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Around the first Fridays of
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At Home

The Jubilee in Nidderdale

“Echoing peals of distant bells run along the valley and the smell of diesel fumes mix with wild garlic; the lanolin grease on my palms from dividing the lambs and yowes is pliable like a thin layer of warm candle wax.”  
Edward Gifford


La Casa Pacifica

Brezhnev, Ordaz, Sato, and me, with my own little room looking out to a hacienda style patio with a hand-painted tile fountain at its centre. Far from home, them warm California winds blow, struck out with broad lawns and dust and with folks I didn’t know, it was the decade of public paradox.”
Callum Ruddock


“When Léonie and I were in Isfahan, Hassan, who ran our guest house, would always insist rāhat bāsh’, ‘be at ease’, as we rushed early to visit more mosques. Sometimes it was all we felt like doing”
Lucie Briscoe


Partieschwan banners in Nazi livery hang in crisp ranks, offensively perverting Lohengrin’s tragically exalted sacrifice into a fetish of German violence. Can we allow the German no good? No culture without shame? Lohengrin is no false God.
Oliver Briscoe

The Jubilee in Nidderdale
Edward Gifford

It’s June and stood in the yard I am glad of the fleece underneath my waxed coat; the sky is leaden grey, the wind whistles down the dale and there is no place to hide. We pack up the trailer with hurdles, a generator, the toolbox containing oil and clippers and wrenches. Loaded up we pull leftward out of the yard and head first along the dale bottom. His pickup truck betrays the signs of the modern farmer, Mars bars littered among feed schedules and veterinary prescriptions; the one-man army. The caravaners do a double take as we rattle past, as if noticing, for the first time, that there were people who worked to maintain the land beyond their plasticine Eden. Puzzled perhaps by the absence of flat caps (they are on the back seat) but more so by the lack of a Land Rover. What used to be Defender territory is now populated mainly by Ford, VW, Mitsubishi, and Toyota; the leather upholstery and walnut trim of the new Land Rovers stays in the valleys, towing caravans and lining well-to-do Harrogate avenues.
  Beyond the campsites, we cross a cobbled bridge on through Pateley. The high street is bedecked in red, white, and blue; homemade daisy-chains wreath the door of Kendall’s, the butcher. Day tourists are paying more attention to the show the town is putting on for Her 70th year and not minding themselves on the narrow pavement. A pair with painted faces and conical hats leap out. We brake hard and the trailer shudders. There is a look of surprise on their faces, rather than apology, so we trundle on, laughing quietly.

Through the melee, the tourists thin out and we turn up towards Wath, headed for the thirty or so rented upland acres. The Sportsman’s Arms has a special ale on, Royal Salute, we see it chalked on the board to catch the walkers and cyclists. Others in the hamlet, living in hardy gritstone cottages, have joined in too, with fresh eggs and special jams left out beside an honesty box and a flag.

On and on, up and up, we pull up to a gateway. I jump out whilst he manoeuvres the truck; clambering in again we cautiously drive round the edge of the field to a far gate. Here there is some hardstanding and we unpack the trailer on to it. Setting up the hurdles into a funnel and then two pens beyond.

He passes me a shepherd’s crook and I notice the swollen forearm, a swarm of bees, he tells me, trying to catch the queen. Secretly quite pleased at this sign of trust, otherwise a taciturn pair, I inspect the crook carefully as he explains how it was made. ‘Take a tups’ horn and heat it with steam, then clamp and crimp it. It is hollow you see so it will roll and take the shape I give it.’ His is accented by a ring of deep black buffalo horn; mine has a woman’s name carved along the top–I ponder but do not ask. 
Crook in hand I follow as he bounds straight off up the steep sided dale. We are looking for nineteen yowes (ewes) and their thirty lambs. They need to be driven off of the top, down through the three adjoining fields, into the pens we have built next to the trailer; the lambs are to be jabbed and wormed, the yowes sheared, wormed and sprayed. Grey faced Dartmoor’s do not run as a flock as mules or texels do, they dawdle and wait and come back on you. Without a dog the extended arm of the crook alongside whistles and phrases of an ancient upland dialect are essential if any progress is to be made. Running along the edge, the sheep below to my left, I am guarding against the possibility of them turning and heading updale again, as he drives them. The going is much easier on the way down, yet we are still panting once the last one is penned.

