This post isn’t actually about the vase, though the photo is as close a visual cue as I can muster for the very odd thing that happened last week . It went like this.
When I wake in the night, I often plug in an ear bud and listen to Radio 4 Extra, the blessedly news-free zone that continuously recycles BBC broadcasts: drama, book readings, poetry, quizzes, whodunnit Miss Marples and Sherlock Holmes. Imagine the shock, then, when in the dark hours of Wednesday morning, I switch on and the voice that emerges on the digital air waves is mine. What on earth…?
The voice (familiar yet unfamiliar) speaks of seizing the day, of the fallacy of perfect landscapes whose ‘loss’ we continue to mourn. And accompanying the words, my unrehearsed, off-the-cuff words, are the heart-haunting strains of George Butterworth’s Rhapsody, the orchestral epilogue to his song cycles that had set some of A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad poems to music.
It is all about loss – Housman’s song-like stanzas of Shropshire’s young men going off to war, written in reaction to the Boer War; Butterworth’s later musical echo, premiered in 1913, followed by his own death on the Somme in 1916.
Listening in the small hours of 26 January 2022, I struggle to believe what I’m hearing. Soul Music is a popular Radio 4 series, featuring several people’s stories and responses to a particular piece of music. In June 2014 I’d taken part in the programme’s recording. It was a special production for Remembrance Sunday November 2014. Yet here I was, randomly switching on, in the middle of the night, eight years later, just at the moment when the repeat broadcast was being aired. Had I become my own oracle? Was some entity trying to tell me something?
As I said, I was only one of several contributors whose thoughts on Butterworth and Housman were used to create the programme. Shropshire broadcaster, Sybil Ruscoe, provided the narrative thread, telling of the loss of her young great uncle who, like Butterworth, had died on the Somme. So it was stranger still to next discover that it was my sound bites that had been edited to create a trailer for that week’s Soul Music reprise. Over the next couple of nights, there I was again, several times over – talking to me. As odd experiences go, and days later, it’s still hard to process.
P.S. The story of how I came to be involved with the programme in the first place, my words being recorded by producer Maggie Ayre out in a Shropshire wheat field on Wenlock Edge can be found here. It was all down to her reading a post I’d done on Butterworth and landscape.
The Loveliest of Trees is the second poem from the Shropshire Lad cycle, and probably the one best known. It is easy from today’s perspective to dismiss the apparent simplicity, sometimes ditty-like quality of these poems. But Housman was a scholar of Olympian proportions, an atheist too and, it is said, suffering in love for a man who could never love him in return. Sensibilities run deep here.
The verses speak of love and loss and going to war; the fleetingness of things; all set against landscapes seen only in the mind’s eye, or as if looking from a long way off across time and space. There are many voices too, even ghostly ones, the sense of old country airs remembered. It is not surprising that they spoke so compellingly to composers who then set many of the poems to music: George Butterworth (Bredon Hill and Other Songs), Ralph Vaughan Williams (On Wenlock Edge), Ivor Gurney (The Western Playland), Samuel Barber (With rue my heart is laden ) to name a few.
Here is Butterworth’s evocation of the cherry tree, sung with perfect poise by Roderick Williams. If you choose to listen you may imagine Shropshire here today. As I write this we are having flurries of light snow just like falling cherry blossom.
Late afternoon yesterday, calm restored after Storm Francis’s racketing about the place, we took ourselves off and up for a walk along the Edge. It was scarcely a hike, more of a ramble, though the climb up through the fields beyond Sytche Lane is a touch demanding. But then that gives me a good excuse for a breather while I snap a view of the town.
This flank of Wenlock Edge has been good wheat growing land for centuries, but this year, in the fields that could not be harvested early, the crop is looking grey and mildewed. Too much rain when it was least expected. I suppose it will be ploughed in. The hedgerows, on the other hand, were bursting with wild produce: wall to wall sloes (wild bitter damsons) which, after a good frost or a spell in the freezer, are excellent for making sloe gin or vodka; brilliant red haws on the hawthorn bushes; elderberries and rosehips beginning to ripen. All very autumnal.
Turning away from the town to the south: Clee Hill.
