Friday, 4 June 2010

Fanfare, Fanfare for our Heroes.

Today, The Grand Opening by Prince William of the new Rehabilitation Complex at Headley Court for our injured Servicemen and Women built by Help for Heroes.

I found the whole occasion more moving than anything I have ever witnessed, and I felt really fortunate to have been included.

Talking to some of our young men who have experienced tremendous injury was truly humbling. Their spirit is immense and their courage and success unbelievable in the face of what would seem to be impossible odds. Hearing a triple amputee of 28 talking about his plans for the future, the work they are all doing to rebuild themselves and get back into the Army or civilian life, leaves all of the rest of us behind in terms of courage and achievement.

I listened to the physio who told me how our men are trained to care for their mates in the field, the Padre whom I questioned closely about Faith or loss of it in the theatre of war, and the soldiers about their mental attitude in battle and how you work on core muscles when you have no limbs. The sergeant with whom I walked to the complex is making and fitting these new prostheses, his every action and description imbued with the compassion and discipline and care that seems to me a hallmark of our military training. I heard about the rations in the field and the weight of equipment/body armour/weaponry and least 70 pounds with which they run in 50 degrees. I've sung in that temperature in Sicily and all of the body systems change as you try to cope.

There were so many regional organising fundraisers so completely committed, all with other jobs, and I watched their eyes alight as they told me of the targets they've set themselves and how they would achieve them. There were many citations, awards and Bryn Parry's extraordinary descriptions of courage, fearlessness and superhuman effort to overcome adversity; of the donations that day...a cheque for £1 and one for a million pounds. Help for Heroes has raised £53 million in two and a half years, and beautiful little Lydia aged 9, herself without legs who was running around helping, having achieved a mile long sponsored swim in an hour. She asked for my autograph and I should have asked for hers.....The sergeant who lost his legs and is now a world champion javelin thrower.....nothing it seems stops them achieving new ambitions and getting on with life. Almost all have good, simple English names and they just look ahead, seemingly unfazed by their injuries.

Bryn and Emma Parry have created this Facility and more in support of our Heroes and Heroines. Prince William listened and talked to so many people, and gave a heartfelt speech. The Complex itself is magnificent. I had seen it unfinished and went round in wellies before the equipment was in. Now there are Nasa invented trainers that you work inside weightless, the gait assessment room full of walkways and cameras, beds with room for 10 doctors around them to assess together all of the patient's needs, two great gyms of course and the fabulous pool, immense and with an adjustable base.

All of this was recorded by the wonderful Gill Shaw...her photos of Heroes around the walls, and I returned home to restudy her book, The Hero Inside, and the new friends within it that I had made that day.

It was a most unforgettable occasion filling the heart and the spirit, putting all else into perspective and banishing any troubles to retreat into the shade, in the face of such bravery.

This is real valour.

My roses are at the entrance, my other grand piano in their mess and I've been asked out to Camp Bastion for Christmas....first stop a Chinook.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Hommage to Chelsea 2010.

We all, I am sure, take away so many memories of this, the most extraordinary display of gardening anywhere in the world.

I find it hard to believe that I can visit it and gaze in amazement, several times during the week, and now have wonderful friends new and old with whom I catch up, praise their immense and tireless work, and admire and encourage their magnificent achievement.

As soon as I was in on Sunday I fell upon the Eden Project/Tower Hamlet garden and sat down with Scruffy, the man in the woods among his besom brooms, cauldron, knife and hoe. We talked and he explained how the man who lives in the wood is so vital to its maintenance and care. He is the barometer for Nature and knows before anyone else when something is threatened by our increasing demands on our habitat and environment. He is of course, The Green Man.

I sang for them all and wandered on, riveted by my friends on the Hillier stand with a magnificent collection of specimen trees and plants, all in bloom, some 15ft tall and seemingly happily in situ for years....umberella acers, ravishing foxgloves, and a Moroccan garden and fountain "alla Yves St Laurent" with an Ali BaBa pot that I longed to hide in and jump out of.

Instead, later in the week I donned a masque and sat in the throne in their little studio and gave (how dared I?) a gardening tip on camera. "How" I asked "can I, give YOU a gardening tip?!!!" But then I had an idea, and with one of my own roses that was a bit floppy, showed how to revive a thirsty bloom when it seems all hope has gone. I have learned this after years of dealing with bouquets in hotel rooms, sometimes at four in the morning before I take off my make-up and finally fall into bed. I ALWAYS travel with my bouquets unless I give them to someone, or a hospital before I leave.

I sang some Puccini and wandered on... to Joan and her exquisite Auriculas, a tiny, new green one, and all of them beautifully displayed in a black pyramid like perfectly groomed Victorian ladies..........and sang some Gershwin for Joan too.

