Category Archives: Blog

Great Preconceptions

The megastar had arrived. With his distinctively high forehead, curling hair and aggressively jutting beard, no-one could mistake the great Charles Dickens as he stepped down into the quiet country lane at Redcoats Green near Hitchin. But, alas, apart from a watchman, there was no-one there to witness his arrival.

That year, gossip of his extraordinary extra-marital arrangements was still helping news-vendors’ earn their crust. Having separated from his wife, Dickens was rumoured to be sleeping with his sister-in-law and housekeeper, Georgiana Hogarth. Along with his eldest daughter, Georgiana had accompanied him to Knebworth House where Dickens was weekending with Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

The final draft of Great Expectations was complete and he was eager to share it with Lytton, a highly-respected writer in his own right. In this version, the reclusive Miss Havisham would die horrifically in a fire – killed by her own wedding dress – and Estelle would marry, leaving poor Pip destitute of hope. The great writer was uneasy. Did the ending work? At Knebworth, Bulwer-Lytton read over his friend’s work and suggested it was a little too down-beat. Dickens later wrote, ‘I have resumed the wheel, and taken another turn at it…I think it is for the better.’ The finished piece did not placate Dickens’ critics though. When Great Expectations was finally published in book form a  few weeks later it received mixed reviews. The Morning Post claimed he had ‘betrayed his public’ and called its plot an offence against all laws of probability.[1]

Redcoats Green was to be a diverting day excursion from Knebworth. But as Dickens’ carriage halted in the quiet country lane, the only person who stirred was an Irishman, watching from an old shepherd’s hut whose wheels showed signs of not having moved for years. The house he was guarding had once been the modest country dwelling of a gentleman. Now it was collapsing in on itself. Its gardens were tangled in weeds and the grounds were secured by a barricade of sheep-hurdles, its broken windows barred with roughly-cut timbers. In the coach-house, the painted family crest was fading on a once-grand carriage, now worm-eaten and covered with thick cobwebs. Given the popularity of everything Gothic, other curious tourists and roving down-and-outs would soon likely-as-not come traipsing down the lane either on foot or horseback.The decaying house was a disturbing sight for Dickens who remained deeply troubled by memories of the degradation of the debtors’ prison. Forced to abandon school at 12, he had managed to feed the family by working ten hours a day, pasting labels on pots of boot blacking. It was this savage experience – the life and death struggle to make ends meet – that fuelled his social conscience and found expression through his novels. Later, he was to write ‘my whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams…that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life.’ What greeted him at Redcoats Green challenged every lesson he had learned from his own miserable childhood. Staring through a barred basement window into a filthy kitchen, he was truly disgusted.[2]

On a pile of soot, surrounded by scraps of stale bread and wearing nothing but a filthy blanket sat a rich man – a man who had chosen to throw his wealth away and waste every hour of his blessed life. A celebrity – famous for doing nothing – a ‘slothful, unsavoury, nasty reversal of the laws of human nature’ living a ‘highly absurd and highly indecent life’ (Dickens’ words, not mine).

The object of Dickens’ derision was James Lucas – an articulate, intelligent and contrary man who quizzed his visitors unmercifully and had a wide knowledge of what was happening in the world. A man who did not suffer others’ puffed-up egos lightly.

The James Lucas whom Dickens could not see was ill – a paranoid schizophrenic, convinced that his brother George had murdered his mother and was plotting to kill him. A man who shut himself away for his own safety.

That December Dickens published a damning account of his visit to Redcoats Green in the Christmas edition of All Year Round. Tom Tiddler’s Ground’ (named after a children’s game of ‘dare’ where children had to run into forbidden territory and  gather up pretend coins before scary Tom could catch them), portrayed Lucas as nothing more than an arrogant waster. That piece had reporters flocking to interview ‘the hermit’ and one, Edward Copping from London Society, was left aghast at his intellect. ‘He overturns my opinions with ruthless energy, he kicks them when they are down, he pummels them with his two fists; and in a short time they are so bruised and disfigured as to be scarcely recognisable’. Perhaps this ability to demolish preconceptions is what had so offended Dickens. Whatever the great writer’s intentions, ‘Tom Tiddler’s Ground‘ cemented Redcoats Green as a go-to destination for the daring Victorian day-tripper and the Great Northern Railway was soon advertising weekend excursions ‘to see the Hermit of Hertfordshire’.[3]

