In Anticipation: Oxford Poetry Professor Will Be Announced Today

I’m on a bus to London at the moment, on my way to catch another bus to Aldeburgh to sing BWV 198 tonight in Snape Maltings (that alto aria! It’s ravishing to sing in spite of the impossibly long phrases – Bach, you bastard). But my mind is entirely on the election for the next Oxford Professor of Poetry, whose results will be announced today.  

Will it be A.E. Stallings, Simon Armitage, Wole Soyinka, Ian Gregson, or Sean Haldane? It’s very likely to be one of the first three; the others probably don’t have high enough profiles to attract sufficient votes (although Haldane did come third last time, in a very different race). 
Soyinka, the Nigerian activist-poet, is the most distinguished, with a Nobel prize, a stint in prison under an oppressive regime, and fifty years of writing about human rights under his belt, but there are serious doubts about his commitment to the role as a teaching position. Simon Armitage would make a fine and energetic choice, and I admire him immensely, but my preference is for A.E. Stallings. 

A major regret is that I voted for Simon Armitage before I was asked to write a piece about the election for Quadrapheme. At the tine of voting, I had only done some cursory research by reading the Guardian’s coverage of the contest (which gave the impression that Soyinka and Armitage were the distant front-runners and nobody else was really involved). I hope other Oxford graduates eligible to vote were more thoughtful, but I have a horrible feeling the one-sided media coverage may have had a heavy impact.

It wasn’t until I started reading about each of the candidates in depth in order to write the piece that I understood how vital A.E. Stallings is, as a poet, translator, and classicist. She’s also a terrific public speaker, and an incredible advocate for the discipline and transcendence of poetic endeavour. For what it’s worth, I warmly endorse her for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry, and look forward anxiously to hearing the result later today. We need more women in positions like this, and while I don’t believe in forcing the issue by appointing people who aren’t the equals of their competitors just to fill a quota, it would make me immensely happy to see A.E. Stallings – an American, a scholar, a woman, a new Formalist – in such an influential post, especially in a year when Oxford has nominated its first female Vice-Chancellor. 

For deeper background, head over to Quadrapheme.  

Chinese Youth Culture Explodes: Reviewing “Little Emperors And Material Girls”

Over at Quadrapheme today, I’ve written about Jemimah Steinfeld’s superlative new nonfiction book, Little Emperors And Material Girls. You can find the review here.

It really is the most gripping work of research I’ve ever laid my hands on. This might be because I have a vested interest; I spent the first eight years of my schooling in Chinese-language schools in Beijing and Singapore, and find today’s China overwhelming, strange, and familiar at the same time.  Steinfeld writes fluently with a wonderful air of confidentiality; it feels like getting together with an old friend to talk avout the state of Chinese culture today.

Several things didn’t make it into the review because there wasn’t space, mostly colourful wedding-related facts. Here’s my favourite: Chinese  brides hire multiple wedding dresses and have elaborate photo shoots in several picturesque locations (some as distant as London, as reported here) well before the ceremony, often dressed up as princesses from classical times with actors playing their palanquin-bearers, or in thoroughly modern outfits — the crucial thing is variety. They might have a few different white dresses (some slinky, some huge ball gowns), a few red ones (Chinese tradition associates red with prosperity and celebration, while white is traditionally a funeral colour), and sometimes more outlandish outfits that allow them create symbolic  tableaux with their husbands-to-be. It’s symptomatic of the exuberant materialism, the joyful embrace of excess, that’s taken hold in China among the young and moneyed. But I mustn’t go on – head over to Quadrapheme to see the full review.

Dragon Research and Masonic Eavesdropping

It’s been a little while since the last one. Business (and busy-ness) shouldn’t prohibit me from following the example of Esther-in-the-past and feverishly churning out blog posts in every spare minute (on the commuter bus, mostly), but I suspect that sort of steam comes in waves, to use a gorssly mixed metaphor. Nevertheless, I am BACK.

