Arts

A London memory

I worked in London for many years and so commuting into the City and across the metropolis was a great part of my life for a good deal of time.

At one point and for many years I often passed through one particular London Underground (Tube) Station - Baker Street - almost daily, and I got to know it very well.

It's a fascinating place. It's where lots of different underground lines converge, and it's a labyrinth of platforms and interlinking corridors. 

And it's historic - Baker Street is one of the original stations of the Metropolitan Railway,  the world's first underground railway, which opened on 10 January 1863.  When I was working in London, the Bakerloo Line, which gets it's name because it links Baker Street and Waterloo among other stations, celebrated it's centenary. The line opened in various stages between 1906 and 1915.

Baker Street is also famous because of its links with the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock holmes baker streetHis creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had Holmes living at a fictional address - 221B Baker Street - which back at the time when the novels were being written, would have been a high class residential area. Today the Sherlock Holmes Museum is at the address and there's a statute of Sherlock Holmes outside Baker Street station which also draws masses of visitors to the tube stop.

The platforms are decorated with tiles bearing an iconic silhouette of Holmes - pipe and all ! I love the way the powers that be have embraced the mystery of a fictional character, and woven it into a place of historic value.

But I'm thinking about this particularly today because, LONG  before I knew about the Tube station at Baker Street, I was aware of the name, thanks to a fantastic song which bears the same title.

Not that it has anything to do with the story of the underground station, but today is the birthday of Gerry Rafferty, the Scottish singer/songwriter and the creator of  'Baker Street'. Born this day - 16 April - in 1947

I've loved this song since it first made the charts in 1978, and I have to say, often when I passed through the actual station I found it ringing around in my head!

So - in celebration - here it is ... 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Grapes of Wrath

There are some books that define a generation and I'm thinking about one of those today.

If you've not read 'The Grapes of Wrath' by John Steinbeck, then may I recommend it?

The grapes of wrath book coverI think I first read it when I was a teenager and it made a huge impression on me.

It is a glorious piece of writing which is not a surprise. After all, after it was published on this day - April 14th - in 1939, the book won the National Book Award  and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it was cited prominently when Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.

But it's also a narrative of a period of history in the USA which I was learning about at school at the time and it really helped me to understand the era and, more importantly, the people who lived through it. And so the study of history became more than just facts and figures. It helped me to understand that history is about the people who live through it. People just like you and me. People with feelings and fears, people with emotions and dreams.

'The Grapes of Wrath' is set in the Great Depression - a severe worldwide economic depression which began in the United States of America and which blighted the 1930s. It all began with the Wall Street Crash in autumn 1929 when stock markets collapsed, people's livelihoods and lives were destroyed. It was the depression that defined the pre-World War II years.

As I said before, when one is studying history, it's easy just to study the facts and to forget the impact of world events on the ordinary lives of individuals. Not just the rich, influential  and famous whose stories might hit the headlines or ultimately be included in the history books, but the lives of ordinary people who make up the great majority of our world.

The family at the centre of 'The Grapes of Wrath'  are the Joads, poor tenant farmers in the state of Oklahoma who are driven out of their home by a series of events. First, drought - the economic crisis coincided with some climatic challenges not all natural ... some of the problems were caused by over use of the land. But, in addition,  the Joads also faced economic hardship, agricultural industry changes, and bank foreclosures which forced tenant farmers out of work. 

The family epitomises the problems of their generation. They are in a desperate situation, trapped in what was known as the 'Dust Bowl', they decide to become part of an exodus to the 'Promised Land' of California, where they believe they will find work and land and a future.

So the Joads join thousands of other "Okies" heading west. 

However, once they reach California, they find the state oversupplied with men, women and children all seeking employment, workers are exploited and wages are low. The poor face a future where the big corporate farmers collude, smaller farmers suffer from collapsing prices and the future is not much better than that which the family faced at home in Oklahoma. 

Although the Great Depression, and any depression or economic downturn actually, often affects everyone at the start, there's no doubt that it is the poor who ultimately suffer the most. The rich and powerful often find ways of escaping and sadly that's often at the expense of others.

