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Searching for Mary and Jane

I’m working on an idea for a play, or ‘noise opera’, ‘Mary and Jane‘ – in which I imagine them meeting in the handsome streets of Georgian Bath. Jane Austen lived in the city from 1801- 1806, Shelley arrived just over ten years later. Austen’s stay there has been described as creatively fallow, whereas it was in Bath that Shelley completed her manuscript of Frankenstein.

Austen novels seem to offer infinite interpretation, yet the author is largely a mystery. We might try and find her in her writing, but her technique of ‘free indirect’ speech, loading her third person prose with the thoughts of her characters, makes it difficult. We might like to assume that some of her character’s views represent hers, but we can never know. There is little of contemporary events in her novels (even though a close relative was guillotined in the French Revolution), almost nothing of the Napoleonic Wars, nor any scrutiny of how her wealthy men made their money. There is only a very vague sense of the country on the verge of the dramatic changes which would be triggered by the industrial revolution. Mary, younger by over twenty years, has one foot in the future. Whereas Austen’s novels seem almost pre-industrial,  Shelley is firmly in the modern world: electricity, evolution, exploration, the romantic individual, these are all starkly evident in Frankenstein. Shelley left us her journals, Austen only her novels, (her sister Cassandra destroyed her letters).

Shelley’s politics cannot be doubted: she was the daughter of two radicals, her mother was, arguably, one of the first feminist philosophers. Austen can be all things to all readers, indeterminate, open to endless speculation, seen by some critics as a ‘conservative propagandist’ and yet, by stressing her characters have an intelligence and a rationality equal to any man, she too can be viewed as a feminist icon. But I know neither that well, and my search continues.

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Mary and Jane

I’ve just had a revelation, a moment of inspiration, an epiphany. It started as a vague discomfort, a niggle, the feeling something needed to be put right. I was on a walking tour of Bath, a literary walk, during which I discovered that Mary Shelley wrote most of Frankenstein in that city.

Frankenstein was published in 1818, a year after Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Austen’s association with Bath is probably better known, one reason for this is that the great and the good of Bath, for some reason, denied any commemoration of Shelley’s work – probably because they knew her creation as the flat headed giant portrayed by Boris Karloff, a scar across his head, a bolt through his neck. Bath, it seems, would rather brand itself as the city of Jane Austen, of refined good manners, of the Pump Rooms and Bridgerton than of anything to do with Hammer Horror. The tour took us to some of the places associated with Mary and husband Percy Shelley, as well as her stepsister Clair Clairmont who, at the time, was living with another poet, Byron.

Something about this story stayed with me, but I wasn’t sure what it was, until a few weeks later when I realised: it was the thought that Mary Shelley and Jane Austen could have crossed paths. Mary’s book fizzes with electricity and ideas of the age, of evolution, a rage against creation, Austen’s belongs in a much earlier age. But they are similar in so many ways: precocious, smart, producing work at a prodigiously young age.  Mary was very dismissive of novels, and Jane died a year before Frankenstein was published, but I want to put the two in a room together, maybe have them sitting down to tea and cakes, and see how they get on. And now it’s become an obsession. Two years ago I took my ‘noise opera’ about Arthur Machen to the Edinburgh Festival. And now I have a new project: to produce and perform ‘Mary and Jane’, even though, as yet, it is no more that a niggle, an itch, a series of notes on a scrap of paper and have no idea what it will become. At the same time I quite like the idea of recording its development here, from vague first idea, to finished show.

To give the idea some sort of tangible existence, I wrote a short story, it’s here.

Postscript: Bath has since relented on its willingness to commemorate Shelley, maybe because the old movies no longer eclipse the book to the extent that they once did. A plaque has been placed in front of the Pump Rooms and a new  ‘immersive experience’ is about to open in the city: ‘Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein’. Truly horrific.

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Faust’s Metropolis

The Romans failed to conquer the lands inhabited by the Germanic tribes: in 9CE when an army led by Varus was ambushed in the Teutoberg forest, the Romans suffered one of the worst routs in their history. As the Roman Empire came to its end, these tribes began to occupy what was Roman territory, and the region evolved into a conglomeration of tiny states known as The Holy Roman Empire. The Empire lost almost half its population during the massacres of the Thirty Years War, and remained fragmented until 1871, when Bismarck, then President of Prussia, pursued a war against France, and in doing so, forced the empire into uniting. France was defeated and William I was crowned first Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles. Prussia had become the most militarised state in the empire, and its capital, Berlin, became the capital of this new, mighty country.

