Friday, January 1, 2021

Vienna and the Bani Waltz

 Like most New Years Days of my life when I have been in proximity to a TV, I watched the New Year's concert from the Vienna Philharmonics,  conducted this year once more by Riccardo Muti. 

It was an eerie affair this time, because the glorious Musikverein concert hall, normally filled with the world's great and good- or at least the richest-was empty. But at the same time there was ZOOM participation from a multitude of nations: a more democratic crowd, representing  the 50 million or so spectators world wide. Riccardo Muti ended the concert with some well-chosen words to the world's leaders about the healing power of music and culture.

This event is of course  a  vortex of unashamedly old fashioned Europe:  those glorious Viennese waltzes played normally  to all those well-healed white people- the cameras always having trouble seeking out someone to represent all the other races in our diverse world. But nevertheless the message is always a joyful one which rings out to all the world, and no New Year's Day would be complete without it.

The penultimate offering of the orchestra is always an der schonen blauen Donau: the Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss. This particular famous Waltz has particular significance for me because it reminds me of Mali- yes, strangely, it brings a very specific memory of the  New Year 2006 when my friends and I was on that holiday which came to change my life. The setting was the Bani river:

 We  had hired two pirogues and their pirogiers to paddle us between Sanouna by Djenne and Mopti. The journey took three days and two nights, and included New Year's Eve, when we made a fire on the shore after we had pitched our tents. We then sat down to try and entertain ourselves until twelve. That is quite a long time, since the sun sets about six thirty. So we decided that our midnight would arrive an hour earlier...We were an international bunch: Andrew from the UK, Pia and Anna from Sweden and Andreas from Austria. We all now performed whatever we could remember of the songs and poems of our respective languages, we played games etc. At our designated 'midnight', a large casserole was placed on my head, and twelve gongs rang out as the casserole was banged with a large wooden soup ladle. Once I had recovered from this, Andreas started singing An der schonen  blauen Donau, as he bowed before me in an old fashioned European way and we began to waltz on the sandy shore of the Bani, the others soon joining us, all humming away  with the full moon above us- even the pirogiers joined in as we taught them to waltz!

Therefore that particular waltz, at the beginning of a New Year, brings happy memories of the beginning of a very different year, which brought with it the beginning of my new Malian existence. I am hoping this year might bring something lovely too...?

A Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Illegal Christmas

We have just spent an illegal Christmas here in my Ladbroke Grove Flat- Andrew and Pia who were first with me for that legendary trip to Mali at  Christmas and New Year 2005-6, and Ralf. our German friend. 
It was illegal in so far as we all live alone, so therefore, under the emergency laws now in force we were all only strictly allowed to see one more person, and that was supposed to be outside! So that was of course no good...
There was a way of breaking the law which  let us off the hook at the same time as remaining safe in the knowledge that we were not spreading the disease...

 I had found a pharmacy in Portobello Road that made 20 minute  while-u-wait-Covid tests. Before my guests arrived, they had to go and get themselves tested... then come straight to Ladbroke Grove.  

Fortunately we were all Negative, so we could carry on and celebrate Christmas together. Christmas Eve was a Swedish affair, below with the Swedish Pia- there was herring of course, and Janssons Frestelse, and Julskinka and Glogg and Schnapps and smoked Elk sausage  and Ris a la Malta...  other nations had culinary representations in the form of Champagne and Panettoni of course...
And it went on to Christmas Day when Britain was finally represented in the form of a traditional Turkey dinner with all the trimmings including Pigs in Blankets, Cranberry sauce and Brussel Sprouts with chestnuts etc. and a marvellous Christmas Pud from the Garrick Club! 

Andrew below is wearing his mask for a moment as a means of identifying the year for future reference... there was the Queen's speech- lovely I thought- then prezzies for every one- before we were supposed to play those obligatory games- but the Charades were dropped by the way-side this year, as instead we all sank happily into watching a great double bill of Graham Greene stories- both famous classics: first Brighton Rock (the 1948 version of course), then the Third Man. 