If you’re a regular commuter of some kind, whether daily or every so often, you’ll have strange, synchronistic experiences that involve seeing the same person on both your journeys in one day — even if you took the bus at a completely irregular time. This happened to me yesterday. After lunch, heading into London, I noticed that the two men behind me were both in white shirts and dark suits, with lapel pins, but they were too old to be Mormon missionaries (one was probably mid-forties and one was at least 70), so I went back to my reading, with only mild eavesdropping. Their conversation indicated that they didn’t know each other well, and the younger man said he hadn’t been into central London for five years, to which the older one expressed polite disbelief. It wasn’t desperately interesting, and after the first few pleasantries they suddenly lowered their voices, so I gave up.

And then there they were again as I got on the bus at Baker Street late last night, in precisely the same pair of seats. Mine from earlier was empty, so I sat back in it, giving them a big smile first to indicate that I’d recognized them. They didn’t react, so I forced the issue, since otherwise I worried they’d think that I’d turned around to grin at them because I was some kind of weirdo. Although, in retrospect, I probably compounded that effect. Oh well.

“Hello! Didn’t you sit behind me on the journey into London as well? This afternoon?” I said, peering through the gab between the headrests. They both looked up with considerable alarm.

“Oh no, I don’t think so,” said the older one.

“It was the 1.20 bus,” I said, undeterred.

“That was our bus…” began the younger one.

“Maybe,” said the older one, and gave me a polite smile that said, “Please turn around, young lady.”

I finished reading my article just as their conversation got really interesting. They were gently tipsy, and though I could tell that they were still trying to keep their voices low, the volume would rise gradually until, every few minutes, they remembered, and started the slow crescendo again. They were talking about the words used in rituals and how nowadays more people are sadly dependent on “the book”, but that at this particular event it was pleasing to note that “hardly anyone needed it… not that there’s anything wrong with using it, of course…” There was mention of “lodges” and “chapters”. I kept careful track of pronouns.

Now I was intrigued. Masons! How thrilling! Visions of secret societies and bizarre candlelit rituals in underground vaults danced in my head. Unfortunately, at this point, they started talking about Oxford, and its nominee for Vice-Chancellor, who is (gasp) a woman.

As my cousin Pat would say, “Priority interrupt!” Before I tell you what they said about the new/forthcoming Vice-Chancellor, I want to ask you (all three of you, dear readers): why are masons so exciting to non-masons? They’re just a male networking organisation whose members really, really like to dress up. (Although a quick google search has revealed this: there are lady-masons too!) It’s got to be about the secrecy. Make something secret and people will struggle and pry and strain to find out just a little about it, even if it isn’t fundamentally interesting.

Anyway, the prospective Vice-Chancellor. What I heard went like this.

“…she’s Irish. Born in Ireland, educated in America, I believe.”

“So practically American.”

“Oh yes. Name escapes me… She’s up at St Andrew’s at the moment. Goodness knows how she’ll cope at Oxford. It takes a very specific skill set. Oxford’s never had a female V-C before.”

“Well, we all make mistakes.” Quiet snorts of laughter.

“Mmm, quite. I hope her Latin’s up to it.” Chuckling, with general noises of agreement.

This gave me pause. Professor Louise Richardson, currently Vice-Chancellor at St Andrew’s, has been hailed in almost all circles as a Very Good Thing, and I’d never heard her openly criticised like this just for being a woman. The news of her nomination has been welcomed in most quarters, and the University as a whole seems to be looking forward to her socially-inclusive, progressive influence. But maybe I move in more female-friendly circles these days.

The Cherwell published an opinion piece on the 6th of June that brought up concerns that as a former Harvard administrator, Richardson might encourage the corporatisation of Oxford, raising salaries for faculty in tandem with escalating tuition fees. It was a very good point, but the article itself was sadly sophomoric in style and content. The writer hysterically proclaimed that Oxford is “a university that ought to be run by and for students, workers and the wider community”, which makes me wonder where teaching and administrative staff are supposed to fit in. Not to mention the allegation that “these vice-chancellors prefer that the tuition fee cap be lifted than for the government to raise taxes on millionaires like themselves”. (Take a deep breath, James Elliott!) This is the only negative press I’ve been able to find on Richardson’s nomination, though. I’d love to get a more nuanced view – please reply in comments if you have any thoughts on her, from any perspective. I’m thrilled that Oxford will soonhave a woman at the helm, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll be a great V-C. Discuss.

