An extraordinary house, and promming at Battersea Arts Centre

On Tuesday I was privileged to go on a free tour of the National Trust property 575 Wandsworth Road. This was part of an event for the National Park City Festival, a week of events to celebrate London being declared the first National Park City in the world, and encouraging Londoners to get out and discover more of London’s green spaces.

575 Wandsworth Road is a 200 year old terraced house, which was purchased in 1981 by the Kenyan-born polymath Khadambi Asalache. He was a poet, novelist, artist and civil servant, who had travelled widely and also held an MPhil in the Philosophy of Mathematics. The property had previously been squatted, but Khadambi saw its potential, and it was also conveniently located on the route of the 77A bus, on which he travelled to his job in the Treasury. In 1986 he started decorating the interior of the house with hand carved fretwork. The original impetus was to cover up a persistent damp patch on a wall of the lower ground floor dining room, but soon his intricate designs began to spread through the house.

575 Wandsworth Road booklet
No photos of the interior are allowed, but the National Trust booklet provides a good overview.

Over 20 years, Khadambi completely transformed the interior of his home. All the fretwork was carved by hand. Almost every surface has been decorated with carvings, painted patterns, or stencil effects which were actually painted by hand. There are eclectic collections of inkwells, lustreware, Coptic crosses, African bracelets, neck rests and more displayed throughout the rooms. In the rear sitting room, a painting by Frank Bowling hangs by the window that overlooks the back garden. The painting originally stood in the garden, near a mimosa tree planted by Khadambi, which unfortunately had to be cut down in 2011 as its roots were undermining the stability of the house. The back garden is not accessible to the public, but it’s clear that the garden was a very important place to Khadambi.

Khadambi left his house to the National Trust after he died in 2006. They took ownership in 2010, and the interior has been fully restored and appears as he left it. Tours are restricted to a maximum of six people at a time, and are usually fully booked well in advance. For National Park City Festival, the National Trust partnered with my local community garden to offer free tours to local people, followed by a workshop in the community garden. It was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss, and the tour of the house more than lived up to my expectations. The care, dedication and joy in Khadambi’s handiwork and his selection of objects and details are truly inspiring.

Mobile veg trugs

After the tour we walked back in the rising heat to the roof garden, where Think Outside led workshops encouraging each of us to plant and decorate a mobile ‘veg trug’, inspired by some aspect of 575 Wandsworth Road and Khadambi Asalache’s creative life. The variety of approaches and the sheer enjoyment participants got from this activity was wonderful to see. The mobile veg trugs, complete with a small watering can each, will be on display at Battersea Arts Centre from early August.

And Battersea Arts Centre was Nick’s and my destination on Saturday afternoon, for a BBC Proms performance in the recently restored and RIBA award-winning Grand Hall. We weren’t sure what to expect, as the programme featured contemporary composer-performers, all of whom were new to us. Three stages were set up around the hall, and the fully restored Hope-Jones organ ready to go.


The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and introduced with panache by Georgia Mann. Jennifer Walshe opened proceedings with a bravura performance of her piece G.L.O.R.I.- a sort of vocal cut-up of popular song lyrics, which had me grinning from ear to ear. Next, Any’s Responses, by Neil Luck, performed by the composer and Musarc, ‘one of the UK’s most progressive choral collectives’, according to the programme. This was witty and unnerving in equal measure.

Neil Luck and members of Musarc

Later in the programme, there were two more pieces by Neil Luck. Deepy Kaye included images and short film clips projected onto a screen behind Neil and members of Musarc, as well as a live audio description of Neil’s actions, which included shuffling cards and spinning coins on a dinner plate. Somewhere in there was a narrative, based on fan fiction if I heard correctly; as a performance it held my interest, and it wasn’t too long (!), but I wondered what the audio experience was like without the visuals. His last piece, Namesaying, had members of Musarc stationed on each stage, pronouncing nonsense words or names in drawn out phrases, while Neil signalled changes by hitting two wooden sticks together. I found it intriguing and would definitely like to hear this piece again.

Cevanne and her Sonic Bonnet

Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian, one half of electronic folk duo Crewdson & Cevanne, was there performing solo arrangements from the duo’s debut album, BRACE. I loved her performances and stage presence. She sported a ‘sonic bonnet’, a bespangled turban incorporating a midi-controller, which she operated by pressing metallic buttons on the headdress to trigger rhythms or effects. Her last song, Sisa’s Well, includes field recordings of the hum from Sizewell nuclear power station, which resonates with her harp. We were near the stage she performed on, and I noticed two little girls right at the front, watching Cevanne and utterly entranced, tapping their heads and moving their arms, imitating her gestures. Two future composers I hope!

