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2012.07, Programme of Grange Park Opera: Rambles with Simon Keenylside

Rambles with Simon Keenlyside

Simon’s professional accomplishments are on the internet in Technicolor. Leaving music aside, we asked this man of many talents and diverse interests, a few questions.

A most beautiful train journey?

The hour along the estuary – Swansea – past Llanelli. Ferryside and ending up in Carmarthen … is probably my favourite … if only because it leads me home. And I dream of my little heaven in west  Wales … most days of my life.

I loved the beautiful steam-train from Glasgow to Fort William ending at the gateway to the Western Isles. As beautiful a place as anywhere on this earth.

In which age would you have liked to live?

This would be the age I would so love to live: 35,000 years ago. You can keep the whole world modern era, the last 5,000 years. For me, the whole lot pales when compared with the period before the last neanderthals disappear.

Can you imagine the interaction between migrating groups of modern humans? Neanderthal communities: intelligent, social, different animals. Wonderful  Neanderthals who ruled the northern hemisphere for 200,000 years.

They buried their dead … they used red ochre and ritual … But what else they could or couldn’t do, isn’t yet clear.

Did Neanderthal interbreed with homo sapiens?

The argument sallies back and forth. And it seems there IS evidence of a significant degree of interbreeding between modern humans and their oh-so-close relations. However, as to whether the sub-species died out or interbreed? I think the jury is still out. The evidence of neanderthal genes on our own modern human genome is there, but that does not mean to say that they were entirely assimilated.

The last evidence of them living separately is in northern Spain around 27,000 years ago. So close!

How how many other hominids roamed the earth and stalked their evolutionary cul-de-sacs?


I’m off with a small saw to cut a stem of broom that I saw from the train window as it slowed at West Acton.

Why? Working recently with Jeffrey Tate in Hamburg (Schumann, wonderful Faust Scenes) I saw that he was leaning his entire weight on a skinny little knotted stick. He tested me to see I might guess the type of wood. I couldn’t. Jeffrey told me that broom is quite the best wood for a walking stick.

I thought I’d seen an old broom plant in a field in Wales. But sadly .. not.  So … imagine my surprise dear reader when being a general dogsbody and carrying a swatch of Wallpaper from here to there  – Imagine my surprise when I saw an outcrop  … of straight stemmed broom … growing on the railway siding … at West Acton.

So … that is where I’m now going, Hopping over the iron railings … to possibly collect and fashion myself … either a nice straight walking stick … or a criminal record.

If you wanted to get a good stick … made of broom … it would cost you many hundreds of pounds. My dad [Raymond Keenlyside, violinist, Aeolian String quartet] conked out this year. A few years ago when he fell in the river and couldn’t get out, I had a beautiful hardwood stick made for him.

To my horror when I went to collect it costs 500 smackers. True it had a silver top. When I gave it to him it was on the understanding that when he conked out …? I would have it back. I’d rather he had it …but there it is. I have it.

Anyway … I had to shin over the railway bridge and …spent a wonderful hour  … perusing the convoluted stems of broom. Lovely striated bark . And no, the thing doesn’t grow straight. Neither straight not quickly. Whittling a stick is as good a project as any other.

Got any old train ticket …. Or stamp collection?

I would be a bit of a train spotter if I really did have an old train ticket. (Though, for real – I really really did meet Jenny Agutter in Orso a few weeks ago, after a Traviata performance and she’s still a beautiful woman! So maybe this would count in lieu of an old railway ticket?).

But I had a scrap book. Aged 8 and 9. Looking at it … I’m not sure what my feelings are? Elation? Shame? And in that little mouldering paper folder … with ears punched tatty as used bus tickets, I found the two things you asked for.

One … is a stamp. I didn’t ever  collect stamps. Though as a child of the 60’s, my father’s mother did send me a stamp album … which …was never opened. The stamp I have, I found around 1968 whilst on a walk in the forest in West Wales. It was in a broken down cottage without a roof, right in the middle of the trees. Mature oak growing from right within a main room.

The way through these woods was along a beautiful Tolkeinesque oak wood. My brother and I would follow the stream to a little village and lunch with my father’s friend – former oboist of the Philharmonia. The outside forever and a day … doing … stuff … in mud and water and woods and with wood and knives and bows.

In the falling-down-house I found a letter. I couldn’t read it but … there was a penny red stamp on the front. I didn’t know what a penny red was at that time. Some of the boys in my choir school had mentioned that the stamp you want to find is a penny black. Obviously … leaning towards the red spectrum … this stamp wasn’t and isn’t that … So there’s your stamp.

And the ticket I have too. I kept it because the trip I made was a very important one to me. I was in my mid-teens and finding out about where I came from. All that stuff. I knew that my mother’s side were Jewish and I had regularly watched that stunning TV documentary, narrated by Lawrence (Sic!) Olivier The World At War. It was stimulus enough for me to want to go and see some of these places. So aged 16 (1976), I set off into Europe with my thumb as ticket. Once in Eastern Europe I headed for southern Poland. And this ticket is a train ticket that took me to East Berlin for the day. Through Checkpoint Charlie.  I remember the great posters – unchanged some of them since the 50’s. The great disrepair … and all the police presence.

Personally, I wanted to inspect the sports centres. I was an athlete and wanted to see what facilities gave these runners such an edge.

Coming back to the West a man jumped that train …. And to my surprise many people on the train shouted for his arrest. He hadn’t a hope: the station platform was lined with police and dogs … a dozen all along the platform.

