FATAL TEARS, my first published novel, has just gone into a second e-book edition with a brand new publisher and a great new cover!
Thanks to Emily and all those involved at SilverWood Books of Bristol. On the writing front, the third novel in the AN ECCENTRIC IN LUCCA series is just 6 pages from completion of the proofing process and will then go to SilverWood to commence the publishing process (hardback and e-book). The third Winfield Journey is also finished and over half way through the proofing process. This was planned to be the final novel in this series, making a Winfield Trilogy, but another idea has been “bubbling under” involving rocket testing in the Libyan desert just before 1939…hold that thought!
A new crime series featuring Inspector Balantyne-Rhodes and set in 1920s Cape Town is well under way and I’ve taken the opportunity to use my class a guinea-pigs to trial yet another strand of writing, this time involving a 10-year old with a very fertile and interactive imagination – Daydreaming Dillon.
Apart from all of that, there are blackbirds singing in the garden and there is some feeble sunshine as well, so Spring must be on the way at last. Hold that thought, too…
…but in an increasingly secular offshore island, what exactly is the Spirit of Christmas? Is it one of increasingly intrusive materialism, where the “essential must have” items cost a fortune and reflect the latest and, in my opinion, often pointless “advances” in modern technology, or is it to be found in a litre bottle of spirit, offered at heavily-slashed prices by all the supermarket chains, eager to either outdo their opposition or simply survive in an increasingly competitive world? We count ourselves lucky to know young children who still write their letters to Father Christmas and send them up the chimney. Quite apart from the belief in any religious dogma, isn’t that what the innocence of childhood is all about? Working with 9- and 10-year olds, and allowing for some of the challenging backgrounds from which some of them come, it occurs to me that most of them seem to have progressed from the womb to pre-pubescent, without allowing for any of the stops we of the older generation remember about our own childhoods. The affection we feel for our memories is one thing; I wonder what the next generation will value about tradition when it comes to their turn to sit and think as I am doing?
What I see as social decline is also reflected in the radio and television broadcasts in the UK. We have access to over 150 television channels and – more often than not – for us, the best and most appealing entertainment to us is found in watching shop-bought DVDs. Only occasionally does BBC 4 have a series of programmes that actually teach and inform which, after all, is part of the BBC mission. The same can be said of the radio, where the myriad stations – including those of the once-hallowed BBC – are often worse than the television programmes on offer. It says something when, with some holiday time on hand, listening to a CD of Paul Temple (recorded 50 years earlier) is more appealing than the rest of the fare on offer over the airwaves!
At least the Queen’s Christmas Message is still what it was: Her Majesty, at the age of 89, still manages to bring a touch of reality to the time of the year through an informal “chat” which, nonetheless, contains a very real message to everyone who chooses to watch it.
That’s Christmas sorted!
In October we endured the chaos at the UK Border (hardly confidence-inspiring!) and went back to Belgium for a week to visit Waterloo in the bicentenary year of the battle. We are very fond of “plucky little” Belgium, even if General de Gaulle reportedly thought of it as “a country invented by the British to annoy the French”. Historically and totally inaccurate nonsense, of course…
There is a brand new museum at the battlefield, built underground and so totally hidden from view. The vital Hougoumont farmhouse has also been restored and contains a brilliant audio visual presentation that is well worth the visit. The whole “Waterloo 1815” concept is possibly the best museum(s) we have ever visited and is well worth a (lengthy) visit the next time you’re in the vicinity (!)
We also took in Brussels and were once again forcibly reminded of just how comfortable, inexpensive and reliable Belgian Railways are in comparison to some. Hmmm…. Belgium being a small country, we also drove across to Brugge. Beautiful city, not to mention the chocolate shops…
Earlier in the year we lost Ben, who had been with us for 12 years. Sadly, an intestinal tumour developed and was untreatable without causing the chap a lot of discomfort for probably no positive outcome. So now we have treasured memories of his company.
Baxter was pining, so now we also have Boris, whose energy levels make us wonder if we are just a bit beyond the child-rearing stage! Anyway, he comes from the same breeder as Ben and is settling in – taking over! – quite nicely, thank you.