For over a decade the ‘hermit’ continued to hold court until, on a spring morning in 1874, his watchman found him groaning and gasping for breath, having suffered a stroke in the night. A doctor had James placed in a horse drawn cart (so very different from the elegant family carriage) and taken to a nearby farmhouse. He died there two days later. The Dundee Courier ran the news under the headline ‘The death of one of Dickens’ characters’ and other papers followed The Times lead and echoed popular sentiment, calling it ‘A doubtful loss’.[4]

Notes

[1] The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens (Oxford, 2012) p.360; The Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume 2 (London, 1880) p.142-143; Morning Post, Wednesday 31 July 1861; Herts Guardian, Agricultural Journal, and General Advertiser – Saturday 10 August 1861, Tuesday 13 August 1861

[2] The life and times of Charles Dickens, Peter Ackroyd (Califiornia, 2003), p.11

[3] ‘Mr Mopes, the Hermit’, London Society, Volume 1 (March 1862) p.303-313 ( )

[4] Hertfordshire Express and General Advertiser – Saturday 26 January 1867;  Herts Advertiser – Saturday 02 May 1874 (quoting the Telegraph); Dundee Courier – Monday 27 April 1874; Western Mail – Tuesday 21 April 1874 (echoing the Times), Western Times – Tuesday 28 April 1874


Published over thirty years ago, Richard Whitmore’s Mad Lucas remains the best biography of the Hertfordshire hermit. 


The conversation between James Lucas and Dickens forms the basis for one of the songs of  Cracked Voices, ‘A doubtful loss’.

Write your own riddle…

[Click here if you’ve landed here looking for our Primary School Resource Pack].

Bilbo Baggins bets his life on a riddle in The Hobbit. Fortunately, for the story he doesn’t lose (or else the dwarves would never have kept their appointment with Smaug!). That riddling competition takes place in a dank deserted cave under the Misty Mountains…all very lonely and sinister…but riddles are mostly rooted in a far more homely place.

In the drinking halls of Anglo-Saxon Britain riddling competitions were as common as pub quizzes today and the word-puzzles were often packed with as many double-meanings and smut as the Sun. It’s a tradition that still continues in Christmas Crackers where the jokes are made up of sound-alike words and make you groan out loud: 

          Marathon runners with bad footwear suffer the agony of defeat.
          A bicycle can’t stand on its own because it is two-tired.
One for Graham…
         Santa’s helpers are subordinate clauses.
And finally, one for Jenni…
         Show me a piano falling down a mineshaft and I’ll show you A-flat minor.

Exeter Book

 

In Anglo-Saxon times very few people could read, so the riddles relied on sound-alike words. The riddles would be learned by heart and performed in public, sometimes with musical accompaniment (a bit like Cracked Voices). Luckily for the author of The Hobbit, around 975 AD some of the riddles were eventually written down, probably by a monk. The Exeter Book is the largest surviving collection of Anglo-Saxon riddles in the world and provides the first recorded use of the term ‘Middle Earth’.

 

 

 

Most of The Exeter Book riddles pretend something that can’t talk is alive. They give inanimate objects a voice, just like Gollum and Bilbo, and ask ‘What am I?’

Riddle 1 
Voiceless it cries,

Wingless flutters,
Toothless bites,
Mouthless mutters.

Riddle 2
This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats mountain down.

 The answer to these two of Tolkien’s puzzles are or course wind and time.

When writing about the Anglo-Saxon origins of Therfield Heath (a puzzle in itself) for Cracked Voices, it seemed right to base the song on a riddle, so I set about writing my own.

Riddle the first
Beaten for the silence I steal –
I am the cup that spills sorrow and joy.
With prayerful mouth and enduring noise,
mine is the fateful summoning voice.
Tethered yet ethereal –
no fruit in the Garden so readily peels.

[Scroll to the bottom of the page to find the answer].

It was a fun challenge. Why don’t you have a go? (Don’t worry…it doesn’t have to rhyme!)


