This winter, as we meet for our weekly Flamenco class, it’s not drifting snow that contrasts so dramatically with the brilliance of Spanish dance, and the Seville oranges I bought last week for marmalade – but rain. Bleak, monotone mornings, dark puddles in the fields, and sandbags against the door of the Parish Rooms, as water swirls down the gutter. Here we are, a year later, still attempting to master the foot rhythms that Jose makes ever more complex. ‘Practise, practise,’ he says, in his fierce way, ‘it’s only then you get better.’ He reminds me of the imperious Martha Graham, with her extraordinary headpiece, in her film A Dancers World. As young dance students, we hung on her every word.
But somehow the Passodoble we’re learning, complete with shawl, fan and hat, is reminiscent of a simplified version of Frederick Ashton’s Façade (here's his tango) more English cabaret, than Flamenco. Such gaiety! It’s guaranteed to make us smile, even as we get tangled in our shawls, or drop our fans. And because I have no Sombrero, I dance with a Panama – as long as there’s something to whip on and off my head, and twirl round my body.
At home, glancing through the window as I teach class, I spot a Tree Creeper, tiny, white-breasted bird, rodent-like, circling the trunk of the apple tree, as it climbs. Before I can stop myself, I’ve told my class, so everyone crowds to the window to watch for a moment.
Later, working on my novel about dance in Holland during the war, I’m preoccupied with a sense of responsibility – how to write sensitively about the horrors of Nazi Occupation – and whether I have the right to tackle such a subject? And above all how can I convey the power of dance and music, as antidote to despair?
Today the snow has come at last, and I look out at the blizzard over the orchard and wonder if I’ll manage to get to London tomorrow – or indeed to class later on today.
Winter rushes on – so many images, sounds, sensations, even in the space of an hour. And dance - like a thread of brightness – that holds me, and everything, together.
Receiving one of those letters from an agent, or publisher, full of positive comments about my novel, at the same time as saying it’s ‘too quiet’ for today’s market, always leaves me thinking.
Agents, publishers, and writers alike – we know that the market is very ruthless these days, and there aren’t many publishers prepared to take the risk, so unknown writers of literary fiction barely stand a chance. That is unless we can produce a ‘high concept’ novel, or a page turner. Well ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is just not my cup of tea, and I couldn’t write a convincing ‘bodice ripper’ or ‘psychological thriller’ if a publisher dangled a six figure sum in front of me. I don’t even want to. I’ll leave that to people who make a readable job of it. The thing is, if the voice is quiet, it has to be very clear to be heard, never mind listened to. I realise I’m not yet that good. Not as good as I want to be. Criticism is always helpful, even if in the end I reject it. There’s food for thought. It’s almost more difficult to receive rejection when there is no negative criticism, when I’m left with nothing to edit or develop or change. Just a ‘quietly controlled, slow burn’ novel, that won’t sell.
Last week four of us who’ve recently completed the MA Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, met in a bar and ended up talking about why we write. We’re all pretty dedicated – it’s a way of life, fitted around earning a living and bringing up children. For some of us it began in childhood – my friend, Suzanne, wrote her first novel aged 9, and her old school teacher returned it to her after many years. She’d forgotten it even existed. We’ve all had stuff published, but no full length novels – yet. The days we don’t write are similar to days when we eat junk food – we just don’t feel nourished. In one way or another writing feels essential to our well-being, which is not to say we write as therapy.
When I was younger the need to find an agent, and then a publisher, was a kind of obsession. I felt stuck, miserable with frustration when it didn’t all run smoothly – when I worked with two agents and still didn’t quite make it beyond the marketing department of two reputable publishers. I remember my friend Claire saying I’d feel all right about it in the end. I didn’t know then what she meant, but now, years later, I find that I do – absolutely, despite the ups and downs. I’m in it for the duration – as far as I can see. I’m never satisfied with my work, always the next novel will be better, and I’m endlessly curious and fascinated by the imagination – the way characters and situations sometimes write themselves. I want to communicate through story, perhaps to enchant as much as I have been enchanted as a reader, or illuminated, entertained…all of that, and more. There are so many possibilities open to writers now, and I feel open to anything, as long as I can keep on working, keep on writing better and better.
I am cetain too, that, like water, creativity will find a way.
On Tuesday night, after teaching my last class, I went out into the rain, clutching my umbrella and dance shoes, to the Chandelier Room of The Red Lion, for my first Bachata class. A few weeks ago I’d never heard of Bachata – the dance form from the Dominican Republic. Then Jose, my Flamenco teacher, announced he was teaching a new class, and I was determined to go, even though I couldn’t find a willing man to come with me – supposedly one of the requirements of attending.
