Posted by: Paul | January 20, 2011


Yesterday I was in London recording an interview for a US client with Hilary Spurling, biographer of the great artist Henri Matisse. It was in a leafy North London suburb, on a quiet street where the only sound was that of Polish builders ripping people’s kitchens apart. A tad too close to the Arsenal ground for my liking, but I guess you have to go where the work is.

The recording went well – Hilary was very nice and gave a great interview, answers both concise and in-depth. It’s for a tour at SFMOMA about the Stein family of art collectors, the first people to really recognise Matisse’s genius in a time when his art was met with howls of laughter and derision in his home country.

As often happens when you’re recording something for which you need great, crystal clear sound, a plane passed over the house. I asked Hilary to pause for a moment while it went away, and looked out of the window. It was one of those parallel London streets where the gardens are back-to-back, so you can see the back of the houses in the next street, and their gardens. As I waited, the forty foot tall oak tree in the garden next door came crashing to the ground, smashing through the fence of the garden directly behind. There was not a breath of wind in the air. It was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen, and made a hell of a crash which I caught on the recording, along with our reactions.

Horrified, Hilary explained that the tree was gradually dying, and had had a good pruning by a tree surgeon a couple of years previously. But now, the dead and brittle trunk had splintered under the bulk of the crown and the entire thing had collapsed. I posited that it could be Sudden Oak Death, a disease sadly sweeping the nation’s tree population. Hilary felt for the chap next door, whose garden it was in, as he’d be liable for both the damage and the cost of removing it – with no access to the back gardens, the thing would have to be sawn up into a hundred pieces and carried out through his house!

I can’t find evidence of it now, but I’m sure I read once that there’s a superstition saying that witnessing a branch falling off a tree is bad luck (it is in mumbo jumbo dream meanings). Imagine what it might be for an entire tree! That’s also bad luck in the common sense way too, depending on how close you are to it when it goes down!

I’m not terribly superstitious. But I still gave all the trees on the way back to the tube a very wide berth, just in case. I must have looked very odd.


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