In lighter news, A BOOK HAUL. All from Treadwell’s, an esoteric second-hand-books-and-more shop whose titles range from English history to books on Judaism, shamanism, and folklore. I should have gone there a year ago for resources, given the nature of the novel-in-progress. One reaction in rehearsal last night to the dragons book was, “Isn’t your book about witches?” Why, yes. But one of them has a dragon problem…

Here’s the dragon book:

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And here are some samples. This “reference” book is deliciously tongue-in-cheek, which suits the tone of the novel nicely. I have no illusions that I’m writing anything more sophisticated than commercial fiction.

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I got two others. “Maypoles” is reportedly a long-time standard text for This Sort Of Thing (folklore, magic, country customs, saints’ days, etc.), and “Auguries and Omens” has already proved enormously useful on the subject of magpies. Apologies that their very similar blue covers make it look like that’s one book, not two.

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A sample for the 9th of June, St Columba’s Day:

“As men of peace go, St Columba was abnormally violent and competitive.” And: “If you wear the flower St John’s Wort in your armpit, like St Columba did, it will ward off evil. Independently of this, June 9th is very lucky, especially when it falls on a Thursday.” See? £5.95 well spent.

Last thing: I stumbled on the Paperchase mothership opposite Goodge Street station yesterday, entirely by accident. Three whole floors of Paperchase. The mind boggles. Actually, the mind boggles more at the fact that I only bought one thing. Now nobody will write their to-do lists at the bottom of my grocery lists any more, and harmony will prevail.

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Until next time, dragon-spotters.

Back from the Abyss (Or, Home Again)

No posts lately because I’ve been away for a very long time, on two and a half different tours – I think I worked out that in the space of eight weeks (I’m rounding up), I had exactly four days off in the middle, and one day off towards the end. Then I came home and collapsed… oh wait, no, I went and did a concert in Cambridge. Then I came home and collapsed.

But I’ve been home for a couple of weeks now, and the garden is coming along (thanks to Mr C’s new fascination with it – hurrah!), and I’ve been doing concerts locally for the last week or two, and all is right with the world. On Friday and Saturday there’ll be a revival of the production of Dido and Aeneas I was in back in February, which should be fun and satisfying (if my voice actually comes back – but that’s a separate issue). Search “Opera Lyrica” to find it.

There will be photos from tour, possibly. But for now, one piece of evidence that I was really in Carnegie Hall (below). More soon, including some thoughts on some books.

Sunburn courtesy of the San Francisco Botanical Gardens, which I visited about two days before this concert.

The Early Bird

The red kites are out in force this morning. I got a good view of one just now as it careened over the bus and then pulled away towards a field, its rusty underbelly flashing, almost close enough to see the individual feathers. They’re an astonishingly good example of species rehabilitation – read about them here

Look! I got to sit in front this morning!

Whether or not I’m getting my own worm (or carrion, or baby rabbit, more probably, in the case of the kite) remains to be seen. I’ve been going into London early every day for so many days now I can’t even keep track of them anymore. There was an exception on Sunday night, when I stayed with a lovely mezzo friend near Waterloo for an early start the next morning after a 9pm finish on Sunday, but the other days have been a little hard. It’s amazing how travelling for five hours a day renders you barely capable of making dinner and maybe doing laundry when you get home. But not much else. I’ve started to understand the true horror of commuting, though I’ve only been taking the 7.40 bus every morning. If you have to be at work in London at 9.00, you’re on the 6.00 or 6.30 bus from Oxford, no exceptions, and you sit in traffic for Many Hours. 

There are fun things to do on commutes, though, and following the London Book Fair on Twitter in the mornings is one of them. I have two Twitter handles (public ones, anyway): one “writer” and one “singer”, and it’s refreshing to be able to curate incoming content based on what I want to read about. Don’t knock Twitter; among its many virtues (not least of which is that it isn’t Facenook), it allows you to inhabit different spheres and absorb whatever collection of information you want. I love this: I can catch up on what’s in The Bookseller  and who’s been hired as a new agent at DKW, and be a writer for the morning before I plunge into rehearsals. 

