After getting in bed much too late last night (actually this morning), I fell asleep almost immediately, but not before the thought went through my mind: Oh, I forgot to record my blog on Green Room. So this morning I am doing so. I will eventually get the hang of a new routine.
On this day seven years ago my husband Tzvi died. In previous years, on the anniversary of his death, I used to go up to his grave with one of his devoted students. As is the custom in Jewish religion, he read the Mourners Kaddish for my husband , it was a lovely gesture.
The Kaddish is a prayer in Aramaic, it praises God and expresses a yearning for the establishment of His kingdom on earth. The prayer is recited by a man, usually a family member, at funerals and memorial services.
I am used to the music of the Kaddish, and could almost chant it by heart. Still since I know only few words in this ancient language, I have never really contemplated the meaning of the words, until yesterday when I looked for the English translation of the prayer for the purpose of writing this post..
The Mourners Kaddish
May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Amen.) in the world that He created as He willed.
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
swiftly and soon. Now respond: Amen.
(Cong Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.)
May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled,
mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, Blessed is He
(Cong. Blessed is He) beyond any blessing and song,
praise and consolation that are uttered in the world. Now respond: Amen.
May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life
upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen.
He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace,
upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen.
The Kaddish is mostly about the greatness of God. It mentions the fact that He created the world the way He willed. But what I find most interesting is that this significant prayer ends with a wish that peace will descend from heaven and enable life on earth. If we consider that this is a mourner prayer, it is curious that death is not mentioned only God, peace and life.
Musee des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Like the absent death in the Mourners Kaddish, Auden points out that in Bruegel's painting everything turns away from Icarus' fall. In both cases we would rather turn our attention away from death and other tragedies as life goes on .
The Mourner Kaddish ends with the familiar words: "He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace,upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen." The bond between peace and life is especially meaningful in time of war. This year I choose to say the Mourners Kaddish myself , and when I get to the last two lines I shall say the the words with special intention hoping that finally God and man would listen and bring Peace to our area, Amen.
Once upon a time, in another place, I ran a music agency called Intermezzo. It was dedicated to themed words and music programmes for a variety of events, private and public. The notion of 'spectacle' didn't for the most part enter into it since we were there to enhance someone else's party. Marking a special occasion calls for ambience. There are things about tapping into the natural music of the universe, the rhythms of prose and poetry, that express our longing to harness destiny.
Having grown up in the fifties and sixties, when mass imagery did not clamour for attention the way it does now, and before television was a way of life and the cinema a rare treat, all we had was books and radio to populate our interior landscapes. Now that technology has melded them, we can listen to stories, plays and poetry, with echoes of tales told by the camp-fire on the edge of that purple twilight beguiling our ancestors.
There are vital clues in audio it is easy to miss with stage and screen. Shakespeare is wonderful and in many ways richer in nuance. It helps that radio stations can afford to employ the best actors when costs concomitant with film and theatre aren't an issue. It's a sophisticated art. The whole picture is painted with voice, neither fanfare nor foible to distract.
Many years ago, Catherine Cookson described how she liked to plan the following day's writing in utter silence before she went to sleep. Whilst she was mentally configuring situations, she was listening for that canny modulation in Northumbrian dialogue. She referred to it as 'going to the pictures'.
A friend recently described how singing in a language that is not native to the piece destroys the atmosphere and complementarity, the words fighting the music. Like good poetry that cannot be fully apprehended at a first, or second, or third, reading, sound and rhythm hook in their own right. T S Eliot is a supreme example, enigmatic, intriguing. Yes, in a strange way, at a primal level, we've heard it all before. There is an ageless truth we recognise, like a mother's heartbeat, or the whispering sea.
The urge to convey our childhood mythology to our children is strong and I can't help thinking that something got lost in translation when television took over and many children's programmes became cult viewing. Edward Lear became Mr Men and Grimms' Fairy Tales, Dr Who. There is a distinct breach in the culture of centuries at the point our children were learning to decipher the world. The strange thing is that though television is intensely graphic, it seldom resonates deep in the psyche. It may have thought-stimulating potential, but it is ephemeral and depends on the acuity of the mind's eye there and then. In the twenty-first century, we tend to believe that only what has passed through the rational mind has reality, when the mainsprings of creativity arise in the subterranean deeps beyond our control.
My early education was spent in Church of England schools (at primary level with a staunchly English Roman Catholic teacher who introduced us to the Apocrypha, also an honoured part of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the C of E) and I'm glad to have been compelled to recite long passages from the King James Bible by heart. Those cadences, despite the archaisms and quaint imagery, set me up for life as a writer and prompted my choice of reading, purely from their compelling resonance. While Shakespeare paved the way between the medieval era, the realms of Chaucer, and the Enlightenment, the Authorised Bible was, still is, a pillar of our heritage, though it is now largely deemed an irrelevance. Surely those vibrations delivered from a shared unconscious make it a masterpiece of language?
