#indiechallenge – First Time Ever (Peggy Seeger)

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The blurb

Born in New York City in 1935, Peggy Seeger enjoyed a childhood steeped in music and politics. Her father was the noted musicologist Charles Seeger; her mother, the modernist composer Ruth Crawford; and her brother Pete, the celebrated writer of protest songs.

After studying at Radcliffe College, in 1955 Peggy left to travel the world. It was in England that she met the man, some two decades older and with a wife and family, with whom she would share the next thirty-three years: the actor, playwright and songwriter Ewan MacColl. Together, Peggy and Ewan helped lay the foundations of the British folk revival, through the formative – and controversial – Critics Group and the landmark BBC Radio Ballads programmes. And as Ewan’s muse, Peggy inspired one of the twentieth century’s greatest love songs, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’.

Peggy’s life comprises art and passion, family and separation, tragedy, celebration and the unexpected – and irresistible – force of love. It would by any standards be an extraordinary story, but what elevates her account is the beauty of the writing: it is clear-eyed and playful, luminous and melodic, fearless, funny and always truthful, from the first word to the last.

The publisher

Faber & Faber calls itself ‘one of the world’s great publishing houses’. It was founded in London 90 years ago. I’d associated it more with the highbrow end of the market and with poetry, but it also does things like the QI tie-in gift books.

How I got this book

Around my way, there’s a tradition of leaving unwanted items outside one’s front gate in case someone else likes the look of it and takes it away. I liked the look of this and took it away.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘An author from another country’; possibly ‘Biography’, though Seeger in fact recommends someone else’s biography of her to be read alongside this to fill in the gaps; ‘A press over 20 years old’; ‘Non-fiction’, and, despite the blurb’s strenuous attempt to ignore the fact, ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

I think Peggy Seeger is great. I saw her perform at Cambridge Folk Festival a few years ago, and when I asked her to sign one of her CDs she complimented my hat. So there. Anyway, she’s a member of a great musical dynasty and she’s a great musical figure in her own right. In this book she looks back on a long life, with a complete absence of self-pity and an honesty that sometimes made me wince. There was much that resonated, including the thoughts on class, and the impulse to hope that keeps you writing in the face of looming political despair. It’s fascinating as history and as a reflection on the art of performing music and, most of all, as a portrait of the development of a person.

A metrical version of the Magnificat, to an appropriate tune for the day

My soul proclaims God’s mighty glory
and my spirit shall rejoice
in God who saves me and exalts me,
who makes the poor his choice.
God’s bounteous blessings fall upon me
from now and through all years:
the mighty one has raised me upward:
God is holy, and God hears!

So take comfort, who suffer; this good news is for you:
Your trials will be changed to triumphs, and you will receive your due;
So take comfort, who suffer, and claim your rightful place:
God loves you, and has chosen you, of all the human race.

God stands with those deprived of power,
and God’s power will win the day;
He gives the hungry food in plenty
and he sends the rich away.
He empties thrones, and lifts the humble,
brings confusion to the proud;
He remembers those who are downtrodden,
and has saved us, as he vowed:

So take comfort, who suffer; this good news is for you:
Your trials will be changed to triumphs, and you will receive your due;
So take comfort, who suffer, and claim your rightful place:
God loves you, and has chosen you, of all the human race.

 

 

After Luke 1 46-55, obviously. You’re welcome to use this in church if you think you can get away with it.

Happy May Day, everyone!

hear the prayer we offer (and the one we don’t)

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I have a rather tiresome cough at the moment, which has made singing in the church choir… interesting. On Sunday I’d got to the point where the singing was mostly OK, but I was paying for it in the spoken bits. I don’t understand the physiology enough to explain why I could force my way through the Gloria (sung) but was having to miss whole chunks of the Creed (said) in order to cough.

Anyway, I suspect nobody in the congregation actually noticed, particularly over the sound of the rain, but I was aware that it must have sounded rather as if I was having theological objections to some of the least controversial bits of the Creed. I coughed through ‘and was buried’, for example, but managed ‘and the Son’, ‘the holy, catholic and apostolic Church’, and ‘the communion of saints’ with no problems at all.

That reminded me of someone I knew at a previous church who refused to say the line about ‘the resurrection of the body’, because she didn’t believe in it, which then reminded me of a story the rector of that church told about a couple whose thoughts about Firmly I believe and truly used to be very audible, because they just stopped singing when they got to a bit they didn’t believe in.

Personally I can do most of Firmly I believe and truly, though I do mentally cross my fingers when I get to ‘and her teachings as his own’.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike a hymn beside theological or moral objections. Clumsy use of language. A melody line that goes too high or too low (I cannot tell manages to be both, for a lot of people), or is simply banal. (Brother, sister, let me serve you, I’m looking at you.)