Books 5 and 6 are now in the final stages of proofing and a new line of writing is well-advanced, too. I also have a new publisher for Fatal Tears, which is in process of a second edition. All very exciting…
And on that happy note, it’s time to put the kettle on and wish you all a prosperous, peaceful and successful New Year 2016.
…who we are? I read with interest in the August edition of GRAPEVINE magazine (www.luccagrapevine.com), that expats in the Bagni di Lucca area near Lucca can now purchase their gourmet reminders of the old country through the enterprising Paolo and his Catene Café. Thinking about this caused me to reflect on a simple, yet highly complex question: What makes us who we are?
The population of this ancient island of Britannia is a distillation of many national origins – who can say they are “English” with any clear understanding of what “English” is, any more than someone in Italy can easily define themselves as “Italian”? Despite this, we all feel something inside us that makes us feel we belong somewhere. On my many trips to La Bella Italia I have always felt very much at home; even on my first trip, when my then embryonic Italian language skills were put to the test, I felt comfortable in a land of strangers. Perhaps this is because of being uno straniero myself in someone else’s backyard?
So, what triggers a feeling of “home”? Expat Australians can be moved to tears by the smell of eucalyptus leaves; South Africans munch their biltong and Brits long for a good cup of tea or even the taste of Marmite. Why do I go to an Italian family-run restaurant in the Weald of Kent, and feel so relaxed surrounded by the taste and sounds of Italy? I am not Italian. Why do I feel so proud conducting my forty-strong concert band playing God Save the Queen? Is it because I am British? On the other hand, why am I so moved by hearing Inno di Mamelli? I am not Italian, but would be quite happy to become an expat in Italy.
What is it, therefore, that takes someone out of the land of their birth, but seems unable to take the land of their birth out of them?
In Britannia, things often seem to be less than ideal. Perhaps it might be the weather – what other country makes an art out of turning the sun-starved failed tomato crop into green tomato chutney? Or perhaps it might be the perceived dithering indecision of those at the helm. One of the larger political parties is currently in search of a new leader, but the candidates’ vision for the future of the nation seems to be as uniform as the typical weather – shades of indifferent grey.
For me, the only true voice of Britannia is the great music of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Parry: music that stirs the soul and reminds us of a glorious past that was definitely better than the present – or was it? Could it be an invention of the collective imagination that this was ever the case? What drove the expats to become just that; what makes us look for greener grass on the other side of the path? What makes us seek for a remembered “better” time?
We are currently remembering the carnage of the First World War and the anniversary of the Battle of Britain in the Second War. Recently, Italians have commemorated the appalling massacre of more than 500 civilians in the Tuscan village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema in August, 1944. These were hardly better times than the present. Perhaps the important thing is to hang on to the memories and try to make the best of the here and now.
Even the potholes that littered Britannia’s over-taxed roads after the recent bad winter weather are slowly being filled in, so that now suddenly seems a little better than then.
Therein might lie the secret – sit back and enjoy your cup of expat PG Tips whilst you savour a Hobnob or sink your teeth into a slice of Marmite-smothered toast. It’s the simple things in life that really count, even in the embrace of your adopted land.
Speaking of simple things, it’s amazing how excited you can make someone just by giving them a book!
Mind you, it does make a difference when that person is the model for one of the minor characters in that book. Meet Roberta, an extremely competent operative in the tourist information office in Lucca. I met her on my first visit to the city and, with the passage of time, her persona became the inspiration for one of the characters in my “An Eccentric in Lucca” series of novels. Very recently, she was given a signed copy of the second novel in the series and burst into tears…that’s so Italian!
Despite the lovely weather today in our neck of the woods – sunshine at last and quite warm – our friend and housemate of nearly 63 years (12+ years in our time) left us this morning.
Benjamin, or just plain Ben – a Blue Burmese of considerable self-importance – had been wasting away for the last few months, victim of an intestinal tumour that finally reduced him from the dimensions of a Medieval war horse to a skeleton. His head and long tail seemed to be unaffected by the weight loss of the rest of his body, which made the situation even more difficult to come to terms with.