The rehearsals, if you were wondering, are for a tour of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and the 1610 Vespers by the same composer. We fly to the US on Friday morning, which will give me a chance to see much-missed relatives and indulge in the single foodstuff whose absence in British life truly haunts me: breakfast sausage. I might even get its close cousin, biscuits and gravy, as we’ll be in Chapel Hill, NC at the beginning of the tour. 

I don’t talk about work online much, for Reasons, but I will say that the Orfeo part of this project has been a good chance to do a hefty amount of writing. Attention is a funny thing. I’ve been sitting in rehearsals where, 90% of the time, I haven’t been singing. I’m doing a small role and am second cover for two others, so I give my full and intense attention to the sopranos who are rehearsing those roles, but when there are seemingly dozens of tenors rehearsing for (seemingly) hours at a time, I begin to flag, and I feel incredibly unproductive just sitting there with my “mm, that ornament was different than the other guy’s” face on. I can’t learn music because there’s other music going on right in front of me, and I can’t openly read a book — there are rudeness limits. But I can work on Chapter 2 of the novel, whose tentative title is Magician’s Geometry. Scribbling in a notebook on my lap is unobtrusive, right? When my options for achievable goals are limited in such a specific way during rehearsals, it makes it surprisingly easy to just sit and write for a couple of hours, and I’ve made more progress on this chapter, more quickly, than I thought was possible. I’m going to try to have a rough draft done by Sunday to send to my mentor. There’s also the delicious spectre of the York Festival of Writing in September, and I want to have a good draft done by then so that I can give the first three chapters to agents ahead of the one-on-ones. 

But back to the present. Another problem/treat of being in rehearsals all day is the Foyles bookshop in Waterloo station. It’s just too easy… 

 

I know it’s an old trope, and every book lover has this problem, but my Shelf of Shame has now expanded into nearly an entire bookcase of Unread Things, and I still linger lustfully over the new releases section in Foyles — and end up buying four books in two days, one of which I bitterly regret: Amelia Freer’s Eat. Nourish. Glow. Its irritating title aside (the weird punctuation means you can’t put it at the beginning of a sentence), it promises a revolution in the way you think about food and nutritional self-care, and though I like a lot of the ideas in the book, the recipes are dull, the photographs are (mistakenly?) re-used on multiple pages and usually with no relation to the text, and the text itself… God help the copyeditor at Harper Thorsons, or whoever was tasked with making this thing cogent and presentable before it went to print. The book is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, and so poorly written that it seems the text was plucked wholesale from a series of hastily-composed blog posts and stuck into the book, which was then rushed to print without being glanced at even once to check that it made sense. I’ve now had the singular experience of reading a freshly-purchased book on my commute home, only to immediately feel I should take it back to Foyles the next morning and ask for my money back. It’s awful. 

  

The other thing I bought that afternoon, though, was an utter delight: a tiny pamphlet by Lorrie Moore called How to Become a Writer. It’s an essay from a bigger collection, and has fulfilled its purpose in making me desperate to read more. See how I considerately avoided a pun there? 

  

Rather than go on about it, I’ll leave you to read it yourself (it takes about ten minutes at most, and is worth every one of the 199 pennies I paid for it). But let me say this: it’s gently satirical and impeccably written, with little twists of humour that make me uncomfortable because I’ve recognised myself, but make me snort with pleasure all the same. Highly recommended. 

And what do I take on bus journeys, when I have so much to read and so much guilt about it? The New Yorker. Though, to be fair, I’m also reading “Dear Committee Members” on my phone at the moment, and it’s glorious. We need more satire in this vein. 

 

And now, dear reader, I’m approaching Baker Street and must leave you. Here’s a picture of a red kite to improve your day. 

  

I’ve decided that they’re my temporary spirit animal. I’m pretty sure next month it’ll be a puffin, though. 

 

 

 

Review: Love, Sex, And Other Foreign Policy Goals 

Jesse Armstrong, who was part of the team that wrote Peep Show and The Thick Of It, has had his first novel published by Jonathan Cape. It came out earlier this month, and my full review can be found over at Quadrapheme. A précis here, though:  “Love, Sex, And Other Foreign Policy Goals” is a tale of a group of twenty-something activists who decide that the best thing they can do to stop the war in the Bosnia is to hire a minivan, write a peace play, and take it all the way to the Balkans, where they’ll perform it for refugees and soldiers. And this will somehow… Stop the war. 

