Friday 11 July 2014

Baden Baden - My Magic Mountain

Once in a blue moon one has the sort of day that surprises the living daylights out of you and turns from a hum drum day into that special memorable moment. It is not planned. It is not expected but fate intervenes and it just happens. It is one of those magical days you will never forget. I had such a day when unexpectedly I was taken to Baden Baden for a walk!

The day had not started well. I was in Germany, a country I had vowed since my youth, never to visit. Living in London during and after the Second World War had put me off Germany for life. I lived daily with the damage the bombs had done but I was forced to visit as my daughter was competing in a gym competition in Karlsruhr so I had to go.

The Rythmic gym trip to see my daughter compete internationally in several European countries and then to travel on to Venice, Paris, London and LA should have been the trip of a lifetime but had turned into a nightmare for me. I had been promised in NZ that all arrangements had been made for me. I should travel as part of the NZ team and be treated as one of them. Unfortunately this was incorrect. Although my airfares had been booked as part of the team nothing else was, no hotels and more importantly no passes to events. I had to beg my way around Europe. The official coach Leslie could not have been more unhelpful or nastier and took a delight in being offensive. I was not invited to any function, but I just went anyway. It made me feel as if I was definitely not wanted on voyage.

It was the last day and Stephan, our designated host, had arranged a trip in a van so we could see some of the local scenery, i.e. The Black Forest. Everyone was tired out and not enthusiastic. I had had a particularly nasty night as I had been left out of  a 'do' yet again. Stephan I found irritating too. When I had tried out my less than brilliant German he had gone into a long explanation about the different cases. I was only trying out my German ! So in all I was not a happy bunny. 

But the trip was arranged so I thought I ought to go. The start was not encouraging. The Black Forest is rather overrated to a native of New Zealand.  All the fir trees looked ill thanks to the acid rain. A local beauty spot looked very poor beer in comparison to some of the NZ lakes and the van was none too new. I wanted to go home! We drove up a mountain and the van was parked in a field and we were told we had to walk down the mountain into Baden Baden where we would be met at the bottom. This I felt was the last straw.  I had my wrong shoes on and I did not want to walk anywhere. However the driver insisted I walked and refused to let me ride with him.

He dumped us and drove off. It was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I was left in the middle of a field of yellow daffodils that you see above for as far as the eye could see. It was May and the countryside when I really looked was awash with blossom of all colours. The day was balmy and warm and the sky was blue flecked with white clouds. There was absolutely no noise but the hum of bees in the clover.

I took a deep breathe and realised I was standing in the opening shot of The Sound of Music. As I started to walk I realised that perhaps this might be something out of the ordinary. It certainly was. This one walk is one that I shall always remember. It was an epiphany. It took us about one hour to walk the path down to the Spa town of Baden Baden. Down and down we went, through the Alpine meadows into the valley where the town was situated. All the way were wonderful views to enjoy and every house was surrounded by bulbs and blossom. The scent was intoxicating. It was like walking through a Grimm's fairy tale and a perfume factory.

My mood changed. I began to appreciate just how beautiful the world was. The warm day, the smell of the spring flowers, the wonderful feeling of the joy of life. Oh why isn't life always just like this moment. I wanted to find an excuse to stay like the hero of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann who does. He thought he might have TB and stayed for seven years in his sanitarium in Davos only to be rooted out by the Great War.

On the way we passed a romantic German Schloss with the grounds teaming with colourful tulips and cherry blossoms. Snow White's castle perhaps? Down to the old steps with iron gas lights that Stephan climbed and lit. I used to watch the lamp lighters at home in London come with a long pole and light the gas and now Stephan was showing me how it was  done.

At last we reached the attractive town square for coffee and kucken. I found to my surprise and delight that traditional Black Forest Gateau was actually white. Then we sauntered around the Spa, Baden Baden is an expensive spa resort but you can drink the healing waters for free. It tasted awful, like warm weathered vegetable stock but you can't have everything. That unexpected walk made me feel good to be alive. I felt ecstatic. This alone was worth the journey from NZ and Stephan annoying though he had been had given me a day I shall treasure. I never would have believed that anything could be so glorious.

It was one of life's bonuses. Something unexpected and life changing. I knew I was privileged to be in Baden Baden. I wanted to stay forever which of course I could not and if I did the dream would fade as the light of day break through. If I had to choose one walk or even one perfect morning in my life this would be it. I was totally alone amongst people who really wished I was not with them but this did not seem to matter. I could enjoy it without them although it would have been nicer with them. It was one of those elusive moments in life when one is truly happy.