As I was researching this blog, I discovered that Steinbeck not only was aware of this, but actually wrote the book to highlight the issue, and in fact 'The Grapes of Wrath', with it's brilliant writing and his sympathy for migrants and workers, won a huge following among the working class. 

He's reported to have said "I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this (the Great Depression) and its effects."

And Steinbeck also famously said, "I've done my damnedest to rip a reader's nerves to rags." 

And THAT is indeed what happened to me when I first read the book - it taught me so much not just about that particular period of history, but also a good deal about how greed and power can corrupt, and how it is the poorest and weakest in our society who invariably suffer the most.

Even though 'The Grapes of Wrath' was written almost a century ago, it certainly feels to me that it has a few messages for this current generation, and this current period of human history.

I haven't read it for a while, but I think I need to read it again.


A Musical Experience

If you're a person who sings, and sings seriously - I'm thinking about choirs and the like, including in church - you MAY know the piece of music I'm talking about today.

It's not easy to sing - I know, because I've tried it once or twice and it was beyond me.

But it's a glorious piece, actually more of an experience I would say, rather than just a 'sing'

And it was on this day - April 13th - in 1742 that Handel's 'Messiah' was first performed in Dublin!

George Frideric Handel was a German born composer who had trained and worked in Germany and Italy before moving to England in 1712. His reputation was built on compositions of Italian opera but as public tastes began to change, he adapted. In 1727 Handel became a naturalised British subject and by the 1730s he began producing English oratorios.

Hallelujah chorus sheet musicResearch tells me that Messiah was actually Handel's sixth oratorio in English and although it apparently had a rather low key debut, it was immediately popular. About a year after the Irish first night, Messiah was premiered in London, a gala performance attended by royalty. And apparently King George was so moved by the rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus” that he rose from his seat. The audience also took to their feet and for the past 270-plus years, audiences have continued to do the same. Over the centuries it has become one of the best known, most popular and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.

But what I didn't realise until I started researching was that it was written at a time when Handel's health and reputation was failing. He was an opera man and that genre had begun to become less popular. He felt his work had become rather jaded and he was struggling, but he was a deeply religious man and he turned to the Bible for inspiration. And that's when he was re-energised and he started to produce some amazing works!

Messiah is all about life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ - the 'Messiah' being the saviour of humankind who is first mentioned in ancient Jewish scripture. Christians believe Jesus is the 'Messiah'.

Handel was so inspired that he apparently finished Part I of the piece (the birth of the Messiah and the Old Testament prophecies) in only six days. He composed Part II (the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus) in nine days. Part III ( which charts the promise of redemption, the day of judgement and the resurrection which ends with the final victory over death for all those who believe) was completed in just six days. The orchestration took Handel only a few days more which means that in total, the whole composition took less than 25 days. Astonishing!

Handel's music is set to words compiled by Charles Jennens who drew from the King James Bible, and from the Coverdale Psalter, the version of the Psalms included with the Book of Common Prayer.  The 'libretto' is apparently not designed to dramatise the life and teachings of Jesus, but to acclaim the "Mystery of Godliness", and anyone who has sung or heard Messiah will be aware not just of the wonderful music but also of the spiritual impact it can have on a soul!

Handel continued to write religious music and to perform until, at the age of  74, he collapsed while conducting a performance of Messiah. At that time, as he was laid in bed he allegedly said  “I should like to die on Good Friday.” 

That wasn't to be, although he did die on a Holy Saturday -  April 14th, 1759. That anniversary is tomorrow! Handel’s grave is in Westminster Abbey in London and it's marked by a statue of him with a score of Messiah opened on the table. The page that is visible is, “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” 

But today I'm going to share perhaps the most familiar piece of music from Messiah and it's the piece that brought a king to his feet. And it's still attracting crowds ... as this 'flash mob' by the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus in the USA proves.

I love this and as I watch it I wonder if all those singing are actually members of the Chorus, or whether because the piece is so well known some people just started singing along?

I think Handel would have loved it.

Enjoy!

 




The Road Less Travelled

Have you ever wondered what might have happened if you had made different decisions in life?