Despite this, he remained bright eyed and talkative and it was only in the last week that we became concerned for his quality of life. Sadly, by first thing this morning his hind legs had become very wobbly and the look in his eyes – not to give it too much of a poetic slant – hinted at the fact that he probably thought it was very nearly time to call it a day.
So now we have Baxter, who was with Ben at the end, and happy memories of a very loyal friend.
Perhaps this emphasises the true value of our own existence – our memories. Hopefully, for the majority of people, largely very pleasant to recall and something that can never be taken from us – unlike the contents of an external hard drive computer disc, but that’s another story! Who’s to say that Altzheimer’s wipes our internal memory bank? Suffers might not be able to recall verbally, but the memories might well still be there, for internal use only. In the last month it’s been time to remember the death of my mother and the birth of my godson (on the same day), the passing of my cousin André in South Africa and, of course, Ben this morning.
Of course, there is another side to all of this. I remember how my father suffered during his final illness and “endured” existence whilst the medical profession did what it could to “manage” his condition, when there was absolutely no hope of an improvement, let alone a recovery. Let me leave you with this thought: Ben went peacefully into his final sleep with the dignity that he had not yet lost; for the rest of us perhaps things need to be reviewed in the medical world of the 21st century.
But Life and existence within Nature is unstoppable – barring extinction for whatever reason – so we face the future remembering the more pleasant and happier moments of our past. Although it has to be pondered that, perhaps, the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland is on to something …
…to remember to remember. Yes, a mouthful, but considering why it is that we should do so does tend to put things into perspective. All the nameless and now largely forgotten women who brought about the female vote; innocent victims of circumstance, such as the passengers on the Lusitania, the centenary of whose sinking has just been commemorated; the millions forced into brutal labour because of their views or the blood in their veins…it doesn’t take much pondering to add to this list.
This past weekend I was on a tour with the Wadhurst Brass Band – more on the music later. Amongst other things we squeezed in a visit to Vimy Ridge and to the bombed remains of the Bunker in the forest at Eperlecques. This is a V2 rocket site of Star Wars proportions from the Second World War: massive concrete walls, very damp and dark and haunted by the presence of the forced labourers who were driven to construct it, a presence which I found disturbing (I had felt the same when visiting the underground hospital complex constructed on Guernsey during the Nazi occupation). It is extremely well presented as a historical site, including an audio introduction presented whilst visitors are stood in a cattle truck – shades of Auschwitz and extremely unsettling: at least I had the promise of getting out into the sunshine… How incongruous to be surrounded by the beauty of Nature, through the reborn forest, on a pleasant early summer’s day with trees full of singing birds and yet to be so close to so much human misery! That’s why we should never forget…
The Canadians turned out in some force when we also played under the Menin Gate in Ypres on Friday 8th May. Princes Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry had just been awarded the Freedom of the City of Ypres and were remembering their dead of the First War, together with the Edmonton Police Pipe Band (an interesting musical mix to the proceedings!). When you visit Vimy Ridge perhaps you also understand why Canadians cross a mighty ocean to be nearer the reason for their remembrance: today, sheep graze peacefully amongst the shell craters from a battle, the objective of which must have seemed impossible. After all, who would run up a very steep hill straight into blazing machine guns? And yet the bravery of soldiers thousands of mile from home did just that. Voilà pourquoi le Canada se souvient.
The village of Wadhurst (about a 12 minute drive from Rotherfield, provided you don’t get stuck behind a farm vehicle on the road!) is twinned with the town of Aubers in Northern France. Those of you who have read my previous blogs will know about the march I was commissioned to compose to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Aubers Ridge on 9th May, 1915. Firstly, I have to say that the people of Aubers and the Twinning Association made us all feel very welcome indeed. We performed a concert in Aubers Church on the evening of the anniversary, which was well attended. You can watch a live recording of the march AUBERS RIDGE here:
Je présentai ma marche au public en français et aussi en anglais. My mother, who was a fluent French speaker, would have been quite proud, I think!
