Them Heavy People

IMG_7364There’s a meme floating around (I choose that verb deliberately) regarding humorous responses to noise pollution. It’s not always funny, though, this daily hazard of incessant public announcements, music, phones, sirens and other environmental nuisances. It drove me out of London to rural France for eighteen months so that I could catch up on some sleep. What is rarely addressed is the impact of non-mechanical noise, the personal, physiological racket (aside from shouting) due to the general inability of the population to move quietly and with composure.

Despite putting a polite but firm message on the front door to my block of flats, my previous neighbours continued to slam it shut before stampeding through the hallway and up the stairs like a herd of rampaging bison. The whole place quaked, books fell from shelves, and as my work area was right under the blight path, I became seriously concerned about the detrimental effects on my hard drive – and nerves. These particular residents were – and I’m trying to be kind here – hefty women, whose sex life consisted of what sounded like vigorous trampolining and great thudding wrestling matches with each other. When I asked them to tone it down, they snarled, ”just be grateful we’re not having orgies these days.” Luckily they’ve gone back to Australia (which is as far away as I can hope for) and have been replaced by an acoustic fairy.

Before anyone accuses me of being fattist, heavy-footedness is not actually about size. A friend lived in our block for a while and although petite and ballet trained, she used to thud her way around the building as though dragging a broken leg behind her. Just watching people thumping along the pavement and lugging themselves through life is painful. The nation is either trying to assert its existence above a continuous clamour or is exhausted by its fight with gravity. Either way, it could do with some relief.

I’m not the first to notice this trend. Back in 1859, Florence Nightingale devoted a whole chapter to noise in her book Notes on Nursing.  Apart from a repetitious diatribe against rustling crinoline, she also wrote many paragraphs on the impact that sudden or consistently annoying sounds have upon the sick, including loud conversations, banging doors and rattling keys.  I’m not sure that her suggestions have made much headway. These days, hospital wards are rarely oases of peace, as patients contend with the clanging delivery of dinners, bustling cleaners and loud-mouthed visitors.

She ends the chapter with a complaint about the flimsy construction of (then) modern houses, where a patient “feels every step above him to cross his heart.” Anyone who lives in a Victorian conversion will concur. My home is a wooden resonance chamber, not unlike a badly-played instrument (with nasty lyrics to match), echoing the thunderous cacophony of homecomings and visits to the loo. It is rare that I have an uninterrupted night’s sleep, even with earplugs.

It seems that tranquillity may only be found within spiritual enclosure. Many religious orders discipline their members to maintain a strict rule of silence, which means more than just holding one’s tongue. Equally important is the training in exterior silence: walking softly, opening doors quietly, catching hold of keys before they jangle.  Grace is not solely an interior or divine gift, yet outside of the cloister it seems to be a rare commodity.

I have always been attracted to physical buoyancy and fluidity, a throwback to childhood film influences, perhaps. James Coburn’s feline Derek Flint glides around his luxury flat in complete silence and Aunt Alicia’s training regime of budding courtesan Gigi includes the admonishment, “you don’t simply sit, you insinuate into the chair”. I wish that the elephants around me could insinuate a little lightness into their feet.

Efficient, noiseless movement is not simply an exercise in aesthetics. There are considerable health benefits associated with treading quietly.  Osteopath and former dancer, Jennie Morton, explains that working through the foot protects the rest of the body by absorbing shock. Falling hard on the feet has a detrimental effect on knee and hip joints, the lower back, the internal organs, and right up the body to the neck. Pliant feet boost circulation and offer a form of massage that benefits the entire body.

Jennie always looks to the feet first, as their interaction with the ground is the key to correct body function. She says, “I spend much of my time working on the feet, even when the patient may have presented with a neck problem.”

When I was at school, we had prizes for deportment, but these days, it’s rarely encouraged outside of the dance studio. Good posture not only requires an engagement with the abdomen that is the basis of core strength and poise, but strong, supple feet, which provide stability for all movement.

Those too scared of the studio or gym may well consider the undemanding T’ai Chi Walking Forward and Walking Backward exercise. “Transfer weight to the front leg and roll onto the ball then toes. Lift your back heel, then knee, then toes.  Move the leg to the front.” In summary, “step gingerly, carefully, gently, and with caution. Walk like a cat.”