Jose began by teaching us the basic steps that seemed very simple, and easy with the music, after the intricate precision of Flamenco. Then it was time to dance with a partner. All the women danced with each man in rotation, a hand-hold with the man’s thumb to the woman’s palm, knees flexed and dovetailed – such intimacy.
I loved every moment of it, so much that I must have been smiling like the Cheshire Cat by the end. It was funny, and joyful – dancing with so many partners, all those well-meaning knees, clumsy feet, eyes looking fixedly at the floor – the men who grip and push, and those who give no energy at all. Then dancing with Jose was another world entirely – like dancing with my partner Tim, there was that glorious moment of connection, of flow, that always takes me by surprise.
When I first moved to Wirksworth, over thirty years ago, there was an ironmongers run by a woman who seemed to me to be very old. She was also rather large and slow-moving. But I once got talking to her when I went in to buy a saucepan. 'Oh I love dancing,' she said, her face lighting up. 'I go dancing in Alfreton on a Monday, Belper on a Tuesday, Derby on a Wednesday'…and so on through the week, a different venue every night, including the weekend.
I aspire to be like her, dancing every day, into old age. So far, as well as my Pilates classes, I have ballet, Flamenco, dance improvisation, and now Bachata. To dance is to speak another language – a wordless language that feels, to me, essential as breathing.
I’ve just finished reading one of Persephone Books’ beautiful publications – On the other side: letters to my children from Germany 1940-46, by Mathilde Wolff-Monckeberg.
For the six long years of the war, during which Hamburg was all but flattened by incessant bombing raids, Mathilde was cut off from any contact with her children and grand-children. One son died in Spain, her other children were living in Wales and USA. Unable to send letters, she still wrote, and in this way sustained an emotional link with her family, as well as leaving an incredible record of those terrible times, for future generations. These days of constant mobile phone and email contact, it’s impossible to imagine how painful this must have been, never mind the added terror of bombings, both day and night, no electricity, water, or fuel, and a scarcity of food.
I was born at the end of the Fifties. Rationing was over, but there were still patches of wasteland where nature had taken over the bomb-sites, and there was still a sense of frugality that’s alien to the young innocents of today. My father wouldn’t speak about fighting in France, and the Netherlands, and liberating Belgium, until he was old – when, for a time, he was unstoppable. Consequently I read, and pondered much, in my twenties, about those truly ghastly years. I was trying to make sense of it all – something I know now to be impossible.
On the Other Side is a compelling read, bleak and horrific, at the same time as uplifting. Mathilde’s letters are testament to the fact that it’s possible to survive such appalling suffering, even as an old woman, and retain hope and humour, and a love for the beauty in life.
Mathilde was far from being a Nazi. In her own words – English people were mistaken in their opinion that all Germans were Nazis, that we were all collectively responsible for our present dilemma and had to do penance for the Nazi government. I tried to explain our own personal opinion. We hated the regime from the very beginning, abhorred it more day by day. But it was totally impossible to form an opposition, spied on as were from all sides...it would have cost us our lives, or we should have ended up in concentration camps...I would have been prepared to commit murder to get rid of that scoundrel.
Her daughter, Ruth, who lived in Wales, wrote
Apart from the obvious calamity of total war and the hardships caused by eventual defeat, a number of Germans had also had to face the dilemma of an almost schizophrenic split between love for their homeland and disgust with its rulers.
I question what we would do faced with a similar situation today, or then. Faced with a fascist regime, or similar, would we leave the country? Where could we go, if we even had the financial means? I’m so attached to this country, to my patch of Derbyshire, I can’t imagine tearing up my roots. Would we stay and fight? I’m not sure I have the courage or the energy, though perhaps we never know until faced with the situation. Words are empty. Judgement is always easy.
On a happier note, when I was a child, a delightful thing happened every January. Just as Christmas was over, and the long winter still ahead, a huge parcel would arrive from Hanne-Laura in Munchen Gladbach. It was full of things we never saw in England, cinnamon biscuits, wooden ornaments decorated with painted flowers, embroidered clothes, a beautiful Christmas angel with a wax face and a golden gown. Hanne-Laura was my mother’s pen-friend from immediately after the war, which seems extraordinary given the anti-German feeling of the time. I half remember my mother speaking about an organisation who fostered positive feeling between our two nations, and how one of her teachers at Nottingham High School had offered the opportunity to the girls to befriend a poor German girl of their own age. The two girls never met – my mother, though German-speaking, never visited Germany – but so began a friendship, through letters, that survived many years, despite (maybe because of?) the post-war hostility, the shadow of those terrible times.