Once up on Wenlock Edge, and now heading in a northerly direction we come upon a view we had not seen before. Something was missing since the last time we were here – which just goes to show that we should go rambling more often. So what’s missing: guesses anyone? Clue: Ironbridge Gorge dead ahead.
From this point the path along the Edge runs out flat and even, fields on the right, ancient hanging woodland on the left where the escarpment falls alarmingly away to the Shropshire plain below. I thought of A.E. Housman’s poem ‘On Wenlock Edge’, (number 31 in A Shropshire Lad) and wished I’d come up here on the morning of the storm. It would have been exciting – all thrashing boughs and wind rush:
On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
And finally, since Housman has kindly provided the caption, coming up is the Wrekin, as seen from the homeward path.
There’s an Iron Age hillfort on the summit, once a stronghold of the Celtic Cornovii clans who inhabited the Welsh borders and English Midlands. After the Roman occupation, the local Cornovii became the Romanized inhabitants of Wroxeter/Viroconium Roman City whose remnants still survive (just off-screen to the left) beside the River Severn. The Wrekin itself, as all locals know, was made by a very grumpy giant called Gwendol. You can read my version of that story HERE.
I’m linking this to Jo’s Monday Walk: she is an inspiration to all of us to get rambling. This week’s expedition includes some very fine Portuguese Roman remains at Mirobriga, an archaeological site which also has Iron Age connections.
We are lucky enough to live on the edge of Wenlock Edge whose ridge-top road delivers us straight to the heart of Shropshire’s hill country. Caer Caradoc, Lawley, Ragleth, Long Mynd, Stiperstones are some of the most well known of our uplands, each striking in its own way and often featuring in old tales and mysterious legends. This is not surprising considering that humans have been walking these lands for at least the last 9,000 years when the ice sheets retreated.
The whole area is rich in prehistoric remains – burial cairns, standing stones, hill forts, Bronze Age field systems, trackways, drove roads and trade routes. This photo was taken from the northerly flanks of the Long Mynd, on the lane to Ratlinghope and Bridges, and looks over the Lawley to the long blue-green spine of Wenlock Edge.
Anyone who saw July’s To The Mysterious Stiperstones post might just recognise those distant heather-covered hills. Last month they were captured under looming skies, but this was how they looked yesterday when we went to Wentnor.
This off-the-beaten-track South Shropshire village must have some of the best views in the county – the Stiperstones to the west, and the Long Mynd to the east, and nothing but rolling farmland in between. The nearest towns are Church Stretton and Bishops Castle (6 and 5 miles respectively) but take note: Wentnor miles are at least twice as long as other people’s miles. It is a world all its own.
Coming up next is a glimpse of the Long Mynd looking east from the village. The name, unsurprisingly, means long mountain. It does not allow itself to be photographed in one shot.
And here’s the northerly end, taken from the car park of the village pub:
Talking of which, this was the objective for the outing – lunch at The Crown at Wentnor along with our best Buffalo chums, Jack and Kathy. The last time we four had been there, Graham and I were still living in Kenya, and only briefly in the UK on annual leave. We decided it had to be a good twenty years ago. How time flies.
After lunch we wandered about the village, and paid a visit to the parish church of St. Michael. None of us are subscribers, but when out together we often seem to find ourselves in country churchyards. Besides, Wentnor church is welcoming, and vistas within and without most picturesque. In fact I was so taken with the charm of the kneelers along the pews, I thought I might even like to join the people who had made them in a spot of hymn-singing – All things bright and beautiful of course; nothing like some tuneful gratitude as harvest festival time approaches.
The church was rebuilt in the 19th century, although parts date from the 12th century. I was particularly struck by the craftsmanship of the ceiling, and have never seen anything quite like it before. It made me think of the ornate wooden Viking churches of Norway.
Out in the churchyard with its ancient spreading yew, there were views of the Long Mynd and the hills towards Clun and Radnorshire:
And it was all so very quiet with few signs of the locals as we wandered up and down the lane; only a couple of horses waiting for new shoes from the travelling blacksmith, the village noticeboard, old barns and cottages. And then the skies turned threatening and it was time to leave, back to the real world beyond the Mynd.
