I found two lambs’ hearts in the freezer so I thought it would be an appropriate challenge for the slow cooker. When I was at school, I remember my mum putting whole trimmed hearts into a bowl with onions celery and potatoes before she left for work. We’d come home to a succulent dish of soft hearts and tasty veg. It was quick and it was cheap. Cheap was good; mum had to work full time along with Dad just to keep us clean, fed and clothed. Well I noticed the price tag for two hearts was £1.20. Still cheap. So I scrabbled about the fridge and freezer for odds and ends; you know, keeping the cheap theme going.
Two lambs’ hearts trimmed and chopped
Two rashers of bacon, chopped.
Half a sweet potato
Four small cooked beetroots
A good squeeze of tomato puree
Three cloves of garlic
A cupful of red lentils
Three tbs of Balsamic vinegar
2 tsps of Dijon mustard
1tsp of paprika
1 tsp of cumin powder
Two medium onions
2oo ml of water
Trim the fat of the hearts and slice into chunks.
Roughly chop the root vegetables. Fry the onions and meat in oil, if only for a sense of doing something useful. Make a runny paste out of the spices, mustard and vinegar. Put every thing into the slow cooker and leave for an eternity. Keep an eye on the level of liquid. When the lentils have cooked down add salt and pepper to taste. Heart is quite a strong flavoured meat but if you like offal it should be right up your street. If you don’t fancy heart, you can use meatballs or diced lamb. I you don’t fancy meat use something like chick peas and diced extra firm tofu. To contrast with the richness of the sauce you can serve it with plain rice, fresh tomato and a good squeeze of lemon or lime. Cous cous, bulgar wheat or quinoa can replace the rice or even add some thin slices of mango. I had the price at about £4.17 for the stew. A bottle of balsamic vinegar is £1.95 but it will last as a condiment.
What does a week of ups and downs imply?
A mountaineering holiday?
Seven days on a see-saw?
A crude reference to the art of horizontal pleasure?
Well for the week just gone it has meant a whirlwind of emotions. Learning of the death of an old friend was disturbing. Especially as he was only a bit older than me. In addition to the sadness, it heightens the sense of vulnerability of people of my age.
In terms of personal welfare, Tuesday was a good day. I was busy and I thrived. I taught three piano pupils and had a feel-good workout in physiotherapy.
I expected to pay for it on Wednesday; you know, the usual lethargy, crawling about the place like some idle sloth picking at things expecting them to open or switch on. But Wednesday was good. And so was Thursday. There were no late sleep-ins and I had been relatively early to bed.
So when I emerged on Friday the last thing I was expecting was a gravitational awareness day.
Children and adults have they’re own special ways of making you aware of them. We are all experts in magnifying our own persona in order to be acknowledged. Basically, subtle or otherwise, we can get into the faces of those we wish to engage.
Gravity on the other hand practises no such artifice. It simply increases. On Friday everything, including me was drawn downwards. Even sitting upright was a struggle. Everything I handled was sent earthbound by massive forces of weight. So I dropped a few things; I dropped loads of things. I did some cooking but I had to fight to eat it off the table. It was a sit down day.
Saturday was much better. But in sport there were was one high and one low. I’m not including West Brom’s glorious three one thrashing of Arsenal. Simply put, Everton won but England lost to Ireland.
Ho hum. It pales into insignificance to the events of the beginning of the week.
Then there was Sunday. I’d been looking forward to Sunday. It was a Barbican day. Steve, Jane and I were going to hear the Brahms Requiem.
Driving up to Silk Street on a Sunday evening is a rather mundane affair until you reach the approaches of the Blackwall Tunnel. Just before entering that tube of constricting thunderous traffic, we marvelled at the infrastructure required for the thousands of houses and flats squeezed like sardines into the jumbled landscape around us.
All those phone lines and sewage pipes. And where do all those cars go at the end of the day?
