‘Finding Our Sea Legs’ by Will Buckingham

Over Christmas I finally got round to re-reading Will Buckingham’s Finding Our Sea Legs, a rather unusual book of ethical philosophy which I first read in 2016, and which has been knocking about in the back of my head ever since. I’ve enjoyed Will’s writing for several years now, first through his (now archived) blog thinkBuddha.org, which is well worth a browse. His work moves deftly between philosophy, fiction, travel, and children’s writing, and I am particularly enamoured with a book of his which deserves a much wider audience in my opinion, a collection of short stories entitled Sixty-Four Chance Pieces. Taking the ancient Chinese divinatory text, the I Ching as a basis, he transforms and elaborates each of its sixty-four hexagrams into a short story, by turns surprising and hilarious, and often very moving. For more recent work, visit Will’s personal website. What follows is more of a summary of Sea Legs than a review, as I’m partly attempting to work out for myself what the book means.

In Finding Our Sea Legs, Buckingham starts from the premise that the goal of most Western philosophy has been to use reason to find a place of solid ground – a set of definite propositions about the world – which might supply a basis for our lives, and in particular our ethical lives. He suggests that this project has demonstrably failed – that we are hopelessly lost navigators in the ocean of ethical quandaries, forever dreaming of dry land (and sometimes believing we’re on the way there), but never quite finding it. He takes this powerful metaphor, originally made by Aristotle, and combines it with another from the 10th century Indian text, the Kathāsaritsāgara, that of the ‘Sea of Stories’. Fans of Salman Rushdie may recall the ‘Ocean of the Sea of Stories’ from Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a beautiful (and partly allegorical) book written in the wake of the fatwa against Rushdie.

These metaphors remain as undercurrents throughout the book, in which Buckingham nests his own stories within stories, as well as drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin, Franz Rosenzweig, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard and Emmanuel Levinas, always gently ribbing the often rather dour canon of ethical philosophy. Suggesting that we renounce the possibility of finding dry land, at least for the duration of reading, he casts off into the world of storytelling, investigating the rich seam of writing about everyday experience in Benjamin and Rosenzweig. From the premise that experience is inherently liquid and unstable, Buckingham weaves the notion of ethics itself as a kind of experience, felt in the body rather than reasoned through by the mind. For Buckingham, even speech and writing are best construed as physical acts, with a particularity and individuality to their expression. He goes on to explore the work of the twentieth century phenomenologists, and in particular that of Levinas, whose internment in a Nazi prison camp during the Second World War may have heightened his sensitivity to the underlying strangeness that belies an encounter with an ‘other’. Levinas concludes that we are infinitely responsible for others, a slightly alarming thought, but that this responsibility ultimately creates a kind of freedom, at least from self-concern. However, Buckingham points out that despite the philosopher’s avowed anti-storytelling stance when it comes to writing phenomenology, his notion of the ‘other’  seems (ironically) bound up with a sort of ‘tragic hero’ narrative, in which the demand to help others becomes a constantly receding horizon. But the kernel of Levinas’ ethical thought remains immensely useful: namely, the call to investigate the ‘what is it like?’ of ethics.

The rest of the book attempts to sketch out some further avenues for exploring this ‘what is it like’. Via a discussion of the sort of stories that create a physical ‘shudder’, and remain with us long after the telling (borrowing Kierkegaard’s example of Abraham and Isaac), Buckingham suggests that this same shudder can often be found in our response to the world, particularly when we are faced with the sort of choices that seem to intersect with ethics. The next few chapters consider how we can deal with this shudder, first by a consideration of the multiple frames that often surround stories, and how these might create a particular sense of space or time, with the understanding that these can often be multiple and overlapping. He then returns to Levinas’ notion of otherness with this new toolkit, concluding that stories are indispensible for thinking through our relationship with others – be they human beings, or mysterious talking fish with profound messages from other worlds. In the last chapter he quotes Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’, on the city of Euphemia, where stories are told and exchanged, so that whatever stories you enter with, ‘your wolf will have become another wolf, your sister a different sister, your battle other battles’. For Buckingham this illustrates the patchwork and multiple nature of stories and ourselves – that we change the world and each other through the telling of stories. It is tempting to try fix these stories, with either a positive or negative transcendence of the ethical mire we find ourselves in, but this is a false hope. Nevertheless, he concludes that the tools we have at our disposable are adequate for the task at hand – ‘moving within and between stories, moving between and within uncertainties, with all the kindness, patience and care that we can muster’.

