Blowing My Own Trumpet

I have written about the People’s Orchestra before. I was persuaded, against my better judgement, to put my name down for an audition as a trumpet player. The problem is that I haven’t played for so long that my lip is completely out of condition. For those who haven’t played a brass instrument I should explain that you don’t blow into it as you would, say, a clarinet. You blow a raspberry into it or, as Mr. Whittaker the peripatetic brass teacher at Catshill Middle School memorably put it forty years ago, ‘imagine you’re spitting out the bits of coconut after eating a Bounty bar’. The tension of the lip lays a major role in determining the pitch of the note. If your lip is out of condition you can forget about the top octave. Given that the bulk of the classical repertoire is written there this can be a problem. I soon decided that borrowing the score of Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto from the library had been somewhat ambitious and stuck to the scale of C Major. I will get there (eventually!) and apologise to the neighbours in advance.

At least I know how to hold a trumpet. A donated French horn was brought to the office on Thursday and I quickly discovered I didn’t know how to hold it, let alone which keys produced which notes.  My admiration for the playing of the late Dennis Brain is undimmed. If you haven’t heard it get hold of his recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Herbert von Karajan of the four Mozart Horn Concertos. Recorded nearly sixty years ago and, in my view, unsurpassed.


Booted but not Suited

Last week I did my first Car Boot sale. The idea was to declutter the house (it needs it badly!) and make a few pounds from selling the tat. I spent four hours in a field close to the roar of the M6 on the unappealing eastern fringe of Birmingham. It was an experience of the informal economy at work. Buyers and sellers, it seemed to me, were people on the sharp end of austerity, scraping a living as best they can or looking out for bargains where money was tight.

Was this a depressing experience? Actually not.  I had a fair part of interest in my wares, (mainly sports and railway memorabilia) if not many takers and many people stopped to chat. For many it seems to be a social thing as much as anything, a way of passing a morning when the days of retirement or unemployment start to drag. Among the traders there was a rough kind of camaraderie. One or two spotted quickly that I was a naive beginner and offered helpful and much needed advice.

Next to me a man I reckoned to be in his late thirties, in ripped jeans and t-shirt, had laid out a bewildering array of DVDs on a black tarpaulin and was doing a fairly brisk trade on what was a quiet morning for everybody else. Before eleven o’clock he quickly packed up and left. Minutes later a man from trading standards arrived to tour the stalls and exchange the time of day. This surely explained the DVD man’s sudden disappearance. The informal economy can be a little too informal for officialdom.

At twelve, taking my cue from more experienced hands I packed up and left. I took £15 having paid £5 for the pitch so it was on balance just about worth going.  Will I go again? We have so much junk I’m going to have to. But I might have a bacon roll next time.


Please can we have our Tories back?

Once upon a time the British Conservative Party was full of what were called Tories. The Tory creed was one of pragmatism and scepticism. The lessons of lived experience were valued over the dictates of ideology.  Today’s Conservative Party, in contrast, seems full of ideologues who political creed is resistant to the lessons of experience. Economic policy is an obvious example with Gideon Osborne determined to cut the deficit even if he doubles it in doing so and it is difficult to imagine some Conservative governments of the past forcing through a hastily cobbled together NHS reform, the alleged benefits of which are unsupported by empirical evidence.

What is concerning is the willingness of many of these crazed ideologues to make common cause with US Republicans. The GOP is no longer a serious party of government. It can’t be, it doesn’t believe in the idea of government, just in low taxes and expensive wars, preferably a long way away where it’s people who dress funny and don’t speak English who get killed. As for paying for it all, well, you just let a Democrat get elected and then it’s not your problem.

The latest GOP contribution to human wisdom comes from the ludicrous senatorial candidate from Missouri, Todd Akin whose acute intellect has discerned a category of rape known as legitimate rape where women can’t get pregnant. He doesn’t explain how. Maybe the rapist’s sperm tells the ovum “Don’t split on me honey, I’m legit!”

We should be worried, very worried, that so many of out home grown Conservatives see the GOP as natural allies. I never thought I would say this but please can we have our Tories back?

Wroclaw and the charm of the Gothic

I have just finished reading Countess Izabela Czartoryska’ s account of her journey to Bad Warmbrunn in 1816 to take the waters. On the return journey she stayed for a few days in Breslau where she expressed a marked preference for Gothic architecture as the only style fit for religious buildings. She also remarked wistfully that Lower Silesia had once belonged to Poland and even after being detached from Poland in the 14th century had been ruled for several centuries by a branch of the former Polish royal house of the Piasts.

All of which struck a familiar note having read Gregor Thum’s fascinating account of how the Polish authorities created a new city of Wroclaw after the Yalta decisions to shift Poland west, including Lower Silesia in its borders for the first time in six centuries.  The architects of the reconstruction and polonisation of what remained of the city’s fabric also had a marked preference for the Gothic  as the mark of buildings which existed, or may have existed, under Polish rule. This meant that resources were available to rebuild many fine historic buildings that had been reduced to rubble in the last weeks of the war as the Red Army encircled “Festung Breslau”. Unfortunately it also meant that an equal number of fine buildings in later architectural styles were condemned to destruction and decay as unPolish.

