In Vino Veritas 17

Episode 17

So, onwards to the town of Vyborg. After our adventures it was quite late before we fetched up at our ‘restaurant’. With a bit of transliteration it comes out in Russian as PECTOPAH, pretty easy to recognise. Good old St. Cyril, his alphabet (particularly when almost hand written on road signs) is pretty tricky, it became even trickier in the dead of night.

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The menu, at first glance, seemed impressive. In our subsequent meetings with stray westerners, (mostly stringers for western media), they pointed out that the menu was the same whether one was eating in Vyborg or Vladivostok, or any point in between.
The correlation of what was writ and what was in fact available, was very slight, if it existed at all.
In the event, food was provided and then we set off for Leningrad, as it then was. The journey was only 140 kilometres, a mere crossing the road by Russian standards, but the driving conditions were treacherous…AND….was Esmeralda sulking the teensiest bit?

In 1949, ‘The Third Man’ movie was produced. It was set in post war Vienna, an exhausted, cynical and wholly joyless city. This was compounded by the stunning cinematography and the musical score. Anton Karas’s ‘Harry Lime’ theme was a perfect fit. It all came flooding back. Did it ever.

I could hear the zither playing as we descended the hill into Leningrad. Darkened streets, everything either black or in shadow, or somewhere on the grey scale. Lifeless, eerie and almost menacing. We were the only thing that moved. Freezing. Dead.

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Leningrad USSR 1979 Photo Credit: Masha Ivashintsova / Masha Galleries

 

Things brightened up at the hotel. A good welcome and a good room. The whole building was a relic of an imperial and extravagant past. Like the city itself it exuded a faded grandeur, rather like an ageing dowager who had seen much better days.
As we checked in, our receptionist turned away from us and opened two huge cupboard doors in order to find something. Over his shoulder one could see an enormous stack of banded US dollars, these were juxtaposed with cases of top class Bordeaux reds and more bottles of single malt than you could shake a stick at.
Finally, the piles of western cigarettes would not disgrace a large tobacconists.
Somebody was doing alright.
The history of the city, from its decimated construction peasant workforce in 1703 to the unimaginable siege from 1941 to 1944 ( both involving the death of at least a million people ) is awesome. Not forgetting 1917 of course.

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RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Architecturally, a baroque Italianate style abounds, the river Neva winding its way through this faded grandeur. For my part Leningrad meant, most of all, the Hermitage museum and its art collection. At college I came across an article about the Russian collector Schukin, whose collection ranged from Monet to Picasso. How was his judgement? Not bad it would seem. I wondered.

What happened next could have happened yesterday, the memory burns so bright.

The jewels in Schukin’s crown were as magnificent as they were unexpected. Two huge galleries of the great painter and colourist Henri Matisse reduced me to a quivering mass as I contemplated the scale of his achievement. God help us. These were all great works, no bad days, glory upon glory. Deepest joy.

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Images from the Hermitage Museum

But Leningrad had two more tricks up her sleeve, one even more unexpected than the last…

Music Box – Des Baches Wiegenlied

 

Die Schöne Müllerin is a song cycle of 20 songs composed by Franz Schubert. They move from heady optimism to tragedy. A young miller wanders happily through the countryside, soon following a brook which leads to the mill AND the beautiful miller’s daughter. Her response to his approaches is luke- warm and worse, is rapidly supplanted by a green clad hunter. The miller becomes obsessed with the colour green.

In the final song cycle, Des Baches Wiegenlied, our lovelorn suicidal hero gives himself up to the tender clutches of the brook as it meanders through the bleak countryside. The moonlight is reflected back from the flowing water.

David Armitage
Des Baches Wiegenlied, Dye and acrylic on canvas, David Armitage.

It is the brook who sings the lullaby as it embraces the heartbroken miller.

 

Good night, good night
until everything wakes
sleep away your joy, sleep away your pain
the full moon rises,
the mist departs,
and the sky above, how vast it is.

