Melbourne scrapbook

April 19, 2014

Here are some snaps and snippets from my recent trip home. Home? To the city where I was born, where I grew up, that I made a conscious choice to leave many years ago. London is home now. Melbourne is family, a few friends, home-but-not-home. What’s that line from a Gang of Four song? ‘At home she feels like a tourist.’ I need a map, I’m given a Myki, sometimes I can’t understand what the shop assistants are saying.

Sliced thumbnail, April 6th 2014

Sliced thumbnail, April 6th 2014

I sliced through my thumbnail whilst shredding lettuce for a salad. Cut thumbs seem to be the poet’s injury of choice – witness Sylvia Plath’s Cut, and more recently Josephine Corcoran’s post. Luckily, it was my left thumb, and the friendly fireman who lives across the road from my brother and sister-in-law bandaged my thumb up expertly.

 

 

 

 

 

Squirrel cake, April 7th 2014

Squirrel cake, April 7th 2014

I helped my brother construct a squirrel-shaped cake for my niece’s ninth birthday. This was a big hit, and also a lot bigger than any real squirrel, so entirely appropriate in the Australian context. When I first arrived in London and saw squirrels darting about in the parks I was surprised at how small they were. I’d expected them to be a similar size to possums. And hedgehogs – well, they must be about the size of an echidna, surely?

Mr Mao teaches me relaxation techniques

Mr Mao teaches me relaxation techniques

 

 

Quality feline time with Mr Mao. Note also the fancy footless tights I acquired from a shop in Port Melbourne.

 

 

 

 

 

modest literary purchases

modest literary purchases

On this trip, I only visited a couple of bookshops. In the Brunswick Street Bookstore I bought issue 3 of Melbourne based story magazine The Canary Press, which I read on the flight back to London. Some great yarns accompanied by gorgeous illustrations. I also bought Liquid Nitrogen by Jennifer Maiden, which I’m very much looking forward to reading. I have a poem by Jennifer Maiden pasted onto the first page of the first journal I wrote in when I came to London. And I picked up the Text Publishing edition of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride since I couldn’t track down a copy in London.
Books for Cooks on Gertrude Street is packed with mouthwatering foodie books, both new and second-hand, so just the place to lay my hands on a very reasonably priced first edition of Donnini’s Pasta Book. My brother had made pasta with Donnini’s Garlic and Oil Sauce – simple and delicious – so I thought this recipe book was a must-have for my chef at home in London.

Bolivian hat, Market Lane Coffee, April 14th 2014

Bolivian hat, Market Lane Coffee, April 14th 2014

Coffee is practically a religion in Melbourne. The latest cult is the pour over, and I was initiated into its ritual preparation at the Victoria Market outlet of Market Lane Coffee. It’s a rather gentle and quiet process, but requires precise measurements (weight of coffee grounds, volume of water, optimum temperature) and some classy equipment (ceramic filter cone, stainless steel kettle with a slender spout ‘for precise pouring’, glass jug). It was a pleasure to watch the measuring and timing and the circular pouring; and then to savour the delicate porcelain mugful of 100% Rwandan Nyarusiza bean pour over coffee, on an unhurried Monday lunchtime. And while they sell most of the equipment, and bags of beans, and Market Lane aprons, the Bolivian hats on the whitewashed walls are for display only.

I enjoyed other coffees too. I stole a couple of hours for myself one afternoon, and sat in Barry on High Street, Northcote, with paper and pen and a good latte, and cobbled a few sentences together. And jotted down my exchange with the waitress.

Waitress: “What can I get you?”
Me: “Just a latte please.”
Waitress: “Awesome.”

Yes, I thought, I am a stranger in my home town.