Radio Roundup 2018

The following were all recorded either at the SOAS Radio studio or at home using timecode/vinyl. I did a lot of shows this year, so I’ve just included things I was particularly proud of from a programming point of view! My hardcore/rave obsession has continued apace this year, although I still found the time to listen to and play a few new things.

 

VG+

A supposedly Valentine’s Day themed mix, taking you from sadboy grime to sickly sweet rave anthems to sadboy grime again (originally broadcast in this show).

 

Hardcore Continuum

One of the more ‘upfront’ mixes I did this year – dedicated to the blossoms and scholar-sages of Holland Park.

 

Wednesday Sessions Turntablism Special

On this show DJ Isuru and I delved into the history of turntablism, which I discovered can be stretched back to Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome in the 1920s if you just believe. While researching this I also came across Shiva Feshareki for the first time, who featured in the excellent Pioneers of Sound Prom.

 

1987

The last three months of the year saw the start of my project with Isuru, a history of dance music year by year, starting from the slightly arbitrary date of 1987.

 

Tracksimile #1

This is the start of a personal project, a show for reworks, transcriptions and remixes, and the first episode features jazz versions of popular songs. More episodes planned for the New Year – watch this space!

 

1991

Most of my friends are probably well aware that I have a special fondness for early 90s dance music, so I was always going to enjoy that part of the rave history project. In case you’re wondering, the image is from an installation at the Leeds Tetley gallery.

 

Spooky Dubstep

My first dance music obsession was of course dubstep, so I was only too pleased to step up and supply a last-minute mix after my co-hosts were forced to drop out of a Halloween episode.

 

1992-93

For my last show of the year on SOAS, I decided to splice 1992 and 1993 together, and came up with this live mix which I’m rather pleased with. Put this one on at your NYE party if you’re feeling brave.

Peake on Perspectives

In Titus Alone (1959), the third of Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’ novels, the eponymous Titus Groan abandons the castle of Gormenghast and sets out into a wider world, as yet unglimpsed. The vast, crumbling castle is almost a character in its own right in the first two books, subject of Peake’s dazzling and often multi-sensory powers of description. Within the castle, the political manoeuvring of Steerpike sparks a revolution in its ancient rituals and turns the established order of the Earls of Groan on its head. So it is perhaps a little puzzling that Peake chose to abandon such a fully realised  setting for the third book in the series. Reviewers and readers alike have found Titus Alone to be a little patchy in tone, if not erratically  written. The fact that the book’s genesis coincided with Peake’s descent into early-onset dementia is often cited as a factor in its idiosyncrasies, from the sudden inclusion of seemingly ‘modern’ technology to the slightly random meanderings of the plot. And although I agree with the critics on many points, the book nevertheless holds a distinct attraction, in part because of its very difference from its predecessors. The gaping absence of the castle at the centre of the book creates a vacuum into which Peake hurls new material, offering a lightning sketch of a disturbing future.

Although Steerpike’s ambitions have been checked by the end of the second book, his Machiavellian schemes unable to help him once a biblical flood leaves just a few towers above the water, Titus still decides to reject his aristocratic birthright, leaving the castle for a world about which neither he nor the reader know anything at all. He is adrift on a river within the first ten pages, and he abandons his rescuer, the independent minded Muzzlehatch, a few hours later, as he will go on to leave his older lover Juno and spurn the icily cunning Cheetah, daughter of a scientist, later in the novel. The appearance of Muzzlehatch’s hot rod is the first indication that technology has moved beyond the medieval in this universe, and it is soon followed by an unmanned plane which approaches Titus as he crosses a vast pavement of grey marble:

‘This exquisite beast of the air; this wingless swallow; this aerial leopard; this fish of the water-sky; this threader of moon-beams; this dandy of the dawn; this metal play-boy; this wanderer in black spaces; this flash in the night; this drinker of its own speed; this godlike child of a diseased brain – what did it do?’  – Titus Groan, (Penguin 1970 edition, p. 34).

The above passage is highlighted in G. Peter Winnington’s The Voice of the Heart: the working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination, as an illustration of Peake’s ambivalence about the vertical perspective. In the second book of the series, Gormenghast, the scheming steerpike engineers a periscope-like system of surveillance mirrors hidden in the walls and fireplaces of the castle, through which he gathers information on the castle’s notaries. The world of Gormenghast, whilst strictly hierarchical, nevertheless relies on a communitarian binding of Earl and subjects in rituals, rights and responsibilities, which could perhaps be seen as a more ‘horizontal’ perspective for all participants. Winnington suggests that, for Peake, the vertical perspective is that of a ‘godlike’ creature, free to observe and act in detachment, but that this perspective ultimately corrupts its subject.

