Saturday, 12 September 2009

Libya...Gaddafi... and.. "The Lavender Scented Swimming Pool."

This was the name of the diplomatic posting in Malta, as described by the then British Ambassador.

We had got together to rehearse a concert in the beautiful gem of an opera house, The Teatro Manoel, the earliest in Europe, built in 1731, and preceeding the San Carlo in Napoli. The island of Gozo just across the water, has two opera houses, one on each side of the street.

Brian Hitch our Ambassador, was a very good pianist indeed and we worked hard to prepare a Poppy Day programme for the veterans, in commemoration of the island's rescue during the war by one of our last warships.

So for the second half I asked for a bar stool and a microphone and we cruised through Begin the Beguine, Coward's Nina from Argentina along with Cole Porter and Gershwin, and of course.... Summertime.

I had to leave and returned in October for the concert, but I noticed that some things had changed meanwhile at the Embassy.

Brian and Margot had looked after me in Munich and I was always aware of the understated care while in the vicinity of our Embassies. However, having arrived with a huge salmon and my usual hats only to find that none would fit into the armoured Jaguar, small enough to negociate the narrow streets of Valletta, I was struck by the watchmen patrolling all night with torches in the garden and more significantly, the iron shutters which rolled down over all the windows, and the alarms now directly through to the police.

This all seemed a bit excessive for "the lavender-scented swimming pool" scenario which Brian had described, and he was learning Maltese and Arabic to keep in trim.

We played two concerts in the Manoel and later when he had moved on to Oxford University, I asked him what "all that extra security was about?"

"Oh!" he said. "Between your first and second visits, the Scottish police descended on us to investigate the Lockerbie bombing and my office was overun with them."

It seems that the bomb had been put on a plane in Malta, in a suitcase containing clothes from Marks and Spencer, and that the origin was Libya.

The Embassy was on red alert for 6 months and I hadn't known it.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Pre-Wall Berlin........ Marguerite.

At some point in the '80s I was singing La Damnation de Faust at Der Deutsche Oper in West Berlin.

Marguerite is a beautiful, haunting, melancholy and solitary role. She is the only woman in the piece.

One day I was called into the corridor outside the rehearsal room to be measured for my cross. I had no idea what was to come.

I lay down on a full size 10 foot high cross, as the carpenter measured up my wrist and foot straps. This was revolved in the last scene on stage amid neon lights, thunderstorms and fireworks as I held on and tried to relax, thankfully having finished singing. The heavenly chorus followed and I cannot remember how I got out of it all.

At the end of the run I had a day in hand before leaving for London, with 120 kilos of luggage, after 10 months away. I had decided to stay for Teresa Berganza's recital, always a masterclass in how to do it.

It was a cold, wet, grey day and, having previously been invited to East Berlin for lunch at the Embassy and swept through the border control in diplomatic cars.........This time I thought I'd go on my feet as an ordinary person.

The contrast was strident.

I queued along with everyone else as our passports were removed and we all waited in the wind and rain with no progress.

We got chatting.....a journalist had his camera taken away and we tried to keep cheerful as no one told us what was happening, there was no tea or water and a couple of hours dragged by. It seemed more prudent not to ask questions.

However there was no way back, or forwards.

I finally decided that this was enough and went to the front of the queue saying that if we were kept in this weather I would get a cold and then would not be able TO WORK.

"Und was machen Sie?" "What do you do?".

"Ich bin Sangerin" I replied, trying to sound elegant and not bark back at Irma Bunt.

"Where do you sing?" "An Der Deutsche Oper - last night. And if I get a cold, kann ich NICHT ARBEITEN." "I cannot work."

Miraculously my passport was immediately returned and I was whisked via the chicane of barriers, with metal teeth hanging down to prevent even the fastest vehicle from zigzagging through, and was escorted ahead of everyone leaving all of my new friends behind. I felt a bit uncomfortable but so grateful, as my leather jacket hadn't kept the weather out.

Slipping into the total greyness and concrete of East Berlin, I wondered about the real value of being a performing artist within the Communist block.