Faust’s Metropolis is the history of the German capital. It is a huge book, 800 pages, but its subject is vast and complex. Berlin lies at the heart of Germany, and has been at the centre of a European nightmare which has its origins in Prussian militarisation. Berlin has been at the epicentre of two world wars, and almost a third. The Cold War, a stand off between opposing political systems, was epitomised by the division of Berlin, and, to a great extent, ended when border was opened in 1989, and the Wall subsequently destroyed.

As far as the English speaking world is concerned, the history of Germany, and particularly, Berlin, have been foreshadowed by those catastrophic events. In most bookshops at least three quarters of any section on German history will be devoted to Hitler, the Nazis and World War One.

When Napoleon conquered Germany, he stood before the tomb of Frederick the Great in Berlin. ‘Hats off gentlemen,’ he said, ‘if he were still alive, we would not be here.’  There is no doubt that Versailles was chosen for the coronation of the first German emperor, William I, as revenge for the Napoleonic wars. The reparations set out in that treaty of 1919, ending World War One, signed in Versailles, had a significant role in the rise of the Nazis. After the invasion of France, Hitler stood before Napoleon’s mausoleum, creating a sinister symmetry with Napoleon’s tribute to Frederick. He said it was the ‘greatest moment’ of his life.

In the closing months of World War Two, Stalin’s armies swept through the Berlin, committing atrocious acts, murdering and raping, taking revenge, as they would say, for the failed Nazi invasion of their country. The city was divided, the Wall built.

Berlin has been occupied by the French, the Russians, the Americans and the British.  It has been the home of Hegel, the Bauhaus, Einstein, German Dada, Brecht. Alexander Von Humboldt, an intellectual giant, born and died in Berlin, he was a scientist, explorer, mapmaker, yet his achievements remain relatively unknown in the English speaking world, probably because of wars that began and ended long after he died.

In the early 1700s the city welcomed immigrants from Denmark, Sweden, France and Scotland. There were an eccentric series of monarchs: Frederick William the First who appointed a jester to replace Leibniz in the Academy of Science, and who called intellectuals ‘dogfood’. He disguised himself as commoner and wandered the city, physically attacking those he saw as idlers. He conscripted taller men for his ‘giant grenadiers’ and made them march through his rooms. Frederick the Second, perhaps the most famous Prussian king, better known as Frederick the Great, was a tormented, bullied young man. He was an accomplished flautist, Bach wrote ‘A Musical Offering’ based on a theme he composed.  Voltaire, despite being a friend of Frederick, said of Berlin it had ‘too many bayonets and not enough books.’ Indeed, Berlin, as the capital of Prussia, was at the heart of a militarisation that would spill over into the twentieth century. For many years Berlin was like a garrison town, and its citizens in awe of the military. Berliners deference to authority is beautifully encapsulated in the story of Wilhelm Voigt, an unemployed shoemaker, who, masquerading as a Prussian officer, ordered a company of troops to accompany him to the city treasury, where he was handed 4000 marks, an enormous sum at the time. He was jailed for two years, but eventually pardoned by the Kaiser, and is now something of a folk hero, a statue of him still stands, perhaps reminding Berliners that their once great reverence for authority had grave consequences for the world.

The city was completely destroyed in World War Two, very little of the past remains. More bombs were dropped on the city than on the entire United Kingdom. Most buildings from the Nazi era, and from the German Democratic Republic, have gone; the Wall has more or less disappeared. In Faust’s Metropolis, Alexandra Richie’s galvanising study, the city is conjured before our eyes, rebuilt layer upon layer, rises from the dust.

 

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A Robinson Crusoe of the Soul at the Fringe

I performed ‘A Robinson Crusoe of the Soul’ for ten dates over two weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe. I described it as ‘dirty, noise opera’. A messy mix of sound, prose, music and nonsense. A solo show I wrote, produced and performed on my own, as stupidly arrogant as this may have been. I write this now it’s over, knowing now how blissfully unaware I was of how difficult it would be. The orgnaisation alone, from booking the right venue, to ensuring I had enough twenty pence pieces in a jam jar for the parking meter, was enough to have me crawling around on all fours slobbering. But these were things I knew about. What I could not have forseen were things like the entrance to the venue car park being blocked by a laundry van and there being nowhee else to park. I could not imagine how something I had run through over and over again – setting up my equipment, making sure all cables and connections worked, tuning instruments, sound checking, would be so much more difficult when the previous performer overran. With seconds to go before my audience was shown in, I would still be making final adjustments, unsure everything was working, the venue humid, my head, face, body, sweltering, pouring with sweat. And this was before any performance began. A performance is the tip of an iceberg, in this case an iceberg that is melting at a furious rate. What the audience don’t see is the huge amount of preparation, the years of writing, composition, organisation, and particularly, last minute, frenzied, furious mayhem.