While the first two books in the series are concerned only with the power that can be gained and lost in the solipsistic ecosystem of Gormenghast , Titus Alone opens up a much larger world in which governmental and scientific powers are seemingly carrying out systematic surveillance. Yet  unlike Orwell’s vision of a totalitarian state in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which must surely have influenced the dystopian world of Titus Alone, Peake is ultimately unconcerned with politics. Titus’s various pursuers are thinly-sketched and their designs never revealed or realised, from the early appearance of the unmanned plane, to a ‘glittering globe with its coloured entrails of exquisite wire’, and the mysterious men in a ‘kind of armour’ who cross the countryside with a ‘strange and gliding action’. However, while the goals of the men who direct and control this surveillance state remain unknown, Peake does offer some more information from the mouth of Muzzlehatch, when Titus has despatched the ‘intellectual globe’ with a piece of flint from Gormenghast:

‘These globes have origins. Somewhere or other there’s a backroom boy, his soul working in the primordial dark of a diseased yet sixty horse-power brain.’ Titus Groan, p. 106.

In this brief mention of a ‘backroom boy’, accompanied by the ‘diseased brain’ of the earlier passage, Peake gives us what may be the first depiction of a drone pilot in modern literature. Although drones are now associated most strongly with the war on terror, in reconnaissance and offensive roles, the concept is in fact remarkably old. The first unmanned aerial bombardment came in the form of balloon-bombs launched by the Austrians on Venice in 1849 (they were rather ineffective and some floated back over the Austrian lines), and pilotless radio-controlled planes were being produced to varying degrees of success from the First World War onwards.  The word drone itself is said to have originated with a radio-controlled pilotless aircraft produced in Britain in the 1930s called the ‘Queen Bee’.

An insectoid thread runs through to popular names for the V-1 flying bomb, nicknamed Maikäfer or ‘maybug’ by Adolf Hitler, and ‘doodlebug’ or ‘buzz bomb’ by the British. Officially a cruise missile rather than a drone, as it is not designed for re-use, it was produced by Nazi Germany and launched against the South-East of England in huge quantities in 1944. Peake’s 1947 poem, ‘The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb’ (published 1962) tells of a sailor who discovers an orphaned baby in the debris of wartime London. In his delirium he carries the child to an already bombed-out church, where it flies above him and speaks, before both become aware of a ticking sound, ‘The stuttering of a far machine/Intent upon its course’. As the rocket approaches the church, the baby tells the sailor that he has ‘Not long, not long’ to die, since ‘the engine claws/God’s face and tears His hands’. Peake’s reference later on to the ‘silence of the cross’ is ambiguous: it refers to either a crucifix or the V-1 rocket itself, shaped like a cross. This blending of the mechanical and theological is perhaps another intimation on Peake’s part that technology has ended God’s monopoly on the vertical perspective. The poetic register is a natural vehicle for Peake to assign some degree of malevolent characterisation to what is in fact simply a rocket launched from a platforms, but to return to Titus Alone, he does also hint at the possibility of an unmanned aircraft acting independently:

 ‘What did it do but act like any other petty snooper, prying upon man and child, sucking information as a bat sucks blood; amoral; mindless; sent out on empty missions, acting as its maker would act, its narrow-headed maker […] a fatuous reflection of a fatuous concept.’ – Titus Groan, p. 34.

The plane may be ‘acting as its maker would act’, but the crucial point is that it can be considered to be acting at all – a remote possibility in the 1950s and 60s, and now perhaps an eerily close one (if the A.I. cheerleaders are to be believed!). Indeed, as Muzzlehatch goes on to say of the spy globe that Titus has destroyed, ‘If I remember rightly, I have already read about it and how it is reputed to be almost human. Not quite but almost.’ His final word on the matter is somewhat equivocal:

‘You have broken something quite hideously efficient. You have blasphemed against the spirit of the age.’ – Titus Groan, p. 106.

Sources:

Peake, Mervyn – Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959).

Gilmore, Maeve (Ed.) – Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake  (Allen Lane, 1978).

Winnington, G. Peter – The Voice of the Heart: the working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination (Liverpool University Press, 2006).