As to sound, its colour and architecture, I remember being enthralled aged three or four, by the brooding mystery of a serialisation of Wilkie Collins' The Woman In White on Woman's Hour (still going, like The Archers!) That story influenced my fledgling novels in subtle ways, but when I came to read the book as a young adult, I found its thickets tedious to penetrate and soon gave up trying to follow the plot.
We all agree that music has a magical potential to dissolve any kind of boundary you can think of. I have long been fascinated by the process of harmonising libretto and score as a heightened means of storytelling, but what about the spontaneous images and scenes evoked by arranged sequences of notation? The atmosphere, approaching something like memory, of times and places we have not experienced. In a similar way, perfume can sometimes trigger nostalgia for venues that belong nowhere in the context of the life we know.
When I was thirteen, I fabricated a tale to music by André Grétry, logging down impressions, passage by passage, and linking them together. In my head, I wanted to create a ballet. I remember the piece was entitled Auphine and featured a black rose with mystical powers. The project withered when my Dad took a look at it and said there was no such thing as a 'black rose'. Several years later, when I'd embarked on novel-writing as a serious enterprise, like many scribes, I would use music as inspiration for the mood of a scene. I found it gave me courage to get words down on the page (ballpoint in exercise books in those days!) The overture to Beethoven's Fidelio accompanied the early passages of my second 'apprentice' historical novel, set in Paris at the time of the French Revolution. I knew nothing of the opera at that time and was only a vaguely familiar with the music. When, two years later, I attended a production in which friends were starring, I was astonished to see the scenes from my story translated to the stage! By what strange alchemy do the laws of physics and biochemistry become image?
One thing we can be sure of, our senses, and there may be many more than five, ebb and flow and overlap in a rich multiplicity. They are not as distinct as our impression of them. Use earplugs for any purpose and you could find yourself in trouble with spatial awareness. I was told by a musician that the virtuoso percussionist, Evelyn Glennie, who is profoundly deaf, senses music and vivid colour through vibration along the spine.
How the blind decipher sound, what kind of picture is formed in the imagination, can't really be known or compared. I'd like to think it's something the rest of us might well recognise.
But does image evoke sound the way sound projects image on to the imagination's screen?
This is my first blog post here in The Green Room. I thought initially that this wasn't something I could sign up to. Not because I didn't think it was a good idea - it is a fabulous one and I have already enjoyed reading some of the posts published in recent days. No - it was about my ability to commit to writing for another blog, in addition to my own and at a time when I am getting ready for the October publication of my book Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War's legacy for Britain's mental health. But then I thought about the opportunity it offers to get things off my writing chest and perhaps learn a little more about what it really means to be a writer from those who have been there, done that, bought the paperback.
I posted on my book's Facebook page recently that I am worried about putting my head above the proverbial parapet and really getting Shell Shocked in front of those who will stock the title or offer me the opportunity to have a signing or do a talk for their organisation. The publisher (Pen & Sword) help a lot but still, the social media and talk booking side is largely down to me. For all of my adult life I have disliked that feeling of imposing on someone's goodwill - selling raffle tickets, asking for a donation to charity, marketing a business event. Even pitching for work has proved a challenge. Why would anyone want to read what I have to say, over and above all those other writers out there? How do I make my work stand out from the rest of the slush pile? Why bother?
It has taken three years of counselling to deal with that last one. I know I bother because I love writing, and thus far people seem to have enjoyed reading what I have to say. I look at other writers with admiration now, rather than awe. I have met and spoken to enough new writing friends (virtual and physically present) to know that I am not unique in my lack of confidence and that a certain humility is preferable to insufferable arrogance. But the selling thing is still a sticky one, and talks and signings even more gluey. What if I fall flat on my face? Look an utter pillock? See people fall asleep and hear snoring in the back row (if sufficient attend for there to be anything other than a back row.....)
When I wrote of my fears, I was wrong if I expected any sympathy for my own feelings in the matter. I was forced to consider whether this self-consciousness is itself a form of vanity. I am writing non-fiction, therefore it is not about ME at all. It is about all those who find their stories within the covers of my book; all those people whose struggles with the lasting trauma of a war experience and enduring mental illness I felt needed to be heard; about a view of our nation that, two or three generations ago, some assume to have been unaffected by a devastating loss that would leave society utterly devastated should a similar conflict happen today. It is them I will be talking about, not me. Stop thinking about yourself, I was told, very politely (for most writers are very polite). The audience (who more than likely will turn up,) won't be there to hear about you, or your own worries, so think about the stories and how important they are. Get over yourself woman!! (OK, that last one was me...)
So I am trying to lose a little weight and get fit, just to ensure I can stay resilient over the initial weeks after publication (and not to look too hideous in the photos) and I will buy a new outfit, keep clear of the dog (so I don't look down and spot hairs and dribble on my crotch at a vital point in the talk) and take the writer Gill Hoff's sage advice and resist eating before talking; burping is never a good way to show respect for your subject. I know there are writers on here with a lot more experience than me so any more tips will be gratefully received.
And hopefully it won't be 'me me me' on here from now on....