Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Kol Nidrei

It’s Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement - and we’ve just finished the evening service, which heralds the start of this, the holiest of days in the Jewish calendar. The evening service is often called Kol Nidrei, named after the somewhat mystical prayer which kicks things off.

The traditional Kol Nidrei melody is ancient. It’s definitely medieval, if not a great deal older. Written in Aramaic, the tune is described by Jewish people as missinai - unchanged since Moses climbed down from Mount Sinai. Whatever the truth of it’s origin, what cannot be denied is its profound beauty.

I used to play Max Bruch’s version on my ‘cello. It was very definitely my torch song as a teenaged lad. The melody used to make me feel profoundly sad - in a very good way! I used to get utterly lost in its mournfulness. I could never have predicted that I’d be singing it one day in a synagogue.

I was recently asked to do an arrangement of the piece for our choir and we recorded it a few weeks ago. We learned this morning that Radio 3 had decided to play it on In Tune at 6pm, just as candles were being lit by Jewish people across the country to mark the start of Yom Kippur. I hope those who heard it were able to think about loved ones as it played out. Or feel a sense of pride that this special occasion was being marked by the BBC. I was very touched to hear presenter Katie Dereham describing the recording as “beautiful” several times.

To add an extra splash of joy to the occasion, it was broadcast just as our choir was gathering for the Kol Nidrei service, so we were able to listen to it together, which is a massively unifying experience.

We walked into the synagogue, heads held high, and gave the congregation a service to remember.

I sang for my Uncle John, who died this morning. His wife, my Auntie Glen, died at the start of the year and I think, overwhelmed by loneliness, he simply lost the will to live. He’s been slipping further and further into sleep over the last few days and I’m hoping Glen came to find him. They were utterly inseparable in life and I have no reason to suspect the same will not be true when it comes to their adventures on the other side. I know it sounds a bit silly, but I felt their combined presence very clearly this evening and felt happy to know that they’re both at peace.

Friday, 16 August 2019

The holiday ends

Unfortunately, our magical week in Pembrokeshire ended today. We returned to London in a storm not dissimilar to the one we’d left in, having been remarkably lucky with the weather in between! We had a shedload of sunshine which was usually accompanied by battering sea breezes which chiselled our skin like old gravestones in Whitby. I studied my face in the mirror yesterday and saw an old, tanned sailor looking back. That, or a big leather boot!

This week has been very good for Nathan’s mental health. We’re surrounded by old, true friends, who have protected him fiercely and kept him buoyant. Furthermore, hanging out in a gang which includes so many sparky, highly intelligent, enthusiastic young people is always good for keeping any woes you might have very firmly at the back of your mind.

Messages of support continue to come in from very kind and loyal members of the knitting community. They give Nathan a great deal of comfort and we are getting close to a time when I think he will be strong enough to reveal the full, horrific truth of what happened to him. The story is staggering enough in itself, but the most astonishing aspect was realising quite how far people were prepared to take matters, purely to save their own skin. And quite how far the mob was prepared to go in their attempts to get people to publicly denounce Nathan. “I saw Goody Nathan with the devil.”

We went for a wonderful walk yesterday along part of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, which must feature some of the most spectacular views in the UK. This vertiginous walkway snakes its way along the tops of tall cliffs, through flower meadows and blackberry-laden hedges. There are charming beach-lined coves where little ice cream stalls sell cups of tea and lollypops to weary walkers, and then the path heads up onto the headlands again, where ramblers are forced to contemplate stomach-churning 100-foot drops into the sea below. 

I walked some of the journey with Ivy, Tanya’s four-year old daughter. “Hold my hand”, I kept saying, as she merrily skipped along the path. “Why?” She asked. “Because we’re a long way up and I don’t want you to fall!” “Do you not like heights?” “Not really,” I said, starting to sweat. “I LOVE heights,” she said, “shall I hold your hand to make you feel better?” I suddenly realised she’d got it the right way round!