 

 

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War in the Sunshine

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art to see the exhibition ‘War in the Sunshine: The British in Italy 1917-1918’. It was my first visit to the museum, a little-known collection of Italian, mostly Futurist, art in a quiet spot in Islington. The current exhibition has been widely advertised, and coincides with the re-opening of the museum following a substantial refurbishment.

‘War in the Sunshine’ comprises paintings and drawings by the British artist Sydney Carline (1888-1929), as well as photographs by Ernest Brooks (1878-1941) and William Joseph Brunell (1878-1960). I was initially spurred to visit by the Estorick’s own blurb, repeated by various reviewers, that the exhibition ‘highlights a forgotten aspect of Britain’s involvement in the conflict [WWI]’. And it’s true – our collective knowledge about the First World War is almost exclusively focused on France and Belgium.

But the exhibition does more than this. On viewing the aerial paintings of Sydney Carline (first sketched as he flew a Sopwith Camel with his knees, and later on commissioned by the RAF), one’s preconceptions of the First World War are profoundly challenged. Rather than hellish depictions of trench warfare, we see dogfights above beautiful Alpine vistas rendered in oils, and subtle depictions of British officers riding through town. Carline was a well-respected artist in post-war Britain, but the exhibition suggests that perhaps he regretted his wartime activity on later reflection. He sadly died of pneumonia at the age of just 41, cutting short a promising artistic career.

Moving on to the second room of the exhibition we see the photos of Brooks and Brunell, soldier and civilian respectively, taking surprisingly different approaches to documenting the campaign. Brooks focuses on portraits of the British soldiers doing soldierly things, whereas Brunell has an eye for interaction between soldier and native, with some particularly effective portraits of Italian women. All in all the photographs help to reveal the importance of this oft-forgotten front, whose tying up of Austro-Hungarian troops may have helped to swing the war’s balance in favour of the Entente powers in 1918.

A final touch added to the exhibition was a series of new works by the artist Keith Roberts, of which I was most impressed by Distant Voices, or Caporetto, pictured at the bottom of the page. The title refers to the battle of Caporetto, in which ten thousand Italian soldiers were killed over the course of a month in late 1917. The cracked and broken bells (they seem to be a favourite subject of the artist) are compared to the sound of ‘an individual voice that has now fallen silent’, and they create a poignant tribute to the wasted Italian youth of a battle whose name is to this day an Italian metaphor for a complete disastebeeellsr.

Although I don’t know whether the artist is aware of this link, the bells are also highly reminiscent of a similar war memorial in the cathedral of the city of Lübeck in north Germany. During a British air raid in March 1942 the cathedral and its contents were completely destroyed by fire, including an organ played by Dietrich Buxtehude and possibly J.S. Bach. During the church’s restoration it was decided to keep two of the broken bells which crashed to the floor of the south tower during the air raid as a memorial. I was particularly moved by this sight on a visit to the cathedral a few years ago, and it instantly came to mind when I saw Keith Roberts’ work. It seemed a suitable counterpoint to an exhibition which to some extent humanises war and reconnects it to the everyday – a reminder of war’s ultimate price. The exhibition is open until March 19th, and it’s well worth a visit if you have the chance.

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On Wanderings – Night Buses, Ecstatic Flight & Psychogeography

I’ve just finished reading Iain Sinclair’s excellent London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line, and thought I would use it to tie together some recent thoughts about wandering. Sinclair has lived in London as an author for fifty years, and is perhaps best known for his line in ‘psychogeographical’ journals of the city, which also include London Orbital (a similar walk around the M25) and Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. Psychogeography is a term coined by Guy Debord in 1955, and while it has had various interpretations, I think it might best be understood as an errant and playful approach to urban geography, in which the city becomes a multitude of ideas and memories to be explored. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Charles Baudelaire’s notion of the flâneurbut perhaps with less of a sense of detachment.

In the book, Sinclair follows the route of the (then) newly-minted London Overground route on foot in just one day, with his friend the film-maker Andrew Kötting in tow, noting the layers of memory and history, both personal and public, attached to various locales. Although a pedestrian for the purposes of the book, Sinclair’s real interest lies in the way that train lines warp the world around them. He looks at this in the prosaic sense of the rise and fall of London suburbs – Hackney on the up, Chelsea Harbour somewhat stagnant and forgotten – and in terms of the subjective experience of the individual traveller. This latter purpose is exemplified by his tribute to a London painter of railways, Leon Kossoff, whose paintings of Willesden Junction give a new perspective on a landscape not usually regarded as beautiful.

The book has a unity of purpose and tone, but its digressions retain a constant power to surprise. For instance, Sinclair uses the streets of Clapham to weave an extended (and quite moving) passage on the sadly shortened life of the author Angela Carter, and her gifts of friendship and professional advice to the younger writer. Again, in the hallucinatory night-time streets of Hampstead (getting on for thirty miles of walking behind them), the apparition of Sigmund Freud’s final residence leads to thoughts on other London exiles, such as Karl Marx, who lived in London from 1850 to 1860, and the French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine, who briefly lodged in Camden in joint love, enmity, and poverty. By the time I had finished reading I had a quite visceral sense that I had travelled with Sinclair, in mind if not in body, and on a journey different from anything I might have expected before opening the book.

Being a musician and member of the iPod generation, I suspect that my own psychogeography of London would be rather more musical than Iain Sinclair’s. Laying aside my early years of illicitly hiding my iPod in my bag so I could listen to Dark Side of the Moon on the way to and from school, mixes have been a particularly important musical inflection of my London travels in recent years. Electronic mixes and albums seem particularly suited for travelling through the urban environment on trains and buses, especially when the music comes from London. A good example of this is Burial’s music. His nostalgia for 90s rave culture is well documented, with tracks saturated in vinyl crackle and redeploying air-horn and vocal signifiers from earlier London musical scenes. But Burial’s music also seems to express something about London as a place, as he suggested in a rare interview from 2006, speaking about the sense of travel he tries to evoke in his music:

‘If I’m making a tune sitting in my room with a cup of tea, I’m not making a tune about sitting in my room with a cup of tea, it’s like I’m out there somewhere. That’s how I started listening to jungle, going through the lightless neighbourhoods, the districts.’

The track Night Bus from his self-titled first album is an encapsulation of this feeling for me, using the sound of rain and vocal samples, perhaps echoes of the club or rave, to express this idea of passing through London’s sprawling suburbs.

Another good album for travelling about the city, especially on a wintry night, is Cold Mission by Logos. Its a perfect combination of lush ambient soundscapes, grime references, and ‘anti-banger’ tracks like Seawolf and Menace, which have an incredible sense of power and movement using just a sparse palette of sounds. A favourite track from the album is the more ambient Night Flight, also known as E3 Night Flight. In the track the sound of metallic waves collides with a repetitive bell riff, almost like a lullaby, then a chanting vocal and ominous bass drone chime in, gradually building then dropping out until just a pair of string notes and a siren are left in the mix. As a citizen of South London, I’m pretty reliant on night buses to get home once the last train has gone, and for me the track is another perfect evocation of and soundtrack (after Burial) to that washed out night bus feeling.

Of course, it would be a little blinkered to insist that Burial and Logos’ music is about London in any meaningful sense – it could mean something completely different to a listener from elsewhere, or even just someone else from London. But since this is my psychogeography, I’m going to go one step further, making the leap from Logos’ Night Flight to another kind of night journey which it evokes for me – the ecstatic flights of the Shangqing Taoists, who were active during the Han period (206 BCE to 220 CE) in Ancient China.

Magical night-time excursions seem to be a global feature of religion and mythology – just think of the witch on her broomstick for the archetypal European version – and the Shangqing corpus of texts includes elaborate instructions for a practitioner on how to visit the stars without leaving their room. In the Taoist worldview, there is an understanding that various levels of reality are related, with a particular correspondence between the structure of the human body and that of the universe as a whole. The Shangqing texts tend to prescribe visualization as their main meditation technique, combined with breathing exercises, fasting, etc.

There are many texts, involving ecstatic visits to various parts of the earth and its boundaries, but those which appeal to me most, and which I feel are evoked by the dream-like nocturnal sounds of Night Flight, concern excursions to the sun, moon and stars, related in Chinese thought to  the ‘Three Breaths’ which created the cosmos. The practitioner first retires to their meditation chamber, completely isolated from human activity, then invocates the names of celestial divinities. Following this they fly to the heavens (sometimes using the constellation of the ‘Dipper’ as a vehicle), and pace the constellations, absorbing the energies of various stars.

But really, what relation does any of this have to a walk around the London Overground? I reckon that psychogeography and Taoist ecstatic flight have quite a few interesting affinities. The notion of freely wandering pervades both, maintaining an openness to whatever might occur – especially if it will bring joy. There is also an aspect of forgetting required for success in both, since the everyday world must be left behind, either to visit the stars or to look askance at the city as it exists. The Taoist practitioner uses visualization practices to render the world as it is new, much as the psychogeographer creates a new world by dredging up the ghost memories of the city and putting them to work.

