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!

Stitches

Well, it transpires that there are lots of things you can’t do without stretching your arms forward, particularly if you spend most of your days working with your hands in one way or another. I had a day or two of such discoveries, getting more and more fed up until I started to think about all the things I could do. Things that were not on my immediate list but that I wanted to get done. Frivolous things.

I spent an evening alternately dozing and re-reading The Go-Between. I tapped into Ilse’s enthusiasm for growing flowers and, with her help, arranged the pots on the patio. I delegated, rather a lot. This helped the house to get clean, thank goodness. I baked a huge Victoria sponge, simply oozing raspberry jam and cream, simply because I had the time, and it seemed a nice way to celebrate Friday. I still sat, for several hours across several different sessions, and helped Ben with his revision. It’s dull, doing it all on your own, day after day. I practised my Chopin, and the non-arm-crossing parts of my Debussy. I hoed the garden, standing very upright. I made a new camisole for myself.

And in between all of this, I cross-stitched the label for Ilse’s quilt. Indoors on the Saturday, then outside while drilling Ben on his Latin grammar on Sunday afternoon. It’s done now, although I might add a pretty little border in a darker pink, just to frame the words. It has a snowflake in the middle because it was one I never finished last Christmas. Once I’d stitched the other half of the flake, it seemed silly not to use it. The label is far from perfect – it’s an old linen napkin with a very uneven weave which makes it hard to be neat – but we all rather like it. So much, in fact, that the others would all like one for their quilts too. I’m sure I can oblige. I loved every soothing stitch.

But today I woke up and felt much better, which meant that the onions have had a much-needed hand weeding and I’m planting up some of those pots. Mrs P and I did a huge, ever-so-slightly-urgent wash. I’ll be getting on with lots of those tasks at the top of the list, now that I’m on the mend. I might just slip in a little cross stitch though. It is just the loveliest thing to do at this time of year, in a wicker chair, in the dappled sun. I don’t think I’m altogether healed just yet. Yes, a few more days of stitches might just be in order.

After the storm

Mrs P came home today, wrapped in blankets in the back of an ambulance, to trees blown bare of every last lingering leaf and streets scoured dry by the wind. After the storm, the sun came out, and it was in this sunny interval that she made her careful way up the stairs to bed. She’s in safe hands, that’s certain, and there isn’t a neighbour or a friend who hasn’t visited with beef tea or broth or both.

As well as the branches littering the streets, and bins blown sideways in front gardens, there was a pile of scraps by the side of my sewing machine, and thread and fluff all over the living room floor. I sorted and tidied with no small satisfaction: everything big enough has been cut into strips for Ben’s quilt, or made into little bags or other gifts. Only a pile of crumbs remains, and those are destined for an afternoon of sewing cards. Order restored, it was time for a cup of tea and a daydream, watching the yellow light spill in through the window and stain the room with coloured beams. A little daydreaming, for the what feels like the first time in ages. A reverie.

Which is the name of the piece I’ve just started learning, oh so hesitantly, at the piano. After my lesson I did wonder if I’d set my sights a little high, but after half a painstaking hour this morning I had begun to string the notes of the first few lines into something resembling music. I set the needle on the record and let the gramophone play it properly while I sewed the last few pieces. Sometimes I wonder whether I choose the music to suit the mood I’m in, or whether my mood is dictated by the music. It’s probably a bit of both. Today was most certainly not a day for Mahler: although there are sunbursts in his symphonies there are also many storms. Today was a day for something gentler, something soothing and delicate and beautiful, after recent worries.

By mid afternoon the wind had dropped and the clouds moved in once more, uncompromisingly dark. Yes, after the storm there is always the sunlight, but it often passes all too quickly at the moment. Today everything was right in my little world, but I am increasingly aware of the angry and the dispossessed. Since the crash it seems that it’s not only our economy that has suffered: our tolerance and generosity has, too. We had a leaflet through our letterbox last week, inviting Ben and Fliss to join the youth arm of Mosley’s New Party. They didn’t, of course. I worry, though, about where all this is heading, only fourteen years after the Great War. Yet at the same time, when the light slips in through the windows and good friends are on the mend, it seems impossible that such madness could ever reoccur. After such a storm, there should be sunlight for a hundred years at least.

New music

To my surprise, I find that there are other tunes to listen to. There, beside the gramophone, they have been waiting for me. I run my fingers over the cardboard sleeves, settle upon one at random, and pull it free. Some hissing, a little scratching but then the music which has been turning over and over in my mind, viewed from every angle, is replaced by the steady pulse of an orchestra and the the gentle rise and fall of piano notes above.

