One more year

My birthday went very nicely. By one measure, my best ever.

I had organised a pub lunch with friends, and booked for our party at one of the best country pubs in the area. A pub that is great twice over: first in itself (great food, great beer, great surroundings), but also in that getting from here to there is a favourite walk provided I start out in good time. With the weather being bright and sunny and a very comfortable temperature, I took full advantage of the walk, and we were able to sit out in the pub’s pleasant garden to eat.

From my front door I’m on to open land in less than 15 minutes, gradually getting wilder from there. The route crosses two of Dartmoor’s tors – small rocky peaks that are a bit of a scramble but no real challenge – before dropping into a steep wooded valley and following the path of a stream down to the village and pub. Most of the route is open land, with sheep and ponies (and gorgeous cute foals), and the skylarks overhead, while the woodland/stream section was teeming with gorgeous insect life such as butterflies and dragonflies. Something under four hours neither hurrying nor dawdling, and I’m ready for a good lunch.

Having estimated my party’s size at 20 people for the purposes of the pub planning, coincidentally exactly 20 turned up. That number is helped by my advancing age, as fewer invitees have work commitments that keep them away. I was pleased to get so many (that’s the measure by which it was my best ever birthday), and also that the party’s age range now spans a full 60 years, from undergraduate students to early 80s. Reactions from those who didn’t already know the pub were gratifying, too.

I’m getting spoiled. Less than a week ago I enjoyed another great meal out in the garden of another lovely local pub that was a pleasant walk. But I’m a little concerned that all this fine summer weather is happening when our reservoirs are already much lower than they should be so early in the summer. The moorland already looks very dry, including normally-slightly-boggy bits on my route, and water in the leat was very low. Are we heading into serious drought?


The purest form of tragedy is when an attempt to thwart Fate – to avoid a feared outcome – brings about the very result it seeks to avoid. In the original Greek form that may be a fate that is itself entirely outrageous. Thus when the baby Oedipus is prophesied to kill his father and marry his mother, the parents expose the baby to avoid this fate, but inevitably he is found and adopted, and events take their course. Had he grown up normally (with his own family), the subsequent events would of course never have happened. Neither would his own and his childrens’ great tragedies, nor his final meeting with Theseus at Colonus and his posthumous status as protector of Athens.

I fear I am witnessing modern tragedy unfold with a family member suffering dementia. He is living a nightmare, in which he imagines people and voices, and terrible plots against him. His pursuit of these phantoms leads to the intermittent but too-frequent behaviour so often associated with dementia: paranoia, aggression, refusal to accept simple facts or help, and in practical terms, wandering off in a confused state and getting lost.

What the plotters against him are doing, and what motivation they could possibly have, is hopelessly confused. They want his money, but the plot itself involves elaborate cloning of his house in different locations – an exercise that, even if feasible in the first place, would wipe out the entire estate many times over. As I write, the time is something after 3a.m, but he refuses to go to bed because they’re out there and he’s watching. Which is, to be fair, a big improvement on 24 hours ago when I was in league with them and holding him hostage.

Refusal to be helped, and behaviour that denies my sleep and my opportunity to go out, is looking increasingly likely to bring about precisely the rational outcome we all most fear: that he’ll need to be moved to a care home. Fees for that would of course consume his estate – and a whole lot quicker than Jarndyce’s altogether more substantial one.

Proper tragedy.

And if this post reads as Pseuds Corner, I need my sleep, and my fresh air and exercise. The other family member who is alternating with me on care duty could doubtless tell a similar story.

Stick in the Mud

What is it to grow older?

Well, I’m showing many of the more obvious signs. My hair and beard have reached a colour where strangers call me “santa”. My paunch, which has gone through life with the objective of making a natural Falstaff at age sixty, is in the right ballpark. On the upside, although I’ve slowed down, I can still walk across the moors, run, cycle, swim, carry a heavy pack. Things I’ve loved doing throughout my adult life.

One other classic symptom is that you become set in your ways, less open to new experiences than you used to be. And that’s been brought home to me by a lovely piece of music and a little exploration down an internet rabbit hole. I seem to have become a stick-in-the-mud.

OK, to begin at the beginning. I sing regularly in a small ensemble (up to eight of us) doing predominantly early music: madrigals and motets. A year ago – and again this year which is what’s reminded me – our leader (and second soprano) Jane brought forth a glorious christmas motet. I enjoyed it so much I did something I never normally do: I went looking on youtube for other renditions of it. Of course I found several, and one of them stands head and shoulders above anything else I encountered (erm, including ourselves). Here it is.

