Building without dust

Sometimes episodes in a book echo the reader’s life. It’s reassuring, and can be cathartic. Certainly any book whose style or content makes me react: “That’s me/my thoughts/my situation you’re describing!” during the first few pages is one I’d continue reading. It works whether the moment is essential to the plot or a sideline. This week I read “Transit” by Rachel Cusk, and the number of echoes were uncanny.

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To some extent it’s because Cusk deals with universals. Like a fortune teller (and the book opens with one) she discusses the great preoccupations of life: getting together; separating; maternal guilt; moving house; memory. We can all relate to these, and she explores them with subtlety and depth, going inside her character’s heads and saying the unsayable. “There! She’s said it for me!” the reader thinks with relief, as her nameless narrator admits to not fully responding to her distressed child, to not listening to the students she’s teaching, to absolutely loathing her neighbours. (I’m assuming this is a narrator, not Cusk herself.)

Narrator makes so many observations, some Cusk 2are bound to be true for each reader. Even so, what a lot of coincidences, right from page 1 (where the fortune teller’s junk email expresses her situation for her): “I sometimes struggled to find meaning in my present circumstances and to feel hope for what was to come.” (P.2)  Sneering at this resonating description as just a “computer algorithm” reveals Narrator’s own vulnerability. Quickly she distances herself, describing a divorced friend who admits he’s affected by such mailshots too, then moving from him to an estate agent describing his clients: “...the same people who had stormed and wept like frustrated children because  a property was being denied them, would be found days later sitting calmly in his office, expressing gratitude for the fact that they hadn’t got it…For most people, he said, finding and procuring a home was an intensely active state; and activity entails a certain blindness, the blindness of fixation. Only when their will has been exhausted do the majority of people realise the decree of fate.” Thus at a remove of four or more people (self, friend, agent, clients) Narrator/Cusk expresses how we all feel.

My goodness, that’s only on page 3 and already Narrator’s pinpointed me. I’m currently deciding whether to move to “the country” to a just affordable detached house. In “the country” the houses are all different, unlike London where you know what you’re going to see as soon as you ring the bell. Everything in London is white painted and laminate floored, but elsewhere houses are different shapes and sizes, in quirky states of repair and the decor and contents rumble with the lives of their present owners. (I can’t afford the nicer ones and others have fatal flaws that back in the agent’s office I realise would soon have had my blood pressure on the boil.)

Cusk 9
Shall we move to “the country”?

After recounting her hairdresser’s views on life (I too have an articulate, empathetic hairdresser, who I pay as much for his company as for what he does to my hair), Narrator runs into an old boyfriend. How civil they can now be! How objectively she can analyse the way they treated each other! They swap stories of children and homes, and he wishes her well in her move back to London. Yes, I’ve known that…

She’s moving too, but in the opposite direction. Like me three years ago, she has to find something in an expensive city and has limited resources (it’s all relative: I do realise millions of people are far worse off than I am). Like me, she ends up with a dreadful property, all dodgy wiring, rotting floorboards and creatures you’d rather not think about inside and out. It’s a first floor flat, similar to one I once had. Like me then, she has elderly council tenant neighbours below – but where mine there and in my present house were welcoming and insisted my building projects were no trouble, hers are resentful, filthy and offensive. There’s no doubt the work has to be done, but they resist it every step of the way.

building close up
When you share a wall with a building site

Again, the same story as mine, though from the opposite viewpoint. My charming neighbour here died and next door was sold. Cusk is now holding up a mirror to me of how obstreperous neighbours can seem: it ain’t pleasant. To find Narrator describing her dissenting neighbour as a monster troll is disturbing, knowing my emotions run every bit as strong as those expressed in the foul mouthed tirades she receives from  the basement. “It’s these single skin buildings,” the builder said, shaking his head. “Every sound goes right through them.” (P 51. On cue, drilling has started through my party wall and revolting though they sound, I do sympathise with the neighbours. Not only the building is thin-skinned. I find the monster troll in me is very close to the surface.)

builders everywhere 2
Builders, builders everywhere

As I did, Narrator builds a relationship with her builder, (not a “relationship”, you understand, an affinity), and also with his sub contractors. She’s interested in their back stories, their health and their emotional well being, and they in turn try to protect her from the worst of living in a building site, sometimes by acting off their own initiative in ways that surprise and unsettle her. She seeks out friends having similar experiences: “…(Amanda) couldn’t remember what it was like to live somewhere normal,…where you didn’t have to … thoroughly remove the dust and dirt from your person in order to leave the house, rather than the other way around…she had gone to meetings with grout in her hair and plaster under her fingernails…” (p.169).

