Thursday, July 29, 2010

Singing grief

I was involved in one of our all-too-infrequent rehearsals with the St Maura Singers yesterday - an expanded SMS, with two extra singers to make it possible to sing some new music. It was salutary that we had to spend an hour on a new piece that lasts all of 3.50 minutes - the slightly jazzy, displaced rhythms of Mr B's beautiful setting of Nancy had experienced musicians fumbling for the groove (so to speak, in my jazzy sort of mood ...)

But what struck me yet again was the incomparable beauty of Tomkins' When David Heard. I sing first alto in this, and found myself, on the first run-through, almost unable to continue. David's reaction to the news of Absalom's death goes from from the heart-broken repetitions of Absalom my son, over and over, over and over, to the words every parent can recognise: would God I had died for thee. It starts simply, bleakly almost, but then becomes more insistent - and then we're back with Absalom, my son, quietly, dying into the final cadence, as if David has no more energy to express the grief that has overcome him.

As I grow older - or simply old - I find this harder and harder to sing with the detachment I was able to enjoy when I first encountered the piece in my 20s. And yet the music is ruined by gusty, emotional lines or operatic emoting - for it is the music itself that paints the words, and the music needs every ounce of concentration to let it speak. By the end of a performance I am exhausted, and yet it lasts only five minutes.

The performance I've linked to is a tad slow for my taste - just a fraction - but lets the music work. If you've never heard it, go and listen.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Journey

Of course there was no serpent.
The tree's fruit was a mirror,
its temptation reflection.
R.S.Thomas wrote these words sometime around 1990, three years after I discovered his genius for the first time, three years after I wrote what I confessed was no more than a fan letter and was amazed and touched to receive a reply, weeks later. Having sent the letter c/o his publisher, I was thrilled by the extreme Welshness of his address: Sarn-y-Plas, yRhiw, Pwllheli, Gwynedd ... It seemed so remote, so other - and yet here was a poet whose writing had become, as I told him, like a liturgy to me. The poem of which the opening is a part comes from the collection Counterpoint, and I bought a copy in the church in the photo, R.S.'s last charge, in Aberdaron, right at the tip of the Lleyn Peninsula. The sea thundered on the beach outside, the wind whistled round the twin aisles, and I had arrived at the end of my journey.

That journey has brought me through collected poems, slim volumes, biographies, autobiography, film and audio - brought me to a road on which I visited two of his parishes and met two people who had known R.S. One, the kind man who hurried his lunch to open up the church at Eglwys Fach, had gone birdwatching with him. "He was a different man then, quite humorous, but in the pulpit - oh dear! If you went wanting to hear there was no hope, then that's what you heard." And he smiled gently. You could see that he'd been fond of him, this "typical English vicar" who followed "his own interests" and who had hidden so many bits of church furnishing in the boiler room - brass candle stands among them. He'd also painted the woodwork - all of it - matt black, disliking the shiny varnished yellow pine. The matt black remains, and looks wonderful, though it must've given his flock a fright. But the large black electric candelabra remain, put there by R.S. - maybe he thought the candle stands would have been superfluous.

The candelabra reappear in Aberdaron, in Eglwys Hywyn Sant, perched precariously on the edge of the beach, surrounded by a great tumble of tombstones. In this light, airy church I met one of the wardens, a woman who thirty years ago had been married by R.S. I asked what he'd been like - had she found him forbidding? "I get cross at people saying that" she replied. "He wasn't like that at all." She'd liked him, and people found him kind and attentive. Aberdaron felt very far from everywhere, there on the very tip of Wales, with the gales whipping up the Irish sea, and it was there that R.S. found his journey's end, a journey into the West.

But the inner journey went on. Counterpoint is opening new doors for me, as I ration myself to two poems a day - and yet these doors open and I find myself in familiar territory. R.S. famously got into bothers with his description of theology as metaphor, and yet what else can I think? What are we pretending, when we preach or try to share our Good News with one another? What the journey leads to is a greater insight, a greater awareness - of what is now, not of what once was - and whatever we call the greater good that illuminates that journey, surely that is the end to which we aspire?

There is no Trinity
in a glass. The self looks at the self
only and tenders its tribute.
(R.S. Thomas, Counterpoint.)

I shall return to Aberdaron, for there is still much to see, and to the journey ...

