing boats and their shadows which he would later paint, he said:

"I just saw this announcement for the full funeral works, 'cremation/inhumation included' from €2099. The price of death.....what do you want me to do with you?"

"I want my ashes thrown into the sea from Cudden Point in Cornwall. What do you want?"

"To be juiced and drunk. Juiced fingers first."

At least it finally looks like we might get the tiles down first.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

the ipod and the axe

I have fallen in love with Brahms all over again. Like the soppy seventeen year old in shocking pink and a SOD SCHOOL badge, I am filling my personal space with his music. Then, his complete chamber music would emerge via the scratchy needle of my grandmother's textured pink gramophone and the only other records I loved were A Star Is Born and Saturday Night Fever. Now, of course my horizons have broadened somewhat and, rather than soppy love songs called Evergreen and How Deep is Your Love, I am listening on an ipod and through the perspective of Bach, Handel and Rameau, Haydn and Mozart. What strikes me most from this perspective is how classical Brahms is and how, when we feel most scattered, how beautiful the continuum of life.

This post illustrates my point more beautifully than I can.

Monday, March 05, 2007



On Mondays we go to the local market to stock up on organic veg. The organic veg man sets himself up on the square in front of the school. To his right is the bearded goat man (Is he the son of the bearded goat lady, I wonder, who was banned from the markets because of new EU rules saying she didn't have the right fridge) selling squishy white cheese rounds like fresh patties from his herd, and to his left is the fish stall where I always think twice about buying fish on a Monday.

"What is your best apple?" I ask, and the organic veg man points at a box of small pink blushing apples labeled, in a rough slanted green hand, 'PIK KISS'
"They are expensive"
I'll say, I think
"....but they are good"
"Do you know that you have spelled your label wrong? It should be 'pink kiss' and it means 'bisou rose'.
I had never seen the organic veg man smile until then but, underneath his unruly beard, he blushed as pink as his fruit. The next week his sign, in a more upright hand, read
'PINK KISS' and underneath, the proud translation 'BISOU ROSE'

It is hard to find a good apple in France. Mostly, when I try to explain to a French person the joys of old variety English apples picked in scented orchards - Cox's Orange Pippins, Golden Russets,and Worcester Pearmains - subtle and perfumed like the moist English air, I get some variation on the following:

'Oh I went to England. My parents took me when I was a child. The food is terrible. The English don't know anything about food so how could they grow a good apple?'

I counteract this ludicrous statement when I can be bothered with something about London now being one of the culinary centres of the world and about looking forward to going to England because the food is so good now and there's nothing like a good gastro pub lunch and how wonderful it is that we have, in our food, absorbed all the cultures that reside in our country and maybe initially it was because we were insecure about our own cuisine because it was, particularly just after the war, pretty crap, but that now we are proud of it....

Then I wonder if I am more homesick that I know.

In the Marché de Provence the other day, the lady actually listened to my rant. then she said, pointing to a box of clumsy yellowish members of the rosaceae family:

"Try the chantecler variety. I think you will like them."

I looked again, pressed slightly on the flesh and imagined the fruit to be mealy.

"No thanks. Perhaps next time" I said.
"No, I will give you one for free. Just try it." she replied, placing one in our basket.

Once safely in the car I took a bite. Magic. It was crisp. It tasted as sweet as an orchard smells. It tasted of innocence, tree-houses in flowery bowers and fresh linen. It tasted like...well it tasted like an apple!

If 'cler' is, as I fantasize that it might be, an old spelling of 'clair', then it sung out its apple song clearly in my mouth and lived up to its name.

Thursday, March 01, 2007



The day was thunder black. The jog was done – an invigorating one via the stark white almond blossom sprung up in a false spring and now blowing in a black sky around my head like confetti - the emails replied to, the pavoni pulled and it was time to put metal strings back on my modern cello – something I have been building up to with increasing dread but which I have to do for concerts later this month in Cadiz.

For Julian the day started in a touching way, with the receipt of an email from Grace, Annie, Theresa, Lily, Margaret and Julie, an art class who had made a fan club called the 'Julian Merrow-Smith appreciation Society'

“Maybe we should have a plan?" I said, ignoring the fan-mail. "Make some kind of order for the work on the house? That way we can keep chipping away and maybe one day finish something…?”

“You know I don’t work like that. I’ll do it when I do it.”

“Well, for example if we moved all the food into the back of the kitchen like you suggested, will that not mean you can’t build the loo if you suddenly want to because the pasta will be in it?”

“Look, if you get the food out of the cupboard and put it on the table we can move the cupboard and then I can do the wall and then we could phone the tiler and book a date.” Julian was meditatively carving up a gourd, looking at the curvature of its mottled skin and wondering at its paintability.

I was trying not to leap to the telephone and make the call I have longed to make for several months since the tiler’s quote arrived. I started emptying the cupboard and placing everything on the kitchen table. Suddenly Julian was at the wall with his big turbo tool, stripped down to his thermals and making a super sonic noise. It was too late for the dust covers and my cashmere jumper, innocently resting on the back of the chair, was matted with debris.

My day at the cello and the writing desk was never to be. I was, from now on, as I understood it from the body language of the mad mason, chief dust collectres. I was to wipe the advancing dust off storage jars of risotto rice and packets of mole sauce, envelopes with cloves from India and tins of plum tomatoes from the Ligurian supermarket. Then I was to go the dump with the rubble and return home, hopefully in time to ‘gobeti’ (don’t ask, see previous bio dynamic renovation posts) the wall. It was sudden but it was thrilling.

When I did return from the dump, I found my husband in a terrible state. ‘Thousands’ (I think there were about twenty as I received them too) of emails had been ‘pouring in’ to all three thousand people on his mailing list after a glitch with a new mail list software. One person had even used the disaster to send his terrible work on to everyone on Julian's list. Shame on him. Twenty people had unsubscribed in anger and the afternoon so far had been spent not painting the pretty pumpkin but writing personally to every single person who had written to him and assuring them that their email address was safe and that the list in question no longer existed.

‘Well that was a *******good day wasn’t it” said the gollywog opposite me as I handed him a glass of wine. Still in his thermals and hair spider-web white. ‘I'm never going call a painting 'unravelled’ again.'

The latest email in Julian's box said:
'can't afford your paintings. got to buy milk.'

Understand, mate. Got to lay tiles.