in medias res #3

An occasional diary piece. Recent places: Lisbon & London.

I’ve always rather liked the fact that the academic year gives you the opportunity to start afresh twice; once in September, and again in January. Although this is my fourth September out of education, I still find that the first cool breezes of autumn send a primal message to take stock of my life and hunker down for the winter. For the last few years I’ve been in Wales for a week or two during this shoulder period, but this time I spent a long weekend (is six days a long weekend?) in Lisbon with my partner Daisy, enjoying the ambience of faded grandeur, and seeking out just about every bookshop in the city.

Despite my misgivings about certain notions of personal productivity in the last piece I wrote here, it’s actually something I’ve spent quite a bit of time working over the last year. I started with Tiago Forte’s Praxis blog, but realised that it depended to a great extent on knowledge of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, a bestseller in the field. Most of the material in the book is not very complicated, for instance the now well-known ‘two minute rule’ – if you find something that needs doing and it will take less than two minutes, do it immediately. Another useful idea is to turn everything that you need to do (unless it’s a one-off errand) into a project, with its own space for gathering ideas and materials. I happen to manage my projects on Notion, but it could very easily be designed on paper or one of many digital apps (I started on Evernote). As a subscriber to Tasshin Fogleman’s newsletter I also ended up getting early access to the Digital Productivity Coach, a Notion workspace he put together with James Stuber, which is now generally available (for free if you want!). If you’re looking for a place to get started in personal productivity, I can’t recommend it more. Inspired by Tasshin again, I embarked on my first ‘twelve week year’ at the beginning of October. As laid out in Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington’s book, the concept is simple: rather than making yearly goals and plans, you shorten the time horizon to twelve weeks, meaning you have to choose a few key things to work on, with measurable lead and lag indicators. I’ll likely do a full write-up at the end of the process, but for now I’ve found that it’s (counter-intuitively) been a really valuable way to keep a broader view on what I’m focusing on at any given time, rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae of day-to-day to-dos (which I found can be a side-effect of the GTD ethos).

One of my twelve-week goals is to put out a blog or mix every week, last week producing this mix, which began life as a vague idea to do something for the fifteenth anniversary of Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 debut album, Boy in da Corner. Obviously that date passed me by, but I was determined not to let the idea go to waste, and ended up with something I’m rather proud of, starting out with the more standard ‘grime tempo’ tracks that I like from the album, then moving into a jungle and hardcore inflected rinse out for the second half. The inspiration to get the mix finished came from reading Dan Hancox’s brilliant Inner City Pressure, a brief history of grime with a wonderful sense of storytelling and socio-political heft to it (perhaps not surprising given that his first published book was a history of Marinaleda, a utopian Communist village in Andalusia). Hancox makes a convincing case for grime as the ‘most innovative, thrilling and controversial music of the 21st century’, taking in its origins in New Labour Britain and the pressure placed on it by government and police, and its role as part of an informal London culture which has come under increasing threat in recent years from surveillance and gentrification. Boy in da Corner itself is emblematic of how grime didn’t fit in the first time it made a break for the mainstream, with Dizzee Rascal ‘doing pop-cultural modernism entirely the wrong way’, on his own terms, without attempting to pander to the established cultural gatekeepers. The mid-noughties hysteria about hoodies and happy-slapping seems almost comical now, but Hancox brings that era to life, and points out the continuities in inequality, as starkly evidenced by the ongoing disaster of youth crime in London, and the tragedy of Grenfell in 2017. As Dizzee put it in ‘2 Far’: “Queen Elizabeth don’t know me, so/How can she control me, when/I live street and she lives neat?”.


Recent reading and listening:

Riding the general wave of the Great Weirding, I read the second volume of Robert Anton Wilsons’ Cosmic Trigger, a scattergun collection of short pieces personal, political, and somehow very pertinent to the way the world is at the moment.

My friend Jess on the Both/And Podcast with Jason and Jared, chatting lucidly about meta-rationality and sexuality!

‘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.

howellsbeautiful
Herbert Howells