 

difficult reading

March 22, 2014

A few thoughts on two recent reads that deal with difficult subject matter. I’ve just finished The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower. Set in Sydney in the 1940s, it’s a compelling psychological novel centring on a manipulative and abusive relationship. The novel begins as sisters Laura and Clare Vaizey are withdrawn from boarding school by their emotionally distant mother Stella following the death of their father. Living with her in straitened circumstances in pre-war Sydney, the sisters are soon running the household for their apparently fragile and impossible to please mother. Stella, to the reader, is patently only interested in herself, and cynically thwarts the girls’ modest educational ambitions. When war breaks out, Stella decides to return home to England, leaving the teenagers to fend for themselves. Laura, the elder by 5 years, is near enough cajoled into marrying the boss of the factory where she works, the much older Felix Shaw. He paints this as the perfect solution, Laura and Clare moving into the spacious harbourside home he’s just bought. From this point the novel gets darker and increasingly claustrophobic, as Felix descends into alcoholic outbursts and physical and mental abuse, alternating with episodes of civility and pseudo-generosity. Laura makes excuses, blames herself, tiptoes around Felix. Clare feels trapped and unable to leave, even as she carves a sliver of independence for herself as she gets older, for fear of what would happen to Laura. She practices a kind of passive resistance. This all sounds like grim reading, and it is often painful, but never indulgent or wallowing. The writing is sharp, full of spiky sentences and occasional narrative jumps. There is also a side serve of social satire – the brash neighbours discussing the ruckus next door as they get ready for an evening out; the faux mateship of Felix’s business partners, who always get the better end of the deal. And Harrower reveals how the veneer of domesticity is used to disguise the true nature of the relationships in such an ideal suburban home. The Watch Tower was first published in 1966 and I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of it, nor of Elizabeth Harrower, until my sister sent me the Text Classics reprint from 2012. As an insight into destructive self-deception and power control in relationships it is still as relevant today as when it first came out.

As I was reading The Watch Tower I kept thinking about Ivy Alvarez‘s Disturbance, a novel in verse that I read in one sitting earlier this year. This is an unflinching account of a double murder and suicide, domestic violence meted out in a wealthy, respectable home. We hear the story from different viewpoints – neighbours, relatives, the police, journalist, husband-father-perpetrator, wife-mother-victim. Alvarez gets behind the headlines, giving voice to the many people affected by such an incident. Though the surface of many of the poems is factual – lists, interviews, statements – the cumulative effect is very powerful. The poems crackle with sharp detail – the salty taste of blood, a dark stain on the carpet, ‘saucers cracking against cups’. Themes of control and power, inevitably, run through the book; and Alvarez is forcefully in control of this dark material. Individual poems such as Jane’s to-do list, Notes to self and See Jane run stick in the mind, so taut and so chilling. But for the full, devastating impact you need to read Disturbance from beginning to end in one go. It will stay with you.

bye bye LRB

March 2, 2014

Yesterday I cancelled my subscription to the London Review of Books. I’d been considering this for a while, ever since For Books’ Sake raised the issue of the completely skewed gender imbalance in the LRB’s pages, both in terms of the percentage of books by men reviewed compared to books by women (74% male authors in 2012), and the gender of reviewers (78% men). I followed a bit of the to-and-not-much-fro on Twitter, which is summarised here. But, you know, I’m quite a loyal person. Despite myself, I form brand attachments. I always enjoyed Jenny Diski‘s acerbic pieces, and hadn’t I discovered Elif Batuman through the LRB? On the other hand, every fortnight a new issue of the LRB dropped through my letterbox with the same old gender imbalance starkly evident. It bothered me, and in particular it bothered me that the LRB didn’t appear willing to engage with those who’d raised the issue. And then this week I read Isabel Roger’s blog post about the recent item on Radio 4′s Open Book, discussing women and book reviews, and the extraordinarily defensive and complacent statement that the LRB provided, instead of taking part in the studio discussion. Of course there are far more important issues affecting women around the world than the proportion of books by women reviewed in the LRB or the number of women reviewers. But that’s the LRB’s sphere, reviewing books, and I really can’t see how it is so difficult to take steps to improve the gender balance of their reviews. So I’ve had enough. I’ve cancelled my subscription. I don’t need a fortnightly, not-so-subtle reminder that male authors, men’s voices, dominate. i have a pile of books to read.

books

a pile of books

Loose Muse feature

February 14, 2014

Wednesday night was blowing a gale in London, but the threatened tube strike had been suspended, and the day’s lashing rain finally dried up. So, given the circumstances, there was a good turn out for Loose Muse at the Poetry Café, where I was billed as one of the two featured writers. Unfortunately, Sally Spedding, the other invited writer for February, couldn’t make it down from Wales due to the horrendous weather. But it was still a full evening. The first half saw Claire Booker‘s short play, Last Man in Watford, energetically performed by three young actors. Claire’s play, an acerbic future vision of the world ruled by women, went down a treat with the mostly female audience. Claire then read a few of her poems, and I particularly enjoyed her poem about a double bassist’s relationship with his instrument – pun most definitely intended.