The appeal there is twofold. First, the five wonderful singers and their performance. But second, the clarity of the recording compared to most. This is a full-blown studio production, in the very modern sense of a virtual studio connecting singers around the world. Having enjoyed that video, I followed up on some similar productions, following firstly the channel it’s on – the counter-tenor Simone Lo Castro – and then his regular collaborator the second soprano Julie Gaulke. He’s done a lot of good stuff; she’s done yet more and appears to be a leading light of this form of production. It was quite startling to find a video of the two of them singing several parts each in a video, but that appears to be perfectly normal in the multitrack world. Come to think of it, yes I have heard of such things before, I just haven’t paid much attention.

Which brings me to what is surely the biggest name in the world of the multitrack virtual production: Eric Whitacre, and his “virtual choir”. A community multitrack effort, in which I could doubtless have participated. But I’ve never actually paid attention to that. I’ve tended to be a bit sniffy about it: his name regularly comes up in the same context as a lot of today’s dreadful muzak, so I’ve dismissed it. Which is, on reflection, a terrible pre-judgement of the man and his work. I’ve become an old git, temperamentally resistant to a new experience. Never mind Falstaff, I should be playing Schlendrian – the grumpy old dad in Bach’s Coffee Cantata.

I shall make it my mission between now and the new year to find some of Whitacre’s work and make an informed judgement. Maybe even consider participating in his or similar future events!


Damn, I’m late blogging this. I blame the cold which kept me away from last week’s rehearsal.

We have a concert this Sunday, December 4th, at the Plymouth Guildhall. The work is Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus.

It is basically a feast of Handel’s music. The story (insofar as there is one) is of the biblical warlord Judas Maccabeus and his victories in battle, and of his people going from despair to triumph. Although it’s about the glory of war and terror, it’s not such extreme and gratuitous violence as many biblical works including Handel’s. Lots of lovely music, including tunes that we all know without – until we encounter them in context – knowing where they’re from. For example, an arrangement of See the Conquering Hero Comes is a Last Night of the Proms staple.

As a singer, this is lots of fun. Most of the choruses are short, but there are a lot of them, and each has its own distinct character. And it plays with the voices in ways rarely seen in a serious score, though not unlike what one might be tempted to improvise around a score in a hypothetical rehearsal that needs livening up. I shall certainly enjoy it.

As a listener, my usual reaction to Handel is that I like him in small doses, but a whole concert of it can tend to drag. How much are we doing to maintain the level of excitement for our audience? That’s hard to say from within, but I would note that we’re taking a lot of the music at a cracking pace, which keeps up excitement in numbers that might otherwise risk feeling formulaic. Even the slower numbers, like the despairing (but lovely) opening chorus, are going too fast to wallow in it. But not according to the modern fashion with baroque, of making it almost mechanistic. And we are a large choir, something which Handel himself loved, but which is sometimes sneered at by today’s baroque aficionados.

For readers in the area, I can recommend it, if you can get tickets.


It won’t have escaped readers in Blighty, but others may be blissfully unaware. This country is in the grips of jubilee celebrations. Seventy years of the Queen’s reign. Most of us have known no other monarch in our lifetimes.

Except, it’s not actually 70 years. It’s 69 years since the Coronation on June 2nd, 1953. Her accession was in 1952, but at an altogether different time of year, so it’s no anniversary of any kind of that, either.

I can only conclude this is just one more orgy of humbuggery. Harumph!

Great Concert

This is far too short notice. I’m getting tardy about blogging these things!

On Sunday April 3rd we’re performing Verdi’s Requiem at the Guildhall, Plymouth. This is of course one of the greatest and most exciting works in the choral/orchestral repertoire, and it’s great to be doing it with big choir and orchestra, and a highly distinguished quartet of soloists. I have no hesitation recommending it to readers in the area: this wonderful music will be tremendously exciting (not to mention moving) to listen to too.

Tip: if you can get tickets in advance, they’re slightly cheaper than on the door. Ticket vendors, both online and physical, are listed here.

Covid as common cold

In past centuries I’m sure covid would’ve been seen as a bad cold: after all, the common cold encompasses many different lurgies, some of them coronaviruses. My own experience this week has been (so far at least) no more than a middling cold – though of course being vaccinated may have helped there. Today I’ve been much better than the last couple of days and I’m off the lemsips – my usual medication against a lurgy worse than the sniffles.

