As the mother of a son with autism, I have throughout his life acted as an advocate, carer, companion, supporter. One of his difficulties is taking unfamiliar journeys alone. Now aged 18, he has just started a new course in Horticulture at Pershore College in Worcestershire.
Yesterday we met what was, for both of us, a challenge: we navigated the minefield of getting from Warwick to Pershore College by 9.30 am (a three hour journey by public transport). It was a challenge for me because, as a car-owner, I’m used to driving everywhere and am unfamiliar with public transport, especially in rural areas. Having recently been involved in a car accident, I’m currently without a car. So we both set out, expecting to find the buses arriving and departing according to the timetables, and I ended up with feelings of frustration, anger and even betrayal from the difficulties and unexpected events we encountered (all of them caused by human error). I thought to myself, ‘I must write about this…. if I was a satirical novelist, I’d write a brilliantly comic piece about it.’ Even as I raged impotently against the bus companies of Warwickshire and Worcestershire, the infuriating details of this journey struck me as perfect material for a comic novelist’s take on life.
Having delivered my son an hour late at the college (slightly relieved by the discovery that several of the other students had also had trouble with public transport this morning, and were late, or still hadn’t arrived – so my son wasn’t alone, and hadn’t missed anything important) – I walked into Pershore to explore the town before returning to the college later in the day.
I was thinking to myself, “this is a lovely place” but my nerves were still so jangled by our recent journey, and the thought that he’d have to go through this 3 days a week for the next academic year. I found myself reflecting on how so many people in our society seem to operate by keeping one area of information separate from others, and they don’t coalesce, responding flexibly in relation to other facts. It reminded me of a recent comment on Facebook I had read by a fellow-writer, observing that she regarded the world as largely insane, as a matter of course.
Then I found Pershore Abbey.
First of all I walked all around the exterior of the Abbey.
Then I walked in through the west door, and this was the sight that met my eyes.
Immediately, I thought: Sanity. It was as if I had been trapped in a stifling, enclosed cell and now entered a place where there was fresh air, living water, and a vision of life that transcended all I had been experiencing for the last few hours. I felt released, opened up, by the beauty of this space.
And this is the purpose of great religious buildings, and the goal of all truly noble architecture – to draw you in and welcome you as you enter, to make you feel that you are accepted, whoever you are, and whatever state you’re in, and to live your eyes upwards, so that you may transcend the troubles of this world, and indeed, see this life in divine perspective.
It is a dream… of what has never been… true, it has never been, and therefore, since the world is alive, and moving yet, my hope is the greater that it one day will be… dreams have before now come about of things so good… we scarcely think of them more than the daylight, though once people had to live without them, without even the hope of them.
These words are from William Morris the great Victorian designer. His dream was that everyone would “have his share of the best”; he longed to see art at the centre of everyone’s lives so that they might “always have pleasure in the things that they use.”
Right now (June-September 2015), there is an exhibition of the work of William Morris and his contemporaries at Compton Verney, an art gallery very close to where I live in Warwick, a place I love visiting.
I love William Morris designs (as you’ll see from a former post on this blog) and have just bought a tapestry shoulder-bag with the Strawberry Thief design on it.. True, art and design in our lives often has a monetary value; this seems to be the nature of human life.
But to me, William Morris’s dream of everyone having his or her “share of the best” is the ultimate democracy, the democracy of ‘value’ and quality of life, above all else, whatever our circumstances. As we know this dream is very far from being realised in our world. But how inspiring William Morris’s words are, and how encouraging his vision, for those of us who dream, and have high ideals.
Those were the words one soprano had written after bar 8 of the Lacrymosa in her score of Mozart’s Requiem: just so she could be sure which bits were from the hand of the master, and which from his much-less gifted composer friend Franz Sussmayr. We were singing with the choir Spires Philharmonic Chorus, who are currently rehearsing Mozart’s Requiem for a performance at Holy Trinity Church Coventry on Saturday 11 April 2015 (those readers local to Coventry please note in your diaries!)
I was tempted along to these rehearsals by Mozart himself. The lure of singing his requiem once more was too much to resist.
