31 December 2012

Merrie England - Part Two


“The benches filled with famous men

Who fell to with relish; round upon round

Of mead was passed…..”

What could be more English?  Driving round the M25 in something like Brown Windsor soup at the tail end of December.  Spray and darkness combining to reduce visibility to the brake lights of the vehicle in front; the sky like a plaster ceiling about to collapse under the weight of an over-flowing bath above. 

And for what?  A holiday?  A trip to the seaside?  Surely this is as daft as it gets?  When the sapient majority is either on the beach at Sharm el Sheik or watching Match of the Day or The Great British Bake Off at home, why submit to the perils of aquaplaning into a traffic tsunami?

Well, for one, we are “British.”  And two, I have been reading Beowulf…… And, if I need a third, I am looking for “Merrie England” in the depth of winter - and not a Pickwickian snowscape neither, no twirling on pigs’ bones across the frozen Thames, nor too-hot-to-handle chestnuts to warm the cockles….

So whereto? 

First, into the past.  High above the swollen Deben estuary, across the water from the port of Woodbridge, in Suffolk.  It’s cold, and damp and deserted, but for some 1300 years here lay a remarkable man, buried with his ship and an unsurpassed collection of finery.  This is Sutton Hoo, and here we can taste the strands that formed the weft that became woven into England. 

The site would have been inhabited since the Stone Age, and was undoubtedly known to the Romans, whose roads passed nearby, but by the year 625AD the Romans had been gone for two hundred years, and a new power was developing, which would form the basis of the culture of this land, ready for the layering of invasion, religion and trade that added colour and texture over the centuries. 

The treasures that were buried here, with their historical and cultural values, were undiscovered until the owner of the land, Mrs E M Pretty, invited the archaeologist Basil Brown to open the mysterious mounds in 1938.  What he found, among other things, was the remains of a twenty-seven metre long ship, and when Charles Philips took over in 1939 silver and gold, enamels and jewels came to light, brilliant examples of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic art, as well as objects of everyday life, such as textiles, utensils and weapons.  An ornate helmet, seeming to frame a pair of raybans; a sword that was beaten from twisted threads of steel, manufactured with the greatest technological skill; a lyre which would have been plucked in accompaniment to songs of war and peace; a shield, embossed with golden animals whose eyes shine red with garnets, and a whetstone carved from one of the hardest stones known to man, topped with a stag finial, possibly used as a sceptre to denote the rank of a king.

After the Second World War the British Museum began a research programme and gradually the discoveries were analysed and understanding grew.  In 2002 the site was opened to the public, and, although the actual artefacts are in London, it is fascinating and atmospheric, even in the gloom of December.  There is a glory about this celebration of death, as it celebrates life, and through the patience of those involved the continuity of our past becomes more tangible, more relevant, and I suppose I can feel more purpose in a society which valued art, and which cared for the dead as if they live on.  We view a short film about the site and the world it explores, and while we are visiting a guide expounds on the traditions of feasting in those dark days.  It fits with Beowulf, as retold by Seamus Heaney:

“They sang then and played to please the hero,

Words and music for their warrior prince,

Harp tunes and tales of adventure:

There were high times on the hall benches…..”

There is the Janus effect.  We look backwards and we look forwards.  At this pivotal point of the year, with the darkest days behind, our hopes rekindle, but they are hopes built on experience.  So the marvels buried at Sutton Hoo inform our future: if this is how it was, then why should it not be better?

