Vowels / Voyelles by Arthur Rimbaud, translated by Guy Walker


A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue – Vowel Sounds,

Some day I shall disclose your secret parturitions;

A – bodice bristled black by shimmering flies’ ignitions

Around the noisesome evil; fizzing Legion drowned

In shadows. E – bleached tents and ashen steam’s emissions,

White kings, shivered lilies, ice-fields ironbound;

I – Tyrian blood like spat contumely that redounds

From gorgeous, mocking lips with wine-infused contritions;

U – rehearsing seas’ veridian shudders, clear, divine.

The peace in greensward specked with livestock; peace in lines

Alchemic training draws on brows that books made wise.

O – highest Clarion thronged with alien stridencies,

A silence crossed by [Thrones and Principalities]

O that Òmega, amethyst ray of [His] Eyes!


A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu : voyelles,

Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes :

A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes

Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,

Golfes d’ombre ; E, candeurs des vapeurs et des tentes,

Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d’ombelles ;

I, pourpres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles

Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes ;

U, cycles, vibrements divins des mers virides,

Paix des pâtis semés d’animaux, paix des rides

Que l’alchimie imprime aux grands fronts studieux ;

O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges,

Silences traversés des [Mondes et des Anges] :

O – l’Oméga, rayon violet de [Ses] Yeux !

Wilko Johnson, 1947-2022

Wilko Johnson
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD remembers the first time he met Dr. Feelgood’s ace guitarist

It’s a strange thing about biography. No matter how many facts are told, how many details are given or lists are made, the essential thing all too often resists telling. To say that so and so was born here, that he did this and did that, that he wrote this song or painted this picture, that he went around the world and married and had children and grew old and died – none of that tells us very much. What we want is a story.

In that spirit, all I can personally add to the numerous obituaries of the guitarist, sometime actor and raconteur Wilko Johnson, who died on 21 November at the age of 75, is a primordial memory of around December 1974, when I was just up at Cambridge and the Fitzwilliam student union somehow scraped together enough money to hire the band Dr. Feelgood to enliven our college Christmas party. This was the season, let it be remembered, of ubiquitous high heels and loon pants, of crushed velvet jackets with lapels as wide as hang-glider sails, when the charts were full of extravagantly quiffed artists like Rod Stewart and Bryan Ferry, or David Bowie camping it up in his soul-revue phase, with a rather depressing weekly Top of the Pops regimen characterised by names like Charlie Rich, the Carpenters, John Denver, Olivia Newton-John and Jasper Carrott doing his ‘Funky Moped’.

Anyway, into the midst of this dross came the Feelgoods, and such was the shock I had to momentarily check the cigarette in my mouth (those were the days) to see if it might possibly have been tipped with something more exotic than Players Number 6. I mean, incredible. Four stony-faced Canvey Island geezers who looked like they might just as soon put the boot in as entertain you: two brooding hulks on drums and bass, both well tasty, and the twitchily charismatic figure of Lee Brilleaux up front singing – snarling, really – in a suit that might once have been white, jabbing his fist around in time to the beat in a way that suggested definite malice rather than some hippy-like state of being transported by the music, banging out a no-frills mix of sweaty rock and rhythm and blues typified by two-minute songs with titles like ‘I’m a Hog for You’ and ‘Stupidity’ and ‘Tequila’. This was not a group you could imagine sitting cross-legged over a communal bowl of brown rice to a backdrop of herbally-tinged joss sticks and the wafted strains of the latest Yes triple-gatefold concept LP.

And then slightly stage left, right there in front of me, Wilko Johnson on guitar. Amazing. Clad totally in black, pudding-bowl haircut, eyes staring out across the audience like searchlights, about twice a song he would suddenly take off like an overwound Energizer Bunny and go lurching across the stage, side to side, back to front, all the while keeping up a stark, percussive rhythm with a chopping right hand interspersed with a few demented solos that seemed to be more the product of a semi-tuned chainsaw than a traditional musical instrument, a routine he varied only by periodically lifting the guitar to his shoulder and peering down it as if to strafe the audience. As I say, stunning. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Johnson’s distinctive guitar style and powerful stage presence can be seen here.]

At the end of the show, Wilko walked right past me. He had little choice in the matter, because there was no backstage area to speak of and the band just had to push their way through the crowd as best they could in order to make it out to the impressively knackered-looking transit van waiting for them at the back gate. Anyway, there he was: sweating, hollow-eyed, carious teeth, funereal two-piece suit that looked like he might have slept in it. ‘Great show,’ I said with that originality of phrase certain critics later so admired in my various rock biographies. And since Wilko apparently still wasn’t going anywhere, I had a further moment of inspiration. ‘Who’s your favourite guitarist?’ I asked, thinking it might be one of the consensus heroes of the day like Clapton or Beck or Page, or even dear Keith Richards, with whom he undoubtedly shared a certain laconic, back-to-basics playing style. But no. ‘Mick Green,’ my new friend informed me, and then to my surprise stuck around long enough, right there in the chaotic aftermath of the gig, ankle deep in spilled beer and stubbed-out fags, as people banged past us, to tell me, a total stranger, all about Green, another great British eccentric, it transpired, and sometime staple of early-60s combos who also liked to chop up his lead and rhythm parts into one percussive wall of sound, and – proving his versatility if nothing else – later went on to rock up albums by everyone from Paul McCartney and Van Morrison up or down to Cliff Bennett and Engelbert Humperdinck. At the end of what became a sort of oral PhD thesis on the whole history of early British R&B, Wilko asked my name, introduced himself – as though he might not already be familiar – shook my hand, and effusively signed the scrap of paper I hurriedly thrust at him. ‘Keep in touch,’ he said. My first interview. Then he was gone.

