Friday, January 28, 2005

Memories of the USAAF 389th Bomb Group at Hethel, the Green Dragons

It is sixty years since the end of the war, but deep in rural Norfolk residents claim that more than memories are still active. Legend tells how a crew member of a USAAF Liberator badly wounded on a mission flying from Hethel was transferred to the nearby military hospital at Morley, where sadly he died. Local residents recount of how, at night, the spirit of the airman still walks between the hospital (the site today for Wymondham College) and the old base at Hethel.

In the war Hethel was the base of USAAF 389th Bomb Group, today it is the high-tech headquarters of Lotus cars . The 389th Bomb Group called itself the Green Dragons after the Green Dragon pub in Wymondham which was the local for the crews, and today the pub still remains virtually unaltered. The Green Dragon name has been perpetuated into the twenty-first century by the USAF 564th Missile Squadron which was originally assigned to the 389th Bomb Group at Hethel, and drew all its heritage and history from the old Bomb Squadron.

Wartime memories are kept alive today at the unique Hethel Chapel Museum on the old base, which houses the 389th Memorial Exhibition maintained by volunteers. It is fitting that the Chapel at Hethel has survived, as it provides strong links with the courageous crews who flew from the base. Deep in the tranquil Norfolk countryside a memorial stone in Hethel churchyard tells the chilling story of 389th Bomb Group's achievements, and losses.

June 1943 to May 1945

Total missions 321
Aircraft missing in action 116
Personnel missing and killed in action 588
Other operational losses 37
Total bomb tonnage 17548

The Chapel was founded by the base’s charismatic pastor Pappy Beck, whose exploits included ignoring regulations and flying with the crews on their hazardous bombing missions deep into Germany . The building,which also served as a gymnasium, was decorated by one of the ground crew who usually painted the famous decorative ‘nose art’ on the Liberator bombers that flew from the base. One of the most striking features of the Chapel, which remains today, is the painted Crucifixion mural seen at the foot of this story (image courtesy of Ralph Baird’s web site); a remarkable work of art painted in remarkable circumstances. Other murals include a map of Europe painted to help the transplanted American aircrews understand the geography of the continent which was their temporary home.

The Chapel Museum is open on specified days to visitors. As well as the murals there is a display of documents, a model of the base, and various relics of equipment. Dates of opening, contact details and a lot more information is available on the Hethel389 website.

Aircrew of the 389th subscribed to a plaque for the base's Protestant chaplain, Captain Earl O Widen, who died as a result of overwork. The chaplain not only worked under tremendous pressure at Hethel, but also ministered to local people in Wymondham after their own minister died. The plaque can be seen in the United Reform Church on Fairland Green in Wymondham. Local parishioners also donated a plaque which was put in Captain Widen's home church, Bethlehem Parish Church in Minneapolis

Update 2008 - new photo essay on the USAAF base at Hethel here.

Bomber photos from Cloud 9 photos with many thanks

Friday, January 21, 2005

Bare ruined choirs

Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang
Shakespeare Sonnet 73

Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk

English monastic ruins are almost more impressive than a living monastery; they are doubly dramatic. They pose formidable questions about God and the soul, to which the light and shadows of their ruined architecture offer the merest hint of answers. So much blighted beauty is awe-inspiring. They are as unexplained as Stonehenge, and the grass preaches as powerfully as the stones. One wants to share in their massive darkness.
The Frontiers of Paradise by Peter Levi

Wymondham Abbey, Norfolk

History, which tells of the slow rise of civilized peoples, and of many fortunate epochs in which things of beauty were created in profusion, has also many a melancholy record of the whoelsale destruction of the beautiful works of man, all too rare in any age. In the long list of those who have destroyed things fair and lovely - a list that has seen a lamentable increase in length even while these volumes have been in writing - Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, who rid themselves laso of many just men, must find a place of note.Bare Ruined Choirs by David Knowles, first published 1976

Binham Priory, Norfolk

Friday, January 14, 2005

Michel Petrucciani

Improvisation is a recurring thread on An Overgrown Path. Keith Jarrett is already well woven into the postings, and the colossus of Bill Evans(whose influence reaches as far as Gyorgy Ligeti) awaits. But today it is the turn of jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani.

First, let's get the obvious out of the way. Osteogenesis Imperfecta, the so-called "glass bones" disease meant that Michel Petrucciani grew to just three feet tall, weighed a mere fifty pounds, and was left fatally vulnerable to illness, resulting in his death in 1999 at the age of just thirty seven.