The sun was out this morning – such a relief after the relentless gloom, wind and rain of yesterday. I walked along Cromford Canal from High Peak Junction to Whatstandwell and back, and discovered, up in the woods, an old quarry – huge gritstone walls overhung with ash saplings, ivy and silver birch – silent except for the sound of water, which fell in heavy silver drops over the green-grey, rust-brown stone. The ground was spongy with leaf mould, and fronds of emerald fern and holly saplings brightened the hollows and angles in the rock.
Today there was no need to ponder the Meaning of Life! I observed, not for the first time, how these Big Questions seem to niggle in an unsettling way at times of ennui, restlessness due to lack of vitality, or just being a little out of sorts. Being very out sorts leaves no strength for such musings, and contentedness has no requirement for anything more.
So yesterday, unable to walk far, tired of working, suffering the after-effect of too much champagne, I decided to google The Meaning of Life, only to be reminded that it’s a waste of time and never enlightening. There were the familiar religious banalities, prescriptive Buddhist notions of ‘repaying people for the wrongs of past lives,’ (as if that will help anyone with the here and now), and many other fanciful and unattractive notions. There were clever people posing philosophical or nihilistic arguments that leave me cold. It’s all a game. We can create any meaning we like, I decided, through thought, or by attempting to slip into the
infinite space beneath thought – to suit our own disposition, our own emotional need. Words entangle us. Small comfort for an unsettled mind.
I like the days when it’s enough just to be alive, to relish the sensation of moving, dancing, being in flow, in the moment - when these questions don’t even arise. In bleaker times I should remind myself to eat, rest, and walk – and not to pose unanswerable questions.
I return to the solace of art and love, to Keats’ notion of ‘soul-making,’ to a sense that soul resonates in a realm beyond human, and is therefore unknowable by the thinking, word-full mind.
Last night we saw New Year in at the Stardisc. It was mild and damp, people (and dogs), celebrating with cider and whisky, and a splendid view of fireworks, bursting like brilliant flowers in all directions down in the
I woke to a morning glassy bright with rain, siling down on already sodden hills. Later as I walked with Katy – wearing her greyhound raincoat, and looking most dejected – the watery light had become leaden, trees dripping black, streams swirling twigs and dead leaf. As I crossed the road for home, the sky almost cleared to white, before the wind brought flurries of rain again. It’s a day to stay indoors.
I remember my parents’ New Year parties – innocent occasions for the times. My mother spent the day baking – she made pizzas before anyone I knew in the North West had heard of them – always with
anchovies arranged in a circle round the edge, never olives. It was years before I tasted an olive. Crowds of people from the Theatre Club arrived, and there were games where a cork on a string was threaded though everyone’s clothing and on to the next person. We children were beside ourselves with glee when the
string got tangled in Norman Lofthouse’s extensive underwear. Just before midnight one of the men – who had to be dark haired and tall – was sent out with a piece of coal, and as the clock struck twelve he’d be let back in, then we all held hands for auld lang syne, and everyone kissed.
Such ritual seemed to me imbued with significance, as if the old year really was dying away, and must be mourned - if privately and briefly - before a new year full of brightness and hope arrived.
Later the adults sat in a circle on chairs and on the floor, and sang music hall songs long into the early hours. There's never been such singing and drinking since at my parents’ house.
It was possible then to be innocent and romantic and idealistic, as well as tangled in the drama of being young – life had a different kind of music. We knew very little and thought we knew almost everything.
Sometimes at night now I’m shocked into wakefulness, and thoughts I wouldn’t entertain in daylight hours, dance around in my head. I’m aware of the temporariness of life, and a fear of losing loved ones.
Being together, with family, with friends, surrounded by the commonplace seems, and is, so precious - the only thing I can really know. There is a sense of the numinous, of God, that’s both terrifying and at the same time comforting for being ‘other,’ and unknowable.
My cousin, in his wonderful blog post The first and most direct thing in our experience, writes.
'There's a strain in protestant thinking that asserts there is nothing humanly knowable about God and it is presumptuous to assume anything at all about His nature, methods and motives - 'Something unknown is doing we don't know what' indeed. It is a hard doctrine though -
'For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress...'
I began this blog in the spring of last year, thinking I’d write about dance, and movement and choreography. Inevitably it’s moved on. I know I’m still finding my way with it, wondering where it will take me, trying to find a balance. It’s a challenge so different from that posed by writing fiction. A new thing - and something I think I'll go on enjoying.
On this first day of 2014 I look forward to much writing in the weeks to come – completing and publishing my e-book Meetings with Ivor– perhaps finding an agent for Lord Nelson’s Eye, and The Green Table, and hoping to start new fiction inspired by the wild Staffordshire Moorlands and a century of food.
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.