Speaking of versatile, it later turned out that Johnson himself had been to university, wrote poetry, spoke Old Icelandic among half a dozen other slightly fringe languages, and in later years developed a keen interest in astronomy to the extent that he built an observatory on the roof of his Essex semi. Along the way, he married his childhood sweetheart Irene and they remained together, raising two sons, until her death from cancer 38 years later. As the world knows, Wilko himself was diagnosed with an apparently incurable tumour in 2013. He reacted with notable stoicism, remarking that he had never felt so alive than whilst under an imminent death sentence, continuing to perform every night he could and teaming up with The Who’s Roger Daltrey to make the album Going Back Home. Then the apparent miracle happened, and doctors in Cambridge performed a nine-hour procedure that saved Johnson’s life while relieving him of most of his intestines. Paradoxically, having cheerfully faced death, Wilko fell into one of his recurrent funks once given the all-clear. ‘I knew I was really getting better from the cancer when I started getting depressed again,’ he said wryly.

It seems funny to say this, but for all the bug-eyed stage antics and raucously loud, sweat-soaked nights in dingy rock clubs, there was a quality of innocence – an innate modesty, the eagerness to please, to connect with the audience, never to lose sight of his roots – that distinguished Wilko Johnson throughout his life and career. I doubt we’ll see his like again.

Sinfonia sparkle for austerity December

An American in Paris
STUART MILLSON is transported to a warmer sound-world

Any sense of malaise, austerity or winter gloom in London was dispelled for two hours (for those fortunate to be in attendance) by the Sinfonia of London’s 2nd December performance of Walton, Ravel, Dutilleux and Gershwin at the Barbican.

Much praised by the critics and always receiving great waves and whoops of adulation even before they have played a note, the Sinfonia’s concerts are an occasion: this mainly young orchestra, handpicked by their enterprising and unpredictable-in-repertoire conductor, John Wilson, playing with much physical joie de vivre and idiomatic interpretation. Confirmation of the latter came in the form of the jazzy trumpet playing – straight from the environs of Tin Pan Alley – in Gershwin’s intoxicating An American in Paris; a score we all know, or thought we knew… True to form, John Wilson, a great fan of the golden age of Hollywood and a musician dedicated to rediscovering lost scores, managed to track down 86 bars of unheard original Gershwin music, reconstituting the piece – turning it from that brilliant, boulevard ballet for Gene Kelly into a symphonic poem of The Great Gatsby era. The cliche, ‘it brought the house down’ certainly applied to this performance, as nuanced as it was bold, as cinematic as a work could ever be.

Yet the Gershwin was not the only work in John Wilson’s line-up that matched the mood of the composer. In Walton’s Scapino overture, the Sinfonia found all the wafting Mediterranean warmth and dry wit for which the English composer (who took himself off, post-war, to the Bay of Naples) is renowned. Similarly in Ravel’s 1903 song-cycle, Sheherazade, whichsets the mysterious oriental poetry of Wagner-attracted ‘Tristan Klingsor’ (otherwise known as Leon Leclere), a heady sense of the exotic and of unattainable sensuous revelation oozed from the Sinfonia strings; complemented by soloist Alice Coote’s equally beguiling articulation and vocal reveries.

Henri Dutilleux, a well-respected French composer who died some ten years ago, was represented by a 1950s’ ballet score, Le Loup, whichsoundedverymuch like a cabaret piece by Milhaud or Satie, turned into a symphonic poem. How authentic the work is as an example of the true musical character of Dutilleux is a matter of debate, but Le Loup – the wolf – had plenty of well-crafted passages for the Sinfonia to enjoy – although the piece, for what it was, did seem rather overblown in length. 

Ravel’s Bolero could be considered as another of those works which, despite being very well known, does not entirely represent the best efforts of its creator. Yet in the hands of John Wilson, the audience had a chance to rediscover and re-hear the piece, entirely. From the first side-drum taps, to the strange, slow, disjointed thrums of the harp, Bolero has a curious mystery to it; an odd sense that you can’t break away or get out of a dream – which, before you know it – has sucked in every instrument of the orchestra and is fast propelling you to the edge of a precipice. John Wilson’s arrival at that moment jolted the Barbican audience into a tidal wave of applause. 

