Thursday, 23 June 2016

Transient Beauty by Steve Gladwin

‘In the midst of life we are in change’.

Tomorrow night in Carrog Village Hall in Denbighshire, I will speak those words at the beginning of the first new show I have performed since 2000. It will be both the culmination of a journey I began seven years ago after my wife Celia’s death, and the beginning of a new phase. It may also mark the beginning of a new phase for Britain, when for good or ill a decision will have been made about our membership of the EU. I am not going to bang on about that now, except to suggest that if we ever have to make such an important decision again, we need to employ some sort of device which makes it impossible for anyone speaking for or against a motion to tell a lie. As has been proved yet again something like our continued EU membership is too important to be left in the hands of people who have a personal investment one way or the other.
When I was invited to write a regular blog for ABBA last September I wondered – I’m sure like many - what I would write about every month. To my surprise it has not been difficult to find subjects which I both feel strongly about and which I hope others might also feel stimulating and/or challenging. So as I’m about to perform a show about change and loss, and by the time I do it, Britain might have suffered a sore one - and might already be adapting to a time of change, that’s what I want to write about
However it’s not the actual change I’m concerned with, so much as that moment of transience when things are on their way to changing. Depending on your point of view, this might be either stimulating or terrifying. I’m sure many of us remember traveling up or down the country in our parent’s car to start our new life at college or university, or the interview that preceded it, or going back even so far as one of our first days at school. Before anything actually starts, there is that moment when anything seems possible – will it go that way or this way, is he or she going to talk to me? In an alternative version of our life things might go entirely differently and wouldn’t it be strange yet someone empowering if this time we were to re-live that moment in an entirely different way?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The cultural world is full of such moments of transience but the finest I know is in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s beautiful poem Silent Noon, which comes from his huge House of Life sequence of sonnets. Speaking as someone who would labour writing any poetry which wasn’t either free verse or tongue or cheek rhyme, I’m impressed by someone who can write even one sonnet, but if you’re going to write just one, you might as well make sure it’s something as memorable as ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’, or Silent Noon which opens with the line, ‘Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass.’

Lovely as those opening words are, it’s a few lines later that we find the line which for me at least is the image of transience. Never mind that the poem itself evokes a caught moment by two lovers either pre or post love, or that it effortlessly captures those moments of delicious languor that in an ideal, sun dappled past might complement some snatched moments in a golden cornfield. The clincher –for anyone who doesn’t know it, is the way Rossetti talks about the dragon fly.

‘Deep in the sun searched growths, the dragon- fly.
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky..

It’s the placement of that word ‘hangs’ which to me is truly transient – almost  as if it is the dragon fly itself that can control the moment and everything with it. And if that weren’t enough to make any writer gnashingly jealous, Rossetti goes and follows it with this.

‘So this winged hour is dropt to us from above.’

It is almost as if the poet also believes that time has 

been suspended until the

moment the dragon fly’s fall ---

breaks the moment.

When the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams came to set Silent Noon to music in 1903, as the second of his six settings from Rossetti’s House of Life, if anything he understood the idea even better than the poet, for on that word ‘hangs; the singer momentarily ‘hangs’ with the dragon fly, and later drops with awesome power on that ‘winged hour’ It all can only surely go to show how it is so often those small insignificant moments which mark our life or inspire our pen, paint or pencil.

I am going to finish by relating one of these. As long ago as 1982, I put together a book of 12 short stories, one of which was about a lonely old man whose dead wife came back to him in the form of a wren. I didn't do anything with the stories but – as they say – they never quite went away. The wren became - many years later - my totem bird and we still see them often. While Celia was nearing the end of her life in 2006, I had a visitation from a wren on the morning we were due to go and choose her funeral plot at Green Lane Burial Field. In a manner quite unwrenlike and in the presence of both my parents and I, a little wren appeared and began to tap insistently on our glass conservatory door for a good three minutes – time enough for all to see it and remark on how unusual this was.

Tomorrow night a things will come full circle with my telling of a new version of my original wren story, ‘A New Mourning’ as part of my cycle of tales of change, ‘From Raven’s Call to Swallow’s Flight.’ The story hasn’t changed very much, except that now there is also a moment with a barn owl. It is again one of those transient visitations where – late at night, the old man Edwin is awoken by a frenzied tapping. Going downstairs to investigate, he finds this 'ghost owl' outside the kitchen window where the wren will later perch.
But it might never have happened, just as the little wren might never have come and pecked at my glass door. All the stories in my show are in some way about transience and the show itself is another such moment in my life and career. It might just end up being a short series of taps, or a more insistent, more permanent visitation on a window sill!

For now however, in this moment the dragonfly hangs ------


1 comment:

Steve Gladwin said...

Sorry about this folks. Blogger had a bout of midsummer madness and somehow shoved me rather rudely to the front of the queue. You should be reading and appreciating Sue Price's, which is far more interesting! x