There are various different ways to deal with the discovery that a hymn you really dislike is coming up next. You could walk out (though you probably won’t). You could sing the bits you agree with and keep your mouth shut for the bits you don’t. You could spend the whole thing looking for cash for the collection. You could rewrite the words on the fly. I’ve used all those tactics except the first one on the second verse of In Christ Alone.

I try to avoid altogether any kind of service where there’s a danger of I vow to thee, my country. I refuse to offer my country ‘the love that asks no question’: that kind of idolatry is how we end up with the mess we’re in now. And Thaxted is a tune that wasn’t written for the human voice, and it shows.

So far, so uncontroversial. Or, I suppose, so predictably controversial. But my own particular peeve is a hymn that’s sung a lot in ordinary Church of England parish churches, particularly during Lent. Father, hear the prayer we offer.

It’s the first verse that annoys me: Not for ease that prayer shall be/But for strength…

The subtext of this hymn is: I could cope with this, if only you would make me stronger. I don’t know much about the life of Love Maria Willis, the writer: it’s quite possible that it wasn’t easy; that she had to put up with a lot and not complain about it. But this – like I vow to thee, my country, in fact – is mixing up the human values of a bygone century with the values of the kingdom of heaven.

I want to ask: what’s wrong with praying for ease? What’s wrong with praying for things to be easier? That prayer may not be answered, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy prayer.

The assumption that there is something wrong with it drives me up the wall. I think it’s picky and prideful; it’s that old human fault of telling God how to fix things.

What would happen if, rather than assuming that we aren’t strong enough, we entertained the possibility that actually, this situation is intolerable?

I know.

But we worship one whose strength was made perfect in weakness, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. God does not tell us to put up and shut up, but Come unto me, ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Our insistence on our own strength is risible in the face of that almighty understanding.

No, give me the steep and rugged pathways and the green pastures. To be fair, the rest of the hymn does; it’s just the first verse that I object to.

Fortunately, it’s easily fixed:

Father, hear the prayer we offer:
Both for ease that prayer shall be,
And for strength that we may ever
Live our lives rejoicingly.

Upstaged! anthology out today

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I’m very pleased to say that Upstaged!: an anthology of women who love women in performing arts is available now, and that it contains my story Prima Donna. It’s a delightful selection of short stories published by Supposed Crimes, who specialise in F/F fiction across a variety of genres.

The ‘performing arts’ in question are many and varied – my story is (of course) about opera, while others feature panto, silent film, burlesque, plays and musicals.

The genres are many and varied, too. We have steampunk, sci-fi, romance, slice-of-life, and straight (or not-so-straight) historical. Settings range from the 1830s to the far future, from Broadway to New Helsinki. Not all the stories will be to everyone’s taste – that’s the nature of such a diverse collection – but all the same I think there is something in there for everyone.

There’s an interview with me about the inspiration for Prima Donna and about my future projects over at the publishers’ site today.

As for the book itself, here it is at Amazon.com…

… at Amazon.co.uk…

… at Kobo…

… at Smashwords…

… at Barnes & Noble

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The tireless music

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This hasn’t been a spectacular year for me, in musical terms. I’ve sung very little that I hadn’t sung before. I’m only a few pages further forward in the Adult Piano Method. I haven’t touched the cello. All the same, I feel as if I’m in a different place, that I’m a better musician, than I was twelve months ago. And I think that that’s largely been down to the simple act of showing up and singing. Consolidation. Every time I sing the Duruflé Requiem, I get better at it. The bits that freaked me out last year are less forbidding this year; the bits I learned in Guildford are old friends. Every time I sing anything, I get better at it, and better at singing.

‘Tireless music’ feels more true than it would have done a year ago. I haven’t had to flake out on choir once this autumn, which is a vast improvement. Eating on the train home before choir practice has really helped. Great Northern trains have not helped so much, but I’ve never been more than a quarter of an hour late.

What else?

  • I replaced a broken cello string and tuned the cello. Haven’t played it yet, but having it playable is a step in the right direction.
  • I led what they call a rousing chorus of Goodnight Irene at a… wake? memorial? celebration? A party, anyway.
  • I had a go with an otamatone, which is a delightfully silly instrument. I have this idea that long acquaintance with a fretless stringed instrument ought to make it fairly easy to get fairly good fairly quickly… I like the theory.

Next year I’d like to develop a reliable top F. I can get a top F at home with the piano; I’d like to get sufficiently comfortable with it that I can also summon it in company, in a cold church. I’d like to sing more appalling Victorian slush (I non-ironically love The Lost Chord, OK?) and get good at it.

I’d like to replace the cello spike. (The current one is too short, and has been since I was fifteen or so.) I’d also like to get to the end of the first volume of the piano tutor.

So much for what I’d like to do. Now for the doing of it. Just keep showing up.

