Sometimes this year I've felt as if I was up to my ears in quick setting concrete. One of the things that has helped has been to get out on the river and kayak. I've done this in all weathers but it's especially good when the sun is bright and the air is clear. And so it was this afternoon near the turning point of the year. On the main channel the bare trees were in glory, a crescent moon was high in the blue, and I followed a kingfisher looping from one bough to another, trying to get away from me as I shucked my boat through the water.
Mostly when paddling I listen to the sounds around me but sometimes -- especially when I want to put some welly into the strokes -- I listen to music. And today I thought back over the music I've been listening to this year.
Impossible to remember or summarize it all. I enjoyed a new version by Keane of Under Pressure produced by my friend Kenny Young on Rhythms del Mundo Classics. It's a fitting tribute to the original -- one of the great songs of its time, sung by perhaps the least introverted Zoroastran who ever lived. The main point is in the two words at the climax: "give love". Jack Johnson's version of Imagine on the same album is good too.
I understood a little better the greatness of Shostakovitch. The allegro of the tenth symphony, which I imagine to be a portrait of Stalin. The second movement of the eighth string quartet: one of the most terrifying things ever written (although you really have to hear it played live and played well to get this). The weird, haunted ending of the fifteenth symphony.
Now we have a two year old we are doing the Christmas thing. It's part of the cultural baggage, it has good stories for children, and I can just about take some parts of it in small doses as metaphors and images for things that matter. The stories are no more real than the sunset in a Van Gogh painting is real, but some of them do speak. For example, the most precious thing can sometimes be found in the most humble place.
Today I was listening to band called Kerfuffle who have a fresh version of The Sussex Carol:
On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring.
News of great joy, news of great mirth,
News of our merciful King's birth.
Then why should men on earth be so sad,
Since our Redeemer made us glad,
When from our sin he set us free,
All for to gain our liberty?
When sin departs before His grace,
Then life and health come in its place.
Angels and men with joy may sing
All for to see the new-born King.
All out of darkness we have light,
Which made the angels sing this night.
"Glory to God and peace to men,
Now and for evermore, Amen!"
Carols like this and the great medieval English lyrics bring something of the past to life so that it is not really past. They embody what T.S. Eliot called "a condition of complete simplicity costing nothing less than everything." Or, as my two year eight month old daughter said after I played this one to her again this evening, "that was a lovely music."
Some Middle English lyrics are less simple but no less direct. Take this from the fifteenth century:
I shall say what inordinat love is:The furiositie and wodness of minde,A instinguible brenning fawting blis,A gret hungre, insaciate to finde,A dowcet ille, a ivell swetness blinde,A right wonderfulle, sugred, swete errourWithoute labour rest, contrary to kinde,Or withoute quiete to have huge labour.
Birdsong is sparse at this time of year. How much will we have in the spring? We know that songbird numbers continue to fall. Conservation efforts in Britain may be worth little absent a better scenario for climate change than looks likely and reduced pressure on migrants elsewhere, not least in Africa (or, in the case of the lapwing, regions such as the Near East).
Added 23 Dec: Over their short lifetimes many migratory birds fly a distance equivalent to that between earth and the moon. Some people call them courageous.
(Related post: Fear and trembling)