N.B. The title quote is from A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad no. XL
You can see why this part of Shropshire falls within an Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty. These shots were taken on the viewpoint just past Hilltop on Wenlock Edge and I’m looking south-west towards the Shropshire Hills. You can see, too, why poet, A E Housman called them ‘blue remembered hills’. They seem like a memory even if you have never clapped eyes on them before.
And so when presented with the kind of blissful panoramic views that the Edge provides, it is tempting to try to capture all of it. And that usually does not work, not unless the light is perfect, and your photographic skills are considerably greater than mine. Even this landscape view is only a small segment of the 180 degree vista. I chose it because I liked the visual flow of man-made fields towards the grassy uplands, and the here-and-there accents of hedgerow and woodland; the many shades of green. Also, despite the millennia of human intervention here, you can still discern the landscape’s natural rhythms beneath the pastoral surface.
It’s a soothing scene to look AT. But the portrait version, I feel, is doing something rather different. It invites you into the landscape as if stepping through a door; it is therefore more actively affecting. Just my thoughts anyway. Also a thank you to Paula for stirring us up to think about the different effects of landscape and portrait composition.
This week Paula’s theme at Black & White Sunday is rhapsody. This instantly made me think of George Butterworth whose promising career as a composer ended with a sniper’s bullet on the Somme in 1916.
He is best known for his arrangements of English folk songs, and in 1911 and 1912 he set to music eleven of A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad poems. In the recording at the link below you can hear a ten-minute melodic evocation of my home county. It begins with one of the songs, Loveliest of Trees. This leads into the full orchestral Rhapsody which widens our gaze to embrace wide blue vistas – music of landscape, and of love and loss.
The photo was taken in the field behind our house. The tree is not a cherry as in the Butterworth-Housman song, but an ivy-clad ash. They thrive along Wenlock’s limestone Edge.
I may be wrong about this, but doesn’t John Barry’s Out of Africa film score owe just a little something to George Butterworth’s Shropshire Lad Rhapsody? Both works ride on a swell of yearning for a life, a love, a land that is lost or unobtainable. Both composers are English, and Barry probably knew Butterworth’s small body of very English song-cycles. (Butterworth died in 1916, a casualty of World War 1).
Of course, the influence of one composer upon another is common enough, and could well be subconscious. On the other hand, Barry might have chosen deliberately to nod to the earlier work. There are many reasons to do so, and it all begins with that other very English creation, the collection of poems called A Shropshire Lad, by A.E.Housman, the work that inspired Butterworth’s Rhapsody and the several Housman poems that he set to music.
I have written elsewhere how this collection of ballad-type poems inspired several composers in their works, and not only Butterworth, but also Vaughan Williams and Ivor Gurney. At the time when I wrote that post, I had not thought about the Out of Africa film connection. But now I have thought of it, my interest is rather personal.
Firstly, as a writer who has worked with several illustrators, I like the way one artist’s creativity can provide inspiration for other artists’ work. Indeed, when it comes to A Shropshire Lad, there is a veritable multiplier effect of allusion and quotation in other works throughout the twentieth century. This includes Dennis Potter’s disturbing play Blue Remembered Hills (A Shropshire Lad poem XL).
Secondly, Housman’s poems, and in particular the music they inspired, make reference to Wenlock Edge and the town of Much Wenlock where I live.
Thirdly, I have also lived in Kenya, the country that inspired Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa.
And fourthly, in the script of Sydney Pollack’s film of the same name, which derives more from the biographies by Judith Thurman (Isak Dinesen) and Errol Trzebinkski (Silence will Speak) than from Karen Blixen’s book, includes two very striking quotations from A Shropshire Lad.
Both arrive towards the end of the film, and both relate, directly and indirectly to Denys Finch Hatton, Karen Blixen’s lover who died in an unexplained plane crash at the age of 44. For more of their story go HERE.
The first and most heart-rending is at the burial of Finch Hatton up in the Ngong Hills. Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen reads, not from a prayer book, but from a book of poetry, and the poem she reads is poem XIX To An Athlete Dying Young. This is the final stanza:
While I can find no biographical reference that supports the reading of the poem at the actual burial, I can only say that it could not have been more aptly chosen. In other words, if it is a Hollywood invention, then it is a good one. It adds to our understanding of both Blixen and Finch Hatton in real life.