Until these apartments are sound-proofed properly, I’m tempted to invoke that admonition as a new clause in the Lease.

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After the Fall

I flew away on a rare clear blue day. Towards the land of Antonio, Valentine, Romeo, creations tangled in the language of banishment, passion and despair.

Edging towards the albino coast, breaker of storms and smugglers, hunting ground for traffickers of shells and slaves, I surfed the drifting memories that most British children harbour – Whitsun half-terms, a new swimsuit, sandcastles and burial pits ploughed into a grainy, grey shore.

But on this breathtaking clear blue day, I flew straight over Beachy Head, its barber-shop lighthouse standing sentinel against matchbox boats and ghosts, and its clarity excised a gasp from my throat.

He flew away too, on a day full of blues, excusing himself with a step over the pure chalk cliff.

He loved Shakespeare, those rich characters formed from foreign heat and light. Prospero, Proteus, pounds of flesh. When we knew him, before he bowed out, he was a shameless, silver-tongued Mercutio. He loved words. He delivered them in a voice that could make the angels weep. His actions spoke louder.

In dreams, I fall. I fly and fall. You’re supposed to wake up before impact but sometimes I don’t and I feel my own life crash out of me. They say it’s the most humane way to die after gunshot, the scattering of life’s coil between the rocks and thundering waves. Except for those whose dreams may come. We are such stuff.

I had weeks of nightmares after I heard. I stood at the edge of the sea and looked down the vertiginous white precipice, letting my eyes fall to the far beneath, fearful for the one step forward, faltering or flagrant, from which there is no return. Every night, I awoke with a cry. Not for the act or the will behind it. That was his to own. But for some unspoken latency, the part of me that could follow suit.

They’ll suppose his mind was disturbed. Perhaps not. Daniel Stern said that suicides were God’s graduate students.

How beautiful the coast as I fly away. Far away.

Falling by Delia Derbyshire

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Angel’s Got a New Bassist

As a rule, I don’t cry over celebrity deaths. Well, Ian Curtis perhaps, but I was very young, depressed and I think more than a little affected by John Peel’s understated, heartfelt radio announcement. Now I’m older and less depressed, but hearing about Mick Karn’s death from cancer on 4th January really upset me.

My life wears its necklace of crystallised moments and while memories are mostly a set of restrung chimera, the special ones contain a perfect bead of light captured on canvass. My personal art collection includes moonlight in Karnak, sunlight in Petra, making love to someone I truly loved, and the Japan gig at Hammersmith Odeon 1981.

David Sylvian may have been Japan’s frontman, but it was Mick Karn who caught attention with his sharp suit, robotic headnod and balletic bourrées across the stage. The man was the epitome of style and grace, with bass playing that could dig right down to your soul, pluck out your heart and dance pointe on it. His hands were those of a craftsman and it’s no surprise that he was also a talented sculptor, carving those same strong, dextrous fingers, the type that can as easily produce eroticism out of an inert piece of kit as deftly unhook a bra. I treasure my signed brochure of his exhibition at the Hamilton Gallery.

There had been many gigs before, there have been many since, but that night, I think, encapsulated the hopeful cusp of my adult life. I was about to start drama school, finally taking my long overdue leave of home and stretching out into an unknown future. My best friend was at fashion college. Together we primped and prepared ourselves to head for the clubs or student parties with the latter-day punks and burgeoning Romantics. We adorned ourselves carefully for every encounter with the outside world, rummaging through the markets and antique stalls in Kensington, Camden, Lawrence Corner, or my mother’s hoarded clothes from the fifties and sixties, nipped, tucked, adapted. We looked beautiful. We would take the world by storm.

As I’m currently residing in a (freezing) rural community with a bicycle as my only form of transport, old jeans and sweaters are now the order of the day. I don’t mind so much but there’s a part of me grieving for the time when I cared more, when I had the time and resources to indulge in the fun of decoration and reinvention

But it meant more to us than externals. Talking to the same friend the other day, we were analysing the bands that have really made an impact on us over the years and suddenly we made the connection. Our favourite artists either emerged from the Art Schools or developed powerful visuals in parallel to their music: Bowie, Japan, Foxx, Scritti Politti, Fad Gadget, XTC, Ian Dury, Kate Bush, Bill Nelson, Sparks, David Byrne, Roxy Music, Velvet Underground, Laurie Anderson, the list goes on. They were cunning (in the positive sense of the word), not prostitutes for the baubles of fame. They dared to mix into the palette of good musicianship literature, philosophy, dance, drama, fashion and multimedia, to produce an original blend of rhythms, mood, experimentation, soundscapes and lyrics which bludgeoned you from behind.