I’ve only achieved the title of my proposed novel about building, used for this review pending a text to go with it. But Cusk’s done the lot, and unlike me is able to throw in chapters on the sort of literary festival that would never ask me to speak and on having the sort of creative writing student who would never choose me. Like me, Narrator is still building a new life after divorce and it seems to involve as much mess, as many wrong turns, as much expenditure and clumsiness and mood swings and anecdotes as mine. She recounts them dispassionately, hence the catharsis.

21400742“Transit” is also a novel about new people she meets, new chances Narrator builds or encounters; it’s a novel of glimmering possibilities and foul interactions she must either put behind her or put up with. And it’s about self and other: how others have the same thoughts she does; how the light they shine is only slightly different. She shows how expressing experiences and opinions through them (he said that/ she said she/ I asked her what…) permits just enough distance, enough observational objectivity, for writer and reader to step over the boundaries of what it’s conventionally acceptable to explore and confess. The language is simple and clear, almost clinical: it needs to be, because the thoughts she explores develop in sometimes complex and shocking ways. Yet we should not be shocked, because we have thought them too.

13380846I must now read the first novel in this trilogy, “Outline” from 2015, and also “Aftermath” (2009), which was criticised by some as revenge for the rawness of separation and for involving others beside herself. Other reviewers found it pure and cathartic.“Why can’t we just be normal? Why does everything have to be so weird?”  asks the older son in a desperate phone to his mother, when he’s lost his keys to his dad’s house. “I said I was sorry but I had to go.” (p.133) Sometimes, you can’t provide an answer, although you can keep asking the questions, and you do just have to go. At least reading Cusk you know you are not alone.

I’d be interested to know if any readers have had the same experience of identifying with a book, fiction or not, and the effect it had on them.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

Music, mushrooms and mulberries – Dartington 2017

The blog has been silent for three weeks, but my life has not. Between ongoing neighbour noise and travel, there was a week of beautiful sounds at Dartington International Summer School and Festival. I blogged about Dartington last year when Monteverdi and Marina Warner were the main dishes on my menu and we were surrounded by weird medieval and renaissance instruments: sackbutts, theorbos, dulcimers and cornets. This year we chose strings week. Participating as singers ourselves, we could only listen, watch and admire those who are able to play.

cello footrests

Never have I seen so many cellos. As a cello case blocked me from the scrambled eggs, Adrian Brendel murmured, “So sorry – perhaps I shouldn’t have brought it into breakfast.” Cellos tuned, cellos bowed, cellos plucked, occasionally cellos rapped percussively. Cellos walking around apparently of their own momentum, when the player isn’t tall; cellos grouped in amiable conversation; cellos as footrests; sad cellos abandoned.  Baroque cellos, modern cellos, imaginary cellos. There must have been violins too – the Heath Quartet were in residence and opened the week with a stunning concert – there were certainly  violas, and the eagle eared might discern the distant rumble of a rare double bass.

My partner and I sing with a respectable community choir (Hackney Singers). We can “read” music though with less speed and processing power than we read words, have reasonably good pitch and the vocal muscle to manhandle a whole Beethoven Mass between breakfast and coffee. Our friends attend our London concerts if we buy them enough drinks. But at Dartington we are privileged to mix with world class musicians: we listen, awed and moved, to up to three concerts a night played only a few feet away by household names. Then on Friday night they pay us the compliment of coming to hear us! What we’d give at Hackney to have international stars in the audience, the likes of Emma Kirkby, Joanna MacGregor the pianist and director, or the stars of tomorrow like Stephanie Wake-Edwards who sang the alto solos in our mass or Isata Kanneh-Mason on piano. Over the weeks there’s a wide mix of genres represented, so Martin Carthy comes for folk workshops, Andy Sheppard for jazz, and Adriano Adewale brings Brazilian rhythms.