Throughout the rest of the day, other melodies have risen to the surface. Other snippets of song, other chords, other timbres. Some linger, some pass swiftly on, but it’s good to hear them again. Good to listen to something that I don’t know the name of every note of. Good to have a change.

That afternoon, in the garden, I find the slugs have been eating my savoys, and lift the cage off for a closer look. I bring two big bowls of raspberries in to have after supper, with cream. The mange tout are growing large and stringy so I pick the lot, and eat the bright sweet peas straight from the toughest pods. I weed a little section, and Ben passes me short lengths of cotton twine to tie things in. I snip at prickly brambles and carry them, at arm’s length, to the pile for burning. The hens follow me around, and I think that they are pleased to see me.

Inside, there is new fabric to be washed, and a new pattern to be cut. There is a little mountain of ironing to smooth the wrinkles out of. Ben gives me his old shirt, acid holes burned in the front from a chemistry lesson mishap, and I add it to the pile I was sorting, months ago, for Fliss’ quilt. There are two cards waiting to be written on the mantelpiece. There are novels by writers other than Christie to be read. There is a piano to be played, and a school play to enjoy. A party in a week or so. Holidays to have.

I hadn’t realised quite how far away I was – not consciously at least. Little piles were building in this house where little piles are never left to clutter up a surface. Books to be read, and new clothes to sew for little people. Recipes I’d like to try, thank you letters to be written. Even though the floors were swept, the dishes washed, the meals cooked and eaten, it seems I wasn’t fully there. Half my mind was elsewhere, rehearsing, remembering, and trying not to worry. It’s silly, really, to get so caught up in a project. To let it dominate a month or more.

But then I’m so, so glad I did it. I’ve become a better player, and learned to deal with nerves. I’ve remembered what it’s like to be eighteen and faced with exams, hard work and uncertainty about the outcome. I’ve seen how well my own children cope, and tried to learn from them. I’ve given four performances, and come out smiling.

Now I can relax, and the summer can begin. Never mind that it is raining, or that temperatures are low. There are so many things to do that I can’t wait, and so I haven’t. The garden got a burst of my attention yesterday. I’m popping into town to have my hair cut. Lots of little projects are coming back to life, and my full attention is right there with each and every one. And between them all – between the sewing and the writing and the tidying of the house – I think it’s time for some new music.

Warm head, snug hands, calm heart

There are rhythms all around us, so familiar that we barely notice them. Our heartbeats, our individual strides. The rise and fall of our chests at rest. Those tunes which play in the back of our minds, as though we had a wireless tucked away in there and couldn’t turn it off. Much of the time we simply tune it out. But then something sends the blood pounding through our veins. Ugly thoughts whip themselves into a frenzy, and our pulse lifts the internal music to an uncomfortable tempo. Fear begets fear, unless we intervene.

The best way to do this is to reset those rhythms. To slow things down, to take control once more. You can’t panic when you are walking at a comfortable pace. You can’t be tense if you push your shoulders down.

It seems that worries come in batches, feeding on each other. Some are legitimate: an unwell friend, the rise of xenophobia. Others are self inflicted: musical performances which set the stomach churning at the very thought. I’ve been for lots of walks, these past few weeks, read lots of comic novels. I’ve been for many cycle rides and felt better every time. Most of all, though, it is the basket of little knits I reach for. Knit one, purl one, focus on those cables. A hat, some mitts, a pair of woolly socks. It is almost all knit up now: all the wool left over from last year’s projects, plus a ball or three passed on from Ada. The scraps are eked out with care, so that the only tension is over whether there’ll be just enough to make it down the wrist. I love these little knits, where each completed object is a bonus, and squirrel them away for gloomy autumn mornings when a new hat or some fresh red mittens can chase away impending winter blues. Leaves are formed with yarn overs and slip-two-knit-one-passes, yellow gauntlets with endless stitches marching round and round on double pointed needles. They soothe my heart twice over: once in the making and then again in the rediscovery, next autumn, when even I feel as though someone else must have tucked these little bits of warmth away for us to find.