I’d completely forgotten that I used to spend long hours in my teens designing clothes and cities. I have a mild form of Synesthesia – say a word, I see a colour, play music, I see choreography – yet I haven’t really done any art since then and I’m not sure why that visual compulsion got switched off. Shortly before Mick Karn’s death, a friend sent me a sketchbook and pencils – so perhaps it’s time to reclaim my art and my style, because I don’t believe our dreams should die with our heroes.

If life didn’t turn out quite as originally envisaged, it’s still had plenty of sparkle underscored by the never-ending soundtrack of amazing artists. Thank you for providing some of the magic, Mick. That’s something that can never die.

Mick Karn: 24 July 1958 to 4 January 2011

Please donate to Cancer Research here.

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Paying it Forward

I have been pondering how best to dispose of my wedding dress for some time now. It’s a thing of beauty, ivory beaded silk, embroidery, a ton of material and all the subtle frills and furbelows of majesty. I rightly felt beautiful wearing it and regardless of the events that life has dished up to me since that hazy day, nothing changes the fact that it was a terrific wedding and everyone had a great time.

I debated selling it, convinced (like many others) that I needed the extra pocket money, and having explored online stores, dress agencies and car boot sales with little success, I stopped, took a deep breath and made a major reassessment of my priorities and values. Almost immediately, I discovered ASAP Africa, an Aids Support organisation in Zambia. Earlier this year, they instigated a scheme whereby donated wedding dresses are taken to Lusaka as part of a start-up hire business for sex workers, thereby offering skills and financial support for vulnerable women as well as giving poorer brides the chance to fulfil their dream of a big white wedding.

More details about this wonderful scheme are here.

So I’ll be taking my dress over to Windsor some time next week. We take so much for granted in this country, often confusing need with want as we cram our homes full of the latest electronics and high street clothes, yet even on a low income, I have still been able to do and have so much. This is a small gesture of gratitude for how privileged I am and I hope that the woman who eventually wears my dress is blessed with health and happiness, peace and plenty in her life ahead.

Please spread the word.

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The Conflict of Parallels

I have a fondness for the occasional footy game. Now and again, a major Final can be a grand thing to watch. It reminds me of being a child round at my Nan and Grandad’s in East London, commentary blasting out from their huge colour TV, (a fiftieth wedding anniversary present from their sons), a rumbling accompaniment to Nan’s overcooked yellow vegetables and crusty rice pudding. Dad also enjoyed his Sunday soccer, as did my formidable lesbian great aunts. We’d all watch the game while the adults smoked roll-ups and quaffed a pint, after which I would be taken for a walk round the cemetery. In later years at drama school, I used to support our luvvie team who courted controversy (and potential assault) by playing matches in netball skirts and lipstick, so there’s a definite whiff of home comfort, roast dinner and insanity that attaches me to football.

I realised I hadn’t watched a game since the 2002 World Cup, when I worked in an enlightened office environment where the powers-that-be had fitted live TV screens to every computer rather than see their entire workforce bunk off. I’ve been out of the loop since then. In fact, I only realised that England were out of the tournament when I clicked onto a news site at work a day after the event. “Oh”, I exclaimed. “Are England out?” The rest of the office looked at me as though I were a paedophile.

Consequently, I rather fancied watching the World Cup Final this year. Besides, I have a lot of Dutch friends, or friends living in Flatland, so felt obliged to lend psychic support. The trouble is, I don’t have a TV. I asked around, and friends who do have a TV refused to entertain the thought of broadcasting football on it. So I popped down to the City Arts Project, thinking that a bit of creative camaraderie in Shoreditch would make for a fun and civilised evening.

To be honest, friends aside, I was totally non-partisan. I just wanted to watch the game, happy to cheer the good moves and boo the fouls, howsoever executed. Just to be safe, though, I wore green to throw the buggers off the scent, knowing that I could secretly pick sides based on the usual female criteria of legs and sex appeal.

