Desert Island Discs: Mache Dich, Meine Herze, Rein

My father gave me a triple CD set of St Matthew’s Passion when I set off to university, and if I’m honest, I didn’t listen to it much at first, preferring the sweeping melodies of Rachmaninov, or the rich orchestration of Mahler. I used to turn away from Bach in my music lessons, not knowing how to turn all those black notes into something musical, something expressive.

After John and I were married we had our other children fairly quickly, and had completed our family long before most of our peers had even started theirs. It’s a funny time, your twenties. For many people, especially those who go to university, your twenties are the first time that you make your own decisions and people’s lives branch off in different directions. Of course, ours was different from much earlier on but even so, those early years – juggling babies and toddlers, primary school and then secondary school transitions, early career paths, maternity leave and then a period at home with the children full time – were both wonderful and extremely hard work all at once. They are for all families. It would have been nice to have had some friends doing the same at the same time, but we had each other, and perhaps that is why we are such a tight-knit unit now. I think I could do just about anything with John by my side.

Time passes, we grow older, and now Bach is possibly my favourite composer. In his music there is, to my ear anyway, the perfect balance of control and passion, and I can find all of life in it. His aria for bass, Mache Dich, Maine Herze, Rein (Make Yourself Pure, My Heart), bubbles with the sweetness, energy and yearning of those early family years. It presses on, so much happening beneath the smooth, controlled emotion of the soloist. I could listen to it a thousand times more and still find something new every time I do, so complex and perfectly crafted is its form. When I think back to those early years, I don’t remember the sleep deprivation, money worries or dirty nappies. I remember a busy, happy, full time, which I thought would last forever. Now that Ben is at university and Ilse about to start secondary school, I can see a time coming when life will be quiet and I’ll have all the time I used to long for. We have so many plans for what comes next, when we find ourselves with a grown up family in our mid forties. Now, though, in the midst of this transition, I like to put this aria on as we sit down for our Sunday roast, Ben home for the holidays and us all around the table together, the way we have gathered for years. There’ll be silence at first as we enjoy the chicken and wine that, years ago, was such a treat. Then the talk will start, just stories and questions, discussions about anything at all, really, until it ends in laughter. Those days of corralling little people, the endless washing and cooking and background noise are over now, replaced by teens and nearly-teens. It’s a different sort of noise. And it’ll be another sort of noise in ten years’ time. But, God willing, it’ll still be there in ten, twenty, even thirty years. The pulse of family life, the pulse that we created, John and I, beneath the sweet and different songs that we all sing.

Madeleine

Do you have music that you associate with family mealtimes? We have music that I’m sure our children will forever associate with Sunday roasts (in the same way that, for me, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto is Sunday mornings): this, and Carmina Burana, A-Ha and REM – and the BBC R4 Friday night comedy. What about you?

Desert Island Discs: Something Changed

John and I had no business meeting each other. It really shouldn’t have happened: he was a starry PhD student in another subject, at another college, while I was still an undergraduate with rather a lot on my plate. Yet one June evening, a supervisor drove me out of Cambridge for dinner at a country pub, and on the way home he parked his car at the back of Trinity. We wandered back to St. John’s through Great Court and there we bumped into a friend of his, covered in chalk dust, an ice axe in each hand.

I’d come back from Syria, where I’d been having some time out, to spend May Week in Cambridge before returning for my final year the following October. At the end of year, after exams, there are a couple of weeks of pure fun: garden parties; May Balls that go on all night; dinners and punting and lazing around all day on the gloriously sunny Backs. My supervisor, seeing that I was smitten, invited me to his garden party the following afternoon as John was going to be there, and the rest, as they say, was history. I don’t think I’d ever had as much fun as we had in those first two sunny summer weeks. They remain in my mind as a time of pure happiness.

Although we didn’t listen to any Pulp during those first two weeks, I’m always reminded of them when I hear Something Changed. My whole life turned on a chance encounter on a golden Cambridge evening. Not just finding my life partner – although that would be enough – but finding my independence again. It’s all very well, believing in fate (I don’t), but even if you do, it’s what you do with your opportunities that counts. My whole life turned on the head of a pin in those two short weeks. In a funny way, I became myself again, free and unafraid.