So, it would seem from my experience that remembering has no time limit: we remember events without having any idea of who the people were who were involved in them; we trek to all sorts of places – from Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift in Zululand to Waterloo to the Bunker in Eperlecques forest – and we ponder and, hopefully, think of history and those who were part of it and, in so doing, we also become a miniscule part of that same history. And that brings me to the simplicity of a single Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone in Wadhurst churchyard. The only one of the 25 Men of Wadhurst to return home (as a fatality) is buried there. Through the simple act of placing a poppy, a person who is long-gone and is a total stranger to me is remembered.
After all, if we do not know from whence we have travelled, how can we possibly know who we are and where we might be going?
…not the situation, but a performance of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle for Kent chorus. You might like to read it. They really are a highly-accomplished choral group.
If the sparkle of his music is anything to go by, I think that meeting Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) would probably have been an enjoyable experience. The same can most certainly be said of Kent Chorus’ latest presentation, the composer’s Petite Messe Solennelle. Despite the title, this work is anything but solemn although, if performed credibly, as it was this afternoon, there are moments of emotion and pathos. Indeed, there are many who hold with the notion that it is simply not possible to take the theatre out of Rossini, any more than it is to take Rossini out of the theatre. The composer was fêted internationally, retiring from active composition at the age of 37, a wealthy man. During the rest of his life he composed purely for his own enjoyment, referring to these works as his Péchés de vieillesse(“Sins of Old Age”). Petite Messe Solennelle is one of these “Sins”, being commissioned in 1863.
Kent Chorus opted for the original version for soloists, choir, two pianos and harmonium. Personally, I think that, on balance, I prefer Rossini’s orchestrated version, but that did not in any way detract from my enjoyment of today’s performance. The choir was not far off 120 voices and, as I have recorded before, produced choral music of the highest quality. Their entries, particularly in the fugal passages, were flawless and, from the expressions on their faces, they were thoroughly enjoying themselves! Their dynamic observation is also to be highly applauded – the range is quite considerable in the printed score and this was followed with great effect. I was particularly moved by their entry at the end of the Gloria (Adoramus te), only one page long, but it was quite magical, almost as an ethereal reaffirmation of what the solo quartet had just sung. This same feeling of calm and outstanding chordal balance was also achieved during the Dona nobis pacem interjections (sotto voce) during the final movement, Agnus Dei. For me, the real highlights of the afternoon were the Cum Sancto Spiritu in the Gloria and the Et vitam venturi in the Credo. This really was edge-of-the-seat, electrified singing!
Another accolade must go to Marcus Andrews (primo piano): his playing was highly supportive and thoroughly competent throughout. He was ably supported by Anthony Zerpa-Falcon (piano secondo) and Christopher Harris (harmonium). What a pleasant combination of keyboard instruments.
The soloists fared best in their concerted items, although there were some highpoints in their solos: soprano Alessandra Testai (O salutaris); mezzo-soprano Virginia Stone (Agnus Dei); tenor John Upperton (sustained phrasing in Domine deus); bass Michael Bundy (Quoniam).
Of course, none of this very considerable choral achievement would have occurred or, indeed, even have been possible without the drive and attention to musical detail from the musical director of Kent Chorus, Richard Jenkinson. Watching and listening to a performance, it is obvious how much of his enthusiasm spills into the ranks of his singers. Long may it continue!
Kent chorus are due to visit the Netherlands in early May, returning a visit made earlier by the Royal Dutch Orpheus Choir. On the strength of today’s performance, I feel certain that they will do our musical heritage of choral singing proud. Bravi!
…centenary draws ever nearer. The other day I was sent a copy of the programe of events for the “In The Field” presentation in the local Wadhurst church. I was slightly amused to read that the first public performance of my march is a “world premiere”. Well, it is of course, although, until I saw it stated in black and white, I had not given it much thought – 101 other things to be getting on with and all of that.
The Wadhurst Brass Band will be performing it, but here’s a chance for a sneak preview…
I still feel moved by the very young ages of most of those who did not return.
…and what is it that makes other remember us? Do others remember us, or do they remember the events with which we might have been associated?
