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September 2016

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Gannets over St Kilda by Jill Harden (BBC)

Today, an extraordinary musical project: The Lost Songs of St. Kilda.

The islands of St. Kilda, at the westernmost edge of Scotland's Outer Hebrides, had been continuously inhabited for over two millenia until its last residents were officially evacuated in 1930.

Inhabitants of St. Kilda

Women & girls of St Kilda

The Lost Songs of St Kilda is a collection of traditional tunes from those islands -- all of which would have been lost forever were it not for Trevor Morrison, who had learned them from his piano teacher, a St. Kilda evacuee. Morrison made a home-recording of the songs, and after his death in 2012, the recording eventually found its way to the offices of Decca Records. Decca then asked Sir James Macmillan and other Scottish composers to develop the St. Kildan tunes, aided by the Scottish Festival Orchestral and additional musicians (including Julie Fowlis). The result is this very beautiful album: a tribute to a lost musical tradition and a vanished way of life.

Above, a short video about the project.

Below, the returning of the Lost Songs, after all these years, to the place where they were born.

Above, "Soay," a tune named after one of the smaller islands of St. Kilda. The name is derived from Seyðoy, meaning the Island of the Sheep in Old Norse. The piece is performed by composer Sir James Macmillan on Hirta, the largest of the islands.

Below, "Hirta," named for the larger island, with film footage from the 1920s, and contemporary photographs. There are several theories about the orgins of the island's name, including its possible derivation from Hirt, the Norse word for shepherd, or from h-Iar-Tìr, a Scots Gaelic word meaning "westland."

To learn more about the project, visit the Lost Songs of St. Kilda website or Facebook page.

I also recommend Hirta Songs (2014), a fine album of music by Aladsair Roberts and poetry by Robin Robertson. The piece below is from Hirta Songs: "The Leaving of St. Kilda" (audio only). 

And one more recommendation: Night Waking (2011), a novel by Sarah Moss that was partially inspired by St. Kilda's history. The story takes place on a fictional Scottish island, split between contemporary and Victorian narratives: darkly comic and mysterious by turns. It's the first in a sequence of interconnected novels, followed by Bodies of Light (set in Victorian Manchester and London) and Signs for Lost Children (set in Cornwall and Japan). I personally think Moss is one of the best writers working in Britain today.

Children of St Kilda

St Kilda islanders


The narrative of marriage

 The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edmund Dulac

Re-posted from 2011, with much more art this time around:

I've been re-reading one of my favorite books: Writing a Woman's Life by the late feminist scholar Carolyn G. Heilbrun (1926-2003). Ostensibly a survey of the way the lives of famous women have been portrayed by biographers, this slim volume also casts a sharp eye on the way women's stories are told today...and the manner in which such narratives influence the ways that we tell our own stories.

I first encountered the book twenty years ago, and have re-read it several times since, finding new things to ponder within it at each different stage of my own life's journey. This time, I've been struck anew by the chapter on marriage -- for I'm reading it now as a married woman myself, after spending many years in a more independent state, and thus have fresh interest in Heilbrun's reflections on marriage and its portrayal in women's stories.*

Titania Meets Over Arthur Rackham

Heilbrun writes:

"It is noteworthy that few works of fiction make marriage their central concern. As Northrup Frye puts it, with his accustomed clarity: 'The heroine who becomes a bride, and eventually, one assumes, a mother, on the lst page of a romance, has accommodated herself to the cyclical movement: by her marriage...she completes the cycle and passes out of the story. We are usually given to understand that a happy and well-adjusted sexual life does not concern us as readers.' Fiction has largely rejected marriage as a subject, except in those instances where it is presented as a history of betrayal -- at worst an Updike hell, at best when Auden speaks of it as a game calling for 'patience, foresight, maneuver, like war, like marriage.'  Marriage is very different than fiction presents it as being. We rarely examine its unromantic aspects."

The Beautiful Couple by Helen StrattonOne of the problems of the "romantic plot" (as it's constantly portrayed in our popular culture: in countless contemporary novels, films, t.v. shows, pop songs, etc., etc.) is that it's a narrative that focuses exclusively and relentlessly on the beginning of a relationship -- and then ends at the point of declaration, or conquest, or the exchange of marriage vows. Thus we're encouraged to think of the heady excitement inherent in a brand new attraction as the whole point of love  -- with no interest left over for the intricate dance of a marriage or long-term partnership: the quieter romance of entwined lives spun out over years, over decades, over a lifetime. We are constantly bombarded with stories (films, songs, etc.) that lay down all-too-familiar scripts for how to behave as lovers in the throes of new passion -- but where are the stories (or films, or love songs)  that tell us anything useful about the mysteries of a working marriage, the challenging art of true partnership?