There were two more pieces from Jennifer Walshe, the last of which, NATURE IS A MACHINE, inspired by a quote from US entrepreneur Marc Andreessen in which he described reinventing himself every so often as ‘upgrading his operating system’, became gradually hypnotic. Then it was time for the Hope-Jones organ to take centre stage.

IMG_0740The organ itself was positioned in the auditorium, towards the back. Up on the balcony, the magnificent pipes and bellows were uplit in dark pink. Kit Downes saddled his steed, so to speak, and drew forth some magnificent sounds from the revamped organ, which was originally installed in 1901, when the building was Battersea Town Hall. It’s a powerful beast.

The afternoon’s programme rounded off with five pieces performed by cellist-composer Oliver Coates, who apparently has opened for Thom Yorke and provided the score for a Karl Lagerfeld show, amongst many other credits. I wasn’t really taken by the mix of plangent amplified cello over sweeps of synth sounds and digitised beats. His last piece however, Reunification, was much more to my taste, just the cello with lots of feedback and dirty noise – the opposite of the sweet and mellow sounds usually associated with the instrument (and which I love in many contexts); his Blixa Bargeld moment winning me over at the end.

And a lovely coincidence I found when I read through the programme notes this morning – Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian was Composer-in-Residence with the London Symphony Orchestra at 575 Wandsworth Road in 2015-17!


ABBA in Battersea!

A long time ago… briefly… but it’s true, ABBA alighted in Battersea in 1976, when they were promoting their album Arrival.

Back then, I was a teenager in Melbourne, an ABBA fan, and although London was on my radar, I doubt I’d heard of Battersea. There’s a photo of me on Christmas morning, delightedly clutching my just-unwrapped copy of Arrival. The following year, with my sisters and cousin, I went to my first ever concert – ABBA at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. It was both scary – so many people! – and incredibly exciting.

A few years later, my brother and I saw The Birthday Party at the Seaview Ballroom on Christmas Eve, and ABBA and everything I’d seen and heard before was out the window. My year zero. Rip it up and start again, as Orange Juice sang.

Fast forward to 2017. I’d been living in Battersea more than half my life, and had long since rediscovered the joy of ABBA’s music (whilst still enjoying the odd dose of discordant guitar and strangled vocals). I noticed the Southbank Centre was recruiting guides for its ABBA: Super Troupers immersive exhibition and decided to apply. To my amazement, I got through the first round and was shortlisted for interview, where I also had to deliver a short overview of ABBA, including interesting facts.

EEK!! Luckily I had a copy of ABBA by Harry Edgington, which I trawled through making copious notes – and then struck a nugget:

They put on the style in London to launch their LP, ‘Arrival’. From London Airport, they flew in Abba-labelled helicopters – to match the helicopters on the cover of the album – and came in to a press reception at the Thames-side heliport.

Thames-side heliport?? Surely that must have been the heliport in Battersea? I searched online and came across a clip from a TV programme called Young Nation in November 1976. We see the group arriving at Heathrow, then travelling by helicopter, and about 4 minutes in – yes! – they touch down at the Westland Heliport (now London Heliport) in Battersea. On the History page of the heliport website, although there is no mention of this momentous visit, some of the archive photos clearly show Fulham Power Station (now demolished) on the opposite bank, which is also briefly shown in the Young Nation clip.

In the end, I wasn’t offered a job as an ABBA Super-Trouper tour guide. I wasn’t too downhearted as around the same time I was getting very busy working on London Undercurrents with Joolz Sparkes. And I still think it’s pretty cool that ABBA, however briefly, set foot in Battersea. Perhaps I should get onto the heliport and suggest a blue plaque… imagine the unveiling!

London Heliport, December 2018


Hell of a Summer

For several weeks now, I’ve had a particular song going round in my head. It’s by The Triffids, one of my  favourite ever bands, and appropriately, the song is Hell of a Summer. You can listen to it here on YouTube, and maybe listen to the rest of their classic album Treeless Plain.

