PC 25 A Voice

We humans have been trying to express what goes on inside our head ever since we stood upright and shrugged off the hairy mammoth’s coat. Sometimes we do well, using our vocal cords in speech or in song, using our imagination in painting pictures, writing a musical interpretation of our thoughts, or simply trying to express the thoughts in a written form. I hadn’t intended my electronic PCs to be more than scribbles or jumbles of thoughts ……. but getting ‘stuff’ down on paper is, for me, immensely satisfying.

Do you sense your brain, your mind, as I do? Is it simply something between your ears or is it something much bigger, stretching as far as our senses will allow? Have you tried to listen to the silence ……. beyond the furthest sounds? Sometimes when I’m listening to the idle ‘monkey’ chatter that is so difficult to still, it seems so loud that others must surely be able to hear it. And then there are those tunes or that song that go around and around …. inside ….. and you want to find the ‘off’ switch, but can’t . Even when you pop to the loo in the middle of the night, it’s there ……..!!

Of course, we only have to see something, a view of a river for example or a item like an IPad ….. and then the mind makes its own interpretation of what we see, depending on our own experiences of life. It was the Greek philosopher Epictetus who wrote: “Man is disturbed not by things but by the view he takes of them.” And that thinking can “make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.” as the poet John Milton wrote. So our thoughts influence our feelings which ultimately dictate our behaviour; scary if we get the wrong interpretation!!

I titled this PC ‘A Voice’, but it could easily have been “Expressing oneself”. Edward Munch painted a series of pictures in 1893 which became known as The Scream. He described sensing “a scream passing through nature.” and interpreted what he had sensed in a picture. This was his voice, although it’s interesting to read contradictory interpretations of The Scream by art critics, all seeking self-justification for their view! Did Munch want others to understand it, or was he simply trying to describe visually what was going on inside his head?

So if we get confused by our interpretation of visual art, often an expression or interpretation of what one can see, our interpretation of music, the voice of a composer, what we can hear, is much more difficult. I get all hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck when I listen to that slow, second movement of Max Bruch’s violin concerto, feel my spirits lift when I hear Jean Sibelius’s interpretation of what’s going on in his mind by his Finlandia or his 4th Symphony. You and I, we both listen to the same piece of music …… and probably have a different interpretation of what we hear. Funny huh!

But our voice is so basic that memories of what we hear start from our entry into this world. One type of speech is expressed as a Command! “Sit!”, “Stop!” Often the louder the better! Those of you who haven’t experienced the collective spirit engendered by simple ‘drill’ have seriously missed out. No! I joke not!! Well, anything ‘collective’ has a whole different effect on one, singing in a choir or being part of a team for instance. When I was at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst it was a busy place, with around 1000 cadets at various stages of their officer training. The culmination of the year was a large parade, for which we rehearsed ….. and rehearsed …. and rehearsed. As with everything in life, if you want perfection you have to practise, practise, and  …… practise. But being part of that parade lives on I think with all of us who took part. The ‘parade’ is drawn up in front of the Old College buildings, three lines of 330 cadets, all of us wearing our best uniform and sporting on our feet ‘drill’ boots on which we have sweated hours and hours to produce a shine to dazzle. Relaxed, feet 30 inches apart, we wait. At the appropriate moment, the Academy Sergeant Major brings the parade to ‘attention’. “Parade!” the booming command takes a single word, takes each syllable, extends the one word into a stretched sound that echoes around the ground and could probably have been heard three miles away. We brace, our muscles ready for the next order. Atten “SHUN”! (this is how it sounds, it is ‘attention’ in English!) A thousand boots lift the regulation height, move to the centre of the body, and crash into the gravel. The sound is glorious, perfection …. reverberating around the parade ground ….. like some explosion ……. we stand, rigid, like one body, proud of what we are.

Here in the developed world, we rely on the written word, but the Kogi, a tribe in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Colombia, have no experience of writing. Their history has been retained in the memory banks of their minds – which are so well developed that those of us who need to write everything down before we forget would be ashamed …. at our laziness? Well, maybe!

Combing words and music has produced a hugely rich collection of operas and Gregorian chants, simple jazz and pop, and the sacred. We all have favourite pieces but the one that often comes to mind as an example of exquisiteness is the prayer for those at sea, “Eternal Father Strong to Save.” Written in 1860 by William Whiting, it’s become a standard in military worship. At Sandhurst almost 50 years ago, those 1000 cadets who had been marching and parading, would fill the Academy Chapel. Towards the end of the service we got onto our knees, taking care of course not to scrape the toecaps of our highly-polished boots (!), prayed and sang that song, slowly, quietly ……. for me especially poignant as my brother was at sea in the Royal Navy.