I had a fantastic summer that year, diving in Australia and spending a couple of months with my parents in France and then Aleppo, Syria. When I returned to Cambridge in the October, John and I, who had been writing all summer, decided to make a go of it. I made new friends – through John but also, for the first time, through my course: proper friends, people who built me up. I started to take my studies seriously, spending my days tucked in a corner of the labyrinthine University Library, periodically meeting John for tea and scones in the cafe, and in the end I did rather well. When the time came to graduate, I didn’t want to leave. I loved those final twelve months, working and playing hard, encouraged and inspired by the people around me. They made what could have continued to be a very tough time not only manageable, but a joy.

If I think of my life as a series of events, the significant moments weighing heavy on an unbroken thread, that chance meeting was one such moment for me. How lucky I was, to bump into the love of my life just then, when I least expected it. It wasn’t just something that changed that day; it was everything.

Desert Island Discs: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

At nineteen I found myself starting my second year at Cambridge, four and a half thousand miles from home and the single mother of a three week old baby boy.

The music I’ve chosen for this section of my life is the second movement of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs:Lento e Largo – Tranquillissimo. After the horrors of the Second World War, Gorecki wrote a three piece symphony for solo soprano and orchestra. The second movement takes as its lyrics the words scratched on the wall of a Gestapo cell by eighteen year old Helena Wanda Blazusiakowna: O Mamo, nie płacz, nie. Niebios Przeczysta Królowo, Ty zawsze wspieraj mnie (Oh Mamma do not cry, no. Immaculate Queen of Heaven, you support me always).

Of course I would never dream of comparing my situation to hers, or to the suffering of billions around the world even today. Mine were first world problems, I know. The reason I’ve chosen it is that it voices the profound loneliness I felt. As well as the physical isolation of the long summer vacations, stuck in Cambridge when everyone else had gone home or was travelling, I was alone in my situation.

Even now, twenty years on, I’ve never met anyone who shares my experiences. But I have met other people who have come through difficult times and remained positive about the future. Because as well as being a sorrowful song, the piece I’ve chosen is also a bold one, and full of faith.

Desert Island Discs: Find the River

After three years in Jordan, we moved back to Dar es Salaam, where we stayed for five more years before I left home for university. Returning somewhere is a strange experience. Nothing is quite as you left it. The student body of international schools is constantly shifting, so that the people you left behind will often have moved on themselves. New faces take their place. Most of all though, is the change that takes place in you, and the shift from age ten to thirteen is a dramatic one.

Still, though all the buildings had shrunk and the number of familiar faces dwindled, there were widening horizons to explore. No longer content to hang out on the school campus, time was spent at friends’ houses or at the beach or, when I was a little older, at the Yacht Club (which sounds far posher than it was). Nonetheless, I did have a little sailing dinghy – a secondhand Laser – and we spent most weekends messing about on the water, racing each other, crewing for friends’ parents on their Wayfarers or catamarans, and eating junk food in the bar. We sailed through great swarms of white, plate-like jellyfish, and occasionally alongside dolphins. For a time, our favourite thing to do was to put a sandwich and bottle of water in the little watertight cubbies at the front of our boats and sail out to Bongoyo Island for a day of lazing in the sun. We had tropical beaches and reefs on our doorstep, and I quite naturally transferred my love of horses to the sea.

Of course school was school, as it is wherever you grow up, but life around the edges was rich with new experiences. There were family safaris and then, as I got older, safaris with friends. Although I never had a car, several of my friends had use of their parents 4x4s and I will never forget our trip to camp in the Usambara mountains, which were then almost totally cut off from the world we knew. We lit a fire, stored our food carefully to avoid attracting unwanted animals and spent the evening diving into plunge pools of icy mountain water. The following morning I ventured upstream, picking my way over boulders, only to look up and find myself completely surrounded by a troop of baboons. They looked at me for a while and, thankfully, went on their way. It took some time for my pulse to return to normal.