We pause for a moment. Echoing peals of distant bells run along the valley and the smell of diesel fumes mix with wild garlic; the lanolin grease on my palms from dividing the lambs and yowes is pliable like a thin layer of warm candle wax. Looking over the softly bleating sheep, their coats remind me of the greyed strands of a mop; quite straggly but handsome, the hair hanging in flat tufts. The nose is brown, as if each of them when a lamb had dipped theirs in a pot of brown paint and then sneezed, splattering it around their snout. These lambs grow slowly, much slower than the Australian and New Zealand meat, both because of their breed and because the farmer keeps them with their mother pretty much until they have weaned themselves. His fields are not sprayed, they eat nothing but grass, and drink milk, supplemented by organic feed blocks.

I load the shorn fleeces into bags destined for the Wool Board, packing them into the corners four to a layer; they are to be sold but the pittance paid does not cover even a day’s expenses. Upland farmers are expected to turn out a loss of over £165 per hectare, even with subsidy they will still be down £28 this coming year.

He tells me that this rare breed flock is to be cut back, they are a hobby and the farm needs to make ends meet; the meat market has been flung open by fancy trade deals made up in Whitehall and he has to keep afloat. It means nothing to them, he opines, that his meat and his wool is better, native and sustainable.
  The tattoos on his arms speak of a former life, perhaps one left with the rush of the city; the discolouration on his left ring finger tells of a former love; the ripped trousers of a long working day. And though he will not rest for the Jubilee, his contribution will be taken down from the hills straight to jubilant tables. ‘I don’t particularly care what obstacles the London bureaucrats write down or what people fail to realise as they pick their packaged meat in a sterile supermarket’ he explains.

Khareji Nistam
Lucie Briscoe

Considering very few people travel there and many do not even know that Persian is a living language, I do not like the idea of being the ears and eyes of others who have not been and might not ever go; I fear feeding a certain perception of it, or saying things that one day might be cause for a visa rejection. I will try, stress on the I; language is a craft that leaves a lot to be desired.

First day in Tehran, the smell of gasoline and of spring. The rumble of old engines. The sun shines bright above the Alborz mountains that cackle along the northern edges of the city, trailing in a pinkish mist. In the park, street cats hang out in great numbers, rolling in the hot grass, drinking from fountains, and meowing dozily.  Everyone here either drives a white Peugeot Pars from the early 2000s or a beaten down Honda bike in green, black or red.
  The Hondas, the Hondas are everywhere, making loud rumbling sounds and carrying everything, big crates of bread rolls, passengers on the back of old men’s ‘peds, whole families heading to a park for a picnic. They rule the alleys and boulevards, cutting and slashing through traffic, sometimes in the opposite direction to the cars; crazier than Naples, as Taxi drivers and their squads, or ‘taxi groupies’ try and win your rial.
  Women are not allowed to drive motorbikes in Iran but may ride on them. If it is indecent to see a woman with two hands on the handlebars, it is not to see them clutched around her husband. The chadors and loose veils flutter across the busy roads.
  How I enjoyed smoking out the hotel window and watching the traffic move up Valisasr, towards the Alborz. Since Tehran is on a slight incline, one can always spot the mountains squeezed between dilapidated buildings and tranquil green avenues full of trees. Tehran and its wide shaded boulevards, its street cats, its Persian gardens and spring breeze. The city is chaotic but peaceful, between wisteria and a hot day’s traffic.