It was interesting to see these two in succession, because they both feature two great Greene heroines who love their villainous men with a sort of unconditional, religious fervour. In the case of the angelic Rose, she is able to remain with  the merciful delusion  that Pinkie loved her; while Anna, on the contrary, knows fully the depth of Harry Lime's crimes, she even understands that he didn't love her. It doesn't matter to her. Her rejection of Martins when she walks past him without acknowledgment in the final scene is sublime...

After all a lovely Christmas in these strange times!

Monday, December 7, 2020

Picnics galore

has been the survival mechanism in this bizarre year. And yesterday was no exception. Some months  after we would normally have abandoned the park benches and grassy slopes for the comfort of a roaring fire in a lovely country pub, we are still gathering in the increasingly fresh air...


And here we are, having our picnic,  in Chalfont St. Giles where the pub to the left behind us no doubt would have been able to offer us  that roaring fire, but  was not able to let us in of course.  Amersham, the last outpost of the Metropolitan line, was the  beginning of our 9mile (15 k) circular walk, which included visiting (the outside of)  Milton's house where he is said to have finished Paradise Lost.

It was our book club outing. This book club is a very elastic and tenacious affair, able to mould itself around whatever circumstances is thrown at it. For two and a half years we were 'the Dantistas', who nearly managed to get through the Divine Comedy at my flat on Wednesdays, but when only half of Paradiso remained we were stopped in our tracks by this pandemic. Something lighter was needed, and we read Love in the Time of Cholera while our meetings became either ZOOM or mutated into socially distanced picnics in the summer months. 

And then our reading material became even shorter- now we read a short story a week, working through a series of the genre's greats: Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Raymond Carver etc. And sometimes we even read one we have penned ourselves! But, we will return to Dante once day...

 We ran into some very friendly horses, in a muddy field and I reflected how very fat they are in comparison to horses in Mali!


And that brings me back to that dear subject again: I will be leaving for Mali and Djenne at the end of January, inchallah, to see 'my' people in the library in particular. The project is still running and I speak to them every Saturday morning on WhatsApp.  Until then I spend most of my days trying to put the Djenne memoir into shape...on the second draft now. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Queen's Gambit

 Lockdown again, but there are some consolations, thankfully. The new instalment of The Crown is beginning on Sunday- hurray! and of course everyone is going crazy for the excellent Netflix series 'The Queens Gambit'. All those people who never wanted to play chess with me are now taking lessons online...that is of course great news. I have played all my life. It is the game of the Gods!

When  my friend Neville came to visit me at  Hotel Djenne Djenno in 2008 he brought me the novel 'The Queen's Gambit' by Walter Tevis. as  a present because he knew I loved the game. I loved the book too, and read it twice. So I was very pleased that it was turned into a Netflix series.

This new collective chess fever reminded me of a time towards the end of my life in Mali, and I thought it may be worth re-posting what I wrote in  August 2016. I called the Blog post

                                      'Chess Psychosis:'


"I am a very mediocre chess player but that doesn’t stop me from spending hours every day recently playing chess on my computer (Microsoft  Chess Titans: the reason why I refuse to update my Windows from Windows 7) There is something here in Mali that is not conducive to reading: I read in England and in Sweden but here I find myself watching old favourite movies and TV series  on DVDs that I bring out from Europe instead. To counteract this passivity and to give myself some mental stimulation – and frankly mainly because I find it exciting- I play a lot of chess. 

My love affair with this game started when I was around twelve, thirteen: my next door neighbour and class mate Britta and I lived a brief moment in search of ‘cultural refinement’  and in our youthful view of things we  saw this state as something that could be achieved through playing chess and listening to classical music. I remember many happy afternoons at her place playing chess and listening to the Brandenburg concertos. Then soon after we discovered boys and other distractions that led us astray from this pure and virtuous road towards refinement and enlightenment.

