shadowofthecourtesan

discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the tag “Oxford”

Breakfast at Prekeng

For regular readers, I bring news of great change. I have not had a cup of coffee for weeks. Nor have my lips touched wine. Instead, I breakfast on jasmin tea, with fruit and small pastries bought from a stall in the market across the road (not just any road – the terrifying, and utterly anarchic, National Road 1). I sip my tea while a couple of fishermen lazily search the ponds below me. The sun rises, and the cool, fresh early morning disappears.

I lunch on rice and vegetables, supplemented by a handful of honey-coated cashew nuts from my secret stash;  this particular vegetarian’s protein supplement of choice.  I usually dine on more rice, more vegetables, but this time with a sprinkling of peanuts. Some things don’t change, however. I look forward to, and then enjoy, my one cold ‘Angkor’ beer in the evening even more perhaps than I used to enjoy a glass of wine.

Mekong river

You’ll have worked out that I am not in Oxford. The market is in Prekeng, about 10km south of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and the river is, of course, the Mekong. Keep going on National Road 1 and you’ll get to Vietnam. The climate here is hot and humid, although everyone here keeps assuring me it’s really very cool at the moment. Since when is 34 degrees ‘cool’?

My mornings are devoted to teaching English to small children. Through play. Those who know me well may now be smiling wryly. It’s no great secret that I am not the most tolerant or patient of individuals when it comes to small children. In fact, I am one of those strange parents who prefer teenagers to toddlers, and I am ecstatic that my daughters are now adults. In fact, I am rubbish at ‘play’. Even when I was a child, I wasn’t that good at it. I liked projects, and tests, and competitions. I devoured the classics of literature at a stupidly young age, hardly understanding a word, but loving that feeling of tackling a ‘grown-up book’. My imaginary worlds were telling: I played libraries, complete with complex filing systems but that was nothing on ‘swim to China’. Once in China, I would, with my friends Christopher and Clare, set up a shop. I still like deadlines, and spreadsheets, and exams. I like working on my own, in a corner of the library – or coffee shop. And I remain horribly competitive, although I like to think that I can also be a gracious loser.

But…everyone can change. And these past couple of weeks have seen me dancing around the classroom, making colourful posters, playing ridiculous (non-competitive) games, and singing at the top of my voice (or humming when I simply cannot remember the words to ‘One Finger, One Thumb’ and other classics of the pre-school repertoire). It’s been fun.

Maybe the children have learned a bit of English. Maybe I’m learning to play?

Look closer. Look back.

IMG_0129The landscape you see here is that of the hills and mountains to the south of Sarajevo. Last month, I walked with a handful of young people, drawn to this beauty from faraway places like Brazil and Singapore. Benjamin, our guide, drove us to a village called Lukomir (Harbour of Peace), from where we walked, drinking in the clear air, to the edge of a precipitous gorge. Climbing back up to the village, we were fed delicious cheese pies and yogurt, looked at the centuries-old Muslim gravestones, filled our bottles from one of the many natural springs, before bumping back along an unmade road towards Sarajevo, down past the Olympic village of Bjelasnica. It was a very special day out. Despite the occasional passing comment from Benjamin (“that’s where the UN safe haven was, but how could people get to it?” “only one house was shelled in Lukomir – it was just too out of the way to matter”), and despite returning to still war-scarred Sarajevo with posters advertising, if that is the right word, a Srebrenica exhibition, posters that made me look away every time, it was almost impossible to imagine this idyllic, pastoral landscape desecrated by civil war, neighbour killing neighbour, these hills as launching points for mortar attacks. My daughters were born to the soundtrack of the Balkan wars. I would turn off the radio because I couldn’t bear to hear any more, as I held their new lives in my arms. God – or possibly a good therapist – knows why I am drawn to the region, but I am.

This was going to be a post about women composers and war (and peace) – and that post will be written, because there is an important story to be told, some fascinating patterns to be revealed – but right now, Bosnia is still with me, perhaps because last night one of the disconcertingly talented Oxford Creative Writing students (Dunja Janjic, twenty years ago a child in exile from Sarajevo, like my guide Benjamin) brought me to tears – and laughter – with a story about her toddler self. You can find out more about the adult Dunja, and indeed her fellow students, at http://www.writeoffarena.com/#!authors/c1875).