So .. that’s my ticket.

Making wild flower meadows

I’m working gently at my voice here in splendid isolation in my corner of heaven in West Wales. That and on my tractor, stripping the top soil and seeding two fields with wild flowers.

Why stripping the soil? Wild flowers do best in the poorest of soils. They cannot compete with grass so the more you can take off, the better it’ll be.

I tried it in moderation a couple of years ago. Didn’t have the nerve to make such a terrible mess of a beautiful  field … so I did patches. And it was a wonder! Such vindication to watch the last handfuls of summer swallows … bank against the hedgerow and start their bombing-runs along the lines of flowers that had finally squeezed themselves out by late August and September. I needed to mow those areas hard for another 2 years … to give the wildflowers a chance to get their roots established. But I couldn’t.

Now I am making a god awful mess of stripping the turf off a field. I’ve found a way of using the split bucket so that I can back-cut … and… when I get it right … it cuts the turf, at around 5 inches deep –  like a knife cuts butter – slowly slowly … But then … Trying to scrape up the cut turf … It’s proving a nightmare. It looks awful….

Looks so easy when a digger driver does it. It’s not!!! Mine is now like the Somme … complete with the shell holes from where I dug too hard. But I know the flowers won’t care … so long as they don’t have to compete with the grass.

And  I’ve got millions of seeds which must go in this weekend.

The HARROW makes regular … the lumps  and bumps, to an extent .. I would like to go over it a few more times … but it’s smooth enough anyway …And … The other astonishing thing about the earth .. is that it will all flow together within a year or so.

Not only will it flow together … But great lumps of quartz … boulders .. Will float… FLOAT … up to the surface (and kill the blades of my mower). It’s a miracle that the land sends up rocks ..each year … and I have to check the tracks … that I mow …to avoid all the new massive boulders that have floated up. Some of which are so big … that I can’t move them.

Where was I?

I am totally potty about the meadows and all. To feel the land … the substrate … the hedges … as you work with them … gives wonderful ….almost mysterious dividends. The boulders floating up to the surface, the earth flowing together again, the woodcock, hobby and goshawk  … the barn owls and grouse.

All coming along … within the first season of work … and almost immediately the land changes … Mystifying. How the hell do they know? Where do they come from and how come they arrive so quickly.

Not to mention the butterflies and moths. Where do they appear from? Some haven’t been there for at least 100 or more years.  Or the bluebells ..Which after …again … 100 years or more … of lying dormant with no chance of ever poking their heads up … a century of sheep grazing …

Suddenly …there are thousands of bluebells …. Which were waiting … All along. I put in (or Zen* did) around 5,000 … and lo and behold … Another few thousands popped up …. Little little Lolitas … pouting and hand on the hip …. All around my newly-planted ones. Fantastic.

And … can see in my mind’s eye … A buzzing field  … knee-deep in flowers and with beautiful little mown vole trails wiggling through my field …And in the middle … a pub bench  … And me with a book sitting there watching stuff. That is an ambition worth working for.

I know it WILL happen.

I must mow and mow for two years ….

You don’t seem a party animal

I never go to parties. I went to a fancy dress party once. But it was a huge thing … and I had been doing fundraisers for the Royal Opera House. I was told that I really HAD to come in fancy dress. So … I did. I went  and hired  a costume. Ali Baba type.  And …. ROH made me up ….and gave me a false nose.

We got out the taxi … me and Zen …. And to my utter horror …. This is at the Dorchester … Nobody … but nobody was in fancy dress.

Zen turned to me  …And she said …”Well  .. I’ll tell you one thing. You’re not gonna pull looking like that!”

Almost as soon as she’d said that  …and as we crossed the threshold of the hotel and came out of the revolving door … a VERY busty young wannabee. With collagen lips and … peroxide blonde … Hit on me … Straight away …. And right in front of Zen.

But apart from one Superman shirt … all the men were in DJs.

And  … horror of horrors …. I won the prize for the best outfit … and had to go up on stage … in front of Elton John and all these Hollywood stars … and I had to sing my lowest note.

A dead composer you would like to meet?

I suspect that it must have been a wonderful thing to be a friend of Mr Mozart.

I would love to have talked to Hugo Wolf.

Yes he was manic and ended up in a lunatic asylum. I live in awe of the speed he wrote some of his astonishingly beautiful songs in his times of lucidity. Songs which I have lived with all my adult life.  Sometimes many miniature masterpieces written in a single day. … I’ve often walked in the woods outside Vienna where some of these wonderful works were written.

I’d love to repeat those walks with Hugo Wolf…

*the clever, beautiful prima ballerina Zenaida Yanowsky to whom Simon is married

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Chrys Atwood July 5, 2012 at 11:21 pm

Such an nice ramble with Simon! Lovely to imagine him off in the woods with Hugo Wolf, too. Did Simon do the owl/snake drawing, I wonder?

Jane July 5, 2012 at 8:30 pm

Diana, thank you for sending this to Petra and thank you Petra for putting it up here for people to read!
I know I read it on Tuesday Diana, but I have so enjoyed reading it again this evening. What a delight to read about Simon making his flower meadows, his antics with sawing broom branches near the railway line at West Acton (I’ve been past there a few times on the Paddington to Totnes train – never noticed any blokes lurking suspiciously in the undergrowth with a saw!) and random anecdotes from his past. You get a wonderful little glimpse into his life, past and present and his thoughts and feelings. It’s just lovely isn’t it?

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