Friday, April 27, 2007

Kurt in Oxford


6am 12 April 2007

Well, Oxford is turning out as big a success as everywhere else..
I am having a simply lovely time

Tuesday, I ventured forth into the streets for a brisk walk round the famous and pretty places of the city. The Mills’ home in Divinity Road is just off the Cowley Road, where so many years ago I came to see Alyn Shipton during the publication of my record book and of the original Encyclopaedia. (Alas, the Basil Blackwell offices are gone, the building now a hulk in the process of modernisation). All of this is easy walking distance – over Magdalen Bridge and down the High – from the heart of town, and I of course duly walked it.

What can you say about Oxford? I could either fill a hundred pages or just take it as read. Suffice it, that I took in a good dose of the most beautiful sights, including the little Queen’s Lane/New College Way and, of course, a quick hello to brother John’s old college, Merton. Oxford has, oddly, changed not at all in some ways, but in others very much. All the old book shops which I used to love have gone. Ebay has I suppose rendered them superfluous and unprofitable. I visited one which used to be on several floors of an old building – it is now reduced to one small room with very little stock and soon I fear it too will be gone.

In the afternoon, I paid a visit to the doctor. I’m not sick – give or take this wretched cold, now nearly a week old and still pestering me – but the blood pressure results at the spa were of sufficient concern to make me think I should at least ask if anything needed to be done. The doctor who saw me, Dr Ross, was – guess what – from Auckland, NZ. He was very kind, and spent some time over me, allowing my bp to come down a little to, in fact, levels no greater than those with which I left Rangiora. And, so, his conclusion was that medication was not (yet?) needed. It appears that my lifestyle (no smoking, no salt, much walking &c) is favourable insofar as ‘risk’ is concerned, and that less stress (which he says may take a while) and less booze (oh dear) would probably bring me down further. Hum. Maybe I shall try it for a little. The no wine bit. The ship seems like a good moment. Oxford is very definitely not!

Back at ‘home’, I dived into the vast collection of Mills family papers that were awaiting me in my attic.
Now, these papers are how and why I am here.
Whilst researching for my future book on VICTORIAN VOCALISTS on the Internet some time ago, I came upon what was clearly a descendant of the very superior Victorian bass-baritone known as Henry Whitworth. I emailed off a volley of facts and queries – as I am wont to do – and thus I came in contact for the first time with Elizabeth Mills.
Now, I’ve done this sort of thing many times in the course of, especially, the ENCYCLOPAEDIA and EMILY SOLDENE, but never with such amazing results as on this occasion. For Elizabeth and others of her family, ancient and modern, have already done a great deal of research into Henry and his very interesting and remarkable career and family connections. Also, Henry himself, between the 1840s and the 1880s, himself collected – nay hoarded – vast amounts of papers concerning both said career and family, from playbills and newspaper cuttings to legal documents and costume designs. These are now in the hands of another of Henry’s descendants, present-day opera administrator Anthony Whitworth-Jones (Glyndebourne, Garsington..) but just for the present they are right here, filling most corners of the room in which I am writing. And I am having a wonderful time amongst this Aladdin’s cave of information. (Thought: why is it Aladdin’s cave? I always thought it was Ali Baba who had the cave, not Aladdin). Also, of course, I am able to identify and explain a few bits.

Anyway, as a result of our correspondence, Elizabeth invited me to come to Oxford during my present cavalcade, so here I am staying in the home of folk whom, until Monday, I had never even met!
However, we do seem to have (perhaps forseeably) ‘clicked’ in the most definite fashion. I feel hugely ‘at home’ with Elizabeth and Allen….
Tuesday evening underlined that in no uncertain way. While Elizabeth and I chatted ‘Henry’ over our pre-prandial sherry, Allen prepared another stunning meal. A dish of sweet mussels with chopped garlic, parsley and other interesting items, followed by a main course of duck, and accompanied by frascati and burgundy..
We dined from 9pm, with conversation, until just before midnight when Elizabeth disappeared towards bed. Three hours later, Allan and I were still at it. Well, I was having simply the greatest time. It is such a joy to listen to someone talking who is .. well, just so very interesting to listen to. Around 2am, I think we were on to comparative religion. Not a subject you would normally associate with Kurt: but I asked…
I can’t remember when I last stayed up till 3am. More usually, that is a time when I awake. Wednesday, I didn’t wake until 9am. Slightly dull in the head, but decidedly contented.