Then there were school trips. The most exciting was the Kilimanjaro climb, for which we took long practice walks along the coastline. Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa, but scaling most of its 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) is nothing more technical than a very long walk. You do, however, ascend extremely quickly and the altitude sickness can be quite a challenge. In the end, I never made Uhuru peak – I was just too ill. I did make it all the way to the last of the huts, but I just missed out on the final dawn ascent. One of my very favourite things about that climb though, was the chameleons. They were absolutely everywhere on the lower slopes, with their roving eyes and grippy opposing toes, and I must admit that we did test their colour-changing abilities on our waterproofs…

If I had to choose just one album to sum up those teenage years, it would have to be R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. I heard it first in a friend’s bedroom and still have it, downloaded from CD onto iTunes, and it is still a favourite. I could have chosen so many tracks for this part of my life – Nightswimming would have been quite obvious – but Find the River sums up my impatience and wonder and longing to find my own path through the world.

Recently I was having a conversation with someone who knows Tanzania, and he commented that he couldn’t think of a nicer country in which to grow up. It is so gentle, so serene, so relaxed and conflict free. Of course, as a kid you never appreciate how lucky you are. I can remember my last few weeks so vividly – exams over we would gather at Coco’s beach bar for late-night bouts of monopoly punctuated by dips in the moonlit sea. I had a vague sense that something was coming to an end, but more than that I was impatient to be moving on, beginning something new. Within a year I would so have been so happy to have gone back and sat on that terrace in front of a dukah, sipping beer and worrying about nothing more pressing than the next roll of the dice. But then, I was so busy waiting for life to begin that I didn’t realise how much of it was coming to an end.

Madeleine

PS That’s me, in the white hat with the blue brim. We were in one of the huts, partway up Kili. Do you have a photo or song that takes you right back to your teenage years?

Desert Island Discs: Everything I do, I do it for you

On my thirteenth birthday, one of my friends invited me round to her house for a sleepover, or so I thought. When I opened the living room door there was everyone, as only a teen would say, jumping out from behind the sofas, shouting ‘Surprise!’, putting presents in my hands. We stayed up very late that night, as thirteen year olds are wont to do, watching the film of the moment: Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, and my favourite present was a tape with the theme song on repeat on both sides.

Cut off as I was in a bit of a Middle Eastern bubble, I didn’t know that Bryan Adams’ Everything I do, I do it for you was number one in the UK charts for 16 weeks, and it wouldn’t have made any difference if I had. It was a song which summed up a lot of the kids’ films of the age, with their reckless yet intelligent heroes fighting their way through history. When we lived in Tanzania, a socialist state, privately owned televisions and video players were illegal, so we didn’t have one. Our neighbours did, though, and every Saturday they would invite all the kids on the campus round to watch a film. There were three for us to choose from: Crocodile DundeeChitty Chitty Bang Bang and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The last was my favourite by far, and sparked hours of daydreaming in which I was, of course, Dr Jones and not his yet-to-be-empancipated female companion.

Once we moved to Jordan I spent a lot of time in my head, unhappy at school and struggling to make friends. I found myself in a bilingual school, scrambling to catch up with the native Arabic speakers around me, moved up a year halfway through the term (which never makes you popular), and because of my late move, separated from the small group of other non-native speakers. To cap things off, Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait the following summer and so I found myself held responsible for the actions of the British and American governments by some of my less-than-reasonable fellow students. So I daydreamed a lot, sitting on the back seat of the school bus with the posse of 18 year old boys who had taken it upon themselves to keep an eye on me and always saved me a seat.

Of course, the impact that the first Gulf War had on my life was insignificant compared to that which it had on others, and it did have some positive outcomes. Several families – presumably those who could – left their lives in Kuwait City and came to live in Amman instead. Classes were reshuffled and gradually I made some really good friends. By the time I hit thirteen, life at school was pretty good again.

There was one thing, though, that I loved about that school from the start. In Jordan, as in many Islamic countries, the working week runs from Saturday to Wednesday. On Thursday morning we had what was known as Thursday School – an optional set of activities to choose from – and one of them was riding. I had wanted to learn to ride for years, but it wasn’t really an option in Dar. In Jordan, though, there are horses everywhere. Heads bent, dull from the dust and heat, pulling carts of watermelons for sale. Decked out in their finest, waiting next to a row of camels for tourists to mount and have a photo taken. Best of all, in the studs, where the stallions twitched and shuffled, impatient to be off. In Amman, riding is largely a male sport, and so as the only girl in the group I was always given the same horse to ride: a beautiful bay named Adham, which means Polite. I adored him, and was always slightly afraid of his power and will. I will probably never ride a horse like him again – he must have been worth a small fortune – but what an animal to learn on. So different from the horses that my grandad would take me to ride during summers in Ireland: great heavy mounts that you had to really tell what to do. In Jordan, we rode with precision and grace – or at least, I tried to. In Derry, though we practiced jumps and so forth, we would more often head out for a hack through tree-lined lanes, or leave the saddles behind and canter, bareback, through soft green fields. I loved both.