Calm is good, I know. This recent spurt of knitting tells me how much I need its tranquil influence. And yet. There are worries I have brought upon myself. Little ambitions, self-inflicted aims. When this performance is done, I know there will be something else, because I will set it. Just now I crave the calm that knitting brings, but I wouldn’t want it all the time. Because the other side of fear is thrill. Anxiety is just excitement, viewed from the wrong angle. Dread is anticipation, backwards. Failure: the flip side of success. It’s all about that moment, standing up in front of others, and yet it isn’t, really. It’s the preparation, the hours of practice, the setting oneself a task that one might not actually achieve. I need the thrill every bit as much as the calm. And well, if nothing else I’m getting lots of knitting done with all this nervous tension. Lots of knitting, and lots of practice, and neither is a bad thing in my book.

Garden notes: Song

Golden light which falls like a gentle reprieve at the end of an overcast day. Glowing lawns, and light-reflecting buttercups. Scents which hang heavy in the air as I cycle through them: rambling roses, stocks, elderflowers as sweet as syrup. Early summer days, bookended by the birds and their song.

The aren’t many nicer ways to start the day than to be woken by the birds. They stir at the very coldest hour, just before the dawn, and sing as if to urge the sun along. By the time it is breaking though the gap in the curtains, we are in that vague yet lucid state, half dreaming, half awake. Then the children come in or, on a good day, the cups are rattled on the tea tray and there is time to come to, slowly, while the robins and blackbirds give way to the warblers and wrens.

Everything is making the best of this warm weather. The birds are nesting, the washing is on the line. There has not been as much time as I would like for the garden of late, and when I hurried out to inspect the weeds after several heavy downpours I found other surprises: the first courgettes, pale and slim; spring cabbages big enough for eating, green raspberries all over the canes. I had time enough to set the leeks out in their final positions, and net the troubled swedes against those dratted pigeons. To pull a fistful of radishes, and pick a salad for our supper. There seems to be a moment, each year, when the garden grows exponentially, and this seems to be it.

I am not quite missing it, rushing out as I am to stay in touch. Sometimes a few moments, standing on the lawn, is all that I can manage. There is a musical project taking up all of my spare time these days, leading to a big performance in a few short weeks, and when I wake to the birds I think of the songs I will sing back to them, after breakfast, while they hop about the neighbourhood searching for grubs and worms.

I’ve taken to practising at the back of the house, near the garden that I can’t be in. Through the window I can see the bluetits almost bouncing between the earth and the lower branches of the trees. I can see the blackbird patrolling the lawn with his quick yellow beak at the ready. The hens, in their runs, are pecking and scratching and doing other such hennish things. I take a breath, and at the first note they pause, all those birds, wild and caged, to listen. The bluetits stop their darting flight and perch in the apple tree. The hens stand in a line at the wire, heads to one side. And the robin appears from nowhere to stand right at the kitchen window and watch me from the corner of his eye.

I wonder what they’re thinking, these birds who sing so well with neither instruments nor music. I wonder what they make of the music of a flute, long after the dawn has crescendoed into day. I wonder, does it seem strange to them, for someone to be whistling and chirping at such odd hours of the day?

In the evening it is the bluetits who seek out centre stage. They chirrup their high pitched little trills as the rest of the world is settling down to sleep, tired after a day of foraging, and parenting, and flight. When I have the time I like to return their compliment. I stand upon the lawn on these precious summer evenings and listen, really listen, to their song.

 

 

 

 

Sunlight, starlight

The sky has cleared. I think Ilse did it, early last week, with some sort of magic only six year olds can muster. Well, perhaps not. But whatever the reason, the blanketing cloud has lifted and we have been given sunlight, starlight, and frosty mornings.

I finished Ilse’s new summer dress and gave it to her, fresh from the machine, to twirl around the house in. She had her little missions: to show it to Daddy, then Fliss, then Ben and Seb, before remembering to glance in the mirror and see how it looks for herself. Everyone satisfied her – and my – need for admiration for this simple little creation, and she was delighted. She’s an easy girl to please, really. She loves everything I make for her. So I wasn’t really surprised when she asked if she might wear her new dress for the rest of the day.

Some mothers might not let their little girls wear sleeveless cotton frocks on chilly February days. Away from the fire, the days have been grey and damp. I couldn’t brave it, myself. But really, how could I say no to so delightful a request? I shuddered, smiled and said a deliberate yes.

It turns out that Ilse couldn’t brave it, either. She lasted all of ten minutes before reappearing in corduroy and wool, with (hopefully) some thermal underwear beneath. She handed me the dress, to fold gently and lay away in the drawer of waiting summer clothes. Then she marched to the window, pointed to the sky and commanded: Hurry up, sun!

And hurry up it did. It was there to greet us the next day, presiding over a glittering street. It stayed all through the long morning, luring me out of doors. By the afternoon it had swung round to the front of the house where it lounged on the armchairs, cat-like, warming the seats. It has stopped with us all week, transforming the end of February into something March-like, something joyful.