I remember being very moved by visiting the sea of over 800,000 ceramic red poppies installed in the moat of the Tower of London in the months before Armistice Day (November 11th) last year, the centenary of The Great War. Every year we of the East Grinstead Concert Band (EGCB) perform a concert (or two) in aid of Service charities – complete with the standard of the local British Legion Club, the two minutes silence and the playing of “Sunset”, Green’s famous setting of the bugle call signifying the lowering of the colours at the end of the day, movingly played by our excellent trumpet section).
Are there any individuals known to us from past conflicts to remember individually (time marches relentlessly on!), or are we remembering the event? During a recent trip to Eire (and being impressed, as usual, by the friendliness of the Irish people), we took in what I dubbed the “Lusitania Route”, from the Old Head of Kinsale (from where people watched the liner sinking only some 8 miles off the shore, after she was torpedoed by U-20) to the monument and mass graves in Cobh (old Queenstown), which was always the last port of call in the Old World for the Cunard and the White Star Liners, before the New World loomed across the expanse of the North Atlantic.
The renowned maritime artist Ken Marschall’s detailed paintings can be viewed here: www.maritimequest.com
I arranged the Mariners’ Hymn (quite chromatic, so some good sight reading practice) and EGCB will play this the night before the centenary of the sinking on May 7th, 1915. We marked the 103rd anniversary of the loss of Titanic in the same way. Collectively, millions of faceless people unknown to almost all of us, yet we pause to remember them.
And then something comes out of the blue to focus remembrance on someone I certainly did know. I recently received a communication from the head of the Music Conservatorium of Mauritius, enquiring as to whether or not it would be possible for them to exhibit my grandfather’s baton in a proposed museum of Mauritian Musical Culture in Port Louis. Well, to say that I was speechless and filled almost to bursting point with pride is putting things very mildly. I hold my grandfather in high regard for his musical prowess (mentioned in previous blogs) and would like to think that my musical genes – if such things exist – have been inherited from him. I have a framed photo of him standing in front of his Mauritius Police Force Band on my desk. The baton was given to him by the residents of Port Louis, in appreciation of musical services rendered. I read the inscription and there was his name and the date – 1923; also getting on for a century. He never used the baton, as it is rather heavy.
This month saw the annual London Book Fair (LBF), held this year in the expanse of London’s Olympia exhibition centre. We survived the train trip to London (in my opinion always an over-priced nightmare of an experience!) and saw my books displayed on the Book Guild stand. Good to see Graham flying the flag for us independent authors again.
I met Ian McFadyen at last year’s LBF and was pleased to see that his fifth novel is due for release later this year – KILLING TIME. Great cover and another success from Keiran of the Book Guild art department. Everything is still rocking – as they say – in the book world.
In a couple of weeks I’ll be going on a trip to Aubers and Ieper (Ypres) with the Wadhurst Brass Band to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Aubers Ridge in the First World War. Wadhurst is twinned with the town of Aubers and several men from the area were casualties of the Royal Sussex Regiment. I was commissioned by the band to compose a march suitable for the occasion, which will have its world première(!!) at a concert in Wadhurst shortly. Again, the tour will be a voyage of Remembrance for people unknown to most, if not all of us. During the recent Irish trip, we visited the town of Templemore in County Tipperary. Nice little place and the local hostelry does a mean cabbage in Irish butter for lunch! Anyway, having parked, we wandered around the main square and came across a memorial to the men of the Royal Munster Regiment who fought in the First War. There was a picture of the Reverend Francis Gleeson, (a chaplain in the British army (this was before Irish independence)), blessing the troops before – can you credit this? – the Battle of Aubers Ridge!
Small world or what?
As I said, my march, AUBERS RIDGE is a commission from the Wadhurst Brass Band to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Aubers Ridge on May 9th, 1915. The Royal Sussex Regiment suffered heavy losses during the battle and the march is dedicated to the memory of those who did not return, especially the men of Wadhurst.
