2002 Christmas Message from Graham and Jackie

Since our last letter, we celebrated Graham’s 40th birthday, going away for the weekend.  Jackie managed to keep the destination secret all through the airport until the pilot announced: “Welcome to this flight to Milan!”  It was very cold in Milan with snow on the ground.  We braved the weather to see the cathedral, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, “the finest and most exclusive shopping arcade in all of Italy” and the museum of science and technology.  At other times, we were happy to stay in and enjoy the Art Deco splendours of the Hotel Principe di Savoia.  One of the highlights of the weekend was a touch of star-spotting on the way home when we shared the club lounge with Anastacia (a pop singer) and then saw Rubens Barrichello.

Then, as seems to be a tradition now, we opened last Christmas season with the London Community Gospel Choir.  In 2001 their concert was at the Royal Albert Hall and they were joined by Mel B.  On Boxing Night, we went to “Mamma Mia!”, the smash West End musical.  Then Graham drove up to South Shields for New Year while Jackie went to Spain, staying until after Twelfth Night, so that she could see the “Tres Reyes” parade, which winds through Arroyo de la Miel village that evening.

So that brings us to 2002, which has been the year of the Sabbatical for both of us.  Jackie extended her time off when Graham left Sky at the beginning of February – she wasn’t going to leave him to play with all the toys at home on his own!  We have had a brilliant time, doing nothing spectacularly different, just more of what we always do – trips to Spain and South Shields, opera, concerts and events.

We spent about 6 weeks in Spain altogether, during two summer trips, staying with Jackie’s mother.  For the first trip, we flew Go while they were still Go and were impressed by how well they handled the Spanish general strike that was called for the day we were meant to go – they contacted us by e-mail and made it very easy for us to alter our booking.  On the way out the second time, using BA miles, we saw Cilla Black at the airport.  We did a little sightseeing, visiting the cities of Antequera and Málaga, where we walked around the Moorish Alcazaba and the remains of the later fort, the Gibralfaro, and the monument to Columbus that looks like a fairy-tale castle but is really just a folly – Castillo Colomares.  We also spent some time in the local internet café, showing Mummy photographs of her new great-granddaughter, Sharae, born in May and the first child of Jackie’s nephew and his wife.

In our June visit we saw the festival of San Juan and the Arroyo de la Miel feria.  On the night of San Juan, the Andalucians light bonfires and have barbecues on the beach and, at midnight, take their first swim of the season in the sea.  It is very jolly and happy but the sea looked pretty uninviting at that time of night.  The Feria is the big fair and most towns and villages in Spain have them.  In truth we heard it even more than we saw it, since the loud music from the fairground rides and the entertainment tents went on through the night.  We visited it a couple of times, seeing some authentic flamenco, eating churros (a type of doughnut), watching the fireworks and simply strolling in the balmy air.  The locals all came out in their finery – flounced long dresses for the women and the girls – and did the same.

Most of the time, though, we just relaxed by the pool and read.  One of our discoveries this year has been Terry Pratchett.  He is a writer of clever, witty books with fantasy or science fiction overtones, mainly the Discworld series.  We highly recommend them.  Jackie, for her part, also raves about Ian Rankin, a Scottish writer whose main output is a series of police procedural novels featuring a moody detective called Rebus – also highly recommended.

We spent both the Easter weekend and the Jubilee holiday in South Shields.  On Good Friday, we revisited an old family tradition, going to the funfair with Mark, Linda and Daniel.  We took the opportunity to visit some local sites - the Catherine Cookson gallery in the local museum, Souter Point lighthouse, the Roman Fort and Beamish Open Air Museum.  Jackie liked seeing the different reconstructions of how houses used to be furnished and how people actually lived.  Graham liked seeing the old machinery in the lighthouse and the sweet making at Beamish.  Daniel was most fascinated by the transportation – old buses, trams, cars and a steam train and we managed to ride on all of them.

We went with Mark and Linda to a Dean Friedman concert at a venue on the Newcastle riverfront, near the Millennium Bridge.  Before the gig we had dinner at the Malmaison, which was fabulous, and we watched the bridge swing up to let a Naval vessel through.  The venue was small, we had great seats on a little balcony overlooking the stage and we all enjoyed it.

In July we had a much sadder reason to go to South Shields - the funeral of Graham’s mother’s sister, who died suddenly.

Jackie’s birthday treat this year was lunch at Moro, the Spanish-North African restaurant in Exmouth Market where we spotted our biggest star of the year – Michael Palin – sitting at a prime table in the window.  We discovered a great place near Covent Garden for pre-theatre – Le Deuxième.  Jackie was introduced by Clare to the bar-restaurant at the top of the National Portrait Gallery, which serves excellent food with a great view over central London.

One of the highlights of Graham’s year was his track day at Brands Hatch.  This was a 40th birthday present.  He drove an Audi TT and then a single-seater racing car around the track.  Jackie and his Mam and Dad were spectating guests and were able to watch his efforts from the pit lane area in the centre of the track.  Graham really enjoyed himself and posted some good times in both cars.