Dutch fans had nabbed the front-row seats (thank God they didn’t stand) and created an altar on the TV unit out of a carefully draped national flag, orange balloons and strategically placed bottles of overpriced beer.

I stood further back among the predominantly Spanish spectators and realised very quickly that I had oh so picked the wrong place. On my right, in the Red corner, was Little Miss Overbite and on my left, the Orange Intense Mr Overheight. I ended up being the unwitting sausage in a hate sandwich.

We watched a lacklustre first half, the Spanish a bunch of terriers running rings round a pack of greyhounds. Sometimes the players even kicked the ball instead of each other. Nearly every single member of the Dutch team ended up with a yellow card and there were some terrific amateur dramatics from the Spanish. It was at this point that both Intense Mr Overheight and Little Miss Overbite started spewing forth their own brand of vitriolic soliloquy. Mr Orange kept eyeing Miss Red and gesticulating, and she retaliated by having a go at the ref.

“I fucking hate the English. I really fucking hate them. I’ll burn their fucking flag. Ce-ce-ce, ce-ce-ce, shayen cossock hillock tassock bollock ce-ce-ce-ce-ce.” She degenerated into the newsreader from Chanel 9, sounding exactly like 1:43 here.

I felt rather sorry for the ref. It’s a thankless task, to be officially hated for not having 360º vision or for suspending disbelief during Oscar-winning injury acting. I suddenly recalled one of my drama school buddies who used to be a referee. He even wrote about the experience. I wonder what he’s doing these days?

Mr Orange had now initiated his own ramblings, which amounted to a convoluted version of “it’s not fair”, the dark, furry voice on my left fighting the piercing soprano on my right. More fury from the Red corner, now focused on the Dutch team, or the entire human race, I couldn’t work out which.  “Ce-ce-ce hate ce-ce-ce fuck, hate ce-ce-ce … they should fucking die. They should be killed, murdered, ce-ce-ce, hate fuck ce-ce-ce-ce-ce.” The corners started folding over into an envelope. Fingers skimmed my eyelashes as arms waved at each other, pointing, shouting. Mr Orange suddenly charged over for a facedown, blocking my view.

“Oi”, says I, “I’m trying to watch this. Just calm down and please get out of my way.”

Various other permutations of polite endeavour failed to instil any sense into these overwrought, over-tall or overbitten tossers. They didn’t even glance at me. I think wearing green rendered me invisible. I finally succumbed to the pathetic cliché, “look, there’s no reason to get angry. It’s only a game.”

Tumbleweed.

There are moments when football is beautiful; a supreme stretch of line and form, a shape in the air, the connected curve of a pass. Some years ago the English National Ballet produced a piece based on such moves – they saw the correlation with dance. I love the ballet, but wouldn’t dream of having a screaming match with someone who dissed Alina Cojocaru.

I could feel my own xenophobia rapidly rising to the surface as I considered what each side would do if it either won or lost. The Dutch would buy cheese and sex and the Spanish would kill an animal with something long and sharp. In fact, since I was beginning to feel like punching someone, I did the sensible thing at half time and moved.

In the second half, someone blew a vuvuzela – twice – after which there ominous silence from that spot in the room. I think, and hope, it got shoved up the perpetrator’s arse.

During extra time, I had decided to leave if it came to penalties. I don’t like them and I don’t find them exciting. A game running to penalties is akin to long, painful foreplay with no orgasm. Penalties are the equivalent of “oh never mind, I’ll just do it myself”. Luckily the Spanish finished me off and I’m grateful just for the sake of Little Miss Overbite’s hapless boyfriend who was most likely saved from the curse of perforated eardrums.

I got out of there as quickly as I could. The best side won but maybe I’ve been away from it for too long, I just felt deflated. The vicious behaviour both on and off the pitch really got me down and I suspect that’s the last match I’ll be watching for quite a while.  It may be a beautiful game, but it sure has some ugly participants.

You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.
Frank Zappa

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One Year to Get Married

Two years ago today, I was in Lithuania with a bunch of like-minded people, celebrating the midsummer festival of Rasos among the revivalist pagan Romuva. Lithuanians were still practising their formalised folk religion as late as the 15th Century, until Christianity finally encroached. Communism all but drove polytheist religion underground, but since independence there has been a resurgence of interest in its theology and rituals, with the Romuva community active as guardian and propagator of its traditions.