Tips

Here’s some tips to help you write your own riddle…

  1. Think of your favourite object…the thing you couldn’t live without.
  2. Think of its function: What makes it special? Why’s it important? What does it do? What’s it similar to?
  3. Think with your five senses: What does the object look like? What does it feel like? Does it smell of anything? Does it taste of anything? Does it make a noise?
  4. Think of your friends and family. Who is your object most like? Why? is it because they have the same emotional connection, do something similar or look alike?
  5. Set yourself three minutes ONLY to scribble down your random thoughts and phrases without analysing them or changing any of them.
  6. Read what you’ve written and then salvage the best one or two lines as the start of your riddle.
  7. Leave it a day or two. Then return to the riddle and expand on it by answering more of the questions in (2), (3) and (4).
  8. Make the object talk but don’t give its name until you give the answer! Always remember you are asking the question, ‘What am I?’
  9. Avoid using like (NOT I’m like a cup). It weakens the riddle. BUT I am the cup...
  10. Post your riddle on Cracked Voices, so others can guess it!

 —

[Answer to Riddle the first: a bell]

For slightly more in depth advice from the Poetry Society on writing riddles click here.

That final bar line – and what happens next..

The text is written. The dots are on the page. The rehearsals all completed, the performers walk on stage..

As Cracked Voices has progressed, Graham and I have shared snippets of our processes with you. From the beginnings of Graham’s research into a piece from me musing on inspiration and scales, we’ve given you an insight into how we work. Between February and October, 10 art songs were drafted, ready for rehearsal, having being shared between Graham and I. Before they could head towards the performers they had to be checked one more time and parts created. As anyone who has ever created parts in any scoring program can attest to, this is never as easy as pressing a button – there’s always further tweaking to be done before they’re ready for the performers to set eyes on them.

In November, it was wonderful to finally have Donna, Ian, Sue and Ralph in the same room and to hear them performing together. Some of the pieces required more rehearsal than others, but we managed to get through all 10 completed songs. While some pieces were fine as they were, others needed tweaking in various forms. Graham and I each came away with our own notes, along with those suggested by the performers, which we discussed before I began the next stage of redrafts.

This is what it looks like when the cat decides to knock all the pieces you’re currently redrafting off of the piano.

I then deliberately ignored the physical scores for a while and just listened to the recordings of the rehearsal. Which bits didn’t feel quite right? Where was the balance wrong? How could I convey Graham’s carefully crafted words better? I recorded the whole rehearsal on my handy H4N Zoom recorder (an invaluable piece of kit) so I could hear not only how the pieces were performed, but also re-listen to our discussions about them in case I’d missed anything vital.

It was then time to get back to work. Some pieces needed more work than others. For example, for A composite man, it was decided another part was needed to tie the vocal parts together. The clarinet, then, became the spirits of the dead workers and widows. Other pieces needed more bird song, or less accompaniment.

The process of redrafting is always a tricky one. You listen, analyse, revisit and revise, time and time again. Often you find yourself amending a line  in one fashion one day, only to amend it back to the original the next. Along with the changes to actual notes, lines and instrumentation in the redraft stage, there are also the more technical bits of music notation. Which time signatures convey the music best and ensure it makes the most sense for the performers – a non-standard beaming of 12/8 or 6/8 followed by 3/4? Should I spell my phrase F sharp – F natural – F sharp or should it be an E sharp in the middle – or G flats at either end? I’ve found that with Cracked Songs  a considerable amount of this stage has been spent playing around with these nitty gritty bits. Not only do you have to make them make sense throughout one song, but the whole cycle has to be taken into consideration too – it has to make sense as the sum of its parts as well as each constituent piece, and in the way it is notated along with the actual music itself.

Tweaking scores to ensure they’re as clear as possible is always a priority. If they have to puzzle over engraving they can’t immerse themselves as fully in the music.

I’ve spent the month and a bit since the rehearsal tweaking and redrafting – and I’m just reaching the end of the process. In the next few days the ‘final’ version of the scores and parts will wing their way over to the Cracked Voices performers, ready for them to look at for the next rehearsal. Along with polished final versions of the previous drafts there are two new pieces – the final two songs of the cycle.

That double bar line really is only the beginning.

‘Doing History In Public’ does Cracked Voices!

The Doing History In Public website is currently carrying a post on Cracked Voices.