I did not forget chess entirely  though, and when I lived in Islington in London in the eighties and  early nineties I ran a  chess club every Thursday for three years. Anybody could come and I never knew who would turn up. We did have one or two grand masters  who graced our club once or twice  but it was a light-hearted sort of chess club because alcohol was served and of course alcohol + chess do not mix. But never mind- there was plenty of laughter and there was drawing going on too and poetry- making  by anyone who had not found a partner yet: I still have three glorious ‘chess diaries’ from those happy Thursdays.  I also have my friend Biggles’ (who drew the chess problem above) wonderful chess biscuit cutters that he made for me which he presented me with when he arrived on the chess club’s first anniversary: he had made a chocolate and shortbread chess board with all the chess pieces which were to be eaten as they were taken! It goes perhaps without saying that most of my friends at this time were artists...One of them , dear Stirling, sent me a parcel as Christmas greeting one year. When I opened it I found three kings from three different Chess sets.

That was Islington. Then in the nineties I moved to Notting Hill and lo and behold: noone wanted to play chess!  (An opportunity for a study by an anthroplologist or sociologist perhaps?) So I opened my Tuesday ‘salon’ where people played all sorts of things but not normally chess.

I am just recovering from a rather nasty attack of malaria. It sounds more alarming than it is because there are remedies that are tried and trusted so no one that can afford to pay should need to be suffering for more than three of four days at the most. But there is no doubt that the first couple of days are quite rough. Keita’s old collegue Barry came and gave me injections and they lowered my fever and stopped my vomiting . But I was clearly not in a state to do anything strenuous and I needed to rest. So I started to play chess. This turned out to be a big mistake. Chess should only be played in good health, and even then it should not be overdone. I  remember when I started my chess club in Islington that I became ‘overheated’- that is I played too much . That means one gets into a neurotic state when one sees everything around one as chess pieces and one becomes a chess piece oneself. I mean that if I am walking down a corridor and someone is walking straight towards me I feel that I have to decide whether I am a bishop or a rook and therefore whether I should move out of the way diagonally or crash straight into the oncoming person, taking it. It never actually got to that point but the temptation was there and that was annoying enough.

So I played too much chess and I watched  (once more!)  too much Downton Abbey yesterday. These two past times turned out to be an unholy marriage and the  result was quite frightening in my malarial state. When I had finally had enough and decided to go to bed I could not sleep because I was suffering from chess overheating. The very annoying thing was that everything had turned into chess pieces again, just like that time in Islington. I mean that the chairs in Cousin Isabel’s drawing room had started to move like chess pieces in my mind when I closed my eyes.  When I opened them to escape this  I found that the few light sources I leave on when I sleep here alone now had also become chess pieces. There was no escaping it. I was tired so I decided to pray for peace to go to sleep but this didn’t work either; I found myself transported onto a big chess board in the sky where  I was kneeling in front of the King with all sorts of nasty looking enemy bishops and knights looking down on me ready to pounce! I suppose this King eventually did answer my prayers because I did fall asleep from utter exhaustion in the end..."
My frequent commentator David then sent a comment drawing my attention to a great little silent film which is available on Youtube: Shakhmati Goryachki (Chess Fever)
It is charming and well worth checking out!

Thursday, November 5, 2020

The Last Again!

It was a lovely sunny day yesterday. It was also the last day before England closed down once again in a Covid lockdown. This day needed to be celebrated and have all its possibilities squeezed out from it!

 I was excited by yet  another invitation by David for a music event- this time it was a concert by the City of London Symphonietta at Southwark Cathedral- they were to play Haydn's London Symphony at 2pm. So I thought I would walk. 

The route from Ladbroke Grove to Southwark Cathedral is almost a perfect diagonal trajectory from north west to south east central London across some of the city's  loveliest territory: I crossed Hyde Park where I saw my destination in the far, far distance: the Shard, that beautiful spike of a sky scraper where I was treated to a great dinner  by my Minnesota bosses almost exactly a year ago, is just next to Southwark cathedral and seen faintly here in the centre of the picture above the Serpentine.

            I crossed Hyde Park Corner  and continued through Green Park, up the Mall to Trafalgar Square                                                                 

and then crossed the river, ending up at the south bank, which was full of people that had had the same idea as I, wanting to enjoy London for the last time, milling about by  the river side cafes, bars and restaurants.

