‘What is your soundtrack?’ Miriam Halahmy wrote on Monday. My soundtrack is often the noise of bombs whining down, of artillery bombardment, of planes strafing civilians, things I’ve never heard, but that my mother – she told me once – relived when I was in utero, which maybe explains why all through my childhood I was terrified when I heard a siren. I mean the air-raid type sirens which were in use in the ‘50s. There was one that used to go off from Kendal quarry every day and I never got used to it. Maybe it was an air-raid siren working out its time. But the bells that ring out over the ruined city of Berlin in Saving Rafael – German churchbells, not the severe mathematical patterns we hear in this country, but a cluster of notes rung together in harmony – come from the Christmas record that was always played in my childhood home. I can hear them in my mind now.
Music affects me in two ways when I’m writing. Firstly, there’s the music that actually occurs in the novel – a lot of Django Reinhart and Louis Armstrong in Last Train from Kummersdorf and there’s a particular track on my Charlie Parker box set from the ‘40s – ‘Dizzy Boogie’ – which has really lit up the jazz I write about in the novel I’m working on at present. But I will say no more about work in progress.. When I was writing Saving Rafael, I had a cd called ‘Berlin by Night’ which contained popular music from Germany in the Nazi period. Not, I hasten to add, Nazi songs, but songs ranging from ‘Lili Marleen’ to disguised jazz, given a German title and lyric to make it more acceptable to the authorities. It has ‘Es geht Alles Vorüber’, the smash hit of the end of the war, the one that people kept listening to. Its message: ‘Everything passes, everything goes by, and every December is followed by May’ annoyed Propaganda Minister Goebbels – not martial enough – but that made no difference. My mother associated it, bitterly, with the letter she got telling her her first love had been killed in action – but she did have her Maytime after all, when she met my British father.
I listened to that cd over and over again, and composed the ‘theme lyric’ for the novel, in slight imitation of a terribly shlocky number that had me frankly laughing my head off. Jenny, in the novel, knew it was trash, but because it was playing the first time she realised Raf was interested in her, it got terribly important to her.
And yet – the scene where my young hero reaches across the table and starts playing with Jenny’s fingers comes, not from any of those contemporaneous songs, but from Tchaikowsky’s Violin Concerto (in D Major, I believe). I’d been wondering how to write that scene just before I was taken abruptly into hospital to have a tumour taken out of my spine. The second night after my surgery, I had a dreadful moment when I woke up and thought: ‘Somebody’s in pain,’ and then realised it was me – just as authors describe in many novels, and I always thought they’d made it up! But the thing that made me cry was that I thought I’d lost my novel.
I got some more opiates from the nurses, pulled myself together – they were dealing with an emergency in the room and the last thing they needed was an author agonising – and then the next morning I was listening to the Tchaikowsky on my personal stereo and suddenly I was in the Café Kranzler again. I’d found the novel! Such a relief, because honestly, it was an awful moment, and I realised how important a companion the novel I’m working on is to me.
Tchaikowsky wrote the concerto as a love-letter to a young violinist – who didn’t reciprocate his affection – but it is the most passionate, flirtatious, wonderful bit, and the part of the slow movement I was listening to was just like someone playing with their loved one’s fingers. I had something to write on, so I reached out – I had to lie flat in bed – and scrawled it down.
There’s a jazz cd by Abdullah Ibrahim called ‘Water from an Ancient Well’ that my brother gave me, that I often had playing on my computer while I was writing Kummersdorf. Music so often releases something in me, and it’s vitally important to me for that reason. I can’t imagine writing without music. If I didn’t have any of the machines that are our personal musicians nowadays, I’d have to sing for myself. Perhaps that would be better, who knows?
But I’m a twenty-first century writer, born in the twentieth century. My childish imagination was fired by ‘Music and Movement’ and by the stacks of wonderful glossy records, ‘78s, that lived in our Kendal house with us – my parents didn’t have a lot of money, so I guess they'd found these in the cellar when we moved in.
Anyway, I have wonderful memories of my brother and me, on wet Lake District days, putting on 'The Night on Bald Mountain,' and dancing excitedly to it. And that music surfaced years later when I wrote my novel about a witch persecution in the 17th century, Malefice.