Driving through the jungle we know as The City, I gazed at the office blocks where the old stood cheek to jowl by the new. When I lived in London, Canary wharf and the Docklands Light Railway were shining new icons of commercial optimism. The original tower could be seen from almost anywhere. Now it stands there, strangled by the company of interlopers; square stark over-stretched cuboids of little distinction other than their height.
I particularly hate the HSBC building. HSBC was once the Midland Bank or shall I say that Midland became consumed by the corporate greed and naked ambition of HSBC. But I didn’t like the Midland Bank. For new employees they gave a six month probationary period. I lasted five. I found the whole thing suppressive.
Further into the City, things become a little more cosy. The Barbican itself is a raw throwback to the brutality of sixties architecture; a series of building blocks connected by grey walkways set in a backdrop of faded technicolour.
The weather and diminishing daylight did not help. I’ve seen in in the Summer though; it’s still stands ugly and embarrassed.
Yet this is deceptive. Every time I have parted with the Barbican’s cumbersome grace, I have been exhilarated. Because the Barbican has music. It has the London Symphony Orchestra; that beautifully honed collective of sublime talent.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love the Southbank with its upbeat cosmopolitan chic and its vibrant buzz of twenty-first century culture. I like the way people are just so damned nice to each other and their common embrace of all things ancient and modern. But the Barbican has that unique sense of the odd and the intimate. Even the pizza sliced shape concert hall gives us the sense of being amongst friends.
The first half was Schubert’s unfinished Symphony.
Much of his work lays itself open to the indignity of indifferent performance. I have seen or heard too many matter of fact renderings of this fine work. Why is it unfinished? There have been contrived “realisations” of it’s consequent scherzo and finale but they have missed the point. What Schubert has done in two movements is break the ground rules of tonality.
It is a symphony in B minor. To me B minor is a medium of sharp exquisite pain. It is deep heart felt sharp agonies; it touches nerves you never knew existed. A Scarlatti sonata in B minor may give out a muffled scream. You are hurting but nobody else can possibly know.
For Haydn it is a long moment of yearning for something you crave but just doesn’t exist. The Chopin Scherzo and the Brahms Rhapsody belt out their pulsating anguish whilst Borodin’s second symphony is a hapless struggle of hope against fate. (Other interpretations of these magnificent compositions are available.)
Now what does Shubert do with B minor? He turns it into love. It’s not the love of lovers but the love of beauty. He shows B minor to be a friend of love and trust. He blends it with simple major keys; the sort of keys we expect of minuets or sonatinas and he gives them a platform equal to the keys of more profound works.
When you put this little gem into the hands of the LSO, you get the true beauty of the man’s genius. He gives you the opportunity to sing. He gives you the opportunity to love what you sing. I’d have driven to London and back for that alone.
Brahms wrote his German Requiem shortly after the death of his mother. The death of his great friend Robert Schumann and his growing affection and infatuation for Clara, Robert’s widow, may also have been a contributing factor. But I’m not going to speculate about this. A lot of Brahms’ late piano works have a similar level of depth. I always think of them as the acceptance of his unrequited love for Clara. They are sad but happy to appreciate the beauty of her from a distance. The Requiem was written when he was in his early thirties but it’s one great work. It is a collection of deep profound anthems.
From the first bar you are sucked into a world of personal grief, intense regret and deferential admiration for someone now lost to your conscious world. The choir and orchestra were squeezed into the thin end of the packed wedge shaped concert hall. And the choir is the star. For sixty minutes, they are on their feet, singing out the crucial juxtaposition of life, death and the maker of the universe.
Few fugues come as a welcome relief. Somewhere towards the final quarter of this magnificent work, a fugue bursts into life giving you the impetus of renewed hope of a life worth living. If I’d known the words, I’d have stood up out of my wheelchair and led an audience singalong.
Unlike the Schubert eight which I know from youth orchestra, I’m inclined to leave this requiem as a bit of a mystery. I don’t want to analyse it. I just want it to wash over me. I want to be cleansed by the purity of its emotion. It lets me think, it lets me shout and it lets me cry.
To those musicians I have known or admired from afar; those who no longer walk amongst us, I dedicate this concert to you.