I was worried about time and walked fast. I had never walked this way before but wanted to find out whether it was possible to walk all the way by the river- and of course it was: it has been possible since 1977, when the Silver Jubilee walkway was put in place to celebrate the Queen's 25th year on the Throne. 

When I passed the 'Wobbly Bridge'- that's what people have been calling the  Millenium Bridge since it  had to be fixed and stabilized when it first opened and 'wobbled' in 2000- I had about half an hour to go ...


I passed the Globe and there, suddenly it was! Southwark Cathedral with the Shard keeping it company  in safe social distance...It had taken me almost exactly 2 hours. I thoroughly recommend this walk for an experience of London!

The concert was beautifully played with Haydn's last triumphant symphony joining the sunshine to make the day a joyous last fanfare before it all closed down today again...and David took me for Tapas and wine in the lovely, trendy Borough market after the concert where  hundreds of people had the same idea but we were lucky to find a table. A lovely day!


Thursday, October 29, 2020

And more divine song again!

I have been blessed with being invited to yet  another heavenly performance: Yesterday it was the first time  that The Royal Opera House opened its doors again since March, allowing first and second year students of  their Jette Parker Young Artists Programme to perform French, Italian and Russian songs - Liszt Poulenc, Strauss, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky ...

Dear David took me and we had the best seats in the Linbury Theatre downstairs at the ROH- but then David is of course a Music Critic Extraordinaire and here is his revue:

I was childishly thrilled and proud to see that he took one of my suggestions on board-I am not an opera aficionado and normally don't have anything interesting to contribute-I am just happy to tag along... but this time  I thought the  Russian mezzo/contralto Kseniia Nikolaieva (above) was full of drama and had the look and sound of Azucena  in Il Trovatore and said so to David. And  he wrote in his revue:  "Hers is a big voice unleashed with enough power to tell us that with careful handling she will undoubtedly go where her compatriots Olga Borodina and Ekaterina Semenchuk have already trod, in roles with very specific voice-type requirements like Verdi’s Azucena in Il trovatore." (!!!)


And meanwhile, back in Mali, another sort of song takes place as Maouloud has once more been celebrated. The festival commemorating the birth of the Prophet Mohammed  is the most important of all in  Djenne and I was often invited to the Fatias, or the Koran recitations held by the great Djenne families which I knew through the Manuscript Library. Sometimes the melodious chanting would carry on all night and  would hear it drifting across from the many Koran schools in town as I lay under the mosquito net in the warm night...

Monday, October 26, 2020

The Last and the First...

...visit to the English National Opera at London's Coliseum- that is to say: on the 14th of March I went to see the 'Mariage of Figaro' there with a happy little group of friends. We did not know that that was the very last evening such things were possible. It was the very last normal day in London before everything locked down.

And on this Saturday, the 24th of October the Coliseum opened its doors once more, and I was there again with my old Swedish friend Pia  for this first performance - 'socially distanced'  of course with only about one third of the seats available and filled. And once more it was Mozart- a performance  from  Opera students singing a selection of famous arias - the love duets at a safe distance...Nevermind that. The grateful audience was  loving being there again. The enthusiasm was infectious and the bravo's, clapping and whistling made it all sound like La Scala Milan.  

God knows we all want some reason to clap and cheer now as the light is fading and the temperature is sinking while the Covid count is rising and Pandemic fatigue is settling down on London.

But life carries on regardless in it inexorable way and the habits that have taken hold in during these strange months continue- such as my Chess Sundays with my friend Ralf from the German embassy- he kindly lets me practice my German on him, but he is less kind when it comes to the chess and does not let me win very often. Here is last Sunday's game, black to move. I am white and I have got him on the ropes for once- to be continued next Sunday.

And the walks continue- now the winter clothes have once more made their appearance as the year is turning towards its close. We started walking in March and we still continue to walk. I wonder how many hundreds of miles up and down and around the streets and Parks of London...?

Dreams and plans of moving to warmer climes or to the country still figure but nothing is decided yet- I have put my flat on the market but I am beset by feelings of uncertainty and a the future is just a huge question mark. Nevermind. I guess it will be OK. Or will it?