It’s certainly been an extraordinary summer so far in the UK, the longest sustained period of hot weather I can remember since I moved to London, and the driest. Thankfully, temperatures haven’t reached much above 30, but it’s still energy-sapping. The ice cube tray is topped up once a day or more. Mugs of black coffee have been replaced by tumblers of iced coffee. It looks like I’m going to get through a whole bottle of sunscreen in one summer. And those habits of a Melbourne childhood kick in – lowering the blinds against the blazing sun, walking on the shady side of the street (if it happens to be a street with any shade!), checking before I leave the flat: sunhat, sunglasses, sunscreen, water.

Much as the blue skies lift the spirits, and I’m enjoying outdoor swims in Tooting Bec Lido, the lack of rain is worrying. In the community roof garden, we’re struggling – failing – to keep everything watered. I keep reminding myself how resilient nature is. So far, the cats that hang out in the garden seem to be doing okay, unlike the lawn. It’ll only take a couple of downpours before we’re complaining about the miserable weather. Until then, Dave McComb will keep singing Hell of a Summer to me.

Black cat dead lawn over shoulder


a short idiosyncratic list to round off 2014

The year is nearly out. Here are a few of my highlights of 2014.

Ravel Day on BBC Radio 3 Friday 7th March was dedicated to the music and life of Maurice Ravel. I marked the day on my calendar as soon as I heard about it. His 139th birthday, so not a traditional landmark anniversary. Nicely quirky. Like the man. On the day, we stayed in, Radio 3 on in the bedroom and living room, and streamed through the computer in the studio. I remember smiling a lot, feeling warm, charmed, uplifted. All the music he’d written played during the course of a single day – not prolific compared to many other composers, but what sparkling beauty and subtle variety. Interspersed with the music were contributions from Ravel experts and enthusiasts, and a delightful audio tour of Ravel’s small, eccentric house near Paris presented by Sara Mohr-Pietsch. There were pieces I know and love, such as Le Tombeau de Couperin, and discoveries such as the one act opera L’enfant et les sortilèges with a libretto by Colette. I can’t imagine ever tiring of listening to Ravel’s music.

Orpheus by Little Bulb Theatre at Battersea Arts Centre I’m not a big theatre-goer. But this was more than theatre. This was cabaret meets Hot Club jazz meets Greek tragedy on a rain-soaked Saturday night in May in the magnificent Grand Hall of Battersea Arts Centre. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice transplanted to 1930s Paris, with Django Reinhardt and his infectious music centre stage. A multi-layered and inventive musical drama performed by a prodigiously talented and energetic cast. They sang, they played, they acrobatted, they mimed, they acted as stage hands. And when the show was over, they took their instruments and passion and gave a free gig in the Scratch Bar. Tremendous.

#readwomen2014 Joanna Walsh‘s Twitter initiative/campaign/consciousness-raising hashtag has been inspiring and thought-provoking. An attempt to redress the imbalance between the number of books written by women compared to the number of books by women that are read and reviewed, it has influenced my fiction choices in particular this year, and got me going on a bit of a Virginia Woolf jag (To the Lighthouse and Jacob’s Room, as well as Frances Spalding’s Virginia Woolf – Art, Life and Vision and Alexandra Harris’s 2011 Woolf biography), which in turn has prompted me to delve into Katherine Mansfield‘s stories. Of course, this issue doesn’t disappear at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and I was excited to receive two novels by Marguerite Duras for Christmas, which I’ll be adding to my 2015 reading pile.

Discovering Rosemary Tonks At the end of October, we went to The Disappearing Poet at Kings Place, an event organised by the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation, exploring the poetry, lives and disappearances, a century apart, of Arthur Rimbaud and Rosemary Tonks. It was a stimulating evening, especially the contributions from very-much-present poets George Szirtes and Matthew Caley, but the real highlight was purchasing the new Bloodaxe publication of Tonks’s collected poems Bedouin of the London Evening. And then reading these flamboyant, rich and strange, brave, EXCITING poems. I love her arrogance, her swagger and contrary revelling in the rank, rotten and sordid. Poems steeped in the fogs and grime of London, and unafraid of the declamatory, the exclamation mark, that poetic gasp of O! Poems I want to carry about with me, dip into, reread, knowing they will continually surprise me.

