I’m sitting, on Mother’s Day, in the coffee shop of the National Trust’s property at Ightham Mote in Kent. John has gone outside to wait for Elisabeth, Robert and William to arrive. We’ve bagged a table and obtained a high chair. I’m sitting in my wheelchair as it’s more comfortable, and we’ve wedged a toy we’ve brought for William in the high chair. It’s a very large gorilla – we can only just stuff him in; with an engaging face and bright yellow eyes that follow you round the room. His long arms dangle down. It’s interesting how other visitors, after an initial startled glance, resolve into an attitude of calm indifference, as though a lady in a wheelchair accompanied by her pet gorilla in a baby’s high chair were quite an ordinary sight. (When William arrives, they relax and come over to us and enjoy the joke. He is a very engaging gorilla! And boy, of course.)

For the past few days, we’ve been wakened by the song of the nightingale. This, I regret to say, is not the unmitigated joy one might suppose! We haven’t heard them for a few years, so of course we’re delighted that they’ve prospered enough to be back. I have actually seen the nightingales here, only once, on the feeder. They were slightly larger than a thrush, a nondescript brown with some red in it. I had always supposed, before I heard it (they do not venture as far North as Scotland) that their famous song was of a joy and sweetness comparable with the thrush, robin or lark. Whereas in fact it is a long and complex series of shrieks, twizzles and other strident noises delivered at extraordinary volume.   It completely drowns out all other birdsong. The nightingale, I thought, is the Maria Callas of bird song. One is glad that nightingales live amongst us, but after about ten minutes uninterrupted shrieking, you’d secretly prefer just to turn it off.

I’m not really a fan of opera. It’s too emotional. It slips past your rational, logical persona and attacks your undefended emotional response. I once attended a performance of Rigoletto which was memorable for two reasons. The opening scene took place in a brothel, and the ladies of the chorus (or so I supposed) were dressed in rather jaw-dropping outfits where the bosom of the dress was made of see-through net, giving the appearance that the singers were topless. I whispered to Carolyn that I was surprised that the ladies of the chorus had agreed to dress like that. Carolyn snorted. “These aren’t ladies of the chorus,” she replied. “They are just floozies hired in for the tits.” The second unexpected reaction was my own, when Rigoletto sings his doomed song of love for his daughter, and how he hopes to keep her safe and hidden, and suddenly from nowhere I was overtaken by an entirely surprising and unwelcome storm of weeping for the pity of it and how impossible his wish was; and how his possessiveness was likely to destroy his daughter’s love. As I said, opera is too subversive for me.

And I was never a Callas fan. It seemed to me she strained too hard; she couldn’t just stand in her place and let the music flow through her; she was always striving to be the loudest.

And yet one evening, having delivered my children (and others) to Horsham for orchestra rehearsal, I was driving back alone through the hammer ponds, enjoying the fragrant summer evening, not really listening to an opera programme on the radio when suddenly Maria Callas was singing. I do not even remember what the aria was, but she was utterly magnificent. I drew my car into the side of the road and listened in rapt attention, shouted Brava! with the audience at the end, applauded and wept a little. Finally I could understand what people saw in Maria Callas. She was a diva, and whereas when she did not manage to cover herself with the mantle of the goddess the result was tawdry, when everything came together she became the goddess, if only briefly, and you felt yourself to be standing on holy ground. And all this in a lay-by as the sun went down somewhere between Horsham and Haywards Heath!

The gorilla when he makes his cry that resonates throughout the forest, and the nightingale when he drags us to wakefulness at 5.30 am are delivering the same urgent message.   Let us enjoy being alive!   Life!