Doing History in Public is a collaborative blog written and edited by graduate historians (mainly at the University of Cambridge). Graham was delighted to be invited to share information about the challenges behind researching and writing Cracked Voices.

Poo and pickaxes

The fossilers of South Cambridgeshire

In July 1876, Edward Connybeare, the vicar of Barrington scribbled in his diary, ‘Grand specimen of a hippo was dug up in Roads’ field’. At nearby Harlton, Revd. Osmond Fisher, was equally thrilled to hear that more ‘large bones were being met with in a “coprolite-pit” at Barrington’. Fisher and the naturalist, collector and antiquarian Arthur Foster Griffith could not contain their excitement and rushed off to take a look. The pit was about 22 feet deep (the height of a two storey house) and the remains had already been removed, meaning the diggers  – who were paid a piece-rate – could continue their work and their wage-packets would not suffer. It was not just hippos. There were also remnants of elephants, bison and hyena. As the pits were extended over the next 40 years, more and more bones from many different hippos kept being found. Eventually the Sedgwick Museum had enough bones from the various individuals to construct a complete skeleton. By fixing them all to a specially-made metal armature they created their own Frankenstein’s monster: a composite hippopotamus.[1] 

It was not just animal bones, either. Much to Griffith’s dismay the coprolite-diggings in Barrington destroyed much of a large Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Hooper’s Field. Although he managed to save some of the artefacts for the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology, many others were smuggled away and sold off by the dealers in antiquities at Cambridge. The past would clearly not get in the way of profit. It was a story that was repeated again and again from Coldham’s Common to Litlington, from Wendy to Burwell.[2] 

But old bones and grave goods were not what the diggers were looking for, so exactly what was the coprolite they were so eager to find?

A burgeoning UK population needed increasing amounts of food and food production, in turn, required increasing amounts of fertiliser. Money was to be made from muck but not enough muck could be had. However, the strange greeny-black lumps of rock being slung out of the brick pits at Cambridge as waste provided a neat solution. Coprolite is now known to be made up of all sorts of fossilised remains (including those of marine life such as ammonites) but at the time was thought solely to be fossilised dinosaur poo. Over millions of years these remains had transformed into phosphate-rich nodules which could be found most abundantly in a geological formation known as the Cambridge Greensand. It did not take long for an enterprising farmer to realise that if he ground down coprolites and treated them with sulphuric acid, they transformed into a highly effective, and highly profitable, fertiliser.

This seam of fossils sloped upwards, coming closest to the surface in a line north of Kneesworth. Soon open-cast diggings started springing up all along the narrow band of land in Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and South Cambridgeshire where the Greensand was closest to the surface. On average the seam was about 30 cm thick and at its widest only 11 km wide. In villages such as Odsey, Bassingbourn and Shepreth, which had easy access to a railway, companies began processing the raw material and selling the fertiliser further afield. In Royston the Farmers Manure Company thrived (using Coprolites brought in by land-train) and at Duxford there was the Cambridge Manure Company.

Agricultural labourers who changed trades and started to work for the coprolite contractors found their wages first doubling and then trebling. As a local folk-song from the time shows, previously struggling farm-workers now felt free to thumb their noses at their ex-employers.

Come listen you farmers to what I do say,
We Coprolite diggers now can have fair play…
With our spade and our pickaxe we’ve no work to seek.
We won’t work for farmers for ten bob a week.[3]

As people flooded into the area to work in the diggings, for the next thirty years the industry reversed a decline in village populations. At Shillington alone, 170 men and boys were soon working coprolites and, at the height of production in 1876, the wider-diggings produced 258,150 tons of artificial fertiliser in a single year. The local economy of Royston and the villages to the north benefitted hugely from this economic boom: land-owners made money selling licences to extract the coprolites and rising wages meant that workers now had money in their pockets to spend. In Barrington, the vicar’s ‘Coprolite Fund’ helped pay for repairs to All Saints and, in his History of Cambridgeshire, Reverend Connybeare reports, ‘This golden period has left an abiding mark upon the district in the restoration of almost every one of the ancient parish churches.’ [4]

