On Windover Hill – The Premier

It was Saturday 7th March, and we were in Chichester, Sussex, for the much-anticipated premier of Nathan James’ On Windover Hill cantata.

It took place in the church at Boxgrove Priory, in the village of the same name a few miles outside Chichester. Just over a month ago I posted here about a walk we joined at Windover Hill, viewing and discussing the Long Man of Wilmington – the subject of the cantata, which gives some of the background to this work.

Nathan describes this piece as ‘a result of 3 years of writing and research into the ancient figure and how it has inspired writers, poets, artists, and musicians’.

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Nathan introducing the cantata

It was performed by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, Harlequin Chamber Choir, and Corra Sound, conducted by Amy Bebbington.

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The cantata is in nine movements, with each movement scored around a piece from various times ranging from c 1340 BC to 1996. These diverse sources include English folk song, poetry, extracts from plays, literature, and even a piece from 14th century BC Egypt, used here because there is a carving on a chair found in the tomb of Tutankhamun which strongly resembles the Long Man.

The music has a very English feel to it, reminding me strongly at times of Vaughan Williams or Holst, another element that contributes to the sense of it being grounded in Sussex.

Much more about the music, and the story of the project, can be found on the On Windover Hill website, here.

Between several of the movements, there were readings chosen to help illustrate aspects of the mythology of the Long Man – poems, excerpts from books and an extract from an article arguing that the Long Man may have been, in fact, a Long Woman. All pieces by writers challenged by the meaning and significance of the figure. At the back of the church, too, there were a range of artworks inspired by the Long Man. And several times during the performance, a couple of dancers took the floor, their actions visually interpreting the subject of that particular movement.

This, what I might term holistic approach to staging the work, contributed strongly to the listeners total immersion in the work without, I think, distracting from it.

As well as the cantata, the program also consisted of several other pieces, all with a Sussex connection. It began with a beautiful piece by Thomas Weelkes (c 1576-1623) Hosanna to the Son of David. Weelkes, the program notes informed us, was frequently in trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities and was ‘noted and famed for a common drunkard and notorious swearer and blasphemer’. Strangely, I immediately felt an affinity to the fellow.

There were pieces, too, by Frank Bridge, John Ireland, an extract from Goblin Market by Ruth Gipps, and a piece largely unknown today: Wyndore (Windover) by Avril Coleridge-Taylor which was its first performance in this country for 82 years.

The acoustics in the church were wonderful, an especially appropriate setting for a choir. It was a hugely pleasurable and satisfying evening.

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The Long Man, photographed on the pre-concert walk

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During the afternoon before the concert we wandered around Chichester for a while and I bought a few old postcards of Sussex from the indoor market including, by chance, this one of the Priory church, where the concert was held, about a hundred years ago.

It seemed to fit comfortably into the feeling of history, myth and tradition I felt that day.

Strolling in Sussex (1)

Yesterday, I went for a bit of a walk. The oppressive humidity of the previous day had lessened, fortunately, and it was an overcast morning with a cool breeze.

Just the way I like it.

I decided to take the train a few stops down the line, where I could get out at one of those stations that bears the name of a village a mile or so away but stands on its own in the middle of the countryside. The nearest building (other than the station itself) is a farm. Hopefully I could have a day’s gentle walking with nothing more demanding around me than birds, insects, trees and wildflowers.

I really, really, needed to do that.

It seemed a good start at the station. A good omen. While waiting for my train to draw in, my eye was drawn to a single large, white, bindweed flower in the tangle of brambles and vines and bushes, trees and garden plants escaped and gone native that serves as a barrier behind the platform.

Most gardeners hate bindweed. I suppose we do, really. Once it gets into the garden it grows at a ridiculously rapid rate and strangles any other plants in its way. And even pulling it up doesn’t get rid of it. It just regenerates. I tell you, come the end of days it will just be scorpions, cockroaches and bindweed left.

But this flower looked lovely. The largest, pure white, bindweed flowers often remind me of the calla lily, only a calla lily that is not so…let’s say…excited. One of my favourite artists is Georgia O’Keeffe. I’ve probably told you that before. But O’Keeffe was particularly known for painting large flower paintings, many of them more than a little ‘suggestive’. And the calla lily was one of her favourites. I’d show you one of hers but, you know, copyright and all that. I’ll leave you to look it up if you wish to.

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So, here’s the bindweed flower.

Anyway, I got on my train and later I got off at the correct station and began walking along the footpath and got shouted at by some sheep.

Really, there’s no other way to describe it. On one side of the footpath were a couple of dozen sheep in a field where the grass had been cropped very short and there seemed to be very little left for them to eat. As soon as they saw me, they came rushing over to the fence bleating loudly. Obviously demanding to be re-housed in the field on the other side of the footpath.

In that field, thick lush grass was being munched by a couple of dozen quite contented sheep. I didn’t hear a (Bo) peep out of them.

‘Really sorry,’ I told them. ‘I can’t help you.’ I walked on feeling oddly guilty.

But I got over it.

 

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For the rest of the morning I walked slowly through fields and along lanes, stopping frequently to look at flowers and insects and, really, just enjoying being where I was.

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Bridge over the railway

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I was just beginning to think it must be lunchtime when my path took me through a field of long grass.

This field lay between a stream I had just crossed, and a wood where I was heading. The wood stood a little higher than the surrounding fields, and the long grass of the field I was to cross was thick and green. The breeze caught the top of the grass, so it waved like the sea or a large lake and as I began to wade through it, it really did feel as though I waded through water.

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And there was the drag of the grass against my legs, and the top of the grass sparkled a little in the breeze, just as wavelets would. And there was also the sense that I was not quite sure what I might suddenly step upon. Just to complete the illusion, there were also some lovely blue damselflies darting around.

Then I finally stepped ashore at the edge of the wood, walked up a slight sandy slope that might have been a beach, and sat down to eat my sandwich.

Now, I have to tell you that this was the best sandwich in the world, and I won’t brook any disagreement. Thick wholemeal bread, cheese, several large slices of raw onion, and several thick slices of tomato. Perhaps it was my mood, and the setting, but it was damned good.

And then it was time to explore the wood.

Bob on Holiday

Just in case you were wondering where he was, Bob has been on holiday. He’s back now, though.

And actually, he’s rather cross.

Now, lot’s of people return from holiday having had a wonderful time and feeling a bit tetchy that they have to come back to the daily grind, but it’s not like that.

No, Bob thinks we’ve all been lied to.

He went away to a holiday enclave in a West African country – or so he says. Bob’s sense of geography being what it is, I wouldn’t be too certain of the destination without checking his passport stamps first. And I wouldn’t do that. So I’ll take his word for it for now.

‘Now, I’m no fool,’ he said, looking at me.

‘No, of course not, Bob,’ I replied. ‘Absolutely not. Anything but. In fact, anyone who says…’ My words died away as I heard Bob’s wife, Gina, laughing somewhere behind me. ‘Go on,’ I ended, lamely.

‘Well, we read all the time that this is one of the poorest countries in the world,’ he continued, ‘yet I’ve never been to a nicer place! The hotel was really luxurious! Food was brilliant. All the staff were wonderful – they were smartly dressed and they couldn’t do enough for you! There were masses of security men all around the perimeter, mind you, but I don’t know what they were there for. And the beach was fantastic!’

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‘Was it just you on the beach?’

‘No, there were dozens of us.’

‘Any local people?’

‘No, they don’t go there, apparently. They don’t like sitting around on the beach like we do.

‘Did you go outside the hotel grounds at all, Bob?’

‘Yeah, we went to a village to see local artists at work. I loved the village. It’s such a minimalist lifestyle. They don’t waste time or money on all those pointless things that we think are so essential in the west.’

‘Like what?’

‘All that rubbish we don’t need!’ he said, heatedly. ‘They live a simple, healthy, lifestyle, and what matters to them are the things that are really important.’

‘Like what?’ I repeated.

‘Well, simple food, for example. It’s much healthier, you know. You don’t come across any of the locals there who are overweight.’

‘What is this diet, then? Do you know?’

‘Well, mostly they make a sort of porridge out of some local grain, apparently.’

‘Is that it?’

‘Oh, no. Of course not! They usually have it with, er beans. And onions.’

‘It doesn’t sound very exciting.’

‘Food doesn’t need to be exciting! It’s there to keep you alive!

It was a side of Bob I’d never seen before, and, to be honest, it was a bit scary. I never realised he could be so evangelical. At least, not about things like that. I’m used to him banging on about how wonderful a new beer is that he has discovered, or about his favourite pizza topping (which I’m not going to talk about here, but…pineapple on pizza…how could you?), but now he had all the fervour of a fresh convert to some extreme religion.

‘And then there are the houses they live in,’ he continued.

‘The houses?’

‘Yes. Gloriously simple and uncomplicated!’

‘As in small and built of odd pieces of driftwood and plastic sheeting?’

‘Exactly!’ He smiled warmly. ‘I love the way they make use of what’s locally available to build with. It keeps the costs down, and reduces the environmental impact of transporting thinks like bricks from far away. Simple.’

‘But would you want to live in one of those?’

‘I wouldn’t mind. I mean, what else do you need? Just some sort of bed in there and, oh, a table, I suppose. And a couple of chairs.’

‘But you just told me how luxurious the hotel was, and how much you enjoyed it.’

‘Well, I wasn’t going to turn it down, was I? But apparently it’s because us Westerners are all just so soft and pampered. The native people don’t live like that at all.’

‘So you say. Does this mean you’re going to change how you live, then, Bob?’

‘Well, I don’t think it’s particularly practical in the West.

‘I suppose not. Tell me about the artists you went to visit, then.’

‘Ah, yes. Mainly carvers. Lovely wood; mainly animals and masks. I bought a couple. Look, that’s one of them.’ He pointed to a beautifully carved and polished elephant in black wood, standing on the mantelpiece. ‘It cost the equivalent of about two pounds in our money.’

‘That seems very cheap.’

‘I know, but it’s a lot to them. And it’s putting money into the local economy.’

‘Who did you give the money to? The chap who carved it?’

‘No, there was a bloke who showed us round. Nice guy in a suit. Looked very smart. We paid him.’

‘I don’t suppose the carver was in a suit.’

‘Of course not! You wouldn’t wear one of those while you were working, would you?’

‘Describe him, then.’

‘Well, he was wearing a pair of shorts.’

‘What else?’

‘Nothing else. That was it. they could have done with a wash, though, I must admit.’ He put his head to one side and stared into the distance. ‘And a bit of sewing.’ He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ‘Really, he could have done with a new pair of shorts. They were pretty ghastly.’

‘Maybe the nice man in the suit will buy him a pair.’ Bob smiled happily.

‘I’m sure he will!’