Everything comes to life in the late afternoon, no matter where you find yourself in Iran. People sleep in the parks, by the mosque, at the bus station. People prefer to rest during the day, enjoying the sun, the sound of the gurgling stream and the gentle breeze. When Léonie and I were in Isfahan, Hassan, who ran our guest house, would always insist ‘rāhat bāsh’, ‘be at ease’, as we rushed early to visit more mosques. And sometimes, it really was tempting. Sometimes it was all we felt like doing; sitting in the hayāt, writing, drinking watermelon juice and talking to Hassan about Mehdi  Akhavan Sales.

Read on

Muqarnas in the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz

La Casa Pacifica
Callum Ruddock

Tending to the lion’s den planting Californian poppies for Richard Nixon in 1977, eating Pozole at Musso and Frank’s, and farting in the general direction of Mexico – the lingua franca of which is Spanish. Middle-hood miss-spent, whiling away my thirties, initially drafted on 405 Hilgard, just off Portola Plaza, up at the old UCLA draft counselling centre. Told that those who did not want to fight should stop “bumming it” and get a real job, which I did, and which meant accompanying our embattled ex-President on three trips around the sun, a man by that point El Dorado bound and squishy, a man for whom I left my virtues in Los Angeles, my mother in Arkansas, and my virginity at Lakeside Highschool. Uneasy but employed, I packed myself up down the coast to where the Pacific slish slosh eroded tender Dicky’s erroneous rock, so to destabilise his home, absolving his flaws and my contentious objections into the sea.

Near the glowing cliffs between Dana Point and Trestles Beach I found the town of San Clemente and the great ‘La Casa Pacifica’, Richard’s western White House, raved about on those sunset radiograms that bleated from Pontiacs going up the 10 doing 70. Brezhnev, Ordaz, Sato, and me, with my own little room looking out to a hacienda style patio with a hand-painted tile fountain at its centre. Far from home, them warm California winds blow, struck out with broad lawns and dust and with folks I didn’t know, it was the decade of public paradox. All of what happened in Haight Ashubry was behind me. The summer of love had ended with a funeral for the “Death of the Hippie”; this meant life on the downbeat, it left Jimmy Carter house sitting for the Republicans in Washington, kept housewives buying over-the-counter Benzedrine, and hairstyles growing to new heights.


Oliver Briscoe

Bayreuth had been cancelled, so I had been told about a year ago by someone to whom this mattered. One day it might to me too, but Lohengrin I had then been told would be a good place to start.
  A year on, running through their hits to fill seats, the Royal Opera House revived David Alden’s production (2018). A couple tickets had come to me rather last minute, rather good tickets, from a friend with a change of plans.

There were few people I knew who would really enjoy it. He was one. The others could not make it and widening the circle, I had to appreciate that four hours of German opera over a Saturday afternoon was not necessarily an attractive offer.
  So feeling truant and pleased it was otherwise an overcast day and not a perfect early summer’s afternoon, I went alone. I had made plans for Daquise afterwards. If a day show was not as chic, it was at least reassuring to have an evening to spend.
  Eddying through Covent Garden’s Saturday crowd, I was reassured too, finding as I neared the orchestra, I was amongst evening familiars, small men in designer suits with devastatingly made up taller women and old boys in sharp, long blazers with their wives. Soon settled into the prelude, these afternoon thoughts lost themselves nebulously to the enchanting splendour of the house.

Lohengrin first came to Covent Garden in 1875, ‘in Italian’ as noted in Kobbé’s. This one opens firmly in Wagner’s noble German with the King’s call to arms. A crowd of workers, the chorus, taken straight from a Spartacist barricade are forced to the floor by rifles and greatcoats. Telramund in an astrakhan-collared scarlet coat struts out as a grossly evil bourgeois, with him a loathsome Ortrud, a fairy-tale toad in a Merkel-like grey suit.

