Monday, 15 February 2010

Just an old romantic

How do you cope with the trip to work in the morning? Particularly on dark winter days and particularly on Mondays?

I seem to have spent the greater part of my winter travelling with headphones firmly attached to my ears and creating a bubble of warmth around me with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (first and third movements in particular).

My corporeal self might be on the 394, but whatever else it is that constitutes the rest of me is elsewhere: standing, à la Kate Winslet on the prow of the Titanic; only not on a liner at sea, but speeding over the snowswept Russian landscape in a horse-drawn sleigh.

Yes, I know that Scheherazade is supposed to be about Arabia, but Rimsky-Korsakov was also one of Russia’s great nationalistic composers, who used folk songs and lore in their own work. Such incorporation might have been known as orientalism, but what I hear – well, what I see – when I listen to Scheherazade is a Russia, blistered white by snow; a cold that burns your eyes and rasps the skin, and leaves you feeling more alive than ever and even vaguely heroic.

This morning, for a change, it was Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra – the second movement is like floating in honey. If it’s not the apotheosis of Romantic music (and convention certainly says that that has to be Wagner) then it’s not far off.

But this is all really quite new in terms of my musical tastes. I’ve loved classical music since I was a teenager, but until recent years, the likes of Wagner and Strauss were far too rich a diet for me.

Then something happened to change that.

It was a few years ago. I was heading west with m’friend and culinary guru George, to visit Garcias & Sons, a rather fabulous Spanish deli and cafe on Portobello Road.

It was a long journey by bus – neither of us like the Tube, which, apart from anything else, is always too noisy to enable conversation.

So there we were, upstairs on an old Routemaster, plodding down The Strand, chatting away. And since George is German, I happened to mention, as a snippet that might be of passing interest, that where I had been doing a bit of work in the preceding weeks there was a German colleague called Brunhilda.

This – unexpectedly on my part – proved to be a cue. Specifically, for the story of the Nibelungenlied – the German legend that is the basis for Wagner’s operatic Ring Cycle, and an influence on many other artists – not least, JRR Tolkien (and more of him later).

But on the basis that one of the central characters is called Brunhilda, I was told the story – of Siegfried, the dragon, Kriemhild, Brunhilda, Gunther, Hagen … all the way to the climax, where the Burgundians are burned alive in the hall, loyal unto death.

I don’t know whether, in reality, my jaw really did hit the floor of the bus, but that’s what it felt like.

Metaphorical or actual, my gobsmackedness was real.

First, there was the shock of being told a story. I have no other memories of anyone, at any time in my life, telling me a story in such a manner. And this was storytelling – as an art; an ancient art of communication. I don’t remember anything like it from my childhood. And certainly nothing since, but this was not childlike storytelling, but something completely grown-up.

And then there was the dawning realisation that this was what romanticism meant. Not daffodils and bland insipidity. Not soppy stories of lovelorn couples, but something with teeth and guts and passion.

From there is was hardly a major step to start ‘getting’ Wagner. And it was like finding part of my soul.

Coincidentally, I have a slight Tolkien connection. Around 22 years ago, just after I’d moved south, my parents decided that I hadn’t had a holiday in years. This much was true.

So they decided that I should holiday with them. In Torquay on the so-called ‘English Riviera’. This, by and large, was a mistake: a single woman of such tender years and an un-rebellious nature is not likely to have much fun when holidaying with parents who believe that she should dine with them in the hotel every night and go to bed at the same time they do (for some reason or other, I also remember trout with almonds and dry white wine from that holiday – which tells you something if that was a central memory from a whole fortnight away).

Anyway, the hotel that we stayed at was run by a nephew of JRR. It had, if memory serves, nine rooms. And the owner and his wife had long been thinking of having each room designated not by a number, but by a place from Middle Earth. So Rivendell and Bag End etc. The idea was to have illustrations from the books done and then mounted on the doors beneath acrylic plates.

The problem was that of all the people they’d met down the years, the Tolkien enthusiasts couldn’t draw and the artists didn’t like the books.

My father leapt in to offer my services as someone who could tick both boxes. Thus, in the face of the understandable skepticism of JRR’s nephew, I meekly went and bought myself a drawing pad and some pencils, and proceeded to sketch some ideas.

I got the commission. Eventually, I even got a bit of money for it. And I can still legitimately claim to have done artwork for the Tolkien family, based on JRR’s books.

So there you go – that’s my little Tolkien connection. More salient in terms of this story is the point that, until just over 10 years ago, if you’d have asked me to name what I considered the best book in the whole wide world, I’d have said: Lord of the Rings.

Now before I upset anyone, let’s make it clear that Lord of the Rings is a very fine work of literature.

But to quote Terry Pratchett – who was commenting in 1999, during the frenzy of polls and lists marking the end of the millennium: “If you don’t think Lord of the Rings is the greatest book in the world in your teens, there’s something wrong with you.

“If you think Lord of the Rings is the greatest book in the world in your forties – there’s something wrong with you.”

I was saved from that embarrassment by the onset of my own late (but better late than never) surge into something resembling adulthood, and the suggestion by George (after a request for recommendations) that I might appreciate Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks.

I did. And being aware of the title of Mann’s seminal novella (but not of the first thing about its actual subject matter), I read that next. And was thus thoroughly gobsmacked all the way into the middle of the following week. Or to put it more precisely, I found myself incapable of writing anything for several months – and then finally, when standing on a remote beach in Ireland, watching the wind blow a layer of sand across the beach like a magic carpet, I struggled to find the words to describe the scene to myself. And when they came, it was a dam break, with words pouring out: a vocabulary that seemed to grow almost exponentially in the coming weeks.

You see? It’s that romantic thing – and that’s before you get to Visconti’s film version, with the lush sounds of Mahler’s third and fifth symphonies making up the score.

Not that I realised the romantic nature of the story at the time – that only emerged later, after that telling of the Nibelungenlied.

The sense of fate, of the tragic but somehow honourable – all that: a feeling of something outside – beyond – convention; raw and edgy, violent and noble at the same time.

So there you go. Yesterday might have been Valentine’s Day, but give me the power and the passion of the Nibelungen any day.

Give me the thorns and not the roses – or at least, if you’re going to give me the roses, gives me the thorns too.



  1. Oh gawd! I loved reading this post. Gloriously written and entertaining...