I shall never go back, a return visit may disappoint, return visits often do but I did take a few photos and they impart some of the idea but not the whole idea of my glorious morning in Baden Baden

Saturday 5 July 2014

My dress from Benjamin Britten

Sekers Silk fabric given to Janette Miller by Benjamin Britten
 Cleaning out an attic after a life time has been a daunting operation. I have had to confront 40 years of things that are only worth pennies today but were too nice to throw away. Nobody wants old dresses or costumes any more. They are binned.

However I cannot bin them and over the years I have opened up my cavernous attic and just thrown things in but today I have to have a new bathroom if I want to remain in my house and that means clearing the attic. Citizen Kane has nothing on me. Day by day a life time of memories is parading before me and I delight in every one of them. Things, unlike people on some occasions, are just objects of pure joy and so it is with the dress above. The photo does not do this beautiful dress justice. It has a curious story as the prologue from The Turn of The Screw so rightly puts it because the fabric of this dress came from Benjamin Britten.

I was nineteen, small for my age but very beautiful. I had known Mr Britten for four years but it was only this year that he took a personal interest in me. He was a perfect gentleman and a delightful friend I was bright and very intelligent and fun. I like the things that he enjoyed, Mahler, Bartok, sports cars and Gaudia Bretzka! I was performing in The Screw at Rosehill a delicious tiny theatre run by the silk millionaire Mickie Sekers who was so rich he could afford to bring the whole Covent Garden cast including Britten and Pears to Whitehaven where his mills were located for three weeks at the best hotel in St. Bees.

For those few months  I was Britten's favourite although in truth I did not realise it at the time. I don't think he had ever met or talked to a girl of my age and I think he found the experience new and enjoyable. During this time and for a couple of years after I was spoilt by him. He gave me tickets to concerts and invitations to concerts and sit with him even when he saw me in the crowd outside. I found his company enjoyable as he had so much that I would like in life but he envied me my life too. Ah if only he had been 19 and not 50! But he was 50 and I was 19!

As a treat it was announced that the three ladies of the cast and Ben, Peter were to be given 6 metres of what ever fabric they chose when we all visited the Sekers factory. It seemed that Quint being a man and Miles and Flora being children although I was 19, didn't count. I was used to this situation by now. When it came to my turn somehow the rules are changed. I was not amused and I unlike the others had the ear of the master. Why no one noticed that I shall never know. I just told him that is was unfair that three of us should be excluded.  Ben was immediately sympathetic and we were upgraded without further a do.

The mills lived up to their reputation and were satanic and noisy. One would go deaf I reckoned in about a week. After much deliberation I decided on 6 metres of a beautiful Prussian blue striped silk satin. I knew that this would look glorious as a gathered skirt for the evening and I look good in this colour, especially with white. I was thrilled as I could never have afforded to buy such luxurious material and to see it being made was fascinating. An afternoon I shall never forget.

However Ben did not accompany us that day so the next morning he asked me to bring and show him what I had chosen the following day which I did. I humped 6 metres of blue satin to rehearsal. It was on a big roll so as not to crease it and this caused a furore in the Pullman car and comments of Flora being annoying. Being Flora was not fun. Ben liked my choice very much. He said I had perfect taste but he thought it might be difficult to find something for the bodice. Obviously the large stripes would not suit. I said I thought a white blouse would do it  and in truth I think would have been the best choice but Ben was not convinced.

To my surprise the next day another 6 metres of plain blue silk satin arrived on a roll at my hotel for Die Schöne Müllerin, (my name is Miller) much to the surprise and annoyance of the rest of the company. Flora had been given 12 metres and everyone else had to make do with 6! Britten had asked Mickie Sekers as a favour and Sekers complied. Years later I needed a recital gown and I had the material made up by Morris Angel the theatrical costumier in Shaftsbury Avenue. It had the prettiest little corset to make it look beautiful and a tiny pad in one shoulder as my shoulders are uneven.

When I think back on this I have a horrible feeling I never said a proper thank you to Mr. Britten for going to all that trouble on my behalf. I could be thoughtless as many 19 years old are. I remember the feeling of hostility from some of the cast and especially Britten's older ladies of whom he had one or two. Viola Tunard was so sharp I cut myself on her more than once as she was so jealous.  Peter Pears was not amused either.  He used to call me My Dear Young Lady in public and Die Schöne Müllerin in private! But I was 19 and blissfully unaware that I was the current favourite and youth can be cruel.  I knew I did not belong to their world and I had other things I wanted to do. Maybe that was the attraction as I was unobtainable. I wonder how many other young women were given beautiful material from Benjamin Britten? And I still have the dress.