Denys Finch Hatton had rare glamour. He was man who was adored and admired by men and women alike. He was a consummate sportsman, a soldier, hunter. He was an elusive adventurer and the son of an English Lord. As a great lover of poetry he would doubtless have known A Shropshire Lad very well. More importantly, he is said to have had a pathological fear of growing old, and was ever to be seen wearing a hat once his hair began to thin.
In her biography of him Too Close to the Sun, Sarah Wheeler makes the analogy with Icarus. This too is apt. With his shocking death, burned in his plane, the self-regarding sheen of aristocratic settler life was diminished. The film’s burial scene thus prepares us for Karen Blixen’s final exile from Africa. Loss piles on loss.
Before she leaves the country, the film shows her being treated to a drink in the ‘gentlemen only’ bar of Muthaiga Country Club, a restriction which she apparently infringed when first arriving in British East Africa. The toast she gives her hosts is one said to have been used by Denys: ‘rose-lipt maidens, lightfoot lads’. This comes from poem LIV:
With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.
So where are these quotations taking us? What exactly is being evoked by their appearance in the film script?
It all comes back to the unobtainable or unclaimable: of the lost life, love and land that I mentioned in the beginning. The settlement by British and European aristocrats of British East Africa (Kenya) in the early years of the last century was an epic romance, one filled with the notion of noble master and faithful ‘noble-savage’ servants. There was the pitting of human courage and wits against the African wilderness; a wilful dance of death wherein sporting valour was supremely admired. There was a notion of overbearing entitlement; that East Africa was their own country; that only they understood it. As a dream, it was bound to fail. It is a visceral longing for something that cannot be possessed.
For Housman the loss was for a love he could not have: another man. He was a respected academic who ultimately lived as a recluse. He wrote the entire collection of 63 poems while living in London, and without setting foot in the part of Shropshire that he evokes. Of this anomaly he makes the terse comment that, having grown up in the neighbouring county of Worcester, “Shropshire was on our western horizon which made me feel romantic about it.”
And here is where Out of Africa – book, film, and the true lives behind, find common ground with A Shropshire Lad; the ‘I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills’ moment; the sense of tragic romance, ‘The happy highways where I went and cannot come again.’ Those ‘blue remembered hills.’ The human condition of longing for something we think we had, or should have, but never can.
And finally then the music. Below are renditions of Butterworth and Barry. (The first begins with the song Loveliest of Trees, poem II, from which the orchestral piece derives). Compare and contrast, or simply ride the emotional tsunami – across Africa, or Shropshire, or wherever you think your lost Paradise resides.
Things are going from bad to worse in Ingigi village. No one knows why five-year old Kui has gone missing. Nor does Sergeant Njau want to find out. He has his own problems, pressing matters that are far from legal. Then there is the endless rain. Will it never stop? Some Ingigi folk think it means the end of the world. Old man, Winston Kiarie, has other ideas. He senses some man-made disaster, and when it happens, it is worse than his worst imaginings. The fierce storms are causing landslides and throwing up British bombs, unexploded for forty years. Their discovery is giving the Assistant Chief ideas: how to make himself very rich. And then there’s young Joseph Maina and the primary school drop-outs thinking they have found treasure, and about to do something very, very foolish. Meanwhile, is anyone looking for Kui?
“Losing Kui” is a fast-paced novella of interwoven tales. There are secrets, conspiracies, tragedy and dark comedy. The setting is a fictional East African country in the late 1990s, a time when El Niño rains were causing havoc. The author lived in Kenya during most of the 1990s, and much of the story was inspired by real events.
This week’s Word Press writing challenge, with its musical theme, has set off a whole host of notions. In fact this may just be the post where all the strands of my ‘writer on the edge’ blog come together. This, though, is only a proposition and by no means a promise. One thing I can promise: there is some very fine music at the end. And for those of you who do not know the English composers Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and George Butterworth (1885-1916), then please consider this an early solstice gift. And if by chance you do not care for it, or indeed anyway, by all means pass it on.
So to return to the notions. Those of you who have read my past posts will probably know that I live on the edge of Wenlock Edge, a twenty-mile limestone scarp that bisects the county of Shropshire from the River Severn above the Ironbridge Gorge, to Craven Arms on the borderland with Wales. Aeons ago this now wooded, much quarried ridge was once a shallow tropical sea lying somewhere off East Africa. Today, and especially now through bare wintery trees, you can look out from its summit and scan a great panorama – the farm fields, villages and hills of Shropshire.
