Thursday, 2 October 2014

What Kate did...







When I first clapped eyes on Kate Bush, I was thirteen and barely formed. I saw her - this wild, graceful, exquisite girl - on Top of the Pops, on the pages of Smash Hits and on her LP covers. And I listened to her. I ignored the critics who complained that she wailed, who compared her to a banshee. I knew better than that. She sang about Heathcliff and kites and periods and all manner of elemental things with a pure, otherworldly and totally unforgettable voice. And I recognised instinctively what she was saying. Her music, her words, her art spoke to me as a girl, as a teenager, as a twenty-something, as a thirty-something. 

Now, thirty-six years on and I perch on the edge of my seat at Hammersmith Apollo not quite believing my eyes. Her band starts up and she marches on, understated and barefoot, with her singers. It is clear that this is the KT Fellowship – and that includes the audience. She opens with pulsating, prophetic Lily and from the crowd breaks an astonishing wave of affection. We are ecstatic. The years collapse and the tears fall. I am thirteen years old again.

She performs a handful of hits including Joanni, Top of the City, Running Up That Hill and Hounds of Love until, being unconventional Kate, her raw and joyous King of the Mountain is interrupted by a sinister stage invasion: a tall wiry man whirling a bullroarer, scattering Kate and her band. He is the storm bringer. The set is changed, a tempest erupts and we realise something extraordinary is about to happen. The visual song-story of The Ninth Wave begins.

Kate reappears, singing the crystal-clear, mournful And Dream of Sheep wearing a life jacket, floating in a tank and projected against a desolate sea. I am immersed, overwhelmed, in her sound-scape as the tragic drowning unfolds. The stage is colonised by her Fish People, mime artists and actors, pulling us through the story with movement and subtleties that challenge me to keep up. The lights, the effects and the sound are astounding - designed to enthrall us and wrestle our emotions. Kate's voice is rich, soft and angry, yearning and mellifluous as she takes us down through Watching You Without Me to Jig of Life, and from Hello Earth to the terrifying sinking depths of the inevitable. And suddenly, The Morning Fog breaks amid a sunrise as band and performers assemble around her to lift us with the melodious promise of an awakening, a re-birth. We need the interval to recover. 

She greets us in the second half with Aerial's A Sky of Honey, painting the picture of a summer's day with vision and sound, from dawn and daybreak, through a perfect afternoon to dusk when a huge tawny moon – this interlude sung by her son Albert – rises in darkness under a sky of diamonds. I sit dumbfounded, my mouth open. The stage becomes a metaphor for the whole earth as she celebrates the power of nature, of sunlight, sea, sky and birdsong. She takes us to a garden under water, linking us briefly back to The Ninth Wave, and then to soar through the sky, rising with endless flocks of birds. We hear church bells. We revel with her in the seemingly benign pastoral scene. And then as the pageant reaches its crescendo, I realise the true meaning of Aerial – there’s something dark, something primeval and rather sinister. We see chaos and possession and nature turning on us, violently. Then finally, Kate breaks free. She flies.

She finishes with an encore of Among Angels – during which I could have heard a pin drop - and the radiant Cloudbusting. I leave the auditorium stunned, weeping, speechless. Kate Bush's talent and art is so innate and unique, generous and encompassing that to attempt to describe it further will break its spell, make it lose its potency. It's not just about the music.

Outside, on the billboard of Hammersmith Apollo, the sign simply says 'KT Fellowship presents Before the Dawn'. Kate Bush has absolutely no need to have her name up in lights. 

Thursday, 5 June 2014

D Day from the Other Side

The Normandy Diary of Marie-Louise Osmont 1940-1944



Ships and still more ships - the sea made grey with this immense Armada. Thirty-one thousand Allied airmen over northern France in one day, alone. As Churchill said: An invasion far larger than has been seen so far in the world. And, the next day: ‘All still goes well on the coast of Normandy…’

You might feel uneasy at the mild frivolity of that last statement - for we know now this was not the case in those early days. And what of the ordinary people living there beneath the shelling, beneath the fire in Caen, in Bayeux, in Falaise?