A gentle morning was obviously called for, but around midday Elizabeth and I climbed into her car and set off for a little tour of the eastern Cotswolds. Another really lovely part of England. We began with several little villages, including the hidden away hamlet of Noke and the rather larger village of Islip, where we stopped off at – guess what – the local ‘Red Lion’ for a pint of Guinness. I wonder how many ‘Red Lion’s there are in Britain. Thousands. Maybe someone should make a tour of them all… anyway, Islip’s one is very pleasant indeed.
We rumbled on to the picturebook village of Woodstock, where I peeped through the gates at Blenheim Palace (its 14.50 pounds to get in .. preposterous!) and Elizabeth bought some shoes, after which we headed on to Burford, another remarkable olde Englishe town with a huge and magnificent ancient church towering amongst its other lovely buildings. Although I am not supposed to shop (space considerations), I splashed out on a packet of nice handkerchiefs (1.99) for the benefit of the tenacious cold.

Back from our tour, just time for a small rest, a shower and a change and we were off out again. Dinner and the theatre!
We dined, along with neighbour Janet (from .. Dunedin, NZ), at a very passable Chinese Restaurant (the Peninsula, in a basement, recommended unless you are allergic to MSG) where I was able to sit back and not be challenged by one of those vast menus of incomprehensible things that Chinese establishments seem to feature. Why? Because Allen and Elizabeth are experts on things Chinese, having lived some eight years in Hong Kong.
From dinner, we moved on to the Oxford Playhouse and what turned out to be a mostly competent and occasionally very effective amateur performance of Rattigan’s THE BROWNING VERSION/HARLEQUINADE. I had actually never seen this well-known pair of plays. The first-named piece is rather remarkable. Extraordinarily nuanced and sentimental-dramatic. I, who have mostly thought of Terry Rattigan as a lightweight, drawing-room playwright, FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS and all that stuff (though I do remember the unfortunate ADVENTURE STORY, not to mention BEQUEST TO A NATION and CAUSE CELEBRE and also the exaggeratedly English and rather light-comedy Terry himself) was awfully impressed.
The second play is just a bit of a prank. A slightly over-drawn-out one, too. But it is agreeable nonsense, and the amateurs’ often amateurish way of playing it only added to its flavour.
Anyway, a wholly enjoyable time.. and a much earlier night.
As a result of which I am up at 6am, and all ready for an even bigger jaunt.
Elizabeth and I are off to the Salisbury area, to call on Elizabeth’s sister….
Of which more anon.

Friday 8pm. In other words, ‘anon’.

Well, another wholly splendid day to report. And action packed.
Sister Anni and husband Rob (retired army Colonel) live in the small village of Orcheston, Wilts, which is in the vicinity of the Salisbury Plains and what I now know are the vast army installations there.
You can get there from Oxford either by the quick unpicturesque route, or a series of smaller roads, and Elizabeth chose the latter. It meant that we saw a great deal of pretty scenery, and passed through or near a lot of the towns which I had ‘got to know’ whilst researching Ian’s Berkshire and Wiltshire Winchcombe ancestry, but alas it also meant that we ended up going well out of our way: for in the middle of nowhere, at a hamlet named Great Shefford, we encountered what looked as if it must have been a very nasty road accident. We arrived on the scene obviously just a few minutes after a car had knocked down a cyclist at a T junction. Whatever was under the blankets on the road … it did not look hopeful. The handful of cars which had stopped included a nurse and a registered first-aid assistant amongst their passengers, and everything seemed to be well under control, so we took the T-junction road as a diversion and were solaced to pass, within a mile, police and ambulance heading to the scene.