We return to the present, and move on to our accommodation, at the quaintly (and inexplicably, though it may derive from a local type of eel trap) named Eel’s Foot Inn at Eastbridge.  From here it is a pleasant, if waterlogged, walk to the RSPB Reserve at Minsmere, and the coast from Dunwich to Sizewell. 
Here, between coastguard cottages and the mosque-like white dome of Sizewell B, birds and animals are protected, at least from man (for the moment, though we do not yet know about Sizewell C!) in reed beds and woods.   
This is one of the RSPB’s flagship reserves, with excellent facilities and a number of hides and walks.  The variety of birds is dazzling and serious birdwatchers will return in all seasons, and there are also Konik ponies and deer to see. 
We are fairly lightweight when it comes to identifying distant shapes, but are spellbound by the views from the Island Mere and Bittern Hides.  I just miss seeing an otter (but am shown a picture of it, strangely taken on exactly the same camera and with exactly the same lens as I have) but succeed in counting nine Marsh Harriers circling and settling in the dusk.

After a grey and washed out day the sun slips below the cloud cover and suddenly illuminates the scene, side-lighting the reeds and silhouetting the bare trees in the distance. 
Flights of birds sweep in, dark shapes against the sky. 
It is glorious, and I suddenly think of the warrior in his boat tomb, the years in between dissolved as time sheers away to nightfall.

We walk back to the pub.  The road and flooded fields gleaming in the last of the light.  A wood-burner glows warm in the inglenook, and we restore ourselves with homely food and ancient ale.  A gathering of musicians materialises round the fire, and instruments are tuned to the background of harmonious chatter.  Songs begin to flutter in the hall, and I imagine horns of mead passing from friend to friend.

The musicians take their turns, and their airs illustrate the intermingling of folk, from a tune by O’Carolan, the eighteenth century Irish harpist and composer, to shanties from the seafaring past; from an a capella rendering of Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather,” which exposes its Celtic origins, to a deftly performed cover of Phil Ochs’s “There But For Fortune,” which was a commercial success for Joan Baez in 1964.  The array of instruments, from bones to accordions, is impressive, as are the individual and combined talents on display.  Ron sings a rousing song about the economic crisis and draws everyone into the chorus:

“Bugger the bankers and politicians

Bugger the bureaucrats too

Bugger the buggers that make up the rules

And if you’re one of them

Then bugger you….”

And we all feel much better for that!  The Geats are in their element!  Grendel is buggered!

This kind of evening may not be to everyone’s taste, but it is exactly what I was looking for on this occasion.  Singing by a fireside, lubricated by quaffs of local ale, the oral traditions of folk song and the rhythms of dance erasing the memories of cold and wet – Merrie England thrives!  At least for the moment…..

“The poem was over,

The poet had performed, a pleasant murmur

Started on the benches, stewards did the rounds

With wine in splendid jugs……”

In the morning we stop at Leiston Abbey, wet feet, splashed with raindrops, umbrella-ing our visit with no one in sight.  But then, touching the brick and pebble walls, passing through loops and breaks in the walls, we feel the weight of years, the strange dislocation of the abbey from below, towards the coast, in the 14th century and then the brutal destruction by the henchmen of Henry VIII, but now we hear the tuning of instruments, the accordance of an ensemble, coming from on high within the reconstruction of the monastic buildings…..  A music school, Pro Corda, now occupies the site of the Premonstratensian Abbey, and, in a wonderful way on this grey wintry day, the sound of instrumental music issuing from a high window in a ruined abbey ties these chords together, as we link up the burial at Sutton Hoo, with the music at the Eel’s Foot Inn, with the idea of Merrie England. 

As we leave we look back, then turn once again to the future. The year ends and another begins.  Fortune, good night.  Smile once more.  Turn thy wheel.”


With thanks to Seamus Heaney for the quotations from "Beowulf"



23 December 2012


A cold coming we had of it......

"Ich kann zu meiner Reisen
Nicht wählen mit der Zeit,
Muß selbst den Weg mir weisen
In dieser Dunkelheit...."

"For my journey I cannot
choose my time;
I must find my own way
In this darkness...."

Franz Schubert’s 1827 Song Cycle “Winterreise” sets twenty-four poems, written in 1821 and 1822 by Wilhelm Müller, to music for piano and voice. 

