5 March 2000

Back from volleyball - these days I usually come back somewhat bruised as I tend to dive all over the place in search of the amazing pick up. It was a scrappy session at Ash Manor, with many newbies, and most of the better players on a skiing holiday. Steve and Dag were there, though, my closest volleyball associates, and Luke was taking the session, so there was plenty of movement. I was getting better for a while, but my progress is tapering off again - I can never hit the ball properly, and my soft digs are too inaccurate.

I have been working most of the weekend - its production week coming. I seem to be well up on material this month, with something reasonably scoopy for both newsletters. I finally got round to doing my first pop-in sessions among the transport officials last week when I was in Brussels, and I got a good reception. Some of the energy people I know have moved over to transport, so that helps.

Friday I journeyed into London to the Coliseum to see the last performance, in this first ever group of performances, of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new opera ‘The Silver Tassie’. Ever since I first ready about this, some while ago, I had read it as ‘The Silver Tassel’. When I mentioned it to B she said it was a nice name, and I agreed. I even bought a programme before the show and read some of it. It was only after the opera had begun and the singer was singing ‘Silver Tassie’, that I began to realise I had misread the title all this time - and indeed, I don’t like ‘The Silver Tassie’ anywhere as much as ‘The Silver Tassel’. Nor did I think much of the opera. But I may well be alone in this. It seemed to have excellent reviews; it was also a packed house (so packed in fact that there were excessively long queues for collecting paid tickets, and the performance had to be delayed by 20 minutes); and the packed house enthralled themselves with their own clapping at the end.

But, but, but I was not enamoured by it. My main observation is that it lacked any brilliance, any genius. It was a workmanlike creation, but everything from the music and the singing to the set design and libretto were, to my eyes and ears, ordinary. Turnage composes atonal music, a lot of which sounds the same to me. A substantial part of the opera was this same kind of atonal composition but the singing was opera singing of old. It seemed to me all too often that the singers, in both their singing and their actions, were fighting against the music behind them, and therefore the audience (well me at any rate) was distanced from the opera. The fantastic thing about great opera well performed is that all the various elements - the music, the arias, the chorus, the action - combine to take the audience into another realm. In Turnage’s opera, I kept thinking why is all the action so distant, so far away, so meaningless. Then, afterwards, I started asking myself why, if Turnage’s music is so modern, is the singing so ordinary, so unmodern. When I think of the way Westbrook handles modern jazz and combines it with fantastic voice arrangements, and the way he can confidently move between the modern and the traditional, it makes Turnage’s accomplishments all the less.

I had this strong sense that Turnage had been accepted by the opera establishment (in getting so much support, financial backing, and this very high-powered production) because, apart from the atonality of some of the music, he is as traditional as they come; it likes him, he doesn’t cause any problems, he’s willing to play all the right games. Opera is looking backwards not forwards at the moment. Moreover, the audience, having being led by the nose, was applauding Turnage so much because it had been told that Turnage is the best we’ve got at the moment. But he’s not a touch on Britten.

12 March 2000

Spring-like weather. I’m pleased to report that there are daffodils in bloom both in the front woodland garden and in the back garden at the end of the lawn - some years those latter daffs don’t flower. The amelanchier leaf buds are showing through, as are those on the fruit trees. The forsythia too has bloomed well this year, and the ribes is just starting to flower. A single fluorescent purple hyacinth bulb, planted out with several others some years ago from an indoor display, is blooming brilliantly behind the heathers, and putting their shy flowerheads to shame. I should have been gardening this weekend - I plan to reset the side and front beds of the house - but I chickened out, knowing how much work it was going to be.

