Tallis versus Byrd – when you lack the appropriate vocabulary

“You can really tell if it’s Byrd or Tallis from the first few bars?”

H. likes some Early and 16th Century music, but is more of a Romantic and 20th Century man.  He likes passion in music.  I like post-white-ruff composers but need serenity and the reassurance that the world makes sense.  So we meet in the middle, at J.S. Bach.

I know that, sooner or later, he will test me.  My eyes dart around the room and I chew on the inside of my cheek.  “Yes,” I finally reply.

It takes six months.  Then, one day, he remembers and pulls out a couple of CDs from the shelf.  I sit on the sofa, ready for my aural exam, somewhat anxious I’m about to fall flat on my face in a sticky puddle of embarrassment.

He plays the first few seconds of eleven separate pieces.

“Byrd.  Byrd.  Tallis.  Byrd.”  I get ten of them right, even though I can’t actually name the pieces.

H. gives me an enquiring look.  I’ve never had to explain it before, and I realise that, as I try, I lack the fundamental music terminology to express my thoughts.  My ears seem to know but the road between them and my mouth hasn’t been built yet.

Thomas Tallis is harder, I start saying.  Like a white light, a moonbeam.  William Byrd is gentler, with copper and gold tones.  Tallis is like white stone – limestone – cool to the touch.  Byrd is like timber – like mahogany – smooth, with a warm red sheen to it.

Then, in Tallis, there’s that straight line, can you hear it? (H. looks at me with good-humoured amusement.)  There’s always that very straight, constant line, like a laser beam, running through the music, and all the rest rises and falls around that constant, ever-present, blindingly white line, whereas in Byrd, it’s like bursts of deep reds, browns, burnt sienna and maybe a hint of forest green.

Tallis is a glorious, glamorous display of music as architecture.  His music bounces off stone fan vaulting and flies across the ether.  Byrd is more intimate, more wistful, a caress.

There is daring and confidence in Tallis.  There is hope in William Byrd.

Scribe Doll

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One finger for every pie.

One colour for every intention.

The first thought that flashed through my head when I saw the gloves.  I was in a Norwich shop called ‘Head in the Clouds’ – apparently, UK’s oldest head shop.  I didn’t know what a head shop was, until a friend explained it to me, a few weeks ago.  Knitted gloves with garish stripes, like a Naïve rainbow.  I want these gloves.

When I was twenty-five, I wore black leather gloves with tiny golden clasps on the wrists.  So fine, I could fumble for small change in my purse without taking them off.  In those days, I would ensure that my shoes, handbag and gloves matched.  Never one brown, the others black.  I would never, ever have worn anything so loud and garish, so look-at-me.

I decide to buy the gloves as a fiftieth birthday present to me from my twenty-five-year-old self.  The self that wishes she had been less afraid, had had the courage to be herself, and live, instead of spending the next quarter of a century only dreaming, planning, rehearsing.

When I bring them home, I notice that they give off a slightly overpowering, heady scent.  It’s what you always seem to smell in crystal and New Age shops.  I think it’s sandalwood.  I lift them up to H.’s face.  He immediately retreats with a snort.  “Camden Town, 1971.”

I call the shop and ask what the scent is.  The sales assistant is enthusiastic.  “Oh, it’s Nag Champa.  It’s very popular – we have three different kinds.  Next time you come in…”

As politely as I can, I explain that I don’t actually like the smell – but reassure her that I’m not complaining but merely enquiring.  Just curiosity, that’s all.

I make a mental note to fumigate the gloves in frankincense when I am next burning some.

Rainbow gloves with red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue and purple stripes.  Red thumbs, orange index fingers, yellow middle fingers, green ring fingers, turquoise little fingers.  Gloves not afraid to be noticed – and they invariably are noticed and commented on when I go shopping, see friends or stop off for coffee.  A friend says they particularly stand out in contrast with the rest of my – conservative – appearance.

Bright, bold colours to empower my hands, to endow them with creativity and courage.  A finger for every intention on my fiftieth birthday.

Red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise.

This finger for writing.

This finger for music.

This finger for drawing.

This finger for translating.

And the little finger for… for discovering new skills.

Both hands for receiving and accepting gifts.

I’ve done my preparing, my growing up, my sowing.

The time has come for doing, for living, for reaping.  For enjoying.

Half a century.  Wow.  Fifty years young.

As Georges Guétary says in An American in Paris, I am now “old enough to know what to do with my young feelings”.