Friday, July 09, 2010

Poetic pilgrimage

I'm off again tomorrow - a trip culminating in a pilgrimage to the last parish of the poet/priest R.S. Thomas, in Aberdaron. Thomas spent his life trying to return to the places he felt represented the real Wales, where the Welsh language was still in use and where the influence of the English was less apparent - but he also had this ongoing homesickness for the sea beside which he had grown up, and for the hills. No wonder I feel an empathy - even before I take into consideration his poetry. He himself felt it a great sadness that he was unable to write poetry in Welsh, but as an adult learner he never felt sufficiently at home in the language that in old age he spoke and wrote his prose autobiographies in.

Had he written in Welsh, however, I would never have encountered him, never discovered those telling lines and penetrating insights that have been such an influence on my own development as a writer. Now I'm going to see what inspired some of my favourite literature. I can hardly wait.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

July 8 1970 - July 8 2010

Ruby Balloons
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
It's our 40th wedding anniversary today. It may be a cliché to say so, but I can hardly believe that 40 years ago from now I was telling my father that no, I couldn't eat anything more substantial and that I was going to go and put my face on. It was a warm, still day that deteriorated in the late evening to the thunder and rain that had all the men clutching large umbrellas throughout the afternoon, and the yards of white wedding-dress (yes, I was very traditional) seemed ... hot, actually. We were married in the Memorial Chapel of Glasgow University, by the chaplain of the day, the Revd David Millar, who kindly overlooked the fact that I was a heathen at the time and provided a service that kept the piskies (like Mr B) happy as well as my side of the family (a right old mix, but nae piskies among them)

It's only when I look at my children, far older now than I was when I was married, probably far more adult than I shall ever be, that I think yes - the intervening years have occurred, and I'm not the child my father thought me on my wedding day. I thought this morning of a poem by R. S. Thomas -
She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.

I'm not providing a link to the poem, but you can find it if you're sufficiently curious; it's called "A Marriage".

But then we ate Loch Fyne kippers for a late breakfast, and I've thrown the clock (metaphorically) out of the window. We shall eat bagels and maybe a boiled egg (we have new eggcups to christen) and go for a walk in the fitful sun. Later we shall return to Chatters for dinner with a friend who couldn't make it on Saturday. Tomorrow I shall think again about time, and tasks, and what to cook for dinner.

And then we shall embark on another mile along the road. Here's to the gold at the next halt!

Offspring of a poem

The poem that grew out of writing the previous one is now here on frankenstina.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

New poem explained

There's a new poem over at frankenstina. I wrote it this morning, after a brief foray to hang out the washing before the next batch of rain arrived (it came on time too). In case anyone is interested/critical/thinks I haven't noticed, I feel the need to explain what I was trying to do - though in fact that's not entirely true: I wrote it, then read it over and recognised what I had done more or less unconsciously as I strove to convey what I had seen and heard - and felt.

The first stanza is deliberately irregular, with erratic enjambement and random rhythms to echo the strangeness of a garden that in the recent warm and sunny weather had blossomed prodigiously and grown calm and lush. This morning it looked decidedly ruffled and awkward - hence the structure. The repetition of "light" and "lights" not an oversight, but is a deliberate play on the different meanings of the word. The reversion to a four-beat regular metre seems to reflect both the calm of other climes and the acceptance of the weather that is more common for us - and came, I suspect, as a by-product of that acceptance.

Must be the real deal then...

Monday, July 05, 2010

Ruby Do in Dunoon

Surfacing slowly after a weekend of celebration, I begin this look back at our Ruby Wedding celebrations with an apology to Andrew: Sorry, Best Man - my brain doesn't function too well after a surfeit of bubbly, and I wasn't about to commit myself to the caches of the faithful without my wits!

Firstly, of course, we weren't married on the third of July all these years ago: teachers need time to recover from the end of term and we gave ourselves a week. But we celebrated in style on Saturday so that we could catch most of the friends - and all the rellies - before they disappeared on holiday/back to the World Cup final. And as I did four years ago with Ewan's wedding I feel a dramatic present narrative coming on ...

