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Monday, 29 January 2018

The Orient Express

Picture this: my wife and I wearing T-shirts and jeans sitting on a bench at St Anton Railway Station in the Arlberg Pass in Austria. Waiting in the station is the Orient Express. Crowds of tourists, mostly British, have come to see the famous train leave. A lady turns to me and says, as the guard blows his whistle, "Don't you wish you were on the train?"
We stand up and jump onto the train seconds before it moves off. "We are on train!" I say waving from the steps. I don't know why but we both enjoyed that moment for years!
We had booked a fourteen day holiday in Italy and shortly before we left my father had lost his eldest brother and we were all feeling quite low. My lovely wife, with out telling me, had booked the outward journey to Venice on the Orient Express. It was going to be a very last minute surprise for a big birthday (one of those that ends in a zero) but she wanted to pack a dinner-suit (tuxedo). "The hotel isn't that posh" I told her so she had to tell me about the train just two days before we left. She also arranged for a friend who had a Rolls Royce, that he used for hire-work, so at London's Victoria Station you can drive straight on the platform.
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The Orient Express waiting to leave Calais


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The Orient Express Lounge
The Orient Express Service was created in 1883 and ran continuously until the service was suspended during the First World War and again in the Second World War. Routes have varied across Europe over the years but London to Venice is the most popular one now. Original destinations were to Budapest, Bucharest, Istanbul, Vienna and Athens. The Great War Armistice was signed in a railway carriage in a forest in Compiègne, France. That carriage was eventually restored and became a part of the current train.
Every carriage has its own designs and Art Deco patterns which are often repeated in the carpets, curtains, marquetry and floor tiles. There is steward for each carriage who looks after the wood-burning stove which provides hot water to the individual cabins which have a couch which transforms into a double bunk-bed overnight.
The first leg of the journey was on the Brighton Belle Pullman service from London to Dover then onto the cross-channel ferry in the private Orient Express lounge to Calais. From there it was onto the overnight sleeper to Venice. Next morning we woke up travelling alongside the southern shore of Lake Zurich in Switzerland. 
The train crosses the lagoon over to Venice from the Italian mainland almost at sea level and the impression through the haze is as though the train is floating on the water's surface.
At the railway station all of the crew including stewards, engineers, chefs and cleaners line up as we cross the red carpet to board the water taxi on the Grande Canal and we were off to our hotel, The Metropole.

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Leah told me after we had returned home, that the thirty-six hours on that train had cost as much as the rest of of two week holiday in Venice and Lake Garda.
You may think rail travel is expensive but it's murder on the Orient Express.....
I'm listening to Pachelbel's Canon in D played by the Academy of St Martin's in the Field, London. This music is equally enchanting when played on a solo acoustic guitar. Listen here.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Winston Churchill in Downing Street

This is the third in a trilogy of posts about Winston Churchill's residences.
10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has been voted the most famous address in the world. The well-known black door is made of reinforced steel and has no keyhole; the door can only be opened from the inside!
So it was the official residence of Sir Winston Churchill from early summer 1940 until July 1945 (and again from 1951 to 1955) but, although he had never been PM before, he had lived in Downing Street previously. In 1924 he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer (Minister of Finance) and the official residence of that post is number 11 Downing Street.
Number Ten, as it was colloquially known,  was originally three separate houses built by Sir George Downing in 1682. The current property contains over 100 rooms including the Cabinet Room which has sound-proofed doors.
However, for much of the war Churchill did not live at Number Ten after it was bombed by the German Luftwaffe. He lived instead in The Annexe nearby in Whitehall. Underneath this building were the Cabinet War Rooms, now a very popular museum.

Churchill at his desk at Number Ten
He spent a lot of his time there in meetings (although he only ever slept in the bedroom on three occasions), and ran it on ‘Winston time’; colleagues were expected to adapt to his way of working, staying up late at night to respond to his demands for updates on the war situation, analyzing reports and taking instructions (often with ‘Action this Day’ labels attached). He was swept from office in the General Election of 1945 but was returned in 1951.    I'm listening to the very jolly Arrival of the Queen of Sheba by Handel from his oratorio Solomon. Listen here. It's three-and-a-half minutes to lift your spirits!