London Undercurrents  This is the poetry project I’ve been working on with friend and fellow poet Joolz Sparkes for the last year and a half and a bit. It’s been my main writing focus for this period, and although we’ve individually tweeted about our collaboration, it’s only in the last few months that we’ve started to read some of the poems at open mics, as well as sending them out to magazines. We’ve had some very encouraging responses at readings, and were utterly thrilled to have four poems published in the latest South Bank Poetry magazine (issue 19). You can read more about our project on the blog we’ve set up here. In the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about and starting to research ideas for more poems voiced by south London women. Roll on 2015!

Fourth Friday summer party

Just over a week ago Fourth Friday held their summer party at the Poetry Café, and I’ve been thinking about it, off and on, since then. I almost didn’t go, feeling a tad lacklustre, a bit drained by the humid weather and slightly dreading what the conditions would be like in the café’s basement, which can be close and stuffy even in winter. But it turned out to be a wonderfully uplifting event, and this despite the fact that a lot of the poetry we heard had quite a dark edge. Thankfully, there were several fans in action in the basement. We were offered a free glass or two of bubbly and some nibbles, and thanks to some strategic bag-placing by fellow open-miker Jill Abram, I luxuriated in a comfy armchair instead of the usual hard plastic orange seat.

The Crispy Hot Club performed Django Reinhardt inspired tunes, and their foot-tappingly, knee-jigglingly irresistible music contributed to the French flavour of the evening. Host Hylda Sims read a sequence of tender yet funny poems arising from an intense platonic relationship with her much younger French lodger, Jean-Noël, several years ago. She also sang a great version of Chattanooga Choo Choo, backed by the band, with two of her own verses celebrating the joys of travelling by Eurostar and arriving in Paris. I wanted to book a ticket there and then. In the second half, Hylda’s poems drew vividly on her now annual summer visit to Jean-Noël and his family in la France profonde. I’ll be thinking about her on le quinze août and the strange local festival where young men try to sever the head of a dead goose suspended above the main street.

The other featured poet was Jon Sayers, who warned us his themes for the evening were war, accident, disaster and unemployment. His first poem, The Marble, was a hilariously deadpan account of a childhood game with potentially disastrous consequences for his elder brother. Another poem, Mr Levy, about his optician of many years, also had a strand of tragedy running just below its affable surface, and a sense of quietly-building panic. In fact, that mix of humour and terror was present in most of his poems, often rooted in the absurdities of his day jobs as copywriter and voice-over artist. For his second set, Jon read some of his own translations of Jacques Prévert poems from Paroles, and spoke passionately about their continuing relevance, Prévert’s humanity and his empathy for all suffering creatures. The poems sound charming, almost nursery rhyme-like at times, but there’s a dark vein running through them. I was particularly struck by the poem Barbara, which could be read as a simple love poem, but is also about the devastation wrought on Prévert’s home town of Brest during the Second World War, with its recurring, urgent refrain ‘You must remember‘. The multi-talented Jon Sayers also sang in French un chanson with lyrics by Prévert and a haunting melody I vaguely recognised; Les Feuilles mortes known in English as Autumn Leaves – the French ‘dead leaves’ is stronger, and, Jon maintained, this is another poem about war. He gave a defiantly angry rendition of Brother, Can You Spare a Dime – a song from the Depression about the fate that awaited many US First World War veterans – the breadline. Jon remarked that war seemed to be on many of our minds, with the approaching centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. One of the poets from the floor, whose name unfortunately I didn’t catch, read a powerful poem Poppy, on this theme. And another, Alfred Todd, recited his poem The Debris, memories of playing in the ruins and rubble of east London bombsites when he was growing up after the Second World War. Impossible to listen to this and not think about today’s children in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine. . . In Covent Garden, it was a warm night, and those of us at the Fourth Friday summer party were lucky to experience some great music and thought-provoking poetry.

Crispy Hot Club, Poetry Café, 25 July 2014
Crispy Hot Club, Poetry Café, 25 July 2014
Crispy Hot Club, Poetry Café, 25 July 2014
Crispy Hot Club, Poetry Café, 25 July 2014
Jon Sayers, Poetry Café, 25 July 2014
Jon Sayers, Poetry Café, 25 July 2014

extra time

Inspired by today’s BBC Sport Prom, which explored parallels between music and sport, I thought I’d share this poem I wrote several years ago after my first couple of visits to the Proms.