Yesterday, the sun shone constantly to accompany our walk and the sea was every shade from yellowy turquoise, through azure and royal blue, all the way to a deep purplish grey.

We ended up drinking tall glasses of refreshing lemonade outside a little pub on Pwllgwaelod Beach. The man behind the bar seemed incredibly stressed and apologetic. The sunny weather had brought a lot of walkers out of the woodwork, the kitchen had entirely run out of food and most of the drinks behind the bar had been consumed, so he was waiting desperately for a delivery to arrive, which he hoped would be coming later in the day. I guess it’s a common problem associated with running a business in a deeply rural location!

I ended the day with a swim in the sea, my first since the holiday began. Everyone else had been in and out of the water like aquatic monsters, but I was nursing an injury to my hamstring which I’d picked up playing rounders on the first day. It turns out that I’m now of a boring age where I need to warm my body up before a blast of physical exercise. Also, the sea had hitherto not looked massively inviting. Why would anyone wilfully throw themselves into refrigerated water?!

The journey home to London was absolutely ghastly. It rained solidly - an aggressive, hail-like rain, which felt like needles on the skin. I drew the short straw and ended up driving from just north of Swansea all the way to Swindon, which was the section of the M4 where most of the weather-related traffic jams were happening. There were all sorts of signs by the side of the road warning motorists about the perils of driving in such terrible weather, and we watched our estimated time of arrival slide from 5.30pm to 7.45pm. A day of driving. Hurrah!

I heard someone in a petrol station telling the person behind the counter that she was returning from Tenby (also in Pembrokeshire) and that she’d been sitting on a beach the day before in glorious sunshine. I knew exactly how she felt! We exited the petrol station shop at the same time, and ran for our cars, swearing miserably, no doubt both wishing we were in Spain.

Good Shabbos. And over and out!






Monday, 12 August 2019

Pembrokeshire

We’re in Wales again. More specifically, Pembrokeshire. Each year a group of friends that I made at university goes away together. This time there are fifteen of us - eight adults and seven children - and we’re staying in a glorious cottage which sits on a headland directly above what is effectively our own private beach situated in a secluded cove which you can only access by foot. A little path snakes its way from the house down the hillside to the beach. It’s completely magical, particularly for the kids. Lola, Raily and Iain’s 19 month-old pointed upwards at one point and said, “big sky.” She was right. It’s the sort of place where nature encourages you to simply be.

We went down to the beach at twilight last night and stood on the beach, skimming stones as the waves crashed and roared. The braver ones amongst us swam. Meriel said it wasn’t cold. I didn’t believe her.

The last vestiges of yesterday’s big storm were still present and the clouds were moving very speedily across the giant moon.

A mysterious black dog appeared on the beach at one point to drink from the stream which runs into the sea. It was incredibly friendly but didn’t seem to have a discernible owner which meant that seeing it in the near darkness brought to mind tales of spooky mystical canine creatures from British folk legends. The Black Shug. The Hound of the Baskervilles.

As the stars came out, we looked up at our little house on the hill with all its lights on: beautiful twinkling lights which beckoned us home. It was reminiscent of a scene from my childhood. I couldn’t quite remember which.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Loneliness

My father-in-law, David, said something recently which really struck home. David and his wife, Liz, are presently grieving the death of their dog, Barney and the first thing that talking to them taught me was that it’s all-too easy to underestimate the pain associated with losing a pet, particularly one which has been by its owners’ side for the best part of fifteen years, and seen them through major life changes. They were both incredibly shaken and struggling to deal with their loss. 

However, the thing which David said which really struck me was that losing your dog effectively returns you to the ranks of being a non-person. In an age where people are becoming increasingly suspicious of anyone who smiles at them in the street, or starts randomly talking to them on a bus, having a dog remains one of your only options if you want to make new friends or while away the odd five minutes by engaging in small talk. Human contact facilitated by an animal.

Children, of course, are also great enablers when it comes to strangers talking to each other. People love looking at, and commenting on, babies - and children, just like dogs, will rush off and play with other children without prejudice. Parents often have no option than to chat to the parent of a child their child has discovered!