Great hall
Most concerts take place in the Great Hall

We rehearsed our mass en masse with George Vass, who was also conducting the Piano Concerto Competition and also conducting the production of Sweeney Todd while imparting the wit and wisdom of a lifetime in music. We triumphed (eventually, thanks to Gavin Roberts’ patience) over the German of Brahms and Schubert in the smaller Chamber Choir. When not rehearsing, we could wander into a masterclass: I chose Adrian Brendel’s but Pascal Roget was there too, and a piano duet class, and a vocal class. So I now know something about cello technique (keep the shoulder loose and play with the whole arm, not unlike the tennis commentator’s advice during the New York Open last night). I’ve seen the cello played so many ways by the same and different people: sitting back upright, calm and spiritual for the meditative mathematics of Bach, or embracing it with legs and arms curving forward to pluck deep bass notes, lips almost touching the neck like a singer with a microphone. It’s quite erotic.

(But music ain’t all spiritual or sexy : ever noticed how much saliva gets emptied onto the floor by a French horn and how a conductor sweats?)

Particular highlights this year? Alfred Brendel talking about Schubert, and his own musical career, moving when discussing his own choices of what and how to play, wise about young musicians today (“don’t practise so much”), quick with a witty putdown if an audience/interviewer question didn’t suit him.

Brendel jpg
Alfred Brendel after his discussion with Joanna MacGregor

Second highlight: Joanna MacGregor’s piano concerto masterclasses. The student soloist on one Steinway, she on the other, throwing herself about with huge energy to play all the orchestral parts on the other. There’s a surprisingly practical element to  her teaching: apparently concerto soloists rarely get the chance to practise with the orchestra before the performance (not so unlike the life of the amateur choir then) and she was full of hints. “If you peer under the piano lid at this point, you should be able to see the lower strings to help you keep in touch” / “this bit’s tricky for the conductor so just give him/her a hint, perhaps a quick G flat just to show what your intention is” / “try coming down onto the note from higher up, it will make more sound and be less tiring for you” / “just go with the flow for a rest, this is the woodwind lead, not yours”. Fascinating. I shall never hear Gershwin or Rachmaninov the same way again, having heard them on two Steinways as she conducted, advised, played, joked, demonstrated and most importantly, encouraged.

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Third highlight – Brazilian rhythms in the bar on the last night, top singers and musicians taking impro spots as we all clapped, sang and percussed along. Is to percuss a verb? It is now. If a mainly (but not all) classical music summer school sounds precious or exclusive, think again. This one rocked!

Last highlights? Delicious breakfast mushrooms and grazing on mulberries from the tree in the famous Dartington gardens. We’ll be back next year, for the St Matthew Passion – unless we go for Early Music Week … or The Creation… or the Verdi Requiem and Kiss Me Kate… choices, choices.

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©Jessica Norrie 2017

Barcelona, Sombra y Sol

Shade and sun, noise and…not much silence here in London where we still have intermittent NOISE unless I scream at the builders through the walls. For me the sounds were more harmonious last week in Barcelona, so here’s a post about what I’ve heard and seen there, over the years.

Barcelona Jn sol y sombra azules
Sun, shade and building, from Park Guell

I first visited Barcelona in November 1979 with a student friend. Our filthy train rumbled down from Paris for ten hours. We dozed upright and stepped over recumbent bodies in the aisle to get to the unspeakable loo. The track gauge changed at the border so we had to take another even worse train, arriving sleepless with grit filled eyes. We found a room in a narrow alley off the Ramblas, not because it was billed as “quaint” (it wasn’t, then), but because it was cheap. It looked onto a high blank wall about six metres away and the streets were quiet. I wanted to practise my Spanish, which G didn’t speak, but we soon found it was better if he did the talking. The only other females around were nuns and prostitutes, and no-one seemed ready to engage in the friendly dialogues suggested by my phrasebook.Barcelona SF 2 I don’t remember hearing Catalan or English either: people simply didn’t speak in our presence. Probably, under Franco, they’d lost the habit of talking in front of strangers. Their mother tongue, after all, was banned. It rained. The Sagrada Familia was forbidding and silent – no-one was working or visiting under the four completed towers and much of the roof was open to the gloomy sky. There was little money available for the project. Franco had only been dead four years and Catalonia had suffered as much if not more than the rest of Spain. Barcelona was poor, dirty, dreary and dark. We escaped to Sitges, even then a cheerful, bouncy little town with a sunny beach that defied the season.