At the diggings, the money was hard-earned. The men first had to hand-dig a trench between 2 and 3 metres wide. The topsoil was wheel-barrowed away and carefully piled up, ready to be put back later. Then large quantities of subsoil had to be barrowed up to the top of the trench and ridged up there. Once they had reached the seam (which was sometimes more than 6 m below the surface), the diggers would dig into the side of the trench and undermine a slice of ground to the depth of  30 to 45 cm. In the best managed quarries watchmen were stationed above to give warning in case the ground should begin to crack and split away. If all went according to plan, the diggers would climb out of the trench before the ground was levered into the pit from above with crow bars. This left more of the coprolite seam exposed, ready to be shovelled into wheelbarrows and taken to the wash mills. It also conveniently back-filled the trench and revealed a new earth face ready to be undermined. In this way a whole field could be worked over. As the men were paid according to the amount they dug out, there was always pressure to work fast and the temptation to cut corners meant watchmen were often absent from their posts.Fatalities were common, the men drank hard and, when drunk, were given to riotous behaviour. It was claimed that more than half of them carried guns – and occasionally used them – and the local prostitutes were eager to service their hastily thrown up lodgings. Many God-fearing villagers were alarmed at this turn of events and one (Samuel Hopkins, a Bassingbourn grocer and Deacon of the Congregational Church) went as far as describing the diggers as ‘the refuse of society…extravagant, intemperate, licentious, depraved and atheistival.'[5]

If these men lived fast, they died fast too. Mishaps were commonplace. Most of the casualties were buried alive by unexpected falls of earth or accidentally toppled from precariously balanced planks while pushing full barrows, others drowned in flooded pits and at least one man fell into a washing mill. Nobody knows how many people died in the coprolite pits but, after a search of the local newspapers, here are just some of their names:

1858: Arthur Wellington Reach (aged 6)
1863: John Rayner (age unknown), William Lander (age unknown)
1864: James Dawson (age unknown)
1865: James Mann (age unknown), William Wilson (age unknown), James Rayner (aged 23)
1866: James Barton (aged 21)
1867: Richard Barlow (aged 11), John Swann (aged 60), James Day (aged 25)
1868: William Starbuck (aged 9)
1869: Robert Napsey (aged 19), Thomas Lovell (aged 36), James Fortune (age unknown), Moses Waller (age unknown)
1870: William Crane (‘a young man’), George Aspen (aged 26)
1871: George Hills (aged 61), William Clarke (age unknown), John Dockrey (aged 18)
1874: William Hines (aged 25)
1875: Edward Wilkin (aged 23)
1876: George Wright (age unknown)
1877: Henry Ginn (aged 37), a boy named Parker (age unknown)
1878: Wheeler Ambrose (aged 46)
1879: George Fuller (aged 27)
1883: William Wright (age unknown)
1887: Harradine Sell (aged 47)

If the dead man was married, the fellow-labourers would have a whip-round for his widow. Inquests invariably recorded verdicts of ‘accidental death’ and no contractor was obliged by law to pay any compensation. The Cambridge Chronicle reported that some (like Mr Cooper at Barrington), however, did display ‘kindness’ and at least paid for the man’s funeral. [6]

Non-fatal accidents and ‘lucky escapes’ were rarely reported in the papers. At the time, the Cambridge Chronicle noted that ‘nearly every week accidents happen and bones are broken, which few of the public are aware of.’ Four years later, in 1875, the Governors of Addenbrooke’s Hospital took the highly unusual step of writing to the Home Secretary to draw his attention to ‘the great number of accidents that occur in the working of the coprolite pits’. In his reply, the government minister displayed a complete lack of understanding: digging the trenches was no more dangerous than digging a railway cutting and ‘the accidents occurred from the extreme carelessness of the men’.[7]

Ironically, twenty years later when regulation did eventually come (in the form of the 1894 Quarries Act), it rang the death knell for an industry that was already on its last legs. The industry had collapsed in the early 1880s when poor harvests and the opening up of the home market to cheap imports of meat and grain from the Americas had crippled farmers. By 1897 Connybeare was lamenting, ‘The coprolites have become exhausted, agriculture has failed, wages have sunk to ten shillings a week…Many labourers are unemployed, and many more have left the County, the population of which (in the rural districts is rapidly sinking)…Cambridgeshire has become for the first time one of the poorest counties in England.'[8]

Although there were a couple of later minor surges in coprolite diggings (most notably during the First World War when the coprolites were used to produce explosives), they were never anything like the boom of the 1870s and, although it diversified and changed its name, the Farmers Fertiliser Company of Royston ceased trading  around the 1970s.

