Magazine article The Spectator

A Dark and Stormy Night

Magazine article The Spectator

A Dark and Stormy Night

Article excerpt

'Where were you when they crucified the Lord?'; when news of Waterloo was brought, or the Mutiny, or the Charge of the Light Brigade, or the death of Victoria?

Thence into living memory and universal communications -- when Edward VIII announced his abdication; when Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich with 'peace in our time'; when VE, then VJ, were proclaimed; when the Suez débâcle shocked the nation; when JFK's assassination shook the world.

All these except the last are before my memory begins to go beyond feeding the ducks and collecting civic clocks (anything from the high street jewellers to Big Ben himself). With the Kennedy tragedy I remember looking out from my student eyrie in Cambridge, high above King's, its views eastwards towards Chapel and northwards up the river, counting the display of college flags at half-mast, and not knowing what or how to feel.

Memories of the Great Storm 20 years ago are less emblematic; more concrete, indeed visceral. The body registered animal-fashion an unwanted turbulence in the air. Agitated insomnia compelled me out of bed to don slippers and dressing-gown and make for the little summerhouse in the adjacent garden -- my 'workhouse', wherein, despite its proximity to faculties, colleges, busy main roads, it's been possible these 30 years or so to escape the phone and the doorbell and exist out of time and place in a secret world of fantasy and making.

I must have got there around 2 a. m. It was certainly very windy -- the branches soughed, the roof rattled, 'the gale it plied the saplings double' -- but soon I was absorbed in the music. Can't now remember what I was writing there all the rest of the night. Undoubtedly not in any way expressive of the mounting frenzy without: within, fierce, obsessive concentration upon the specific problems customary to all composers -- beginning, continuing, shaping, honing, solving, convincing, arriving, concluding, in all their accumulation of slow intricate effortful detail. Back to bed towards six for a brief sleep before the dawning of another ostensibly normal day.

Whose abnormality became clear when my first pupils arrived soon after nine. They were late because of a fallen tree at the point where the drive meets the main road, right across the latter, blocking traffic, already being attended to by the firemen, who told them that, when it had crashed down, the tree, a mature beech, had narrowly missed a passing car.

We went out to look. Sure enough the mighty trunk in its nimbus of branches and crushed foliage lay right across the main road, now unaccustomedly empty of morning rush-hour traffic. …

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