Winterreise” is essentially about feelings and atmosphere, but it tells the story of a young man who has come to live in a village with a family of mother, father and daughter.  Inevitably, perhaps. He falls in love with the daughter and he believes his love is returned. However the daughter decides to marry a wealthy suitor more approved of by her parents. And so, on a winter’s night he steals away, writing a farewell message to his beloved.  He notes the changeable weather-vane (and regrets not thinking of what it signifies before), is mocked by crows, tormented by memories of love, and his journey is cold and painful.  He is turned away from an inn, sees three suns in the cold bright sky, and in the final song he attaches himself to Der Leiermann (an organ-grinder or hurdy-gurdy man) who is being snarled at and chased by dogs.

The cycle is romanticism at its peak.  Schubert, who was 31 when he died, wrote over a thousand pieces of music, six hundred of which were songs.  Winterreise,” completed only a year before he died, is compelling, mysterious and beautiful.  The image of a young man stumbling into a winter’s night carries a symbolic weight which is difficult to shake off.  It is self-indulgent, immature, perhaps, and more Shelley than Byron, less admirable than pitiable, but it is imbued with emotions few can deny, and is tinged with religious overtones that strike deep within our cultural core.


It is probable that Schubert died of syphilis, or from the mercury used to treat it, and his suffering would have been cruel.  It is possible, therefore, that he felt bitterness for having contracted such a disease without the comfort of love, or the companionship of one he may have thought he loved.  But he was an artist, a performer, a visionary, and he transformed his personal anguish into irony, into something universal.  We do not have to share the detail to understand the feeling, the loneliness.  The fugitive struggles with existence on the face of a hostile world, knowingly destroying himself in emotional turmoil.

Winterreise” is immortal.  It has been performed by the great Lieder singers, both tenor and baritone.  In 1995 a youthful Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake performed it and in 2000 this interpretation became a striking film directed by David Alden which emphasises the fragility of the anti-hero.  Bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff accompanied by Daniel Barenboim give a very different rendition which can be seen on YouTube.  A 1963 recording by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten is still available, and there are at least 107 recordings in the catalogue, including some by sopranos, but the work is indelibly connected with the memory of baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who officially recorded it eight times before his death at the age of 86 in May 2012, with various pianists, including Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim, Murray Perahia, and four times with Gerald Moore.

Although the words, achingly full of dread as Schubert himself described them, and the expression of the singer, are key to any interpretation of the isolation of this wanderer, the piano is more than just accompaniment; the relationship between pianist and singer is at times like that between rider and horse, with the one tugging at the other, the one holding the reins the other providing the power.

The journey, and the image of the rider, connects with another winterreise, that of the Magi.  T S Eliot published “The Journey of the Magi” in his Ariel poems in 1930 as a kind of Christmas card.  His narrator questions his journey, and its difficulty, highlighting the alienation of dislocation, much as the young couple had had to travel in pregnancy to Bethlehem.  Eliot drew inspiration from a sermon on the Nativity written by Lancelot Andrewes in 1622:  A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter.’

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different…..

In Rome, at midnight on Christmas Eve, in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara coeli al Campidoglio, a wooden baby is brought into the light.  The birth of Jesus is renacted on the altar of heaven, high above the Roman Forum, year after year, and every year the pressing crowd suddenly draw breath, literally in-spire, as the Bambino Gesu is exposed.  Candles gutter, curtains flutter and window glass even seems to flex as the people breathe in, gasping at the miracle before them.  It is a mass inspiration that gives hope for the year to come, even though it is still a winter’s journey.....

    "Nun ist die Welt so trübe,
     Der Weg gehüllt in Schnee." 

    "Now the world is so gloomy,
        the path is shrouded in snow."
So Wilhelm Müller set out on his journey, with the thrumming piano of Franz Schubert, both of them barely twelve months from their pre-mature deaths. 
The cold is heavy. I feel the closing night around my shoulders like a cloak. I fold into a drift, foetus position in freezing sleep.

