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A Night At The Opera

Last night I went to the Opera for the very first time to see the superb Opera North’s Madame Butterfly.

I was quite apprehensive beforehand. What happens if I can’t follow it, I don’t like it, that it is just not my thing.  The idea of sitting through an unenjoyable performance for two and half hours on the hottest night in September in living memory was, I will be honest, filling me with dread.  Still a couple of sharpeners later and the half time gin and tonic booked in, I was ready for the night’s entertainment.

All those fears all proved groundless and just melted away in the very first minutes of the performance.  It was utterly spell-binding.

At first it was just so novel watching people sing  continuously without speaking.  I found it so fascinating watching effectively a play and understanding the movement and gestures of the actors whilst they sang to tell the story.

After about 5 minutes I realised there were screens at either side of stage.   I did know the basic outline of the plot to Madame Butterfly but the screens with the English translation helped me to understand the nuances.  The language was so poetic too.  The first description Pinkerton has of his Japanese bride is ” Fair as a garland of fragrant flowers.  Brighter than a star in the heavens.”

The singing of course was out of this world.  As this was my first opera I have nothing to compare it too but I can’t believe there can be many better singers than the Soprano who sang the part of Cio Cio San, or Madame Butterfly (Anne Sophie Duprels).  Her voice was so pure and true, utterly exquisite and completely heart-breaking.

My friend was rather taken with the conductor.  Sadly I couldn’t see him really until the curtain call, but it was so exciting to be a room listening to a live orchestra, I wish I got to do it much more often.  There is really nothing else like hearing an orchestra playing Puccini’s beautiful, haunting, emotional music; actually hearing the music being produced and played for your pleasure.  The music reminded me of a film score, giving power and weight to the drama.  There were recurring themes and motifs, such as phrasing of the star-spangled banner for Pinkerton the American Sailor, defining and explaining characters in exactly the same way as they do in a film.

Emotional would be the word of the night.  By the time the production got to the most famous aria from the opera I could feel the tears welling up.  As the fate of Madame Butterfly was played out, as I watched the drama of this young woman’s life unfold and saw her pain and anguish, her most precious hopes and dreams being destroyed, it almost felt that the tragedy and the sorrow was mine too.  I could feel the tears streaming down my face, they ran under my chin.  I couldn’t stop them.  My friend said he looked at me and it was Niagara Falls.  I was trying to cry silently as not to spoil the moment for any other opera goer.  I was very aware that I was in danger of making the most  horrible racking sobbing noise.  I was starting to find it hard to breathe.  The trombones  saved me.  The sound of them right at that moment indicated the whole orchestra was coming to a powerful crescendo.  Here was my chance, I breathed, snorted and blew my nose all under the cover of the wonderful brass section.  Massive apologies to anyone there that heard or saw that it.  It could not have been pretty.

Half way through Ed and I were planning a trip to Glyndebourne, so I think it is safe to say we both really enjoyed it.  It has really made me want to see another opera, maybe some more Puccini or even some Mozart.  I think Madame Butterfly might have set the bar extremely high for all other operas but I am looking forward to finding out.

And if after all of this you want to hear some of the opera yourself, here is the most famous aria “Un Bel di Vedremo” (One Fine Day).

And thank you Ed for the most amazing night. Loved that we were the youngest people in the audience of Madame Butterfly by about 30 years and then we ended in Mission and I was the oldest person in there by 20 years.  I will never experience such a night of extremes ever again.


Does this scare you?

Please indulge me for a moment and watch this clip from BBC News…

Did it scare you?  It certainly scared me.

I wasn’t really too surprised.  It has been obvious that Governments have been living in fear of markets for years.   The lack of regulation, especially after the global economic crisis in 2008, made that abundantly clear.

Money, and the acquisition of it, is the number one goal in our society and no-one has the ability to make (or indeed lose) money like the financial institutions.  These are corporations making money in huge amounts.  To the majority of us, who do not understand the instruments of this world, it can seem to be made out of thin air.  As unbelievable as fairy-tales of golden geese or magical never-ending pots of gold.

