Friday, 11 July 2014

Betjeman

I am currently walking up Highgate West Hill. The sky is a curious shade of electric blue, the air is heavy with the scent of rain and flowers, and the sound of my footsteps is being accompanied by the magical, if not somewhat unnerving cry of a screech owl.

I've just had one of those experiences which serves to remind us how interesting life is and how much good will there is in the world

The experience took place at St Anne's church, opposite the Heath at the edge of Dartmouth Park, and before anyone starts wondering if I'm about to relate some ghastly story about converting to Christianity, I was actually in the company of the poet John Hegley, who was running a workshop with local people to harvest some verse for me to set to music as part of my next project.

I have been commissioned by the adorable Fleet Singers (who commissioned and performed my oratorio, Songs About The Weather) to write a new work based on the poetry of Sir John Betjeman. Betjeman lived on Highgate West Hill (I have just walked past the blue plaque commemorating this particular fact) and was actually christened in the church where we were working.

The piece of music I'll be writing is a setting of Betjeman poems alongside poetry inspired by his words and the locations in North London which, in turn, inspired him.

"Red cliffs arise. And up them service lifts
Soar with the groceries to silver heights.
Lissenden Mansions. And my memory sifts
Lilies from lily-like electric lights
And Irish stew smells from the smell of prams
And roar of seas from roar of London trams."

I am struggling to understand how a man of the astonishing calibre of John Hegley could have been found and brought in to lead the workshop, but brought in he was, and "absolutely fabulous" are the only words I van think of to sum up the experience.

I was astonished by some of the work which was produced in those few hours. Hegley, in a deeply modest, yet charismatic way, managed to inspire us all, and offer a host of fail-safe frameworks within which we could allow our emotions and imaginations to flow.

It struck me, as poem after poem emerged which drew reference to the Heath, how important that little piece of land is, not just to me, but to all who live around it. To North Londoners it really is hallowed ground; an astonishingly unique location which brings unbridled and unrivalled joy to all who go there.

Some of the writing was deeply moving, incredibly honest, profoundly observant, whilst other pieces were incredibly witty. I could imagine setting a good four or five of the poems I read to music. Erudition collided with the refreshingly down-to-earth. Some there confessed to being incredibly nervous. Just reading a single thought out loud was a huge challenge to some, but I would be surprised to learn if anyone there hadn't walked away feeling just that bit more inspired. I was proud to be involved.

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