I was entering the dates of the 2011/12 Brighton Philharmonic ( into my diary this week, and it made me recall one of the concerts of last year.

The opening work was Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest.    The Tempest is my favourite of all the Shakespeare plays, with its magic and its mysteries and its questions which cannot be answered.   And then there is the physical tempest.    A storm is a magnificent sight – dark, moody, flashes of lightening, wind, rain.   How it blows in and it passes on.   I love storms.

This music is such a disappointment.    Now, sadly, I’m somebody with no musical background or training whatsoever.    In my childhood I heard no music apart from hymns (which did not leave me with any particular fondness for them.)   I play no musical instrument, though I made sure all my children did.    I have a very ordinary, fair to middling sort of voice, so I did get picked for school choirs, but I was never very keen on the endless repetitions and the hanging about so much, and tended to avoid them.    My responses are therefore uneducated and ignorant, but intuitive; and I don’t really listen to music with any great expectations at all.

Sometimes my own reactions surprise me, as for example that I wept when hearing the Verdi song of the doomed love of Rigoletto for his daughter.   This surprised me; and I still weep whenever I hear it, which continues to surprise me.   One of my favourite Arias is O My Beloved Father,  (Puccini).   I paused in the writing of this blog to listen to Montserrat Caballe sing it (Monserrat Caballe – O Mio Babbimo Caro –   I once had the privelege of hearing her at an open air concewrt at Hampden Court.   I watched with scepticism as this fat, old woman was practically carried on stage.   But then she sang and you forgot all that and just saw the goddess that she was.   Music can be  treacherous and catch you unawares.   I’m suspicious of its visceral, non verbal, non-thinking tug at your emotions.

Some performances are electrifying from the moment the soloist picks up his instrument until he sounds the last retreating note.   Others are just attention seeking noises.

Long ago, in some now forgotten venue in Stirling, John and I went to hear some concert with a violin solo.   I can’t remember either the composer of the music, or the name of the soloist, but he was I do recall, a Norwegian.   He came on, performed the usual courtesies,  and  then picked up his violin.   He dedicated his whole being to the music, the spirit of the composer flowed through him, he never once glanced at, or seemed aware at all of the audience.    He played such that as it were he summoned the goddess to dance before us.   The audience was transfixed, beguiled, silent.   He played on withdrawn into his holy, magic place, until he caressed his bow through the final, haunting notes.   In the silence that followed he looked up at the audience for the first time, and being directly in his line of vision, his eye fell on me.   Still in that eerie pause where his enchantment had not quite released us, I mouthed silently, straight at him, ‘Wonderful’.    His sober face lit up.   The moment was just for us.   Then the audience began to roar and clap and he was everyone’s.

But no such magic occurred with the Tchaikovsky.   I do not think the composer’s heart was in it.   In my view he completely failed to capture the strange mystery and sacrifice at the heart of this play, when Shakespeare, in the mouth of Prospero, abjured ‘this rough magic’.   Whose ‘rough magic’ in all the history of the world, was greater than Shakespeare’s?   Yet in the writing are veiled expressions of regret, as if the writer felt he had abused his powers.   None of this enigma was described.   Nor could Tchaikovsky even deliver essence of storm.   When after only a few minutes you’re consulting your programme to see how many more minutes you must endure, it’s not a good sign.

The following Delius (Walk to the Paradise Gardens) was tedious.    My powers of dismissal (which are considerable) are not adequate to diss Delius.

Finally, Tchaikovsky’s Concert for Viola and Cello which did show a bit more spirit, but by this time I am tired and disgruntled and past caring.

But then as I said, I am an ignoramus.   The playing at least called up memories.    Another time, perhaps?

Play on.



Most people who know me will already understand that I enjoy clothes.

On the hanger, what suits me – plain, straight, block colours – is very dull.    As I’m short, I want any detail to be near my face.     I like natural fibres – cotton, silk, linen, wool, velvet –  they need more care with laundry but they feel comfortable and luxurious and my preferred colours are black, white, beige and red.   I told you – dull.   I’ve never been much interested in shoes because I don’t want to draw attention to my horrible feet, so no Imelda cupboard for me.    Plain, black and leather (dull.)   I’m no bag lady either.   Can’t be bothered shifting my stuff from bag to bag, so generally I buy a man’s ‘handbag’ in Europe – plain,  black, leather.  (Dull).