Thank-you for reading.
What would Mr Fox have said about my title having no full stop? I’d have just sat there dumbfounded. I could not answer. I didn’t have the courage of my convictions. But I was only nine. If he asked me now I’d say: “It has no full stop because I want the reader to read on. There is something too final about a full stop.”
It’s just as well I remained silent. That sort of reply would have seen the old bugger bending my ear and showering me with admonishment.
But I liked Mr Fox. He could play the piano. In assembly he would belt out the hymns. Mrs Beard on the other hand was more lyrical and mezzo forte. The children were less confident about singing up when she played. This is why I’ve always belted out the daily hymn; every school day for twenty two years.
My own hymn practices were legendary. I’d play the music and stare round at the pupils at the same time. I would prowl the hall with piercing beady eyes and strike a subito barbed remark to any potential deviant. If the music suddenly stopped some children would visibly wither. They were usually the guilty ones. It was great fun but I don’t miss it.
Now I think back to my old teachers. Formosa Drive Infants, Fazakerley. Reception class: Miss Colcott. I called her Miss Clip clop. She shouted a lot. Year one, Miss Body. She was possibly the most generously kind forgiving teacher I have ever had. She gave us sweets for no reason. She loved children. On a child’s birthday she would present her little inverted gold covered shoe box with six candles. She’d light them and we sang happy birthday. After moving the box she’d reveal a Mars Bar on her desk. We thought it was magic.
Year two: Miss Smith and Miss Helliwell. We moved house and I changed schools so I didn’t really build a rapport with either of them.
We’d gone across the water to Wallasey. I started at Egerton Grove. The infant head of my new school, Miss Skinner had to decide whether to put me in the A or B class. When I told her I was on Wide Range Reader Blue Book two she didn’t believe me. How could a little scally like me, with an accent as thick as butter from a sprawling council estate be so advanced? I remember her little stamping feet resonating on the polished floor as she marched off to a classroom and returned with the very book. It was a story about an oasis. I told her the word said oasis. I even explained what an oasis was. I went into the A class. She never liked me.
Year 3 Miss Kirkbride. She was crabby. Year two, Miss Seymour. My current cat is called Seymour. Miss Seymour was exasperated by my lack of concern for appearance. But she gave me the love of books and the love of writing. She also persuaded me to start learning the cello. Thank-you Miss Seymour.
Year five was Mr Fox. Yes, I liked Mr Fox even though he was short tempered “Are you as thick as two short planks?” he would bark. But Mr Fox pushed us. He pushed us because we had eleven plus on the horizon.
In year six, Mrs Guest was a welcome relief. Because Mr Fox had driven us she was able to relax. And so were we.
After Liscard Primary School it was Wallasey Grammar School. New teachers. We were on our own most of the time.
“You will do this, do that and get a detention if you don’t.”
Is this what we worked for? Is this what we had after the warmth and encouragement of primary school?
These teachers saw little good in me. I was from Seacombe and I was scruffy. It was nothing to do with my lovely mum. She sent me out every day immaculately tidy and clean. But by the end of the twenty minute bus journey, I looked a little lived in.
The school was in Leasowe. There was mud everywhere. It was a cold environment. The education bandwagon was charging forward and I was expected to keep up.
Two teachers stand out. And they were not exactly nice to me. Mr Lochner taught me maths for the first three years. He expected me to listen but I was a bit of a day dreamer. He’d whack me across the head. I don’t agree with his method but I learned to listen. And he opened up a whole new world. I thrived. My mum was amazed and proud. She loved her statistics and calculations.
Then we had a geography teacher called Mr Gordon. His nickname was Mooney. He knew where I came from. He knew I loved music, even though I came from Seacombe and was the son of a car sprayer.
We found mutual interests. And to this day I thank Mooney for showing me the mountains of Wales. He was an avid hill walker and he organised a coach load of students to go walking once a month. He didn’t have to do that. He could have gone with some mates. But no. He loved it so much he wanted to pass it on.
