All Aboard the Centenary Bus!

It feels as though these last couple of weeks has come full circle for me. On Wednesday evening, I went to the Royal Albert Hall to see Prom 36: Vaughan Williams and Alwyn.

BBC_Proms

Absolutely brilliant. I booked a ticket only a week before and only because of the recent centenary events (yes, I’m afraid this is another piece on WWI from me – as if you couldn’t get enough stuff on the subject at the moment as it is. You should by now know I’m a little obsessed. Don’t ask me why – someone once said I have a fascination with morbid things.)

WWI_books

At the moment, I feel like every time I turn on the TV or go to read The Guardian, there’s a new article or programme about the centenary waiting for me, just me, to discover it; it’s like the twelve days of Christmas.

My centenary adventure begins: I went to the Imperial War Museum a couple of weeks ago. I tried to rouse the troops – “It’s had a £4 million refurb, don’t you know?… It really is the best museum… Of course – there’s LOADS of good-looking men there, mostly dead ones in old photos, but you get what you can where you can find it…”.

I also was honest. I said, “I’ll probably look at EVERYTHING.” Thought that would sort the women from the children, and they’d say, “So will we! We’ll power through with you – we’re that interested.”

But they said, “No.” Apart from two friends, and yes, I have more than two.

What can I say? The others missed out. They missed out.

Imperial_War_Museum2

The WWI gallery housed some of the most spine-tingling artistic pieces I’ve seen, and the World War 1 exhibition, which we queued for, has been modernised really well – with projections and interactive elements aplenty (screw you, Natural Boring History Museum), though I was sorry to see that the Blitz experience had disappeared. Oh well.

Jet

We powered through the various exhibits – the WWII tank known as Willie Pusher, the traumatising Holocaust exhibition, and even the toilets that glare with so much red lighting, I expected poles and dancers to rise out of the floor.

Imperial_War_Museum

What dismays me a little now, which I discovered when reading an article yesterday, is that the Chinese voluntary services who fought amongst Britain’s allies, have been literally painted out of history. And though exhibitions and various TV programmes are making their efforts to remember the often forgotten African and Indian soldiers, there’s no acknowledgement of the Chinese – not even at the Imperial War Museum. Only now are they getting their first official memorial.

Another stop on the tour de centenary was the British Library. I mooched along there to pass the time on a Friday evening and, you know, suck up some more black and white shizzle. But I was so amazed at the WWI exhibition they had. Not only did they have original posters from the day, but also actual original handwritten poems and letters – from the likes of Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sasson and Wilfred Owen. Just amazing! This was everything I’d studied at school. It said not to take pictures, so I did. Apologies for light reflections.

The_Soldier

Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier – original manuscript

Letter_to_Rupert_Brooke

Letter to Rupert Brooke from a friend offering to darn his socks

Letter

Siegfried Sassoon’s accompanying letter to his anti-war declaration…

Anti-War

…Siegfried Sassoon’s anti-war declaration – for which he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital for hysteria

Rosesberg_Letter

Letter from Isaac Rosenberg, referencing his poem In the Trenches

Anthem_for_Doomed_Youth

Poem Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Own – original manuscript with annotations by Siegfried Sassoon

Vaughan_Williams

Vaughan Williams – original manuscript

Condolence_Letter

WWI letter of condolence

Could hardly sit still the rest of the evening.

Which brings me to my final stop on the magical WWI bus. I’d decided to watch WWI Remembered from Westminster Abbey on Monday the 4th. I thought even I might get bored, but I tell you what – I was enthralled. I guess I should have expected there’d be readings by actors and soldiers of letters, poems and books from 1914, considering the Great War fuelled so much great art and literature – much of which I studied during my A-Levels. A decent balance between men and women’s work as well, as sadly too often, women’s voices are not heard or cared for in this genre, or simply snarled at. And I loved one of the speeches, which I believe was by Hew Strachan, professor at Oxford University, in which he spoke of how we should be wary of hindsight, as it’s all too easy to patronise the past and the decisions made during the war.

But there’s one area of culture I’ve never studied, and that’s classical music – especially the pieces that were performed on this night – the likes of Elgar and Thomas Tallis. So when I heard those opening notes of the organ played by Daniel Cook, and by the violinist Jennifer Pike playing A Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams, I caught my breath.

So emotionally fitting with the ideology of 1914, having been written in that year before Vaughan Williams lied about his age and joined the army.

This piece, based on the poem of the same name by George Meredith, effectively shows how the composer lost his innocence simply because his pieces following that war to end all wars were much more disturbing, and were his dedications to his lost companions, such as the composer George Butterworth.

And it turns out I’m not the only who feels this way about The Lark Ascending, as it was voted the nation’s favourite piece of classical music in Classic FM‘s poll – which made me feel a little bit clueless as I never really knew this piece before now. Still, I listened to this song obsessively the other week and couldn’t seem to listen to anything other than classical music. So I decided to go and see something at the Proms, and thought I wonder... And my heart skipped a beat, because I found that The Lark Ascending was playing at the Proms!

*

On Wednesday night, I wrung my hands, sweating, throughout the entire 15 minutes and felt like a lark myself, like I do every time I hear it. And I could hear sniffing around me, and it was played so softly at times, that I could almost not hear it – and you can’t hear it on the Radio 3 recording for this reason, but when I was there, I could feel it – feel the waves on my goosebumps. Static and ecstatic. I’m due to hear it again in November when my friend, a professional violinist, will be playing it at a remembrance event.

I should probably invite along the two old ladies who sat next to me at the Proms; they slept through the whole, bloody thing.

International Women’s Day: Sarah Waters

“Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have, you will remember it…”

It was these words that I thought of as I ate my first oyster at the Whitstable Oyster Festival back in July 2012. I’m not actually sure it was a native Whitstable oyster after all, but it tasted very nice. Not sure why it took me so long to try my first raw oyster (having grown up in this Kentish coastal town), but I’ll definitely be having more.

These words are the opening phrase of Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, probably my favourite book in the world.

Tipping_the_Velvet_UK_cover

I first read it a few years ago, on recommendation of my sister. Of course I was aware of the TV adaptation, which was famous for its saucy lesbian sex scenes – as most people found out when they watched it with their parents.

TippingVelvet-10

But in fact, the most intriguing aspect for me was this old portrayal of Whitstable – where I’d been born and raised – and the tale of a young woman moving to London in search of adventure, as so many of us from that town have done (though many have now moved back). And it’s so much more than that, because of its Victorian setting. It’s a sense of adventure as well for those of us born today, because of the attention to detail Waters describes in this Victorian world.

WatersSarah_710x310

Sarah Waters is probably the most strongest writer I’ve ever read, and an outright feminist and lesbian as well. I attended a talk where she spoke about her work and met her afterwards; what was so inspiring about her for me, is that she studied in Canterbury and lived in Whitstable, she writes historical fiction, and she writes it well – so well, that she has effectively re-created this part of the lesbian and gay fiction genre.