 

The title is from ‘Saint Paul‘, a long poem by Frederick H. W. Myers. Some other verses from that poem make up ‘Hark, what a sound, and too divine for hearing’, which is possibly my favourite Advent hymn. Here‘s the tune played by brass band.

December Reflections 13: soundtrack of 2016

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These were the last three CDs I bought. They’re part of the soundtrack of 2016, but not all of it. Abba, Taylor Swift, Billy Joel… I saw Billy Joel live this year, a Christmas present from my middle brother, and a fantastic night. (It clashed with the Last Night of the Proms. Billy Joel played Rule Britannia, whence he found his way to Ode to Joy and finally into My Life. It was epic.)

What’s missing? Things I’ve sung, for a start. With work choir, Take That’s Shine; Katrina and the Waves’ Walking on Sunshine; David Bowie’s Life on Mars?; a song called Together we are strong by our conductor.The biggest audience of my life was at national delegate conference in June. I have no way of knowing numbers, but it would have been somewhere between five hundred and fifteen hundred. A lot of people, anyway.

For church choir, Elgar’s Ave Maris Stella; Rubbra’s Missa Sant’ Dominici; Poulenc’s Quem vidistis pastores; Howells’ Magnificat in G (we haven’t got to the Nunc Dimittis yet)… the most difficult ones turn out to be the most memorable, though I would be hard put to it to hum some of them. My one solo this year was in the quartet in Stanford’s Te Deum in B flat.

I was aiming to find a reliable top F and top G this year, but haven’t managed that. That’s a goal for 2017. I continue to try to teach myself the piano. Drink to me only with thine eyes and The Rose of Tralee have been much heard around these parts, very slowly and with some swearing.

As always, I get to know music best from the inside; if I can play something, if I can sing it, I can appreciate it, far more easily than if I just listen.

Art, time and change

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Tomorrow evening my church choir will be singing Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem. It’s an oddly appropriate choice for Remembrance Sunday, and it feels even more so given recent events: it was commissioned by the Vichy government in 1941, but Duruflé only finished it in 1947, after the war was over and the world was picking up the pieces.

Part of that, I suspect, is because Duruflé had a tendency to drag his feet on things he didn’t want to do. Only one of his works, the Notre Père, is not based on Gregorian chant, and that is because he only finished it after his wife had started writing it for him, having been requested repeatedly to set the Lord’s Prayer in the vernacular.

But part of it is the simple fact that art takes time. To create, to perform, to consume art, absorbs our attention for long enough to give us a new perspective. The six years that it took Duruflé to write the Requiem, the forty minutes that it takes to sing or to listen to it – that time makes space for things to change, for us to change.

For a couple of years I had a habit of picking up The Count of Monte Cristo in about October, when the days were getting shorter and my mood was getting lower. It’s about 1100 pages long; by the time I got to the end, something would have shifted.

One of the greatest gifts of art is the way that it takes us out of what we think is our own timeline; shows us – sometimes quite literally – the bigger picture; allows us to step back from the overwhelming emotion. Sometimes that feels like a betrayal: how can we possibly feel any less angry, any less hurt, any less scared, than we do at the moment? Surely this devastating news deserves nothing less than everything we have?

The last news story that made me cry was the murder of Jo Cox MP, just before the referendum in which the UK voted to leave the European Union. After that, nothing has really surprised me. Disappointed me, yes, but not surprised me.

The one before that was the General Synod decision in 2012, the one that voted against the appointment of women bishops. That was a November vote, too.

From where I am now, I am thinking, gosh, was that all I had to cry about in 2012? But it only seems trivial now because I know what happened next. When I’d cried about it, I wrote a blog post. Having written the blog post, I found that I was still hurt and angry, still feeling rejected because of a fundamental part of my own identity, and the only thing I could think of to do with that was write fiction.

Lydia choked, rolled onto her side, and sat up. ‘I never realised,’ she said wonderingly, ‘how much it was going to hurt. It goes right into the heart. They don’t want me. They were OK with the person they thought I was, so long as she stayed in her place, and was happy to teach the approved version of events and not rock the boat, but they don’t want the person I really am. I always knew, in theory, that I was only there on sufferance, that as soon as anyone worked out who I really was I’d be out on my ear, but it didn’t hit me until today how terrible it was, when you understand the reality that nobody wants you.’

That was where I began with the final draft. It went on from there: a year of writing; a year of editing; a year of becoming brave enough to put it out under my own name. I burned up the anger that had first fuelled it; I put it all into the text.

By the time I published Speak Its Name on 2 February 2016, six women had been consecrated as bishops in the Church of England. While I was writing, things had changed.

I’m not saying that things will magically become better if we can only wait it out. For some people it is, indeed, already too late. I am not saying that art can fix everything. There are some things that are just wrong. Nevertheless, it is the best tool that I have to make something good, something useful, perhaps even something beautiful, out of emotions that, left unchecked or harnessed for ill, will destroy the world.