My friend Philippa, who has both dogs and children, took me on a walk across the park with her extended brood. Sadly, her two dogs routinely snarled at, or ran away from, all the dogs with owners whom we both felt it might be nice to chat to, and almost exclusively bonded with dogs whose owners turned out to be eccentric bores! But, of course, these ever-faithful dogs had done their duty, because it rapidly became clear that we were talking to people who didn’t get a lot of conversation in their lives. Without their dogs, I’m sure their loneliness would have been a great deal more acute. 

I think loneliness is a massive issue in the world at the moment. The more we barricade ourselves into our cyber existences, the more fussy we become about who we actually interact with. People who do online dating end up with almost impossible demands because they can distil their ideal soulmate in the form of a check list. None of this is helpful. 

I remember, as a kid, going shopping with my Mum and our journey being peppered with her saying hello to people. “Who’s that?” I’d ask. “I’m just saying hello” she’d reply. My Grannie, similarly, used to love people-watching. After her mobility was compromised, we’d often leave her sitting on a bench in a park whilst we went for a stroll, knowing fully well that she’d get chatting to someone, or enjoy watching the children playing on the swings. We’d invariably return to find her electrified by the stories she’d accumulated. Nowadays I wonder if she’d be viewed with suspicion, or considered mad. 

In the olden days, of course, older men, were even allowed (and actively encouraged) to seek out the company of children. The great J S Lowry, for example, would regularly go into parks, strike up conversations with kids and offer them sweets. How awful does that sound to our cynical 21st Century ears? But equally, how terrible is it that the modern world requires us to treat this behaviour with suspicion? Young children can gain so much by interacting with older generations. As a teenager, I regularly went into retirement homes simply to talk to people about the First World War. I benefitted enormously by having pen pals who were veterans of the conflict. It led to Brass! 

And yet, as a 44 year old man (for one day more!) the only children I interact with are the children of very close friends. If a child sits opposite me on the tube, I purposely ignore them and I get incredibly uncomfortable if one approaches me or, heaven forbid, makes physical contact in some way.

So, to test David’s theory, I took to the streets of Finchley, willing people to look at me and smile. And, yes, I’m aware that it’s fifty times worse in London than it is in the rest of the UK, but I genuinely couldn’t get anyone to smile back at me. I got a couple of “you’re a crazy person” looks, and I think I might have pulled a seventy year-old man, but broadly speaking, had I been a lonely person hoping for a bit of human kindness, I would have been sorely disappointed. I was a non person.

Of course, if I’d been in a park with a dog or a child, David’s theory would have been bailed out entirely. I did pass a man with a very cute dog and felt that his body language suggested he was both open to, and used to, interaction with strangers.

I have therefore decided to try to be more open to social interaction with strangers. You never know, for a lonely person, or a grieving person, a smile, or a three-minute chat, might make all the difference.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

A Symphony for Yorkshire

Ladies and gentleman. It is August 1st, and therefore Yorkshire Day. I can't quite believe we made this film nine years ago, but it's as wonderful today as it was back then. 370 musicians from the four (yes four) counties of Yorkshire. 50 locations. Hundreds of hours of studio time spent layering up the musicians one by one, and then many more mixing the beast that we'd created. I urge you to watch it with a great dollop of love for the proud folk o' Yorkshire! Ta very much

Oh yes... this is cameraman Keith and me wearing waterproofs to film under the Humber Bridge





Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Cardiff

We were in Cardiff all day yesterday. It’s a really charming city filled with fabulous buildings and massive green spaces. It feels very manageable in terms of its size and, having driven all over the place yesterday, it turned out to be very easy to navigate. 

The day started with breakfast in a cafe on Cathedral Road. We had a meeting with a lovely chap who runs a TV production company and chatted a lot about the synagogue in Merthyr.

