Wednesday 23 November 2022

On the beach at night alone*

Context is all-important, and I'd like to be honest on here: last Thursday morning I had a second biopsy under general anaesthetic at Charing Cross Hospital. There's a tumour in my bowel and my vivacious surgeon Maria needs to ascertain the type of cancer before proceeding with further treatment (probably a limited form of chemo- and/or radiotherapy to avoid a big operation). Fortunately it's not spread, so I'm at a fairly early stage, and all should be well.

As with the previous procedure, I had an afternoon nap and then went out to see a life-affirming performance: two Thursdays before this it was Gilbert and Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard at beleaguered English National Opera (sign the petition, please) - not the finest of productions, but with some excellent performances, and anyway I have such a soft spot for the work, even if it's not as funny as the vintage topsy-turveydom. Last Thursday it was what turned out to be a very deep and moving Vaughan Williams evening at the Royal Festival Hall, culminating in his first great masterpiece, A Sea Symphony

I've waxed lyrical about the profundity of the experience in my Arts Desk review, but I wanted to say a few more words here in praise of Walt Whitman, whom I scoffed at too much in my youth. The sentiments seem all the more remarkable given the times, but even the long, long lines seem to me to work now. And I appreciate all the more how Vaughan Williams set them, or parts of them, in his first great spiritual achievement. "On the beach at night alone" forms A Sea Symphony's second movement, its dual achievements the beauty and mysticism of the themes and the way the baritone is stilled towards the end so that the orchestra carries the essence alone. 

My image up top is of midnight on a solitary walk around Bergman's beloved island of Fårö - by then, the stars were not up, but it still suits my mood. Whitman's poem, 'Similitude', is worth quoting in its entirety.

On the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her savage and husky song,
As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future. 

A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets, comets, asteroids,
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time - all inanimate forms,
All Souls - all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes - the fishes, the brutes,
All nations, colours, barbarisms, civilizations, languages;,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe,
All lives and deaths - all of the past, present, future;
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spanned, and shall forever span them and compactly hold them.

Time and again in A Sea Symphony, VW supports the 'all is one' philosophy with themes and colourings of surpassing beauty, reminding us how he was at best a 'Christian agnostic'. In the first movement, there's 'one flag above all the rest, a spiritual woven signal for all nations, emblem of man elate above death...A pennant universal'. And in the finale, it's the soul's sealike journey, 'fearless for unknown shores on waves of ecstasy to sail'. 

You can see why it chimed with my present thoughts on mortality and the universal. For the same reason, I'm inclined ever more to look at the beauty of the infinite - no shame in getting all purple-prosy about this - and after a splendid lunch yesterday with my new best friend Melinda at Daquise, I went back to the Natural History Museum. The late afternoon winter light made the building itself look more glorious than ever (which it is),

I'd seen a pic of the model Tyrannosaurus rex wrapped up in an 'ironic' Christmas jumper, but he was doing without on Thursday afternoon. Still, this was a good excuse to be struck afresh by how much has been dug up of dinosaur remains hundreds of millions of years old. The full frames, whether assembled from real bones or casts, are so impressive

but just look at the armour plating of this Scolosaurus, uncovered from the surrounding sandstone.

What I came for again, though, was the Mineral Gallery at the east end of the ever-amazing building, on the first floor. As it's in effect a dead end, not on the way to anywhere, unless you seek it out you may miss it, as I had done for years. Then I read Richard Fortey's Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, and he opened my eyes as surely as Simon Winder's Germania did to the fabulously beautiful Vogelsaal of Bamberg's NHM

As Fortey points out, this room is rare in still housing the bulk of the collections originally intended to be housed there, and the display

has been preserved in something like its original state. The Victorian Society is delighted. It is an airy space, well lit from the generous windows, and with glass-topped cabinets running in ranks transversely across the gallery, each of which includes a fine selection of specimens. The arrangement of minerals in the cases is by natural 'families' of minerals - so the sulphides will be found together, as will the native elements like gold and copper, or the oxides, and so on.