Easily distracted I HAD to see the roses, David Austin's ravishing bowers and arches of old-fashioned delights with perfume and modern health, and Peter Beale for whom I left a letter of homage and a CD, to the most enchanting Gentleman and his most beautiful roses which I first planted in my own tiny garden many years ago, long before I met Robert Harkness.

Greeting all of the Harkness Family, as they patiently and with the utmost care and gentleness arranged their wonderful stand, I stood back to see it, if I could, as any other visitor would.

Great arcs of Hybrid Teas and Floribundas, beds of shrubs and patios, the climbers surrounding a tiny table and chair that I can sit in gratefully, whenever I'm there. They are set entirely in grass and I love them all and bask in the perfumes. One of this year's new one's is Twiggy's Rose, a china pink shrub with a delicious perfume that I was asked to describe many times. In my humble opinion she is earthy, mossy base, woody middle note and a green almost cedar/citrus top note.......a very definite old rose scent and rare to encounter these days.

The Harkness stand was awarded a Gold Medal and I was not surprised as, after the broiling heat at the weekend and opening, we all wondered how the plants would survive.......but they did, gloriously.

I ran around the gardens, and was so happy to see lots of real English planting with peonies, iris, lilac, tulips and poppies instead of concrete, decking and loungers, which doesn't seem to me what gardening is about.

The Wisterias...Mmmm.

I talked, sang, gazed amazed, and came away with a wonderful array of Ornamental Bananas, given to me by Charles of the Bermudan garden (he deserved some Noel Coward) along with some of my own roses that finally were not needed. I ran off next day with them, for my surgeon and oncologist at UCH.

My last thought as I drifted off to sleep that night, was the heavenly blue of the Delphiniums.....................

and the Roses.

The first time that I ever went to Chelsea was as a student, and I queued at the end of Friday for the Grand Sell-Off and finally bought, for 50p I think, a huge bunch of deepest, red roses, Hybrid Teas and carried them home on the bus in heaven.

They must have come from the Harkness stand.............................

Friday, 9 April 2010

Halleluia.....All of our Heroes.

Today, finally, the roses are in the ground in front of the magnificent new Gym/ Pool/ Physio Facility for our Heroes at Headley Court in Surrey, and built for them by the charity Help for Heroes.

I couldn't believe the complications over something so simple.

Between Health and Safety, the Council apparently objecting, the infrastructure (of course)...electrics, plumbing, which limited depth, wrong beds being beautifully prepared by the wonderful gardener who wasn't told when minds were changed......the problems seemed endless and inexplicable.

Finally a whole morning of phone calls and e-mails between Squadron Leader (busy launching gliders at the time), Commanding Officer, Executive Officer, Directors of Operations.....and eventually the roses seem to have got off the ground, or rather, into it!.

Anxiously I rang Robert Harkness for last minute pruning instructions, as I worried that she might not go in for twenty more days while the temperature and ground are heating up.

I truly hope that her feet now settle in quickly between all the cables and power lines, and that she will be saluting our magnificent Heroes very soon indeed, certainly in time for the grand opening, but more importantly I would wish that she gladden the hearts of our extraordinarily courageous men and women, every time that they go in for their workouts and cheer them all along the way.


Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Back into the Polo Mint....

Ah well!

I'm trying to get used to this and not be's the third MRI in 11 months.

I climb aboard again with needles in one arm, hooked up to a dye to be released later, and trying with everything else to hold the hospital gowns together, squeezing my lungs into the coffin face down, encased in a brass breastplate, with earplugs and headphones to lessen the deafening noise and vibration.

Once in, there is no sensation of time or space except for the frightening noises and buzzes. Neither is there any communication whatsoever. They told me to "breathe normally", but they don't understand that I need to know whether I can use the whole extent of my lower abdomen, diaphragm, lungs or upper clavicles and I usually use them all, especially if I sing or need to keep very calm indeed....which I certainly do now.

I cannot move even an eyelash...or the images won't read clearly, and I didn't take a very deep breath before it started.

I tried to think of all the lovely things that I will do later. A walk in the park with all the daffs and blossom coming out.....

Then I realised that I could analyse the musical pitches of the buzzes layered on top of each other, and how they were related. I supposed that at least, since they were tuned, the great machine must be very new and accurately put together, unlike the very old MRI previously at Barts which was always breaking down, and clunked and juddered like an old steam engine or an ancient lawn mower. No one seemed to be able to read the results of that one. This super new one at UCH seems fine-tuned.

I became so engrossed in trying to remember these musical relationships, that I thought I might relax too much and hunched up shoulders at I stopped.