The throat specialist whom I knew in the West, had given a most wonderful supper party for me after a performance, with lobsters and champagne served by men in white gloves. He also explained the mechanics of crucifixion, given the production that I was in, and I wondered how he had known.......and why he wore a wig.

I remembered my friends left behind at the border and the total. utter silence at Checkpoint Charlie....... save for the birdsong.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

The Hackle of Victory.

All of the above, the previous post, was eclipsed by the conversation that I had with a young man on the train returning to London.

After a while, I realised that someone behind me was coughing and spoke about being in the army. I looked round and recognised a badge on his jacket.....and asked if I could chat a bit.

He was a 24 year old returned from Iraq and preparing to train for Afghanistan.

I asked about armour. "Why" he said, "do they spend the money training us from scratch for 6 months, and then send us out on patrol without sufficient protection, particularly on foot patrol and tank duty?"

Food:- "We get two meals, sausage and beans like you get in a tin, and the other is potato and meatballs, though there aren't many of those, and we pour hot water on it."

"Veg? Dairy? Fruit? I asked. "You need protein 3 times a day." "That's it" he said, "sometimes they top us up with Lucozade stuff." "That's a quick fix" I said, "It's not going to maintain you."

"I've seen men on the floor having given their all after a 12 hour night march and carrying 70lbs, being dragged up by the Sergeant.  A man being hit with a book against the face.........They only think about their own promotion and more money." We talked about intimidation and bullying tactics.

He had asked if he could go to his friend's funeral, but the wait to get written permission was so long that he didn't make it......"All it needed was a verbal Yes". "We have no direct contact at all with the officers, and no way to complain."

No one has told them why they are there.

"Many get very shaky"......"Do you have any help with that?.....The Padre?" "Yes, but there's a two week wait to see him."

I showed him how to meditate, to remember his deep breathing and to surround himself and his mates in a circle of light as protection, and I drew it on my card for him.

He had spent his first two weeks in Iraq in the same clothes, and his first six weeks in split boots. "The Americans are REALLY well provided, fed and armoured. They have visors to protect their eyes against the sand."

He had had to buy his own, smart blue tracksuit for himself....the one that I had noticed with his regimental crest. 

He asked about the rose stuff that I was reading, and I explained that she is given to the Heroes. "That's great!" he said and he suggested songs for a cd for them, and carried my bag off the train.

I gave him my card and a huge hug. "PLEASE remember" I said, looking straight into his eyes, "How much we all value you and the work that you are doing.....How proud we are of you and that we think of you all every day and we never, ever forget you."

He showed me his cap badge and then his hackle, proudly.

He was a wonderful young man and I truly hope that he contacts me again. 

I'd like to go out and sing for them.

How to judge a Rose....Vivat! Vivat Regina!

 In Rome and on camera, I was asked.........

 "How do you judge a Rose?",

and in a brief soundbite in Italian, I found myself saying; "Beauty, Health, Shape, Perfume, Form, Colour, Leaf"...........

This is only the beginning, and it sounds rather like judging a woman.

Last week I judged in Glasgow in the wind and the rain and it was a very different experience to judging in Rome in April.

The City gave a most splendid dinner in their magnificent glasshouses, accompanied by pipes and fireworks, and The Lord Provost asked me if I would sing the next day. "I would love to, but cannot do both things at once" I said. "May I come back!"  ("I love your jewellery!")

Having been announced, I asked if I could say something about my rose, and that she is given to Help For Heroes. The Great Palm House erupted with applause and I hoped so much that it would result in some real effect for our men and women currently serving in Afghanistan.

I ran off to stay with a dear, but long lost cousin in Edinburgh, whose spouse is Lyon Clerk, Herald of Scotland, and who has edited the new book on the Thistle Chapel, home to the Ceremony of the Thistle and our equivalent, The Ceremony of The Garter.

Elizabeth Roads' work is very fascinating, and I spent many hours in the night reading about the origins of our coats of arms, how they distinguished men on the battlefield and of their relevance today. She is a descendant of Robert the Bruce, the first King of Scotland.

Vivat! Vivat Regina!