Ten shows on I am pleased how well I did, how few mistakes I made, how little went wrong. It was not a great show, but I carried it off. I survived. I got some great reviews from audiences, from complete strangers who had just wandered in out of curiosity:

‘Passionate, magical, beautiful, intimate and quite astounding. I’m very glad I didn’t miss this gem of theatrical, musical, crazy genius. A wonder indeed.’

(Sally MacLean)

‘A beautiful and gently captivating one-man show. It uses layers of live sound and storytelling to tell of the life and inspiration of the author Machen.’

(Paul Fricker)

‘A beautifully realised and moving account of the life, creative processes and philosophy of the great Welsh mystic and writer. A must see (and hear) for those interested in the pastoral origins of Britain’s weird tales.’

(Paul Johnston)

And then there was one negative, almost hostile, response from a professional reviewer, who I shall not name, who suggested audiences would have felt ‘short changed’ when my show ended ten minutes earlier than I had assumed (shows were of varying length because so much was improvised). No audience member complained that my show was too short, although one gentleman walked out because it was too loud. I received no negative audience feedback at all. Yet this reviewer (who didn’t pay for his ticket) managed to taint my (maybe  unwarranted) pride at having pulled off what was a gargantuan task. Just finding somewhere to park, to load my gear, climbing up and down two flights of stairs three times a day, to load the car, then getting to the venue unsure of whether I could get my stuff out of the car and inside on time, every day, was self-inflicted torture, and enormously demanding even without having to give everything to the show. But it is done. Maybe I’ll perform it again in a few months. We’ll see. I’m a wreck.

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‘From Ages to Ages’ reworked.

I’ve been working on a show I’m taking to the Edinburgh Fringe. ‘A Robinson Crusoe of the Soul’ is a reshaping of my opera ‘From Ages to Ages’. I’ll be perfoming solo, a production that fuses the life and work of Arthur Machen with a chaotic lecture on the history of Wales. I use voice, keyboards, live guitar loops and a variety of pedals and buttons that trigger samples and noises. I’ve set up a new website for the show: www.yawnthepost.com (Yawn the Post is the production company), more details there.

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Making Music

I’m not sure what I want to say here. If I was ten, and sitting in a classroom in England or Wales, two countries that have imposed a straitjacket of uniformity across its schools, I would have to know exactly what I wanted to say, probably plan it before hand, paragraph by paragraph, with a tick list of connectives and ‘interesting vocabulary’ and suchlike. Teachers too have to know exactly what they plan to teach, what it is they expect children to learn from a particular session. It’s not surprising that at the end of the day, if there’s time, most teachers I’ve ever worked with like to read to their pupils, it winds things down before the headlong rush to the school gates. But no teacher I’ve ever known ever considers what those children are learning as they listen, eyes fixed, to whatever world is created in their minds as a teacher reads aloud.  Yet, for the rest of the time many teachers subscribe to current dogma, that we must teach the curriculum, not the child. Focus on the needs of the country, or the economy, or your career, or whatever it is that is your guiding principle. But it’s rarely what the child wants.

I have two children, and I like to imagine what would have happened if, when they were not yet talking, I had created a list of what I expected each of them to learn on a particular day, what vocabulary, what things I would point at, what books we would read together, or games we would play.

Because every parent knows is that every child is very different and each one needs a radically different diet of stimulation, and it is often the child that will lead. If your son points to a flower, or your daughter to the piano, you do not ignore them and direct their attention elsewhere, as if you have a prescription for how they learn. But nevertheless this is what happens in school. We teach the curriculum not the child, and more and more the curriculum is suited to one sort of child and one vision of how the future will be. According to mainstream educational policy it involves lots of writing, maths and IT software that will be out of date before the summer holidays. We don’t know what the future holds – although many would say its a future where robots take over and we humans are left to write blogs like this, musing over the way things could be.

However. This is a blog about composing music, because I’ve done a lot of it in my time and it’s just about the best thing there is. Schools can’t afford to much of it any more. Which is just as well, as they’d probably put the kids off music for life.