The morning is a relief. The sun is shining and though there is a brisk wind it has not assumed the ferry-inhibiting speed I had feared. Best of all, it is not raining. (In the event, it transpires that all my siblings and their spice have stayed overnight scattered around Dunoon and Cowal; the few who still have to make the journey are in fact accustomed to the ways of Clyde ferries). But I digress. An uncanny peace has descended on chez Tosh, and the bride of 40 years ago is wondering if she'll actually feel up to this in a couple of hours. (Don't ask. It was ever thus.) But somehow the glad rags are donned and a strangely well-dressed couple totter down the road to Chatters, the only venue I would trust with this occasion.

And it is lovely. No sooner are we inside than I'm sampling the Kir Royale for strength and beginning to feel more lively. We stand at the door, a couple of bouncers, ready to greet guests and repel the general public. One or two appear, then a crowd who have shared a ferry-ride, and before I know it my whole life is represented in this room: the cousins I only usually see at funerals, the friends from the pre-wedding period, the friends who constitute our present-day life-support system - and our closest families, our generation, our children, our children's children, right down to James who only arrived at the end of May. I am euphoric. I don't know that I ever really believed it would happen, and here they all are.

(The keen-eyed will note that much of this is written in the 1st person singular. 'How did Mr B survive the 40 years?' they are asking. But this is my blog - and I long ago gave up speaking for Mr B...)

We drink toasts (and simply drink), eat strawberries, enjoy marvellous food, sing (The St Maura singers, a quartet even older than our marriage), and replicate some of the photos from the wedding day (I must scan in the originals) and our childhood (Sheila's grand idea, to have a cousins' group which requires my youngest cousin to sag at the knees instead of being five years old). I make the speech convention denied me in 1970, and Mr B raises the biggest laugh of the day with his. No. 1 son improvises a welcome that would have made his grandfather proud, and No. 2 son takes a simply great set of photos. The small cousins, our grandchildren Alan and Catriona, take notice of each other for the first time in their short lives, and are soon disappearing to the garden behind the restaurant to pick up gravel and attempt communication. Tiny James sleeps and sleeps in the corner as the noise level rises and tables begin to disperse and regroup.

But two remarks really sum up what I feel about it all. One comes when Andy, John's best man, asks why we don't keep up with each other more regularly because we have such a good time when we do; the other comes later when a friend remarks 'What a lovely crowd of people!' As they all head back to ferries, hotels or - in the case of nine of them - our house - I feel a plan growing, but suppress it for now. There is a mountain of presents to open, and people are talking about cups of tea. The day has far exceeded my expectations, and I don't want it to end.

Next year in ...?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Artichokes and attitudes

Market, Mayenne, Monday
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I suppose the notion of a bustling, sunny market brimming with vegetables and redolent of cheese springs most readily to mind of the average non-French person if they think about France. And the atmosphere was certainly present when we attended the Monday market in Mayenne, in pays de la Loire, last week (was it only last week?). The sun was hot, our friend Claudine had shopping to do, and I bought a pair of trousers - something I would have been reluctant to embark on without a pal. The stalls were piled high with glistening tomatoes, artichokes (always a snare and a delusion, IMO) and onions, and the cheeses were immense. Men in a variety of headgear sat around in cafés as their wives shopped - they were, apparently, obviously in from the surrounding countryside. The hats gave them away.

Maybe that last piece of information is the key to what feels so different. I actually feel much more at home among French language and French food than I used to; it doesn't feel nearly as foreign as I remember from that first visit to Paris almost exactly half a century ago. But this familiarity is, I think, deceptive. Visiting small towns, where any foreign tourist might be considered well and truly lost, gives me the sense of the real difference. Everyone is charming - so polite with their greetings when you enter the bakery, so delighted because this obvious foreigner can understand them and speak back (mistakes and all) - but conversation reveals the kind of attitudes I'd associate with the Outer Hebrides of the '50s, the serious take on what constitutes a decent life, the prejudice against attitudes that most of us in my own environment take for granted.

I'm the last person to be happy at the rise in public drunken-ness and the debauchery of youthful attitudes, but I think I'd rather have the relaxation of censure and the open-mindedness that comes with it than the instant condemnation of the unco guid. (My French friends and relations are not, I hasten to add, unco guid at all. Whew!)

Funny thing is - decline in public morality is often linked to the decline in religious belief, but contemporary France as I experience it has to feel one of the least religious societies I have encountered. Maybe I don't mix with the right people ...