Some ten years ago I chanced upon The Normandy Diary of Marie-Louise Osmont 1940-1944 in a second-hand book shop. From her first entry in the summer of 1940 after the Fall of France - stating with simplicity that German soldiers were occupying her small Normandy chateau, bringing in with them their rough boots and penchant for singing - to the last terrified accounts of the devastation of Caen in 1944, I was completely enthralled.

Madame Osmont was an ordinary woman living through the day to day terror and long uncertain years of occupation – and her story stayed with me; it haunted me. As the first booms of the mighty British naval guns thundered in over the Bay of Seine and the multitude of parachutists came raining  down, she witnessed the Allied invasion as it unfolded incredibly and devastatingly around her. But how was she to know, as we do today with the luxury of hindsight, what on earth the outcome would be. Her story intrigued me. I wanted to somehow relay her experience, try to do it justice.

And this is how the idea for my novel The September Garden was born. 


Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Behind The Flower Book



Every evening at the Menin Gate in Ypres, at the going down of the sun, a large crowd gathers. Every evening, without fail, buglers march out, people fall silent as the proud and mournful Last Post is sounded.


But pride can slip easily into bitterness among the fields of Flanders and the valleys of the Somme. For here the inhumanity of war is uncovered, just as farmers’ ploughs today churn up a chip of backbone, a stick of rib and a curved piece of skull. One hundred years on, shells and bullets, many still live, are also a perpetual harvest. I toured the Western Front to try to understand our nation’s degradation of its youth, but could only scratch the surface. I could only stand and stare.

Their names are listed row upon row on the Menin Gate, utterly shocking in their thousands but actually a drop in the ocean among the endless cemeteries and battle grounds. The Tommies gave their theatre of war a human and humorous edge, naming places Hellfire Corner, Suicide Road and Blood Alley. They called their tanks Fritz Flatteners. They laughed, of course, or else they died. (After all, it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.)

Stand on the Messines Ridge with binoculars and you can see almost the whole of the Line, stretching from Loos in the south to Passchendaele in the north. And in this benign landscape, force yourself to imagine the filth and the noise of war: the firestorm at Hooge where burning oil was jettisoned over trenches, the poisonous quagmire of Ploegsteert, the violent slaughter in the wire at Beaumont Hammel. In Sanctuary Wood, you can still touch bullet holes in the blasted, ragged trees. Watch the river Somme make its peaceful wide sweep through rolling countryside further south and learn of the revolting carnage at Serre where the mowing down of a generation occurred in approximately ten minutes.

The enormity of the numbers of the dead is beyond belief; the staggering amount who were simply “lost” and unaccounted for driven home by the single word on missing French soldiers' headstones: Inconnu. The monument at Thiepval will leave you gaping and speechless. All these placenames, notorious, stagnant and cold in our collective psyche, should be carved onto every school curriculum.

As the sun goes down over the Western Front, the wind picks up and the grasses rustle but the earth remains silent. And, in the morning, people rebuild their lives. With nonchalant shrugs, farmers erect barns over mine chambers still packed with explosives, they use former dug-outs as wine cellars, they plough up the white bones of century-old youth while birds continue to sing from the hedgerows. Life goes on here because that is what they ceased living for. And they remain in the cemeteries, legions of them, lying perfectly still, perfectly regimented, under pristine headstones.
All seems peaceful on the Western Front. All quiet... apart from, of course, the bird song.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

40-something or other


An indulgent picture of Mr Darcy... you'll find out why when you read on...

Now I have time to unpeel my fingers from my keyboard and get my head out of the 1940s (have been writing a synopsis for my new war-time novel), I thought I’d reflect on what it’s like to be in my own ‘forties’. 

Here I am: child-free but cat-rich, getting fitted for varifocals and booking premium economy. I used to laugh at people who went upstairs for something… and then forgot what that thingey was, you know, oh never mind... There’s always alcohol and Radio 2. I’m listening to the same DJs as I did in the heyday of Radio 1: the same shows, with the same music. I find it rather comforting – plus they’re all still older than me….just.

What else? Oh yes, I browse the YSL counter and will actually buy something (now I am in my fifth decade I can afford it) plus track down various forms of Night Repair like my life depended on it. You may also find me shamelessly tussling with teenage girls over the Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone rail in Top Shop. Why is it have no qualms going to such ‘happening’ shops (yes, and I’m proud to remember Chelsea Girl) but would not be seen dead in Per Una?