He made his impact before making allowances for those with disabilities quite rightly became the norm.But Michel Petrucciani needed no compromises, he was a giant of the keyboard in everything except stature. He was born in the land of the Gods, provence, to a French mother and Sicilain jazz pianist fatehr. Like Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, who he is often compared to, Petrucciani had a classical training, and his love for Debussy shines through his solo recordings. But his genius was for jazz, and this took him first to Paris, then to the states where his collabaration with saxophonist Charles Lloyd led to international stardom which lasted until his untimely death.

Fortunately Petrucciani left a legacy of inspired recordings. Of the trio work Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note 2435-38329), Kool Jazz Festival (Blue Note 2435-38329), and Trio in Tokyo (Blue Note 36605-9) are stand-outs, while the double CD of trio and solo work The Owl Years (Owl 548 288) gives a valuable overview including a three and a half minute video clip.

There are also some 'novelty' recordings including a swinging session with jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli (Flamingo on Dreyfus 36580), a not altogether convincing collabaration with string quartet and Dave Holland (Marvellous on Dreyfus 36564), a duo with his guitarist father (Conversations on Dreyfus 36617), and the acclaimed Conference de Presse (Dreyfus 36568) which is a duo with Eddy Louiss on Hammond Organ (you either love or hate the Hammond, I am in the latter group I am afraid).

If the trio recordings are great, and the novelties a little self indulgent, the solo piano work is sheer genius. Here we have the musicality of Bill Evans being extended into a more innovative language, and the creativity of Keith Jarrett without the interminable post-Lisztian monologues. Petrucciani can appeal both to the emotions with melody, and guts through the power of his playing (helped by first class piano sound, something Bill Evans was not always blessed with). Whether improvising from standards (e.g. Ellington's Caravan) or delivering his own compositions Petrucciani is up there with the best.

'Must have' solo recordings are Solo (Dreyfus 36597). Au Theatre Des Champs-Elysees (Dreyfus 36570), and a personal favourite Oracle's Destiny (OWL032).

Michel Petrucciani was a pianistic genius. The power of his playing transcended his physical limitations. He was also an extrovert, bon viveur (the sleeve notes for Flamingo include the credit "Michel Petrucciani's hats are supplied by Motsch ), and ladies' man with a chequered romantic history that certainly proved that size doesn't matter. A marriage to Gilda Butta, a pianist, ended in divorce, and he was survived by his companion, Isabelle, and by a son, Alexandre, and a stepson, Rachid Roperch, both from a previous relationship.

He packed more into thirty seven years than most of us will achieve in a full lifetime. Through his recordings he will endure as an example of what can be done.

People are always blaming circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in the world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, make them.
Mrs Warren's Profession by George Bernard Shaw

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If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Journey with Jack Reilly

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Elgar's other enigma

Like Pliable Elgar was a keen cyclist , here he is in
Malvern with his much-used Sunbeam tourer.

Jessica Duchen's classical music blog about Edward Elgar's birthplace at Broadheath, Worcestershire reminded of a link to him sitting on my bookshelf.

The score of Elgar's Violin Conerto contains an enigmatic dedication in the form of a mysterious Italian phrase - "Acqui esta encerrada el alma de" - followed by five dots; meaning that the identity of the dedicatee of this perenially popular work is unknown.

Some years ago I bought a second hand copy of the autobiography of Mrs Richard Powell, 'Dorabella' of the tenth of the Enigma Variations ('Edward Elgar - Memories of a Variation published by Methuen).

Stuck into the book are hand written letters and postcards sent to the original owner by Mrs Powell who was then living in East Grinstead.

A letter of 12th Feb 1950 from Mrs Powell in her own hand writing says the following ...

"What a curious fact it is that people seem to prefer a mystery to a fact. Having kept my promise to Lady Elgar for 40 years not to reveal the 'Secret of the 5 dots' - I find now that no one cares to know the truth, and I have even heard something about pricked bubble. A writer to the Times once alluded to the "excruciating boredom of pure fact....................Believe me, Yours sincerely Dorah M. Powell"

This seems to be a reference to the paragraph in the book (P.86) which was apparently added in 1946 (the first edition was published in 1937) where Mrs Powell reveals that Lady Elgar told her that the five dots referred to an American friend of the Elgars, Mrs Julia H. Worthington; contradicting the now commonly accepted interpretation that the enigmatic dedicatee of the Concerto is Mrs Alice Stuart-Wortley.

I can see no reason to disbelieve Mrs Powell, and if Lady Elgar's explanation is taken at face value there is no 'enigma' to the dedication - the dedicatee is Mrs Julia H. Worthington. But of course the mystery remains unsolved, as we will never know whether Lady Elgar's explanation was fact; or whether it was simply Edwardian expediency created by herself, or by her husband.