I am moving forward, my back braced against the harness, the harness taut against a rope. I am dragging a sled upon which Franz Schubert, his hands held together by woollen finger mittens, his curled hair and spectacles rimed with frost, plays my accompaniment on an upright piano, the notes tinkling down in frozen splinters like icicles, musical shards scattering on the snow.

In the distance I catch sight of a caravan of camels. They are heavily laden, signifying wealth. The front three riders communicate through speech bubbles rising above their turbaned heads. The words of the first are strange and the script is beyond me. The tone of the second seems to be of reproach and somehow the rhythm of the punctuation smacks of tetchiness with his interlocutor. The third uses latin, perhaps to annoy, and I can see the word stella – but he complains it is the wrong star. The second man now gestures to the heavens in impatience, shaking a finger in anger at the shining objects that confuse within the obsidian night. 

My concentration has lapsed. I heave forward to keep the sled in motion. Then, without warning, I feel hot breath across my face, a breath of honey and blood. My cheek and eye are slashed by a wet tongue, rough and warm. I start back, but a huge ragged lion places a heavy paw on my shoulder, its glazed eyes sparkling in the chill. "Pass friend," he seems to say, in a voice that resonates in the wilderness like a sawn-off bassoon. "Your journey is long, and it's not dark yet...."


21 December 2012

A Nocturnal upon St Lucy's Day

The days gather, hemmed in by dark space, dark matter.  Our rocky orb careers through nothing, going nowhere, rocking from light to dark, warm to cold, tilting at windmills in celestial orbit, while we struggle with pain and ignominy in thrall to the gravitational force that pins us to the surface of this world.

Two whole years ago, themselves pure figments of maths, calculations that only relate to the space-time continuum of our spinning round the sun, itself spinning in the constellation which spins in relation to other bodies, other galaxies.....

Two years ago my family gathered in the cold and snow to inter my father's ashes.  We had been through the process of death and accepted the conflagration of cremation.  Now, in the presence of a priest, in the vicinity of woods where my brothers and I had played as children, we watched ash and earth combine.  No joy entailed, no great spirit of hope, but as a common denominator I guess we were relieved that the suffering was over, and that life, as our father had wished, would go on.

by John Donne
'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
         The sun is spent, and now his flasks
         Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
                The world's whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar'd with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
         For I am every dead thing,
         In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
                For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
         I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
         Of all that's nothing. Oft a flood
                Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
         Were I a man, that I were one
         I needs must know; I should prefer,
                If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
         At this time to the Goat is run
         To fetch new lust, and give it you,
                Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night's festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight is.

John Donne, famous for his loving, famous for his sermons at St Paul's, wrote about love, and life, and drew upon his wit and understanding to give us all some hope.  This poem is about love and loss, darkness and light, and uses words from the alchemist's handbook - limbec, quintessence, flasks, balm, elixir....  But it is not about failure, though it is about darkness.  There is some hope - I am re-begot.....

It's nothing new to observe that things cannot get worse.  The concept of the shortest day informs the idea that actually there is always going to be a regeneration, a rebirth. St Lucy, virgin and martyr, is the patron saint of blind people, partly because of her name's association with light and partly because she is often depicted in art as having her eyes upon a plate (her name is invoked to cure eye disease) and although her saint's day is December 13th, the proximity of this to the solstice and the symbolic connection with darkness excuses any confusion.  We are in the dark depths of winter - perhaps not the worst, yet, as the drawing out of January and the brief gloom of February are still to come - but it is the time when looking forward is so much better than looking back.....

Not every moment is doom and gloom

The family gathered to inter my father's ashes at Kingshill Cemetery, Berkhamsted, on the shortest, darkest, coldest day of 2010.

In Memoriam, Peter Colville Gibbs,
July 7th 1923 - November 7th 2010

Anna Stella Gibbs, Friday December 21st 2012

"... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.."

John Donne, Meditation XVII