And does this matter? Well, I think it does. Not everyone is blessed with the model of a functional marriage in their family background, and thus it's to stories we often turn for a glimpse of how else to construct our lives . . . and what we get from most books and films on the subject of marriage is a resounding silence. We're shown over, and over, and over again that it's courtship that counts, and the social pageant of the Wedding Day -- while marriage is a vague, misty, unexplored state, unworthy of drama or art.  Marriage is the end of the tale.**

Heilbrun laments how such limited representations of love tend to serve us false, inculcating dreams of a "perfect marriage" with little discussion of the skills needed to create lasting relationships:

"What this means is that we accept sexual attractiveness as a clue to finding our way in the labyrinth of marriage. It almost never is. Oddly enough, the media, which promise marriage as the happy ending, almost simultaneously show it, after several years, to be more ending than happy. But the dream lives on that this time will be different.

Titania Reaching for Bottom (A Midsummer Night's Dream) by Arthur Rackham

"Perhaps the reason the truth is so little told is that it sounds quotidian, bourgeois, even like advocating proportion, that most unappealing of all virtues. But E. M. Forester understood this: when someone suggested that truth is halfway between extremes, his answer (in Howards End) was, 'No; truth, being alive, was not halfway between anything. It was only to be found by continuous excursions into either realm, and though proportion is the final secret, to espouse it at the outset is to ensure sterility.' Proportion is the final secret, and that is why all good marriages are what Stanley Cavell calls 'remarriages,' and not lust masquerading as passion."

Edmund Dulac

Later in the text Heilbrun explains what she means by the term "remarriage":

"I have spoken of reinventing marriage, of marriages achieving their rebirth in the middle age of the partners. This phenomenon has been called the 'comedy of remarriage' by Stanley Cavell, whose Pursuits of Happiness, a film book, is perhaps the best marriage manual ever published. One must, however, translate his formulation from the language of Hollywood, in which he developed it, into the language of middle age: less glamour, less supple youth, less fantasyland.  Cavell writes specifically of Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s in which couples -- one partner is often the dazzling Cary Grant -- learn to value each other, to educate themselves in equality, to remarry. Cavell recognizes that the actresses in these movie -- often the dazzling Katherine Hepburn -- are what made them possible. If read not as an account of beautiful people in hilarious situations, but as a deeply philosophical discussion of marriage, his book contains what are almost aphorisms of marital achievement. For example: '[The romance of remarriage] poses a structure in which we are permanently in doubt who the hero is, that is, whether it is the male or female who is the active partner, which of them is in quest, who is following whom.'

Cary Grant & Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story

"Above all, despite the sexual attractiveness of the actors in the movies he discusses, Cavell knows that sexuality is not the ultimate secret in these marriage: 'in God's intention a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and noblest end of marriage. Here is the reason that these relationships strike us as having the quality of friendship, a further factor in their exhilaration for us.'

"He is wise enough, moreover, to emphasize 'the mystery of marriage by finding that neither law nor sexuality (nor, by implication, progeny) is sufficient to ensure true marriage and suggesting that what provides legitimacy is the mutual willingness for remarriage, for a sort of continuous affirmation. Remarriage, hence marriage, is, whatever else it is, an intellectual undertaking.' "

Oh, how I love the idea that "a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and noblest end of marriage"!

 The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edmund Dulac

Some years ago, I read an article about two people in the arts (alas, I can't remember who they were) who'd been married for many, many years. Asked for the secret of their long partnership, they said: "We fell straight into conversation when we met, and we haven't come to the end of that conversation yet."

I can't think of a better model for marriage than that. Or of a narrative more romantic . . . .

Our wedding rings

* Heilbrun's reflections on marriage pertain to men too, of course; and are useful for looking at same-sex marriages as well. Please keep in mind that she was writing 30 years ago, when focusing a scholarly gaze on women's biographies in this manner was still something of a radical act.

** There are exceptions to this, of course, with some examples listed in "The Top Ten Books About Marriage" by Jane Rogers, exploring long marriages good and bad (The Guardian, August 2016). What books would you recommend?