When I compose music I often have no idea what it is I intend to do. I have a working method, or a few to choose from, but never any clear idea of where I am heading for. I know my route, but not my destination.  I try something, and if it works, I continue. If it doesn’t, I don’t.

What the phrase ‘it works’ means here is not obvious. It’s a sense that I’ve found something that’s meaningful, and which isn’t a cliche. I just know when its right. Like teaching and parenting, composing music is an art, not a science, there are no clear rules.

I learn just as an infant learns, I am drawn to whatever interests me.

My favourite method of composition is to construct a series of musical phrases, each one a layer of sound on sound, and each one somehow related to the others. When these phrases are amassed, I begin moving them around, seeing which goes where. It’s a bit like furnishing a room on an unlimited budget: choose chairs, sofas, table, light fittings and so on that work together, but don’t expect to know how it’ll all work until it’s all there to play around with. And then you might have to leave more space than you expected, move an armchair to the spare room, add more cushions, find somewhere to store all those books.

I like making music for this very reason. It’s a constant battle between leaving something open ended, and drawing things to some sort of conclusion. It keeps the mind alive, curious, keen. The desire towards completing a polished piece is one thing, but the process is another. It’s art, it’s alchemy, it’s great fun.

I’ve worked on ‘From Ages to Ages’ for almost twenty years, and, at the same time, experimented by creating smaller compositions, always looking for something, wanting to find that elusive alchemy.

And here are some of those pieces, created over the last five or six years, ranging from simple improvisations to complex, sometimes muddled collages of sound.

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Extreme Babbulary

Wednesday June 10th: I presented a series of eight workshops at St Thomas Cantilupe School in Hereford.  Eight Babbulary workshops, one after another. It was a challenge, and one that I accepted in order to determine whether the core content of the workshop could extend across the primary age range. The answer is that, with a few tweaks, it can. The nursery pupils laughed at the silly sound effects and slapstick mime, but bobbed about to the rhythm and syllable sequences and were genuinely very nice to me. Meanwhile, at the other end of the age range, the Year 6 pupils were almost as keen to submit to the nonsense, and once they realised this was a joint exploration, were quite gleeful. They were happy to launch the Pencil of Destiny into the Balloon of Nastybad, and restore peace. They seemed fascinated by the presentation I gave on my favourite words – for example, the word turkey (the animal) is dinde (of India) in French, and simply peru in Portuguese. Perhaps the pupils in the middle, the seven and eight year olds, were the most reluctant to accept the lunacy of the enterprise, one child declaring, right at the end of the day ‘what was that all about?’ A question I took as the highest compliment.  I’ve always thought experience is the best means of learning anything, (how do we learn to talk?)  so I want the workshops to be sensory as well as conceptually challenging. I don’t tell the children what it is they are going to learn because each will take away something different, or, in the case of the child who asked the question at the end, go away wondering what it was all about.

There was one major flaw in the proceedings, however, and that was my tendency, later in the day, to confuse one workshop with the next (they were in thirty minute slots, one after another) so I often forgot to include something because, mistakenly, I thought we’d just done it. (Not realising it was covered in the previous workshop!) It got very hairy towards the last two sessions, when my head was beginning to spin, and the children (having spent the day in other workshops) were spinning too.

But a hugely positive experience, and wonderful, lively, interesting children.

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Ramblings and Digressions

I found myself looking at antiques. In an antique shop. The owner, hidden behind a wall of stacked furniture, was observing me in a large mirror. At first I mistook his reflection for him, and nodded a greeting. When I realised I was addressing a reflection, I peered around the barricade and smirked. He responded with minimal interest. I was a prospective customer, but he could barely acknowledge me. I was interested in the Windsor chair, but it was too late, I couldn’t overcome my embarrassment now, and walked directly out. This was Abergavenny, a place I tend to look down upon.

I look down upon Abergavenny from the three mountains that surround it. The Sugar Loaf, The Skirrid and The Blorenge. The last of these has an ascent so steep it is almost vertical. You climb on all fours, but standing up. The summit of the Blorenge can also be reached by road, which dilutes the achievement a little, but up there, with lungs screaming for air, this is what you get.

IMG_2565

The Skirrid can be seen at the foot of the rainbow, and at the foot of the Skirrid, is The Walnut Tree Inn. I love The Walnut Tree.

I fell over on the Skirrid, a long time ago. I thought I had broken a rib. On presenting myself at A&E  at the Royal Gwent Newport, and complaining of chest pains, I was immediately rushed into a cubicle and sensors placed on my chest.

