When that I was and a little tiny boy………….

ct-jester_14253_lgGRAVY EVERYWHERE

Finish your plate they said, because Chinese children don’t have enough to eat. Where was the logic to that? Anyway, we had to finish whatever bad-smelling rubbish they put on our plates.

And once, one end of a trestle table we were sitting at collapsed and all the plates slid off on to the floor. Wonderful, but scary. Several of us were called to the headmaster’s office to explain what had happened. Somebody had loosened the screws at one end of the table. Not me.

Oh nice. Gravy everywhere. Boys could have slid around in it, made slides, as they did in the playground during winter time. Long slides, until the bloody teachers put salt on them. .

But I didn’t do it, sir. And I didn’t do it.

Those shit meals, they deserved to be tossed on the floor.


Take some plasticine to make a model. You can roll it in your hands and make long worms of it. And eat some on the sly because it tastes nice, though somewhat gritty. .


The playground was where boys played football against a wall. They didn’t invite me and I wasn’t interested. I looked instead at the branches of trees. Something sticky there and budding. The teacher brought the branches into the classroom and we watched them explode with green leaves.


Your face, like a mask or helmet – perfectly symmetrical – but I didn’t know I loved you, as the word had not yet been born in my mind, let alone in my mouth. Only the feeling was there. But you were definitely a hero, of sorts, me trotting after you like a dog. Until you invited me to go swimming one Saturday morning and I said yes. But didn’t go, out of shame, because I couldn’t actually swim. You were angry and after that we never spoke again.


Frightening old bald man with my father’s name. He loved Gilbert and Sullivan. He asked me to sing some and I sang what I knew and loved – a short cadenza from the Yeoman of the Guard. But he wanted a tune, complete with “comic words”. He showed his disappointment. Another time I stole a swig of some home-made dandelion wine from his cupboard. Daring. And it tasted nice. It’s possible I still like cadenzas more than tunes. And I don’t bother about words, comic, or otherwise.


Once, sitting on a low wall I saw something bright in the sky. What was that? There were no words even to think it, let alone describe it. But I knew it wasn’t meant to be there.


The teacher promised us a gift of crayons and I was delighted. But in the end we received only wax ones – which babies used. I took them home. My sister saw me walking up the stairs in a rage and asked what was wrong. I explained and she said she wanted the crayons. I threw them down to her and they broke in pieces at her feet. She cried. We were very poor. Couldn’t even afford coloured pencils. That’s where the rage came from I guess. There was a lot of crying in that freezing cold, dark, empty, broken-down home.


Once, crossing the road diagonally to our house on Boswell Road, I passed a young man who was so radiant I turned round to stare at him and just stood there. I was too young to know I shouldn’t do that. He was dressed in blue. I would like to know now what that exact image was, because, sometimes, when I see the colour blue, the feeling of that radiance returns – radiance, with no words, like music.


Right before Christmas, we got to make paper chains. The coloured strips had glue on the back which you licked. They came in packets, each packet one colour. You made a circle of one strip, then looped the next one through it, making another circle of that one. And so on, in an interlocking chain. Nowadays I would be busy calculating which order to put the colours in, but in those days, I hadn’t developed an interest in numbers. On the other hand, I still appreciate Christmas for its colours, its lights and the stillness of winter.

A tune, a dream, a cat

Woman With a Cat c.1875 Renoir

Woman With a Cat c.1875 Renoir

Over the summer I worked on a piece for Chinese instruments. It was a frustrating time, just reading about them and listening to recordings, yet not knowing the nuts and bolts in terms of tuning, range and fingering etc. I couldn’t compose with certainty. The sounds of Chinese instruments are absolutely beautiful, however the issue is how to write for them appropriately.

I remember way back in my Royal College of Music days one of my teachers (it was Mr. X, if you must know) saying that he didn’t care how players made the sounds he wrote for them. It was an attitude I found at the time impressive, but nowadays find completely baffling. Why on earth would one NOT care? Mr. X was speaking at a peculiar moment in music history and he was not alone in his attitude. Therefore one cannot condemn him, just condemn the zeitgeist. And condemnation is easier than understanding where someone is coming from and I prefer trying to work that out.

Anyway, finally I threw up my hands in despair and said to my composer friend Luiz Yudo (from whom the idea had come to write such a piece) that I would simply transcribe what I had done for Western instruments. I was angry and didn’t quite manage to spare him from seeing that, even snapping at him when he put pressure on me not to give up.