Last night I took Ads to the Guildford theatre to see Shared Experience do Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage and her Children’, a play, to my recollection, I had neither seen nor read before. If there is any one theatre group in the country which I take to my own - in the way that I take Westbrook to be my own in the music world - it is Shared Experience (with that name so reminiscent of the late 60s and 70s). I was first enamoured of them when they started with pure storytelling theatre: the ‘Arabian Nights’ and ‘Space Fictions’. Brilliant. If my introduction to the theatre came at Cardiff, my love of it came from Shared Experience. How staggering, therefore, to find that one of my closest friends at the time, Luke Dixon, who was the administrator at the Phantom Captain - a theatre group I became involved with because of Luke - went to work for Shared Experience. I think he worked there, with its creative force Mike Alfreds, for many years, but, by then, we had grown apart. Having graduated from doing their innovative theatre in rooms above pubs, they moved on to slightly more mainstream stuff, utilising real props and stage sets, with their storytelling adaptations of classic novels - ‘War and Peace’, ‘The Mill on the Floss’, and Evelyn Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’. The adaptations and performances varied, as did my own response to them. I was cross for a while that they had abandoned their original format, but, as I have become older, I’ve appreciated their professionalism and attention to detail. They are, and have always been, the cream of British alternative theatre - if that means they haven’t been quite as alternative as they once were, that is no great loss.

Now that I am stuck out here in the sticks, and good theatre comes close by all too infrequently, I can honestly say how refreshing it was to be able to see them at Guildford with a first class production. As so often, they cover a wide range of characters with a relatively small cast, and they handle the props and scenes themselves. For this production, the company had brought a fantastic actress called Kathryn Hunter - she is well known for her physical theatre (I saw here once in a strange play called ‘Shriker’ at the National Theatre) and her extraordinarily intense performances. She had well gotten inside the character of Mother Courage, and gave a quite startlingly believable portrayal of the half corrupt half soft-hearted gypsyish character. The performance included singing with accordion accompaniment, and although there were weaknesses among the supporting actors, the whole thing was excellent. The director, also well known (although not by me), chose to play down the preachiness of Brecht’s script, so that some of the more portentous lines were muffled within the ordinary conversation of the characters rather than spotlighted with enunciation, delivery and volume.

Ads was, as usual, wonderful. Although the dialogue was difficult at times, and there is no real plot to sustain interest in a story line, he barely wavered in three hours. He did think, at the interval, that it was the end, but soon realised his mistake when I pointed out the short applause and the lack of any curtain call. But, he said, he really enjoyed it and he asked sensible questions, and was able to talk about the ideas in the play with intelligence. He is such a pleasure to take to the theatre. It’s almost time to take him to a Shakespeare play.

Where are my thoughts these days? I concluded the March issues of energy and transport last week, and I got much of the month’s admin out of the way on Friday. But now I am getting stuck into the electricity book. Because I have to fit in all the writing between issues of the newsletters, I do have a rather tight deadline. I have a good collection of source material now - on several levels: the Unipede conferences, the electricity industry, the European Community developments - and hope to start writing this week. This will give me my first indication of how easy or not the whole thing is going to be. I’ve decided to start with the 1950-1980 period, partly because I am waiting on material from Bill in Brussels from the early Unipede conferences which are only in French, and partly because I have a good lot of material for the post-war material and so I should be able to write it without needing anything much further. I’ll see.

Secondly, I have been much concerned with my investments. I was staggered to find, a week or two back, that some of my unit trusts had doubled or tripled in value, so that whereas I thought I had about £50,000 in equities, the actual value was over £100,000. When I looked at them, I found out that the trusts investing in smaller European companies and technology were performing a starring role. I then got worried that they were growing too fast and were heading for a crash. In fact, this week there has been much speculation in the press about exactly that - inspired in part by a reassessment of the FTSE index companies, and the fact that several so called dot.com companies, which are barely making any money, have grown so fast that they are replacing blue chip companies which have large workforces and make steady profits. This discussion in the press has only fuelled my own concern. I went out and bought a stack of magazines and I’ve been checking the prices every day in the FT - with a kind of paranoia. I’ve also had to worry because I’ve persuaded Mum to invest £7,000 in a technology unit trust, and they are so highly valued today that it is difficult to believe they can make more money yet. I have £7,000 invested in the same fund, and it has more than doubled in less than a year. Of all my investments, only two of them are not tax protected, and therefore I decided that crash or no crash it is still probably better to leave them than to remove them. However, I could consider switching them.