Scribe Doll

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Baucis and Philemon

P. and T. kiss in public.  A swift, light peck on the lips, so full of tenderness and respect.  T. squeezes P.’s hand and he holds it, drawing strength from its warmth and reassurance.  I watch them in awe.  They are a handsome couple.  Tall, slim, with undeniable presence.  There is something unique about them.  A beauty I can’t put my finger on.  A quality of being fully alert, fully in the present, fully alive.  The beauty of survivors, of those who have grown a garden full of flowers despite life’s storms and gales. A silvery glow surrounds them.  Silver dust particles float in the air and gently land on you if you come close enough.

At T.’s eightieth birthday party, the many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren she and P. share have erected a marquee in the garden, because the house isn’t large enough to accommodate all those who have travelled to join in the celebrations.  There’s a jazz band.  The place is heaving with friends and relatives of all ages.  These aren’t just guests.  They’re individuals whose lives have been in some way or other touched by P. or T., or both.  A friend comes up to me, who has known T. and P. for several decades.  “They truly enrich other people’s lives,” she says.  I agree.

All of us there have a speck of silver dust embedded in our skin.

P. has an authoritative yet velvety storyteller’s voice that changes fluidly from North American to English.  I love listening to him reading poetry on the radio.  I also love sitting at their massive, round, pale wood kitchen table, sipping whisky and listening to him explaining life, death and the universe according to Samuel Beckett.  His lean face is lined with furrows life has filled with passion for words, ideas and, of course, the theatre.

We are sitting in the lounge, by the fireplace, P.’s blue-green eyes light up and he gets carried away expressing his admiration for Tennessee Williams.  He has forgotten that there’s a bowl of olives in his hand, and that it’s slowly tilting.  T. comes out of the kitchen.  She presses her lips together.  “P.!!” she finally snaps with loving frustration.  He rushes to his feet, his bushy eyebrows raised, and begins to pass around the olives.

When we go to stay with them, I feel as though I’ve come home from home.  Digging into the heartiest, richest, most comforting cauliflower and cheese you’ve ever tasted, w give T. our various bits of news.  To everything I say, she reacts with intensity.  Her surprise is genuine, her shock outraged, her sympathy deep-felt, her delight joyful, her excitement passionate, and her laugh like a gurgling spring that rises from the depths of the earth.  There is an impish twinkle in her dark brown eyes.

T. and P.’s friendship is not a static feeling, it is an action that carries, depending on the need, hugs, advice or weapons to defend you.  If they wrap you in their friendship, then they don’t merely stand and watch your life but take part in it.  For them, to love is to get involved, and not be a dispassionate bystander.  They will nurture you, and fight for you. They are the kind of friends you know it is an indescribable privilege to have in your life.  A glow with silver particles that land on your skin, and become embedded in it.

Scribe Doll

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Crawling Slowly Out of the Dungeon

Work.  Work.  You’ve fallen behind with your work.  So you work without stopping.  Except for meals.  You can’t taste the food, really, because you keep glancing at your watch.  Time to get back to work.  When you go to bed at night, your eyelids become a screen on which the computer pages of your work are projected.  Every time you close your eyes, you see the pages of your work.  You dream of running after trains.  Of forgetting where you live.  Of walking up a mountain, carrying a large rucksack on your back and a heavy supermarket carrier bag in each hand.  You wake up feeling exhausted.  You decide to stay in bed until just after the news headlines on the radio but fall asleep again for over an hour.

You just want some rest. 

You decide to sit down and do some work before breakfast.  Just translate one chapter, then you’ll get dressed and have breakfast.  It was a short chapter, so you might as well do one more.  Get ahead.  You get stuck at a word you don’t know.  It’s a section of a Mediaeval castle.  You can’t find the translation into English in any paper or online dictionary you consult.  Forty-five minutes later, you discover that this architectural detail existed only in one region, in 10th Century Rome.  No other castle in Italy, let alone Europe has it.  So there is no English equivalent for that word.  It’s untranslatable.  Should you keep it in the Italian original and add a footnote, or paraphrase it?  You can’t think straight.  You resent the author for using such technical vocabulary.  It’s a novel, for crying out loud – how does the use of this complicated word advance the story? You resent the nameless 10th Century Roman architect who built that castle in the first place.  You get angry with over a millennium of wind, rain and earthquakes for not destroying that damned castle, and erase all evidence of that particular architectural detail.  You start feeling faint and realise it’s after one o’clock and you haven’t had breakfast yet.  In fact, you’re still in your pyjamas.  You go to the bathroom to wash your face.  In the mirror, someone with a sallow face looks back at you.  Dark rings under the eyes.  Eyes with no light.  A tired face.  An old face.  You look away and comb your hair without looking into the mirror.  Who cares how you look, anyway?

