Friday, March 02, 2012

The coast line of spring slowly emerges

Here at winter's edge
The coast line of spring
Slowly emerges
And the harsh cliffs of March
Carve themselves upwards from
Gales of granite
And winds of stone... 

These are the first lines of 'Spring' by Ronald Duncan, one of the poems set to electronic music on The Seasons (1969), a strange and rare album originally made to accompany BBC Schools Radio's Drama Workshop series.  The record has just been reissued by Johnny Trunk, who describes finding his copy in Tunbridge Wells in the late 1990s. 'Several people in my small circle of peculiar musical chums also came across it, and by the mid naughties it was coming across as a major influence on retro futurism and the new fangled scene they named hauntology. This comes as no surprise as the album has several layers and levels to it; it is weird, spooky, unsettling, very British, has an unusual whiff of childhood to some, it comes scattered with pregnant language and is full of unexpected metaphors, pagan oddness, folk cadences and insane noises. Does it get any better? Considering this was an LP made for children’s education and improvised dance, I think not.' 

If you think the landscape described in 'Spring' sounds slightly forbidding for use in schools, have a listen to 'October' (above): 'Like severed hands the wet leaves lie / flat on the deserted avenue...' Adam Harper in Wire magazine describes Duncan's verse as 'adult, disconcertingly pagan and fatalistically depressive, teeming with bizarre metaphors and personifications: "When winter whips, old men discover their life is a dream they can't remember", and "The sun bleeds on the horizon till the day, like a fallow deer is bled and the light is devoured and the lake is dead".  When not aggressively melancholy, the register is madly affirmative, as if looking back through cavorting medieval bumpkins clutching crumhorns and terrified Druids.'  Ronald Duncan turned his hand to many kinds of writing but lived in Devon and wrote about the countryside in his first book, Journal of a Husbandman (1944).  In the sixties his work encompassed experimental work (O—B—A—F—G: A Play in One Act for Stereophonic Sound, 1964), the script for Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) and two rather misanthropic-sounding volumes of autobiography All Men Are Islands (1964) and How to Make Enemies (1968).

In addition to Duncan's poems and the Radiophonic Workshop accompaniment of David Cain (who has been interviewed about his music by Ghost Box's Julian House), this record originally came with the option of using a set of slides - visual images of the four seasons - which could be ordered from the BBC for an additional 15s. Detective work in the BBC archives revealed the names of the artists involved and Johnny Trunk was able to track down one of them, Judith Bromley, who still possessed the original slides.  Her painting for winter shows water and brown reeds, in a scene very similar to the photographs I was taking outside the Britten Studio at Snape recently (Benjamin Britten actually worked with Ronald Duncan, who helped write the last scene of Peter Grimes).  The depiction of spring is a more abstract view of burgeoning life, with leaves twisting upwards in shades of yellow like the sunlight in childhood photographs.  It is reproduced in the CD booklet next to Duncan's poem for 'March' and, again, one wonders what children were supposed to make of something like this: 'The Earth is sleeping, who will wake her? / Let the rusty ploughshare take / Strength from her thighs...'  The sexual imagery continues until the end: 'The Earth is ready, who will take her? / The Earth's a woman.  Time will take her.'

1 comment:

Mike C. said...

Ah, what it was to grow up in the 1950s/60s, and be frog-marched into creativity at school by such borderline crackpot imagineers... I'm sure I can remember being told to imagine and act out being buried alive in "Music & Movement" class, aged about nine.

I also remember sneaking into "Girl on a Motorcycle" with friends, two years under-age, and being utterly baffled.

Being baffled (and pretending not to be) was a very characteristic late-60s experience (I've just been watching Jonathan Miller's "Alice in Wonderland" on DVD, which captures that era's prevailing mood very well).