Sunday, April 17, 2011

Cats That Go Baa

Izzy spotted them immediately. “Cats!” she shouted as the two fluffy black creatures stood quietly in the April sunshine. “No those are lambs, Izzy”, we corrected.

It was an easy mistake to make. Born just yesterday, our neighbour’s sheep are shaggy Ryelands.
They are so tiny and fluffy, like baby yeti, they could just as easily have been moggies. Izzy shook her head at our stupidity: “No, cats”, she insisted. Sometimes it’s easier just to agree with a two-year-old. Pick your fights – save your persuasive powers for getting her to eat her lunch or not play with the carving knife.

“Why are all the lambs being born at the same time?” asked Sam, my 13-year-old. “Because all the ewes had sex with the ram the same week in November” I began confidently, eliciting an immediate and horrified “Dad, don’t”, as he put his fingers in his ears. Don’t they teach them anything about the birds and the bees in school?

Living on a farm in Northumberland has introduced me to several new discoveries. Not just the utter pointlessness of high street fashion – the mud covers the heels of any new shoe within seconds and even Jo admits designer clothes would look absurd down at the Ox Inn – but more important, fundamental things, like the natural cycle of life. Only now, after three years in the sticks, are we really beginning to appreciate the order that, with the man’s help, ensures that lambs are born after the winter snows and the tulips flower just as the daffodils begin to fade. To an outsider it’s like magic. I’ve not yet graduated to sheep farming, but I have been inspired to grow my own.

My former colleagues in L.A. would never believe this was the same me, dragging on ragged jeans and throwing myself into piles of manure. I’m learning by my mistakes. Like most townies, I abhor bare soil, so I tend to overstuff my vegetable beds to fill up space, not realising that peas and beans grow into vast overhanging forests, covering up anything you put next to them.

This year I’ve vowed to be more patient and have a goal: not to buy a single salad, vegetable or cut flower until the late autumn frosts. I’d be far too embarrassed to put my weedy little offerings into the local leek show – but I already understand just how easy and satisfying it is to eat with the seasons.

In the supermarket I eschew large but tasteless Spanish strawberries when my own bed is full of tiny flowers, waiting for June, and I positively cringe when I see someone pick up a packet of green beans from Chile. To me, “best before” is a meaningless concept: does it mean “unusable after”, “edible until”, or does it refer to its colour or taste? To me, “Best” is “still in the ground”.

So I was delighted by today’s reports that the government is thinking of scrapping “best before” and “sell by” labels on food, relying instead on the simple warning of “use by”, when food might actually be a danger to health. It would instantly cut down on the absurd waste of perfectly good food thrown away because of some printing on the label. Perhaps at last people will rediscover their senses of taste and smell to judge what to buy and when to use it.

Jo and I are determined that Izzy grows up to understand the importance of homegrown food. She’s already becoming a little gardener: armed with her toy spade, she insists on helping by heaping earth onto the heads of the dogs sitting patiently beside me as I dig. Mind you, I’m not looking forward to the moment, about six months from now, when I have to explain to her that the nice little “cats” in the next field have turned into lunch.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sir Georg Solti and The Bum Note

The famous conductor’s face winced with rage. In the middle of the best-known horn fanfare in music, the principal horn player fluffed his note: the triumphant opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was ruined. In front of a packed Royal Albert Hall, it was being filmed for millions. Sir Georg Solti was the conductor and I was the director.

Filmed classical concerts got a mixed press last week. Next month British cinemas will be showing the Berlin Philharmonic in 3D. I heard one pundit, Norman Lebrecht, complain vociferously on Radio 4: “It’s a poor substitute for the real thing. When you go to a concert you sit for an hour, you don’t move, you don’t cough, you barely breathe and you become, as it were, one with the musicians. When you watch it in 3D on a screen, you can be popping popcorn, you can be whispering to your neighbour… there is none of the concentration of the real thing”.

Such arrogance. This film of one of the world’s great orchestras will be eagerly awaited by all music lovers, just as opera fans will fill the Tyneside Cinema in May to watch opera live from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York for just £22 a ticket. I guarantee there’ll be less coughing in the cinema than in the champagne-soaked corporate aisles of the Met.

Sure, nothing can beat the atmosphere of a concert hall, but film has two distinct advantages: the sound and the picture. Surround sound will place everyone in the centre of the auditorium, while the pictures will guarantee the best seat in the house. Sir Georg Solti taught me that.