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It should be very funny; unfortunately, it doesn’t quite live up to its own promise (or premise). Apparently the Guardian disagrees with me mightily, which is faintly alarming. In cases such as these, when the craft is so lacking and the writer is so successful elsewhere, I really wonder how much of the praise is contextual to other, better works. You can read my full review here

Please comment below if you’ve read the book or (like my husband) have firsthand experience of the war. I’d love to see more discussion on this peculiar novel. 

Noodles and chocolate

I had an unholy craving for Korean glass noodles on my way back this morning on the Eurostar (the Terminus hotel, our usual bolthole opposite the Gare du Nord, famously has the worst breakfast of anywhere the Monteverdi Choir tours — apart from that hotel in Pisa. But I digress). So I made a detour to a tiny Korean restaurant on a side street near the British Museum and got some. I would have taken a picture, but I inhaled them too quickly.

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I’ve been thinking about the British Museum quite a lot since I finished The Ship by Antonia Honeywell (pictured above, with a view of the window of Terminus. Thrilling.). It’s a dark, deliciously-written dystopian fantasy set in a crumbling, nightmarish future version of London, and a lot of references are made to the British Museum, which acts as a barometer for how bad things have got: in the narrator’s early childhood memories, most of the objects are in place, but by the time her family flees London on a giant ship, the museum has been emptied of artefacts and become, instead, a last refuge for the homeless, who are eventually murdered where they sleep by government troops. As the utopian escape-ship, captained by her increasingly messianic and power-hungry father, travels on its seemingly eness journey away from land, Lalla, the narrator, uses her screen (something like an iPad) to access the British Museum’s collections virtually, reminding herself of happier times, of history, of all the things her father wants her to forget. Reading the book made me desperate to visit the museum, which I’ve never really been to properly. I’m not sure today is the day, since I have a suitcase and backpack with me. But I can try. I’ll see if they let me in.

The Philharmonie de Paris was an excellent place to do the final performance of the B Minor Mass on this exhausting tour — and who knows if it’ll be the Maestro’s last? We were all quite moved at the end, thinking about it. The Philharmonie staff really outdid themselves with the stuff in the dressing rooms, too. It makes such a difference to find a programme, a selection of tea, some fruit, a kettle, and a little box of chocolates. And to have your own bathroom, a door that locks (valuables often disappear backstage — more on that later), and a mirror to yourself. Sometimes we’re all sharing and nobody can get to a mirror… And only one toilet for thirty women (I’m looking at you, Munich). In the picture below, the hair clip is mine.

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There was a disaster backstage, though: several people had phones, money, and entire wallets stolen from their bags in the choir dressing room, which is a dirty trick that only seems to happen when we’re touring in France. One of the violinists tried to take a small black handbag on stage with her for the concert and was stopped by a stage hand. When she pointed out that there was nowhere secure to store valuables, she was told in an aggrieved tone that the Philharmonie was “very secure”.

There was drama on stage, too – in probably the quietest movement, the Et Incarnatus, there was a loud snap, and the leader of the orchestra stopped playing and jerked her violin away from her face; a string had given way violently, right next to her eye. The next thirty seconds were a masterful example of team work: as everybody calmly kept playing, she swapped violins with her desk partner, who then passed her violin back another two rows, where the string was quietly replaced by an intrepid member of the last desk. It was amazing to watch.

I’m so glad to be — I nearly said “home”, but I’m still sitting in the Korean restaurant, tapping away on my phone. Back in the UK, anyway, with four or five days off. Here are some amusing photos of the view above, and in, Aix-en-Provence, where we did our penultimate concert…

    

… And here’s one of the bizarre Easter Bunny woman who appeared on the outbound Eurostar, like something out of a high-budget Alice In Wonderland film, giving out chocolate.

 

Happy Easter, everyone, when it comes. I’m going to try to get to a vigil tonight, and will not be purchasing either of these abominations, spotted in the St Pancras M&S two days ago.

Much love from (somewhere near) the British Museum. May you be filled with Easter joy, or, if you prefer, high-quality chocolate. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course.