Mozart’s Requiem is justifiably renowned for its sublime beauty; but it also gains fame for the quirky and curious stories which surround its composition. Most of this confusion, I understand, derives from different interviews given by Mozart’s wife Constanza who made considerable efforts to mask the truth about the Requiem, in the months and years following Mozart’s death in Vienna in 1791. On 18 January 2015, I saw a BBC TV programme The Joy of Mozart in which the presenter Tom Service was lamenting the false image of Mozart pedalled by the commercial Mozart industry in Salzburg. One of these popular ideas is that after Mozart died, his body was callously thrown into a mass grave in the St Marx Cemetery in Vienna, and he had a “pauper’s funeral” utterly disregarding his status as one of the world’s greatest composers. Yet these facts are probably totally misinterpreted by those who misunderstand normal burial arrangements in his society at that time.
Additionally a popular idea about Mozart is that he composed his Requiem in the knowledge that he was about to die, believing it to be his own requiem. Yet it has recently been pointed out at the time Mozart would have expected to recover from his illness, finish the requiem, and write much more music besides.
At the end of The Joy of Mozart, Tom Service observed that the final word has to be with those who love his music.
As I sing this requiem I respond to it not as a musicologist – although our chorus founder and conductor ColinTouchin provided as much of that as we could have wished for – I respond to to it on a profound emotional level. The very first chord of this requiem has such a powerful effect upon me; I cannot begin to analyse it. Although as Colin Touchin told us it is thought that Mozart was the very first composer to use the key of E Flat Minor, and I do sometimes think it must be good to analyse the reasons why this music effects us so deeply, I also think the rest of us just have to accept the profound emotional impact Mozart’s music makes, and leave it at that. We are left with this, beyond all the musicology and the analysis.
We know that Mozart managed to complete only parts of the requiem before he died, and the rest was completed by Franz Sussmayr, selected for the job by Mozart’s widow Constanza, who was worried she wouldn’t get paid for the requiem if she didn’t find someone to finish it; and she chose Sussmayr only after she’d considered other candidates and rejected them. It seems a game we cannot resist, to convince ourselves that certain bits cannot possibly have been written by Sussmayr, they must have been written by Mozart. Yet the fact remains that Sussmayr, not considered by musicologists to have been a particularly outstanding composer, did indeed complete the requiem and did it so creditably that the requiem remains one of the most loved and revered pieces of choral music ever written. What a task that must have been for Sussmayr; and perhaps my best insight into his situation lies in this idea: if I imagine how I would feel if I were asked to complete an unfinished novel by Jane Austen.
I recently visited Beachy Head, East Sussex, with a friend and my two teenage children.
As we walked along the cliftop, we all agreed: Where in the world could we go that’s more beautiful than this?
Beachy Head, together with the Seven Sisters Country Park and Birling Gap are all protected by The National Trust and they are a short drive out of Eastbourne on the south coast.
I was born and brought up in Kent, and it was only thirty five minutes drive from where we lived to the south coast. Camber Sands was a particular favourite, and we regularly visited and ran over the open dunes, usually going on afterwards to the lovely old fishing town Rye, with its evocative fifteenth century Mermaid Inn.
On every trip, I felt the excitement of that first view of the sea.
And now, I say to my own children, just as my father said to us: “who’ll be the first to catch a glimpse of the sea?”
Everything depends upon our own inner state, as we contemplate such landscapes, which can then become sacred spaces.
For me, standing on a cliff gazing out to sea is a thing of beauty, a joy for ever.
As a mystery romance novelist I have my own ideas!
The setting for my novel Mystical Circles is a gracious farmhouse in the Cotswolds; surrounded by garden, orchard, and its own land rising up the steep side of the valley to a ridge overlooking the panorama of the Severn Vale, it also boasts a fine tithe barn. It’s my idea of a romantic location. Though I will admit that some of the things that go on in it do not quite qualify for that description! For intrigues, liaisons and relationships flare and flourish or fizzle out quickly within this close circle.
Nevertheless, there are genuinely romantic moments in my novel. There is a sunken garden with a water lily pond; an African thatched gazebo reached by a winding path through azaleas and rhododendrons; and up the wooded slope behind the farmhouse, a hermitage, ideal for “one-to-one counselling sessions”. Also the sitting room, with its leaded window panes, through which the morning sun streams, tinting the oak floor timbers gold, and enriching the colours of the silk long- fringed rugs is often the venue for a romantic get-together; or maybe the library, with its mellow oak panelling, the dreamy atmosphere, the softly glowing lamps. These are all suitable locations for romantic moments.
But in real life true romantic moments are few and far between.
To me, the essence of a traditional romantic moment is this: a serendipitous conjunction of beauty, happiness, dreams, and a loving relationship between a man and a woman. Notice my use of the word ‘traditional’!
You need to inhabit a romantic moment fully to claim it.
