I took two weeks off teaching over Easter – two weeks when the cherry tree showered the garden with blossom, the Blackthorn bust into flower, and I saw the first swallows flittering over the gardens of Gorsey Bank. It was good to let go of all responsibility, to walk around town in the damp twilight, or cross the stream into the fields to catch the last of the evening sun – to have thinking space. During the day I worked on my novel, ‘The Green Table,’ focusing on the three main characters, trying to get inside them, to see the world through their eyes. It wasn’t exactly moving me nearer to completion, but felt absolutely necessary. I’d reached a kind of impasse, close to the climax of the novel, yet unclear of anyone’s direction or fate. I remember Hilary Mantel talking about listening as part of writing – listening to the imagination, waiting for the voices – the interior drama. Over the next few months, whenever I can, I’ll walking and listening, listening and writing, until the shadows become fixed and clear.
The other day I had the fleeting and chilling notion that I was like a God deciding the fates of people who, as far as I know, may exist in a parallel reality. In that situation it would be heartless to make decisions based on what makes the most gripping story, but conversely, for a writer, kindness might cause failure of authenticity. It’s a fine balance. The imagination is illusive – where do the ideas that flit through the mind come from?
The first novel I wrote for adults, ‘Dreaming in Colour,’ was pretty damned awful. I couldn’t bring myself to read it now, but writing it was a tremendous experience at the time. I’ve rarely been so engrossed in anything – and so nearly unbalanced. How much easier it is to be a choreographer – at least you can see the work as it takes shape in the rehearsal room beyond the thinking mind. I recall the powerful sense that I myself was changed through creating one particular character, a dancer called Silas Hall. I’d recently seen Japanese dancer, Saburo Teshigarawa, and Silas emerged from the memory of Teshigarawa’s wonderful piece ‘Beyond Zero’. Silas lived in my imagination for a long time. One particular day, weighted down with stress, I had the sudden feeling that he stood beside me. It was like greeting a beloved friend, like sunlight breaking through cloud, an unsettling and wonderful experience. I don’t consider writing to be therapy. Often it’s the hardest work. But at times the relationship between the writer and her characters feels tangible and equal. Who is controlling who? Perhaps, when a character comes to life, it’s as close as the writer can get to standing apart from the familiar self? But it’s more than this too.
‘We left the church accompanied by a recording of Neil Diamond singing Forever in Blue Jeans, through the churchyard and across the lane into the cemetery. Ivor was lowered into the ground by Aidan, Denis, and the others, and we threw yellow roses onto the coffin. Last of all Jacky let his cap fall into the grave.’
From Meetings with Ivor (available as free pdf download through the Writing section of this website. Paperback book - £4 including postage)
At last the short portrait I wrote about Ivor, the old man I encountered on the road to Biddulph Moor, has gone to print, and should be available to buy online next week through the writing section of this website. (A pdf version is already available).
Working on Ivor was a welcome distraction from the much more difficult task of writing The Green Table. Often I could hear his voice, and I vividly remembered our encounters. The letters I sent to the editors of the Leek and Congleton newspapers, resulted in many phone calls from people who knew Ivor. I had a sense of how rich a life can be, and how much, and how little, we can ever know about a person. ‘People die, and you wish you’d asked them things before they’ve gone,’ said one of his friends. This is exactly how I feel. I often drive past his house. It’s empty, the paddock is long in grass, there’s brushwood across the entrance. I miss him a lot.
I’m reading Hitler’s Dancers, by Lilian Karina and Marion Kant, a history of German Modern Dance and the Third Reich. I discovered it when I was researching for my novel – looking for work that would give me a deeper understanding of dance in Germany and The Netherlands during the 1940s. It’s a compelling and chilling read. I thought I knew my dance history, but this book sheds a new light particularly on the work of Rudolf Laban and Mary Wigman, and raises questions about their collusion with the Nazi regime.
Lilian Karina, born in Russia, was one of the many dancers who had to flee Germany. She made it to Sweden, where though she was badly treated, she managed to survive, and where she lives still. She writes, in brief, of many of her colleagues, who, being Jewish, homosexual, or Communist, were brutally treated, lost their work, their home, often their life. In many cases all documentation is either lost or, even now, suppressed. They were the dancers who disappeared. Those who continued to work, who developed their careers through the regime, cannot possibly have been ignorant of what was going on around them. In all other professions they would have been called to account after the war. Is it that dance isn’t deemed important enough for such scrutiny? Or that the devotees of Hitler’s Dancers conveniently forgot what happened between 1933 and 1945. These are questions Lilian Karina can’t answer.
But without making any excuses, it has made me think how easy it might have been to collude, and how difficult – the cost of one’s career – not to. Times were different then, and it’s easy now to make judgements. Nazi Germany didn’t arise from nothing – there was already a culture of anti-Semitism, and racial ‘hygiene,’ there were many who argued on the side of eugenics, body fascism has always been an uncomfortable aspect of dance training, and in certain factions of modern dance there was already a predisposition towards the occult, dance as spiritual practise – much favoured by the Nazis. Dancers and choreographers – like all artists – are vulnerable to public opinion, and highly ambitious. A choreographer needs dancers, musicians, a theatre, funding, and above all public and political approval in order to continue to create ballets. In Nazi Germany, culture was totally bound up with politics. If you were out of favour, if you disagreed with the regime, it was not only the end of your career, but possibly your freedom and your life. Kowtow to Hitler and Goebbels and your career was made, albeit at the cost of your soul.
Hitler’s Dancers was much criticised when it came out. Many people were angry and disturbed. I don’t know what the truth is, but it’s provided another perspective to this fascinating time. In the end Laban fell out of favour with Goebbels. There are letters to prove how he begged to stay on to complete his work in Germany. He failed to regain approval and had to flee to England. Mary Wigman stayed in German and made her career. We can never know what went on in these dancers minds – is it possible to ‘play the game’ so successfully, or did they wholeheartedly believe in Hitler’s vision? Is it possible to believe in part? Whatever the truth, it’s provided a fascinating and insightful read and much food for thought. I recommend it to anyone interested in modern dance.
Fifteen years ago, when I moved to Thorntree Cottages, there was a line of saplings planted along the wall of the orchard - cherry, pear, plum, and apple. Every year the plum tree produced a sweet golden-green fruit on one branch, and the rest of the tree was barren. By the time we bought the orchard, five years ago, the tree was about twelve feet high, and no longer producing plum, but instead a small yellow fruit a little bigger than a damson. We thought it had somehow transformed into a Greengage – perhaps the original sapling was grafted onto Greengage root – but further research revealed it most likely to be a French Mirabelle – though our French neighbour swears that it’s not.
Whatever it is, the tree is now huge and lovely. The trunk forks from the base. One side, supported by wooden props, forms an arch over the gate. In March and April it’s thick with white, sweet-scented blossom, and humming with bees and butterflies. In July and August it’s so abundant in mirabelles that we collect buckets of them every day, giving them to neighbours for cooking and preserving – they make delicious sour-sweet jam and compote. Lying in bed at night, you can hear the quiet plop of fruit falling onto the roof of the shed and the lawn. They lie, plump, warm and marble smooth, in the long grass, and the air is filled with the yeasty smell of fermentation.
Here are George Peck’s wonderful photographs, taken a few days ago.
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.