After the break, and more readers from the floor – varied, surprising, entertaining as ever – it was my Big Moment. Loose Muse host Agnes allows her features a generous twenty minutes, and I’d spent a good while thinking about what to read. I finally settled on a mix of poems and very short stories, with a nice balance (I hoped) of light and shade, humour and darker material. I started with a few poems from Triptych Poets, then read the stories Battersea Park Road Blues, Withdrawn – quite an intense piece to read, I discovered! – and Struth, which was published in the first Loose Muse anthology, and it’s still a delight to realise I’ve written something that elicits smiles and laughter from the audience. I finished with three more poems, and barley fluffed a line. Over the course of rehearsing my reading, I spotted a few recurring images or echoes (pebbles, thunderstorms) that I hadn’t been aware of before in my work. But it was only on Tuesday night, with my last practice, that I noticed my set began with the word listen, in the poem title Listen and Repeat, and ended with The Pianist persuading the oceans to listen. I’m glad to say that on Wednesday night the Loose Muse audience listened most intently. My thanks again to Agnes for giving me this opportunity to perform a longer selection of my writing.

Photos: Joolz Sparkes

Loose Muse, Poetry Café, 12 February 2014

Loose Muse, Poetry Café, 12 February 2014

Hilaire reading 12Feb2014

Loose Muse, Poetry Café, 12 February 2014

freesias

February 2, 2014

Once upon a time my family owned a house on a block of land in Anglesea, on the southern Victorian coast. We spent most school holidays there, the long holidays over the summer, when we’d swim and bushwalk and sometimes sail the dinghy my father built – if I remember correctly – with help from my brother, no doubt, once I’d been bitten by the Swallows and Amazons bug. How fervently I wanted to be Nancy. But that’s another story. What I’m thinking about now is the September holidays, one or two weeks, early spring, and how the sloping block of land would be dotted with freesias, in amongst the fallen gum leaves and twigs and scrub. The sweet aroma of freesias and the peppery, dusty scent of eucalypts. The freesias’ spindly green stems and mostly white trumpets standing out against the dun earth. Arriving to find the freesias, which we had not planted, had bloomed again, felt like a small miracle. The scent of freesias stirs this memory, a good memory, and I’m sure I loved the word, which sounded exotic, and being able to spell it. Freesias are not native to Australia, but they flourished there, on that block of land my family no longer owns. Last weekend I bought a bunch of freesias from the supermarket. On Wednesday night I listened to Free Thinking on Radio 3, a special programme on Australian culture, featuring Germaine Greer and Christos Tsiolkas in impassioned conversation, and an interview with Pat Dodson, an Aboriginal leader and activist; and the freesias spilled their scent into my London living room. So it’s a story about class and privilege, though I did not know it at the time, and invasion, loss of language, attachment to land; the complex, multicultural place where I grew up and that still defines me in many ways. And whether, in my writing, I am brave enough to engage with that history. I’m looking forward to reading Tsiolkas’s latest novel, Barracuda. He is not afraid to try.