While riding the N3 bus doesn’t compare very favourably to travelling in a vehicle made of stars, it is nevertheless an opportunity – to look at the city afresh, and in doing so hopefully learn something about both the city and oneself.

 This world is unreal in that it is imaginary, but it is real in that the individual lives in it and through it creates a new self: it is unreal-real, like the world of the Buddhists, which has a metaphoric character one must never forget – a net used to catch one’s prey, a creative, playful globe.

Isabelle Robinet, in Livia Kohn: Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques (1989).

 

Further reading:

https://www.thinkbuddha.org/article/397/a-short-note-on-errancy

Robinet, Isabelle, ‘Visualization and Ecstatic Flight in Shanqing Taoism’, in Kohn, Livia (ed.), Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1989), pp. 159-191.

 

‘Here is the Little Door’

Working on this beautiful anthem by Herbert Howells (1892-1983) ahead of our Christmas Carol Service, I was inspired to do a little research. It’s a 1918 setting of the following poem by Frances Chesterton (1869-1938):

Here is the little door, lift up the latch, oh lift!
We need not wander more but enter with our gift;
Our gift of finest gold,
Gold that was never bought nor sold;
Myrrh to be strewn about his bed;
Incense in clouds about his head;
All for the Child who stirs not in his sleep.
But holy slumber holds with ass and sheep.

Bend low about his bed, for each he has a gift;
See how his eyes awake, lift up your hands, O lift!
For gold, he gives a keen-edged sword
(Defend with it Thy little Lord!),
For incense, smoke of battle red.
Myrrh for the honoured happy dead;
Gifts for his children terrible and sweet,
Touched by such tiny hands and
Oh such tiny feet.

Frances Chesterton (née Blogg) has been somewhat overshadowed in posterity by the fame of her husband G. K. Chesterton. Although the published author of four books, she is best known today for another Christmas poem,’How far is it to Bethlehem?’, set to a hymn tune and frequently subject to such twee renderings as these two. Howells’s setting of ‘Here is the Little Door’ is perhaps the perfect antidote to an over-sweetened Christmas, taking a subtle approach to a deeply ambivalent text.

Howells has been a large part of my musical life, mostly through accompanying his ever-popular settings of Evening Service from the 1940s and 50s, particularly the Gloucester Service and  Collegium Regale. These settings are renowned for their sensitivity to the canticles as poetic texts as opposed to simply liturgical ones.  The musical language is characterised by a combination of a Tudor-esque modal style and modern added harmonies. Howells’s Tudor obsession was greatly influenced by Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis had a revelatory impact on the younger composer at its premiere in 1910 at Gloucester cathedral.

Even in the relatively early ‘Here is the Little Door’ there is an indication of the mystical choral style that Howells would later make his own. The poem depicts the visit of the Magi, first through evocative description of the traditionally attributed gifts – gold, myrrh and incense. Howells uses a modal harmony throughout, with a hushed opening in A minor leading soon after to a blazing cadence in C major for ‘Our gift of finest gold’. At ‘Incense in clouds about his head’ Howells uses his characteristic ‘Phrygian’ flattened second in the bass (see Pike (1984) for more on this). Indeed there is a brief settling on the Phrygian 2nd as a chord of Eb major at ‘sleep’ before a minor plagal cadence (with added 7th!) leads us to the D major conclusion of the first verse.

The second verse is where Howells’s word-painting comes to the fore in illustrating the ambivalence of Chesterton’s text. Christ repays the Magi with his own gifts – a sword and the smoke of battle, and returns the myrrh for embalming the ‘honoured happy dead’. A far cry from the childish innocence of ‘How far is it to Bethlehem?’. Howells first flags up the new atmosphere in his use of a modal B minor cadence (as opposed to G major in the first verse) on ‘lift up your hands, O lift’, and depicts the ‘keen-edged sword’ with a unison phrase on ‘Defend with it Thy little lord’. The piece then safely returns to rest with a repetition of the sublime extended plagal cadence of the first verse.

Despite this resolution, there is an uncomfortable tension wrought by the poem and setting which cannot be ignored. How can a message of peace and love be reconciled with a call to arms? Perhaps ‘Here is the Little Door’ can serve as a salutory reminder; that there is an  ever-present possibility for bold faith to be used in the service of deadly hate.

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Herbert Howells