Buses, work, the moon, and a name-this-cat competition

It’s 5.07am and I’m halfway to Heathrow – not the ideal start to a day, you might say, but I’m actually kind of enjoying it. 

We had the world’s most enormous six-hour pork roast last night for dinner, so I’m not starving, and I’ll have plenty of time at the airport for a decent breakfast. Maybe it’s age (I am, after all, hurtling towards thirty at alarming speed), but I’m starting to really understand how nice it is to be early for flights. As in, early enough to sit down and have a meal without harassing the restaurant staff for the bill as soon as I order my food because I know I’ll have to sprint for the gate. It’s nice to be able to walk, not run. 

So I got the 4.30 coach to Heathrow this morning, not the 5.00, because check-in closes at 6.30. And subsequently saw the most beautiful nearly-full moon hanging low on the horizon in the dark, a golden, milk-and-honey colour that I’ve never seen before. It had a few wisps of clouds around it and was downright magical. Looking it up (all right, I actually have an app), I found that it wasn’t a full moon quite yet – that’s happening on Friday, which also happens to be Good Friday. 

It wrenches me that I’ll be travelling and doing concerts during the Great Triduum, my favourite part of the church year – I’ll miss all of its intensity,  and the rhythm of being on retreat (the last few years have been the same as this one, but I have good memories of previous Triduums). But at least we’ll be able to go to mass on Easter Day, and we’ve been invited to another (more grown-up) couple’s house afterwards for lunch, which is exciting. It’s wonderful to be taken into  the bosom of a family like that when you’re slightly new at doing holidays as a married couple. 

Today’s thrilling pre-dawn bus journey marks my official return to a tour that I had partially absented myself from due to loss of voice. I went in two days ago, having missed an afternoon session the previous day because I was hoarse from over-singing and lack of sleep and a minor throat infection, to record the Qui Sedes from the B Minor Mass, and it went well, but I knew there wasn’t much left even though things had improved. So yesterday was spent mostly in silence again, and I did freelance research all day. 

Another lesson I’m in the process of learning: not doing too much when you’re being paid by the hour. I did manage to take a lunch break, but it’s amazing how unpaid projects fall limply by the wayside when you’re being paid to do something else. So today’s thoughts are primarily about work-life balance, or maybe work-work balance. I’m nearly finished with my next book review, which will be up soon over at Quadrapheme. I’ve brought my laptop on tour (if 28 or so hours can be called “tour” – we’re back tomorrow at lunchtime), so that, at least, gives me a little freedom to get things done. 

In more exciting news, the invader cat who appeared about two weeks ago and ate all of Irene Adler’s food as fast as I could replace it has officially moved in, being evidently very hungry, and very much a stray. She’s ginger and white, and in the words of the fine novelist Harriet Smart, “an attitudinous creature”. Here are some pictures: 

   

  

Mr C thinks she looks  like a ginger hare because of the large back haunches. I’m accepting naming suggestions (Celia Fiennes, so far, is the best – look her up). Let me know in the comments. 

We’ve posted alerts on lost-animal sites, and I very much hope someone is reunited with her soon. Irene Adler, having unsuccessfully attempted to repel the interloper, has resigned herself to cohabitation, and they’re tiptoeing around each other cautiously, both eating normally (but at different times), which is a relief. 

Apologies for typos and rambling – it’s very early in the morning. I will see you on the other side of this tour. Until then, dear Reader, I’m going to try and get some sleep on this bus. 

On the mystery of hotel rooms

FullSizeRender (1)I’ve been on the road for the last few days, first doing a C Minor Mass with Robyn Parton (pictured) in Canterbury Cathedral, where a big crowd gathered to watch the rehearsal and I almost got away with consuming fish with a cream sauce for lunch… nevertheless, a glorious concert. Then I flew to Munich to do the B Minor Mass with the Monteverdi Choir, and now I’ve had nearly a whole day off in Frankfurt after this morning’s train journey. It’s all been extremelIMG_0025y pleasant, not least because singing with this group involves seeing lots of old friends. But it does mean a lot of time in hotel rooms.