freesias and Ark Awakening © John Boydell Rogers

freesias and Ark Awakening © John Boydell Rogers

So my new year’s not-quite-resolution to do less, to go out less, got off to a flying start this week when I went to two poetry events on successive nights. It was my second visit to Beyond Words in Gipsy Hill, which takes place on the first Tuesday of every month. January’s star attraction was Agnes Meadows, founder and host of Loose Muse, London’s only regular event for women writers, and a fine poet in her own right. If you’ve been to Loose Muse, you’ll have heard Agnes read one or two of her poems to start the evening, but Tuesday was a great opportunity to hear Agnes perform a longer selection of her poetry. Her first set included her storming feminist ode Woman, the wonderfully life-affirming When I Die – some wake that will be! – and a thoughtful and tender love poem The Study of Clouds. In the second half, Agnes read some darker poems, such as Red Onions, arising from a period spent living in Gaza, and her devastating account of a visit to a mass grave in Iraq. Poems of witness. She finished with a poem about the loss of sparrows in London and their reappearance as an imported Chinese delicacy, Smoked Sparrows, mixing nostalgia and absurdity with delightful panache. Her poetry is full of rich and sensuous imagery, heat and spice, and Agnes is a wonderfully engaging performer. We were also treated to a cameo by Nigel of Bermondsey, introduced as a ‘site-specific troubadour’, who sang three captivating ballads based on London’s dark and grisly past. Add to this some generous open mic spots, candlelit tables, a raffle for a package of poetry books, and it all made for a warm and uplifting evening.

The following night, being the second Wednesday of the month, I was at Loose Muse in the Poetry Café. It was one of the busiest of Agnes’s evenings I’ve been to, and quite a double bill. First up, Ivy Alvarez read from her recently published verse novel Disturbance. The book concerns a double murder and suicide, one of those shocking episodes of a husband and father annihilating his family, with poems written from many viewpoints including neighbours, police, relatives and journalists, as well as the victims and perpetrator. The whole room sat in silence, riveted, as Ivy read from these powerful and disturbing poems. The writing is taut, unsparing, much of the detail chilling. Strong stuff, and absolutely necessary.

Jill Abram was the featured writer for the second half and performed a series of droll and often lightly self-deprecating poems, starting with Changeling – a portrait of who she is not. There’s a lot of warmth and wit in Jill’s poems and she really engaged with the audience. She read two poems that vividly evoke her day job as a sound effects artist for radio, and I was interested to hear her explain, in the short Q&A at the end of her reading, that she has always kept her day job separate from her writing, something I strongly identify with. Some of her other poems take a wry look at getting older, and having confessed to an approaching birthday, we all sang Happy Birthday to her. I have Jill to thank for introducing me to Loose Muse, where over the last couple of years I’ve regularly put my name down for one of the open mic spots and found the atmosphere very supportive and encouraging.

And next month’s Loose Muse, on Wednesday 12th February, I have my very own feature spot, when I’ll be reading some of my poetry and flash fiction, alongside Sally Spedding. Very deep breath. . .

adieu, 2013

January 5, 2014

Paris for New Year’s Eve. Et pourquoi pas? This was our incentive and reward for sticking with the French courses we’d signed up for in September. So, on 31st December we arrived in Paris early afternoon and booked into our modest 2 star hotel for a 3 night break. I’m not a huge fan of New Year’s Eve and in recent years we’ve tended to stay in, listen to music, drink a bit of fizz and catch a few midnight fireworks from the living room window. As our Paris trip approached I did a little research into the 9th arrondissement, where our hotel was located, but we decided as far as the Big Night was concerned, we’d play it by ear.

We had time once we’d checked into the hotel to walk up to le Musée de la Vie Romantique and check out our quartier on the way. Apparently the 9th is the new Left Bank and a hot destinations for bobos. The charmingly named Museum of Romantic Life is more accurately concerned with the 19th century Romantic movement. It’s housed in an 1830s villa, set back off the street, with a pretty courtyard garden that must be even more attractive and welcoming in the summer. The ground floor displays memorabilia, documents and portraits relating to George Sand, who was a frequent visitor to Friday evening salons held at the villa. There’s a cast of her right forearm and hand, next to a cast of Chopin’s left hand. Display cases of rings, pen nibs, postcards; a locket with a few strands of her daughter’s hair, another with a lock of Sand’s silver grey hair. In another room, a series of imaginary landscapes painted by Sand using her dendrite technique. Upstairs there are paintings by the house’s original owner, Ary Scheffer, and others of that circle. I’m not familiar with George Sand’s work or most of the other artists featured, but still found the displays fascinating and at times poignant. Being in a space where other people have lived, debated, created work; treading creaky floorboards and peering at tiny nineteenth century handwriting; there is something special about this experience.