What really really frightened me though was that an well-dressed intelligent man could be so wrapped up in his own wealth creation that he would, on BBC television, openly declare that he dreamed of a recession because of the money-making opportunities it would bring.

That he has no regard for lives ruined, jobs lost, houses repossessed, whole sectors of society destroyed just so he could have more money, and to what end? Buy a bigger car, watch, have an even more expensive holiday, destroy the environment some more jetting around the world.  Acquire more material possessions?

Ed Balls said in his Labour Party Conference Speak yesterday “It wasn’t too many police officers or nurses or teachers here in Britain that bankrupted Lehman Brothers in New York.”  But we are all paying the price, the very heavy price for it on our families, and will be for many years to come.

Not one banker or trader has been prosecuted for the global economic crisis on 2008.  Don’t forget that was caused by financial institutions selling mortgages to people in America, who were not credit worthy and would  default on  loans they couldn’t afford in the first place.  But these mortgages were actively mis-sold to the sub-prime market because, when packaged up into another form of bundled up debt they became even more lucrative to the markets.  To my mind it is the financial equivalent of feeding cows’ brains back to cows.  I am sure everyone reading this will remember the horrors of BSE. and how terrible that was for British farming and our beef trade with the rest of the world.

We can not let these bankers and traders put us into another recession just because they want to make money.  We need to rise up, be united and say no, this is morally reprehensible.  We have had enough.  Only if we are all united will the government start to take notice and will seriously look at the issue of regulating the markets.

At the same time as this trader was speaking on BBC, protesters have been occupying Wall Street demanding that our current financial institutions change. Have you heard about it on the news? No there has been no coverage at all.   This is a disgrace.  Why is this story not being covered? The protesters have been there for two weeks now.

On the subject of what is really going on in the financial markets and who really has the control and the power of  countries’ economies and how abhorrent it all really is, I can not recommend highly enough Sebastian Faulks’ One Week in December .  We all need to wake up and reclaim our lives and our financial security back from these parasites. Before it is too late.



If you have read my blog before you will know that I was a great admirer of the recent reality documentary 24 Hours in A&E.  It was a wonderful programme, on the one hand chronicling the minute by minute events of one of the country’s busiest A&E departments.  On the other an insightful look at many of most pressing social issues we face today, ageing, alcoholism, gangs to name a few.  It demonstrated time and time again that the family unit is strong and thriving and all reports of its’ demise have been grossly exaggerated.

Well Channel 4 have done it again with EducatingEssex.  It is exactly the same format.  Multiple cameras all over a school in Harlow, Essex, giving us the same bird’s eye style view of the events coupled with talking head interviews from the teachers.

Last night was the debut, and we met the head Mr Vic Goddard (no he wasn’t the one from the band  Subway Sect).  He seemed to be everything you want in a head teacher.  Drive, ability, vision.  He was very proud of his school, Passmores Academy, and the team working there.  He appears to run a very successful and, by and large, happy ship.

He spoke very highly of his deputy head Mr Drew and the rest of the programme was really about him.  And boy did he deserve the attention.  If my children get to go to a school with teachers like Mr Drew I will be one very happy parent.

I don’t think I have ever seen a teacher with such energy, dedication, passion and absolute ability to understand children, how they tick and most importantly how to educate them, not just in the classroom for exams but to reach out to those kids with profound attitude problems, before they throw their lives away.

As we followed him dealing with some very challenging young people he never lost sight that inside there was a lovely, happy, helpful young person wanting to emerge but not knowing how to.  He never gave up on them.  He gave them strategies to deal with other teachers and he gave them his time and attention.  But he was not a soft touch.  This was not a man the kids could get around.  As he said very early on “I am a brick wall” and you knew he was exactly that.