From the air, the ghosts of the many workings can still be spotted in the fields but there is no memorial to those who lost their lives.

(The history of the coprolite workers forms the basis of one of the Cracked Voices).


If you would like to discover more about the Coprolite Rush, I highly recommend the series of booklets based on the various individual diggings written by Bernard O’Connor. See: http://bernardoconnor.org.uk/coprolites.html .


[1] Revd. Edward Conybeare’s Diary, quoted in Barrington Fossil Diggings, Bernard O’Connor (2011), p.29; The Quarterly journal of the Geological Society of London, vol. 35 (1879) p.670(diagram: page 671)

[2] Sussex, Archaeological Collections Relating to the History and Antiquities of the County, Vol.55 (Sussex Archaeological Society, 1912), p.63-67

[3] The Horningsea Fossil Digging, Bernard O’Connor (2011), p.37-38 (original in the possession of the Sclaters, Abington Piggotts)

[4] http://www.cafg.net/docs/articles/Wimpole%20coprolites.pdf; History of Cambridgeshire, Revd. Edward Connybeare (1897), p.259

[5] Original manuscript in the possession of Bassingbourn Congregational Church, pp.210ff. Quoted in Coton Fossil Diggings, Bernard O’Connor (2011) p.65

[6] Cambridge Chronicle and Journal , Saturday 15 October 1864

[7] Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 13 May 1871; Cambridge Independent Press, 4 September 1875

[8]’The Origins and Development of the British Coprolite Industry’, Bernard O’Connor in Mining History: The Bulletin of the Peak District Mines Historical Society, Volume 14, No. 5, Summer 2001, p.46-57. Available online at: http://archive.pdmhs.com/PDFs/ScannedBulletinArticles/Bulletin%2014-5%20-%20The%20Origins%20and%20Development%20of%20the%20British%20.pdf ; History of Cambridgeshire, Revd. Edward Connybeare (1897), p.268-269

Cracked Objects at the Museum!

On Monday 9 October, Graham held a workshop at Royston Museum with ten students from Meridian School. We explored the stories behind objects and students chose objects they would like to write about in their own song cycle.

We can’t wait to help them develop their ideas further…

Many thanks to Royston Museum for welcoming us in (even into their storeroom!).

Not knowing… (Part 3)

Rabbits (and tools for up-cycling the past…)

This is about rabbits. Not your fluffy Easter Bunnies, but General Woundwort’s thugs from Watership Down, red-in-tooth-and-claw. The bullies who think they have all the answers. As they manically excavate their bunkers and scratch out secret passages, they blindly discard treasures and truth. Things of no value. Flints and buttons and fragments. Priceless incidental things.

Red-in-tooth-and-claw

Part of my job when writing poems for Cracked Voices has been to sift this detritus, to try to find meaning and restore its worth. To glue things back together. Refitting other people’s lost stories. It’s turned me into a sort of historical up-cycler.

I recently ran a workshop at Royston Arts Festival where we briefly examined one such scrap of overlooked ephemera. It was a postcard produced in a time when new technology and reduced costs meant that local cards like this had become the instant messaging medium of the day (a sort of Edwardian Instagram). It shows a large scale military funeral in Royston in 1914.

Military Funeral, Royston (1914) (Image courtesy of Royston & District Museum)

The street running up into town from the railway station is lined with people: some in flat caps (railway workers and men from the flour-mill that is just out of the picture), a group of women (maybe from the nearby alms houses, reserved for widows) and, on the opposite side of the street, one or two middle-class men, distinct in their straw boaters –  all watching the soldiers with their reversed rifles, followed closely by the military band, the coffin (wheeled on a bier which can still be seen in Royston Museum) and the two carriages of official mourners. This was no silent affair. The march – a piece of music by Handel – lifted  the onlookers hearts. It was the same patriotic piece as had been played at Admiral Nelson’s funeral.

My immediate question was, ‘Who was this man?’ Lots of people died in World War 1, why was he so special? 