Hotel rooms are funny places. Apart from those weird hangers that they’re clearly afraid you’re going to steal, they can be (especially in Holland) any combination of bizarre, barren, comfortable, and completely inadequate. I find them sometimes freeing, sometimes desperately lonely. I always have a podcast playing in the background – I find the sound of NPR to be extremely comforting, even though I’m very much a displaced American who now has a confused cultural identity. It’s hard to figure out what to do in hotel rooms when you’re by yourself and you have a few hours to kill. Normally I paint my toenails, or read, or work out, or (more often) watch YouTube videos for hours, and in this golden age of nearly-always-adequate wifi, it’s easy to download thousands of episodes of magical things like Freakonomics and the Slate Political Gabfest (and Invisibilia, my most recent joyful discovery), to which one can listen while slap-dashedly applying concert makeup.

This week, though, having started some freelance work that can be done on the hop, I’ve been using every single hour of my hotel-room time productively (apart from when I’m spending a surprisingly large number of minutes arranging window-gazing tableaux involving the Tiny Frog). It’s a strange feeling.

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Lately I’ve started worrying that all this productivity might be getting to be too much to handle – in total I have about four projects on the go at the moment, and I’m starting to lose weight. I’m not sure if it’s stress or just calorie-burning from having to think about so many things at once, and I’m hoping it’s the latter, but I’m feeling a tiny bit overwhelmed. As my husband pointed out last night, though, I do thrive on being busy, and it beats the alternative. January and February were a despairing swamp of inactivity, during which I mostly baked apple cakes and plum cakes and moaned about the lack of work in the anaemic classical music industry. The neighbours liked the baking, because I took things round to stop myself from eating them. But being unemployed is not fun, and living as a freelance singer means that I do occasionally have periods of stultifying boredom. Now that it’s Passiontide, of course, things are in full swing, and there’s enough for everybody. But there are always free hours in hotel rooms.

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So having small, ongoing projects is a good way to keep going, and it’s a very agreeable alternative to teaching, which is the mainstay of the freelance musician — but something I don’t especially want to do. This blog is a particularly useful way to keep the writing muscle working, and it’s a fun way of chronicling my travels and putting up photos of cathedrals (and tiny frogs). Long may it continue.

Let me know if you think of interesting names for the amphibious little guys. Suggestions so far have included Katsu and Bento.

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Spring!

So it’s the 20th of March, and the internet is awash with tremulous enthusiasm, because three things are happening at once: the spring equinox, also called Ostara, whence we get a lot of secular Easter imagery (bunnies, eggs, etc); a partial solar eclipse; and a “Supermoon”, which means the moon will be passing unusually close to the earth. 

Because eclipses only happen when there’s a new moon (when the moon is entirely in shadow), we won’t get the spectacular full-moon tonight that you’ve probably seen examples of in news articles about this event. But we did get an impressive 80% eclipse here in the south of England in spite of clouds, starting at 8.41am and peaking at about 9.30am, and in Scotland it was a 90% eclipse. I was (in fact, while writing, still am) in the embassy picking up my passport at the time and couldn’t see it firsthand, but never mind. I’ll enjoy the day for another reason: the Spring Equinox. 

I always feel young and full of possibility in March – maybe because it’s my birthday month, but also because I really love the feeling that winter has finally been defeated. The fragile February snowdrops just don’t do it for me, I’m afraid; I want shocking purple crocuses and brash daffodils and glamorously unfurling tulips. It’s the colour explosion of spring, the reds and oranges and bright blues, that I wait for in the slowly lengthening days of January, as much as I wait for the warmth. 

March hares, associated so strongly with the season, are an undeniably attractive bit of folk iconography. They predate Luna Lovegood, of course, but the connection is apt and rather sweet. While my husband slept beside me on our long commute this morning, I treated myself to a reminder of the work of stained glass artist Tamsin Abbott. From her studio in Herefordshire, she produces breathtaking, earthy paintings on beautifully coloured glass. Here’s an example: 



I heartily recommend that you take a look at her website here. “The old world of Britain runs in my veins,” she says, and when you look at all of those hares, badgers, owls, and beautifully tiered rural landscapes, you feel as though you can catch a glimpse of it, too. Here’s to new beginnings, riotous colours, and longer, brighter days. 

Happy Spring!