And there was one additional, non-musical touch to the evening: the concert took place in the presence of Hollywood royalty. Enjoying the Gershwin in particular (no doubt), was none other than Gene Kelly’s widow, a lady of immense grace and style – a living reminder of golden ages which now seem out of reach, but which in fact are still just within our grasp.

Diary of an organ-playing nobody

Credit: Shutterstock
R. J. STOVE reflects on life as an antipodean performer on the King of Instruments

‘“What?”, said [piano manufacturer] Herr Stein. “A man like you …  wants to play on an instrument which has no sweetness, no expression, no piano, no forte, but is always the same?” “That does not matter,” I replied. “In my eyes and ears, the organ is the King of Instruments”.’ (Mozart)

Disheartening to report, Bismarck never uttered the epigram so often attributed to him: ‘Laws are like sausages: it is better not to see them being made.’ But each time I undertake a commercial recording – and I have undertaken three such now, all devoted to organ music – I am painfully reminded of this misattributed quotation.

Because if you contemplate classical music in recorded form (as the vast majority of journalists discussing it do contemplate it) through a haze of aestheticism, assuming that nothing ever happens in front of the microphone without the loftiest and most disinterested of motives, then the best cure for such kumbaya soft-headedness is actually to make recordings yourself. The procedure is death to entitlement culture, death to the near-enough-is-good-enough mindset, and death to all romanticist whimsies about artistic ‘inspiration.’

Among didactic processes, only an obligatory course in obstetrics would strip away more illusions from the novice, and strip them away faster, than recording production does. I cannot help musing over how much polysyllabic Marxist verbiage Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno would have spared us – how much Teutonic vamping about ‘the aura of mechanical reproduction’ and ‘bourgeois commodification of ritual’ they would have eschewed – if they had experienced for themselves, which they did not, the perils of needing to perform as flawlessly as possible within seconds of a producer turning a red light on. Not to mention the still greater perils of needing to keep one’s temper each time a producer is obliged to halt a take because of extraneous noise issuing from (i) seagulls overhead, (ii) a helicopter overhead, (iii) a passing ambulance siren, (iv) revving-up from a motorcyclist, or most frequently (v) all of the above.

A producer of classical recordings, if he (and, whether we like it or not, it remains a male-dominated profession) wishes to survive, has to be part surgeon, part electronic engineer, part Cecil B. De Mille, part Grand Inquisitor, part concierge, part therapist, and all musician. His role entails some of the attributes perceptible in the great symphonic conductors: notably an X-ray ear which can descry faults in even the most imposing wash of sound. When an orchestra gives its all in the mightiest of Respighian climaxes, the producer must be able to detect the third oboist who, amid the hubbub, mistakenly played an F sharp instead of the score’s indicated F natural: and to call out that oboist – politely, one trusts; rudely, if trust be impossible – over the error.

Yet that is almost the least of what the producer needs to do. He requires a retentive memory not for various takes’ musical contents alone, but for various takes’ volume levels. Should consecutive takes differ from each other in this regard, or in regard to the venue’s atmosphere (known among the cognoscenti as ‘atmos’ for short), he has to minimise those differences. No surprise that, even before the compulsory post-production chores, his copies of the sheet-music will have become so scribbled-over in red Texta as to resemble Jackson Pollock’s action-paintings. 

Physical strength is a prerequisite as well. Especially if confronted with an unfamiliar site, he will be expected to lug prodigious quantities of cords, plugs, microphones, power sockets, monitor speakers, and computer hardware from his vehicle, before he assembles them: only to carry out the whole boring process in reverse when the session concludes. In this assembling and disassembling, he cannot and must not be rushed. It is hard for even the most arrogant performer to demand, with a clear conscience, additional haste from someone who can accidentally electrocute the entire dramatis personae if an exposed cable proves insufficiently earthed or a wire has worn through its sheath.

Therefore it is understandable that for every thousand good classical musicians out there, scarcely a single good classical recording producer can be traced. The best ones – they have included Walter Legge, Brian Culverhouse, and John Culshaw among the dead, and my own brilliant producer Thomas Grubb among the living – can charge whatever fees they like. Although COVID might have decluttered their timetables, it has not reduced (nor should it reduce) their invoices. Sir George Martin, at a period when the Beatles’ fame had yet to transcend Liverpudlian city limits, produced many a classical recording for EMI. He entertainingly recounted this function’s more bizarre aspects in his 1977 memoir All You Need Is Ears.           

Nevertheless, whilst the good classical recording producer is as rare a bird as a left-handed red-headed Christadelphian, the good classical recording producer who can skilfully capture organ music is analogous to a left-handed red-headed Christadelphian who can do five hundred consecutive push-ups. With an orchestra or a chamber ensemble, after all, a producer has the luxury of operating in a more or less conventional studio. The designers of that studio will have taken some pains to soundproof it. In that studio he will be visible, albeit behind his desk, for at least some of the time to at least some of the musicians involved. He can rely on none of these advantages when recording organ music.