It is a teaching collection in a way that no longer exists elsewhere in the building. An eager visitor might spend weeks in here learning, and would emerge at the other end as something of a mineralogist.

I've decided to try and do so with a combination of regular visits, and the museum's own handbook, which arrived today.

That should help me to be a bit more systematic. But I see nothing invalid in the aesthetic approach I took yesterday - simply looking more at the most beautiful things, like the opals.

And the NHM's gorgeous rooms help if you just want confirmation that nothing in art is more wonderful than nature itself. Take, too, this brain coral, which I saw en route from dinosaurs to minerals.

*Whitman's line does without the comma between 'night' and 'alone' which features in the way the poem is punctuated in the score of A Sea Symphony.


Carmen Ioan said...

Wonderful post, David. But you have given me a scare with the news about you in hospital. Hoping and praying that everything will be fine. Take care !

David said...

Thanks, Carmen, I'm leaving others to take care of me, which they are, magnificently: praise be to the NHS at its best. Of course I look after myself, but as I feel fine, I'm keeping fit, building up my strength for what may yet be to come. It's all good!

Dr Julia Palmer said...

I must start by confessing that Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony is my favourite choral and orchestral piece, if not my all time favourite piece of music; I learned it first when I joined The Bach Choir after coming down to London from Cambridge to complete my medical studies at the now defunct and indeed demolished Middlesex Hospital in 1978. I believe only the hospital chapel was spared. I have sung The Sea Symphony several times since then, and have loved it more and more each time, experiencing both the words and the music increasingly profoundly. The scoring of the words, "Behold the sea itself" is irresistibly atmospheric, and the words and music for "On the beach at night alone" conjure up the darkness, the calmness of the sea, and the sense of stillness and isolation, the knowledge that we humans are both very small and very vulnerable. David, I hope your upcoming treatment goes well and has a successful result. We will be thinking of you.

Richard said...

I’m reminded of the stoics emphasis on ‘momento mori’, which was not a reminder of death but a charge to live every day to the fullest. Based on your many activities, I’d say you are acquitting yourself admirably!
In my trips to London, I’ve been able to thoroughly explore the British Museum, but have never been able to get to the Natural History Museum (a real sin for a geologist and naturalist). Unfortunately, my opportunities have passed.
Your comment about Whitman resonated (why I thought you said Wordsworth is beyond me). Our tastes evolve over time and often we let immature things go and/or develop an appreciation for authors that didn’t speak to us earlier. Also, every artist has produced some works that don’t stand the test of time or are just plain junk. The objective is to winnow through the body of work to find and appreciate the gems. I find the current trend of discarding an artist or author entirely because society’s mores have changed to be absurd.
I leave you with a quote from Whitman “Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes”

David said...

Dear Julia, your experience as a performer validates my own feelings about how much deeper this music becomes (I sang in it once, when I was a student, with the Edinburgh Choral Union and an enlarged Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Roderick Brydon in the Usher Hall. Think the baritone was Stephen Roberts but certainly the soprano was the wonderful Margaret Marshall - how she soared. To return to it live after a long absence - I probably haven't experienced it in the concert hall since then - was overwhelming.

Richard, thanks for your words of wisdom. Sorry to hear that you won't make it - I hope you're in reasonable health. Too true about returning and finding wisdom which one hadn't appreciated. Slightly different, but related: as a teenager, I was obsessed by Dostoyevsky and only *quite* liked Tolstoy's War and Peace. Now it's my favourite novel - alongside Cervantes' Don Quixote - and I try to re-read both, in different translations, every decade or so.

And I feel a special euphoria in having made it to Brno to hear two great operas in wonderful productions. Yesterday, walking miles with a friend who came up from Bratislava, was a pure joy in the winter sunshine. I still hope to fulfil a plan to spend six months here learning Czech - but I may not be able to travel for a while in the near future. Awaiting verdict from surgeon this morning.

Susan Scheid said...