Mr Drew was an enforcer.  Our first view of him was standing in the corridor making sure that the school uniform policy was being strictly adhered to.  Hoodies were confiscated, coats and hats were not allowed to be worn inside.  Top buttons were to be done up.  We saw one girl sent home for the day for telling him to “Piss Off” after he asked her to remove her red hoodie.  No messing, no debate.  Mr Drew told them straight.

Twitter was ablaze with comments of admiration for Mr Drew.  That he was a “glory” and that comment was from Chris Addison from The Thick of It.  A “legend”, that he is a “tv hero”, “fantastic” and the number one sentiment, that every school needed a Mr Drew.  As my eldest child rapidly approaches secondary school, it is one I heartily agree with.

See if you can spot him in the trailer for the programme and do watch next Thursday at 9.00 pm Channel 4.  It is compulsive viewing.


Why I’m not singing any more

It’s the start of the football season and I can’t bear it. Another nine months of matches and results all more important than life and death, once my idea of heaven, now my personal hell.

I used to be in love with the beautiful game. Really I did, and I went into this with my eyes open.  I learnt from an early age there would be agony and ecstasy, that there was pleasure and pain in supporting a team. My dad, a dyed in the wool Leeds fan, sat me down to the 1973 FA Club, with high hopes, Revie’s boys were  favourites, it was going to be a joyful and celebratory 90 minutes. Except of course it wasn’t, was it. Nil nil until Sunderland scored in the second half, and it was their ribbons on the lifted cup not ours. I can still taste the disappointment now.  That was a lesson learnt the hard way, there are no dead certs in football.

But it wasn’t until Italia 90 that my interest grew to a passion. Nessum Dorma, the stadiums, the azzurros and their magnificent shirts the colour of the Adriatic (and the beautiful Paolo Maldini the male equivalent of Helena Christensen). The joy of watching football and drinking beer with family and friends. Young and living in London, I was completely seduced before the warm-up.

And then there was England, Bobby Robson and his legendary team. Lineker, Shilton, Beardsley, Pearce, Walker, Butcher, Platt, Parker et al.  Waddle and that mullet and of course Gazza.  The names trip off the tongue still.  A team who started off pretty ropey, scraping last-minute results but as the tournament progressed they grew closer and better as their tans got deeper and darker.

The drama of that semi-final night in Turin is seared in my soul now, almost part of my dna, that night of what might have been, what could have been. But what I remember more than anything else was that England played with pride, passion, committment, effort. They played their and our hearts out.

The years and tournaments passed, the glorious Euro 1996, with that goal of Gazza’s flicked over Hendry’s head in the bright sunlight. It is locked in my memories forever.  I always kept a watchful eye on Leeds but was the international games, with the country coming together and going football crazy, the red and white springing up in the most unlikely places that I loved most.

Until I took my dad to a Leeds game, Arsenal v Leeds 26 September 2002 for his birthday.   The roar of the Elland Road crowd as we took our seats just before kick-off was a rush like I had never experienced before. I felt the power of crowd, it felt like an animal hunting its prey, watchful, intense, exciting.  It was utterly and totally addictive.  I was completely hooked. Of course Leeds lost that day (4 – 1) and looking back I think it was the beginning of the end for Leeds, the previous game they had beaten the arch rivals Man U, but by the end of the season it took a wonder goal also by Harry Kewell against Arsenal to keep them from relegation.

It was at the end of the 2002/03 that the extent of Leeds’ financial problems were first revealed.  The Champions League Gamble had failed.  Leeds were living the nightmare.  More debt than the rest of the Premier League combined with the exception of Fulham and Chelsea.  Leeds’ troubles are well documented but the slow and steady decline, over the next few seasons, of the once mighty whites was like having your heart ripped out piece by piece.  Death by a thousand cuts.  The worse, most dysfunctional relationship I have ever been in.

Local sons being sold to save the club, I will never forget 28 December 2002, Leeds v Chelsea  when Jonathan Woodgate scored.  I was sat behind two young lads probably no older than 6 or 7.  Woody proudly emblazoned on the back of brand new replica shirts, no doubt very prized presents from Santa.  By the end of that Christmas transfer period, Woody had been sold to Newcastle for 9 million pounds.  Those cherished shirts redundant after only 2 weeks.