(c) Heather Tracy

Midsummer is serious business in Lithuania, and we decided to celebrate at the archeologically rich Kernavė, site of seven hills rising above the winding, sacred river Neris, each hill with its own bonfire to blaze a vigil through the night.  We crammed into the Hippy Express, so named when we realised that one of our party was the only short-haired individual on the bus, and headed out of Vilnius just as the heavens opened and discharged a month’s rainfall in fifteen minutes. As we trundled through the traffic lights now rising periscopically from a lake, we watched pedestrians take off their shoes and wade from one side of the road to the other while water seeped through the bus doors to threaten our driver. It did not bode well. As suddenly as it had started, the tempest stopped, the sun emerged and, giving confused thanks for the entertaining elemental fanfare, we were on our way.

Kernavė had a touch of the micro Glastonbury about it – food stalls, barbecues, crafts and a stage, but with virtually no English of the people or language variety. Menus were incomprehensible, so food came in the form of point and buy.  The only universal word was Beer. I have found that this word works well in most European countries, and as beer is highly nutritious, there is little chance of ever starving to death on my home continent. I discovered Lithuanian Svyturys and we’ve been having a love affair ever since.

(c) Heather TracyThe first job of any self-respecting celebrant was to prepare one’s floral crown. We sat in the fields gently weaving flowers into circlets, trying to incorporate the traditional 23 (I think) different varieties. The last sunlight glinted onto an Elysian scene as golden-toned family groups crouched in the meadows fashioning garlands out of bundles of beautiful blooms.

Duly adorned, we joined a procession of traditional costumes through the leafy gateway and up the main hill to where the first fire-lighting ritual would take place.  After chants, dances, songs of call and competition, a circle was formed and the women took my hands and dragged me into the centre for a game which required me to walk seven paces and throw my crown backwards into a tree. However many times it took for my crown to hook onto a branch represented how many years it would take for me to get married. I’ve no idea what my face looked like once full comprehension of the rules dawned, but I suspect it was horror. I tried to resist. “No, no, I’m not doing that again,” but they insisted. Oh well, I though, it’s only a game. My wreath landed in the tree on my third attempt. I felt surprisingly elated. I must have been drunk.

(c) Heather Tracy

Later I sat with a lovely friend by the Neris. We meditated into the water while the fires trembled on the hills behind us. As the last light winked out, people began the slippery descent to the river bank and threw in their flowers, the theory being that one’s wreath becomes entangled with another and said person (preferably the handsome boy from the next village) will be magically drawn to your charms.  We followed suit.  Later, a formal procession, flanked by flaming torches, carried little wooden cradles embedded with candles upon which crowns were laid and floated downstream, hundreds of little lights bobbing under the stars.

I’m still expecting to wander bleary-eyed to the door one morning and find a long-haired lover from Lithuania on the doorstep, although it’s more likely that my free-flowing wreath made its way out to the Baltic Sea and drifted slowly towards the Thames Estuary, picking up effluence as it passed Southend. Whenever I walk across Waterloo Bridge, I always rather expect to catch sight of it bouncing up the Thames before getting stuck on a sandbank outside the National Theatre.

I once offered up to Venus a comprehensive list of desirable attributes in a mate. Since she’s a lazy tart who takes absolutely no notice of my overtures of friendship, I have now struck off most items and decided to settle for someone who is not an invertebrate. My needs are simple.  I want a silver ring, a floral crown and a puppy. And a honeymoon in Lithuania.

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The Small Despair

(c) Heather Tracy

Every celebration contains a shadow, every shadow an ecstasy, and I always shed tears at Summer Solstice. Vita Sackville-West wrote about the “small despair” of the year’s summit, when the sun glowers in its waning glory and we measure the meagre rationing of light that highlights another year devoid of sufficient freckles, unfettered feet or fucking. It marks the passage of so little done and so much to do.

The Wheel of the Year turns with Love, and we who know of its perversities and paradoxes know too that it is as fierce and painful as a babe’s precocious tooth upon a mother’s breast.

Phoebus reveals the wrinkle, the blemish and the sparkling eye. Stagnancy is an illusion. Gnōthi seauton. How immense the arc of change. I have achieved far more than I realised.

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