Out in the Shropshire fields below Wenlock Edge with Maggie Ayre, BBC Radio 4 Producer of Soul Music, and the Armistice Day 2014 edition A Shropshire Lad
So what is this all about? What has this writer to do with the making of a Radio 4 programme, broadcast today at 11.30 am? You may well ask. It is one of those situations where one thing leads to another, and this in itself is apt, given the topic of the blog post that prompted my connection with the programme.
Last November I wrote a piece called Songs from an Inland Sea: “On Wenlock Edge”. It looked at the way the work of one artist can inspire the works of other artists. It was also about the place where I live, Wenlock Edge, the twenty miles of upflung fossil sea that features in the poems of A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.
This cycle of 63 ballad type poems, first published in 1896, has indeed inspired other works, in particular the music of composers Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth. (You can hear excerpts of their works, and download a Guttenberg Press copy of A Shropshire Lad on the link above.)
“Tis time, I think by Wenlock town/The golden broom should blow…” ASL XXXIX
Last spring Maggie Ayre contacted me, saying she had read my post and was struck by the connections I had made with the Shropshire landscape. She said she was researching a programme that would possibly feature George Butterworth’s Rhapsody, an orchestral work that expands his song version of the Housman poem Loveliest of Trees. She wondered if I would like to take part in the programme should it go ahead. Struck by a fit of ‘writer’s recluse’, I replied rather doubtfully that I might.
Soul Music is a long-standing Radio 4 series. Each programme usually features one piece of music, its performance intercut with the stories of several people for whom the work has special resonance. Today’s broadcast has further meaning, one that touches all of us: it commemorates Armistice Day.
I have written elsewhere about A E Housman and George Butterworth – Quoting Creatively: the “Out of Africa” Connection – but today, on 11th November, the connections are war-specific. Many of the Housman poems relate to the loss of young men going to war, of promising youth cut short. Indeed, sales of the work took off because of this, first during the Boer War, which in 1901 claimed the life of Housman’s younger brother, Herbert, and again during World War 1 when copies went to the front with many a recruit. Butterworth was one of those recruits. In 1911-1912 he had set eleven of the poems to music, and in 1913 seen the premier of the Rhapsody at the Leeds Festival. But by August 1916 the composer was dead, just another of the millions of casualties of World War 1. He was killed at Pozières, on the Somme, aged 31, his creative promise cut off in its prime.
But back to Soul Music. I did not hear again from Maggie Ayre until the summer. Then in June, on a hot summer’s day, she came to my house in Much Wenlock and, since the rumble of traffic on Sheinton Street is ever intrusive, she suggested we drive up on to Wenlock Edge, and find a quiet spot to talk about Butterworth’s Rhapsody while looking out across the Shropshire landscape. It seemed a lovely idea.
And so began our pursuit of silence across the countryside – silence, that is, from traffic, aircraft, chain saws and farm machinery. Who would have thought it would be so hard? It was not even harvest time. We drove over and behind the Edge and into the valley you can see in the next photo. We walked along farm tracks, and up and down fields of wheat. It was very hot. Always there was the grind of something mechanical resounding off the hillsides. Of course there would have been plenty of rural noise in Housman’s day – the rattle of carts, shouts of many farm labourers, the blasting of limestone at Wenlock Edge’s great quarries, but by now our pursuit of quietness was beginning to emulate A Shropshire Lad’s most poignant theme: the longing for the unobtainable, “the land of lost content.”
Finally there was silence, apart that is from a buzzard’s call and the humming of bees, and so we sat down on the sun-baked ruts of a wheat field path, and Maggie put that big microphone near my nose and we began. By which time of course, my mind was in a whirl, and everything I’d thought to say dispersed to the four quarters. But in the end, enough was apparently said for Maggie’s purposes. (I should add that I was only one of several participants who include students from Bromsgrove School, where Housman was a pupil; they had recently been performing the Butterworth-Housman songs for a school concert.)
As we tramped back along the farm lane to the car, the quietness was broken by a bird singing in an ash tree. I think is was a robin. It stopped us in our tracks. We listened as it sang and sang. It was a moment of true remembrance: the notion of peace when the bombardment ceases. It is something we need to hang on to, and hang on to for dear life. It is the best and only reason why all European countries, or all humanity for that matter, should stand together, and stop pursuing pointless, ruinous, life-wasting conflicts.
copyright 2014 Tish Farrell
Not a Flanders poppy, but a wild poppy nonetheless, and quite extraordinarily it is flowering today, 11th November, in the field behind our house.
Remembering my own Great Uncle, Private Giles (Victor) Rowles, who died at Gallipoli, aged 19 years and was buried at sea off Mudros Harbour in August 1915.
Soul Music BBC Radio 4 A Shropshire Lad