As night started to fall we explored the neighbourhood a little more, noting the long queues outside the pâtisseries on rue des Martyrs, and more worryingly, how many bars and cafés were either closed or starting to close up. Café M on Place Kossuth was still open, so we ventured in for an apéritif or two and Nick picked up a new French phrase: un baron for a 50cl draught beer (we’re talking English style apéritifs here). Night fell, and so did the rain, and crowding in came those external-yet-internalised pressures to have a Fantastic Time, an Amazing New Year. Je ne suis pas stressée, I repeated to myself. On our way back to the hotel for a sensible rest we bought some sensible baguette and sliced cheese in a supermarché, and ate our improvised sandwich au fromage watching Sir Simon Rattle conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker on the ARTE channel. Thus calmed and refreshed, we headed out again. The rain had ceased. The streets were quiet. We walked as far as the Canal Saint-Martin, which when we visited in July had been buzzing and packed. Now the quais were deserted. The bars we’d frequented shut. Atmospheric, but perhaps a little eerie for even a low-key new year. We tracked back into the 9th. Where were the bobos? All partying at home, it seemed. Up the happening rue des Martyrs, which was not happening on Saint-Sylvestre. At last we came across a bistro that was open, neither empty nor rammed, and whose friendly staff were not phased by two parched vegetarians pitching up at a quarter to eleven. Merci, Auberge du Clou. We shared a chicory, walnut and blue cheese salad and the dessert cheese plate, washed down with un baron for Nick and une coupe de champagne for me. I made no resolutions but we discussed the year ahead, what we have to look forward to, what to focus on, steps we can take to stay fit and healthy (touch wood), and how to reduce stress levels and sleep better, which probably means doing less, going out less (a hard goal in London). As midnight quietly crept up, the barman furnished us with deux coupes de champagne. We heard some cheers from customers upstairs, a few toots and horn blasts outside, and the waiters and le patron wished us bonne année. Cheers, Paris, and bienvenue à 2014.

I blame John Hegley

December 15, 2013

Moi, je ne regrette rien. Well, I don’t have many big regrets, but I do regret never having learnt to speak another language fluently. I learnt French and Russian at school; did a year of French at university before chucking in my degree; six months intensive German when I wintered, physically and emotionally, in Berlin back in the mid 1980s. I have a smattering of Greek, a word or two of Turkish. And I can say ‘Today is a total fire ban day in the entire state of Victoria’ in Italian, thanks to the multilingual radio announcements I absorbed in my childhood. But fluent – non, nein, nyet.

A regret, then, that has flickered and niggled, on and off, for many years, without me actually doing anything about it. After all, where would I find the time to study French or Greek on top of work, writing, and feeding my culture habit? And then in September, dans un moment fou, I found myself signing up for French evening classes at L’Institut Français, two hours per week – plus homework – for fifteen weeks. The itch to revive my dormant French began to tickle more insistently following our trip to Paris late last year, when I’d managed to drag out a few French phrases from their 30 years’ slumber. But the real catalyst was an encounter with John Hegley at Beyond Words in May. In the second half of his highly entertaining set he asked for a volunteer, someone who knew a bit of French, and (encore un moment fou) I raised my hand. My task was to translate into English the passage he read in French from his dual English-French book The Adventures of Monsieur Robinet. Zut! I managed that fairly well, and no, Monsieur Robinet could not go to Paris with Madame Toutmoi next Saturday as he would be giving his dog a bath. Then, having passed me a copy of his book, John Hegley set my next challenge: turn to page 22 and read the French text while he read the English version on the opposite page. Oh là là! Off we cantered and I just about managed to keep up with the tale of Monsieur Robinet’s invitation to dinner chez Madame Toutmoi who had bought a big pear especially. Generous applause followed, and Monsieur Hegley professed himself so impressed with my performance that he kindly gave me a copy of the book. Now, it is one thing to impress a roomful of English people with my French pronunciation, and it is quite another to get by in Paris, to string a sentence together and be able to understand the reply, as our few days there in July amply brought home to me.

