Winter solstice myths and legends

From left, Benedicte Maurseth (Hardanger fiddle, voice), Clare Salaman (nyckelharpa)      and Jean Kelly (clarsach).

Take three gifted musicians with strange and ancient instruments, put them into a medieval church illuminated by candlelight on a cold, frosty night and get them to play tunes and sing songs about myths and legends inspired by the winter solstice.
Mix all these potent ingredients together and you have a musical seasonal dish that lives long in the memory.
Jean Kelly (clarsach or Celtic harp), Benedicte Maurseth (Hardanger fiddle, voice) and Clare Salaman (nyckelharpa or Swedish keyed fiddle) presented a sublime concert at the National Centre For Early Music, York, last night as the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments.
The capacity audience were enchanted by the trio’s musical virtuosity and their Scandinavian stories about St Lucia, a third-century martyr who helped Christians hiding in dark catacombs, using a candle to light her way.
The trio also mentioned the dark side of the Lucia story: Lussi, a terrifying enchantress. Legend has it that on the longest night Lussi flies through the sky, amidst smoke and flame, hunting those who have failed to prepare properly for Christmas. She puts her long arms down the chimney, blows out the candles and hits the lazy and work-shy with her hand, causing immediate paralysis.
So the message from last night’s concert is crystal clear: don’t put off your Christmas preparations. You have been warned!




Portrait of an outsider


Loving Vincent is both a sumptuous visual feast and a compelling portrait of an outsider.
Each of the film’s frames is an oil painting created by a team of more than 100 painters, each one inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s own seminal art.
The film investigates the circumstances surrounding the artist’s death from a gunshot wound to the stomach; was it suicide, an accident or murder?
Rather than give a definitive answer to this question, filmmakers Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman focus on Van Gogh’s artistic passion. Using his pen, rather than brush, to provide the film’s emotional heft, they quote a letter he wrote to his brother Theo:
What am I in the eyes of most people — a non-entity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion.”
These are the words of an outsider who painted pictures in obscurity; vibrant pictures bursting with movement, colour and vitality that are now world famous as a cornerstone of modern art.
Paul Gachet, the French physician who treated Van Gogh in the weeks leading up to the artist’s death, recognised this untamed talent. He is portrayed in the film as a frustrated artist jealous of his patient’s genius. So fascinated was he by Van Gogh’s paintings that he devoted countless hours to carefully copying them, astonished that such a crude, self-taught painter could instinctively produce a masterpiece in a mere couple of hours; something he could not achieve in a lifetime.

When duty calls


East meets West in Victoria & Abdul, a delightful comedy drama directed by Stephen Frears.
Abdul Karim sails from India to present a ceremonial coin to Queen Victoria to mark her golden jubilee. The handsome clerk catches the eye of a monarch jaded by relentless royal duty and the two forge a devoted friendship that lifts her gloom.
However, vested interests within the royal court seek to undermine this unlikely alliance, with poignant consequences.
Judi Dench is back to her imperial best reprising the role of Victoria, a part she played to acclaim in the 1997 movie Mrs Brown. Ali Fazal provides an excellent foil as Abdul while Eddie Izzard creates an entertaining cameo as the Prince of Wales and the late Tim Pigott-Smith is the epitome of puffed-up pride as the Queen’s Private Secretary.

Goodbye Christopher Robin


The film Goodbye Christopher Robin explores the dark underbelly of that iconic character of children’s literature Winnie-the-Pooh.
What began as a collection of homespun tales revolving around a menagerie of cuddly toys told by a shell-shocked father to his upper-middle-class son in the 1920s became a publishing sensation that went on to receive the obligatory Disney treatment.
Although A A Milne’s remarkable professional success generated great wealth, it blighted the relationship he had with his son, Christopher Robin.
Everybody, it seemed, wanted a piece of the small boy and his toys; as soon as Milne understood the emotional cost the endless round of PR stunts was having on his son, he tried to put a stop to it by promising to never write another story about the much-loved bear. But it was too late; Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends had become public property.
Christopher Robin came to resent the books that thrust him into the public eye and declined the opportunity to benefit from their royalties; while A A Milne was annoyed the Pooh stories had eclipsed all his other work as a writer.
Simon Curtis’s film glosses over this, preferring to portray Winnie-the-Pooh as a beacon of joy in the dark days after the Great War; a beacon that is still burning today.

Toiling the soil


Adrian Bell writes about British agriculture between the wars in his book Men And The Fields (Little Toller Books) when farmers and their labourers eked out a living during a protracted slump.
It was a challenging time when toiling the soil and tending livestock did not pay well. The characters Bell describes were familiar with the different rhythms of the seasons; they lived in harmony with their environment and were at ease with the plodding of hooves.
The tasks they carried out would have been familiar to previous generations, including those so recently named on the war memorials standing sentinel-like in each parish.
Bell, father of the journalist and former MP Martin Bell, left Uppingham School, Rutland, and apprenticed himself to a Suffolk farmer in 1920, aged 19, farming in various locations over the next 60 years.
He describes his beloved countryside through the practical, non-sentimental eyes of a farmer; he realised this rural lifestyle, with its ancient knowledge, was already withering on the vine as the magnificent heavy horses were being superseded by noisy tractors.
Only months after Bell’s book was published in 1939, Britain was plunged into another world war, an event that hastened the industrialisation of agriculture. After the war, farming, lubricated by Whitehall subsidies, continued to change the landscape with its labour-saving machines and relentless quest for increased output and profit.
Bell’s prose is illustrated by his friend John Nash, the distinguished war artist, with a series of evocative colour lithographs and monochrome line drawings.

Dunkirk veteran saluted

Jack Danby shows the bullet hole in his D-Day helmet

Christopher Nolan’s movie Dunkirk tells the story of the British Army’s miraculous escape from the advancing German army from three perspectives: Land, Sea and Air. In weaving together three different timelines, Nolan successfully depicts the chaos of what was a colossal military defeat; the viewer is plunged right into the middle of the action where the fear and tension is amplified by Hans Zimmer’s intense musical score.
This movie is timely as, more than 75 years after the rescue that entered British folklore, so few Dunkirk veterans remain. One who has passed away is Jack Danby, of Selby. He survived Dunkirk and, four years later, returned to France in the first wave of D-Day where he was nearly killed; while trying to rescue a wounded comrade, a German bullet passed through his helmet inflicting a flesh wound.
Watching Dunkirk brought home to me the bravery of men like Jack. After the war, Jack was headmaster of four different schools in the East Riding where, after experiencing the horror of Dunkirk and D-Day, his motivation was to help build a better post-war world. His distinguished service included 12 years as the first head of Etton Pasture boarding school for disabled children; his pioneering work there was recognised by the award of an MBE in 1965.

Righteousness and humidity


Yankee Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is found wounded in the Virginia woods by schoolgirl Amy (Oona Laurence) and brought to Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies. Prim and proper Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) tends to McBurney’s leg wound in the name of Christian charity and, as he recovers, they all vie for his affections by dressing to impress and offering gifts and banquets in their isolated mansion with its candles and Doric columns. The enemy soldier, using sly charm, disrupts their genteel routine of French lessons, prayer, sewing and music until matters come to a shocking head. McBurney fled the gunpowder and shot of a Civil War battlefield only to discover southern hospitality can also be deadly with its righteousness and humidity. Writer-director Sofia Coppola channels southern gothic in her screen adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel. It made me want to revisit Don Siegel’s 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood as the wounded Yankee.