At the Proms

We remember not to hum along.
Wide-eyed, ears pricked,
we clasp each other’s hands
to stifle rogue conducting,
dampen the itch
to pomp out beats
with the timpanist.
Between movements
we practise sotto voce asides,
seat shuffling, staccato coughs;
then scrum the bar
for half-time drinks.
Our chit-chat’s strewn
with sporting idiom;
how every player—brass, wind, strings,
the patient striker of the single bell—
pulls together with a common goal.

What I’m straining for, second half,
fingers digging and pulsing your palm—
the whole hall behind me—
what I’m hooked on
is this restrained urging towards
the final detonation of applause.
Bravo! One nil! Encore!

Meanwhile, back in defence

Friday evening. Fifty or so people gather in a corporate art venue, the Bloomberg Space, for Errors Hit Orient. Nick and I are here because I saw a tweet from Studio Voltaire about the event, mentioning B.S. Johnson. We’re not quite sure what to expect. The idea sounds a bit mad, but definitely unmissable. Someone is going to read football reports written by B.S. Johnson, accompanied by live electric bass. We mill about in the auditorium, sipping our complimentary beverages, and speculating about the other attendees and what drew them to this event. Football fans? Lovers of experimental literature? Art buffs? City workers beginning their Friday night with a bit of culture and a free glass of vino? The performance is one of a series of events for DOES THE IT STICK, curated by Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan. There are brightly coloured foam sculptures, like children’s building blocks writ large, arranged in the auditorium; a mural of some distant planets and stars on one wall; and a giant cartoon-like house front, that looks like it belongs on the set of Play School. All very cheerful.

Eventually, we’re let through to the performance space, overlooking an atrium with views up into the Bloomberg offices proper. I’m glad to see that most of the staff seem to have left by now. And soon, Chris Evans plugs in his bass, Will Holder picks up a cordless mike, and this odd marrying of elements begins. As well as Evans’s noodling bass, there’s a looped soundtrack of vinyl record surface noise (I think!), rhythmic hand claps, and a whirring that rises in pitch and speed and then slows, builds and fades, creating a hypnotic tension. Layered over this soundscape, Holder reads eight match reports written by B.S. Johnson for the Observer in the late 1960s. In a word, it’s brilliant. It works. Johnson’s reports are mordant and subversive. One starts, roughly, ‘The political truism that it is easier to maintain the status quo than overthrow it was apparent when [football team] met [another football team]…’ In another report, Johnson compares West Ham’s repeated unsuccessful attempts on goal to the repetitive blurred pattern of a carpet. He uses litotes liberally, and Holder’s reading brings out the gritted-teeth feeling just below the surface of many of the reports, Johnson sitting through tedious games and wringing what fun he can from his turns of phrase. ‘Meanwhile, back in defence. . .’ being one memorable instance. In his account of an FA Cup tie between Canterbury and Torquay, there’s a lovely detail of two cranes rising into the Kent sky at the start of the second half, quickly punctured as Johnson goes on to say this was not an omen of a reversal of fortunes for for the home side, who were roundly beaten. Errors Hit Orient – a mad idea and a truly inspired event.


Curlew River

Thursday 14th November. A cold clear night. A three quarters full moon rising above the city of London. We cross from the brutalist Barbican Centre along a raised concrete walkway, down some steps and join the short queue waiting outside St Giles Cripplegate. We’re here for Benjamin Britten‘s chamber opera Curlew River – A Parable for Curch Performance, and already the setting seems fitting. A stone’s throw but a world away from the tall dark Barbican towers; remote, rather windswept, watery sounds from the nearby artificial lake, and rippling images of birds and swaying river grasses projected onto the pale stone of the medieval church. It all speaks Event, and I for one am happy to have to wait a bit before the doors are opened, to take in the surroundings, gaze up at the night sky, huddle closer to my companion, savour the build up.