What I’ve never been interested in is ‘couture’ (or what I could afford in that direction).   Firstly, I never wear any name or logo.  Why should I be a walking advert for them, and pay for it besides?     I  feel clothes are in the same category as wine, up to a point you get what you pay for, but a £250 bottle of wine, while better than a £25 one, is not really £225 better (unless money is no object.)  (  I have tried both. )  With clothes, once you’ve paid the amount necessary for quality fabric and a good cut, after that it’s all name and  fashion, and personally I’m not willing to spend a great deal on that.

In September 2010 I visited the Fashion Museum in Bath, and for my money the star piece was a navy  blue outfit by the late Jean Muir, circa 1975, so understated in its elegant cut that you could have stepped out in it today.     With my friend, Sandra  I once went to Harvey Nicholls, where the Jean Muir clothes were beautifully made, worth every penny if you could afford them (ruining my own argument), and the Vivienne Westwood creations were, I thought attention seeking (which is quite the opposite of elegant)  and of inferior construction considering what they cost.

If you see a woman who has clearly spent vast sums on her clothes, whose shoes and bag are hugely expensive advertisements for the manufacturer, and who looks as if her toilette has taken her two hours to assemble – well, frankly, it’s not a look to which I aspire.   Though clothes are fun, and you need them for warmth and decency, it is all in a minor key.   You don’t want to look like some bimbo whose main function is as a clothes horse.    Victoria Beckham is a surprisingly elegant woman, but she’s not a role  model I’d emulate.   Following fashion slavishly smacks of a lack of confidence, as if you only feel OK when protected by this glittering armour, fortified with labels.   You should also feel OK in your oldest  trousers and woolly top.   You don’t want to look like ‘a woman, dressed in Couturier X’s 2010 collection, who has spent the equivalent of a small country’s annual budget on today’s ensemble’.    You want to look like Roberta, well dressed as usual.

The Queen in her role as Monarch, displaying the nation’s wealth, often wears rather more jewellery than  might be deemed elegant if worn by other ladies.   Yet the Queen always looks greater than the sum of her jewels.    What is more, the Queen still looks queen in an old tweed jacket and a headscarf, and I have no  doubt looks majestic in her dressing-gown should anyone be privileged to see her so attired.

Some people’s lack of natural facility with dress is positively endearing.   Shirley Williams (now Baroness, I believe?) always had an untidy, slightly dishevelled appearance as if the assembly of her wardrobe defeated her – but she was an intelligent lady, spoke kindly and with sense.   Does it matter she’ll never make  the best dressed list?

Sometimes people get sent on courses, how to dress like a corporate crocodile, or be a true blue Tory  MP’s wife.   If they follow ‘the rules’ too closely, the result is not successful.   One’s dressing should express one’s individuality.   Even people who are frankly eccentric in their dressing – we can all think of some – while not being perhaps what might be called ‘elegant’, contribute to the gaiety of the nation.

National attitudes to dress also vary.   The French are famously elegant, and I think French women have fewer, but more costly, clothes.    Although I have bought clothes in America, on the whole what suits them doesn’t suit me.    And you absolutely do NOT want to be like a woman I observed in Boston, Massachussets.   She came rushing out of a changing room, exuding stress like a wounded animal oozes blood, and demanded of the hapless salesgirl, Does this suit me?   She was an angular, big boned woman, and the pretty, fussy outfit merely emphasised her lack of femininity.    The girl hesitated, and in that pause the customer perceived the true answer, and rushed back into the changing room, shouting about how unhelpful the staff were.   It was an extraordinary performance, and I felt like saying to her, Wear a sack until you learn to behave better.   Nothing about clothes is so important that it could justify this behaviour.

As for those gimlet eyed but vulgar people who examine us from top to toe, mentally labelling our clothes,  pricing our watches, assessing our handbags, they reveal the poverty of their values.    Don’t they know that WE are the valuable objects, and not the baubles we wear?