 

Provided to YouTube by Sony Music Entertainment Die schöne Müllerin, D. 795: XX. Des Baches Wiegenlied · Christian Gerhaher · Franz Schubert · Gerold Huber Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin ℗ 2003 Bayerischer Rundfunk Producer: Wilhelm Meister Lyricist: Wilhelm Müller

 

David Armitage has also produced an illustrated book of ‘Winterreise’, Schubert’s other great song cycle. Follow the blog to see more posts on Winterreise, Music Box, paintings, memoirs and more!

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Illustration from Winterreise, David Armitage.

In Vino Veritas 16

 

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At primary school I used to gaze at the big world map in the classroom. For some reason, perhaps sheer scale, the image of Russia never failed to impress. Later this was reinforced by reading the great Russian writers, researching the history and climate, and, of course, the rich musical tradition.
As there was some speculation in the air about when we might return to the antipodes to meet respective families, it seemed like a good idea to pop over to Russia, then have a jolly little scenic journey down to Athens in order to get a ride home on a Boeing 707.
No problem. I had a little chat to our newly acquired Esmeralda of the advertisement about all this and I found her re-assurances comforting. BUT… Her clutch WAS fading.

Bookings were made with the Russian ‘Intourist’, and other more rudimentary preparations put in hand.
At this stage Brezhnev was in charge of that vast country and the Cold War was colder than ever. Speaking of which, the start of our journey was January/February, coinciding neatly with the Russian winter. I know why the French and the Germans failed.

First off to the Hook of Holland, then north to Hamburg, thence to Copenhagen, a ferry to Gothenburg in Sweden. Then a goodly drive through a rather bleak countryside to Stockholm. ‘Headlights’ was a misnomer for Esmeralda’s night driving kit, a warm glow would have covered it. Some of the villages seemed terribly isolated, and being shrouded in freezing fog didn’t help. A winter spent here would not appear in one of those ‘Best winter breaks’ that regularly appear in the Sunday comics.
From Stockholm we got the ice- breaker ferry (hmm …a warning) to Helsinki.
Finland’s relationship with its huge neighbour has always been uneasy, war between them breaking out in the 1940’s. By the time we got there Finland was independent but had to cede territory to the Russians in the process. A warm welcome was not part of the Helsinki Hotel package. It sort of had a police state feel to it, the booking procedure seemed almost clandestine, as though big brother was not far away. Bloody cold all round.
But not for the first, or the last time, a clue for the metaphorical chill could have been to do with the car. She had German transit number plates, this was not good.

Off to Russia! A quick spin along the Gulf of Finland coast road, (Sibelian memory music playing in my head) and, at last, the Russian border blocked our path.
We stopped abruptly. We had to. In a trice, the car was surrounded. We were ordered out.
With a flurry of strobe-like activity, door panels were removed, the petrol tank plumbed, under car mirrors produced, and ‘open the boot and the bonnet!’
The latter occasioned some mirth…’where was the bloody engine?’ (my translation).
The guards were obviously not familiar with Beetle engineering.
We were bundled into the reception area… a sort of college educated cow shed.
Documents were produced and given a thorough going over by the minions. Their grasp of English was slender, Ronda had thoughtfully brought a stack of her mothers letters, which were being read upside down. I kept my humour well concealed.
THEN! BINGO! Rather in the manner of the massive peroration that closes Sibelius 2, our rummage squad hit the jackpot. A COPY OF DR. ZHIVAGO! no less. OH JOY.
The commandant was summoned. After an eternity, a sworn document was produced that would make sure we would take the book home with us. Off we we went to Vyborg.

By now the encircling gloom had given way to a freezing fog which obscured the craters lurking in the Russian road. It was as though the Luftwaffe had just left.

Pitch black. We drove into a claustrophobic menacing forest. Then…

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The distress flare blaze of an intense light screamed into the car. We stopped. More lights appeared, bobbing about, rather like torches. A crash of gears. An army truck pulled in front of us. WHAT WAS THIS?
A load of squaddies spilled out of the truck and opened the car doors. Were they clutching fully loaded AK47’s? NO? They had handfuls of crisp rouble notes and they wanted to do a bit of late night shopping. Would one believe it?
The list was the usual….pens, chewing gum, cigarettes, booze, chocolates. American dollars. Even my jeans! We traded as best we could. It was all good natured and they left.