There have been some interesting events on television generally this year.  We were constantly amazed by how shocked the participants in “The Edwardian Country House” and “The Frontier House” appeared to be by how much hard work was required simply to subsist in years gone by.  We thought “24” and “Band of Brothers” were very good drama.  In the last few weeks, we have been fascinated by “The Fame Academy”, particularly by how much effort is being put in behind the scenes by the contestants who are working at their art with dance classes, vocal coaching, song-writing classes, etc.  Just like anything else, success in music requires effort or, as one of the tutors is fond of saying: “The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.”

Thanks to Graham’s membership of Dean Friedman’s mailing list, we were invited to a preview gig for his tour.  This was at a basement music club in nearby Stoke Newington so we enjoyed walking to the venue.

We walked as well on the several occasions when we went to the Barbican.  We saw Bryn Terfel, Renee Fleming, Willard White, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Cecilia Bartoli.  On one occasion we attended a subscriber talk beforehand and ate dinner afterwards, which is not something we can do when we are working.  Jackie also went on her own to see a new play, “Night of the Soul”, at the Pit.

Bryn Terfel sang a worthy programme of Lieder and then closed his concert with a sing-along version of “Mud, Glorious Mud”.  Jackie thought this was funny and a rousing attempt to encourage a staid, London audience to participate; whereas Graham, for once agreeing with the newspaper critics, thought it was a bit odd.  Renee Fleming was polished and smooth.  Willard White had a wonderful selection of mostly American music, closing with a powerful “Ole Man River”.  That was the night of the talk, which about the work done in the Concert Hall to improve the acoustics and, in particular, to install a special ceiling which can be moved to different positions to give different acoustics for classical and popular music concerts.  Dmitri Hvorostovsky collaborated with the St Petersburg Chamber Choir and sang Russian Orthodox sacred music, which has really interesting harmonies and is often based on znamenny chant, similar to plainsong.  Cecilia Bartoli gave a dazzling technical display of coloratura during a programme of Baroque music.

Of course, we also went to the Royal Opera House – to a variety of events.  We opened the year with a rip roaring production of Verdi’s “Attila”.  Paata Burchuladze, Anthony Micheals-Moore and Maria Guleghina were very good.  Then we went to a new production of two one act operas: Bartok’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” and Schoenberg’s “Die Erwartung”.  They were very dark with only two protagonists.  The production design – the set with a large door at the back and the man in black and the woman in a red cocktail dress – created a connection between the two pieces.  It was interesting but not enjoyable.

We saw Juan Diego Florez in “La Sonambula” but he had very little to do, which was a shame.  We saw him later at the Royal Festival Hall.  He is only 28 and already has a magnificent voice.  He has an electric high C.  His voice is light and quite thin so he is limiting himself to Bellini, Donizeti and Rossini at the moment but we hope he will be able to branch into Puccini etc as his voice develops.  The concert was well attended by Latin Americans and he used some Peruvian songs as his encore, which was great.

Back at the Opera House we saw two more new productions.  Firstly, there was Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” with an expressive and compelling Jose Cura and then Puccini’s “La Rondine”, starring Gheorghiu and Alagna.  Both had great sets, which took far too long to move around, as if the designers are pushing the new technology too far.  The 2001/2 season ended with a “La Bohème” and Placido Domingo in “Queen of Spades”.  Domingo was wonderful.

The 2002/3 season started poorly in our opinion.  There was a “Turandot”, featuring the wonderful, atmospheric old production and the great talents of the Chorus, but with a poor cast of principals.  After that, came a “Rigoletto”, which was prefaced by a 10-minute delay and an announcement from the stage that the scenery was not working so that it was sung, with a reduced cast at the front of the stage.  Actually, that allowed the focus to be on the music and not on the fashionably explicit and shocking production….so Jackie preferred it!

Things warmed up a bit later.  A new production of “I Masnadieri”, based on Schiller’s “Die Räuber”, was good, although the opera has an illogical ending.  A concert by Gheorghiu and Horostovsky was very good but it was interesting that her choice of music was not terribly flattering or interesting so that he came across better on the night.  Finally, we went to the world premiere of “Sophie’s Choice” by Nicholas Maw.  It was very modern music, which just seemed to drag on and on with little variety in mood and little structure.  It lasted over four hours, with one 30 minute interval, and we think that it could have benefited a great deal from an astutely wielded blue pencil – there’s a dramatic, moving 2½ hour opera hiding somewhere in there!  The inclusion of the occasional melody would also be refreshing.

Jackie actually came across some modern music that she liked this year – “Tryst” by James MacMillan.  She went to the ballet with Hayley and Ian and one of the three pieces was a new ballet set to that piece.  She liked it so much, she bought the CD!