For as all organists – but all too few non-organists – know, pipe organs are not just musical instruments. They are, by definition, musical instruments ensconced in particular buildings, and habitually irremovable therefrom through any methods less radical than Semtex.

Many church instruments are installed in such a way as to force the organist to play with his back turned not only to the altar, but to the producer. Rear-view mirrors at the organ console possess limited efficacy. (During my own most recent sessions – cooped up as I unavoidably was in the loft – the worst thing which I could have done was the thing which all halfway decent musicians, by default, do: constantly listening to fellow performers. Instead, I needed as a deliberate procedure to play well ahead of the beat, purely so the final product’s hearers would have the aural impression of my keeping time with the five singers. All five, for balance-mandated rather than COVID-mandated reasons, remained invisible to me in the nave below. It took a crucial half-second for the organ sound to reach them from the loft’s phalanx of pipes.)

Whether a pipe organ be sacred or secular, its tuning will be always expensive. Rapid tuning is downright impossible. In a climate as manic as Melbourne’s, where two consecutive days will often enough be respectively 32 degrees or 14 degrees (not to mention vice versa), even the best-built instrument can unexpectedly acquire several out-of-tune pipes: without fail, the pipes most suitable to the music’s content. Ten times more worrying is the organist’s greatest dread: a cipher, whereby a particular keyboard note or pedal-board note sounds and cannot be switched off. Imagine the most persistent ambulance or police-car ululation which you have ever heard; then imagine such an ululation in an ecclesiastical context, when the nearest organ-tuner is unavailable through being hospitalized, or on holidays, or repairing an instrument in a different church, or simply drunk.

But you have not yet supped full on organ-related horrors. The 1970s Anglo-Saxon mania for carpeting what had been perfectly acceptable wooden or stone floors ruins many a church’s acoustics. Beautifully manufactured though a pipe organ might be, ubiquitous carpet will frequently make it sound like a Casio burp-box vended below cost price on eBay. Even churches free from carpets are apt to be located on main roads, their architecture dating from an epoch where internal combustion engines were largely unimaginable. However impressive their stonework, they offer almost no insulation from modern traffic noise. Factor in the tendency of churches to support church schools, and the aural complications are aggravated threefold. If you have never attempted to record a beautifully soft, French impressionist organ prelude while shrieking infants gallivant in the playground during their lunch break, your personal acquaintance with existential anguish is automatically limited.

Given these and other nuisances, you could be pardoned for asking why anyone would wish to record organ music in the first place: let alone to record three CDs’ worth of it, as I have done, with a fourth CD currently awaiting issue. Speaking as a middle-rank Melbourne organist with twenty-one years of remunerated public playing behind me – neither enjoying the rarely-conferred benefits of sustained cathedral employment, nor suffering the griefs of the overworked tyro frantically having to pad out an exiguous résumé – I find myself caught in not one but three perfect storms.

First of these storms is, naturally, COVID. Useless, and redundant, for me to expatiate here upon the damage which Wuhan’s most renowned export has done to live classical music performance in general; live classical music performance in Australia especially; and live classical music performance in Melbourne above all. 

The second among these storms is one which foreigners will be able to predict with a little thought: Australian churches’ continuing sex abuse crisis, primarily (though not exclusively) afflicting Catholicism. Every dollar which dioceses are ordered to spend upon paying off an abuse victim’s lawyer, is a dollar which dioceses cannot spend upon professional musicians. Australia’s Catholic parishes were in demographic free-fall long before front-page headlines screamed about the pandemic.

As far back as 2011 – in other words, not solely pre-COVID but pre-abuse scandals too – 87% of Australia’s Catholics could not bestir themselves to attend Sunday Mass. We all know the only branches of Australian Christianity where the churches are full: the Pentecostal brigades, of which Hillsong is the most celebrated. Anyone gullible enough to believe that Pentecostal jamborees are likely to include organ-playing, or any musical contributions whatever except those supplied by sub-Hendrix guitarists and gyrating Taylor Swift wannabes needs (to borrow a felicitous, long-ago phrase from Esquire) not merely his head but his entire anatomy examined. 

One much-loved hymn tells us: ‘There is a happy land, far, far away.’ There are in fact several such happy lands where university posts can, and do, recompense organists for the uncertainties of ecclesiastical occupations. Unfortunately, these happy lands do not include my own. In any analysis of today’s antipodean academe, the third perfect storm afflicting organists can be at once recognised. Australia’s ever more shambolic federal government has added, to its widely-shared record of COVID-related ineptitude, a malice all its own when it comes to higher education.