Maybe not a great revelation, but it is fascinating to have in front of me as I write that apparently factual explanation of the dedication in the hand of one of the famous 'friends pictured within'.

Such is the unique magic of second hand books. It appears that the owner of the book (who appears to have been a BBC journalist) was in the habit of sticking interesting memorabilia into his books. I bought from the same source books from his library on
Toscanini and Furtwangler, and both have many fascinating newpaper clippings and reviews neatly pasted into spaces between the text - but alas no letters. Oh to return to the days when cut and paste meant using scissors and Gloy gum from a glass bottle with a rubber spout!

So there is a very small piece of Elgar history sitting in my library, which may just be of interest to others. A scanned images of the correspondence can be made available to any genuine researchers who may be interested.

Sir Edward Elgar with Yehudi Menuhin before recording
the Violin Concerto in 1932
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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Death of a renaissance man

Those that I stand in awe of are leaving me. First, Bernard Levin left us last autumn (see my post And so to Wagner ). And today comes the sad news that author, broadcaster and sometime jazz musician Humphrey Carpenter (left) has left us at 58 after losing the fight with Parkinson's.

Humphrey Carpenter was a true renaissance man. Author of remarkable biographies including Tolkien, Spike Milligan and W.H.Auden, and of course the wonderfully 'politically incorrect' biography of Benjamin Britten. Plus (my favourite) the definitive biography of BBC Radio 3, The Envy of the World. As if that wasn't enough he was a successful children's author. And he was an erudite yet accessible broadcaster on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4 .

Humphrey was a graduate of Oxford, and although his research was meticulous he wore his scholarship lightly. He would have been amused, not annoyed, at the irony of Radio 3's 'new generation' presenter Petroc Trelawny managing to get both the key signature and opus number wrong of the Beethoven String Quartet movement played in his memory this evening. (It was in fact the Cavatina from the Op. 130 Quartet in B flat major).

Humphrey Carpenter and Bernard Levin are a disappearing breed. Humphrey would have chuckled at today's Guardian report on the disclosure of the entertainment list at Prime Minister Tony Blair's country residence Chequers.

Those who have dined in the company of our leader at the taxpayer expense...Des O'Connor and Geri Halliwell, Michael Ball, and Lord Lloyd Webber, Esther Rantzen and Jenny Seagrove are all there. The Blairs don't watch Saturday-night television at Chequers; they live it. Jackie Kennedy's White House had Stravinsky, Vidal and Gielgud; we have Geri, Des and Esther. Careful analysis of the list exposes Blair's desire to surround himself with semi-famous people who wear too much make-up and have massive teeth.

Norfolk County Council Library's database holds sixty-six records of books by Humphrey Carpenter, and that is to me quite remarkable. Humphrey Burton was someone I could admire and will miss, and that is more than can be said for Tony Blair, Des O'Connor or Geri Haliwell.

Come to the edge...
It's too high they said...
We shall fall they said..
But they came..
He pushed them and they flew.

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Saturday, January 01, 2005

Bach at St Peter Mancroft, Norwich


One New Year's resolution was to make On An Overgrown Path a bit more spontaneous, and a bit less like an online version of the Discovery Channel. So in line with that New Year's Day saw a visit to the church of St Peter Mancroft Norwich for the traditional all Bach organ recital played by their Organist and Master of Music Kenneth Ryder.

St Peter Mancroft is in the heart of Norwich, and the present church dates from 1390 when it was attached to the former nearby Benedictine community of St Mary in the Fields. The magnificent 14th Century church is now juxtaposed against the striking 20th Century Forum building which houses Norwich Library and other amenities.


The organ is a large three manual Werkprinzip instrument built by Peter Collins in 1984, which is wonderfully suited to music of the baroque period.

Fascinating that within a week The Overgrown Path has taken me from the magnificent remains of the Cluniac Priory at Castle Acre, in remote North Norfolk via Vespers at the active Carmelite monastery in rural Quidenham, to the music of the Lutheran master musician JS Bach in a former Benedictine church in the centre of Norwich.

The recital was made more moving by the addition of the Schubler Chorale "Wenn wir in hochsten Nothen Sein" - "When in the hour of utmost need" played in remembrance of all those suffering as a result of the terrible earthquake in the Indian Ocean which has dominated everyone's thoughts this Christmas and New Year. Donations to the Asia Earthquake and Floods Appeal can be made online here

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