A week before the concert I went to his house in Elsworthy Road in North London clutching my Beethoven pocket score. His charming wife, former children’s television presenter Valerie Pitts, brought us coffee and biscuits. Beethoven’s 5th held a special significance for Solti: he first heard it at the age of 14, conducted by the great Erich Kleiber, and immediately resolved to become a conductor. Now 72 and renowned for his fearsome passion and refusal to accept second best, what Solti didn’t know was that this was my first attempt at directing a classical concert.

“Pa-pa-pa-paaah” he began. And off he went, singing and humming his way through, dissecting it, telling me which instruments to feature and which to ignore. He particularly reminded me not to miss the solo horns in Bar 59. I tried to follow the score as he zoomed through the pages, but found it hard to take my eyes off his animated, passionate face: I was transfixed by his expressive personality and strength.

As an amateur musician, I realised how lucky I was: in concerts you only see the conductor’s back. So I asked Solti a question: would he mind if I put a camera on stage, right in the middle of the second violins, facing him. His big eyes opened wide: “Me? Why would you want to film me so close?” But his eyes were twinkling his agreement.

So we hid an unmanned camera directly under the conductor’s podium to enable the viewers to see what the audience never could, including the moment when Solti turned puce as the horn player destroyed Bar 59. He threw the offender a withering glance, then pulled the orchestra together, and furiously revved up a performance that’s still available on CD today.

Two weeks later, I went back to Elsworthy Road clutching the edited film. We sat in his sitting room and switched on the video. As we approached the offending bar, he closed his eyes and sighed. Then he opened them wide and burst into the biggest smile.

“How did you do that?” he asked. “The repeat,” I said, “I replaced the bad horns with the repeat”.

“Genius”, he said. Now we were both smiling.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

It's A Dog's Life

As Mabel stood sniffing at the strange room, Truffle stared up at me with disbelief. This was the forbidden land: no dog had ever crossed this portal. Was it a trick? No, instead of shouting at them to get out, I was beckoning them in.

For three years they’d been consigned to the cold tiles of our kitchen floor – now here was a thick pile carpet and a sofa they’d never seen before. It was soft to the paw and, even better, there was human food: a constant supply of tidbits dropping from Izzy’s chair. So this was life behind the white door, the Narnia where the humans went at night. What on earth had happened?

What happened was the builders. Like distant Australian cousins who drop in unannounced and outstay their welcome in the first afternoon, they’re now entering their second month of works. What started as a simple new door into the garden has turned into a major redevelopment. You know what it’s like: someone with a hammer walks in and you immediately find them something to knock down: in our case three-foot-wide walls, ceilings and floors. As a result, half our house is completely covered in rubble and dust, not even fit for dogs.

So, for the first time, the dogs have crossed the mud barrier. The very first thing we learnt, on moving here from Los Angeles, was that the principal crop of the Northumbrian countryside is mud. There are acres of it, waiting to be carried on boots, tummies, paws and tails. It’s bad enough on human shoes – it’s impossible to get from car to front door without bringing in a sample – but for the dogs, it’s a permanent appendage.

We bought Mabel as a golden working cocker spaniel, and, once a month, for a few brief moments following the visit of the Dial-A-Dog-Wash van, she reverts to her true colour. For the rest of the time she bears an underbelly of brown-caked muck. At least you know it’s there. Her sister Truffle is the colour of her name: you’ve no idea how dirty she is until she jumps up on your newly washed jeans. The fox poo is even deadlier: you can’t see it through the mud on their backs, but its sweet pungency can linger on a jumper for weeks.

That’s why we established a no fly zone for our dogs: an impenetrable border in the middle of the house, where kitchen ends and civilisation begins. To them it was a door to nowhere: we never showed them the other side because we thought they’d be upset to know what they were missing.

Of course, what they’re experiencing now is nothing like our normal existence. We aren’t usually crammed into one room that combines kitchen, sitting room, nursery, dining area and dog kennel. In one corner there’s a microwave and a micro fridge, a baby changing mat, three sets of cutlery and crockery, a lot of red wine and a big bag of dog food. It’s like camping: we’ve been living on ready meals and yoghurt. Dog heaven has been a month of hell for us.

But now they’re learning two major life lessons: be careful what you wish for, and be content with your lot. With all of us trapped in one room, and the garden out of bounds because of builders’ rubble, Izzy has found a new way to amuse herself, while the dogs have discovered that there’s no escape from a two-year-old.

Right now all three of them are sitting in the dog cage and Izzy is playing “This Little Piggy Went To Market” with their paws. I’ve never seen such miserable looking mutts. Their eyes are pleading with me to take them back through the white door to their nice dusty kitchen. Don’t worry girls, only another fortnight to go.