The most vituperative surviving Khmer Rouge commissar, and the most frenziedly anti-intellectual Mississippi Klansman, might well blanch at the overt hatred towards humanities departments that routinely emanates from Scott Morrison and his Canberra colleagues. These legislators expend their hatred not specifically on left-wing and/or spendthrift humanities departments, but on humanities departments per se. For all their mismanagement when it comes to public health, they have demonstrated impressive populist cynicism on pedagogical issues. They discern the absolute monetary dependence upon the welfare state which has characterised Australian academe from its beginning; which is certain to characterise it until Judgement Day; and which has resisted four decades’ worth of libertarian think-tanks’ harangues about the private sector’s alleged enthusiasm for acting as Maecenas. More and more, the very concept of private universities for Australia is proving as mythical (indeed, in its bogus promises, almost as pernicious) as those other nostrums propounded by fantasising savants: The Classless Society; Sex With No Strings Attached; Exporting Democracy To The Third World; No-Fault Divorce; and – who can doubt the essential illegitimacy of this doctrine likewise? – COVID Zero.

Last year I had the privilege of an academic post, necessarily casual in nature, under Sydney University’s auspices. Having written earlier about the pleasure which I took in this post (and about how gratified I would be if the post continued into 2022, which perhaps it will), I obviously must not repeat myself here. But I would be crazy to nourish sanguine hopes that Australia will permit for me an academic – dare I even employ so ‘elitist’ a noun as the following? – ‘career.’ My sixtieth birthday fell shortly before last Christmas; and quite apart from my innate lack of youthful cred, it is hard to envisage any status less welcome to modish Human Resources departments than my own Google-aided identifiability as a white straight male Catholic.

No individual, therefore, will be more delighted than I to gain further academic emolument. Equally, no individual is less prone than I to take any such emolument for granted. My research background has been the opposite of fashionable: last year I completed my doctoral thesis on Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s organ output. In any contest between a candidate who has specialised in Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, versus a candidate who has specialised in transgendered rappers from Bali, no prizes are offered for guessing the probable victor.

This all explains, ultimately, why I find myself investing greater and greater sunk costs in the project – which is, I concede, a First World problem – of capturing my organ-playing on record. By so doing, I might (I repeat: might) convince university employment’s arbiters to overlook my chronological, ethnic, and religious disadvantages.

Going to the effort and expense of issuing no fewer than four CDs indicates, at least, exceptional dedication and single-mindedness. So, of course, does becoming a kamikaze pilot. Time will pronounce whether the former occupational choice supplies any better long-term prospects than did the latter.

Meanwhile, in defending my own gramophonic incontinence, I am tempted to quote Maurice Chevalier’s brusque retort to a question about how much happiness he experienced in old age. What (the straw-hatted Gallic divo inquired) is the alternative?

‘Satyagraha’ – joy and rapture at the ENO

RICHARD DOVE reflects on Philip Glass’s timeless opera

In 1960s Lower Manhattan there was a very definite merging of culture and logistics.  If you had ordered a new wardrobe or dining table it was distinctly possible that the delivery men could be the two masters of emerging minimalism, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.  They both freelanced for a company called Low Rate Movers.  The art critic Robert Hughes needed a plumber to fix his dishwasher and was more than surprised when a smock-clad man with a shock of black hair and a bag of plumber’s tools showed up.  ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here? You’re an artist.’  Glass explained that whilst he was an artist, he was also a plumber.

The music of Philip Glass now graces concert halls and opera houses around the world.  He is a prolific composer having forged a style of layered repetition and exquisite harmonies that beguiles many and upsets not a few.  As I walked to the Coliseum in central London, I passed a few plumbers’ vans.  I hoped that, in a wonderful act of circularity, at least one or two were heading to the latest production of Glass’s totemic opera, Satyagraha.  This was the last night, so it would be their last London opportunity for some time.

‘This is just wonderful.’  For my audience neighbour, it was her first Philip Glass experience.  ‘Well, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do’, I replied.  Glass’s astonishing avalanche of creativity has seen the creation of over thirty operas, thirteen symphonies, small ensemble pieces, concertos and countless film scores. 

Satyagraha was the return to business of the English National Opera after what it described as ‘an extended interval.’ The opera is, to use the ENO’s highly appropriate description, a ‘meditation’ on Gandhi’s early years in South Africa, a co-production with New York’s Metropolitan Opera with conductor Carolyn Kuan and director Phelim McDermott. It is sung in Sanskrit with words from the Bhagavad Gita and some of the headline translations were mostly obscured for us on the balcony and above. It did not matter.  It was an immersing mediation, and the plot was insignificant.  It is an emotional journey through Gandhi’s embrace of non-violent protest to change minds and politics.  The looping harmonies and spectacular staging created an embracing ambiance where you can pick and choose what you look at and how you interpret the narrative.  The result is, to use another ENO programme description, ‘mesmeric’.

Satyagraha is Sanskit for ‘truth force’ and the opera takes you and back and forth in Gandhi’s life as his philosophy of protest takes shape and consequence.   Sean Panikkar brought nuance and quiet strength to the role of Gandhi as he slowly walked the stage, his voice both tender and firm.  The huge, imposing corrugated iron wall set resonated a South Africa shantytown.  Meditation became a dream populated by Phelim McDermott’s vast puppets, the wicker emu being a particular highlight, and Julian Crouch’s soaring adaptable sets. The immense power of the voices of Verity Wingate and Felicity Buckland cut through the coughing and rustling (in my vicinity) and commanded attention. 