Taken that 'other' first job rather than the one you actually began your working life with? Could that have led to an entirely different career?

Taken a risk and moved to another town or even country when you had the opportunity, even though it seemed like a ridiculous notion at the time? Might that have meant more adventure?

Carried on a relationship which you gave up with little fight because you had convinced yourself, at the time, that the person concerned wasn't 'for you', or that it wouldn't work? 

I have to say it has crossed my mind once in a while that life could have been very different for me if I had done 'that' rather than 'this', made alternative decisions.

What might have happened if, when I reached those inevitable crosses in the road, I had taken the left rather than the right road? Or the right rather than the left? Not that I entirely regret the decisions I've made, but it is curious, isn't it, to wonder what 'might have been'?

'The Road Less Travelled' is a saying which has entered our language which sums this up. What might have been had we made different choices?

The phrase comes from a great poem by Robert Frost  - a four time Pulitzer Prize winner - which is actually entitled "The Road Not Taken",

Whenever I read these lines, it certainly gets my mind whirling.

The road less travelled

 


Daffodils

Today I'm thinking about Spring and that wonderfully cheerful flower - the daffodil.

Over the past few weeks Jersey has been festooned with the bright yellow trumpet shaped blooms  - in gardens, in fields and on hedgerows. It's been glorious!

I think daffodils have the ability to raise our spirits, make us smile and even get the creative juices flowing.

Daffodils poem april 7Back in April 1802 a poet called William Wordsworth was taking a walk with his sister Dorothy around Glencoyne Bay, Ullswater, in the Lake District, when they came across a "long belt" of daffodils. A couple of years later that memory led to the creation of one of the world's most popular poems ... called 'I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud' or 'Daffodils'.

Years ago I visited Wordsworth's Lake District home in Northwest England - Dove Cottage - and one day I might chat about that as well. It's a place I had always wanted to visit, ever since I read Wordsworth as a teenager, including this fantastic poem. In fact, his sister Dorothy also wrote about seeing the daffodils in all their glory in her Journals ... again another brilliant read, if ever you fancy it.

So today, to mark the birthday of William Wordsworth - born on this day April 7 1770 - I bring you his immortal lines...

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
and twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not be but gay,
in such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
what wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

William Wordsworth


The Bare Necessities

One of my jobs at BBC Radio Jersey is to co-ordinate and produce what we call the 'Morning Thought'.

It's broadcast at around 0640 every morning ... so it is a bit early for a lot of people ... but it is surprisingly popular, as anyone who has contributed to it may tell you. Many a vicar, church minister or leader or individual who's done a recording have told me that after their 'morning thoughts' have been transmitted they will get people saying 'heard you on the radio!'

Each 'thought' is only about two minutes in duration and it's just an uplifting thought to help ease people into the day. It's sometimes spiritual but not always. We feature people of different faiths, and topics like fair trade and peace, and charities who are maybe marking a significant anniversary or a special week. 

The contributors usually record in advance (rather than getting up at the crack of dawn) and since the start of the coronavirus lockdown, when the Radio Jersey studios have been closed, they've been unable to come in to record. But they've been wonderful because they've all learned to record at home on their phones and tech devices, and email the audio to me, after which I'm able to edit and make it ready for the Breakfast Show.

Why am I telling you this?

Well it's because on Monday this week, our morning thought was about the importance of friendship. And our contributor, a great guy called Graeme who leads a church in Jersey, started with one of my favourites songs from my childhood.

Back in the early 1970s I was at boarding school in Kenya. It was one of those schools that had 'houses', Everyone was in a 'house' and there was a system of rewards and punishment for good stuff, or bad things, we did. Points added to the house tally if you did something amazing, points deducted if you stepped out of line. So what you did wasn't just for YOUR own glory, but for the general benefit of the whole house. And if you stuffed up then it wasn't only YOU who suffered but all the other kids in your house. It helped to bond us together, and made us realise the need for corporate responsibility. Oh and of course, it helped to encourage us all to behave ourselves and it kept us all in line. 

If you know the Harry Potter books, you'll know all about this. 'Ten points to Gryffindor for...' or 'Twenty points taken away for...' 