Sadly it isn’t just Leeds United Football Club that has experienced a gut-wrenching decline.  The international team is a shadow of its former self.  On paper we have this incredible team, the media goes into a frenzy, you dare to dream, could we do it this year?   But every tournament is more disappointing than the last.  Our so-called sporting heroes look more and more ordinary away as they get richer and richer at home.  Monthly millionaires, they give no appearance of pride, love or passion to be wearing that England shirt. Full of excuses and self-justification. They have destroyed my love of football.

On and now increasingly off the pitch they are a national embarrassment, tabloid fodder, they have no values, no respect for their families, I find it hard to see any redeeming qualities in any of them.  Even the ones you thought were actually ok, it turns out they just had better lawyers and Max Clifford on speed-dial.

The football hierarchy isn’t much better either.  I don’t think there is anyone in football today who would look to Sett Platter and his cronies as a shining example of moral guidance and advice.

Money has utterly corrupted and destroyed football in this country. As the Sky TV money poured in to the new Premier League, wage bills have gone north and the national game has gone south.  The Euro 96 was the last time we reached a semi final of an international tournament.  The last time the team had players brought through from the old league.  It is a very sad fact, clubs now need owners as rich as Croesus in order to be contenders.   The personal wealth and behaviour of footballers make them the equivalent of 18th Century Aristocrats, they are so completely out of our league financially and emotionally, accountable to no-one but themselves. The modern game has been become unsustainable, how can it when the colossal wage bills of the clubs have to be maintained and increased season on season? When only entry  into the highly lucrative European Football can keep a club afloat.  Where the same four or five teams complete yearly for all the silverware.

The peasants revolted in the 18th century when the divisions became too great, I long for a similar revolution in football today.  To bring football back to its grassroots for players and fans alike.  Maybe then I will sing again.

In addition:  I had written this blog before the unrest of the past few days, and now that I come to publish I think football really shows up the divisions in our society.  Tottenham, the starting point of the riot, is one of the poorest areas in the country and yet has the one of richest football clubs.  It is a contrast of Dickensian proportions. Where the most destitute, both financially and aspirationally, are existing cheek by jowl to the very richest.  This can not be the route to social cohesion.


How Clean Is Your House?

Today is a very wonderful exciting day.  I have a very old and very dear friend coming for lunch, our sons, who share common interests are meeting for the first time.  Everything should be and I am sure will be wonderful.

This is a friend who has known me since I was 13, has seen the very best of me and the very worst.  Someone I feel really comfortable with, so why do I feel the need to have the house ready as if House and Gardens are coming round to photograph?  That it looks like the house has been cleaned by those two women from Channel 4 with the posh rubber gloves? And the lunch has arrived fresh from the kitchen of the doe-eyed one herself, Nigella.

I think women have a need for perfection that is killing us!  Racking us with self-doubt and insecurities that are progressive, no matter how much we do we can never be satisfied with the result.  Sometimes good enough is ok.  Brie from Desperate Housewives was meant to be a parody of a certain type of woman but I rather suspect she has become a role mode.

Radio 4 had very interesting documentary on Tuesday night about the effect lack of germs was having on our immune system, and I can tell you it wasn’t strengthening it.  It made me think about those OCD inducing adverts about “germy pumps”  et al, at the very least, making us feel very inadequate unless your kitchen floor was so clean you could eat your dinner on it .  The gist of the programme was that we all need some of the germs, they act as a booster for our immune system so it can stay in top-top condition, in readiness of illness.

Obviously I am not advocating a descent in complete slobdom but I think we just need to be realistic, life is funny, messy, exciting and wonderful, too big to be confined especially when you share your home with 2 children for whom the expression mess-magnet could have been created.  Twenty years ago the “Neat Freak”  was a marginal figure now, now every other person you meet is one.  The fight back starts here but please excuse me I have to go, I have a house to clean before my friend gets here!