As I’ve said in other posts, there is a lot of history in this place – over 400 million years’ worth. Too much to embrace. But in the recent past (geologically speaking), you might have looked out from the easterly end of the Edge onto the smog-laden valley of Coalbrookdale as the Quaker ironmasters stoked their blast furnaces and helped fuel an industrial revolution. Travel back a further 1500 years and to the north you would have gazed on the impressive public buildings and sprawling settlement of the Roman city of Viroconium. Or in earlier times still you might have witnessed the building of the great Iron Age hill forts on the Wrekin and in Mogg Forest, or perhaps glimpsed some Bronze Age smiths plying the ancient ridge-top trackway en route for Wales.
The Edge, then, is full of spirits, and it is not surprising that it has long inspired artists, writers and composers. And so we come to the music, or rather, we come first to the work that inspired the music – A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. This collection of sixty three poems has been described as a gift for composers. The poems are written in the style of traditional ballads. And if at first they seem too obvious in their rhyme and rhythm, then look again. These are songs of loss and fleetingness – lost youth, lost love, the soldier’s death. That they are set against some scene of suggested rural perfection only heightens their poignancy. The work, too, somehow anticipated the bleak waste of the Great War, and so it was that, when the time came, A Shropshire Lad went with many a soldier into the trenches.
Housman’s sense of melancholy and loss stem from his own life: his mother died when he was twelve, his brother Herbert was killed serving in the Boer War, and his deep love for another man was unrequited. Nor did his workA Shropshire Lad have a very good start. Although it has remained in print since publication in 1896, in the beginning Housman could not find a publisher and had to pay to have the first five hundred copies printed. At first, too, there was a lukewarm reception. But within a few years, and much to the writer’s surprise, its popularity suddenly grew. This in part was due to the fact that several composers seized on some of the poems and set them to music.
In 1909 came Vaughan Williams’ song cycle On Wenlock Edge. The work’s title is taken from the opening line of poem XXXI: On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble. You can hear the storm-driven trees in the opening of the first video clip where English tenor, Ian Bostridge goes on to talk about his recording of the work with Bernard Haitink. You also see him in rehearsal singing one of the most moving poems. It is written in the voice of a ghostly young ploughman returning home to see how his girl is faring. Here are the first two stanzas.
“Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?”
Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.
The entire Vaughan Williams song cycle sung by Anthony Rolfe Johnson is performed in the third video below. Other composers inspired by the poems include Samuel Barber and Ivor Gurney (The Western Playland and Ludlow and Teme). I could not find clips of these works but I did find George Butterworth, who was a friend of Vaughan Williams. He set eleven of the poems to music including Is my team ploughing. He also composed the orchestral rhapsody A Shropshire Lad. It is yearning, elegiac piece, performed in the second video and accompanied by Shropshire scenes. Butterworth himself was killed on the Somme in 1916, his composer’s career barely begun.
So, you may ask, how does this all fit with ‘Tish Farrell – writer on the edge’? Well I suppose it comes down to this. As a fiction writer, or indeed a blogger, my focus is ever on the evocation of place (both through time and space) and how it resonates through the lives of the people and events I write about. And so I love the fact that the place where I live and have known most of my life has inspired so much creative work. And, indeed, continues to do so. In fact, I’m planning to feature more of it on this blog – the artists of the Edge. I am, anyway, fascinated by the process by which, in wonderful synergy, one person’s work inspires another’s creative response, thus building into a body of cross-referencing works. See what good things we can make when we listen in good faith to each other.
Wenlock Edge of course has its own music. I hear it most when I’m working on my allotment – the windrush in the woods, the mewing buzzards, the calls of rooks and jackdaws, and through it the chiming of the church clock. I screen out the traffic sounds of course. So here we have it: the rural idyll that never was, the music of Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth evoking the peculiarly human need to long for something we cannot have, and finally Housman’s own words from poem XL:
Into my heart an air that kills From yon far country blows: What are those blue remembered hills, What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain, The happy highways where I went And cannot come again.
And now, courtesy of Gutenberg Press, here is your copy ofA E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.