I took advantage of its presence to finally dig my new bed, turning the lawn over and under itself. At last there is new ground for plants to grow in. I let the hens out of their run while I worked, and we were outside for so long that even the giddy one gave up her running and flapping and turned to pecking at the earth around my feet, before finally settling down to fluff her feathers and bathe in all that yellow goodness.

Because really, after this winter, a little sunshine is pure goodness. Everything it touches turns to gold. This spring sunlight has magic in its fingertips: King Midas with a happy ending. And at night, when it goes to bed, the moon follows suit and coats everything in silver. Without the clouds, the night sky is full of diamonds once again. I feel another night walk coming on, with telescopes and star charts and overexcited children.

But that’s had to wait, because I’ve been having fun elsewhere. On Friday Mr White had arranged for members of our soup club to see Cosi Fan Tutte in Leeds. We caught the train home, humming cosily through the night in our own little compartment, remembering this aria or that. I said my goodbyes at York station and cycled home on my own. As I pedalled, I could swear the spheres were singing to me, keeping time. My dynamo swept along the midnight lanes, but it wasn’t really needed. Thanks to Ilse, the world was awash with starlight.

[whohit]sunlightstarlight[/whohit]

December soundscape

The younger children may be rising earlier, but Ben and I are struggling to wake in these dark December dawns. This morning I was only vaguely aware of the desultory gusts of drizzle against the windows when a sweeter sound broke through.

I lay in bed, eyes closed, guessing at which of my little band it was. Silent Night, with the chords only occasionally hesitant: Fliss. There was a pause as, presumably, the sheet music I had left out was rifled through, then the tune of Good King Wenceslas, picked out arrhythmically with a finger or two. John, rattling the stove vents, whistled along in support. I could hear Fliss naming some of the low notes for her sister.

Ben and I yawned our good mornings on the landing. When I went downstairs I found them all wide awake, thanks to chocolate and carols. We chatted over boiled eggs and soldiers before they departed in ones and twos.

Now that Ilse is at school, the days can be very quiet, especially in December. There is none of that hum of life when everyone is shut behind their own closed doors. Many of the birds have flown away. The insects are over. Even the late bees have crawled drowsily into a crevice somewhere.

I let the hens out for a wander as I finally tackled that hibiscus. Two of them were surprisingly noisy as they clawed the soggy leaves. The third, the one who is either too wise or too afraid to ever leave the run, let out a series of heartfelt clucks. Afterwards I closed my tingling fingers around her egg, relishing its warmth. We will buy more pullets in the spring, and I will hear that sound eight or nine times a day. For now, I pull eggs from the chilly barrel of isinglass.

Inside, the sounds are not so different, bar the early morning mumming. Kettles whistle, needles clack. Pots bubble over, spitting on the hot plate. I can turn the wireless on, with a click, to hear someone talking. Soon Mrs P will ring the doorbell and pass the time of day as she shrugs her overcoat off and pinny on.

This evening I might leave John toasting by the fire and and have a rummage through those carols myself. Ben will be upstairs, translating the next section of The Iliad. He is growing tired at the end of this long term. Seb and Ilse will be tucked up, sheets and blankets pulled tight, the way they like it. Fliss may knit a few rows of her scarf. John will be reading a book, and resting. Easter aside, Christmas is the busiest time of year in a chocolate firm.

There is an excitement building in this house, spreading from the youngest to the eldest, despite the short days and tired heads. Which is why we mustn’t forget the other side of advent, about contemplation and preparations of another kind. We can embrace the short days and the opportunities to look inwards sometimes: to ourselves, and to those in our care. So I might choose God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen, or Away in a Manger, to soothe them all as the night draws in around us.

[whohit]decembersoundscape[/whohit]

Sudden light

I took the shears to the edge of the lawn this morning. A few spots of rain fell, but I ignored them. It has been November for weeks, and grey for even longer.

I crawled into some of the secret places, to cut away at the weeds. The nettles were high behind the hen run, and I laid them low: these are places where the children play. There is a farm in the prickly shade of the pine. Fairies live, in palaces of broken bricks, between the lilac and the fence. These are places which need to be accessible, yet not intruded upon. They are the secret places, where children play hidden in plain sight.

It was as I squatted behind the lilac that the sun came out. It filtered its way through the bare leggy branches and suddenly, utterly, it was August.