But my problem is that I am involved in different markets and, because my unit trusts are made up of dozens of stocks, their good fortune is the result of the whole sector doing well, or perhaps overwell, and that therefore it is the whole sector that will have to fall. I can’t believe they are all just going to go up and then stay up. But, both the European stocks and the technology stock (which is strongly invested in the US) have gone up. Should I just move them all into a safe tracker fund for the time being - or what. Well, what I decided this weekend was to sell my very best selling unit trust - it has almost quadrupled in two or three years (most of it in the last few months) - in order to claim my capital gains allowance this year - and reinvest in a new technology trust. If I can get some gains out of this one and out of the other one both Mum and now have in the next few weeks, I’ll switch them. The cost of switching is a few percent - which makes a difference if the trust is only gaining 10% a year or so, but if it’s doubling in value, the charges become nominal.

Of course, if the market were to crash next week, and my £20,000 investment in the new technology fund were to half its value, then I would have lost a good deal of my gains - but then as 20 grand is all unearned profit, I don’t see why I shouldn’t carry on my gamble with it. This is only unit trusts - I’m not even dabbling in the stock market proper.

TV is dire at the moment, there is not one single drama series or programme series (other than ‘Eastenders’, and ‘Casualty’ I suppose) that I am watching at the present.

Skiing next Saturday - a holiday - whoopee.

Sunday 26 March

A lovely spring day, although there was a frost last night, and the ground it still very wet - too wet for planting.

Back from a hard week of skiing at Les Portes des Soleil. On first analysis, I suspect this was probably one of the worst holidays Ads and I have had together. I can’t say we had much fun, either of us - and fun is usually a staple by-product of our holidays. The last time, the one and only time, we did a package holiday like this before we must have been rather lucky - we were lucky in terms of the quality of the chalet, and we were reasonably fortunate in terms of the company in the chalet. This time round, everything was second rate. The hotel itself was tacky, truly tacky. Built in the late 1950s or early 1960s, it had clearly been run down for years, and then hired by First Choice as a ClubHotel. It stands at a road junction, with traffic pouring around it, and, although there was a magnificent view from the window, every time a car or bus passed noise roared in through the window. But this was not a real hotel any more, it was simply standard youth hostel accommodation, with standard youth hostel food thrown in. The rooms were tiny and bare (although we did have our own bathroom and toilet which was a moderate benefit), the beds were old and broken, and there was no seat or table for sitting or writing; moreover, the hotel itself had no lounge other than a small TV room, and the lobby area. The one telephone did not work for most of the week, so it was necessary to walk 15 minutes into the centre of Morzine for one. The food was edible, but banal and there was no choice whatsoever for supper. Ads and I were placed on a table with a surgeon called Toby from Birmingham who was on his own because he had decided to join up with his father’s group, which had booked through Crystal, but only when that group was full. He was friendly enough, but a little too intent on impressing. With a life of urological surgery in front of him, I’m not surprised he needs to let off steam skiing, climbing cycling, and whatever else he does. Also on our table were three lads, in their late 20s I suppose, probably friends from college, but our conversation never really developed beyond exchanges about the day’s skiing and about the food. Ads was shy at first, but by the middle of the week, he was trying to take part in the banal dinner conversations, and trying to crack jokes here and there. But it was not easy for him, or for me - I recall that by the end of our Les Deux Alpes trip, we were having a wonderful time every evening over dinner, with a large family group.

So then there was Morzine itself. I had chosen this resort because of its status as a town rather than simply a purpose ski resort. I had a picture of a river running through a quaint town, and lots of pleasant walks. However, I hadn’t fully appreciated that it was part of one of the biggest, if not the biggest, interconnected ski areas in the world, Les Portes des Soleil, and that the town itself had been swallowed whole by chalet and small hotel developments, and that these had swamped the whole valley - making it not so much a quaint mountain town, but a giant almost-purpose-built ski resort. In fact, although the skiing bit of the town was characterless, there was a quaint bit left, with a bridge over the river and a church, and a market square, and Ads and I did have one or two pleasant walks along the river.