Orcheston is a delightful village with its houses set on a winding and hilly lane. Some old, some new, some being renovated at huge cost (including the pub which has been turned into a cottage! Oh!) .. and with a large thoroughbred plus veterinary establishment. Anni and Rob have what was once an ordinary 1960s house which they have cleverly transformed into a very fair replica of a country mansion with, notably, a comfortable conservatory where one can sit looking out over a pretty, natural garden, and the English-green fields rolling away into the distance. There is a rumour that the new neighbours dream of llamas. I hope not.

Anni (being the elder sister) was in charge of our day, and it turned out to be a decidedly featureful one.
As with Oxford, I could rabbit on for pages about the beauties of Wiltshire and of Salisbury in particular, but you can see those in any book so I’m just going to stick to a few features of my personal day.
Feature one was undoubtedly lunch. Apparently The Ship Inn at Burcombe was a fluke. Anni had not been there before, the signs pointing to it simply turned up at the time that her mind signalled ‘lunch’. Thank goodness they did. Burcombe is a very small village, and the Ship I would say is a very old pub, perched on the bank on the River Avon. It has a nice green English lawn, overhung by very green English willows, ruffled by only a slight cool English breeze, and the sun was shining. It also makes very nice food. I had a chicken liver salad with onion marmalade plus a pint of my usual and it was all first rate. A grand start to our trip. Except that, when I went to pull out my spectacles to look at the menu .. they came out in two pieces. Why do these things always happen miles from Rangiora and Lindsay the spectacles-mender? Happily, the tiny screw that had come adrift was there in my pocket, so my first memory of Salisbury is a grateful one of the opticians shop which kindly screwed the whole thing back together for me, at no charge.

We strolled around the streets of Salisbury, where I ventured the odd photo of spots that appealed to me – such as the Buttercross and its surrounding buildings – and, of course, ended up where all streets lead to in Salisbury: the cathedral close. As always, Salisbury Cathedral was encased in scaffolding, as the endless work of restring the stone carving goes on, but the spire (so long swathed in metal) has been completed triumphantly, also the front, so the building really does look better than it has for decades.
We did not venture inside the Cathedral (6 pounds) nor into the museum (five pounds), but instead took a wander round the various lovely buildings that surround the Close. Some are leasehold, but some are freehold; some are institutions (like the museum), others are actually lived in .. one particularly lovely brick palazzo by Leslie Thomas. I didn’t realise THE VIRGIN SOLDIERS had sold that many copies.
As we passed the gatehouse of the North Canonry, a lady was polishing the brass plaques alongside the huge C15th or C16th doors. And Elizabeth recalled that she had served on a committee with the gentleman who lived there. The lady vouchsafed he was ‘at home; to us, and so we had the delightful pleasure of seeing one of these glorious ancient buildings from the inside.
Sir Robin Ibbs, sometime chairman of Lloyd’s Bank, and now I would guess in his eighties, is a really charming man. His new (second and decidedly younger) wife, Penny, equally delightful. And their ancient home is stuffed with C17th and C18th portraits, mostly of royalty or aristocracy, from the brushes of such artists as Kneller and Lely. But if the building is beautiful, and its contents stunning, it is the view which is the outstanding feature. From the front windows, you look out upon the green sward of the close and the towering cathedral, and at the back a long and lovely lawn and formal garden (‘the longest herbaceous border in England..’) run down to the edge of the water-meadows of Salisbury. Our hosts walked us right down to the garden’s end and I couldn’t resist snapping a photograph. Social gaffe? Probably. But when will I ever be in such a position again?

The other to be noted incident of our visit to Salisbury was a small decrease in my wardrobe. The Hannah’s slip-ons have performed remarkably. Goodness knows how many hundreds of kilometres they have racked up now. However, socks are something else. Those silky socks which feel so nice? They are not made for walking. Not only do they go to holes, they slide down underneath your feet and have to be endlessly tugged up. Today, I got sick of it and, as we passed a public rubbish bin I stopped stripped off my irritating socks and deposited them therein. A passing gentlewoman looked mildly surprised, but commented with a little smile (feigning to dig in the bin) ‘Oh dear, I just wanted a pair of socks..’. Funny. I’ll bet I remember that lady in umpteen years time when I have forgotten half the glories of Salisbury.