After I had this conversation with Luiz, I went to bed and dreamed about the issue of the Chinese ensemble in an oblique, yet none the less clear manner. In the dream I had moved to a new house. It was very tall and there were many rooms and a few people already living there. My space was at the top of this house. One of my former partners was in the dream too and I asked him to wait for me in my new rooms. I was apprehensive however that he would run off, as he was nervous and indeed when I returned he was gone – but only gone in human form, as he had undergone a surreal transformation from former partner to feline quadruped and was now a nervous black cat hiding under a piece of furniture in the dark. When I called to him, he came out from his hiding place, cautious but trusting. I woke up with a familiar melody in my mind and understood that this had to be in my new piece. The cat in the dream WAS the melody actually. I woke at five in the morning, but I was really wide awake. I went straight to the desk and back to studying the fingering charts for the Chinese instruments, knowing what I had to do.

Still in the end, a few days later I gave up, defeated by the practical difficulties involved in the novel instrumentation.

When Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta performed my Magritte Weather at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 2000, I was interviewed on stage by the Stravinsky biographer Stephen Walsh. He asked me a question about the influence of dreams on my work (Magritte Weather had been conceived in a dream and he had spotted the fact in my programme note). It was an awkward moment because I didn’t know how to put into words the considerable influence dreams have on me. Ten years later I give here a good answer to his question.

It was reading Jung back in the late 1960s that first alerted me to the significance of dreams and their influence on human activities. And I think I was introduced to this literature by my piano teacher, the formidable Alan Rowlands.

Now, a note about that tune and the black cat of my dream. Like a cat, I am often anxious and cautious, for no good reason. Hence, perhaps, my empathy with these furry friends. My family tells me that when I was at the nursery I once carried a cat that lived there all the way home and as I was only 4 when I went to school, I can’t have been more than that when the event took place. I only very faintly remember it, but looking back, I mainly wonder at the way children were handled in those days – I think the nurses had given me the cat – such a small boy on his own, no doubt struggling with a nervous cat on a busy street, it wouldn’t occur nowadays I imagine.

With regard to the tune that the cat embodied – the British organist and composer Michael Bonaventure had been staying with me shortly before all this took place. I took the opportunity to play him this tune which had been in my mind for several years. It’s a chorale, and more English than German. Michael is playing in church every Sunday, so I asked him if it was really my tune or just something remembered. He found some phrases a bit familiar, but that was all, so I got the go-ahead to use it.

Open and closed

117af-magritte-rene-la-victoire-9952604In 1987/88, when I was (briefly) doing a composer-in-residence job in the north of England, I started going out with a guy I met there. He wasn’t a student but was that sort of age. He’d left school and was already working. I was cheating on my partner, who lived in another city far away, so I was feeling uneasy about that. One day the young guy told me his favourite singer was Tracy Chapman. I smiled at him sweetly thinking to myself: “Why am I with this moron who likes pop music?” I assumed directly that Tracy Chapman was some pop bimbo of the moment. But actually I didn’t know anything about her………….so my reaction was pure prejudice, pure snobbery. And, as I indicate, it was deceitful, because my thoughts were not “sweet”. In fact it was deceit within deceitfulness, given the circumstances. Crystalline deceit, lies reflecting from every wall…..

Today, nearly 23 years on, I watched a video of Tracy Chapman’s song “Fast Car”. I’d been attracted to this song which was coming over the radio at work and elsewhere. I didn’t know what it was and I decided to track it down. Imagine my surprise when I found out…..

I loved it. It’s gorgeous. She’s gorgeous.

It’s a long time to be mistaken about something, but realizing the error is not an unpleasant experience. On the contrary, it’s interesting. Suddenly discovering such a “mistake”, if that’s the correct word, half a lifetime later shines a light on my then ignorance. And it shines a light on my then prejudice and snobbery. Also it shines a light on now. I think I am “open” today but perhaps I am simply “closed” in new ways. Am I open, am I closed? Am I good, am I bad? The questions are not futile, just tricky.

“Know thyself” seems to be a saying featured in nearly every religious text. I am guessing though that to achieve such an understanding requires opening up your heart and seeing everything that is there..

All greased up

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon

Hamish and I almost ran out of stories to tell each other (we are friends since 1984) and he finds it ridiculous how I start to tell him something that he’s heard three or four times already. For my part, I find some of his interests – military uniforms, orders of chivalry, royal palaces, etc. – fairly tedious. He does go on about these things. Conversely, as I fill in the fine detail of my artistic, religious and psychological preoccupations (they can be quite dark) I occasionally catch him drifting off to sleep. If I speak sharply to him, he quickly clicks back into consciousness.