Musically, the march is built around the musical interval found at the beginning of the Last Post and is mostly in the minor key. There are musical references to French (La Marseillaise) and British (God Save the King) forces, as well as a quotation from Ward-Higgs’ Sussex By the Sea, which became the [unofficial, as far as I am aware] regimental march. The march ends quietly with the strains of Reveille. Lest we forget.
…has come and gone, hotly followed by the New Year festivities. So here we go again, Christmas cards put away and the [minimal] decorations carefully stored until the next time. Hopefully, the endless attempts of seemingly increasingly desperate retailers, continually telling us (or is that actually pleading with us?) to celebrate the event by buying this or that over-priced piece of the unessential will also join the crumpled and discarded outer wrappings of presents in the rubbish bins. Don’t get me wrong: the recently past period is supposed to be one of giving, but has our over-commercialized modern Society managed to get something very seriously wrong with the way they approach things?
I recently watched two TV programs that made me sit and think. The first one was about the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That was inspirational, due to the efforts of their musical director (a retired pilot) and the citizens of Kinshasa, many of whom live in the most abject poverty, and who regularly survive their day on the promise of rehearsing music in the evening, often on home-made instruments. Repertoire ranges from original compositions to the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, both with choir (taught using sol-fa).
Even more inspiring was the second program, which showed the re-establishment of a National Music School in Kabul. Again, this was due to the efforts of a single Afghan, who had been trained at the Moscow Conservatory before the Taliban vacuum descended on the blighted country. Some of the pupils learn their music during the day and then sell plastic bags in the markets to make ends meet. And we in the West are told that we simply have to have this or that unnecessary extravagance for Christmas…
Our extravagance for Christmas was to go back to Brugge for three days. Great time – got some writing done, but ever so cold – not that that put the locals off their street festivities and markets for a single second! They had erected a huge ice rink in the Groote Markt, where the Band had played in October. Lights everywhere, but being Belgium I suppose that they were all environmentally friendly and emitted but the smallest of carbon footprints…otherwise the electricity bill must have been horrendous!
This May the Wadhurst Brass Band are off on a tour to Aubers in France. Wadhurst is twinned with Aubers and there were 25 men from the village, members of the Royal Sussex Regiment, lost in the Battle of Aubers Ridge in 1916. Following on from our short break in Brugge, we crossed into France and visited the town to get a handle on the place before the tour. On a very cold and frosty mid-morning we visited the Aubers Ridge British Cemetery; the wind chill factor would have frozen a windjammer going around Cape Horn and the grass was so frosty it was like walking on a crème brûlée. It was sobering to see so many graves marked simply “A Soldier of the Great War”; I subsequently found out that of the 25 Wadhurst casualties, only 2 were ever positively identified.
We then went on to Thiepval in France to visit the Thiepval Memorial and pay respects to some of the dead and missing of the Battle of the Somme. It was bad enough walking around in temperatures that were even colder than they had been at Aubers, but it was even worse when we stopped to consider those in the trenches in this area a century ago. They had no option but to sit and wait – at least we could get back into the car and turn the heater on! By the time we encountered the chaos at the British border control at the Channel Tunnel nearly 2 hours later, my feet were still freezing, and that was with two thick pairs of socks on. That in itself focused the mind on the women’s groups who sat and knitted socks for the Boys in the trenches all through the First War. Having experienced a brief taste of how cold it can get there, those socks must have been a welcome sight to those lucky enough to receive them!
And to finish off this Seasonal Dispatch, we are now informed that something like £17 million of UK “Foreign aid” funds have been siphoned off with his usual flair by President Zuma of South Africa to build himself a modest little pondok suitable to his station! Thinking back to where we had just been – and the freezing cold – it raised the question as to whether or not the cemeteries and memorials had actually been worth the losses that caused them to be established in the first place? The residents of those places went off with a belief in the cause of right, as they saw it. These days, politicians are [generally] simply obsessed with preserving their [in my opinion] worthless continued existence. The bully is still in the corner to where he was driven at least twice during the twentieth century. Further afield, corruption has been raised to the level of a university degree! With an election due here in May, and their cushy jobs and all the rest of it at stake, nobody in Parliament is going to bother to question why so much hard-earned UK taxpayers’ aid money can be so easily miss-spent on one man’s folly at the other end of the world; they’ll be far too busy with domestic issues, telling those who can’t avoid listening to their feeble bleating that the other side is far worse than they are!