We had wonderful holidays both in and out of Jordan: to the UK to visit family but also to Aqaba, the Dead Sea, Jerash, Petra, the lush and vibrant Jordan Valley and camping, like Lawrence of Arabia, in Wadi Rum. We saw mirages in the desert and drank tea with bedouin, and were there the year the snow fell so deep that the army had to airlift them out of the desert. We also visited Jerusalem, crossing the border in a little bus and staying in a convent in the heart of the city. The region was awash with tourists, that first year. Then the war began, and all that changed.

Suddenly, we were the only visitors, everywhere we went. It must have been devastating for an economy which relied so heavily upon tourism. Jordan is a beautiful country and its people amongst the most hospitable I’ve met and, overnight, there were no guests. We’d be the only residents in hotels, the only people picking our way around an abandoned Roman town, the only group out picnicking and wadi-wading for the day. In the photograph above, I am standing in the doorway of the Monastery in Petra, and there was no-one but us in the place. It was one of our favourite destinations, and there is so much to see and learn that we could have gone back indefinitely. Empty of visitors, it was so quiet and eerie that we could have been Johann Ludwig Burckhardt ‘discovering’ it in 1812, or David Roberts sitting on a rock to paint his lithographs in 1832.

Imagine my delight, then, when Steven Spielberg chose Petra as the site of the third Indiana Jones film – The Last Crusade. Not only had I been to many of the locations that they used, but here I was, in Petra, with the place virtually empty and several horses available for hire. The happy afternoons I spent riding up and down the gorge were quite literally the stuff of my dreams. Which is why, although I wouldn’t listen to it now, Everything I do, I do it for you has got to be my song for this part of my life. Pure fantasy with a hefty dose of history thrown in, a dash of heroism and… horses. What more could a girl want?

Madeleine

PS – Do you have a song which sums up your pre-teen years? I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who daydreamed endlessly at that age – who did you want to be?

Desert Island Discs: Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me

Apparently, green mambas have three scales between the eyes, whereas the harmless grass snake has four. This is one of the first things I remember learning when we moved to Dar, probably from one of the bigger boys. It was only later, once I’d carried a young cobra to the biology teacher’s house for identification, that someone thought to tell me that I should never get close enough to count.

For all the things that I loved about life in West Sussex, life as a child in Tanzania was bigger, wilder and more free. School ended at half twelve and then we were free to roam until the sun set at six. We lived on the secondary school campus and nowhere was off limits to us: not the askaris’ huts with their poisoned spears and arrows, not the diving pool with a leak but plenty of tadpoles if you could reach the bottom. Not the low roofs of the classrooms, on which we would play and ride our bikes, nor the flame trees into whose branches we hammered planks and made dens. I know, now, that we were safe, watched over by all the adults in the place, but back then we didn’t care. We were just kids, immortal and invincible, teasing scorpions behind the art room.

So many of my memories of that time are about animals – the baboon that stole the potatoes from my plate, the one-tusked elephant that hung around Mikumi Lodge, the rats that swam up through the toilets and ate our candles and plastic tupperware. Bright birds, in cages or tethered by one leg to a stick. Bush babies and monkeys for sale. Monitor lizards, appearing suddenly out of storm drains.

And driving to see more: lions and cheetahs, impalas and hyenas and giraffe. Tanzania is a huge country, and we thought nothing of driving for a day or two to get somewhere, see something. We saw black rhinos in Ngorogoro Crater, and swathes of flamingos shimmering on Lake Manyara. Wildebeest stirring up the landscape of the Serengeti, and hundreds upon hundreds of crocodiles in the Selous. We also drove out of the country, to Kenya, Malawi, and Zimbabwe and, when my parents wanted a little luxury, we travelled to the Old Town of Zanzibar, or to Swaziland, or to a tiny private island where we and the members of A-ha were the only residents for the week.