Silence for a moment and I try to grab a huge breath. Suddenly a searing buzz makes me start and jump almost out of my skin...You never know when this will happen, and of course, I am trying not to move a muscle.

At last I'm unstrapped from the feet up. I wobble off the stretcher with one straight, outstretched arm and, trying to get into my boots with the tubes still attached, hobble into a chair to have all of the needles unhooked. If I had had the energy I would have nipped around the door to look at the images on their screens. The radiographer who has unhooked me is Indian, George, and looks carefully at my eyes to make sure that I can stand up and stay there. I remember the same look from Nick Perry exactly a year ago at the end of the core biopsy, when he didn't want me left alone. I was tottering a bit with shock.

As I leave I find some water. It's taken almost three hours.

I wobble home, tearfully.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The Gold Standard.

Last October my rose was awarded the world Gold Standard.

This is judged in Cambridge over 2 years, by the breeders themselves, in terms of the toughest criteria and the greatest qualities.

There are few roses which ever achieve this, and I am so happy that Rosa Susan Daniel has done so.

I judge roses internationally, but have no idea what happened there.

Before Christmas I was in Milan, to work with my coach, talk to La Scala and see many great friends especially Lorenzo Borghi who makes the most beautiful hats in the world.

When I arrived in the evening Carlo Marinoni met me in front of the roses and the theatre. They were all in bloom and well above my head....... under his chin and 6 foot high! I laughed because I was so amazed. This was late November.

In the dark the scene looked like the woods around Sleeping Beauty's Castle.

I ran about my business for a few days and then decided that on my birthday I would try and paint this site in front of La Scala.

I'd last attempted a sketch 12 years ago and gave it to a new friend whom I was about to meet. Since then the piazza has been completely repaved and planted, in time for The Queen's State visit, and after that my roses went in all around the statue of Leonardo da Vinci.

Before I'd finished the picture, the plants had all been pruned down to about 3 feet. I think that someone heard that I was about, but drawing away this time, almost no one hung around me watching........... thank goodness.

It was too cold and rainy!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Berlusconi's Bluebird.

Or perhaps it was a Blackbird........

I had been singing in Palermo, the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily and legendary seat of La Mafia....and hunting country.

Palermo is a glorious city with an unrivalled history and the loveliest people.....generous, kind, it is indeed the land of milk, honey and marzipan.

I went on to Rome a year later to sing the same magnificent production and by chance, my friends in the animal world "I Verdi" the Green Party, asked if I would speak in Parliament about my experience of being on a very cruelly derived drug, and why I came off it. I did this on television, sang a little, and then was asked to sing for the birds!

It was a hugely hot day. A thunderstorm had knocked out all the electricity overnight and my hair needed organising as I donned my cobalt blue silk organza dress and hat with long silk gloves and sang for an hour or so in front of the Parliament offices. This was all about discouraging the shooting of migrating birds during the hunting season. The birds fly from Africa, over Italy and up to England. They are small and it is illegal to shoot them, nevertheless this happens.

The traffic and the Parliament offices ground to a halt as all of the windows opened and people hung outside for as long as I kept going.

A close friend who was a journalist had visited me in Sicily, and later became useful to the next government in terms of organising the hunting lobby for the forthcoming elections. I watched with interest as Sicily swung totally in favour of Berlusconi and the new laws which would allow the repatriation of assets, and eliminate inheritance tax.

I also watched, as having relinquished his chair in the Senate my friend lost his promised seat in Europe....... in favour of an MP who, in danger of being convicted by the very courageous judiciary of Palermo, went to Brussels instead and thus...... beyond jurisdiction.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Sir, I Stand Corrected.

A friend who is an ex army officer read my piece below about the conversation I had with the young fusilier, "The Hackle of Victory", September '09.

"Beware of believing everything you are told by young soldiers," he said to me.

"In my experience, most troops are extremely well informed about their role in Afghanistan. What's more, their food and clothing is generally of a very high standard. NCOs and officers are always on hand to hear gripes and complaints. Only very rarely is leadership not up to the high standard which permeates throughout the Army."

"Furthermore, great store is set by ensuring that the troops are looked after as well as is humanly possible in the circumstances.
I used to read some of the letters sent home by a few of my soldiers. I would always ask them to re-write letters which started with: 'Our plane was machine gunned as we came in to land at Akrotiri (Cyprus).......we returned fire and killed hundreds of the enemy......'

"This is not to say that service in Afghanistan is not at times, extremely dangerous. Nor am I saying that equipment is the best that it should be. There is always room for improvement and likewise there is always a case for increased spending on defence.

But beware of the individual's account in isolation.

Better to hear it from a platoon, on the ground."

Sir, I stand corrected.