Incidentally, I’m not sure that my daughters  or daughter in law would entirely agree with me.     They are all adept at combining  inexpensive items with ‘investment pieces’ and have  indulged themselves from time to time with king’s ransom handbags, shoes or what have you.    With their own money, why not?    There are far worse things one can spend money on.

It’s amazing how old and dull I have become.   I could be my grandmother (herself a good dresser) delivering annoying little moral tales.     Clothes are fun and pleasurable.   It’s good to aspire to elegance.   But, though frankly I’m amazed to find myself saying this, in the end, it’s not the clothes that really matter.   It’s who’s wearing them.

Clothes DON’T make the man.

(The photograph at the top, by kind permission of my cousin Sheena Murphy, shows our grandmother, Margarett Macdonald, on Lewis.   My mother is the infant in the pram, and the young man is Lewis Macdonald, our uncle.)



The wedding of her brother having taken place, Elisabeth and I are discussing plans for her wedding next
year.   I am happy to report that the problems recounted below no longer apply and we can recommend a very helpful establishment to anyone in our area.

One day last February – house in chaos, noisy, cold – new boiler being fitted.    Wearing plaid new jacket (bought in Spain, 15 Eu) escape out with Carolyn.   It is a bright sunny day.

We go to  cake decorating shop in nearby town run by fát wheezing old lady who reminds me of a Pekinese in her unhealthy petulance.   Shop full of hideous, bad taste brides and grooms, highly coloured sugar flowers and illustrations of truly horrible looking cakes that you wouldn’t fancy eating let alone buying.   Carolyn buys a few neutral items for a forthcoming party – Carolyn has excellent taste –  while I look around.    I tell the woman I am to make a wedding cake but not until next year.     She snuffles around and then observes sourly, Of course a lot can happen in a year…   I think, and a pox on your head also, and I exit the shop.      I won’t be going there even if I do have a collapse of taste and want a Fat Controller man and a farmer’s wife bride plus flowers of no colour that nature ever intended to grace some attention seeking cake.

We  examine various coffee shops : I decline them all.

Carolyn drives on to Hassocks where we stop outside a Bridal shop.   Elisabeth is coming home in May and wishes to visit such a place with me but she has limited time.      Carolyn and I approach the shop where the window boldly displays, brilliant as a Belisha beacon, a crinoline dress of deepest red such as might have gladdened the heart of Scarlet O’Hara plus a pretty wedding dress.        The doors are locked but we can see a  casually dressed woman within.    Carolyn raps on the glass and summons her.    She unlocks the door  and her opening words to us are, I can’t see you now, a bride is due to arrive.    I’m for turning on my heel, but Carolyn says pleasantly we’d just like a look around.   Reluctantly she admits us but darkly informs us that we’ll have to take our shoes off.     The floor is wooden.    Our shoes neither have heels nor are they wet.   I’m tired by this time and rather shaky.   It’s not that simple taking my shoes off.   ‘Why do we have to take our shoes off?’ I demand of Carolyn.   Most Charming Saleslady in Sussex has her shoes on.    By this time,  Carolyn (may she be rewarded for her patience) has resorted to humouring me as you would  a fractious child.      Meanwhile, Most Charming Saleslady in Sussex is standing in the open door gossiping to friends who were passing.   I never move off the mat so she must be aware that I am a miasmic column of dark cloud at her elbow giving off occasional lightening flashes.    Carolyn kindly suggests that she fetch me a chair and brings me the dresses but the only chair is too heavy to move.   Most Charming Saleslady in Sussex gossips on.   She never so much as glances in our direction.   “Let’s go,” I say to Carolyn who nods in agreement.     “Excuse me,” I say to Most Charming Saleslady in Sussex.   As we step past her, through her two gossiping friends, she tutts in vocal disapproval.

