I had the haunting Irish tune of ‘Down By The Salley Gardens’ on my mind and turned to lovely Youtube. I did the rounds, Kathleen Ferrier- sublime, Orla Fallon – beautiful, Marianne Faithful – shallow, and Clannad, performing authentically in an Irish pub – haunting, wistful, and satisfying. And as I flitted from one version to the next, I stumbled on William Butler Yeats himself, reading his poem (though it was based on an old Irish folk song).
It was magic listening to the real voice of the poet, and reminded me what a gift recording is. I never had much time for Yeats in his monocle and black cloak, who left Wilfred Owen out of the Oxford Book of English Verse because he suspected Owen of pacifist sympathies. Yeats, in his fifties, didn’t fight in the war, but Owen was in the trenches for the whole four years, writing the finest war poetry, and dying in an attack across a canal in the last week of the war. So Yeats, born in 1865, doesn’t do it for me, but to hear his voice, echoing across historic centuries was still a thrill.
On the sidebar, there was Virginia Woolf reading on the BBC in 1939, a year before she walked into the river, and never came back. It’s the only recording we have of her. I clicked – of course – and listened to this wonderful voice reading her thoughts on words, entranced as her imagination soared and she opened new worlds of ideas. Her beautiful diction and resonant tones gave an idea of the layers of meaning and perception that she applied to life and art.
Then Alan Rickman showed up at the side, reading Shakespeare’s sonnets. Hearing that mellifluous voice, reading the cadences of Shakespeare’s phrases and innermost thoughts was so moving. But since Harry Potter is never far from us these days, there was Rickman also in his role as Severus Snape. And once hooked into the world of Harry Potter, I couldn’t go past Emma Thompson as Sybil Trelawny in a scene which has never been shown, as it was cut. Shame. I laughed till the tears ran down my face as she tried to eat her meal in a state of total panic and confusion – doesn’t sound funny, I know, but you haven’t seen it.
I was watching, of course, a master, as were Rickman, Woolf and Yeats. Watching or hearing a master is an experience which stirs the soul. Sitting at a concert of Joan Sutherland , every time she came on stage and that glorious sound rang out, the tears just rolled down my cheeks. Listening to Yehudi Menuhin was like entering a mysterious world of spirit, and sitting motionless, holding my breath, as Kathleen Battle, in black with a cyclamen pink stole about fifteen feet long, sang to a packed hall of spellbound concertgoers is one of my treasured memories.
Masters reveal a world of universal connections, and seeing a Leonardo or a Michelangelo takes us into that same world of universal values of beauty and truth. But one of the favourite books on my shelf is a collection of sonnets to the woman he loved, by Michelangelo, and I love them precisely because he was n’t a great poet, as he was a great artist. In his poetry he shows the side of him that struggles with the same ordinariness – or perhaps I mean common humanity – as the rest of us. As an amateur poet, he is exposed in these poems, while in the mastery of his art, it’s his greatness that we see.
So while I am awed by, and grateful for mastery, there is something very beautiful about amateurishness. Many years ago, on New Year’s Eve at a party in Somerset, I had struggled all evening to look as though I was having fun with a group of people I didn’t know, and had nothing in common with. I was staying with friends, who had taken me with them. As midnight approached, we all gathered in the main hall of the castle, and a man asked if there was anyone who could accompany him on the piano. With no takers, he said he’d sing anyway. I cringed, wondering if he would embarass himself.
And so began one of the loveliest moments of my life. He sang ‘My love is like a red, red rose’. Not professionally, but honestly and lovingly. All our egos which had jostled and struggled to keep their ends up all evening stood transfixed. A long silence followed the ending of the song, and there was a softness in the room and on the faces of everyone. The evening changed. His courage in exposing himself to us all had somehow broken the barriers that separated us. Warmth and kindness showed in every face.
I’ve heard another song sung like that in a voice that had no training, and nothing to recommend it except sweetness of tone, and sweetness of character. And it was just as moving. So while mastery is a sublime experience, the love and honesty that we lesser mortals have to offer, is just as precious in its own way.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
If we’re having something ordinary to eat, and I need to give it a bit of a lift, I make our family favourite, culled years ago, from the pages of Elizabeth David. I only used to make it at Christmas, for the adults, but one memorable year, the grandchildren discovered it, and gobbled it up under the affronted and greedy gaze of all the grownups. So now I make about three dishes of it, and there is a great big potato peeling bee on Christmas Eve, and some of the children eschew the turkey, plumping for the potatoes, and only moving on to the rest of the feast later. If there’s any left over, they eat them for breakfast! So I always make it now when the family come, and often for dressy meals with friends.
All you need are potatoes, garlic and lashings of cream. I use Agria potatoes, which mash well, and also in this dish, absorb the cream. Slice the potatoes thinly into rounds, and pat them dry. Butter a shallowish baking dish, and layer the potatoes in, every now and then anointing the layers with salt and pepper, chopped garlic and a few knobs of butter. When the dish is nearly filled, dot the top with butter and pour in as much cream as you need to nearly cover the potatoes. Bake for an hour or more in a moderate oven. If the cream has dried up by the end, I pour more into the crevices, and put back in the oven for a few minutes. It can be cooked the day before and re-heated, but give it plenty of time. It’s delicious with any meal, and with a few vegetables is also a lovely vegetarian meal.
Food for Thought
Ad on Trademe: One toothpick with a FREE son included ( I’m sure there is some law which forbids me trafficking in humans, hence the toothpick)…being a teenager he requires large amounts of food (meat and candy mostly, despite the fridge being full of fruit and veg.) Uses power enough to run a small town ( computer, TV, PlayStation and assorted electrical gadgets as well as always leaving the fridge door open) Unfortunately he is short-sighted and unable to see unwashed dishes, grime, towels on the floor or skid marks. Requires 14 hours of sleep per day. Needs a soundproof room as he either slaughters pigs in there or plays heavy metal (sounds the same to me)
Don’t suppose he managed to get rid of him… there’s a glut of teenage boys like this, I suspect.