A search through the local paper turned up this unexpected headline:

Albert Reeve was a 25 year old Sergeant in the Territorial Force (the volunteer reserves of the British Army) but he had died doing his day job, maintaining track on the railway just outside Letchworth. He had been highly respected by his comrades in the TF and fellow railway workers  and there may have been some disquiet at the way that Reeve’s body had been handled – the inquest into his death commented that a mortuary should be built in Letchworth as Reeve’s corpse had had to be kept in a stable. But that wasn’t solely it.

It was the date. Friday 17 July 1914.

Britain was not yet at war but in the grip of the ‘July Crisis’. Arch-Duke Ferdinand had been assassinated on 28 June but it would be another seventeen days before war was declared on Germany. That July, people knew war was coming and were scared.

In Royston a show of pomp would prepare the way for the great sacrifice. As Rev. J. Harrison declared at the graveside, ‘They had come there to pay a last tribute to one who was good comrade, a good son, and a good fellow. To them it seemed that his end had been untimely, but when men were on active service, they carried their lives in their hands, and must be prepared for that great change. He wanted them to remember that they were all enlisted in one great army, which was captained by Christ Himself.  What was the secret by which they might live and be ready? Their secret was faith in the Captain Himself, the blessed Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.’

Royston War Memorial and Church

So Reeve’s funeral was used as a rallying cry to all the good sons. Soon Britain would need them all. The railway-worker had been mythologised. He wasn’t special at all, but his death had been invested with meaning. It was to serve a function. This was less Instagram and more Fox News.


Have a go…

The context is the story…and, thanks to the rapid advance in cataloguing and searchable databases, context is easier to establish than ever before.

Why don’t you find yourself a story by downloading the image of an old postcard from e-bay and then looking into its context? Remember, if it interests you, it’ll probably interest someone else.

There’s all sorts of useful research tools out there:

Newspapers: British Newspaper Archive (free at Hertfordshire Libraries)  [includes Herts & Cambs Reporter (Royston Crow) 1878-1910] or National Library of Wales (Welsh papers often reprinted articles from England): http://newspapers.library.wales/ This is free to access anywhere.

Maps: OldMapsOnline.org  Free

Trade directories: University of Leicester, Special Collections Online  Free

Local history section in your local Library

Research sessions run fairly regularly in local museums and archives

Family history: Findyourpast & Ancestry.com (free at Hertfordshire Libraries)

Second-hand books: Bookfinder.com

Go on, save a fragment from General Woundwort’s thugs and up-cycle the past…

Related posts:
Not Knowing.. (Part 1)
Not Knowing… (Part 2)

A composite man – a composite piece?

“A conversation between two people who aren’t really listening to each other”

To find out the background to this piece, read Graham’s post about writing this poem –  Not knowing… (part 2). I pick up straight up where Graham stops – with the finished poem winging its way over to me.

When Graham sent me his first version of this poem, it was clear the two conversations needed to be two separate entities,  yet presented as one overall picture of the scene. I could already tell that the two characters- the (dead) coprolite digger and his wife – needed separate musical identities and songs, and had the idea that their singing should be entwined for the final stanza of the piece. Graham’s final presentation of the two monologues  – a modern composite of two conversations- furthered my original thoughts.

If the two characters are ignoring each other, they must therefore be talking about separate things – having two conversation which occasionally collide. As a result, I decided to write a separate song for each character which would begin as separate entities, but overlap more as the piece progressed, eventually being presented almost simultaneously.

The first voice is that of a dead coprolite digger- which Graham has based around the skeleton of a folk song. Wanting to work along similar lines, my setting of this is centred around a folk or work song.  It’s quite a simple melody, in three, catchy with a strong down beat. In contrast, the wife’s song is more lyrical, in a completely different tonality and has four beats in the bar.  Choosing the tonalities for the two different songs was tricky. I deliberately picked tonalities that suited each, but was mindful of making sure they’d have elements of both dissonance and harmony. The three in a bar folk song is in C minor, while the soprano’s melody drifts between E flat minor and E flat locrian. This combination creates plenty of room for dissonance, but yet space for moments of harmony too. Think of it as one vocalist singing Twinkle Twinkle (major) while the other sings Teddy Bear’s Picnic (minor) a few notes lower – and adds in some colourful extra accidentals!