Monday, 8 January 2018

William McGonagall




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Sir William Topaz McGonagall (1825 - 1902)

The nineteenth century Scottish poet William McGonagall was known as "The world's worst poet" with formidable justification. Many of his poems are still very popular and there is a website devoted to his works. There were autobiographies and some anthologies were published. One of the autobiographies begins thus: 
"My Dear Readers of this autobiography, which I am the author of, I beg leave to inform you that I was born in Edinburgh". That book, which sets the standard for what is to follow, was inscribed by the author as "Dedicated to himself, knowing none greater."
The fact that McGonagall has long since departed this life makes me feel a little less cruel at laughing/groaning at his work - but it can be hilarious! He was a contemporary of Queen Victoria and she greatly admired him.
This little snippet from A Tale of Christmas Eve will demonstrate his hopeless ignorance of metre:
'Twas Christmastide in Germany,
And in the year of 1850,
And in the city of Berlin, which is most beautiful to the eye:
A poor boy was heard calling out to passers-by. 

"Who'll buy my pretty figures," loudly he did cry,
Plaster of Paris figures, but no one inclined to buy;
His clothes were thin and he was nearly frozen with cold,
And wholly starving with hunger, a pitiful sight to behold.
This next gem is the opening two stanzas of Beautiful Torquay. Torquay is a resort on England's south coast.
All ye lovers of the picturesque, away
To beautiful Torquay and spend a holiday
'Tis health for invalids for to go there
To view the beautiful scenery and inhale the fragrant air,
Especially in the winter and spring-time of the year,

When the weather is not too hot, but is balmy and clear. 
Torquay lies in a very deep and well-sheltered spot,
And at first sight by strangers it won't be forgot;
'Tis said to be the mildest place in ah England,
And surrounded by lofty hills most beautiful and grand. 
His most famous poem is The Tay Bridge Disaster. The dreadful events of 28th December 1879 somehow made McGonagall famous after his poem was published. I have resisted showing all of the piece but, should you feel strangely drawn, mcgonagall-online.org.uk shows all of his works. Here's how it starts:
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time. 

‘Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
“I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

The thing that makes McGonagall totally ridiculous is his belief that he really was a great poet. He was self-styled as a "poet and tragedian". He loved giving recitals and failed to be put off by much contemporary mockery and derision but the odd thing is that most parodies of his poems fall flat; they just aren't bad enough!
And it's not as if we have only recently discovered how bad he was; his audiences threw rotten fish at him! Rather sadly he died the death of a pauper and ironically his books are all still in print.

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I am listening to some early Elvis Presley recordings. Currently The Girl of My Best Friend is playing. It was recorded 4th April 1960. Listen here for a treat!

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Painting of the Month (78) Jan 2018: Beryl Cook

Beryl Cook: Twins
The English artist Beryl Cook (1926 - 2008) did not take up painting until in her 60s. Her work is instantly recognisable depicting scenes of, mainly large, ladies out enjoying themselves in pubs, out shopping or on a hen night. She depicted couples dancing the Argentine tango in Buenos Aires or gambling in Las Vegas. She never had any formal training and her naive style is immensely pleasing. I hugely enjoy these pictures; they never fail to make me smile. In the picture above I like the ambiguity of the title because there are two pairs of twins on display! 
Beryl was a shy and very private person, possibly putting her wish to be more extroverted into the themes in her work. She admired and was influenced by the work of Stanley Spencer (see my previous Painting of the Month here) and her style of depicting unfashionable 'everyday' things can be seen as similar to Spencer's work. The late English comedienne, Victoria Woods, described her social realism as "Rubens with jokes".
Her work fills me with joy and she is featured in many UK galleries. More of her paintings are shown below.


I'm listening to the vastly under-rated British singer Helen Shapiro, who had hits in the 1960s while she was still at school. 
Click here for Little Miss Lonely.