Unbidden, Gymnopedies slid into my mind. The November garden was gone, as was 1930, for with Gymnopedies it can only ever be August, that Edwardian August day, when the french doors were open and someone played those same chords just inside them. A friend of my father had come to stay, with his young wife. Like my mother, she wore a long beige skirt and a blouse of indeterminate frills. Her skin was very smooth and very white, like a baby’s, but the fingers which twirled her parasol were slender and precise. Father was pointing out his flowers, Mother pouring the tea. Their eyes slid tactfully past the garden gate and the rough grass beyond, in which I hid. In a minute, I would be called, loudly, so that I could hear them wherever I might happen to be. The older part of me knew that they were playing along. The younger part did not.

I waited, crouching in the long grass at the boundary between the garden and the golf course beyond. The stalks were stiff and yellow. I stayed very still, smelling the grass seeds baking in their sleeves, watching the spinning parasol, breathlessly reciting the names of the flowers. Knowing that there would be victoria sponge for tea. Listening to the piano, and those simple chords, up and down like a woman on a trapeze, but slower, turning somersaults in the air.

When I stood up, the sharp stalks had pressed into my shin, leaving ridges and dents and, in one place, a bright little smear of blood. The yellow sunlight shone on all of this.

All of this in a single moment, before the reticent sun withdrew behind a November cloud.

I decided to leave the fairies their forest until the frosts claimed it. I refilled their jam jar water butts and laid fresh grass clippings in their lid platters, before heading indoors.

There was the familiar hiss, like an expectant audience in a concert hall, before the gramophone began to play. On and on it ran, turning towards the point I had remembered, then further on to what was familiar only as I heard it. Perhaps after school, while the fairies are feasting, we might play them the gymnopedies so that they can dance, nostalgically, in the gathering dusk.

[whohit]suddenlight[/whohit]

In practice

My gardening plans have had to be postponed, for today. I woke up this morning to rain: not just the typical Yorkshire mizzle but the sort of downpour which permeates your very bones if you’re not careful.

Rather than launch straight into the day’s housework, I turned to my rainy day alternative, and left the lid of the piano up once Ilse had finished her morning practice. As soon as the house had emptied, I pressed down the soft pedal and began to play.

There is a reverence to mornings that I don’t lightly break. Speaking to a neighbour I might explain my habits in other terms: the beds need time to air, or the daily doesn’t arrive until ten. In truth, I need a peaceful start to my days. With four children I can’t stay in bed with a pot of tea and a book, or go for a pre-breakfast wander. So I wait until the house is quiet to begin my little rituals.

I am learning a gavotte, by Bach. From the hesitation, the stopping and starting and wrong notes, this may not seem like a particularly soothing activity. Yet I can think of nothing else, as I play. I am absorbed. I am tested and stretched, and play the same short passage over and over before the clock strikes quarter to and I resurface. Then I take a deep breath, shut the lid gently, and put the kettle on for Mrs P. She will be cold and damp from the rain.

Sometimes, in my lessons, I feel a terrible dunce, my hands stumbling and head wooly when faced with the simplest exercises. But that feeling never lasts. Each week (my teacher assures me) I am, ever so slightly, better. I wish that my childhood self had never given up. Much stronger that my regret, though, is my delight that I am learning anyway.

I normally play the piano in the evenings, after the supper dishes have been wiped and left, standing ready, for the morning. I play my flute in the late afternoon, when the hotpot is in the oven and the vegetables are boiling on the top. By late afternoon I am ready for its surprisingly penetrating timbre, the high notes and the semi-quavers. I am fully awake, by then, and I need to be. At present, I am working on Mozart’s quartet in D, and even straightforward phrases are often rudely interrupted by wrong notes and missed accidentals. I wonder whether I will ever get it up to speed.

When the children were babies, before I  had begun to take piano lessons, I would practise once they were all in bed. I had no choice: the time before supper was consumed by fretful babies and fractious toddlers. I would long for John’s return. Once he was home and the children tucked up, full-bellied, I would assemble my flute to play soft airs, country dances and lilting Irish lullabies. Sometimes it was only for five minutes, sometimes longer, but that twilight music is lodged in their subconscious. Fliss still alters when I play after supper, dragging a blanket into a chair and listening, eyes closed. Even now I play to her, from downstairs, when she is sleepless.

Nowadays, my turn at the piano is the last of the day. It is certainly not the most impressive, but probably the best-enjoyed. Occasionally (only occasionally) I have to remind the children that they’ll be glad of all this practice, later. As an adult, I just do it because I want to. And that changes everything.

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