Tuesday 27 September 2011

A Nightingale Sang

There was to be no dinner on the second or subsequent nights. This fact was unknown to us on the Sunday evening, the day of our arrival, when we entered the dining room as the clock from the nearby church struck eight. Just as the Signora Bertolini had promised rooms with a view, so the Hotel Blaha Lujza had enticed us with half board.

Hotel Blaha Lujza, Balatonfured [click to enlarge this and all images]

But it was not to be. The information being given out, somewhat ingenuously we thought, as the soup plates were cleared and the fish placed before us. However, breakfast would, we were assured, as though not to be denied a prize altogether, be served each day at the advertised times.

the hospital glimpsed through the trees across the square at Balatonfured

The Hotel Blaha Lujza, originally home to the eponymous nineteenth century singer, fondly referred to as the Nation's Nightingale, stands close to the shores of Lake Balaton at the heart of the picturesque Balatonfured. Once reserved for the Party faithful, and elite, this lakeside resort has, in recent years, transformed itself into the most fashionable and delightful of watering places.

swans cluster at the water's edge alongside the tree shaded promenade

A broad promenade, shaded by plane trees, their peeling bark revealing deep pools of clotted cream, runs alongside the languid water where sailing craft slip silently among  the gliding swans. Across the lake the sun glints on the Abbey of Tihany from where, in earlier times, as an Empire collapsed, the last King of Hungary sought refuge and then stole away from crown and country.

the Abbey of Tihany set high on the hill and seen through a sea of masts

Across from the main square lies the hospital. Each morning, we observe a motley selection of patients, slipper clad, dressing gowns dangerously slipping, tired nakedness exposed, others in assorted day wear, gravel crunching underfoot, all shuffling towards the central fountain where the healing waters, properties unknown, continuously gush their energising goodness. Some, greedy for more, fill plastic bottles. Liquid hope.

the front facade of the hospital, facing the square, in Balatonfured

from this central spring restorative waters may be taken

And it is there that we spot our companions from the breakfast table. They too are guests at the Blaha Lujza, but we suspect occupy a ground floor room for age and infirmity surely prevent access to the upper floors. A mother and daughter. Two flightless birds. Both are of an age but the daughter, clothed in rookish black, maintains a gaunt, determined presence. Unsmiling, her glance conveys a dislike of foreigners. Beside her, the sparrow must be fed. Although the day is already hot, fans whir overhead, the mother draws comfort from cardigan and shawl. A woollen skirt sweeps the floor, hiding for the moment tightly buttoned black boots. Later they will progress, at mourners' pace, towards the square.

on warm, sunny mornings breakfast may be taken before the hotel portico

But for now breakfast is, as promised, served. We watch, intrigued, as morsels of bread [how else to describe?] are slowly transferred from plate, to finger, to mouth. Each successful bite is rewarded as the daughter, half rising from her seat, leans across the table and pecks her mother on the cheek. The process is repeated. The silence is maintained.

So, just as swallows take flight, the last days of summer fragment into memory and autumn mists creep with stealth along the now deserted shore. Above the town the Budapest train approaches Platform V.

our compartment on the train bound for Budapest at summer's end

Wednesday 21 September 2011

"Vorsprung durch Technik"

For our Hungarian friends, Zoli and Viktor, Austria is the country of gold standards against which all others are compared. In their view it has the cleanest cities, the purest air, the most delicious cakes, the most efficient transport system and the loveliest countryside.

Austria, as photographed by Zoli and Viktor whilst on a recent holiday

And, if these were not riches enough, Austria lays claim to Vienna, their idea of Mecca for contemporary design, stylishly dressed citizens and, at Figlmuller, the home of the original and best, of course, Wiener Schnitzel.

Fluent in the German language and well read in German literature, the Fiúk [the Hungarian for 'boys'] as we fondly refer to them, live by the Germanic motto of form and function. Have nothing unless it is designed beautifully, works perfectly and, preferably, is made in Austria. Their carefully arranged, spacious and airy apartment is testament to their beliefs.

spectacles as an art form in the study

Furnished in a minimalist style, painted with a restrained grey and white palette, the only nod to a Mediterranean influence is the shiny, lipstick red and chrome Italian coffee machine delivering Italian espressos in Italian cups with Germanic efficiency.

an Italian coffee machine stands in readiness in the kitchen of the apartment

And so when an outdoor film night was proposed, we suspected that the very latest in technological equipment would be employed to convert the boys' extensive terrace into an art cinema of which even the most discerning Austrian could be proud. We were not to be disappointed.

At the flick of a wrist, a white linen blind turned a wall of windows into a wide screen and under an inky black Budapest sky we watched 'The Secretary' in high definition.

a clip from 'The Secretary' with Maggie Gyllenhaal in the leading role

Later, and after the credits had finally rolled, a blazing fire was projected onto the screen in order that none should feel the cool of the night air as we talked into the small hours and marvelled at the wonders of modern technology.

Just last Friday evening, we hosted our return film night. This time an ancient white sheet shrouding a Victorian bookcase served as a makeshift screen. No matter, we thought, as surely Visconti's 'Death in Venice', based on the novel by Thomas Mann, would dazzle with its brilliance and its Germanic roots, if not its somewhat Heath Robinson production.