From Cathedral Road, we headed down to the docks, and the rather wonderful set of buildings around the Mermaid Quay, which include the spectacular Millennium Centre with its copper and slate walls.

We were in the area to visit the Senedd Building, where a fascinating exhibition was being staged about Jewish people in South Wales. We were meeting its organisers whom I’m sure were a little disappointed that more people weren’t buzzing around the building. The Senedd is where the Welsh Assembly do their debating, but they’re in recess at the moment, which meant the place was almost empty. It’s actually quite difficult to get into the space and we had to pass through all manner of security measures. I even had to remove my belt!

We went on a little Ferris wheel after the meeting, which has wonderful views over Cardiff Bay and all the amazing buildings down there. It was for children really, but what the heck! Michael is worse than me when it comes to heights and spent most of the ride with his eyes closed, telling me he’d never forgive me for forcing him onto it! 

From the docks, we went up to one of the Northern districts of the city to visit a pair of very colourful elderly Jewish chaps who’d lived in Merthyr in their youth, and were able to share with us their wonderful memories about the Jewish community in that particular town. There were some lovely stories about them as young men rushing down the high street of the town, looking for Jewish people to form a minyan in the synagogue, which is the ten Jewish men over the age of 13 required to do anything religious. As he told the story, he was receiving phone calls from people at the shul who were trying to get a minyan together for that night’s service!

Both men were ferociously patriotic in terms of their Welshness, which is not unusual for Welsh Jews, who will often quote Leo Abse saying that to be a Welsh Jew is taking non conformism to the nth degee. “You’re more Jewish than Abraham and more Welsh than Dai Bach!” Both men’s parents had also been born in Wales and many of their relatives were buried in the Jewish cemetery we’d visited the day before. One of their fathers even had memories of the early 20th Century Tredagor Riots, where Jewish houses and shops were attacked by antisemitic mobs.

Our day ended with a special visit to the Orthodox shul in Cardiff, which is a lovely modern building with stunning stained glass windows representing the Jewish months and the major festivals.

We drove home in very peculiar weather. It rained, then the early evening sun came out, then it rained again. Unsurprisingly, there was a rather impressive rainbow. It was fabulous really.






Sunday, 28 July 2019

The valleys

I’m in Cardiff, staying in a Premier Inn with the longest corridors I’ve ever seen. I have a curse when it comes to staying in hotels. I always get put in the room furthest away from reception. If there’s an annexe, I’ll be placed in it. If there’s a hotel wing up a spiral staircase and through a fire escape, I’ll be in the last room on the left!

I’m Cardiff with Michael and we’re wearing two different hats, which both involve getting to know the South Walean Jewish community. One hat specifically involves researching the once thriving, but now dead Jewish community in Merthyr Tydfil.

Merthyr still has a synagogue building, which closed in the mid 1980s when the last Jewish people moved on. Since then, the building, which is a stunning example of 19th Century Gothic Revival architecture, has remained empty and is slowly falling down. There’s a massive hole in the roof and it’s presently on a list of the 19 most “at risk” synagogues in the world. 

You can’t miss it. It sits on a hillside at the end of a street lined with Victorian brick built buildings. From a distance it looks grand, but closer up, it’s impossible to miss the broken windows and buddleia bushes growing through the brick work. Look even closer and you’ll see an old supermarket trolley shoved up the side of the building, filled with bags of mouldy Gregg’s pasties. It’s so sad to see such an important space being humiliated so badly.

But then again, the whole of Merthyr is suffering. On the same street as the synagogue, an ornate early 20th Century stone Miners’ Hall is slowly falling down. Shops are boarded over. It’s very sad. Gangs of young people walk the streets with nothing to do but smoke cigarettes, look threatening and steel traffic cones. 