After lunch – or was it breakfast? – you decide two more chapters, then you’ll go for a walk.  You need some air.  You need exercise.  Your back feels compacted and rigid, your neck and shoulders as though there’s a metal coat hanger inside.  The ‘phone starts ringing.  Somebody needs you.  Someone close to you.  You have to help.  You’ve had to help almost every day for weeks now.  Not only that but you have to do so joyfully.  Isn’t it what we’ve all been taught? That you have to be kind?  That there are certain people you automatically, naturally love, and who automatically, naturally love you?  And what if it doesn’t come naturally for you to love them, or for them to love you? Still, you have to help.  There’s no one else but you who can do it.  So you try and help, again.   Except that inside, you’re screaming.  Screaming until you realise that the screaming has somehow escaped from your secret inside, and is pouring out of your mouth, like poison.  Your temples are throbbing and there’s a sharp pain in your head.  You’re screaming and crying – and suddenly you vomit.  You feel like you’ve smashed things, people, yourself.  That’s when the guilt sinks its teeth into you.  You hate yourself.

You just want some rest.

By the time you’ve helped whoever needed helping, you realise it’s grown dark outside.  You haven’t been out and you haven’t done enough work.

As the days turn into weeks, then months, you start feeling as though you’re not totally, firmly inside your body.  You’re there and yet you’re not quite there.  The tension that makes your muscles ache confirms that you’re alive and yet you’re somehow not entirely in your body.  Your life is not really your life.  Your e-mail inbox has many unread e-mails or, worse, e-mails that you’ve opened but don’t actually remember reading.  You haven’t seen people,  listened to the news, read a newspaper, a book, or your friends’ blogs, watched television for ages.  Come to think of it, when was the last time you did anything for yourself? You’re in a bubble of thick, sticky fog.  You’re in a cold, damp, smelly dungeon.

You decide to go to evensong at the Cathedral.  You know it will soothe you.  Forty-five minutes where your mobile can’t ring.  Where you can relax.  They’re singing Byrd’s Mass for Three Voices.  You’re about to leave the house when the phone rings.  Your help is needed again.  It’s too late for evensong now.  Evensong.  Missing it suddenly acquires a huge importance and you feel unfairly deprived.  Frustrated.  So frustrated, you lunge at the wall, and slap it hard.  You catch the soft part of your wrist against the door frame.  That’s how you get a painful bump on your wrist for two weeks after that.

You just want some rest.

An acquaintance calls you and starts telling you his or her problems.  You nearly hang up on them.  You nearly tell them to go and get lost.  You wind up the conversation quickly, abruptly and – you know only too well – rudely.  You just can’t bear it.  You don’t want to understand anyone anymore.

You just want some rest!

Finally, you press the “send” button and dispatch your completed work.  You decide that you can’t want to help anyone for the time being.  No.  Why lie? The truth is, you don’t want to help anyone.  You’re at the end of your tether.  It’s your first day of relative freedom but you’ve been indoors for so long, you’re slightly apprehensive about going out.  Somehow, you propel yourself to the coffee shop near the market place, and order a cappuccino.  You start reading a book.  An actual book.  One that you want to read.  There’s a blind young woman sitting next to you, with a cream-coloured labrador guide dog.  You ask the young woman if you can stroke the dog.  “Of course,” she says.  You pat the dog and he walks up to you and sniffs the air around you.  You think he must smell how bad, how weak, how angry and how toxic you are.  A dog must be able to detect the black poison, like tar, inside you.  That there is no hope for you or in you.

The dog’s dark brown eyes bore into you.  They are soft, deep and totally un-judging.  He stares so deep into your soul, that for a moment, you lose yourself in his eyes.  You feel wrapped in a warm, soft blanket of totally unconditional love.  You’re at one with the dog, with the Universe, and with yourself.

You wish you could ask the dog’s forgiveness for all you have done and all you are.

The dog comes close to you, and begins to lick your hand.

Scribe Doll

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On a Train from Norwich to Cambridge

The day is grey and very, very still, self-contained in drowsy introspection.  But maybe it’s not sleeping at all but quietly meditating, plotting an event, contemplating crafting its next miracle.

The fog is blurring the silhouette of the trees, like pencil drawings rubbed with a ball of cotton wool.  The dark green tops blend in with the pale grey fog and, in the distance, the horizon merges with the never-ending East Anglian sky.

We pass a field with pigs.  Pale grey and black ones, ears twitching, eating something off the ground.  There’s a sow with large, dangling udders.  I think of what they are intended for – to nurture life, and feel slightly queasy at the thought of all these pigs being especially bred for human consumption.  Especially bred.  The phrase has something metallic and unnatural about it.

Further, there are sheep grazing in an enclosure.  Meek, dependent, accepting.  Created by and for man.

Two magpies, for joy, skipping by the waterlogged furrows left by large vehicle tyres, flicking their long tails.  Alert, clever, nervous.