Despite good intentions, we have not been to many films.  We went to see “A Beautiful Mind” and “Monsters Inc” and we did catch quite a few films on satellite and DVD.  Sometimes we even bought the DVD to watch a film already seen on satellite, because of aspect ratios and extras.  Even though we watch satellite films only on the Sky widescreen channel (which also gives us Dolby Digital 5.1 sound), there are still times when a film is shown in 16:9 rather than in the original aspect ratio, which may be as wide as 2.35:1 and which is often provided on the DVD.  There are often many worthwhile extras on a DVD.  A case in point is the Australian film "The Dish", which includes over an hour of historical NASA footage and relevant commentaries.  Being a bit picky, Graham is also quick to point out that DVD provides higher picture quality than satellite TV.

We fitted in some other concerts.  Graham went to see the baritone, Carlos Alvarez, and really enjoyed the programme.  Together we saw Cybill Shepherd at Pizza Express in Soho and, as she walked to the stage, she even shook Graham’s hand much to his surprise.  We saw Cleo Laine and John Dankworth at the ROH’s Linbury Theatre with highlights being the Shakespeare songs and the Mozart piece.  We saw Paco Peña twice, once at Hampton Court, where we picnicked in the interval, and once at the Peacock Theatre.  The latter was a production in collaboration with Jude Kelly, previously of the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.  Called “Ecos y Voces”, it was a history of flamenco and how the work and styles of the past echo through to the present day with scenes at a campfire, a café cantata, a slick nightclub of the Forties and in present day.  It was very good and we came home all buoyed up and happy.  At the Royal Festival Hall, we saw a small group of singers from the Harlem Gospel Choir.  At Sadler’s Wells we saw more flamenco, this time starring Eva Yerbabuena, which we did not really enjoy.  It lacked immediacy because it was too choreographed and the music was not live.

Jackie has been to a few art galleries or museums.  With her college friends, she went to the small but beautiful Geffreye Museum of domestic interiors.  She went to the Tate Britain to see an exhibition on the “American Sublime”, which had some of the most wonderful romantic landscape paintings of wilderness.  She also went to the National Portrait Gallery and to a special exhibition at the National Gallery showing the way that Madame Pompadour managed her image.  She and Graham took advantage of a glorious day earlier in the year to see London’s Millennium Bridge and the nearby Tate Modern, where we actually found some modern art that was interesting.  We also visited Ightham Mote in Kent, a National Trust manor house with a moat that dates from 1330.

Jackie’s American friend, Elizabeth, brought her eldest son, Andrew, to England and they all went together to Arundel Castle on the South coast.  This is a working castle, still used by the Dukes of Norfolk.  We visited on a Thursday so we were able to visit the bedrooms, which are closed at and around the weekends because they are used by houseguests.

Jackie has achieved two things she has always wanted to do: a yoga course and a Spanish course.  In the Spring she went to a yoga course in Putney at the Sivananda Yoga Vendanta Centre.  This is the style of yoga that Jackie prefers – classic with no equipment but lots of relaxation.  It is not that easy to find in ordinary health clubs and the distance to Putney would make it difficult to do if she were working.  Then, this autumn, Jackie has attended Spanish conversation class at the Instituto Cervantes on Eaton Square.  This has provided Jackie with the opportunity to practice speaking the Spanish that she has been learning on and off for several years.

At the beginning of October, Graham went to cheer on his siblings, Mark and Dionne, when they ran in the Great North Run, which finishes on the sea-front at South Shields.  Mark had run it before but it was Dionne’s first attempt.  They finished together in a respectable time, just as the Red Arrows display team roared overhead.  Graham captured the event on video.

Graham has been expanding his astronomy kit, with new eye pieces for his telescope and, perhaps more importantly, a fitting, which allows him to attach his camera to the telescope.  He has already taken some test shots of the moon (which should be on his web site by the time you read this) and he is hoping for some clear nights over the winter to add to his portfolio and hone his skills (focus and exposure being the most tricky).

We have been working on redecorating and improving the house.  As we write this, the decoration is almost complete.  We’ve also been clearing out and sorting out various belongings – clothes, souvenirs, books etc.  We do not fully subscribe to the idea of de-cluttering for its own sake but it is certainly good to thin out the souvenirs and, in particular, to organise them.  Of course, all this improvement work entailed several trips to Ikea and other stores.  We went to the Bluewater Shopping Centre for the first time and really liked it, finding it more interesting than Lakeside, although still not a patch on the Metro Centre.

Graham’s first task when he stopped working was to buy a second PC and to establish a home network.  This is now set up so that we can have both desktop PCs and the laptop all connected together on a LAN.  Just like a "proper" office set up, each machine can "see" the hard disks of the others and they can each simultaneously access the internet via our DSL line.  The laser printer and colour inkjet are also available to all machines.  We are coming to the end of our second full year of DSL access to the internet and would be lost without it.  We even do our boring grocery shopping with it.

We have changed our e-mail addresses this year.  So, please make sure that you use the new ones, if you e-mail us.  And, please, e-mail us!!!  Don't worry if you get a reply that seems to come from us @ btinternet.com - both stems work and are interchangeable.

GrahamWoodhouse@btopenworld.com    JackiePCain@btopenworld.com