I’m not sure whether our Datsun pickup, shipped in second hand from China, had a tape player, but if it did I don’t think it worked. I can’t remember ever listening to taped music in that truck. What I do remember is my dad singing. He would sing Green Finger, and Wimoweh, and other songs from the sixties. Most of all, though, he would sing Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me, and at the vital moment it was our role to come in with the much-anticipated uh-huh? I’m sure we must have squabbled over space in the back seat. I’m sure it was a little stressful driving with several jerry cans of fuel in the back, and hundreds of kilometres between mechanics. We broke down a lot, with one immortal repair in the form of our exhaust being stuck back on with chewing gum, but what I really remember is the singing, and the wildlife, and the possibility of it all.

In 1984, Tanzania was to all intents and purposes unchanged from the accounts I read about in Roald Dahl’s Going Solo. The minibus would drive us past his house on the way to the lower school site, and I’d look at the huge baobab in his front garden and not be the least surprised that nothing had changed. I haven’t been to Tanzania since 1999, when already the country I knew and loved was beginning to morph into something else. Every so often someone asks me whether I’d like to go back. The truth is that I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. The Tanzania of my childhood simply doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been engulfed by our new, globalised world. It’s a place where you are always connected. It’s not that I think progress is a bad thing. It’s just that I’d rather hold onto my memories as they are, wild and free and undoubtedly rose-tinted. Those first five years there were a time when anything could happen, and when I learned that that in itself is a wonderful thing.

Madeleine

PS – What about you? What form do your early years take, once they are distilled? And what song would you choose to summon them up? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear.

Desert Island Discs: All Things Bright and Beautiful

Perhaps I’d better begin with an explanation; after all, not everyone lives their life with Radio 4 murmuring companionably in the background. Desert Island Discs is one of those programmes which has become an institution, a jewel in the crown of British broadcasting, a regular feature of Sunday mornings across the UK. Aired for the first time in 1942, the format is simple: a guest is invited onto the programme to talk about their life. The interview centres around a conceit – if you were going to be abandoned on a desert island, what music would you take with you? The guest has eight choices, and they usually dictate the structure of the interview, taking the audience through their early years, significant highs and lows, and important relationships. Finally, the guest is asked to select their favourite disc, choose a single book to take with them, and given the luxury item of their choice.

Now, call me a fantasist (though I prefer ‘imaginative’…) but I can’t be the only one who’s wiled away a sunny afternoon working out her own playlist. Sadly, I doubt that I’ll ever get to do the show for real, but it did occur to me that it would be the ideal way to tell you all a little bit more about myself, now that I am appearing on the blog alongside Cecily. So without further ado, can I ask you to make yourselves a cup of tea and get comfy, as I present my first disc to you.

I don’t remember very much about my early years. We lived in West Sussex, on the south coast of England, until I was five, at which point we moved to Dar es Salaam. I started school at around the time my younger sister was born, and remember little of it except two things.

One was the local nature walks, which I adored. Once a week we would put on our coats and form a crocodile, holding hands with our nature walk partner. I remember the hand holding very clearly (it must have been impressed upon us), and the leaves crunching underfoot in the autumn. I remember stopping to pick up flowers or insects, or admire the patterns on the bark of a tree. I could have sworn we walked through great woods every time, although it might only have been a spinney, grown large through childish eyes.

The other memory is of assemblies. As for countless schoolchildren before us, the day started cross-legged on a scuffed wooden floor, with some teacher or other banging out hymns on the piano. I liked this habit of starting the day with a song, but only one sticks in my mind. Once we moved, and went to a different sort of school, we didn’t sing hymns any more. We sang other songs instead: We are the World, and Mungu Ibariki Afrika. It was years before I heard All Things Bright and Beautiful again, but when I did, having been dragged to a teenage church service by a missionary friend, I was four years old again, and sitting on that primary school floor.

Now, let me be clear: All Things Bright and Beautiful is not one of my favourite songs. It isn’t even my favourite hymn. But it is so evocative of childish peace and wonder, so filled with anticipation about what I might bring back for the nature table, that I can’t think of anything I’d rather listen to as I make my first lonely forays around the desert island. So there you have it: the first of my eight discs. Not the finest music in the world, but the gateway to some of my earliest, most fleeting memories.

Madeleine

What about you? What piece of music would you choose to evoke your early years? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear!