October 30, 2020

7.15 am: I’m sure it tastes delicious, but the colour reminds me of dirty water in a paint-jar.| Porridging.

8.00 am: A communion. 8.30 am: There were a few emails that needed attention before I could put those sectors of my biological hard-drive assigned to teaching and admin into ‘sleep’ mode until Monday. 9.00 am: Studiology (and a second cup of tea).

Alone in the house, I felt unselfconscious about recording myself shouting ‘wow-up!’ loudly from the stairwell leading to the studio. (The environment has a rather boxy and eminently useable reverberation.) This was the exclamation of the woman driving the spirit carriage in the account used for ‘John ab John’. Last week’s effort at signifying this phrase was adequate, but not sufficient.

Thereafter, I recommenced recording the sound of sparrow frenzy. There’s a technique to agitating a bouquet of paper strips correctly, so has to evoke the desperate flapping of many wings, that I’d not yet mastered. ‘It’s all in the wrist action, Champ!’ (Which was a TV advertising slogan associated with a toy that I had as a child.) Somehow, I can’t envisage deploying this skill ever again. I gathered together Wednesday’s recordings of paper crumpling, and returned to ‘The Swallows’ Tale’ [working title].

Throughout the morning I equalised samples, and generated others — including a rather lovely stereophonic ‘hiss’ that sounded like an escape of high-pressure steam. ‘I know this noise!’, I thought. It could be heard from the summit of what we called ‘The Moss’: a mighty mound of grassed-over coal slag (now removed) that lay between my maternal grandparents’ back garden and the rear of Beynon’s Colliery, Blaina. I suspect that the ‘hiss’ was produced at the washery, where the coal was prepared before being shipped in trucks by rail down to Newport Docks.

My mother (right) and friends, ‘The Moss’, Blaina, Monmouthshire, 1947

1.45 pm: ‘Down the pit, then!’ Which was the fate of most young men in the valleys who didn’t obtain sufficient educational qualifications at school to go on to college or university, and secure a way of escape thereby. I never had the opportunity of going down a working mine. But this afternoon, by an act of aural imagination, I was in one nevertheless. There were miners shovelling and gleaning, small-coal falling from the roof underground — getting more persistence, louder, and worrisome — and the noise of surface machines, winches, and pulleys reverberating down the shaft and filling the tunnels.

‘Thrusters and Trapper’ in a coal mine, about 1853 (from J. C. Cobden, White Slaves of England (1854).

The mechanical sounds are not those of a mid-eighteenth century coalmine. Rather they’re the recollection of the soundscape of huge electrical motors, dram traffic, and conveyor belts that I heard as a young boy in the mid 1960s, as I walked around Beynon’s Colliery searching for my grandfather (the pit’s Overman) and uncles (an electrician and a fireman). In this respect, the composition combines historical evocation with autobiography.

‘Beynons Pit. Blaina.’, picture postcard (1960s).

4.30 pm: ‘Going for a stroll’, as my Dad would say, on the mild late-afternoon. One of the great joys of Autumn. A consolation.

7.30 pm: I picked-up the composition once more. The ‘narrative’ required clarifying and reordering. I continued, until all my anticipated moves had been exhausted. Generous words from Dr Roberts (below), gratefully received. I don’t have what I’d consider my best work, not even favourites. Even if I did, my opinion would change from week to week. I’m fickle. Nevertheless, there are compositions, pictures, and texts that nourish me more than others — things to which I return, again and again. It doesn’t mean that they’re qualitatively better than the others. In them, I confront aspects of myself most intensely. They’re like a mirror. That’s all.

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