At the end of the year at one particular school I attended, the house with the winning number of points got a treat ... a chance to see a movie!

I'm sure you get where I'm going with this now. One year my house won the house cup and we all sat down one afternoon to watch 'The Jungle Book' ... the animated movie which had been released just a few years earlier, in 1967. And yes, I really AM that old!

I loved it! I've seen it numerous times since that hot afternoon in the school hall, with black out curtains keeping the sunshine out, and I never tire of it. The tale of Mowgli, the little boy brought up in the wild with his band of animal friends. Based on the fabulous collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling, one of my favourite authors and poets!

As I said, for his Monday 'morning thought' for BBC Radio Jersey, our Graeme was thinking about friendship and he took as an example those friendships in 'The Jungle Book'.

And at the start of the piece he actually broke into song and gave us a little rendition of one of the most popular songs from the film - 'The Bare Necessities'.

It's a great tune with fantastic words. and it's sung by the big bear Baloo and Mowgli 

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
That's why a bear can rest at ease
With just the bare necessities of life

It's hard to 'forget about your worries and your strife' I know, but actually there's something in this song about just trying to keep life simple.

But the real reason I'm talking about this is because ever since I heard Graeme singing that song on the recording emailed to me, it's been going around in my head, like an earworm. Now, don't get me wrong, it's not a bad song to have constantly in my brain, but I figure if I share it with you here then I might get it out of my system.

Or maybe not.

 

PS - if it's now in YOUR head, sorry. But hope you enjoyed it!


A person's a person, no matter how small!

Here are some lines you might recognise if you, like me, have been a reader since you were very little.

"The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play, so we sat in the house all that cold, cold wet day. I sat there with Sally. We sat here we two and we said 'How we wish we had something to do.'"

Or how about this? 

Do you like green eggs and ham?
I do not like them,
Sam-I-am.
I do not like
green eggs and ham.”

The cat in the hat bookcoverYes, opening lines from two children's classics - 'The Cat in the Hat' and 'Green Eggs and Ham'

By 'Dr Seuss'.

Admittedly, if you're my age, you're more likely to know the name and the books if you were brought up in the United States of America, but nowadays Dr Seuss is globally popular not just for the books (he wrote and illustrated more than 60 books under that pen name), but also because of the cartoons and films that have brought the author's incredible imagination and creatures and thoughts to life over the decades since he first put pen to paper.Green eggs and ham book cover

'Dr Seuss' was actually a chap called Theodor Seuss 'Ted' Giesel, who was born on this day - Mach 2nd  - in 1904.

He wasn't just an award-winning world renowned children's author and poet, but also an illustrator, animator, filmmaker and political cartoonist. And by the time of his death in September 1991, his many children's books had sold over 600 million copies and been translated into more than 20 languages.

Horton hears a who book cover

'Horton Hears a Who' (published in 1955) is one of my favourites - the story in rhyme of Horton the Elephant and how he saves Whoville, a tiny planet based on a small speck of dust, from the evil animals who mocked him. 

The most popular line from that book is "A person's a person, no matter how small" - it's just so profound! Dr Seuss isn't just about fun, there's usually a moral in there somewhere too.

And how about 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas!' ? That one was published in 1957.

All written by Dr Seuss! NOW do you know who I'm talking about?

As was/is the case with many successful authors Ted Giesel's first efforts as a children's writer - a book called 'And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street' - was rejected by many dozens of publishers. But just a few years later, by the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, he was beginning to become quite successful. During the war he supported the US war effort and made a name for himself as a filmmaker. One of his war documentaries inspired a film called 'Design for Death' (1947), a study of Japanese culture - and that picked up an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. A couple of years later in 1950, a film called 'Gerald McBoing-Boing', which was based on an original story by Seuss, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.

Such a brilliantly talented person!

Dr Seuss was also at the forefront of the movement to get children reading. In 1954, a report was published in Life magazine highlighting illiteracy among school children in the USA. It concluded that kids were not learning to read because their books were boring. The director of the education division of publishers Houghton Mifflin, William Ellsworth Spaulding, compiled a list of 348 words that he believed were important for young readers - first-graders - to recognize. Spaulding asked Ted Geisel to cut the list to 250 words and to write a book using only those words.