So, the last 15 weeks have been un voyage, une aventure et quelquefois une lutte. Even more so for mon compagnon fidèle who, for his own reasons, took the plunge and signed up for the absolute beginners class on the same evening. I’ve unearthed quite a bit of buried vocabulary and learnt lots of new words and phrases, such as patapouf (fatso), flonflons (brass band music) and sous tiret (underscore). Oh, the joys of delving into un dictionnaire! I’ve re-encountered the subjunctive, and written about Ma vie dans dix ans (une fantaisie, vous comprenez). We’ve listened to Jacques Brel and Françoiz Breut and I’m developing a slightly worrying taste for French pop music merci à French Radio London. The experience has reminded me how hard language learning is, pushing me beyond ma zone de confort, and I’m full of admiration for those of my fellow students from Poland, Italy, Estonia, Greece – living and working in London with functional English and learning French on top of that. It’s been stimulating but not great for our stress levels, and I confess I’m looking forward to having our Tuesday evenings back. Fluency is probably beyond my reach now, but I hope to maintain an engagement with French. Madame Fong, my old French teacher, would approve, j’espère.

la preuve

la preuve

Listen and Repeat

Madame Fong ruled the language lab,
doubly exotic in crepe de Chine
and discreet jade jewellery.
Cupping a hand expectantly
around her petite and foreign ear,
a coquettish tilt to her head,
she trilled
Ecoutez et répétez.
Clunk of tape machine.
The ears of twenty Presbyterian Ladies
resounded to Je voudrais une tasse de thé.
Affecting ennui, we chanted
Je voodray oon tass de tay.
Too much antipodean twang
to please Madame Fong.
Between classes
we mimicked her gestures,
hands poised at our ears, declaiming
Ecoutez et répétez,
rolling our Rs with relish.
We did not know our privilege.
The boat people were in the news.
Madame Fong taught us French.
We remained disengaged.
Désolée, Madame Fong,
je suis désolée.

First published in Brand (2007), reprinted in Triptych Poets Issue One (2010)

dot dot dot

December 1, 2013

I am struggling to articulate my response to the Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy, which ends next Sunday. I’ve visited three times now. It’s a big show. Each time I’ve spent around two hours in there. It definitely has the sense of a journey. There are some interesting echoes or counterpoints as you wander through the exhibition. As you enter, Shaun Gladwell’s hypnotic Approach to Mundi Mundi plays on a loop, a slow, silent video clip following a motorcyclist riding a curving stretch of road in the Australian outback, arms raising to a Christ-like pose as he cruises the central dividing strip, leather-gloved fingers fluttering in the slipstream, arms subsiding as the film’s focus blurs and fades. Landscape, religion, isolation, rebellious outsiders. In the penultimate room of the show, Fiona Foley’s 11 minute film Bliss shows continuously: a vast field of white poppies bobbing and swaying in a rushing wind, a bright blue sky, seed capsules like heavy bulbous heads on tall stems, the lonely sound of the wind, and short stark extracts from The Way We Civilise by Rosalind Kidd superimposed on the lyrical images. Opium as a means of subjugation. Complex troubled histories. Early on in the exhibition, a display case holds three truly repulsive examples of mid 19th century silverwork (an inkwell, a candelabrum and a trophy – more than simply aesthetically offensive); contrasting with the delicate and witty moulded sardine tins of Fiona Hall’s Paradisus Terrestris at the end of the exhibition.