Satyagraha is the third of Glass’s so-called Portrait trilogy – Einstein on the Beach (which he staged largely with his own savings and had to drive a New York cab and deliver furniture to recover financially) and Akhnaten, the Egyptian Sun God which was also staged by Phelim McDermott in 2016.  None of the three operas have a lateral narrative, but wander through their subjects’ lives and experiences. The music is described as minimalist, but it is nothing of the sort. The motif of repetition masks constant change and highs and lows of emotion. It requires from the players and the conductor both technical and emotional engagement. As Glass himself says:

What you hear depends on how you focus your ear. We’re not talking about inventing a new language, but rather inventing new perceptions of existing languages. I don’t like using language to convey meaning. I’d rather use images and music.

For my neighbour, new to all this, it was a state of rapture despite often not knowing what was going on. She told me she worked at St Thomas’ Hospital and it was just joyful to be part of an audience again after an horrific eighteen months. Joy and rapture, not a bad way to spend a Thursday evening.

As I left the Opera House, I noticed the plumbers’ vans had disappeared.  Some domestic emergency interrupting Act 3?  The composer is close on 85 years old and yet his creativity is undiminished.  His Symphonies No 14 and 15 receive their world premieres next year as does a new ballet called ‘Alice’.   Clearly, the days of furniture moving and dishwasher repair are long gone.

Five poems by J. M. Jordan

J. M. JORDAN recently began writing again after a twenty-year hiatus. He is a Georgia (US) native, a Virginia resident, and a homicide detective by profession. His poems have appeared in Arion: A Journal of Classics and the Humanities, The Chattahoochee Review, Chronicles, Image Journal, Louisiana Literature, The Potomac Review and elsewhere.  

The Golden Key


He grabs his phone, his notebook and his gun.

A  trumpet echoes in the distant woods.                                       

A body is sprawled in the broke-bulb alley.

The wolf somehow knows him by his name.

A mute crowd gathers down the block.

The forest all around him laughs and whispers.


The phone rings on a cluttered desk.

Watch  for an old blind beggar bearing gifts.                    

Rows of streetlights stretch in all directions.

The giant’s castle has a thousand rooms.

He puts a quiet finger to his lips.

The golden key turns slowly  in the lock.


He bangs the table in the tiny room.

The dragon crumbles in a cloud of smoke.

Technicians bag up items of intent.

The revelers at the feast all bow and vanish.

Sleep comes at last as daylight breaks.

The leaves all turn to birds and fly away.


These words once were music

lifting from the page

like a soft grey clutch of quail

drifting in a sudden movement of the matinal air.                              

But that was time-lost, time-gone,

before a white hand pressed                                                           

against the window of a train

leaving a town I thought would do me in. 

Now these words curl like ash,

disintegrate on contact or

slip through the haggard mind

with all the meaning of the wind at dusk

whistling through a rag

hung upon a crooked stick                                         

in a field where great dark birds

swap jokes and laugh under their wings.

How Dare the Damn Wind

How dare the damn wind

come banging down the block,

swinging schoolyard elbows

and kicking over trashcans.

How dare the damn rain

slick streets and slosh the awnings,

snuffing out the bright ambitions

of afternoon and smoke-breaks.

How dare the damn cold

blister windows, stick car doors,

chasing dice and fistfights

from the treachery of sidewalks.

How dare it dammit all

conspire to keep you elsewhere,

from your deep quotidian double

at the end of this derelict bar,

stranding me here with only

a cough and a broken hat

and a row of untenanted stools,

fit only to cuss and mutter,

How dare the damn wind.

The Midnight Squad

We have burnt out our various ends,

ground down otherwise hours as

the bright blank day descends

in culverts and ramshackle alleys.

We have turned from the quick and close,

from every normal circadian debt,

to a tangled pursuit of ghosts.

Remember us then to the world

in bright-blown prayers that track

the startled rounds of each new day.

Bless us, then, remand us back

to the custody of the unlit hours.

Lines on Leaving

Under the gentle sway of the backyard string-lights,

in this golden space hollowed out here in the darkness,

sit with me for a moment, sheltered from the night’s

relentless rumor, and the drone of distant voices.

The raw brightness has slipped at last from the sky

and with it all the day’s attendant noises,

leaving only the whippoorwill’s call and a train

as it rumbles deep and distant down in the chest.

So stay with me here and finish the last of the wine,

for soon enough, I must step off into the night’s

impossible embrace, so thank you for this golden moment

under the gentle sway of the backyard string-lights.