As we drive off having asked several people on the street if this village has somewhere nice for
coffee and been directed to a Chinese restaurant which wasn’t really what we had in mind, we recall  that we visited an equally unimpressive wedding dress establishment in Lewes, not quite so unprofessional but just as unwelcoming, in the run up to Carolyn’s daughter’s wedding.   What is wrong with these places?   I would have thought two older matrons such as ourselves would be potentially valuable customers.    We’re unlikely to be fantasists trying on wedding dresses not yet having secured the groom.   We could be what we were, mother of the bride and friend sussing out the place to make an appointment to return with the bride to be; or we could be mothers of the bride shopping for bridesmaids’ dresses, or grandmothers looking for  flower girl or communion dresses.   Profitable business, all of it.   Well, Elisabeth and I won’t be going there.   These women, for some reason that I don’t understand, have an attitude problem.   It’s as if you ought to be grateful to be allowed to patronise their glorious establishment.     They should remind themselves hourly that you are the Customer and the Lady, and they are the salesgirl who is there to help you (and relieve you of your cash.)

We stop in Ditchling and fall into the arms of The General where we are graciously received and restored
with a cup of Lapsang Souchong and a delicious, moist, enormous Bakewell Tart shared between us (well, Carolyn has an elegant sufficiency and I have the rest) and come laughing out into the street where we discover that Carolyn has been given a ticket for illegal parking in spite of the fact that we are clearly displaying my Disabled Person’s card.     (This is entirely my mistake and stupidity:  I have forgotten to display the clock.)

In these places today, we got neither the service, nor the smile.   Oh, for the Japanese sales lady!




I wake up early in the morning and begin reading If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo
Calvino.   It’s on my list – no idea why.   (I’m ploughing through, on my list from several years ago, a whole tranche of books on essays on English literature, so it is possible it was suggested as an example of a type of

So, the Calvino.   It’s a tease.  So far it’s about the process of reading a novel, and our expectations are continually dashed.    It’s as if the author stood behind you, continually looking over your shoulder and interrupting.    It is amusing, clever, different.   I arrive at page 34, however and now I am becoming irritated.    I am famously (or notoriously depending on where you stand) fast to a decision, and readily  bored, and I find abandoning things very easy.    John (and my friend Anne) want their money’s worth;   they can see things through to the bitter end;  and I can see the virtue of that viewpoint too, so I have quite often sat through things with them that left to my own devices I would have left after 15 minutes.    (They rarely do improve, but at least if you stay, you know you gave them every chance.)

We once went to a summer production of the Tempest in a nearby garden, Anne, Carolyn, Nan on a visit
from Scotland and most of our spouses.   I read the production notes, and announced, Let’s go now.   Of course I was over-ruled, and we had an enjoyable evening together, and saw the play.   The staging was very good; the acting was quite acceptable; the costumes were wonderful – but the production failed, because the director (in my opinion) had no idea at all what the play was actually about.

Anyway, I leave the Calvino to do other things and return to it later but it is no use.   Once you arrive at that state where the unspoken collaboration between writer and reader has dissolved, then the novel
turns, as in fairy stories, to ashes in your hands.    That suspension of disbelief, so essential for enjoyment of a novel, has been lost.    This author is extremely intelligent and erudite and he can present his material in any disguise he chooses.      He interrupts himself; he leads us up blind alleys;  he loses us in city badlands and leaves us with neither money nor a map.   He plays a game of cat and mouse.   But of course
this is a game only the author can win, since he is writing the drama.   As I proceed, I come to dislike him, and I do not wish to play the only role allocated to the reader:  the manipulated object.

After about 60 pages I begin to ‘skiff’.     To skiff means to row across a body of water in a small boat, so I don’t know quite why I misuse this word – perhaps there is the suggestion of just slipping along on the
surface of things, for I mean I turn the pages of the book, looking to see if anything jumps out and stops me in my progression through the pages; when I get to the end, I read the last page.      It is as I suspected – there is no story.     I wonder if this creation – rather like the froth on a coffee, but without the coffee – was easier to produce than an actual novel.

To add insult to injury, I find a few comments have been pencilled in on the final pages.   I loathe any markings on a book.   These are difficult to read.   They don’t make sense as they stand, nor can
I find any meaningful connection between the notes and the text.    When I find myself squinting at the page to determine whether the notes are actually an authorial device, I think Paranoia alert!   This book isn’t good for the reader – open at your peril.   Or actually, don’t.   It’s not worth the bother.

This author is too clever for me.

PS   When I consult the oracle (ie the internet) this is a famous ‘post modernist’ puzzle.    Sting
named one of his albums after it, which places it just about where I figured it should go.