The text quoted above is from Carolyn G. Heilbrun's Writing a Woman's Life (Ballentine Books, 1988); all rights reserved by the author's estate. The illustrations are by Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham, and Helen Stratton; they are identified in the picture captions. The photograph is from my own marriage; the wedding rings were made by our friend Miriam Boy Hackney. Her jewelry business is called Silverandmoor, which inspired the title of this blog.


The fairies are back....

Cottington fairies

Sometime in early 1990s, my friend and village neighbor Brian Froud unearthed the Victorian diary of Lady Angelica Cottington and made a startling discovery. Whereas other gentlewoman of her time pressed flowers between their diary pages, the young Lady Angelica pressed fairies. Or rather, she caught and pressed the psychic impressions of fairies, who delighted in leaping into her book, imprinting images of themselves (often rude in nature), and then leaping out again unharmed.

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

This diary was subsequently published as Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book, followed by two more volumes (Lady Cottington's Fairy Album and Lady Cottington's Fairy Letters), as well as the "fairy research" of Angelica's peculiar twin brother, Quentin, in Strange Staines and Mysterious Smells.

Brian, looking for fairies"It has often been my onerous task," writes Brian, "as the recipient of so much Cottingtonalia, to examine, scrutinize, and verify the often distasteful squashings and odiferous smears [of the pressed fairies], but I continue to do it with a noble sense of scientific inquiry, for I have long abandoned all hope of financial reward or knighthood (or an open sardine tin). All I can realistically hope for is a third-rate rest home near the gasworks in the less salubrious sector of Budleigh Salterton.

"The series of Cottington books may have provoked outrage or indifference from the discerning reader, however, some scholars of the esoteric -- notably a group in Oxford known as the 'Stinklings' -- gather weekly in the Dingly Arms, a rather down-at-the-heels public house. Here, over hot, buttered crumpets and pints of Bishop's Finger, they conduct fierce, philosophical debates about the various fairy phenomena appearing in my books."

Now we have a have a brand new piece of the puzzle: The Pressed Cottington Journal of Madeline Cottington, a volume that documents the strange history of Cottington Hall, the family's fairy-infested manor in Devon. Brian calls it the most astonishing book of them all, and I'm inclined to agree.

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

The story is told by Madeline Cottington, the most recent descendant of this odd British family. Traveling to the ruins of the Cottington estate, she finds an odd jumble of junk and treasures: letters, drawings, diagrams, photographs, books, clothes, peculiar contraptions. Compelled to uncover her family history, and unaware of the dangers the Hall still holds, Maddi finds that she too is part of the story. And that the fairies are very real...

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

Above, Madeline Cottington, fairy hunter in the making.

Below, Angelica and Quentin Cottington, photographed early in the 2oth century. (Poor Quentin was driven mad by the war...or perhaps by other mysterious things?)

If these three happen to resemble Lillian Todd-Jones, Virginia Lee, and my husband, Howard, well, surely that's just a trick of the fairies.

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian & Wendy Froud contains a wonderful story, magical art, and is a pure delight from start to finish. It just came out from Abrams Publishers (New York). Please don't miss it.

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud

The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington by Brian and Wendy Froud


Myth & Moor update

Painting by Terri Windling

My apologies for missing the Monday Tunes post today. It's been a hard week or so around here -- not for me personally, I hasten to add, but for several people (and animals*) around me, all going through tough times large and small. When many different things require attention (work, family life, supporting my loved ones), I'm afraid it's this blog that must draw the short straw. I hope to be back again on Wednesday...and I'll post the music I'd planned for today next week.

Here is a thing I've been thinking about: The world is a troubled place right now, full of anger and divisiveness on the political Left and Right alike. This can trickle down from the cultural/political level to our personal relationships, if we're not careful. Both online and off, so many exchanges seem to be unusually and reflexively sharp right now. The world is hot, metaphorically speaking, and it seems to me like it needs cooling down. As artists, as wordsmiths, as people who walk the good earth, let's be part of that cooling. Let's talk, not shout; unite, not divide. Let's be still and silent sometimes, not just quick and reactive.

My mantra these days is: be gentle, be gentle, be gentle. Stand your ground, know your truth, but be kind.

Studio light* Tilly has another vet appointment for a persistent health problem tomorrow. It's not life-threatening, but has been troublesome and going on for a while. Please send her good thoughts for a positive outcome and full recovery.