The forgotten Levels

FAITH MOULIN helped rewild an overlooked corner of Somerset

My part of Somerset hides its age well.  When the Romans came to Yatton and Congresbury, they inherited an Iron Age salt-panning industry, set up the first systematic drainage system, and established an industrial-scale pottery at Congresbury, using the estuarine clay. A Roman temple has been unearthed on nearby Cadbury Hill next to an Iron Age settlement, and a cemetery was excavated there in the 1950s. Lead and other minerals from the Mendip Hills passed close by on a direct route to their slave-powered boats on the Severn estuary. Over 2,000 years ago, the chieftain buried on Cadbury Hill enjoyed luxury imports from much of the known world, including wine and jewellery from Byzantium. Now, people also appreciate more natural treasures.

William Stukeley’s painting of Cadbury Hill

Yatton has a peat moor on one side of the village, leading onto the Tickenham, Nailsea and Kenn Moors Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a clay moor on the other side, Biddle Street SSSI, which is mainly in the parish of Congresbury. The wetlands are bisected by Yatton High Street, a natural limestone ridge, and the archaeological survey for hundreds of new houses in 2019 provided new information showing that Yatton village’s ridgeway had been an important route for thousands of years – not only to those escaping traffic jams when there is an accident on the M5!

Yatton and Congresbury are linked by two great wildlife features. One is Cadbury Hill, the Iron Age hill-fort owned jointly by our two parish councils. Both Yatton and Congresbury people have access to the hill from their own sides, as it straddles the parish boundary. The second is the Strawberry Line – a disused railway now a heritage trail, part of the National Cycle Network and a nature reserve owned by North Somerset Council.

In 1998 a local farmer was selling a field next to the Strawberry Line for £25,000, and a group of local residents decided to save it for the environment. To apply for grant funding, the group had to be a registered charity and thus the Yatton and Congresbury Wildlife Action Group (YACWAG) was born. The farmer was willing to wait a year while we raised the money. After an initial award from the Heritage Lottery Fund, YACWAG successfully gained grants elsewhere and increased our landholding. In our first seven years, we bought ten fields and a small woodland, with over £250,000 raised from outside sources. It is no longer so easy. Most land around Yatton and Congresbury is marketed as ‘Investment Land’ and is snapped up by developers.

YACWAG grew out of other local initiatives going back decades, including the multi-agency ‘Forgotten Levels’ local campaign of the 1990s.  North Somerset includes the Cinderella Levels, up to five metres above sea level, step-sister to the better known Somerset Levels, who gets invited to all the balls.  By that time, we had run a children’s environmental group for 13 years, a Wildlife Trust group for five years, a Friends group for two, and we had gained a lot of experience and knowledge about local wildlife as well as a network of keen volunteers and others more expert in their field.

When naming the charity, the word ‘action’ was a deliberate inclusion. We aimed to create and maintain nature reserves in an area that was rapidly developing into commuter belt – to provide a refuge for the wildlife that was denied habitat by modern farming methods, increased disturbance and pollution. Our second objective was, and is, to raise awareness of nature conservation and natural history.

This natural history is entwined intimately with our own. In 2000, we funded a project to increase wetland habitat in a small field owned by the council. The digger turned up stones and pottery sherds, including Samian ware, coins and metal buckles; it was a previously unknown Roman occupation site! (We worked with the local school to make a mosaic seat in celebration.) 

We also obtained a grant to link our communities along the Strawberry Line with activities for all ages. With the relevant local MPs at each former station site, simultaneously blowing the whistle and waving a flag to kick the event off, crowds of local people were led from one village to the other, exploring the natural wonders of the disused railway corridor. The local museum service showcased Roman artefacts and we provided hands-on activities at intervals. On both the station sites we offered a booth where retired railwaymen could record their memories of working life before the closure of the Strawberry Line. (These later formed the basis of a book, which we sell to raise funds for our work.)

Due to more relaxed management, our fields look very different from neighbouring land and their character has been continuously changing. Close your ears to traffic and planes, and half-close your eyes to exclude the neighbours’ unnaturally green ‘improved’ short grass, and you could be in the 18th century before the Enclosure Acts. We haven’t planted wild flowers; we have just allowed them. When farmers complained about thistles, we smiled and watched the butterflies on them and the flocks of finches in the winter. In nature there is waxing and waning and we saw that as soil fertility declined a balance arrived. A few years ago a beautiful green-eyed fly was photographed. Professional verification was required and an entomologist visited the following year to see our Four-lined Horsefly. It is a rare wetland species, the nearest site being 30 miles away. People don’t like horseflies but this one is very docile and hundreds of them peacefully sip nectar from thistles in July.

In a couple of our fields we do have ‘proper’ wild flowers. In 2002 and 2003 we held ‘Field Days’ on Congresbury Moor with farmers bringing horses and vintage tractors to demonstrate their skills with old machinery, cutting and turning our hay. One local farming family restored an old hay cart for the event and staged a show for the crowds, tossing the hay about for hours in the bright sunshine.  I remember our excitement when we first saw a knapweed plant in that field displaying its feathery purple stars. Now to see the drifts of them in this ancient hay meadow, first enclosed from Congresbury Moor in the seventeenth century, is a taste of how life could be. In the surrounding fields the grass is never long; if the plants do exist they never get the chance to flower.  