Of course, my initial response was that the synagogue must be saved at all cost, but then I started to wonder what I was hoping it would be turned into. There are no Jews in the valleys these days so a Jewish community centre is out of the question. A Jewish museum would be pointless because who would go all the way to Merthyr for one of them? A museum which looks at persecution in all of its forms? Bull shit! The predominantly white working class people of this once prosperous town are possibly the most persecuted people in the country. They’re out of work, poor and utterly ignored by government after government. Unless you bother to stop and ask that gang of young people what it is that THEY actually want, we’ll all be grasping at straws. And we’ll continue to fail that particular community. 

We took ourselves into the stunningly beautiful hills above Merthyr to find the old Jewish cemetery, which is amongst the most lovely graveyards I’ve ever visited. It’s still a working cemetery. Most of the graves are 19th Century, but we found graves which were placed as recently as 2017. The views from up there are spectacular. You can see all the way across the valley. The graves themselves are surrounded by tall, straw-like grasses which gently sway in the wind. It’s so atmospheric and magical.

I was particularly moved to read the names written on the stones, which were often Welsh first names with Jewish surnames. My own Welsh relatives are not the Jewish ones in my family, but there was something specifically powerful about being able to commune with Jewish Welsh people. I felt a true sense of one-ness. 

There was also something deeply unnerving about seeing quite so many Jewish graves on that glorious Welsh hillside. Here was all that was left of a community who’d played a vital role in the history of a town and then simply evaporated. Just like that. I wondered how Welsh they felt. Whether they actually spoke Welsh? The sad truth is that, one day in the not too distant future, all the Jewish people in Wales will have either died or moved on. It’s a rapidly dwindling population. 

From Merthyr, we took a very deep breath and travelled to Aberfan. The very mention of this Welsh village fills many with a sense of absolute horror and sadness. In 1966, an avalanche of slurry engulfed the town, killing 144 people, the large majority of whom were children in a primary school. The death of 116 children in one single tragedy is almost impossible to comprehend, particularly when considering the town had fewer than 2000 residents at the time. 

I have always been deeply proud to tell people that my father was one of the rescue workers. His memories of the event stayed locked inside for many years and they’re his and not mine to report so I shan’t be repeating them. Suffice to say I’d never visited the place before and I found the experience both upsetting and very calming. My father was never far from my thoughts. I kept wondering whether the pub we were outside was the one where the landlord gave him a drink on the house. And whether the place today would have been recognisable to someone who was there on that awful day.
The village feels somehow sad. Perhaps I was expecting it to be. Perhaps the residents are bored of visitors who somehow won’t allow the place to move on. Perhaps it was simply that we were there on a Sunday and no one was out and about.
It’s another place in the valleys which has been ignored. There were many broken windows and a whole church in the middle of the village had fallen to wrack and ruin.
A giant wind turbine’s blades poke up from behind one of the hillsides above the town. There’s something rather comically surreal about seeing a set of blades spinning over the top of a heather-covered hillside.
We went to the town’s cemetery where an iconic white granite monument features an arch for every child killed in the landslide. Walking along the rows of little plaques, you become aware that many parents actually lost two children that day. And, of course, in recent years, most of those parents have been reunited with their kids, having grieved them, no doubt, for a lifetime.
I stood and stared at one little plaque for some time. It simply said “Richard, who loved light, freedom and animals.” What wonderful things to love.
We were lucky with the weather all day. Blue skies. Fast moving clouds. Straw-coloured sunlight.
The day ended on Caerphilly Mountain, which was a riot of glorious magenta-coloured lupinesque flowers and brave views across the valleys. It was the most peaceful spot we’d visited. Much of our time had been accompanied by the sound of the A470, which runs through or around all the towns we visited. The hillsides must create some sort of sonic funnelling effect because the sound of the road was very much amplified to the point of becoming somewhat grating.
The A470 runs from the South Coast of Wales at Cardiff all the way to the North Coast at Llandudno. For such an important road, it’s fairly winding and often single carriage way. We started to wonder whether its existence is evidence of the English deliberately suppressing the Welsh. It’s surely no coincidence that the M4 motorway makes it much easier and faster for Cardiff residents to travel to London than it is for them to snake their way up to the north of their own country. Hmm... Do I smell a rat?