Meanwhile, for South Africa it was a bleak day indeed when the moderating hand of a great humanist and visionary was finally stilled in December of 2013. One shudders what is in store for the country without the positive influence and shadow of Madiba.
I was more than just a little surprised this week to find that my first novel (the third is due for release in the next few days) was released upon an unexpecting and largely indifferent literary world a little more than a year ago. Truth be told, it feels one hell of a lot longer. Over this short period, FATAL TEARS and ERRANT ANGELS (shortly to be joined by FEELINGS OF GUILT and by THE GERHSOM SCROLL in February, 2015) have continued to make their way through the minefield of publishing. Hardly surprising that I should use such a metaphor, as there are so many new titles around these days – not to mention the plethora of older, established works cunningly disguised behind newly-designed covers – that a new author has a daunting task to climb the mountain towards the point of recognition in some form or other.
When I first read of the idea of filling the moat of the Tower of London with a sea of ceramic poppies, I have to confess to thinking it all sounded more than just a little tacky and symptomatic of what, to me, seems the directionless morass of 21st century British Society. Having recently enjoyed a very successful band tour to Belgium (more on that in a moment), and mindful of the significance of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, I, like nearly one million other people, made the journey to go and have a look. It seemed to me that most of these other million people decided to go and see the poppies all on the same day that I had chosen: the tube to Tower Hill Station just about coped; how anyone wasn’t run over at the pedestrian crossing outside the Tower itself and how so many people squeezed into the area adjacent to the moat without some fatal crushing incident resulting, I do not know!
Even before I managed to get a reasonable view of the poppies, I had drastically changed my mind about the whole thing. It seemed to radiate a sea of red and black calm amidst the heaving mass of humanity that had assembled to view it, largely in a respectful silence. That was surprising, considering the numbers of visitors. The moat was filled with 888,246 poppies, each one representing one British military fatality from the war. There was a moving sombreness to it all.
All will be dismantled after Remembrance Day (11th November) and each poppy will then be sent to whoever has purchased it, at a cost of £25 each (I’ll leave you to do the maths!). The good news is that they have all been sold and the funds raised will be shared amongst Service charities.
The whole experience raised two thoughts: firstly, one hundred years on and we are still inhabiting a world torn apart in one form or another – possibly not quite to the same extent as in 1914, although these days dissent can often be far more subtle and often does necessarily involve the use of guns; secondly, each one of those poppies is an anonymous reminder of service and duty. Who knows who poppy 102,345 represents, any more than we do number 94,368? Surely the most important thing is that we do remember and – despite the enormous scale and extent of the poppy field – that we do so in a typically British understated way: no glitz, no razzmatazz, no fanfare. Just Remembrance.
And that bring me back to where I started – almost. Whilst climbing my author’s mountain I have had to persevere to pass through and to eventually emerge from the clouds of anonymity that surround just about all of us. I used to think that this was a daunting task in extremis, but then I stood and gazed at the 888,246. How many of them, when they marched off enthusiastically to what was believed to be a short-term chance at glory – at least at the beginning of the war – ever thought that, instead of a triumphant return, they would become an unnamed ceramic creation in the centre of London and, by so becoming, would for ever be remembered in the soul of a nation still scarred by the cataclysmic events, of which they were a miniscule part, all those years ago?
Remembrance took on a whole new dimension when we played under the Menin Gate in Ypres during our recent Belgian tour. Words cannot really express the feelings generated by directing 37 talented musicians in Elgar’s Nimrod, Purcell’s When I Am Laid in Earth and David of the White Rock. The music echoed amidst the 55,000 names of the missing that are engraved on the panels of the gate: men from all over the then British Empire, who simply disappeared in the mud and chaos of the battles that flattened the ancient city (now restored to its former glory).
So what is a year, when time for the poppies in the moat and for the names on the imposing edifice of the Gate simply stopped a century ago?