In 2006 we were offered an opportunity to buy two fields off a busy street on the north side of Yatton.  These are our other wild flower meadows. They are within 500 metres of the primary school – ideal for educational visits. This time we went to the community for help and were supported by Yatton Parish Council, Yeo Valley Lions, local businesses and many individuals as well as bigger funders. Last year we held a bank holiday event in the fields, offering local people the chance to explore “Nature as Your Neighbour”. Local families enjoyed pond-dipping, spider-hunting, owl pellet dissection and hands-on interaction with wildlife. In the evening we led a bat walk along the road for 25 local people, opening their eyes to the secret world of bats.

North Somerset is a bat hotspot, with Greater Horseshoe Bat roosts on our doorstep. We have engaged young adults through the exciting mix of technology and cute little furry animals. It led to new discoveries – even on a national scale as we found the first evidence of a Nathusius pipistrelle bat migrating across the North Sea – and raised awareness of bats’ protected status. We were able to support the council when they developed technical guidance for planning applications. As we are mainly self-taught, YACWAG loves citizen science projects. We get people involved in surveys and facilitate national initiatives locally, like the Big Schools Bird Watch, National Moth Night and a BTO Christmas bird survey, as well as four walks for the National Bat Monitoring Programme.

In the two fields near the school we could see a remnant of the damp pasture that used to surround the village. The previous owner had managed the fields as a private nature reserve, just cutting hay once a year for the past 17 years. Marsh marigolds grew in the open field and there were swathes of pink ragged robin. Along the ditch edges was the regal purple loosestrife and its rarer relative, yellow loosestrife.

Yellow loosestrife Photo: YACWAG

This lockdown year, having heard that among 250 species of bee there is something called the Yellow Loosestrife Bee, with more time to look and gorgeous weather, we went looking for it – and found it! This little bee has a complex association with its namesake plant, collecting pollen on its brush-like legs and manufacturing oil from the pollen to waterproof its underground nest chambers. I was moved to tears by this discovery, which was newsworthy enough for Radio Bristol and the BBC website. If YACWAG hadn’t bought the fields – if a traditional farmer had bought it, or a pony owner – the yellow loosestrife would have been grazed out or cut down, and the bees would have been lost. We simply don’t know what’s there and what is important. Wildlife is so fragile and we casually lose precious species that have survived centuries in our rural landscapes. With them can go whole networks of other species that depend on them, and we don’t even know what we have lost. We have  proved you don’t have to do much to reverse this trend, except wait and watch.

When we bought our first field we had a visit from Chris Sperring MBE of the Hawk and Owl Trust. He advised us rookies to grow our grass long – basically to “farm voles” and put up a barn owl box. “The owls will come”, he said, drawing on his experience on the Somerset Levels, from where young owls were dispersing to new territories and finding nowhere to nest. The boxes on our poles are easily seen from the Strawberry Line and local people love to watch the ghostly white owls drifting over the fields on late summer evenings. YACWAG boxes have raised 60 chicks to colonise elsewhere. One year we had three pairs breeding on our tiny landholding. We have regular breeding kestrels too, thanks to the fecundity of the short-tailed field vole.

There are unexpected spin-offs. A local widow who enjoyed walking her dog on the Strawberry Line liked the barn owls so much she decided to leave YACWAG money in her will. We didn’t know her but she spoke to our Secretary, who said a polite thank you and thought no more about it. This lady has now died. We haven’t received the bequest yet but it may be enough to allow us to buy more land, even at today’s prices. Our 300 members want us to buy more land. It is the way to keep it safe for nature, ‘in perpetuity’ as the legal documents say.

An earlier bequest gave us “Harry’s Plot”, one-seventh of a field bought by residents behind their houses to save their views from development. It is very small but includes a magnificent oak tree and the residents have let us plant another oak tree in the field this winter.

YACWAG’s work has been varied and evolving, rooted in the community and wholly voluntary. When someone comes along wanting to do something, we go with the flow, so when the North Somerset Otter Group was homeless, we provided an umbrella. When someone wanted to learn about small mammals we encouraged him to go on a course, started surveys, and bought a trail camera. We have since found in our fields all three types of shrew, both species of voles and the tiny harvest mouse. We have several moth traps which members can use in their gardens and then a few keen amateurs try to identify the catch.

Over the 20 years we have seen a decline in local wildlife, mirroring the national and global picture. But in our fields, at least, biodiversity is increasing. The local farmers who once thought we were mad now talk to us with a lot more respect and understanding. Some help us with management of our land, and one even wants to plant more trees on his own farm. 

It isn’t hard work to get the results we have – give Nature a chance and it will reward you richly. Just try to imagine the impact if every parish set aside just one field for Nature…