They could have just as easily dumped the car in a ravine in the forest, throttled the life out of the occupants and taken anything they wanted. Who would know?

A salutary thought.

Music Box – Azrael / Queen of the Night

This is either ‘Azrael’ or ‘Queen of the night’, depending on which music I am listening to at the time. My work relies on ambiguity, I find either title suits this very powerful figure. They are not un-alike.
After all, this is a painting, not a picture.

‘The magic flute’ is rather like a fairy tale. A noble prince is commanded by the Queen to rescue her daughter, who has been kidnapped. Things get off to a great start with the appearance of a huge serpent which threatens our prince, but lo! 3 women (employed by the Queen) turn up and rescue him. He is then given a magic flute and sets off to rescue the daughter who is in the clutches of the High Priest of Isis and Osiris. The plot thickens, other characters appear, as does splendid music.

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Azrael, Dye and acrylic on canvas, 123 x 178 cm

Moving quickly on, eventually the Prince and daughter get married in the temple after a series of very testing adventures. Furious at this turn of events, the Queen plots to destroy the occupants of the temple but the High Priest calls the shots and the Queen is vanquished.

Although she is hardly on the stage at all, this powerful and pivotal coloratura soprano is up to no good and has a huge influence on proceedings. An equivocal figure, of uneven temperament, she scales vocal heights which would terrify the faint- hearted.

Spectacular unforgettable stuff.

 

 

Video clip from Royal Opera House official youtube channel.

In Vino Veritas 15

Episode 15 – Wedding plans and executions

The vicar’s eyes raked over me as though I was some reject from a sad car boot sale. He then noted, somewhat frostily, that he did not recall seeing me, or my intended, in the congregation. Had we recently moved into the area.? Of course.
However, I did sense a hint of uncertainty in all this. I guessed that he heard about these Croc. Dundee Oz types who owned Belgium -sized cattle ranches in Western Queensland. Such hints alluding to this might have crept into our conversation.
In any event, he adopted a more conciliatory tone AND did he pick up a whiff of a cash crop not a million miles away?
‘Right’, he said briskly, ‘I think we can help here’.
Before we got to dates and suchlike, he rattled through the assorted expenses involved in all of this. This included his fees,flowers, organist, ushers, documentation and a few other frills. A previous experience came to me mind as the cost of this caper spiralled into some kind of absurdity. I once approached a bookseller regarding the price of a Jane Austen first edition which would have been a lovely birthday present for my avid- reader wife to be. He mentioned a figure approaching the speed of light. My reaction was impressive.I managed ‘studied’, ‘reflective’, ‘will I or won’t I’, ‘Oh, why not?’,all in one bundle. This kept the lid on my side-splitting laughter which would have ripped a gaping hole in this bookish inner-sanctum.
Back to the good vicar. Once again, as we tripped merrily across the £1,000 entry level tag, I played my well thumbed studied response card. Money was no object of course, but I would consult with little flower and get her response. She was not all that stoked on formal procedures, preferring rather the smaller scale ceremonies.

Next day I put in a call to the Wandsworth Registry Office.

IMG_7303-Recovered

They were very helpful. From a somewhat blurred memory I recall 3 options on offer.
Offer 1: This included flowers, music and a fairly sophisticated ceremony. Offer 2:
flowers and more basic service and Offer 3: No music, no flowers and a bog standard ‘blink or you will miss it’ service. That was about ten quid. Done.
The big day dawned bright and clear. It was a Saturday so I was going to miss out on a double time work day. Not good. Worse, my friend and witness had been on the sauce the night before and was physically and mentally incapable of any kind of participation.
So , Ronda, her friend and witness Jan and I set off to catch the bus. Ronda, by far the most agile of the 3 of us sprinted ahead and got on the bus as it pulled out. She indicated to the driver that she was getting married and would he wait? He indicated something unprintable, dropped the clutch and booted it. We all got there in time.
The area around the office resembled Wembley on cup final day.
I appraised the marshal of my best -man problem and with the practised hand of years of experience, a loud -hailer was produced and the call put out for a witness. An ill fitting suit emerged from the throng. This was Pete, a plasterers mate from Peckham who could ‘dodejob’. His presence was accompanied by an aromatic halo of Watney’s bitter and Capstan Full Strength. A nice guy.

