Sunday, 9 May 2021
The past three weeks have been like stepping outside of time. The weeks running up to that revolved around working through the pain of an absess and having a tooth out. I have much to tell you. My focus will be on the good things, as always. (Also, tooth gone, pain now gone, after four weeks and too much antibiotics, thank you St Davids dentists for sorting this for me before I left home).
Those who know me well will know that I work now with a bunch of the most wonderful musicians. The Spellsongs project grew out of The Lost Words. Last year when lockdown happened all our concerts folded, and the residency for new work was postponed. The first time this happened it was moved to January 2021, but in January things looked so catastrophic. Even then people were allowed to gather for work, but given the distances we would have had to travel, the number of people involved and the need to all return to our home communities, it was deemed to dangerous, for all involved. So, postponed again, this time to April.
In April Caroline and Adam of the Folk by the Oak team, provided us all with test kits and we tested 24 hours before setting off, and on our arrival at Greta Hall we were tested again, before entering the house to become a secure bubble. It's hard to describe the joy on entering, together, into this most elegant place.
Together, with Robert, the musicians began to spin their magic out from the pages of The Lost Spells and The Lost Words. There was music and laughter, so much sunshine. Jeronime, who runs the place, looked after us beautifully and Yvonne brought us gorgeous meals to share.
After months of working in a virtual environment it was quite something to be together, though I found myself slinking off, fox like, to a studio space I had set up in the house, practicing the shape of a fox, small, large and not forgetting otters. More on that forgetting later. Also, I could still hear the music and loved hearing the making happening.
I also needed to work on a piece about the nightingale that I had promised for Sam Lee. This had been circling my mind for a while but I hadn't found the time, or given the headspace to pinning the words to the page. You can find the words for the piece on my website journal, and listen to the full nightingale piece on youtube. The link should take you in to just before my piece is aired. Birdsong becomes more special to me with each day. Double glazing keeps it out. Open the windows. Let the birdsong in.
I made so many foxes appear on paper during those few days, below are just a few:
Circular paper is also from Two Rivers. Rather love it. It has a toothsome snag of the brush.
And then at rehearsal in Keswick Jamie from The lost Words Cumbria had brought us cakes, so there were paper plates. It seemed a pity not to see how the paint would sit on the surface.
Everything above seems very straight forward. It wasn't. After over a year of lockdown I felt very nervous about going away, travelling, being in a group of poeple. As I say, we could do this because it is work, and also because Adam and Caroline ensured our safety every step of the way. Robin, to whom the nightingale piece is dedicated, was, as ever, a legend. He too took care of all of us. My worries melted away once I was among my friends, my musical family. But there was still the almost overwhelming nervous tension about going to London ( big city ) and performing live at the Natural History Museum in London. This was not helped by painting a good otter but drawing an absolute blank on the otter spell during rehearsal, forgetting all the words except 'otter'.
Before we left the house we all tested again, and once again everyone had negative test results. All the film crew were tested and curiously, once in the museum my nerves settled to being just enough but not too much. What an astonishing thing to be able to perform here, live. And I had been concerned with how it would be, with only a virtual audience, but the band sang their hearts out to all dark matter. You can judge for yourselves, but you only have until 31st May to watch. Please do, and share with friends. There's something so profound about the silences between the song where applause would sit. It speaks volumes about what we have all been through.
Also before we left I wandered around the rooms as one by one they returned to their silent state. Robin and I shared Southey's room. He was the author of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Rob had slept in Coleridge's room. And, well, what a bed that man slept in. Elly and I had been stalking the house looking at light and shadows, and she found me, perched on the throne of a bed and took this rather splendid portrait. Elly Lucas was with us the whole time, documenting our time together, rehearsing, performing and forming the music. She's a wizard of light in our spellsong crew.
The first photo was from the performance, the second is rehearsal, third is me telling Robert Macfarlane what to write and where ( he's very patient but does insist in pressing too hard with a pencil!) and fourth is Seckou, and must be from rehearsal as it has ninja film crew in the background. Seckou always looks so happy when he is playing. Do give yourself the time and space to watch. It is a thing of beauty, nine months in the planning, still raising money. It is free to watch but you can still donate if you wish. All of these photos are by the wonderful Elly Lucas.
I don't have the words to describe this day and do it justice. It was hard, hard work, but working with such an astonishing team of people. And, for an hour, Robert and I were shown into the archives of the museum and I came face to face with teh work of artists from the past. Such an amazing thing to see sketchbooks, engraved plated, Audobon folios, early botanicals, paintings of orchids by painters who travelled with scientists. A different family conection. All those voices in sketchbooks, on vellum, on paper and plate. Such a privilege. I need to return, see more, and also go to Tring to see the bird collection.
Home now, and back to the 'real' work. When I was young people would ask me when I was going to get a proper job. It occured to me whilst on stage at the Albert Hall, during the Lost Words Prom, and at the NHM last week, that I really rather like my 'improper job' and the places it has taken me to. ( Though this week I did think I might take a career change and become a princess, or a stand-up comedian) I remember being escorted in to the headmaster's office at school where he explained to me that 'art was a hobby, not a profession'. By this time I had worked out that not many people in authority had a clue about what they were talking about, and chose to ignore him. How sad that yet again, despite the money the arts bring to the economy, despite the way the arts have helped people to get through lockdown, the arts are again under attack from a government who would make art the exclusive domain of the wealthy, both in production and consumption.
This past week I have settled into the privacy of my studio, working again on the Book of Birds, and also, again, on finishing Feather, Leaf, Bark & Stone. Writing incantations, but also typing on the gold souls of kingfishers. It's a curious concentration, a real 'being in the moment' headspace that needs to be achieved when working on this book, in order to get the pieces right. I hope some of that peace, found in the making, will come through to its readers.
The kingfishers will become part of the pledges for the book. Typed with words, the first a haiku, and stitched with silk thread, these are fragile fragments of leaf.
There is a spelling mistake in the second piece, a missing s.........
In my last posting on here I asked people to leave comments, and I would pick a winner for teh proof sheet. That person is Anu MacIntosh-Murray. Anu, can you please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org so I can get your address please and post your proof sheet to you..
Also, I am at the Northeast Wilderness Trust Festival in Canada on Tuesday 11th May: 12-1 ( Canada) 5pm BST if you are tuning in from elsewhere you will need to check the time. You need to book your place.
The pages will close soon for subscriber names to be added. I am hoping that soon we will be at the difficult design stage. This book is like no other I have made. It is my hope that it will find an audience who understand it.