At the same time, I’m of course aware of all the public information. The stories of people who went through mild to moderate illness, seemed to be recovering, then got hit hard by something nasty (could still happen to me). I learned of things like the cytokine storm, that should probably never have crossed the consciousness of a non-medic. Not to mention “long covid”!

That’s one huge nocebo effect to contend with! It must surely feed in to many peoples’ adverse and longer-term experiences. People who would not merely cope better but recover much quicker if it had been described as a bad cold in the first place.

I succumbed to an element of that at my worst moment: yesterday (Wednesday) morning. I was spooked by feeling materially worse than the previous morning despite having been much better later on Tuesday, and I picked up on one of the big scare stories of the early covid era: blood oxygen. I used my GP’s online facility to ask if I could get a pulse oximeter to monitor myself. They said they could supply me one provided I could get a friend or neighbour to collect it. Today I have it, and it reassures me my blood oxygen is healthy. Not sure how long I should monitor myself: presumably until I hit my criteria for returning to normal life – feel well and test negative.

How useless is covid testing?

This morning I’ve tested covid-positive. The symptoms to date are quite painful coughing (but mercifully much less of it than a really bad cough) and a moderate-level general lurgy. Well, if it were a severe general lurgy I wouldn’t be at the screen to blog about it!

On Sunday morning I had much milder symptoms which I attributed to having overdone things on Saturday. I tested firmly negative, and on that basis I went to choir, where in retrospect I probably spread it.

Earlier on Sunday morning I had a message from Jen who I had spent time with on Thursday evening (a pint or two after another choir). She had tested negative on Thursday, but was letting me know she’d just tested positive and might have been infected or indeed infectious on Thursday. A followup message yesterday told me both Mark and Peter, who had been at the same end of the table in the pub, had tested positive.

This looks like a pattern. You test negative when you feel just slightly iffy. On that basis you go out and spread it. Only later do you test positive and isolate. It’s a story I’ve heard before, only this time it’s kind-of personal.

Perhaps it would be altogether better if the criterion was not a test, but rather the feeling a bit iffy?

River Life

As I write, I can hear otters in the river outside. Or at least an otter, though I think it’s likely to be more than one. I haven’t actually seen them (a neighbour with a better viewing platform has), but I’ve heard them a few times since moving here.

Overall there’s a range of wildlife occasionally in evidence here. Another neighbour I’ve heard quite a few times but not seen is the owls, including a full to-whit to-whoo of (I think) the tawny owl, with the two singers either side of the river. Both were very loud, and I think the female may indeed have been on my roof.

And now that spring is here, some of the colourful river life of the daytime – from dragonflies to kingfishers – may soon be in evidence. Meanwhile a friend recently showed me a stunning photo of newly-hatched tadpoles in his garden pond, while another mentioned just today that she’s looking out for the first ducklings of the season and expecting to see them any day.

I need to go and find some fresh, tender nettles, for the first foraging of the season. I have artichokes in the kitchen, and am keen to repeat last year’s successful experiment combining them in a delicious soup. The wild garlic is also looking ready to be collected.

Tame Wildlife

I walked along a stretch of the river and a stretch of canal today.

Nothing unusual about that. What was unusual for the season is that I walked there in daylight. More usually I pass that way on the way to one of our local supermarkets, and I generally go to those quite late when they’re less busy.

Being a bright, sunny Sunday there were lots of people. And of course there were lots of ducks. Some of the people feed the ducks: I saw this on the first stretch of river. Shortly after I crossed to the canal, where there were fewer people but more ducks, and as I arrived a number of ducks hastened (indeed, flew) towards me, landing alongside me. Evidently they’re so used to being fed by humans that they came to investigate one as soon as I appeared along their canal.

It set me wondering to what extent the duck population might be reliant on human food, particularly in the winter months. Are we sustaining a higher population than could exist naturally? If so, what other wildlife are they displacing: is this indeed affecting biodiversity?

I imagine the same kind of consideration applies to other efforts by humans to feed wildlife. The bird feeder in many a garden may be welcome to birds – not to mention enterprising rodents and perhaps others – that use it, and perhaps also their predators both domestic and wild, but what else are they then displacing?

It may be a drop in the ocean of human influence on the biosphere, but today it was both local and visible!