The first time, there’s too much to see, it’s overwhelming and exhausting. By my third visit, I know the rooms that I want to spend most time in. The first main room displays some stunning work by Indigenous artists. A 2007 painting by Doeren Reid Nakamarra, laid horizontally in the middle of the room, ripples and vibrates with energy. Warlugulong (1977) by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri is intricate and layered, a deep red star burst at its centre, tracks, footprints, bone shapes scattered across its surface. Ngayarta Kujarra (2009) by the Martumili Artists sings out from the wall, a sparkling salt-white plain bordered by brightly coloured dotted patterns. Further on in the exhibition, I’m drawn to the two Clarice Beckett paintings Morning Shadows and Passing Trams, Melbourne, early 1930s, foggy suburban desolation. Eric Thrake’s Brownout (1942) has a similar feel, while The Car (1955) by John Brack is angular and jaunty with a manic edge. One of the biggest thrills in the show is to see four of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings (from the series of 26). These are high impact paintings, fiery, subversive and compelling. Big Orange (Sunset) by Brett Whiteley, painted in 1974, and John Olsen’s Sydney Sun (1965) are both vibrant, optimistic explosions of colour. I love Olsen’s in particular, suspended horizontally from the ceiling so you gaze up into its amber and blood-orange squiggles. And then, in the last few rooms, there are pieces by contemporary artists, challenging and engaging with European and Indigenous cultures and histories, such as Robert Campbell Jnr’s hard-hitting 1988 painting Abo History (Facts) and Possession Island (1991) by Gordon Bennett. This, and more, and I leave the exhibition for a third time, still thinking about place, attachment to land, to a landscape, choices and how much we are (or are not) defined by our backgrounds, by where we grew up; and the role of art in helping us to negotiate some of these issues. An on-going cultural conversation.

Curlew River

November 16, 2013

Thursday 14th November. A cold clear night. A three quarters full moon rising above the city of London. We cross from the brutalist Barbican Centre along a raised concrete walkway, down some steps and join the short queue waiting outside St Giles Cripplegate. We’re here for Benjamin Britten‘s chamber opera Curlew River – A Parable for Curch Performance, and already the setting seems fitting. A stone’s throw but a world away from the tall dark Barbican towers; remote, rather windswept, watery sounds from the nearby artificial lake, and rippling images of birds and swaying river grasses projected onto the pale stone of the medieval church. It all speaks Event, and I for one am happy to have to wait a bit before the doors are opened, to take in the surroundings, gaze up at the night sky, huddle closer to my companion, savour the build up.

Before long, we’re let in, into a slowly dispersing fug of incense, and ushered either side of the nave, where there’s a low white catwalk and a canvas sail in front of the alter. Black and white footage of birds and grasses and a full-flowing river will be projected onto these surfaces during the performance. Settled cosily in the second row, we’ve got time to read the synopsis, and then the doors are closed, the lights dimmed, and the small ensemble of musicians from the Britten Sinfonia take their places facing the minimal stage. And for something like an hour and a half we are spellbound. Framed as a mystery parable performed by medieval monks, the opera was inspired by a Noh play Britten saw in Japan in 1956. In tonight’s performance, the all male cast processes into the church singing in plainchant, and dressed in grey monks’ robes appliquéd with Japanese characters. Gwynne Howell, as the Abbot, sets the scene – the banks of the Curlew River, not long before, where a sign was given of God’s grace – and the monks become the players of the parable: pilgrims, a traveller, the ferryman, and a madwoman, searching for the son abducted from her a year ago. The music is sparse and strange, with Eastern inflections, yet unmistakably Britten. Ian Bostridge, as the madwoman, is mesmerising; anguished and Ophelia-like. The chorus is also magnificent, with those muttering-crowd moments Britten excels at; first mocking the madwoman, then as compassion wins through, entreating the ferryman to let her onto the boat. Mid-crossing, we learn from the ferryman that a year to this day a bullying man crossed the Curlew River with a 12 year old boy, who collapsed, ill and badly beaten; was nursed by the river people, but soon died, and was buried by the path to the chapel. The madwoman’s search ends, grief stricken, on the opposite bank, at her son’s grave; but as she struggles to pray the dead boy is heard; his spirit appears to console and release her. It’s a magical and redemptive moment, and Duncan Tarboton, as the Sprirt of the Boy, carries it off beautfully. The opera concludes with the cast donning their monks’ robes and processing out of the chapel as they chant a prayer, leaving the madwoman kneeling, head bowed, at her son’s grave. A stunning production, moving and ultimately uplifting; and after sustained applause, we return to the clear cold night and run across the concrete walkway, run full of energy, and hear scampering behind us – the three boys from the cast, running as well, so we stop to say ‘Well done – that was brilliant’ before they’re chaperoned away, for hot chocolate, I hope, and no school in the morning.

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