My next trip was sometime around 2004.  What a difference! Spain had (apparently) shrugged off Franco. The 1992 Olympics had regenerated Barcelona, cleaned up its beaches, replanted its parks. The shops were full and colourful, the people stylish. You could still wander around the “temple” without a guide, but parts were taped off with stonemasons chipping away behind them. The human statues in the Ramblas only jogged into movement when the adjacent ball dribbling exhibition hit them accidentally (or was it?) I watched Almodovar’s La Mala Educación which had just come out, in a showing starting at 10pm and then we went to eat and then the sparkling metro was still running to get me home. Watch out for your purse by the bullring, warned Señora Herrero, my hostess, but I felt quite safe.

Barceloan palau interior
The Palau de la Musica

I returned with my son and his father in 2005. I wanted to see the Palau de la Música, built to celebrate both Catalan and international musical traditions and an Art Nouveau sensation. I wanted to visit the Picasso Museum, where you can see his dashing, respectful variations on Velasquez’s Las Meninas. I wanted to congratulate myself again on how much written Catalan I could understand – by now all signs were bilingual and if you can read French, Spanish or Latin you can decipher Catalan. Robert and his dad went to worship at Camp Nou, and back we all went to the Sagrada Familia. Not much had changed in a year. Health and safety awareness had produced a few more hoardings so work was audible but harder to watch. (Why am I moaning about the builders next door? At least it’s not an unfinished cathedral started 90 years ago.)

We went again last week. I’ve written before about singing, and this trip was Run by Singers giving us the opportunity to sing in the temple! And goodness how it’s come on (the temple, not my singing). The midpoint of construction was reached in 2010 and it’s hoped to finish in 2026, the anniversary of Gaudi’s death (although the pious architect famously said “my client [God] isn’t in a hurry”). There are now eight towers completed of the projected eighteen. The roof is finished, and the stained glass creates glorious changing patterns in the nave, while the internal pillars rise in the shapes of palm trees to a forest canopy of intricate stone. I was relieved the choir stalls are not yet finished, as they’re going to be about 15 vertiginous metres up on three sides, with a screen so that all 1400 potential singers can see the conductor. Meanwhile we sang in a roped off space in the nave and some tourists were good enough to stop and listen. In the evening, we gave a charity concert at an enchanting little theatre in the nearby town of Vilassar. I wonder how many UK towns can boast such a charming performance space?

There was a little time for sightseeing. The Park Guëll was scorching, and to me had changed only in that it was much more crowded. The mosaics that aren’t mosaics (they’re “trincados” and you can try making one yourself next time you smash a plate) were still delightful. I suffered real vertigo on the roof of La Pedrera, but enjoyed the apartment inside and gazpacho at their cafe. The bullring has become a shopping centre since Barcelona banned bullfighting – bravo! But the cherry on the cake was to return to the Palau. This time, the guided tour was much less overtly political, less focussed on Catalan pride and the need to protect and nurture their culture. The glowing Palau spoke for itself, as now do the people, and the tour included 20 minutes of beautifully played Chopin, Liszt, and Mozart. Next time, we must surely sing there!

I’d downloaded books set in the region, referring as ever to the TripFiction website for my choices. But we were too busy. I haven’t touched them. All I can recommend is those I’d read already. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, about his experiences during the Spanish Civil war, can’t be bettered as an explanation of why 43 years later the Barcelona I saw was still so downtrodden and sinister. The novels of Carlos Ruiz Zafón are mostly set there. I read them in Spanish, in order to practice, which means I’m vague about the content. There were lots of alleyways, dark passages, dusty booksellers and libraries, abandoned railways and gardens with wrought iron gates, mysterious young women, wrinkled grandparents with jewels and sadness, shadows and secrets but the plots eluded me.

Barcelona Montjuic steps
Montjuic

Depending on NOISE, posts over the summer will be intermittent. Maybe I’ll reblog something of someone else’s instead, now I’ve discovered how. Or maybe I’ll leave you all in blissful silence, to browse through some photographs – this time, it was harder than ever to know what to leave out.

Barcelona SF palm trees

Barcelona SF stained glass

Barceklona SF stained glass 2

 

Bracelona JN La P gazpachoHasta luego!

©Jessica Norrie 2017