David, this is a gorgeous post, from the first exquisite photograph, to the last beginning of an exploration into rocks and minerals. The Sea Symphony movement and its Whitman text knits together the whole into a profound, humane meditation on the world and one's place within it. You reminded me, too, how much, as a small girl, I so loved my sample kit of rocks and minerals. I wish I could recall now who gave it to me, but whomever it was, it set me off on discovery after discovery of the natural world. So thank you for all, with my very best wishes to you on your journey back to full health.

Anonymous said...

Very sorry to read of the bowel problems and I hope all goes well. Did you and the J receive my message about poor Roderick MacLennan ? I have been greatly enjoying Ken Burns' docum on American Civil War, also HOMELAND, about the everyday shenanigans of the CIA, excellent acting and cinematography, each season one long gulp

David said...

Thank you, Sue. I remember I treasured a foldover sample of Cornish rocks and minerals. It's always good to have the seed planted so that you can be prompted to return in later life.

Is that you, John? I didn't receive your message, but Shan rang me the other week - I was shocked as I had no idea and thought Rory was slowly returning to health. What an awful time he went through, she too.

Worked my way through Homeland a while back - absolutely gripping, each series. Having come to the end of Bonus, a surprisingly nuanced Swedish series about a new couple dealing with the kids from previous marriages, I reluctantly turned back to the latest series of The Crown and have found myself moved to tears by quite a lot of it. The script is sensitive, the acting superb, the central theme of 'uneasy is the head that wears a crown' central in each well-crafted episode. I think King Charles should be quite pleased with the handling of 'his' episode. We met him at Sandringham when he was a mere prince this time last year, because of his work for the Norfolk Churches Trust, and I was pleasantly surprised by how relaxed and interested he was when he came to our little group of six.

john graham edinburgh said...

yes, David, John here. I quite enjoyed The Crown, though I thought there was too much emphasis on getting the period feel right-all those cream/buff Bentleys-certainly an elegiac tone as the monarchy slowly loses its prestige and mystique. Amazing to think how in awe we all were of the Royal Gang as recently as the eighties. Now they're just another family, working a gig, trying to remain relevant, so as to put bread on the table. The Catholic Church has gone exactly the same way. No-one knows or much cares about the most recent papal proclamation.

David said...

Well, the 'dressing' was high-quality, as it tends to be in all period dramas. It even made the absurd Austrian Sissyfest, 'The Empress' very watchable (attractive actors helped too), though there the script was ludicrous. The balance in the handling of difficult subjects in 'The Crown' was altogether superior. Anyway, at least KC3 and PB have very good sides - I was just listening to an indigenous Canadian talking about how moved she was when he unequivally apologised in a meeting for the wrongs the Catholic Church had done to her people. In other respects he's hampered.

Anonymous said...

PB is a good man, but he is now just another religious leader like the Dali Lama, instead of being the one and only. KC3 is sympathetic and caring, but too conservative and traditional to be held in esteem by the young. Soon he will be a micro-monarch, like the Queen of Denmark who travels Copenhagen on the bus

David said...

To most of us non-Catholics, the Pope was always 'just another religious leader'...I thought the episode which took us from tampongate to the Prince's Trust did a good job in showing that Prince Charles wasn't so out of touch - maybe it was a little self-conscious in the gear change, like the man himself.

Anonymous said...

And modern micro-monarchs are known to work at proper grinding employment. The King of the Netherlands was an airline pilot for KLM, harder work than opening the flower show or local hospice

john graham said...

one very interesting dvd series is The Americans, offbeat story of the KGB in the USA. Not for everyone, but enjoyable. Some interesting debate about capitalism versus communism. BILLIONS is fun and lively, not to be taken seriously. Damian Lewis excels, as always. ps I sent the J two messages via Facebook Messenger on August 6 and November 15 mentioning poor Roderick Maclennan's death(who died July 21). It is strange that the J didn't receive them.john graham edinburgh

David said...

He didn't, otherwise he woudn't have been so shocked and saddened when I told him what Shan told me the other week.