Only the night before I had been drinking in the Church House, a pub at the Handpost, just outside Newport. The Slowboat Takeaway is just up the road, and above that is a small flat where Green Gartside used to live. I used to see Green wandering the pavements. He was quite famous then, and I never understood why he had chosen to live back in Newport. I don’t think he ever wrote a song about Newport, or the Slowboat.

I was drinking alone  in the Church House, a pub near the Handpost, just outside Newport, when a bloke slumped down next to me and asked if I could buy him a drink. He was in a bit of a mess, pissed, but seemed  good company.  I bought him a pint, and he began telling me how hard his life was, how he couldn’t hang on much longer. He told me he was doctor at the Royal Gwent, and although I had no reason to doubt him, I did. He looked bedraggled, and after all, he did ask me to buy him a pint.

I’m covered in sensors, wondering why no one will just take my word for it, that this isn’t a heart attack, I’ve just done something to my rib, but the ECG is blipping away and the doctor rushes in, unshaven, squitty eyed, and it’s him, the guy I was drinking with night before. He didn’t recognise me, of course. I was going to tell him about our encounter, but decided not to.

The rib took months to heal, and I can’t think of the Skirrid without thinking of that fall. The day of my fall I’d climbed the hill with my parents, neither could manage it now, they are both approaching ninety, and live just around the corner from the Church House.  I was there just last week. My mother is very unwell, and my dad cares for her full time. He’s usually very perky, and full of rambling, digressive stories. But last time I saw him he looked weak and frail and was sorry for himself.  It was his 87th birthday.

“I’ve lived long enough,” he said. I gave him a hug when I left. It was hard.

But today I’m in Abergavenny, making my way to the car park after walking out of the antique shop. I get in the car, drive home. On the radio Iain Sinclair is talking about WG Sebald. I love both writers. Sebald’s Austerlitz is one of my favourite books.  I prefer it to The Rings of Saturn, which many people consider his masterpiece. Sebald was a walker, and his books are often ramblings in both senses. Sinclair spoke of Sebald devotees who try to retrace his steps and fail. Sebald was a storyteller, Sinclair reminds us.

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Watercress v Shouting

I won’t go into too much detail, but I recently undertook a psychometric test.  There were something like one hundred and seventy questions, ranging from “I enjoy theories” to “I hate parties”.  As the test proceeded, so my positive responses were clustered together, as were my negative answers.  So things I like (books, people, shouting and watercress) all appeared in the same question, forcing me to make a distinction.  Similarly, all the things I hate (golf, getting up, Wotsits and rabies) were thrown together to make me differentiate between them.  Imagine if you were asked whether you hated Wotsits more than rabies, could you decide?  Rabies is nasty, but you are rarely offered any.  Wotsits, they pop up all over the place, those horrible, disgusting, floury, yellow puke pods.

At the end of all this, I had to sit in a room with an expert who told me how nuts I was.  She laughed until she cried as she described the huge variations in my responses.  “You are a silent loner,” she said.  “You sit outside of the circle, looking in.  You hate Wotsits more than rabies.  That’s very weird.”

“Ah,” I replied, “but I love watercress more than shouting!”

She filed my report away and told me, no, I couldn’t have a copy.  For once in my life, I wish I could have been normal.  It must feel so good.  To like people more than poetry, and parties more than stationery.  I can only wish.

But as I spend hours alone, making things up, it is unlikely that the outside world would consider me a balanced, rounded human being.  I am not, and I don’t want to be.  I want to the eccentric that I am, because in that way the world is an endlessly entertaining series of the bizarre, the surreal and the utterly incomprehensible.  If I were organised and rational, possessed of that dubious quality ‘common sense’, then I am certain I would be incapable of dusting myself off and walking away after a computerised psychometric test had determined I was an introspective watercress loving loner.

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The Frailties We Share

This Monday, on R4’s Start the Week, Andrew Marr, Jeanette Winterson and John Tavener talked about the soul, about their spiritual journeys. I am in awe of all three; they share a willingness to share their uncertainties, their frailties.  Too often the public sphere seems to be made up of people who exude confidence and self-belief; most of us are not like that, but we’re often unwilling to make it known.  It’s an astonishing edition of the programme, made poignant by Marr’s return to broadcasting after a stroke, and Taverner’s death the following day.

It’s here, 11 Nov, 2013 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/stw

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