St David’s Day 2012

March 2, 2012

St David's Day is the national festival of Wales. There are parades, concerts and festivals to celebrate the name day of the sixth century saint who was adopted at such during the all to brief period in which Wales was a nation as opposed to a set of warring Kingdoms or a satellite of England during the centuries from the Saxon and other invasions. George Bush showed more grace than Tony Blair in making St David's Day the official Welsh Day in the US. Blair in contrast refused a petition from the Welsh Assembly to make it a national holiday against the wishes of the majority of the Welsh people who were prepared to sacrifice another public holiday to make it happen.

For the last few years it has been a sadder occasion for me. The early hours before dawn always see me awake as the memory of my Mother drawing her last breath comes back to haunt me. I always try and do something that she would have enjoyed, that reflects the things we did together in memory. If it coincides with a weekend then there is often a Rugby International to attend. If a fine day then a walk in the hills. More frequently I try to go the opera. Her period at a University in Germany a few years after the end of WWII imbued her with a love of opera and we went from an early age. I still remember taking her to the Royal Opera House for a wonderful performance of Parsifal, situated in the devastation of a bombed city; something that she remembered from her childhood in Cardiff. The conservative audience wanted the grail knights in armour and gave it a poor reception which may be why it was never revived, which I think is a great pity.

So I went to the English National Opera for a second time this week. Monday was for Der Rosenkavalier which is memorable for some beautiful moments, but you have to sit through a lot to get there. Today was for The Death of Klinghoffer which I have heard many times, but this was my first live performance. It tells the story of the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985 and the death of a handicapped American Tourist, the only casualty. Now I have always seen the minimalists, and Adams in particular as amount the natural heirs of Wagner and it was no surprise to learn from the programme that the original working title was Klinghoffers Tod. For me the opening chorus is the high point of the opera. Palestine exiles become jewish exiles, conflicting but sharing a common history of persecution. John Adams knew little of the history of the Middle East when he started his first opera after Nixon in China. He spent much time reading the old testament in preparation and found himself “alternating between enchantment and alarm”, a phrase with which I have much sympathy. His observation that the Israeli-Palistinian issue is “the most carefully controlled and fastidiously managed debate in American political life” is regrettably all too true and prevents meaning action for change in that region.

As I left the opera at pace to make a train that would get me home at 0100 rather than 0300 my main thought was how much I missed talking with mum. If she had been with me the journey home would have alternated between political argument (we had different political positions on that conflict) and the glories of the music. If she had not been with me, then hours would have been spent on the phone the next day. She was always political, held elected office and was never knowingly not involved in a campaign. One of the founding members of Anti-Aparthite Movement and Amnesty in the UK she was always occupied in writing letters and protest. I was taken on a CND march in my pram as a baby and somewhere there is a picture of me on Bertram Russell's knee from that period. In her later years she also took up ecological issues, before it was fashionable to do so.

I think she would also have liked the fact, that in partial celebration of a famous and much deserved victory, I wore a Welsh Rugby Jersey to the English National Opera for both performances this week. She would also have been pleased with my improved fitness level – I managed to run for the train at pace for the first time in a few years without fearing a heart attack in the process.

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