The service was indeed a model of brevity. About midway through this the full impact of these proceedings shot home, rather like slamming home the bolt on an old 303 rifle. This manifested itself in a facial tic which Ronda and Jan spotted at once. They giggled. This got a sharp rebuke from our leader. Silence. The deal was done.

Ronda and Jan set off for a ‘nice cup of tea’. Sod that. I popped into the King’s Head and set about 5 fingers of single malt. I lost the first bit with a final big twitch, then calmed down.

I wonder what happened to Pete.

Dear Auntie Gill

Dear Auntie G,

Thank you so much for your considered response and, more importantly, your kind words about our friendship, an acknowledgement of my modest skills, and the fact that we both share a sense of humour. I accept you advice unconditionally and have returned my ‘reciprocal’ gift to Asprey’s in Bond Street. I was not altogether happy with the emeralds anyway. I am indebted to your discretion in all this.

I note, inter alia, that you mention my friend Mavis and perhaps a slight puzzlement on your behalf as to why I should be looking further afield, so to speak. I first met her when she was a bouncer at a lesbian nightclub. I was doing a reading of Elizabethan Love Poetry. I learnt a lot that night.

Mavis is a quixotic soul to say the least. To note that we are polar opposites is very much the case. Our last meeting demonstrates this. She was wired up with her heavy metal mates (at full blast) and a sprinkling of knuckles on the ground smack heads, seemingly belting the hide out of one another, whilst I was engrossed in the must read ‘History of the Albanian coracle 1214-1216.’ This is the pattern of our relationship. The rocks in her head match the holes in mine. Sadly it is a spasmodic one. Why?
She spends much her life detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure – abh, dangerous driving, and shoplifting coming up with the magistrates next week. Arundel open prison was not so bad but Holloway is a hell of a trek. AND, I have to look after Crusher, her Rhodesian Ridgeback while she is banged up. God that dog stinks.
Sadly, of late she has had a few anti- social health issues and her halitosis would strip wallpaper. Despite, or maybe because of this, our friendship goes along in a strobe lighting sort of way.
With this background, I felt that a life with a nice quiet little English flower, who had never heard of assertiveness training would be good for my blood pressure…sigh…never mind…..

Just heard the roar of an out of tune Harley- Davidson……or….oh no…!!
Is it MAVIS? AAAAAGGGGHHHH!

Aunty Gill Responds to Mumbles

Dear Mumbles

Thank you for your enquiry.

As to your gift. I have had a chat to the female chum concerned and a summary of her her response follows:

Well, it’s not every year that a man celebrates a milestone birthday – and especially one with a relatively high number – so she and her family thought you deserved something a bit special that you would appreciate! She’s sorry that you had to wait a couple of weeks after your special day, but from your reaction seems pleased to hear that you felt it was worth waiting for! She wanted to mark your special birthday in some way, and says that since you’ve known each other, you have always been a good friend, especially during some tough times (on both sides). She said that you have also provided some wonderful humour to lighten many dark situations and that you are an all round good egg. Finally, she said that you’re not a bad tennis player either – even if, as I understand it, you do like to hit the ball off the frame every so often, which makes her smile. Although, she did admit that, coupled with the net cords, you do try her patience from time to time!

So, I hope Auntie Gill has helped to explain the meaning behind the gift, and from what I have come to know about the lady concerned, I would say a reciprocal gift is not at all necessary and would advise you to steer clear of offering the sought-after collection of Australian women’s magazines you mention – otherwise it could be game over! It seems to me that you have a great deal of mutual respect for each other, and both value the relationship you have, but understand that there might be at least one other lady in your life that lays claim to your affection…somebody called Mavis, if I’m not mistaken! Whilst I myself have come to appreciate what a charming and popular chap you are, it would be remiss of me as a respected agony aunt, not to warn you against having too many arrows to your bow, so to speak.

Onwards and upwards

Auntie Gill