On one of these, I was determined to find a place to cross the water before turning back. We found a tree that had strategically fallen perpendicular to the river, but tapered to a broken end a little before the far side. Ads managed to cross (with great glee), but advised me that the narrow tapered end would not take my weight. So, I carried on along one bank, and he along the other. Then I came to a tributary which looked easy to cross with stepping stones. But, rather clumsily, I fell in, landing on my arse and back, and soaking most of my clothes. After the initial shock, and the realisation that I wasn’t hurt, I let out a belly laugh, thus releasing Ads to laugh too. (On the way back we had a long conversation about the rights and wrongs of Adam’s laughing at me when I was hanging on the rope swing here in Elstead some years ago. I tried to explain that no matter as to the facts of a situation however benign, if someone actually believes themself to be in distress or danger, it is not right to laugh at them - as Ads did to me on that occasion. But, he’s so good at red herrings in discussions like this that it takes ages to close off the digressive arguments, before being able to close down the main tack.) In fact, I blame this particular stumble on the fact that my deck shoes were new at Christmas, and I had not yet established their grip-worthiness (or lack of same). Despite my aquatic state, I still did not manage to find a stone crossing point and was obliged to rely on a wooden bridge. Failure. And then I had to walk back, and through the town, with my clothes soaking.

As for the ski fields themselves, they were, they are truly extensive. We had been warned that the snow was getting slushy in the afternoon, so right from the first day we set out as early as possible. We hired our equipment right by the ski lift and, most days, we were on our way up the mountains before nine. On the first morning, however, on the first chair lift, before we had skied a metre, Ads and I had a stumble, and the operator had to stop the lift, which was a little embarrassing. For a short while in the mornings, we had to cope with icy conditions, but the snow soon softened up. The best conditions were invariably from around 10 to 1 every day. I insisted we take it very easy on the first day, in order to re-find our ski-legs and give our muscles a chance to adapt. Not only do I have to relearn how to ski every damn time I go, but there is also the business of reading the maps, and working out where the lifts and runs go.

In fact, we ended up skiing in four main areas, two of them twice. The first day we explored the mountains nearest to Morzine, the second day we skied on the same side of Morzine, but nearer Les Gets. On day three we got to know the Avoriaz slopes, which are the only high level ski fields in Les Portes Des Soleil and which are, therefore, more crowded when the snow conditions are not so good. Avoriaz is mildly interesting architecturally for being entirely built of purpose-built wood-panelled apartments, making the whole complex look not dissimilar to a nearby cliff face. On day four we explored across the border in Switzerland. Then, on the last two days, we cut out the exploring new areas and concentrated on skiing in the areas with the best snow conditions, one day above Avoriaz, and the other day by Les Gets. We had about three days of glorious sunshine, which made me worry about getting burnt and snow-blind, and which also meant we got very hot by the afternoon, and the snow got very sludgy. On the last day, we basically skied through blizzard conditions. I got entirely soaked early on since I do not have proper skiing trousers or gloves, and even Ads was soaked by lunchtime. Still, by late morning we were skiing on virgin snow, and there was virtually no one else around, so we had the ski fields to ourselves. We warmed up on a couple of occasions in a friendly cafe near the summit of the main lift we were using (although being wet, we never warmed up that much). Because of the snow, we couldn’t do any of the fast skiing that we had been doing on previous days, but it did allow us to practice our parallels more carefully.

Under his own steam, and in his own time, Ads decided to ski a black slope. It was on this last day, in dreadful conditions, but at least the snow was good, and there were no other skiers to worry about. It was a run we had spotted at the beginning of the week, and we could see its full extent from the lift. It was next to a red and a blue both of which Ads had become familiar with. He managed the black run admirably, falling only once, but not badly. In truth, though, I think, he had tackled some red slopes earlier in the week which, because of the slushy snow conditions, were more difficult than the black. It was important for him, though, to achieve a black.

April 2000

Paul K Lyons


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