A weeping willow trails her weary autumnal yellow mane in a stream.   A congregation of ducks loitering in the water, like perky gossips.

A stretch of brown land with patches of black soil and occasional clumps of bright green grass.  A row of naked trees, their trunks all inclined in the same direction by recurring winds.

A peregrine falcon flapping its strong wings, whizzing in perfect parallel with the horizon.

A conference of rooks.  Glossy, jet-black splodges on a vibrant green canvas.

The train pulls into a station.  On my right, up on a hill, the imposing stone towers of Ely Cathedral.  I gasp in awe at its imposing beauty.  Yet something in my heart tightens.  There is something unforgiving about it.  Something at odds with the impartially accepting stillness of the day.

Scribe Doll

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The Busker

It was a voice carried by the wind through the semi-deserted streets of a Norwich Sunday afternoon. A voice that sang not into your ear but into your heart. I started walking towards it.

He was standing outside NatWest Bank, on London Street. He looked about fifty but I suspect his weatherbeaten face was adding several years to his true age. The ruddy cheeks of someone used to being outdoors. Not the complexion of a man from the city. I wondered if he was a farmer. Or perhaps a fisherman? His jacket was threadbare in parts, and there were indelible stains on his trousers. Something that looked like an old anorak was spread on the pavement at his feet. A few coins were scattered on it. How else did this man make his living? I wanted to ask him why he was standing on the street corner. What had brought him into Norwich – or what had pushed him out of his home outside the city. Instead, all I could pluck up the courage to do, was walk up to him with a few coins, drop them into the palm of his hand and say, “You sing so beautifully.”

He smiled. “I’m glad you like it.”

I was angry with myself for having only small change in my purse. I stood for a while, listening to that voice. A voice with no training, no polish but which shone as clear and bright as the East Anglian sky. There was no artifice in his performance. He sang from his heart. A song as simple and true as the earth. It was a folk song – but not the kind you hear at folk festivals, with acoustic guitars and mic-ed up voices and deliberately uncombed hair. This was a song of the people who work with their hands and are true to their hearts. I imagined it must be a Norfolk song. It was so simple, so straight, so innocent and yet so full of strength. I felt my heart expand up to my throat.

A few days later, I saw him again. This time, he was standing on the corner of Castle Street. He was wearing a clean blazer. Once again, the anorak on the pavement at his feet, a few coins strewn over it. I opened my purse. With the excitement of a child, I walked up to him with a banknote. He looked at me as though he recognised me.

I stood across the street for a long time, listening to that voice. That simple, straight singing, as honest as the soil, and the wind and the East Anglian sky. My heart expanded once again. This time, it pressed against the back of my eyes, and I slowly walked away, trying to stop tears from dripping out.

I hope I hear that voice again.

Scribe Doll

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Clocks Take a Step Back, So Take a Step Forward

It’s my favourite day of the year.  I go to bed with a feeling of hopeful anticipation, after setting all the clocks in the flat back by an hour.  As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to wake up to a new year, bursting with new possibilities.

I hate it when the clocks go forward in the spring.  That one hour when I need to wake up earlier makes makes me jet-lagged – something that flights to and from the US and China have never done – for a couple of weeks.  My body feels robbed of something.

In Italian, British Summer Time is called ora legale.  The legal time, by the laws you had nothing to do with setting up.  Human laws.  When the clocks go back, however, they revert to the ora solare – the sun time, as decreed by the Sun god.

In England, we revert to Greenwich Meantime, the meridian from which all other meridians take their lead.  Again, it feels like the last Sunday in October is when the more truthful and correct way of marking time resumes.  Just like autumn feels like the touchstone come to test the seriousness of our intent for the cold months to come.  The rest of the year, it’s just fluff.  An illusion.

The last Sunday of October, ahead of Hallowe’en, magic takes place.  A gift.  A small miracle.  We receive the gift of an extra hour’s sleep – and yet still wake up early enough.  A gift of an extra hour to do at least one thing we have not had the time to do over the past few months.  There is something redemptive about this magical extra hour.  It’s like a second chance, a chance for a new start.

Yesterday, I spent most of the day working.  Then, in the afternoon, I remembered I had that extra hour stashed away.  I used it on repotting a basil plant I bought from the supermarket a few weeks ago, and which has unexpectedly grown beyond all expectations.  As I pushed the fresh soil around the roots of the plant, I sipped hot water with lemon juice, ginger and honey.  When I’d finished, I took another pot and filled it with soil.  Then I collected five pips from the lemon I’d just squeezed, arranged them in a star shape on the surface, and pushed them deeper into the dark soil.  I sprinkled water, and placed the pot on the sun-flooded kitchen windowsill.  “Grow,” I whispered.

A new year, a new chance.  God willing, a new lemon tree.

Scribe Doll


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