I can think of moments which had most of the ingredients of being romantic… except that I lacked the confidence to be fully alive to them.
You need to be relaxed, accepting, and totally at one in the moment.
These are some examples of romantic moments garnered from my own memories (the names of the ‘romantic heroes’ concerned are disguised!:
1. lemon souffle in a restaurant in Albemarle Street, London, with Mr X
2. on a London underground escalator when Mr X turned to me and said: “One day we’ll be together forever.”
3. On the shore of a certain Balearic Island, near dusk, watching a sea that looked like caramel silk, when Mr X turned to me and said “When I become Y (naming the promotion he was hoping to get, which we’d discussed), we’ll come back here and stay at the Z Hotel (naming the Hotel Romantic-but-Very-Posh-and-Expensive which we on that trip had been unable to afford to stay in).
Here are my further ideas of what would constitute a romantic moment:
1) A chance meeting with an ex-lover in a supremely beautiful place (and I spent ages trying to make that work in a previous novel but it just didn’t come off).
2) The “bone fida mini-break” beloved of Bridget Jones – in a fine country house hotel such as the one which Daniel Cleaver whisked Bridget off to, filmed at Stoke Park (although it all went sour when they met up in the foyer with Mark Darcy and his attractive companion Natasha).
3) The spontaneous / surprise weekend in Paris in the springtime (referred to in a stage farce I greatly enjoyed, when the main character, a philanderer played by Leslie Phillips, spirited his mistress Janie off on just such a break, having purchased beautiful lingerie to lay out on the bed for her, and was then interrupted by other visitors whom he hadn’t bargained for).
True romantic moments are few and far between in real life. That is, of course, the nature of serendipity. And it’s why romance fiction is the most popular literary genre.
I hope that when those moments come, you are able to fully inhabit them.
What are your romantic moments? Dare you let me know about them in your comments – disguising the name of the romantic hero, of course?
I have loved many books in my life, but the ones that stand out for me have three ingredients: archetypal themes, emotional charge and X factor. And they are the ones which can indeed change the way you see the world.
My three nominations will be grouped under the headings of the power they exerted upon me, the reader:
1) The power to shock and move
Shusaku Endo’s Silence, set in the 17th century, is the story of the persecution of a Jesuit missionary sent to Japan. It has been called “Endo’s supreme achievement” and “one of the twentieth century’s finest novels”. In this book, the Catholic Endo explores the theme of a silent God who accompanies the believer in adversity. It was greatly influenced by the author’s experience of religious discrimination in Japan, racism in France, and tuberculosis. During the years that have elapsed since I read this book, I have never forgotten the image of the Japanese Christians being tied to a stake at the sea’s edge, and forced to endure the sea rolling back and forth over their bodies, and singing: We are going to the temple, going to the temple of God. Somehow for me this stands as an image of a race, whose native religion is so different from Christianity, assimilating Christian theology into their own belief system, and expressing a faith which transcends personal suffering. How has it changed me? It has informed my understanding of the way human beings adopt different faith systems ever since.
2) The power to change your view of human nature
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is considered by some to be the greatest horror story ever written. When I finished reading this story I felt “scoured out” emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. This tale of how one man’s soul can be destroyed through the devious manipulations of another, is summed up in a terrifying image: the portrait that reflects the creeping corruption of a man’s soul, and whose destruction must result in the death of its subject. I felt the real villain of the piece to be Lord Henry Wotton who first stirs up the artist and persuades Dorian of his beauty, thus sewing the seeds of his eventual destruction. Beauty, and our perception of it and response to it, lies at the heart of this masterpiece. Since reading it, I have never seen human beauty with the same eyes.
3) The power to give new insight into human psychology
Dostoyevsky’ s Crime and Punishment
Another unforgettable moment is provided by this great novel, which tells the story of impoverished student Raskolnikov who determines to rid the world of the grasping old woman money lender. He persuades himself that his actions are benevolent, for the greater good of the community, and thus he has a high moral purpose. But when he is forced to kill the old woman’s half-sister, innocent Lizaveta, then his conscience starts its work. Again one moment has remained with me: when Raskolnikov is eventually compelled to give himself up to the police who have been long hunting him: It was I who killed the old woman and Lizaveta. This profound novel, once read, stays with you forever. And this indeed sums up the power of a novel which will change how you see the world.
What about you? Have you read these novels? Do you share my feelings about them, or disagree? Or perhaps you can suggest another novel, which is for you more powerful than any of these? Let me know! I’d love to know your choices!