Short answer is, I think I’ve still got it. After all, I fantasise like I did when I was a teenager that I may have a chance with Mr Darcy (that’s Colin, not Matthew. Well, actually, sometimes it's Larry). But look on the bright side: it is a truth universally acknowledged that in Jane Austen years I’d be dead…

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Spirit of the World

Best of luck Danny, we said, and then we watched in the grip of increasing awe and astonishment as the stadium split open with mesmerising centuries-worth of culture and music that make up the sum of our small Isles, zipping past us in generous and fleeting succession. This was no history lesson but the simple recounting of one nation’s story and its reach to the rest of the globe. From literature and revolution to punk and the parachuting Queen, it was never elitist. With humour and a wink of confidence, it included everyone, and triggered the most amazing once-in-a-lifetime event in the city we love so much. Within minutes, the cynics were silenced. If they didn’t get it, then they had no soul.

And then the sport began. The bells rang out to the world and the joy and spirit of the games seeped onto our streets, along our pavements, down into the Tube, and on to smiling faces. It rode on top of buses, past flags and banners fluttering on every corner. In the parks they spread their picnics, and erected the screens, conjestion scaremongering a distant memory. The arenas were full (well, almost) and voices were lost from cheering, arms aching from waving, but never ever growing tired of it. Thank you, London 2012 – it is a privilege to be just one tiny part of it. 

But what are we going to do when it is all over and the cauldron is extinguished? Simple answer is to carry on living the dream and passing it on. This is our world, our gift, our joy. And the spirit of the world and the Isle of Wonders cannot be snuffed out.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

We will remember them


Every evening at the Menin Gate in Ypres, at the going down of the sun, a large crowd gathers in respect and expectation. Every evening, without fail, buglers march out, the crowd falls silent and holds its breath as the proud and mournful Last Post is sounded.
But pride can slip easily into bitterness among the fields of Flanders and the valleys of the Somme. For here the inhumanity of war is uncovered, just as farmers’ ploughs today churn up a chip of backbone, a stick of rib and a curved piece of skull. One hundred years on, shells and bullets, many still live, are also a perpetual harvest. I toured the Western Front to try to understand our nation’s degradation of its youth, but could only scratch the surface of comprehension. I could only stand and stare.
Their names are listed row upon row on the Menin Gate, utterly shocking in their thousands but actually a mere drop in the ocean among the endless cemeteries and battle grounds. The Tommies gave their theatre of war a human and humorous edge, naming places Hellfire Corner, Suicide Road and Blood Alley. They called their tanks Fritz Flatteners. They laughed, of course, or else they died. (After all, it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.)
Stand on the Messines Ridge with binoculars and you can see almost the whole of the Line, stretching from Loos in the south to Passchendaele in the north. And in this benign landscape, force yourself to imagine the filth and the noise of war: the firestorm at Hooge where burning oil was jettisoned over trenches, the poisonous quagmire of Ploegsteert, the violent slaughter in the wire at Beaumont Hammel. In Sanctuary Wood, you can still touch bullet holes in the blasted, ragged trees. Watch the river Somme make its peaceful wide sweep through rolling countryside further south and learn of the revolting carnage at Serre where the mowing down of a generation occurred in approximately ten minutes.
The enormity of the numbers of the dead is beyond belief; the staggering amount who were simply “lost” and unaccounted for driven home by the single and empty word on missing French soldiers' headstones: Inconnu. The monument at Thiepval will leave you gaping and speechless. All these placenames, notorious, stagnant and cold in our collective psyche, should be carved onto every school curriculum.
As the sun goes down over the Western Front, the wind picks up and the grasses rustle but the earth remains silent. And, in the morning, people rebuild their lives. With nonchalant shrugs, farmers erect barns over mine chambers still packed with explosives, they use former dug-outs as wine cellars, they plough up the white bones of century-old youth while birds continue to sing from the hedgerows. Life goes on here because that is what they ceased living for. And they remain in the cemeteries, legions of them, lying perfectly still, perfectly regimented, under pristine headstones.
All seems peaceful on the Western Front. All quiet apart from, of course, the bird song.