Just some thoughts, as one might say!

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

PC 24 A Short Story on Relationships

In his new novel “The Children Act”, Ian McEwan acknowledges various judges and their cases that are interwoven into his story, essentially of a teenager and a judge. He also writes that the characters, their views and personalities of his book bear no relation to any party in those cases. In part prompted by ‘The Children Act’, I’ve written a short story on a particular relationship:

“He stared at the document, a part of some personnel records from his youth. “He comes from a broken home, which may have something to do with his reserved personality. In due course he may develop ….. adequately ….”. The term ‘broken home’ was quite common, used to describe the background of children whose parents had divorced. It had social connotations too, back then, as though someone had marked your card, carrying some sort of stigma. It seemed so stark, so bleak, someone’s comment from decades before. He thought of its implications and wondered whether he had indeed fulfilled the writer’s expectation of his development.

Only last week a report, funded by the Department of Health and published by the Office for National Statistics, investigated “emotional and conduct disorders” in children caused by a breakdown of their parent’s marriage. On average the children were more than three times more likely to develop such disorders. Sixty years on, plus ça change plus c’est la même chose!

The thoughts whirled around inside his head, trying making sense of other people’s decisions that ultimately had affected him. Being sent off to schools where he boarded; had he felt ‘abandoned’, being left to the mercies of some educational establishment to mould him into something useful, to give him a rounded education? He remembered looking out of a closed school window on a dark Bonfire Night and seeing the fireworks over the city – untouchable and in another world. Abandoned yes, but such was the lot of so many young children here in Britain, where a culture existed, and for some still exists, that it was normal to send your children away ‘to be educated’. Confusingly, our ‘Public’ schools are actually private, and the free-for-all schools ‘State’! So parents actually pay to abandon their children? Sorry, that’s a tad cynical! He was sure they do it with the best intentions, but possible blind to the undercurrent of trauma and abuse. Only now one occasionally sees articles about “Boarding School Syndrome”, where survivors have dared to challenge the perceived wisdom of sending children away. “Stiff upper lip, what! Caruthers! Be a man and don’t talk about it.” So bottle it up and screw the lid on tight?

In amongst all the boarding school memories are the occasional flashbacks … of bedwetting, unexplained, parents called in and of hushed conversations, of sexual abuse, of being ridiculed and bullied, leading to a sense of abandonment …. the flashbacks like some lightning across a darkened sky …. illuminating events from the past for milliseconds …. not understood ….. and not forgotten. Traumatic! So this latest report brought it all back.

With little or no contact with his father, he accepted his step-father filling that role. As he grew older, he began to hear a rather one-sided version of why his parents had divorced, difficult to talk about, perhaps best left unsaid? Felt his father made little effort to stay in touch, such a gruff individual with whom it was difficult to communicate and who felt no need to explain his own actions. Did he, he wondered, even worry about it, just something that had happened? He had moved on, remarried, divorced again, and re-married. And that missed communication left an unfulfilled hole, certainly one that was not filled with love.

And then his father died, and was no longer able to respond. So he asked the widow:

“…… I have only my mother’s story of their marriage and why it broke up; Daddy never wanted to/felt it unnecessary to explain his side and I have always believed there was one. I had often thought of broaching the subject with him, felt I had a right to his explanation, as with the one-sided view of my mother I would maybe judge him unfairly; it never seemed the right time.  ………. 

 ……. Odd times, odd visits – but despite his remoteness, I always saw him as my father, needed to do that, was saddened when some time ago he suggested I call him by his Christian name. I like to think I did the right thing, but have often felt it was one-way. 

 Now he’s gone……… so this is a letter I realised I had to write.” 

And she wrote back, suggesting that the father had been ‘hurt’ by his mother’s action to divorce him. Surely an action which he had brought upon himself? And the sting in the tail ……. in her will she wrote that, “having mainly ignored his father for so many years, he should not benefit from any part of the estate.”

But he felt exactly the same,  ……ignored, …… abandoned. And now the widow has died, the door naturally closed, locked.”

We all know, I think, how difficult the ending of a relationship can be, especially when children are involved. Often the good intentions of fairness and communication get mired in recriminations and half-truths. Broken homes continue to cause angst among our children …… and I wish it were otherwise.

Slightly more than mere scribbles huh?!

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com