2008 Christmas Message from Graham and Jackie

And so we come to that traditional time to say once again – has another year really gone by ?

We begin with a weather note.  Whilst we didn’t have a heat wave this summer (in fact we didn’t really have a summer at all) we did see some “extreme” weather in the form of snow in central London (!) falling as late as 6th April and as early as 28th October.  So there were only five snow-free months in between !  Climate change anyone ?

For New Year Jackie visited her mother in Spain, enjoying  sunshine and a lunch party.  Graham went up north to be with his parents, spending New Year’s Eve in the traditional British way  … at the excellent Raj curry house !

In March we both went up to South Shields to celebrate the Golden Wedding anniversary of Graham’s parents.  A good time was had by all as we went out for a luxury nosh-up.

In August we spent a fortnight in Spain, once again enjoying Jackie’s mother’s hospitality (and home cooked pies).  The weather was good – and we did little except enjoy it.

In September Graham went up to see his nephew Daniel shortly after his birthday, taking the opportunity to get roundly beaten in various video games.  He also used the trip to take his father to see Cragside House near Morpeth – home of Lord Armstrong and the first private home in the world to be lit by electricity.  It’s an impressive house, and it has substantial grounds … covered by many fallen trees (the result of a recent heavy storm).

We decided to take some day trips this year – Hatfield House and the Imperial War Museum in London and the Museum of London itself.  Hatfield House was interesting (although Queen Elizabeth’s Oak was a bit of a disappointment since it is a sapling).  The IWM was a revelation.  As well as a wide variety of exhibits covering both World Wars, they are also running a large exhibition for the 90th anniversary of the Armistice.  It is informative and very moving … and on until September 2009.  Oh, and they have a really nice café too!

Jackie remains Technical Director of Institute of Internal Auditors – UK and Ireland.  She reports that new colleagues have done wonders for the community spirit with weekly quizzes and quiz nights; and that the 60th anniversary was  celebrated with a grand lunch at Stationer’s Hall in the City.

Meanwhile, as for work, in between learning to sub-edit, she’s had trips to various corners of the institute’s territory to give presentations.  Stansted, Newcastle; Edinburgh, Dublin and Basingstoke were relatively routine.  Aberdeen in February was bracing.  Bangor in April was a chance to see spring lambs in the Welsh sunshine and to enjoy hospitality at the Groes Inn.  And, Guernsey (not even part of the UK, she found out) was interesting – odd being on such a small island, surrounded by sea.

There were opportunities to visit the Bank of England, the House of Lords; the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Bletchley Park and the British Library.  In the House of Lords her meeting was interrupted by the division bell – and her hosts had to disappear off to vote!  Democracy in action.

Jackie continues on the Internal Audit Standards Board.  It revised the standards this year, which involved an extra trip – to a very cold Chicago in May; but was also the excuse to go to Brussels to explain the changes in a presentation.

This was practice for a presentation in Cape Town, South Africa.  That trip was also to represent her boss at an international meeting.  Jackie went to Johannesburg and spent three nights at a game reserve in the Pilanesberg national park – two-day meeting, game drive with elephants and a rhino and a trip to Sun City; then to Pretoria including to the Voortrekker Monument; then to Cape Town and a day-long tour round the wine regions.  Very pleasant indeed.

The international conference this year was in San Francisco, a favourite city.  The plans included an indulgent trip to a famous spa but forest fires on the Pacific coast put paid to that.  She did however find she was in the city at the same time as Dionne and Conor and arranged to meet for lunch!

Jackie also continues to serve on the Roll Committee of Newnham College.  However, an encounter with a cold in April and the SF trip in July meant that she went to college only once this year – and missed the Roll garden party.

In May, Jackie met up with the Newnham “Girls” for a jolly weekend at Krysia’s house – thank you, Krysia (and Mark, George, Amy & Krysia’s Mum for putting up with us!).

Jackie also tried to do something slightly different and accepted an invitation from the Oxford Research Group, an organisation she supports, to an evening with Baroness Shirley Williams.  Just after the American Presidential election, the evening was about the international challenges facing Barack Obama.  It was very interesting.

This year we saw eight Covent Garden operas; La Cenerentola. La Traviata, Carmen, Tosca, Don Carlo, La Fanciulla del West, Matilde de Shabran and Les Contes d’Hoffman.

Taking them in order, we saw La Cenerentola first (actually last December, after our letter went to press).  It’s a modern setting and a hugely enjoyable “panto” sort of opera – well, it is ‘Cinderella’.

In January we went to a Sunday matinee performance of La Traviata in order to see the “A” cast including the Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.  He was, as ever, superb.  Unfortunately his co-star, the stellar (though relative newcomer) Anna Netrebko was indisposed.  Ah well.