Back in the meadows below Lukomir, Pedro, from Rio, and also a child at the time of the conflict that sent Dunja and Benjamin into exile, said what many are now saying – Bosnia is a welcoming, hospitable country precisely because of the horrors. Sarajevo, with its café culture, is now a cool weekend destination: Bosnia a ‘vibrant’ addition to tired European itineraries. Sarajevo is the Jerusalem of Europe, says the Pope who arrived the week before me and prayed for peace, although there is little obviously spiritual about the shiny new banks and shopping malls, there to serve…whom? Certainly not the ordinary Bosnian, living on an average salary of just over 400 euros a month.

Sarajevo is fashionable despite, and because, of its traumatic recent history, war tourism one of its most bankable assets. I’ve always been sceptical about war tourism: it took me years before I went to visit Terezin, where my own grandmother was imprisoned (she would die in Treblinka), and I’m not sure it helped heal any wounds, although it did convince me once and for all not only of the banality of evil, but the ease at which it can be achieved. My scepticism is derived, I think, not merely from the way a certain kind of war story is foundational to the grand, high-political, male-centred narrative of history, but the way in which some forms of war tourism can turn human misery into an exhibit, make us voyeurs, and thus put the past, and the human beings who lived that past, at a safe distance, from me, from us, here and now.

Traitor's Ford June 2015Back home, a few days after my return from the Balkans, I was cycling through the Cotswolds on a quintessentially English summer’s day and, descending a winding, minor road was confronted with that most thrilling of things – a ford. I stopped to take a photograph, and spotted a notice board which informed me that this was ‘Traitor’s Ford’, so called because it was one of the back routes to the battlefields of England’s civil war: Edgehill – 23 October 1642 – was not far away, in space if not in time. I read that the local villages endured ‘groups of soldiers plundering food, goods, horses, cattle and sheep without payment’. If I hadn’t read the rather battered notice, then the only clue in this quiet country lane, as idyllic in its own way as the hills above Sarajevo, would have been the name, Traitor’s Ford. I had stumbled into war tourism in my own back yard – and it was just as hard to imagine the horrors of war here as it had been in the highland meadows of Bosnia.

Sometimes – and I suppose this is one of the things that keeps me going as a biographer – it is the little things that reveal a life and a time, that provide the connection between the living and the dead, between now and then. A few days ago, I found some documents connected with my father’s arrival in this country. It was 1939 and he, like Dunja and Benjamin, was a refugee from war and ethnic cleansing. Unlike them, he was almost a man – seventeen years old – but, unlike them, he would never, could never, return to the country of his birth, Czechoslovakia. Amongst the fragile papers was a robust booklet, his Certificate of Registration as an Alien. Each month he reported to the police, who duly tracked his movements across the south of England. On  5 June 1941, almost two years after his arrival, my father – who would have just turned nineteen – was granted permission to be employed as a ‘confectioner’ at the Cadena Café, Red Lion Square, Oxford. Eight days later, in a rare type-written entry, he was granted permission ‘to use a Bicycle in the City of Oxford ONLY.’

JB Certificate of Registration 1939

My father would remain in Oxford for just a few months. By mid-July 1941 he was in East Sussex at a school called Fonthill Lodge, where his fortunes would change dramatically. This little book reeks of wartime, of a life under constant surveillance, of moving relentlessly from one precarious lodging to another, of nights spent fire watching, of exile, of being an ‘alien’ – a life I have never known, and that i can barely imagine – but it also connects me powerfully with my Dad, who cycled through the streets of Oxford, just as I do now.

Con fuoco

I sat down to compile a list of the high points of 2014, and realised that there have been so many, that it would be invidious to pick a top ten. But I did want to mark the end of the year by sharing a quotation which has inspired me (and which won’t get into the book); by celebrating the location in which I have probably written more words than any other; and revealing a small personal challenge that will take me well into 2015.

The quotation is from the composer Grace Williams’ farewell letter to her lifelong friend and fellow composer, Elizabeth Maconchy.

GraceWilliams

Williams (a Wagner-lover, showing that friendship is thicker than Wagner) had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She wrote the letter on 25 January 1977, and died two weeks later.

Well, all along I’ve known this could happen and now it has I’m quite calm and prepared and can only count my blessings – that I’ve had such a run of good health – able to go on writing – and just being me with my thoughts and ideas and sensitivity … From now on it won’t be so good but even so there are sunsets and the sea and the understanding of friends – and a marvellous broadcast of Solti’s recording of Meistersingers on Sunday.

From the deeply moving, to a celebration of Zappi’s Bike Café in St Michael’s Street, Oxford (www.zappisbikecafe.co.uk) where many a paragraph has been edited, and many a slice of Bara Brith, and cup of coffee has been enjoyed over the last twelve months. The place is extra special because Flavio Zappi and I go way back – in those days, I had nIMG_0350o idea that he had, in a former life, been a pro-cyclist, and he (and I) had no idea that I, in a future life, would become a pro-writer – I’ve just made that job title up, and I like it. Flavio does not make the coffee any more, but fortunately there is a steady stream of witty, kind, young people who do that. It really is the best coffee in Oxford, and I recommend the place warmly.

And, last but not least, the small challenge. Elsewhere I have written about my delighted discovery of Fanny Hensel’s Das Jahr. Well, I thought it would be a good challenge for 2015 to try to play it. The first step was to spend the vast majority of my lovely publisher’s advance (not a vast amount in the first place, but…) getting my Bechstein upright piano tuned and cleaned – inside and out. Thanks to hours of work by Theo from Roberts’ Pianos in Oxford, the piano is in tip-top condition. Sadly, the same cannot be said for my piano technique. I have however made a start, with ‘March’ (my favourite movement), and I’m working through it, bar by painful bar. I can play the notes – just at a funereal pace rather than the opening’s specified 120 beats per minute, let alone the final section, with its seven sharps, and the instruction: Allegro moderato ma con fuoco.

So, here’s to a 2015 con fuoco!

Return

Back in Oxford, and it’s not been a soft landing. I’m not sure how it could have been, since I’ve been in such a privileged position, focusing on one thing, writing, and with the attitude that almost everything else is SEP.* Now, it’s back to the pleasures and pains of owning a home (boiler check this morning, electrician on Tuesday, shall I go on? No…); the pleasures and complications of extended family life (both my daughters moved back in while I was away – yes, I know, I should have changed the locks, but that seemed a little harsh. Only joking, my lovelies); and being back in the familiar but exhausting business of juggling different professional roles, whether teaching Shakespeare or directing Creative Writing programmes or reviewing book manuscripts for publishers. Oh, and next week, I’m giving a lecture for the Friends of Milton’s Cottage at the Mercers’ Hall in London, fittingly on ‘Milton in Italy’ – he had well over a year in the peninsula, funded by his Dad – and he had the time of his life. You can find out more about the event in London here – do note the reference to a generous reception after the lecture, hosted by the Mercers’ Company.

http://renaissance-events.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/3rd-annual-milton-lecture.html

But, it’s good to be home. Spring in England, even in the rain, is a special time

bluebells – witness the bluebells in Harcourt Arboretum – and I’m really looking forward to my trip up to the city next week. Sometimes one doesn’t have to travel very far to get a sense of living history, and I’ve found, in my limited experience, that the Livery Companies of the City of London provide an almost direct line to the past. And I have, at last, got a recording of Fanny Hensel’s Reise Album, the pieces she wrote while, or immediately, after her own transformatory trip to Italy in 1839-40 – almost exactly 200 years after Milton’s journey there. You can find some of the music here – http://www.allmusic.com/album/fanny-hensel-italian-journey-album-mw0001855771 – with a helpful bit of commentary, and some rather harsh things to say about the quality of the performances.

I’m only just getting to know the CD, but already find the Capriccio wonderful, with clear links to Hensel’s masterpiece, Das Jahr. If ever I needed motivation as a writer, then listening to this music, hidden for so long, provides it.

*“The Somebody Else’s Problem field is much simpler and more effective, and what’s more can be run for over a hundred years on a single torch battery. This is because it relies on people’s natural disposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain.” (Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything)

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