The afternoon having largely vanished, we headed back to Orcheston, a cup of tea, and at 6pm set forth for Oxford .. by the fast route. England really is less huge than one imagines and remembers. We made it from Wiltshire to Oxford in just an hour, to be greeted by a roast pork dinner .. and an earlier night than usual.

Friday, I had two things to do. I wanted to take a few photos of Oxford, and I was booked to visit the offices of the Dictionary of National Biography and the Grove Dictionary of Music, both now under the auspices of the Oxford University Press, and for both of which I am an ‘Advisor’. So around half past nine I headed into the centre of the town.
It is a while, of course, since I was in the offices of a major publisher. Or actually of any publisher at all. When I lived in London, of course, and my books were published by Macmillan, Bodley Head (both within walking distance of my home) and Basil Blackwell (in Oxford), I visited frequently. But since then my publishers have been mainly American companies, so our personal contacts have been almost entirely by mail. I suppose the last time I visited such an office in person would have been when Andrew and I visited the late Stanley Sadie to discuss the contents of OperaGrove .. getting on for twenty years ago!
Well, things haven’t really changed. The office of the late Colin Matthew (the editor of the new DNB who co-opted me, and who died during the dictionary’s compilation) is a model of the genre. I felt immediately at home. What seems to have changed, however, is the average age of the folk working on these ‘big books’. I sort of expected Jo Payne, who has been my contact at the DNB since forever, to be a little lady with little spectacles and a tight grey bun. Nothing of the sort, she is a voluptuous young brunette. And Laura, who has replaced the aged Stanley at the head of Grove, is another fine dashing young woman. Of course, it may be just that I have become twenty years older in the meanwhile ..
Anyway, as I chatted with the young ladies and their associates, I was overcome by a whiff of feeling that perhaps my loudly declared ‘retirement’ was a mistake. Perhaps it still would be fun -- in spite of my loud denials and refusals of the last dozen years or so – to be still part of something like this. Anyway, by the time I left (having talked so much I quite neglected to drink my coffee) I had reiterated that I was retired … BUT that I was still sort of available…
After all, if I don’t decide to go on and complete VICTORIAN VOCALISTS, all the material I have gathered could find no better home than in these two eternal reference works.
Eternal? I think so. For although it is fairly clear that neither the DNB nor GROVE will, under present day conditions, produce another print edition, they will carry on in electronic form. Already, Grove has an editor devoted solely to the electronic side. Sigh. What a revolution in publishing have I lived.

Note: I was delighted to see, on the Grove department’s small reference work shelf.. no less than four volumes by K F Ganzl. And it is terribly good for one’s self-esteem when ladies such as these not only know who you are but are genuinely interested in meeting you! But I am afraid I have entered the ‘venerable’ category. These young people doubtless look at me in the same way that I regarded such venerables of my own younger days as Arthur Jacobs. Ah well. The world keeps turning!

I strolled home via a few photo opportunities, and a nice wine shop (some bourgogne and chablis for the weekend suppers?), to a mighty luncheon, followed necessarily by a mighty afternoon nap … goodness, I could get used to this life! I wonder if there’s an Oxford college which would like a venerable musical-theatre expert on their staff for a term or two!
Dinner was swordfish – delicious! – and a green vegetable which is related to seaweed, has a name something like seraphim, and of which I had never heard. It makes a perfect complement to a fish dish, so I doubtless will encounter it again.

So now it is Saturday. A nice gently sunny morning. Elizabeth and Max the dog have gone out to Demonstrate at a nearby green space which is being threatened by developers; Allen has gone to the market; and I am quietly writing my diary in the kitchen while Katie the gardener does things in the back garden. All very civilised. This afternoon it is the Grand National. I haven’t seen the Grand National in more than 20 years…
And in just 48 hours I am off to France. Oxford-Paddington (train), Paddington-Waterloo (tube, oh heavens, after 20 years the London tube!), Waterloo-Paris Gare du Nord (train) .. the most adventurous bit of travel on my trip so far …

Also a venture into the unknown, for I fear that my ‘petit hotel’ in the Paris 14eme will not be Wi-Fi or Wi-Hi or whatever the official name is, so I may very well fall quiet for a week or two or three…

So, expect me when you hear from me…
And in the meanwhile
As ever


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