Like last year, we saw the “new” production of Carmen again.  We went to see the very talented Marcelo Alvarez, but he can be a bit hit and miss.  He wasn’t able to rescue this lacklustre production, resulting in our staying in the restaurant after the interval, preferring to finish the excellent bottle of wine than the opera !

We saw the newish Tosca (as in 2006) and it is still a superb production.  Perhaps the tenor Jonas Kaufmann was the best thing on the night with a couple of show-stopping notes.

Jackie opted out of going to the near five-hour marathon Verdi opera Don Carlo.  Graham enjoyed it immensely as almost all cast members performed at the highest level.  It was a typical Verdian rousing show.

We saw the superb tenor Jose Cura in La Fanciulla del West.  Oddly this older production seems to have developed a net curtain in front of the stage, which we don’t recall being there before.  One of the cast even mimed a “trapped in a phone box” routine during the curtain calls, so we’re guessing that at least some of the cast don’t like it either.  In this production the heroine “Minnie” was a rather large women who simply didn’t fit the role.  She should probably stick to Wagner.

We discovered why the opera Matilde de Shabran is so rarely performed.  It is a vehicle for the superb Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez and it really suits his voice.  Not many men have the power combined with suppleness of voice to deliver all of the coloratura.  But the story is pretty odd and, even for opera, unbelievable.  It’s a sort of reverse “Taming of The Shrew” with a scarcely believable change in attitude of the tenor.  Also, JDF has to be “nasty” in the first half … and we just couldn’t bring ourselves to see any such thing in the delightful and polite Mr Florez !

The last opera pre this letter provided the chance to see the excellent Rolando Villazon in Offenbach’s opera Les Contes d’Hoffman.  It was jolly entertaining and Mr Villazon proved his mettle as a possible future Domingo.

Jackie managed to drag Graham along to a ballet this year – Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.  Just so you know, Graham loves opera … but doesn’t much care for ballet.  He found it difficult to stifle the giggles when one chap, having been run through with a sword, managed to “die” in the style of Tom and Jerry … even going down and then getting back up to stumble around for a bit more.  It was hysterical ! (“What, a bit like the deathbed scene in Traviata?” J asks.)

Other than opera/ballet we saw the excellent French soprano Natalie Dessay in concert at the Barbican.  Simply superb.

With Jackie out of the country, Graham saw our favourite Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez in concert at the Barbican.  Coincidentally, as with the concert he gave in the same venue in 2006, he was quite poorly.  He struggled manfully on, despite clearly being under the weather.  He even took a break to have a shower in order to try and “clear his head”.  He sang the last few song with wet hair … what a trooper!

This year we yet again went to a concert given by superstar Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky at the Barbican.  This time it was a Russian “Lieder” concert, just him singing to a piano accompaniment.  Whilst that is not normally our “cup of tea”, he made it very exciting nonetheless.  On the way into the venue for a meal, an hour and a half before curtain up, Graham was astonished to bump into Dmitri as he arrived … quite alone, and singing to himself “under his voice”!

And so to the annual Sadler’s Wells Flamenco festival.  This year we saw Maria Pages and her company of sixteen dancers.  It was an excellent demonstration of coordinated flamenco dancing – especially from the eight men.

Our other Flamenco trip was in November to see the Nuevo Ballet Espanol at the Peacock Theatre on Kingsway.  It was quite entertaining with a strong corps of dancers, led by a male duo, Angel and Carlos: two of their own biggest fans!

In March Graham went to the Barbican to see the acclaimed Brazilian singer/songwriter Gilberto Gil.  In October we both went to the nearby Union Chapel to see the US singer/songwriter Dean Friedman.  The Union Chapel is a recently restored 19th century building which is used as a music venue as well as a chapel – it is very atmospheric.

In our non-musical theatre trips this year we went to the Old Vic twice.  In January we completed an unusual set of brackets around our holiday season by going to see Cinderella the pantomime.  It featured Sandi Toksvig as the narrator and was reassuringly funny.  In March we went to Speed the Plow, starring both Kevin Spacey (the Artistic Director) and Jeff Goldblum.  It was excellent and they were both superb.  Perhaps Jeff edged out in front by being just a bit more “involving” on a big stage.

We also had American Thanksgiving Dinner, courtesy of our American downstairs neighbours.  That was just before Jackie’s final trip abroad – the annual one to Florida.  Although it was a pleasant break, this year most of her free time coincided with bad weather, including a tornado watch!

As always happens when we write this letter, we are also left thinking: “Wow! How did we fit all that in?” 
Well, here’s to the next one!

Merry Christmas & Best Wishes for the New Year
Peace and Long Life

GrahamWoodhouse@btopenworld.com    JackiePCain@btopenworld.com