Having, out of character, violated Elsa’s maidenly dignity by locking her under the floorboards, Telramund has her dragged out to face a firing squad. Her champion arrives, we get no shining armour, no swan drawn boat from a golden chain. Instead, a flashing light trick supposed to be the God-send and a loose white linen suit for our knight. He parries the be-spatted Telramund’s sword-blows with the power of the Grail through his hands. The chorus watching are given some suitably fascist-looking salutes, as they piously put their trust in the purity of God’s judgement and its righteous victory. As our hero and his bride rejoice their love, the first act closes, Telramund and Ortrud cast aside as if wronged.

As I sat for Act II, the man next to me disarmingly started to chat. He ascertains it is my first Wagner. I learn he is a lawyer, he has seen the Ring Cycle thrice, once at Bayreuth because his partner was friends with a Bavarian finance minister.
‘Are you enjoying it?’
I was stumped, having not given it thought.
‘Not really…’ he suggested.
I took a moment longer, looking for the words. ‘You do not really come to Wagner not expecting to enjoy it’ and he conceded agreeable as the opening notes took up.

The exiled scene unfolds with perfectly grotesque sexual plotting, forcefully putting across how Telramund has been seduced into so viciously accusing Elsa, to marry Ortrud. From these moments the whole tale turns on the heredity of names, giving strength to Elsa’s doubt and Ortrud’s plot, as the last of her line. Nowhere too do we feel Wagner’s furious power and the promise of The Ring as in her famous ‘Entweihte Götter!’ a thrilling blood-pact swearing terrific revenge, answered by a flash and growl from the skies.

Under a totemic statue of a Partieschwan, Lohengrin then saunters in wearing an officer’s coat and jackboots to be married. The chorus is thrown into some nonsense staged violence, giving Telramund in his accusation the unconvincing role of resistant.

Act III startles as the spotlights fall on the stalls, cue a fluster of turned heads and then out into the aisle comes Elsa and her knight; a wonderfully simple trick which must never fail to please, seeing the two up close, blissfully in love. We are delightfully back to Wagner, back to a bridal chamber and white linens with a backdrop from the Neuschwanstein Castle Grail murals.

Much like our lovers, before we are too happily settled, Alden tears us back to his brown-shirt dystopia. Partieschwan banners in Nazi livery hang in crisp ranks, offensively perverting Lohengrin’s tragically exalted sacrifice into a fetish of German violence. Can we allow the German no good? No culture without shame? Lohengrin is no false God. He had not come to oppress the Brabantians. This is a chivalric Germany of blood feuds and Christian knights, pure of heart. Even if this twisted production questions the danger of worship and strikingly impresses the dark truth in Ortrud’s final trick, as the fulfilled vengeance of the old Gods not forgotten.

The house erupts, enraptured, I bask in its strength; you cannot neuter the übermensch. As we stand my neighbour asks ‘Did you like it?’ and again I struggled to  answer such a small question ‘Very much so’ and soon outside the weather had cleared into a fine evening.

I later put my thoughts to my Wagnerian mentor:

That review sounds as though it was lifted from Pseud’s Corner in Private Eye!  I agree that some of the production’s themes were dubious, but relative to some other modern productions this one was pretty restrained and inoffensive. There was one notable recent production at Bayreuth where all the characters were depicted as rats, and part of some experiment in animal behaviour.  A few knights dressed as German or Russian soldiers is fairly orthodox in comparison.

I think the key to evaluating the performance is the quality of the music.  If the stage production is too absurd, then you can just close your eyes and listen. In this production the music was superb–great performances in all the main roles, and solid orchestration. What more could one ask for?

We may have to wait a bit for Bayreuth as I didn’t book any tickets this year, but I will try to get some next year.  In the meantime, the ROH is staging Tannhäuser in Jan/Feb 2023, which is going to be worth seeing because the main female role (Elisabeth) will be played by Lise Davidsen, probably the most promising Wagnerian soprano in the world and destined (hopefully) to be the greatest of our generation. I will try to book for us.

Chargé d'affaires - Depuis 2020