The result was 'The Cat in the Hat', which uses 236 of the listed words.

Astonishing!

Seuss' books, his words, have certainly got children reading down the years. Just as JK Rowling got a generation at the end of the 20th century picking up a Harry Potter book, Dr Seuss' creations have inspired millions of young readers. 

Down the years Dr Seuss picked up many an award, and even a special Pulitzer Prize in 1984, for his "contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America's children and their parents".  He even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and although he passed away in 1991 he remains one of the highest paid celebrities and authors. 

But I think it's his ability to engage children with words and to encourage them to read, opening up their imaginations to a world of possibilities and to laugh out loud, shed a tear or two and empathise with others, that is his greatest legacy.

So, with that in mind, I'll leave you with a brilliant quote from the amazing man called Dr Seuss.

Cat in the hat reading

 


A Song for Friday

It's a Friday.

It's almost the end of February - my second month writing this blog.

I have to say sometimes - just sometimes - I've struggled to be inspired as to what to bring you.

Shall it be another diatribe based on something that happened 'On This Day in History'? Just something that popped into my head, a picture I've seen, a quote I adore?

Or in this case, a piece of music?

Little known fact ... unless you're me or a few people I know who've heard me go on about this endlessly ... one of my favourite stage shows is 'Les Misérables'.

When it first came to London's West End I heard the soundtrack, saw some reviews and was absolutely determined to see it live. I didn't live in London so every time I was visiting the UK capital, for whatever reason, I would try to get tickets. To no avail! 

One time I even queued for hours in the hope of getting some 'return' seats. Nothing!

In 1993 when I moved from Jersey to the UK, I was in a better position, and eventually, sometime down the line, I got my opportunity. Ticket in hand I found myself in the theatre.

Absolute Bliss!

It did not disappoint. Loved the songs, loved the staging, the characters. Everything.

And since then I've seen the show about seven times, including once at the Jersey Opera House, a most excellent amateur production a few years back by the Jersey Amateur Dramatic Club. They were amazing, and the best thing was a few of my friends were in the cast. Perfect.

Now, don't worry, I'm not going to go on endlessly about the show, or the film, or the (very long - five 'volumes') book that it's based on. I've read it by the way, and it's a classic!

But just to say, Victor Hugo, the French poet, novelist, and dramatist had started writing the tome in the 1840s but the book Les Misérables  wasn't published until 1862. It's based on events which had taken place around thirty years previously.

Hugo had apparently walked the streets of Paris during the June 1832 rebellion which is the culmination of the novel. He saw those barricades. But the novel - considered one of the greatest of the 19th century - is not just about the conflict and unrest in France over the decades preceding 1832. It's a narrative on poverty, and injustice, and social and class division. Its themes are philosophical as well as historical. 

Hugo was not just a writer but also a politician and he had very strong views on issues like social injustice, he was opposed to the death penalty and in favour of freedom of the press, among other things. And this, ultimately, got him into trouble.

When Louis Napoleon, Napoleon III, seized power in France in 1851, he established an anti-parliamentary constitution and when Hugo openly declared him a traitor the writer had to flee the country. He moved first to Brussels and then to Jersey.

Unfortunately he was expelled from this /my lovely island for supporting a local newspaper that had criticised the Queen of England, Queen Victoria. So Hugo moved just across the water to another Channel Island, to Guernsey, where he and his family settled at Hauteville House in St Peter Port. The writer lived in exile from October 1855 until 1870 - and by the way, you can visit the house even today to see how he lived.

It was while he was in Guernsey that Hugo created some of his best work, including completing Les Misérables. It delights me that this classic was written quite close to my home!

Anyway, back to the stage production. And all I'm going to do is share one of the fabulous songs from the show. Hard to choose, so many great tunes but this is one I've selected for you today, sung by the amazing Josh Groban.

Oh, and if you're wondering - I'm posting this today because Victor Hugo was born on this day - 26 February - in 1802.