Summa: Revisitations (October 2021)

Thou art a sea without a shore,
a sun without a sphere;
thy time is now and evermore,
thy place is everywhere

(John Mason (c.1645–94), ‘How Shall I Sing that Majesty’).

October 1-4. An excursion. A reckying. A short-break in Somerset. All these things. A visit to Bristol, Chew Magna (which sounds like a Star Wars-branded ice cream), Cheddar, and Bath. Looking to both the future and the past from the present. I attended three services of worship: one at Bristol Cathedral and two at Bath Abbey — which has a very focused acoustic architecture. The narrow chancel and nave channel and amplify the sounds of the choir and organ.

I’d not visited Cheddar since the late 1960s. Every year, my parents would take me by bus to Weston-Super-Mare for a week’s summer holiday in July. The destination was close to home and travel was relatively cheap. (They weren’t rich and didn’t own a car.) While there, we’d take a coach trip to the gorge and the caves (which remain closed due to Covid-19 restrictions). Little had changed. However, the Flake in my ice-cream cone appeared narrower and shorter than I remembered it. I climbed the 274 steps of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, upwards toward the viewing post (which was also closed) to look out over the gorge. The owners are considering changing the name of the attraction because people no longer know the biblical story to which it refers, apparently. The terrain at the summit reminded me of the landscape in which Moses might have confronted the burning bush. (Yet another referent that would be lost on a great many visitors, no doubt).

On the return journey to Wales, I stopped-off at Abergavenny. Unlike my ice cream at Cheddar, the fish n’ chips in this neck of the woods was most definitely a good deal larger than I recalled from my childhood. I’d not eaten the like in this town, again, since the late 1960s. My maternal grandfather regularly brought his grand children here on a Red & White double-decker bus (he, too, was not a car owner) on Tuesdays, in order to attend the weekly fresh food and cattle markets. We took our lunch at a ‘restaurant’ (an over-generous description, perhaps) on Market Street. What a treat!

The return journey to Aberystwyth took me across Llangynidr Moors, at the heads of the valleys. When I was a second-year art student at Newport, Gwent, four of my colleagues and I hired a Student Union bus to drive us here. We were of the opinion that one ought at least to try and engage with the landscape as artists. The weather then was much as I found it on Monday. I stood and drew where this photograph was taken, in 1980. Nobody produced anything of worth that day. However, the experience taught us what we weren’t able to do; and that lesson was far more valuable at the time.

October 5. The first session of the MA Vocational Practice module given for the last time to the smallest group that I’ve ever taught. Consequently, the course will be delivered more intimately. This is my last stake in the School’s Masters provision. The following day, my final MA Art History tutee submitted their dissertation. Henceforth, and until the end of June, the PhD students and the co-ordination of the postgraduate schemes only will be my charge.

October 6. Having waited for twenty-seven months to obtain a consultation with an ears, nose, and throat specialist, and having gathered substantive evidential and clinical information in support of upgrading my case to the ‘expedited’ list, I, finally, secured an appointment. Since 2011, I’ve suffered from a chronic sinus problem that — to my mind — has gradually compromised my hearing. Aging, too, often contributes to hearing loss. However, my evolving deficit is more significant. Something is afoot (or an ear). I received a hearing test in a sound-proof room with a suspended floor and a door like that of a walk-in safe. (Oh, for studio like this!) ‘Can you conform your address?’, the examiner asked. ‘You live at a house called “Jacob’s Ladder”‘, he remarked. ‘Have you seen the film?’ (I sighed, inwardly.) An MRI scan was commissioned. Within a week, I’d received an appointment for such at the local hospital to be undertaken … on the following Sunday, would you believe. (Wonderful! Impressive! And it shows to what ends the NHS are committed in order to reduce the enormous waiting list that has, in part, been the consequence of the pandemic.)

The 7 Prayers for Stephen Chilton sound project has developed apace. Likely or not, it’ll be finished quicker than any other album that I’ve made. The suite of works respond to the paintings, the painter, and, inevitably, his death. They’re are as inseparable in my works as they were in his life. ‘PitWorks’ [working title] is moving at a glacial pace. The priority, at present, is to secure funding for both the in-perpetuity licence to use the film source on which the sound composition will be based and the public ‘ impact event’ at the close of the project:

The primary purpose of the impact event is threefold. First, the performance is designed to ‘resurrect’ the historic sounds of the Penallta Colliery, in situ, and at a volume approximate to their original sonority. In this respect, the performance will summon-up an acoustic ‘ghost’ and temporarily haunt the site. Secondly, the event will serve to recall a bygone soundscape for those who had known the pit when it was operation, and as a vicarious re-enactment of the past for those who have grown-up after it was decommissioned. Finally, the impact event will exemplify how practice-based research can, through the evocation of cultural acoustic memory, provide an accessible, immediate, enriching, and interpretive encounter with history.

‘What’s semi-retirement like?’, I’ve been asked by some who know me too well. It’s like discovering that — for more years than you can remember — you’ve been living life on the ‘fast-forward’ rather than the ‘play’ setting. It’s as though I’m on a sedative. But one that slows-down perception without stifling feeling.

October 15. I’d not travelled with Arriva Trains Wales since March 2019, and to ‘Brum’ in nearly two years. I’m still adapting to the greater density of crowds in cities, where social distancing is hardly possible and too few wear masks in order to compensate. I’d arranged to undertake photographic research on images of the Penallta Colliery held at the Bristol City Library. The Premier Inn opposite St Philip’s Cathedral was my home for the night. I ate at the attached restaurant, rather than risk a busy Friday-night eatery in town. At the table next to me, a young woman was also dining solo. She immediately struck-up a conversation about the appalling murder of the Conservative MP David Amiss, today. Like the terrorist who perpetrated the crime, she too was a Somali Muslim — an identity about which she was now keenly self-conscious. She’d not attended university, but had worked her way-up to manage the PR and outreach department of a Birmingham-based organisation supporting humanitarian causes. Rarely have I encountered someone with such a heart, vision, and determination to do good. ‘In a decade’s time, you’ll be representing your community in politics!’, I prophesied. The thought appeared to find a home with her.

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