Political circumstances dictated that a city that now belonged to Poland must in essence always have been Polish and could only be inhabited by Polish speakers. This, as Thum says, was a myth but a necessary myth, as the city could only be rebuilt and have a future if the new, often reluctant, inhabitants felt they had a right to be there.

This narrow nationalistic view (there was a German mirror image view of Silesia before 1945 which led the Nazis to embark on a campaign of renaming places whose German names too obviously suggested Slavic origins), sits uneasily with Poland’s long history as a multi-denominational, multi-ethnic state. It explains too the often bizarre ideological links between Polish Communism and apparently anti-Communist nationalists. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church too banged the nationalist drum on behalf of the People’s Republic.

Building a future requires, however, an accommodation with the past. The German presence was never too far from the surface and is now acknowledged, which would have been unthinkable before 1989. That Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Helmut Kohl met to begin the process of reconciliation in Krzyzowa/Kreisau  once the seat of the Moltke family and centre of the aristocratic resistance to Hitler was symbolic. That Wroclaw writer Marek Krajewski made his name with a series of books about the fictional German detective Eberhard Mock  of the Breslau Vice Squad perturbs no-one. Poles read the books as avidly as Germans.

Oh and the Japanese Garden has been restored.




Ogrod japonski

translates the exotic but

keeps half a secret.

In nineteen thirteen

Prussian ladies drank tea with

due ceremony.

A bridge spans the lake

linking lands over still water

balm for scars of war.

Koi break the surface.

In their gaze Silesian skies

that are everyone’s.

Copyright  Peter Bateman 2007

Not Only Pussies Have Claws

The verdict in the Pussy Riot trial was predicatble. The surprise was the sentence. The smart money was on three years. If Putin thinks this makes him look lenient he is mistaken. In fact the whole prosecution was surely atctical mistake, as Pussy Riot now have a level of notoriety they could not have dreamed about. Putin himself looks ridiculous and looking ridiculous is something a dicttaor can ill afford.

So why the trial? Is the state dog being wagged by the Orthodox Church tail? The lione of argument advanced by the prosecution was to large extent couched in religious and theological language. The word ‘sin’ was used on several occasions as if it is the job of a secular court to adjuicate on such matters. In a state which officially guarantees freedom of religion and none, courts are making up laws as they go along to please the Church hierarchy.    .

Is this where the ex-KGB man is taking Russia, in he direction of a pseudo-Czarist theocracy? How long before Russia redaopts the Julian calendar?

A Different Poland

Imagine a place you know to be in Poland where the focal point is an onion domed Orthodox Church, where many posters and notices are in Cyrillic, a place where you feel that you are not quite in Poland any more. Such a place is the sleepy town of Siemiatycze, a few miles from the border with Belarus. It is also a place that is beguiling in its tranquility. Nothing much happens here and the only tourists are people from over the border in search of what they can’t buy at home. Nothing happens, people sit out on summer evenings, neighbours chew the fat over nothing of significance. That is fine. Too much happened here between 1939 and 1945. The Soviet occupation saw scores of deportations into the depths of the Soviet Union, the Nazi one that followed it saw the end of the town’s once thriving Jewish community. Later on the men of Siemiatycze worked, often illegally, in Belgium. They quite literally helped to build the EU which is funding long overdue improvements to the roads. Roads or no roads, Siemiatycze will always be off the tourist trail. Nothing happens here any more. And that’s fine by everyone.


Cyrillic makes these borderlands

doubly foreign. I read like a child,

my fingers feeling their way through

words like wet feet over stepping stones.

I am crossing a river as borders and armies

crossed and recrossed the Bug, ideologies

shackled to their misanthropic ballast.

Each headstone is a place, a time, here

a birth in the days when landlords owned

the souls, dead and alive, of serfs, there

death in old age in the leaden years of terror

when younger souls were claimed by

trench-coated men of the night who came in

dark saloon cars heard by everyone and no-one.

They have dark as we have light this summer’s day.

It shines on the domed church on its hill, shines

on the busy bearded Orthodox priest, shines on

the Catholic tolling the Angelus bell, on the mound

where once stood the synagogue, on those misanthropy

denied a grave, illuminating these wounds of God

enjoining remembrance, as if to heal them.

Copyright Peter Bateman 2012

The People’s Orchestra

Much has been written about the decline of sport in schools. Music has suffered an even more catastrophic decline, being forced out of the curriculum by the results and targets mania. For those who believe that education is about more than acquiring skills for employment purposes this is a disaster.  Knowing how tp play an instrument can be a lifelong source of pleasure.

This is the thinking behind the Peoples Orchestra a new community orchestra based at The Public in West Bromwich and which is looking for members. If you play an instrument (up to Grade 7 or thereabouts) you are wanted! Auditions are being held In September and October so why not come along?

Details are on the website: