Saturday, June 5, 2010

Day #58: "The Lark"

I was born In England, in the county of Kent, in a place with the grim-sounding name of Gravesend, on the Thames Estuary. Gravesend is North of the River Medway (is the UK the only place that puts the word “River” before the name of the river?) which makes me either a Man of Kent or a Kentish Man. Had I been born South of the Medway, again I would be either a Man of Kent or a Kentish Man; I know not which is which and I have no mnemonic to help me. But, English I was and am, it is in me and I cannot escape my heritage, even if I wanted to.

It’s funny (funny-peculiar rather than funny ha-ha) the way that my Englishness or Britishness seeps out of me these days, all these thousands of mile away, in the Southern Hemisphere. For instance, one symptom that I’ve had my eye (or rather ear) on for some time now, is my growing collection of CD’s by British classical composers: Vaughan-Williams, Benjamin Britten, Purcell, Walton, Elgar and other chums of theirs.

Ironically, the first time, here in Australia, that I broke out in this musical rash was in the cinema. I’d gone to see (with my "significant other" of the time, I think) the Australian film The Year My Voice Broke, in which we were first introduced to a very young Noah Taylor, an also very young Ben Mendelsohn and a young actress, Loene Carmen. A Maturation Plot (coming-of-age-story) set in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales (filmed in and around Braidwood I believe), it was writer-director John Duigan’s love letter back, I imagine, to his youth and his first flush of love. It remains my favourite Australian Film, for many reasons, but not least of which was the use of a piece of Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) Vaughan-Williams’s music: The Lark Ascending.

Vaughan Williams - an ambulance driver in the First World War - was a keen student of English folk songs; I oft imagined him wandering the lanes and byways of the countryside (our shared countryside), ear of corn between his teeth, one of his ears cocked for the sound of a penny whistle, squeeze box or merry yokel (who am I kidding?) But whatever he did hear, it’s there, that English bucolic DNA, it’s in his fine compositions and no more so than in The Lark. The beautiful juxtaposition of the quinessentially English music married against the unique landscape of Eastern Australia in The Year My Voice Broke is sublime; odd bedfellows, I don’t know how John Duigan and his sound/music people made it work but they sure did.

So did another Australian director, Peter Weir. In Master & Commander (a movie that I’ve mentioned here before) his film based on an amalgamation of two or three of the Patrick O’Brian novels of Nelson’s navy, featuring Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) he calls on Vaughan Williams too. In a heartbreaking scene, thousands of miles out, on an angry ocean, Crowe’s Captain Aubrey faces a true character dilemma (the lesser of two evils) which embodies the Controlling Idea of that film: something about the uneasy position of being a leader of any description and having to choose between saving the life of many or the life of one (see the film if you haven’t already).

As Jack Aubrey makes his grossly unenviable decision, Ralph Vaughan William’s Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis, supports the scene with it’s inspiriting yet heartbreaking score. For that’s what Vaughan Williams does, at least for me, he awakens me and yet causes me to reflect deeply, at one and the same time. Remember, this is a modern-day giant of the classical music composition; his Thomas Tallis was written in 1910, just over four years later, he was at the wheel of an ambulance in Hell on earth. Incongruous, no?

Ralph Vaughan-Williams returned from the Great War and went on to write masterpieces, magnificent works like A Sea Symphony - in which he sets the poetry of Walt Whitman to four musical movements - until his death in 1958, the year that I was born.

Day #58 Tip: Look To Your Well
I have a “well” that I go to every day. A well that I go to for thoughts, ideas, passion and tenacity. Every day of my writing life, I lower my bucket into that well and pray that I never hear it clang about at the bottom. I can’t afford for my well to be “dry”.

So, I look to my well and ensure that I put in vast quantities, so that I have reserves on which to draw. I read novels, newspapers, plays and screenplays I listen to music of all descriptions, flavours and type. I walk and observe, making sure that I take the most rewarding routes I possible can on my travels, often at the expense of quickness: via the Botannical Gardens, past Cathedrals and churches, down backstreets and laneways. I cook, I garden, I make notes of cloud types and formations, I talk to animals. I’m selective with the television, liberal with the radio programmes that I love, retreat into any sort of football and ensure that my well never runs dry.

Some deep and some simple experiences of life will innevitably add to my well; I’m sure that wasn’t what motivated Ralph Vaughan-Williams to drive that ambulance across such terrain, endlessly and repetitively in the years between 1914 and 1918, but I’m sure that it was there for him to call on, one way or another, if he needed to, wanted to or dared to, in the years that followed.

More than anything in our daily lives, as writers and otherwise, we will need that well.

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