To add to the boredom of our friendship (we’re starting to sit in silence like an old married couple), Hamish just cooks pasta. I don’t wish to misrepresent his culinary skills – we did have stir-fry once or twice – but you can only eat so much pasta before starting to long for something more traditional. Amongst all the ludicrous snobberies that we have to endure, the one about English food is high up on my list of irritations. Why are meat and two veg. so risible? And would my cultivated friends die if they were obliged to eat a plate of sausage, chips and baked beans with a bit of HP sauce on the side? And a slice of white bread? And a cup of milky tea? This is the stuff you eat in “greasy spoons”. Good fun. If I’m with my friend Michael Bonaventure, he’ll light up a cigarette when he’s finished. We can sit there for hours on end like that. But Michael is a total diamond. He agrees with me that you need a well done sausage in your mouth now and again.

Anyway, back to Hamish’s visit. We got in some nice walks, albeit coughing all the way (we both had ‘flu). We went first to Erasmuspark and then, finally, when we felt a bit stronger, to Rembrandtpark as well. I enjoy Rembrandtpark, even though it’s ugly. It has stupid modern bridges, and only a single nice wooden one. (H. photographed me standing there). We enjoyed some of the tall modern apartment blocks adjacent to the park. Nice feeling. Probably Rembrandtpark is quite cruisy at night…..I imagine. Why wouldn’t it be? Well, I’ll not be going there to find out, so, whatever. But this is a topic – the behaviour of gay men – that crops up frequently in our discussions. That whole Hampstead Heath thing, and my view that in some ancient societies (ancient Greece for example) orgiastic behaviour was integrated into religious practice. But we like our purity and innocence, don’t we. Oh we do, we do. Now I remind myself of my most hated hymn at school……

All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful: The Lord God made them all. Each little flower that opens, Each little bird that sings, He made their glowing colors, He made their tiny wings. The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, He made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate. The purple headed mountains, The river running by, The sunset and the morning That brightens up the sky. The cold wind in the winter, The pleasant summer sun, The ripe fruits in the garden, He made them every one. The tall trees in the greenwood, The meadows where we play, The rushes by the water, To gather every day. He gave us eyes to see them, And lips that we might tell How great is God Almighty, Who has made all things well.

Even as a child, being stuck in an assembly hall full of kids singing. All things bright and beautiful was murder. And as I always say, children have all of the feelings and none of the words. So I didn’t know how to say who are you fucking kidding?

And there, in the greenwood, someone wearing nothing but a leather jacket and a pair of army boots is bent over by a tree getting fucked by a row of men. Each little flower that opens………… tra la la.

Meditation I

melancholyWhen I was a child I used to visit a place not far from my home I called “the black woods”. “Let’s go to the black woods”, I would say. It was a sloping copse of fir trees on the edge of mainly deciduous woodland. I loved it. It was silent (no birds) and the ground was a uniform light brown, and soft – a bit crunchy to walk on because of the millions of dead pine needles.

The other day, during meditation, I placed myself there. I touched and smelled the little dribbles of resin on the bark of trees. I looked at the trunks soaring upwards many feet to the canopy of branches high above. It was mysterious and, somehow, I wanted to remain there, but also to leave. In reality, it was always like that – wishing both to remain, and to leave.

In my meditation I stood there for a few minutes and then stepped out of the wood again on to a grassy slope bordering it, where I used to sit as a child. (The grass was so short it was more like moss – the rabbits kept it like that I suppose). Still in the meditation, I remembered that once it happened that a child was walking by and said something about “that man” to her family (I was then a student). It was the first time I had heard myself called a man and I didn’t like it at all. I had never thought of myself as anything other than a boy and evidently I did not want to be a man.

My thoughts moved on to what happened more recently. I got a lot of replies to a dating advertisement I placed from “men who like older men”. And what I did not like about that was the character I had been given…….that I was no longer a person, but just an eroticized character. I don’t want to be a character, but I am one. I reflected that I do the same myself to others. We all do it……We are all busy with these depersonalizations. “I like black men, I like tall men, I like blonds, I like Asians…I like…..etc etc….”

And I thought “when it comes to the music I write, it is also depersonalized….it is judged for what it is, not what it sees itself as…..it may call itself one thing and yet be judged another”.

These were the thoughts and feelings that occurred during this meditation. I know that I shall go in spirit to that woodland area again. It is certainly a happier place to be than this one, though the point is, can I escape from here to there? Because here is somewhere I do not like. I do not like it at all. It is horrible.