Below is a rough diagram of how the voices are sliding over each other (and combining!) at the moment – at the stage where I’m tidying up the first draft of the piece. As you can see, for the first stanza the voices only momentarily overlap at the end of each phrase. The moments of overlap (or alternating phrases) increase in the second stanza, bar one line. They increase further as the piece progresses, until they’re almost completely entwined in stanza four – save for the last line, where each can be heard independently again – each saying their piece to end the conversation.

Of course, this method of creating a piece brings further questions with it. How do you ensure each part is heard fully (or do you abandon that entirely?). What time signature(s) and key signatures(s) do you use, and how do you ensure the vocalists maintain the original feel of their songs when they’re being pushed and pulled around a bit time and tempo wise? All good questions – all of which I need to answer as I finish drafting A composite man !

Everything Changes: book your writing workshop place now

Booking is now open for Graham’s Royston Arts Festival creative writing workshop: Everything Changes: a writing workshop exploring place and time. It will take place at Royston & District Museum & Art Gallery on Saturday 23 September 2017, 2- 4.30pm (£5, Book your place now. )

About the workshop: Whether you’re a beginner in creative writing or a more advanced writer looking for ideas, this half-day workshop will help you shape a setting for your story, blog or poem. Using historic photos from the Museum’s storeroom, it will provide an opportunity to discover how a sense of change and place can inspire your own writing.*

About the workshop leader: Graham Palmer is a member of the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) who has published three books with CUP. He is currently working on a historical biography and a sequence of poems which will form the basis of a new song-cycle, Cracked Voices, with local composer Jenni Pinnock.
*This workshop may also prove useful to those preparing for the Creative Writing element in the GCSE English exam.
Age 15+

Scales and arpeggios – not just for exams!

Scales are a staple of musical life. If you learn a musical instrument, you end up playing them (sometimes seemingly endlessly!) and learning how they work is an important chunk of musical theory.

Not all scales are created equal. Western music relies on equal temperament, where the octave is divided into 12 equal parts, or semitones. However, our perception of the musical world as a whole is based on just intonation and the harmonic series. As a result, rather than all sounding the same, scales in equal temperament each have a different feeling. I once did a survey to try and find out composer’s favourite scales, but ultimately it depends on the piece in question. For example, I find E major a bit too ‘major’, but E flat major more rounded, with D flat major being a favourite. Minor wise, I’m not a huge fan of A minor, but E minor or C minor I do like, and D minor feels very traditionally ‘minor’.

As a result, finding the tonal centres and scales to use in a piece are a fundamental point for me. They have to work with the piece, its feeling, and with the performers in question too, as transposing to another key often feels rather wrong.

Major and minor scales are those focused on most in traditional music exams. Chromatic scales (using all 12 semitones in an octave, white and black notes) are practiced too, and some exams include pentatonic (five note- think Javanese gamelan!) and whole tone (dream sequence) scales too. For this piece I wanted something slightly more unusual than any of the above.

The blessing of the road-born child is a mother’s song to her child, born on the road. The tonality needed to be something not too major or minor, and with a bit of a twist. Instead of looking at the traditional majors and minors I headed to the modes – seven scales which all have different combinations of intervals, giving them distinct sounds (for more on modes, see here). Although I studied them extensively at university (we had to identify them by sound in pieces!) and I know they’re focused on in jazz exams, they’re a scale that’s less well known today outside of the jazz community – maybe due to their lack of inclusion in standard classical exams.

Playing with different modes, the instant solution was the phrygian mode. The minor second interval at the beginning means it’s not used as much as some of the other modes, but it felt just right for this. However, I wanted to have the major 7th at the top of the scale alongside the minor one. This left me with two scales to work with: The phrygian  dominant, and the double harmonic major.

The next task was to find where they fit best on the piano, if at all. This involved playing around with them on the piano, sketching out some ideas and seeing what felt right.  Graham and I had already discussed instrumentation for this piece and we knew we wanted to go with a clarinet and soprano duet, ignoring the piano completely. A bit of singing and improvising on both instruments playing with the scales cemented E being the tonic to begin with, rising to F towards the end.

It was a little later that I discovered the alternative names of the scales I’ve picked to centre the piece around. Both are  often referred to as gypsy or gipsy scales – phrygian dominant the Spanish gypsy scale, and the double harmonic major scale as gypsy major. Clearly they were meant to be!