I’ve done Snowdon twenty two times and many other mountains since.
Then some teachers stood out for the wrong reasons. After three years of progress in maths, I was placed in the top stream. And there the progress stopped. We had Mr Cartwright. We called him Ben from a character in Bonanza. (A much watched western series.) Then as he would often go red with anger we alliterated it to Beetroot Ben. I did gain my maths o level but it was no thanks to him. In year nine, lower fifth form, our English teacher was called Mr Thomason. I can say with no doubt that he was totally unfit to be in the profession. He had a hard sneering attitude to all the pupils in our form. He made it quite clear that he thought us stupid and undeserving of a place in the elite academic stream. We were the last year to do 11 plus and had converted to a comprehensive school. There was another teacher who should never have bothered. He was called Mr Evans.
“Thyat app will you,” he would repeatedly bark. Like Thomason. he only lasted a year. The thing is 1970 was an election year and he was the Liberal party candidate. He received something like 5,284 votes and lost his deposit. So every time he asked a question in the classroom, someone would answer 5,284. Our French teacher, Mr Sharman had sudden eruptions of spittle firing blue faced temper. But he was most noted for one morning, during a rare moment of silence, he turned green (not blue). This was followed by an earnest protracted plea for the whole class to desist from what young men do best in their tribal environments. Yes, he was imploring us to stop farting. It fell on deaf ears and loud bottoms. It was our right to assail any teacher’s olfactory senses with the good old school boy boff. Farting still makes me laugh.
When doing my teaching practice at Guisely school, change over time saw the corridors teeming with the student masses. It amused me greatly to emit the sweet notes from a few pints of Yorkshire ale completely anonymously and listen to the aftermath.
Then there was University College Chester or Chester College as it was known when I was there. I can’t really say much about the tutors there. I did the common first year of BEd and BA. As far as the education department goes there was little to shout about. There was no support. I found going into a school quite daunting. I found the two placement schools cold, elitist and patronising. I needed some encouragement and help.
When it was clear I was up against it why didn’t my so called personal tutor become involved? Did the education department bother to speak to her? I doubt it. Then there was the art department. I loved art but again, I needed teaching; teaching with understanding.
It was slightly better than the education department though. Dear Joyce Emmerson with her turkey’s dewlap gave me some help. But she lived on the campus and was totally immersed in her own world; and a regular dose of sweet sherry. She was very flaky.
At Chester the music department gave me most help. The tutors were personable if a little eccentric. At least they made our sessions enjoyable. For me, a greater knowledge and understanding music opens up that elusive fourth dimension of understanding some of us crave.
There are two other teachers of note. I think that’s an understatement. For years I’d battled with learning the cello. By November 1982 I’d finally passed my grade eight. Then I spent two years under the tutelage of Alan Johnson a cellist from the Liverpool Phil. At last, someone who understood technique and how to teach it.
We had many common interests, the most notable being a love of A60s. Those two and a bit years gave me a real boost in terms of my own cello playing and teaching. It was beginning to feel natural.
The other musicians around me began to give compliments about my overall comfort with the instrument.
On the piano there was Eva. One day in May I turned up at her house. It was an old battered sort of place. In the middle of a massive disorganised room with Buster and Pedro, two cats who answered to no-one, was a beautiful Steinway and an equally beautiful pupil playing a Beethoven sonata. From the first instant, it was clear I was in the presence of a genius.
Eva was kind yet not kind. She knew what motivated me and she had the perfect carrot. All I had to do was turn up and witness her highly intellectual world. Because of Eva I have belief in my musical standing.
Between Eva and Alan, I have achieved a level of musical insight which has been life changing. Of course there have been other influences but on a pedagogic level Eva and Alan rule supreme.
It is truly tragic to reveal that both these titans of local music are no longer with us. I’m really struggling with the recent death of Alan; especially as we’d met up again last September and felt the warmth of a renewed friendship. The world is a cruel place. I see and read of suffering and tragedy. My heart bleeds in so many ways. But now it’s bleeding for my two special teachers.
Thank you for reading.