Before long, we’re let in, into a slowly dispersing fug of incense, and ushered either side of the nave, where there’s a low white catwalk and a canvas sail in front of the alter. Black and white footage of birds and grasses and a full-flowing river will be projected onto these surfaces during the performance. Settled cosily in the second row, we’ve got time to read the synopsis, and then the doors are closed, the lights dimmed, and the small ensemble of musicians from the Britten Sinfonia take their places facing the minimal stage. And for something like an hour and a half we are spellbound. Framed as a mystery parable performed by medieval monks, the opera was inspired by a Noh play Britten saw in Japan in 1956. In tonight’s performance, the all male cast processes into the church singing in plainchant, and dressed in grey monks’ robes appliquéd with Japanese characters. Gwynne Howell, as the Abbot, sets the scene – the banks of the Curlew River, not long before, where a sign was given of God’s grace – and the monks become the players of the parable: pilgrims, a traveller, the ferryman, and a madwoman, searching for the son abducted from her a year ago. The music is sparse and strange, with Eastern inflections, yet unmistakably Britten. Ian Bostridge, as the madwoman, is mesmerising; anguished and Ophelia-like. The chorus is also magnificent, with those muttering-crowd moments Britten excels at; first mocking the madwoman, then as compassion wins through, entreating the ferryman to let her onto the boat. Mid-crossing, we learn from the ferryman that a year to this day a bullying man crossed the Curlew River with a 12 year old boy, who collapsed, ill and badly beaten; was nursed by the river people, but soon died, and was buried by the path to the chapel. The madwoman’s search ends, grief stricken, on the opposite bank, at her son’s grave; but as she struggles to pray the dead boy is heard; his spirit appears to console and release her. It’s a magical and redemptive moment, and Duncan Tarboton, as the Sprirt of the Boy, carries it off beautfully. The opera concludes with the cast donning their monks’ robes and processing out of the chapel as they chant a prayer, leaving the madwoman kneeling, head bowed, at her son’s grave. A stunning production, moving and ultimately uplifting; and after sustained applause, we return to the clear cold night and run across the concrete walkway, run full of energy, and hear scampering behind us – the three boys from the cast, running as well, so we stop to say ‘Well done – that was brilliant’ before they’re chaperoned away, for hot chocolate, I hope, and no school in the morning.

encores galore

I’m listening to a blistering performance of Glazunov’s Piano Concerto No.2 live on the radio from the BBC Proms, performed by Daniil Trifonov and the London Symphony Orchestra. As the piece finishes, there’s sustained and rapturous applause until the audience is rewarded with a thrilling encore.

For the last five or so years the BBC Proms have become a bit of a feature of our summers as we discover (or in my case rediscover) classical music. We’ll attend two or three concerts, but mostly it’s a radio soundtrack, not always listened to terribly closely, but sometimes a particular piece will grab my otherwise wandering attention. And then there’s the Proms applause, the roars and cheers, the stamping feet – I’d tune in for this alone. When an encore ensues it’s a special and privileged moment. For all the encores I’ve heard on the radio, until this year I’d never experienced one in the flesh at the Royal Albert Hall.

Then, last Thursday 8th August, we were high up in the circle for the much anticipated return of Mitsuko Uchida, performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons. This was definitely an Event. I don’t know the piece well, but Uchida’s stage presence was mesmerising, and her playing flawless and impassioned. There was a wonderful diva-esque moment when she shrugged off her diaphanous shawl during the first movement. It was fascinating, too, to watch the orchestra, how expressive all the players are, how focussed, working together to create afresh a piece of music written over 200 years ago. Mitsuko Uchida had barely flung her right hand up from the final phrase when the applause broke out, the bravos and whistles and calls for encore. And we were not disappointed. After several bows and acknowledging the orchestra and conductor, Uchida sat at the piano again and played a quiet, delicate, Bach-like (I thought, without any certainty) piece, which I discovered the following day in an online review was indeed Bach. The most beautiful warm-down after a feat of musical athleticism.

And that was only the first half! Following the interval, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra returned to the stage to tackle Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. If the Beethoven/Uchida was an Event, this was a Journey. The drama built over five movements, with some catchy melodies and nice pastoral touches early on. By the fourth movement, March to the Scaffold, I was grinning at the jaunty absurdity, and the great flourishes of off stage percussion. The final movement, Dream of a Sabbath Night, I noted later in my journal as ‘quite demented’, with Jansons leaping in the air as he pulled the orchestra together for the explosive finish. Fittingly thunderous applause from the audience, and we were treated then to an astonishingly bravura piece that almost rivalled the Berlioz in intensity. Driving rhythms and Hungarian or Jewish sounding textures and Gypsy-like fiddle-playing from the first violins. This, I learnt the following day, was Ligeti’s Concert Romanesc. By then, my palms had just about stopped tingling from all the clapping. Bravo, bravo, encore!

An Aldeburgh Diary

Friday 7th June

For some time , I’ve wanted to visit Aldeburgh and see the places where Benjamin Britten lived and worked, to wander along the beach and immerse myself in the landscape that inspired him. This weekend, at last, we’re going, coinciding with the opening of the 66th Aldeburgh Music Festival, which was originally set up by Britten and his partner Peter Pears. A special year, too, since 2013 is the centenary of Britten’s birth.