The End

Thursday 15 September 2011

Falling in Love Again

By the time we knew it the Hippodrome, or the Coventry Theatre as it had then become, had seen somewhat better days. Rather as a beached whale, all that remained of this triumph of Art Deco architecture, dating from 1937, was a landmark of peeling stucco and rusting ironwork towering over a wasteland of dereliction and decay.

the former Hippodrome Theatre, Coventy [click to enlarge all images]

Already the writing was on the wall, both metaphorically and literally, and soon the lights would be dimmed, briefly to be relit for a short period as a Bingo Hall, before being extinguished for evermore. But of the time of which we write, the early 1970s, it still clung to some vestiges of its former glory. Indeed, about then we had attended a wonderful production of Monteverdi's 'The Coronation of Poppea' given, most likely, by the Welsh National Opera.  Of this, though, we cannot be sure.

But of the final European Tour of Marlene Dietrich we are certain and now, nearly forty years later, the memories come flooding back. We had seats in the orchestra stalls, in an auditorium capable of seating, strangely, 2001, and where, along with the moth and the mould, we were joined by a handful of Coventrians, among them the curious, the cynical and, delightfully, the half-crazed. In total we numbered no more than thirty at the most.

Marlene Dietrich, possibly at the height of her long career

Silver lamé, swathed in fox fur, concealing a heavy reliance on body sculpting under garments, was Miss Dietrich's mode of attire which, with newly peroxide hair and careful stage lighting, did much to disguise her seventy or more years. Sadly, her rendering of 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone?', punctuated with dramatic pauses, relied all too heavily on audible prompts and sips of what we took to be gin.

But we should not, perhaps, remember her in those last years when she had, as has been said, become "a prisoner of her own legend".

Marlene Dietrich playing a cameo role in Orson Welles' 'Touch of Evil'

Rather, we choose to think of her at the height of her career, not least for the small but significant role played in the 1958 classic film of Orson Welles, 'Touch of Evil'. There, with all of her fabled beauty, steeped in glamour and with that so famous, husky voice she was, indeed, truly a star.

And tonight, once more, as we hear that voice again from across the years pulsating to the strains of 'Lili Marleen', we think fondly of the once great Marlene Dietrich, and, not with a little pride, recall how all those years past she touched momentarily upon our lives.

Monday 5 September 2011

A Bishop Orders a Painting

the church of St. Michael and All Angels, Berwick, East Sussex

Anyone who is familiar with J.L. Carr's novel, 'A Month in the Country', will be aware that pivotal to the narrative is the uncovering of a mediaeval mural in a country church. For, prior to the Reformation, even the remotest of churches would have been decorated with wall paintings, the source of which most likely being traced directly back to Rome.

a weathered sign directs the visitor to Berwick Church

And so it was that in 1941 Duncan Grant, a prominent member of the Bloomsbury Set, was commissioned by the then Bishop of Chichester, as a catalyst for promoting a new relationship between the Arts and the Church, to decorate the interior of the small Sussex Downland church of St. Michael and All Angels at Berwick. This much we knew, but no more.

the approach to Berwick Church [click to enlarge this and all images]

What delight, therefore, to be collected from our Brighton rooms most recently by our dear friends, Peter and Nigel, in their jolly pillar-box red motor car and swiftly transported through the country lanes to this jewel of an English church. And who better as guides and to set all within a context than Peter, a Canon of the Church of England, and Nigel with the wisdom and learning of his Catholic faith?

'Christ in Glory' painted  above and around the Chancel arch by Duncan Grant 

Most striking of all is the Chancel arch where Christ, enthroned in glory, is surrounded by adoring angels whilst, lower down, the Bishop of Chichester and the Rector of Berwick gaze across the open archway to the kneeling figures of a soldier, a sailor and an airman, a strong reminder that Britain is at war. In the foreground scarlet poppies symbolise remembrance and resurrection.

'The Annunciation' on the south side of the Nave by Vanessa Bell

'The Annunciation', seen on the south wall of the Nave, is the work of Vanessa Bell whose daughter, Angelica, is the model for Mary, posed in Renaissance attitude and seen against a garden based on that at Charleston.

'The Nativity' on the north side of the Nave painted by Vanessa Bell

On the opposite wall, also by Vanessa Bell, 'The Nativity' employs as onlookers the children, dressed as for school, of the housekeeper and gardener. A Sussex trug, alongside a lamb, adds a further touch of domesticity with its contents of winter vegetables.

'Spring' and 'Summer', two of the four seasons, painted by Duncan Grant

Time at Berwick has not stood still. In addition to the murals, of which there are many, the inspired inclusion of clear glass to replace Victorian windows destroyed by bombs affords breathtaking views of the churchyard and countryside beyond, whilst flooding the interior with natural light.

clear glass replaces the original destroyed by enemy action during the war

Newly installed oak doors, together with beautifully fashioned ironwork, have a profound strength and simplicity and are worthy twenty-first century additions.

handcrafted oak doors are a recent addition to Berwick Church

But, as if that were not enough, our day was, in fact, only just beginning. Following a delicious lunch at a nearby inn, we sped onward to Monk's House, the home of the writer Virginia Woolf, sister to Vanessa Bell, where the magic of both house and garden proved irresistible. And where, totally captivated, we lingered long.

the interior of Monk's House, home of Virginia Woolf

the staircase hall at Monk's House

an arrangement of decorative china above the fireplace at Monk's House

Then, as the shadows of the afternoon lengthened, to five o'clock tea in the little seaside village of Rottingdean where the ghosts of Kipling, Conrad and D.H. Lawrence forever mingle with the cry of the gulls.