All week in London it’s been sunny and refreshingly warm. All week I’ve been checking the forecast for Aldeburgh and hoping the predicted 12 degrees maximum and unbroken cloud for Saturday and Sunday are a mistake. Optimistically, I pack my bathers, goggles and a towel. They never make it out of the bottom of my backpack. Sensibly, I pack my charity-shop-sourced Gucci leather jacket, a scarf, gloves and a snug hat. None of these go unworn.

Bus ride to Liverpool Street. Top deck, front seat. London sparkling and showing her best side in the sunshine. We spot two people shading themselves with parasols. Train journey to Saxmundham via Ipswich goes smoothly. I’m still wearing sunglasses. The countryside is every shade of green, with sudden gashes of intense yellow as we pass fields of rape. We’re collected at Saxmundham station by Nick’s mother, and her partner, who drives us to Aldeburgh and the cottage they’ve hired for the weekend.

4:45 p.m. Aldeburgh beach

After a quick trip to the local shops for a few supplies, Nick and I trudge along the pebbly beach. The sun is out but there’s a sharp wind. The Gucci jacket is already proving its worth. On a cordoned off section of the beach, a set is being constructed for an outdoor production of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. A few fishing boats rest on shore. But there are no boats at sea, no hardy swimmers to be seen. I know this afternoon is my best opportunity for a swim, but the cold wind, the choppy waves and my natural caution dissuade me. Nevertheless, I can’t resist a paddle, so I burden Nick with my shoes and handbag, hitch up my footless tights, and run down into the shallows. Stand on the edge of the North Sea and let the waves tumble and run over my feet and ankles. A primal urge satisfied. Nick helps me back up onto the beach and I pick my way painfully across the shingle to a lone deckchair where I dry my feet with a tissue and put my shoes on. Turns out the deck chair is part of one of the SNAP art festival exhibitions, so I’m politely requested to vacate it, which is fine as I’ve just tied my laces.

6:45 p.m. Aldeburgh beach

After a convivial few drinks with our fellow weekenders in Ye Olde Cross Keys, Nick and I decide to venture further along the beach in search of Maggi Hambling’s Scallop sculpture. It’s a beautiful evening, if you ignore the wind, and it’s wonderful to be out under an expanse of high blue sky, and it feels like extremely good exercise crunching along over pebbles, but after a short while the wind defeats us and we head back towards the cottage, and all the while I have the the storm sequence from Peter Grimes accompanying me in my head.

Saturday 8th June
10:00 a.m. Aldeburgh Parish Church

A bracing walk along the high street to the church where we’re to attend our first concert. But first, we stroll through the chuchyard to the Lawn Cemetery and locate the graves of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. They lie side by side, marked by simple grey slate tombstones. I feel moved, more than I’d anticipated. We spend a few quiet moments in this peaceful place. Their impact, their legacy, reaches far beyond the small fishing town where they lived most of their adult lives.

The graves of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

An hour later, we’re seated on hard wooden chairs at the back of the packed church for a concert of piano and cello music, performed by brother and sister Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano; and also Artistic Director of the festival) and Valérie Aimard (cello). Aphorisms by Shostakovich consists of 10 short solo piano pieces, angular and surprising. I’m particularly struck by Nocturne, Elegy and the last piece Lullaby, which is quite lyrical with a melancholy undercurrent. Next up, Cello Sonata (1948) by Elliott Carter. A harder listen, but the interplay between the cello and piano is interesting, and their are some nice syncopated rhythms, and a driving energy to the last movement. After the interval, four solo cello pieces by György Kurtág from Signs, Games and Messages – intriguing, and whetted my appetite to explore more of his work. Lastly, Britten’s Sonata in C, op. 65 (1961), lively and playful, with some wonderful pizzicato passages and superb playing by both musicians. Tremendous.

1:20 p.m. Scallop

Colder and windier than the previous evening, but Nick and I are spurred on to find the Hambling sculpture, which was erected in 2003 in tribute to Britten. It seems appropriate that the steel sculpture is located on a desolate stretch of beach beyond the main centre of the town. It’s not as large as I’d imagined, so you don’t feel dwarfed by it, which seems to echo Britten’s statement that he wrote music ‘for human beings’. The open shell faces the roiling sea, a phrase from Peter Grimes perforating its edge: I hear those voices that will not be drowned. A fitting tribute.

Scallop by Maggi Hambling

6:00 p.m. Snape Maltings

We arrive early for the evening concert so have plenty of time to wander around the grounds and see some of the exhibits from SNAP, the visual arts festival that runs alongside the music festival. Of particular interest, Milk and Music (Sally in our Alley) by Mark Fuller, a large sphere made from plastic milk cartons, and a collection of empty mackerel tins threaded on thin rope and just asking to be rattled. We were too late to see Mark’s performance with Sarah Lucas, but the sculpted objects are witty, and the string of mackerel tins may (or may not) reference the slung mugs Britten devised for Noye’s Fludde.

8:00 p.m. Snape Maltings Concert Hall

The concert, performed by the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, opens with Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli by Michael Tippett. I’ve yet to be wholly won over to Tippett’s music but I enjoy this piece and scribble down ‘Vaughan Williams-y’ in my notebook come the interval. The highlight of the concert, though, is Britten’s Les Illuminations, settings of 10 of Rimbaud’s poems. The young soprano Sophie Bevan‘s passionate performance is thrilling, and Britten’s music sounds so bright and fresh and still startling. In the second half, we hear a world premiere, I give you the end of a golden string, by Judith Weir, a simple melody evolving and building, and then Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) by Béla Bartók, which has some great percussion elements and eerie tones from the celesta – again, another composer whose work I need to explore more – but it’s Les Illuminations and Sophie Bevan’s superb singing that linger long in my mind.

Sunday 9th June
10:15 a.m. The South Lookout, Aldeburgh beach

We can’t stay away from the seafront, going for another brrrrrrracing walk, and stopping at the South Lookout for another little dose of SNAP art. We climb the vertiginous spiral metal staircase on the outside of the building, up to the small second floor lookout room, for Emily Richardson’s sound installation Rising Fifth. This refers to an unrealised memorial to Benjamin Britten, which would have sung two notes from Peter Grimes when the wind reached a certain speed. In the little wooden room with salt-encrusted windows, we hear vibrations, whistling wind and pounding seas – rather like the conditions outside.

11:00 a.m. The Red House, Golf Lane

Next stop on our mini Britten pilgrimage, The Red House, where Britten and Pears lived for nearly thirty years. There’s a gallery displaying fascinating objects and memorabilia, from postcards and holiday snapshots, old plane tickets, Britten’s passports, board games played amongst friends, to poignant items such as the viola Frank Bridge gave Britten when he departed for the States shortly before the start of the Second World War. You can wander around the library and browse along the bookshelves, and it feels a very warm and light space, a lived in and useful space, and another fascinating insight into their shared creative lives. I’m amused to notice O’ Level Cookery as well as books on birds, artist’s monographs such as Kokoschka and Sidney Nolan (Pears was a great collector of art), and of course scores of scores. The studio where Britten composed is also open to view, although roped off; again, a light and airy space, and very special to stand on the edge of what is an almost a sacred place.

4:30 p.m. Orford Church

Our last concert, and this time we have seats in the central pews, quite near the front. All choral work, and the programme starts with an early piece by Britten, Pacifist March, sung by Aldeburgh Voices. This is rather charming, if a little naive perhaps, and sung with great conviction. Three Shostakovich songs follow, stirring and challenging, The Last Volley particularly affecting. Next, the Latvian Radio Chorus performing Ligeti’s ethereal Lux Aeterna. Then an amazing vocal piece by Santa Ratniece, Horo horo hata hata, with the ten singers producing extraordinary feathery, trilling, pprr-pprring sounds, whispers and whistles and otherwordly layers; spinetingling stuff. The following piece by Jonathan Harvery is a contrasting sound world, the meditative Plainsongs for peace and light. And a glorious end to the concert with the Aldeburgh Voices and Latvian Radio Chorus combining forces for Britten’s 1965 composition Voices for Today. I hadn’t heard this before, and it’s a powerful work, a mature take perhaps on Pacifist March, with as much conviction but much more complex musically; and half way through, when the voices of the New London Children’s Choir join in from the back of the church, I feel a rush of emotion, a sense that Britten’s work is being passed on to future generations, and how important it always was for him to engage with the community he was rooted in, and to engage with young people in particular. A wonderfully uplifting experience.